By ERIC SCHELKOPF
Chicago musician Jeff Brown's achingly beautiful album "Last Chance" shows why the Chicago music scene is so vibrant.
Brown, www.jeffbrownmusic.com, will perform Feb. 15 at the Hard Rock Cafe, 63 West Ontario St., Chicago, as part of a CD release party. Matthew Morgan and the Lost Brigade, Tree and Little Light also are part of the bill.
The show starts at 8:30 p.m., and tickets are $10, available at www.hardrock.com.
I had the chance to talk to Brown about his new album, which features an appearance by well-known saxophonist Mars Williams.
Q - Great to be able to talk to you. It seems like you are always working on one project or another. How did you find the time to make "Last Chance?"
The entire process for making the album only lasted about a month, but between scheduling conflicts, work commitments, and a nasty respiratory infection that sidelined me for a month, that month was spread over the course of a year.
A lot of studio time was in the evenings and weekends. Fortunately enough, being in the studio with Ellis Clark (the album's producer) was more fun than work, and the recording itself was pretty painless.
Q - In making the album, what were your goals and do you think you achieved them?
This was the first time that I had the chance to bring an entire album of my own original music to light, so my biggest goal was to make an album that I was truly proud to show the world.
I wanted to make an album that I would listen to if I didn't have anything to do with it. More than that, I wanted an album, and not just a collection of songs - a piece of music that told a story and took listeners somewhere by the end.
I think that with all of the help of everyone who was a part of it, that goal was reached.
Q - How did you hook up with Mars Williams? Are you a fan of his band Liquid Soul, which recently celebrated its 20th year of making music? What do you think he brought to the song "Grace?"
Mars is a magician. He's friends with Ellis, the album's producer. As I was writing the song, I had it in my head that a saxophone would carry the feeling and sensuality that I wanted to present through the song.
I had a few friends in mind to help me, but after having seen Mars play with Ellis, I asked him if he might be available. It ended up working perfectly, and Mars came to the studio one afternoon.
I told him that it was in B-minor, and that it was the song that people would probably have sex to on my record. He told me, "I got it," and blazed through the song a few times.
We ended up using most of the first take. He nailed it.
I've been a fan of Liquid Soul and the Psychedelic Furs for a while, and having someone with his pedigree on my album is incredible. He made that song special.
Apart from the sheer elevation of the talent level, his playing gave a different feel from the rest of the album, but I think there is something in his playing that still connects with the rest of the album - his lines are very haunting and longing.
Q - Your band Goodbyehome plans to release a new album this spring. Do you view that band as your main project or are you concentrating more on your solo stuff these days? How do you choose what songs to do on your own and what songs to do with Goodbyehome?
Both bands are like children, and it not fair to either to say which is the main project and which isn't. I view them both similarly, and I've been fortunate in that they have both ebbed and flowed with their time demands in different patterns.
As far as creatively, they're both very different stylistically, so there has never been much of an issue with introducing my songs into the Goodbyehome set. Greg Combs has pretty much always been the principal songwriter for Goodbyehome, and that dynamic has always worked.
He's an exceptional songwriter, but very different. What I can say is that we've both been on the same bill before, and I'll likely never do that again.
It was a lot of work and energy to play two sets back to back and set up and tear down.
Q - Goodbyehome has toured with the likes of Bela Fleck, Dr. Dog and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. What has that experience taught you?
I love touring, and I can't wait for the opportunity to do it again, but it is so much more work and stress than most people know - especially when you're doing it yourself.
At the end of the day, it's still being in a van and hotels for hours/days/weeks with the same people and their same quirks and personalities. And that is every bit as awesome and horrible as it sounds.
Touring teaches patience, preparedness, understanding, and that you have to be flexible when things go wrong. Because they will.
But it's still fun to share it with people who you share a musical vision with. And when it goes right, you share in that together.
And when it goes wrong, you have jokes and stories and scars for the rest of your lives. Touring also taught me the value of daily mandatory alone time...
Q - You are also a music industry lawyer. What are the biggest issues or challenges facing musicians today? Does the fact that musicians and listeners have a wide array of technology in their hands these days also present challenges, such as finding a way to make money when there is so much free music available online?
I think that the biggest issue with musicians today on a national scale is there aren't any more rules in the industry. The process used to be simple and mainly dictated by record labels and a few powerful people.
If you had the talent, people would find you and turn you into a star. You'd make a gold or platinum album, tour, develop a drug problem, a trophy wife or two, rehab, reunion tour, best-selling memoirs, and end up on a FOX reality show.
Now, anyone with $200 can buy a nice condenser microphone and a recorder, and they have an album that they can share with everyone in the world with a computer and an internet connection, which is both empowering and devastating. The industry is chaotic and open to everyone now.
The trick is to get yourself noticed above all the noise. Most people I know are still trying to figure that out. I know I am. As far as the monetization of music, I'm still hopeful and possibly foolish that there are people who still believe in the value of compensating creativity.
But honestly, I make music because it makes me happy. If someone wants to pay me for it, I'm going to let them, but if I were in this business for the money and the women, I would have stopped 20 years ago when I realized that I was still poor and single.
I think the people who make music regardless of whether or not they'll make money will always do it. People who don't will stop if it doesn't work.
Q - It seems like there is a high level of interest in folk and roots music both locally and on a national level. Why do you think that is? You've taken on many different genres of music over the years. What is your favorite genre?
There is something about folk music that will always resonate with people, and I think that the more the world screams towards technology and perfection and computer-generated music and electronica and dubstep (which I will whole heartedly admit to enjoying), the more we will enjoy how it feels return to a guy sitting on the porch with a piece of wood making music about how it feels to be alive.
There is something satisfying about listening to an acoustic guitar or violin or banjo that you can't get from a guy manipulating sounds and beats on a computer, and never will. I think that's why I ended up doing just that.
I loved playing heavy metal and trip hop and every other style that I've been involved in - but there is something that's wholesome and real that I love about writing and performing songs with an acoustic guitar.
Q - How do you think the Chicago music scene compares to other music scenes around the country? How do you see yourself fitting into the Chicago music scene?
Chicago is a tough city to be a musician in. We're a sports town.
We have seven months of winter. The same five cover bands play every festival in existence.
People are apathetic and would rather go to a baseball game or stay at home with "Game of Thrones" or Netflix or drink with their friends than listen to that guy singing about feelings. But the thing I love about this scene is that we are all in it together.
When you go to local shows, a lot of the audience is other members of the music scene. We support each other - we build each other up.
We know that we're what we have when our friends get tired of us asking them to come see our band. We form alliances with other acts to help us do better, like the Chicago Roots Collective, or the Chicago Acoustic Underground.
And it's small, despite being a big city. A friend of mine lovingly referred to me once as the Kevin Bacon of Chicago music, since it seems that you can't go more than a few musicians without running into someone who knows me.
It's flattering, and probably a bit true, considering that I've been involved in so many aspects of so many different parts of the industry for the past 16 years.
Ultimately though, I see myself as just the same guy as everyone else who's a part of the Chicago music scene trying to do the same thing - get my music heard.