The category notation on the back of Alison Brown's recording Stolen Moments reads 'bluegrass (more or less).' The music is, actually, that: it ranges from Andrea Zonn singing Brown's arrangement of the folk standard One Morning in May to a classically influenced but not too classical original called Musette for a Palindrome with stops along the way at acoustic folk, pop, Irish, and yes, bluegrass themes. "I wanted to continue to work on and evolve this instrumental hybrid sound that I've been messing with, that is just kind of the natural outgrowth of the way I write and what I listen to and the way I play," Brown says.
Her main instrument of choice is the banjo, and although her love of the instrument t is rooted in bluegrass, she sees that background as a starting point for her musical thinking rather than a limit for it. "This record is a combination of instrumental and vocal stuff, obviously. The instrumentals, I feel like you don't have as much a hand in choosing because you have to write them and see what you get. I really wanted to kind of weave together the best acoustic hybrid I could. I wanted jazzy elements, but I also wanted the kind of folksy Americana elements in there too," Brown explained. There's quite bit of Celtic influence mixed as well. All of this will be included as Brown brings her music to Glasgow, in Scotland, as part of the Celtic Connections Festival next week.
Though she doesn't sing often herself ("I will sing harmony if provoked," she said) she knew she wanted vocals for some of the tracks on the CD. "The vocals are a more deliberate act, because I really did get to pick those," she said. Earlier recordings have seen Brown take pop tunes in a bluegrass direction, and that was an element she want to include as well "songs for the most part that everyone knows, bringing pop tunes into our world," she said. The Indigo Girls sang on Homeward Bound "and seemed like the perfect thing -- it's the classic male duet and they're my favorite female duo, so it was great." Beth Nielsen Chapman sang on Jimi Hendrix' Angel, there was Zonn with One Morning in May, and Mary Chapin Carpenter and friends (billed as the Boomchicks) added their voices to Prayer Wheel. The lyrics of Prayer Wheel poke a bit of fun -- maybe-- at some relationship cliches, and the spirited collaboration of musicians is a continuation of an all women jam session which began at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival several years back.
Brown's instruments, though, are the heart of the the matter whether she's backing up voices or taking the lead on instrumentals. Though she worked on her compositions alone at first, she had other players in mind while writing. Her usual playing ensemble these days includes piano, electric bass, and drums along with her banjo and acoustic guitar, which is neither your usual bluegrass nor jazz nor celtic combo, and that suits Brown just fine. "I knew I wanted there to be room for the guys in the quartet, and for Stuart [Duncan] and Sam [Bush], who were also going to play on the record," she said.
Brown had another consideration in mind when composing the tunes: at the time she was writing the tunes, her daughter Hannah was two and a half (son Brendan has since joined the family too)" I didn't have the opportunity to just sit and let my mind wander, so a lot of times, like with Magnificent Seven for example, I'd write the A section in the forty five minutes before the baby sitter left, and then I never could think of a B. I showed it to the guys in the quartet and everybody started counting the meter of that tune, and if you do that you get really bogged down. Then, we were gonna record it the next day, and I was sitting in the studio with John Doyle and played it for him, and he just started playing the A section, which is the only way to approach it ,and it sounded really good, but I said well we need a B, so he threw out a couple of ideas and before you knew it we were done. I've never done much collaborating in the writing area, but with John it was so easy. That's probably my favorite tune on the record, just because it was such a surprise. Going into it I didn't know if it was going to make it on to the record and if it did, what it would be like at the end!"
Sound of Summer Running, on the other hand, was a tun she had a specific slot in mind for . "That tune really was deliberately designed as an opener," she said of the lively, engaging melody that hints of bluegrass, folk, and Celtic influences. "In my early records, I just sort of recorded whatever twelve tunes I'd written in that period. But considering the glut of product on the market and considering how competitive it is for shelf space and airplay, I think it's not at all a bad idea to think about what you're trying to achieve with your record, and then as you're putting the record together, make sure that the elements are included to give it a chance of achieving those goals." That's not to say commerce predominates over art for Brown, but rather that she takes a clear eyed and realistic view of connecting art with the marketplace.
That's been a long time interest of hers too, growing alongside her love of music. In fact, though she first fell in love with the sound of the banjo on a Flatt and Scruggs record at age eight and became accomplished enough on the instrument to win the Canadian national championship at fourteen, recorded an album with fiddler Stuart Duncan just as the pair were finishing high school, and had an appearance on the grand Ole Opry as a teenager, she didn't see a future as a professional musician. "My parents are both lawyers," she said, "and we all thought I'd be a doctor, or some sort of professional." She went to Harvard, keeping her hand in the flourishing bluegrass scene in Cambridge, and ending up with a degree in literature after deciding pre med courses weren't for her. An MBA at UCLA followed, and then two years as an investment banker with the San Francisco office of financial firm Smith Barney, doing finance by day and playing bluegrass sessions by night. "I was going to work every day with people who woke up and took a shower and ate breakfast thinking about how to restructure bond issues," Brown realized, "while I was waking up every day taking a shower and eating breakfast and thinking about music." She quit the investment firm, planning to take six months off to write music. "I thought when I was done I'd probably come back and look for maybe a bit more creative job in a business setting," she said.
That never happened -- exactly. As Brown's six months of composing were drawing to and end, rising bluegrass star Alison Krauss called with an invitation for Brown to join her as banjo player for several gigs. That led to a three year stint with one of the hottest bluegrass ensembles going, Krauss' band Union Station. Taking a different turn, Brown then accepted an offer to tour with Michelle Shocked, which exposed her to other sorts of music and introduced her to bass player Garry West. The couple decided they had a future together. As they discussed their plans for that future, the idea of starting a record company began to take shape.
Compass Records Group is now more than ten years in business, and its catalog reflects Brown's and West's wide ranging yet focused tastes, with albums from British folk star Kate Rusby, poetic American singer songwriter Pierce Pettis, southern story teller Kate Campbell, genre breaking bass player Vic Wooten, pop duo Swann Dive, New England based fiddler Jake Armerding, traditional Irish tenor Sean Doyle, top pop and country songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, Scottish singer and songwrter Eddi Reader, British folk rock legends Fairport Convention, Irish instrumental powerhouse quintet Lunasa, and the country and folk style bending folk group Mozaik. "That's the kind of thing that always has excited me, hybrid music," Brown said. "But it's challenging when it comes to putting it in a box, when record retailers want you to say what slot it should go in."
Look for more about Alison Brown's career making music that works outside the box ahead in a future edition of voices.
More about Compass Records Group here
and the Celtic Connections Festival here
Kerry Dexter, Music Correspondent Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, and The MusicHound Guides. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road and contributes to Fred Bals' Series of Tubes.