INTERVIEW: John Brownlow
How would you classify your music?
To be honest, I just think of it as pop music, even though it has almost nothing to do with contemporary pop. I grew up listening to British pop radio, from the late 70s all the way through the 80s and 90s until I moved to Canada. So that was everything from Abba to Squeeze to Elvis Costello to ELO to Pulp and Blur and all the funny indie bands that John Peel used to play. And I listened to a ton of old reggae and soul music, which I used to play as a DJ. And classical, and jazz. And for years my job was driving around the UK and the US making documentary films, so I’d pick up those cut-price cassettes you could buy at gas stations – old country hits, surf music, Bobby Goldsboro, Patsy Cine, Duane Eddy. And it all got mixed up in my head somehow. But deep down, that three to four minute pop song that burrows into your head, that’s what I’m about.
Who are some of your top 5 musical influences?
Squeeze, Elvis Costello, the Go-Betweens, Big Star, Teenage Fanclub
What do you want fans to take from your music?
I’ve always had this image of my music coming out of a cheap transistor radio on a sunny window shelf while Mum or Dad is washing the dishes and kind of bopping along. I want it to reach people where they are. I hope you don’t have to be a musical snob to appreciate my music – as it happens there’s an awful lot of thought that goes into it, it’s highly crafted, and maybe if you’re another musician or a writer you’ll appreciate it for that – but really it’s the casual listener who just digs the melody or the beator the words who interests me. It has to have something for them.
How’s the music scene in your locale?
I live in a very rural part of Ontario, Canada, and the music scene here is, bizarrely, absolutely fantastic. I am surrounded by great musicians, great songwriters. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a musician. My postman is a touring drummer. There’s an open mic every night of the week somewhere, and it’s extremely receptive to original material. The only downer is that it’s such a small population base that reaching beyond your immediate environment is tough. But it’s stellar. We call it ‘Nashville north’ sometimes and we’re only half-joking.
What is the best concert you have been to? What do you like most about playing live?
Man, that’s a tough one. I was a music journalist in the 80s and early 90s and saw a ton of great, great bands up close… the Smiths, the Fall, My Bloody Valentine, REM. Sometimes you get a band who are so in the zone that they could bash two rocks together and it would sound good. The Fall were pretty much always like that but I think the most dramatic example of that was another Factory Records band, the Happy Mondays, who I saw in, I dunno, ’89 or so in a tiny club in London. I had no expectations of them and they were astonishing. They could barely play their instruments but it didn’t matter. They sounded utterly different to anything I’d ever heard before. That really blew me away.
I’m not a hugely confident live player. It’s not stage fright or anything, I don’t have any of that, and I can hold my own as a musician. it’s just that I’m a bit of a control freak so my comfort zone is in the studio. But the two things I enjoy are when an audience is really listening, which most often happens in a small room with hardly anyone there, and when you have a band who are totally comfortable with the material and can just relax into it, and you suddenly have some magic happening that wasn’t there before.
Is there a song on your latest CD release here that stands out as your personal favorite, and why?
People who know me probably think BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN is my favourite because it’s directly about my experiences in the movie industry but actually it’s ASTEROIDS, just because I think it’s a very satisfying metaphor and a light jazzy bossa nova is probably the most unlikely possible setting for a song about the inevitability of death.
How have you evolved as an artist over the last year?
I wrote, played, produced, mixed and mastered the whole 29-song double album myself so that was a massive, massive undertaking and I learned a huge amount about all aspects of it. I honestly just did it for myself so the critical response, which has been overwhelmingly positive, took me aback and forced me to start taking myself more seriously as an artist and performer. It’s one thing when you’re making little CDs for your friends… it’s another when you realize you – or anyone these days – are probably only one breakout song away from having a global following.
If you could meet, play a gig, co-write a song, have dinner, have a drink with any band or artist (dead or alive) who would it be?
The band I most admire at the moment are probably Canada’s own STARS who just managed to put out an album which is as good as anything they’ve ever done, which means it’s as good as anything ANYONE has ever done. I’d love to sit down with them in any context but I would probably spend most of my time bowing.
What’s next for you?
I’m putting a band together to play THE SUMMERTIME right now. And I’m in the middle of recording my next album, which is a VERY different affair. The last one was self-produced and a sprawling 29 songs… with this one I’m working with a producer and it’s a much more focused affair of 10 or 11 songs. It will have a more widescreen vibe… very hook driven and accessible but still full of all the little twists and turns that make it fun. That will be released in early summer 2018. But the songs for that are already written so I’m already thinking about the record beyond THAT, which I have a crazy idea for… a synthpop album of some kind… but we’ll see… the world may not be ready.