My guess is that for most people who write or think about music one of the most precious events in a year is the sudden discovery of a musician or performer that one knew nothing about, who raises some brand new questions, or who approaches composition in a way you just haven’t heard before. Rachel Taylor Brown’s eerie, passionate, outraged, and very original songs were, in this way, among my most treasured discoveries of 2018. You can think of some songwriters from the ’70s who have some similar qualities—maybe they compose on piano, maybe they like rock and roll—but in only a very few cases are there purposeful dissonances in otherwise tonic songs, or extra measures that routinely disrupt conventional pop song rhythms, or recordings that are so intimate you can hear the singer breathe, or her foot on the sustain pedal of her piano. Also, it’s only a very few recordings each year where the emphasis is so centrally on evocation of human emotions that you are tempted to weep the very first time you hear the album, and this tendency only increases with familiarity.
Rachel Taylor Brown’s Run Tiny Human, the most recent release in a pretty stealthy career now of relatively long duration, is by no means easy listening. The howls of devastation and outrage that occasionally occur on the album (and which are never flattened out or sheered off in the mastering) are not to be mistaken for the merely performative, and that’s to forebear how deeply sad some of these songs are. But they are sad so as to tell you what it feels like to be human, and the capability of rendering that feeling in song is given to only a few songwriters at a time. Mariah Carey can render a soprano moment like few pop singers ever, but I can’t think of a time that she has caused me to emote. Rachel Taylor Brown seems, on the contrary, in a way that can’t be easy for her, to pour forth with honest and uncomfortable feelings.
Run Tiny Human, as the title suggests, is about dispossession and impotence, about losing things that you thought essential, like a spiritual life, or a loved one, or a city that one used to call home. This feeling of impoverishment, from which it’s so easy to shrink, is detailed with almost unsettling directness. The album wants you to see and feel and know. In a way, Rachel Taylor Brown is so clearly arrayed like an outsider looking in, like a heartbroken discontent inveighing against the lamentable inadequacies of civilization, that it makes sense to think of her as a sort of musical outsider artist, as incapable of compromising as she is unwilling to, working primarily in the dwindling areas where she can find refuge, which, as you will see below, are not so terribly numerous. Brown’s landscape of ache and annihilation, sketched out in these brilliant colors of disconsolation, is among the most beautiful and distraught renderings to have been recorded recently, and as such it is so much scarier, for example, than death metal, and so much sadder than the blues. When she does that surprising minor to major move, and the tempo slows anew, you can almost feel the angel of God touching down in your apartment to tell you that all your fears are accurate—that yes, you are merely dust.
I chatted by email with Rachel for weeks, at the turn of the new year, each day looking forward to the unpredictable message that would appear, some of these hilarious, some heartbroken, as urgently honest as the songs are. This is a deep dive, therefore, into the site of brilliant, uncompromising contemporary work.
The Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about your serious music training? How did you study music, and was voice your instrument, or piano, or both piano and voice?
Rachel Taylor Brown: Okay. My “serious music training” [self-important cough]. I came to it pretty late, as those things go. And voice was my instrument. Soprano. My senior year of high school, my choir director, Dr. Richard Barbour, sent me home with a note for my folks that suggested they get me into voice lessons. The Metropolitan Opera National Competition winner that year—Susan St. John, a soprano—had just moved to town and was starting up her studio.
I’d been singing since I could remember, and playing the piano (both by ear) and didn’t get bullied into learning to read music until high school (thanks, Dr. Barbour). But learning arias and art songs was completely new to me. Susan matched me up right quick with melismatic, coloratura material, which was fun. I had a hard time, back then, with more “still” pieces. I was fidgety and I felt like a bit of a fake, so the faster I could go, the more comfortable I was. I was surprised to win the first big contest she entered me in (that same year)—the NATS (National Teachers of Singing) State Contest. It turned out to be serendipitous as the head of Vocal Studies at University of Oregon School of Music, Exine Bailey, was a judge and she cajoled me down to U of O for an audition. They gave me a scholarship and I began studying with her.
It was all a bit of whirlwind and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t avail myself of the opportunities very well. On the surface of it, I did well down there—got more scholarships, won solos, did recitals and shows, got good grades after a shaky (completely ignorant) start. But I never got past feeling ill-equipped and like I was coasting on “natural ability” rather than anything like a solid technique, and snowing (and probably irritating) better-qualified singers/colleagues.
That feeling abated as I got older and started singing professionally in choirs like Cappella Romana, Trinity Consort, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Tudor Choir. I specialized in Early Music and—with Cappella Romana—really esoteric stuff; Byzantine Chant; obscure eighteen-part Russian Baroque pieces (Titov, Bortnyansky); French medieval things (Machaut and Dufay); minimalist masters, Pärt, and Tavener, whom I met while doing the Byzantine Music Fest at St. Paul’s in London in 2004. Also Ivan Moody—a Facebook friend! Wonderful composer and close friend to Cappella—we premiered and recorded his gorgeous Akathistos Hymn, among other works.
How did I study music? I avoided and distracted and avoided some more. I’d go into the practice rooms and feel so overwhelmingly itchy at having to be confronted with my technical lack, I’d rush through everything, just rush through songs and get it over with. I was a terrible practicer. And then I’d sit down at the piano and play my own songs or early Elton John or Billy Joel tunes, songs I’d learned by ear—anything to distract myself. And then, in lessons, I’d distract my teacher. She was terrifying on first acquaintance—seemingly severe and an imposing figure of a woman—a truly great singer who’d had an actual career in NYC. But she was, in reality, warm and supportive and encouraging and wonderful. And I knew I could distract her with a chat and some tea (which she always had at the ready in her studio). I think she knew what I was doing, and she tried very hard to get me to take it all more seriously. I don’t think either of us realized quite what was going on with me, what I was running from, which I was only ready to tackle much later in life.
I’m sad that I wasn’t ready to take full advantage of that lovely good fortune, at the time. What a lucky little grub! But I was exposed to countless pieces of music that I came to love (and loathe, some), countless new (to me) sounds, because of that path. I remember most of the things I’ve sung in my life, and it’s a long list. I can still sing Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? (Mahler)—the piece I won that pivotal NATS competition with in my senior year of high school. I’m surprised sometimes at all the pieces that pop up at me in movies, etc., that I remember word for word, note for note. I remember the when and where, too, usually.
Rumpus: How did composition (I’m using the word in contrast to “songwriting,” on purpose) become part of the story?
Taylor Brown: After a dismal first year in music theory class (term grades: D, C, D) I was all set to repeat the course, which I did. A M/T/W/Th/F class, agh! But I along with everyone else was also tested for Second Year Theory. If you tested well, you got stuck in the hardest class straight off.
I have no idea how I tested in the top group, but it was a cruel joke on me. I’m not being modest—it was a complete fluke. I was plopped in the toughest music theory course straightaway in my sophomore year.
I was right to be terrified because the Harmony professor was a mean man. He was especially horrid to female students, sneering and belittling. It was a small class and we were frequently called to the board to solve harmonic crimes before our peers. My friend Krista was unfortunately his most disdained type: blonde, pretty and—as it happens—a skilled composer and one of those who aced first year theory. Even she started feeling sick before attending those classes.
I brazened my way through, though I was way out of my depth and slow. There were many embarrassing, sweaty moments. My brain and body knew harmony very well. I’d been harmonizing since I was a little kid and I did it without thinking. But writing it all down and labeling it and dissecting it—that was something else. I spent an unusually long time (for me) on my assignments; school had always been easy for me and my failure at music theory was demoralizing. Harmony was one of the toughest (and most unpleasant) courses I ever experienced. I think I managed a B- and was proud of it!
Next was Counterpoint w/ H. Owen. This class, I really enjoyed. Professor Owen was distracted but benevolent and, I think, legally blind. I wrote a three-voice Kyrie that was quick to come but took me awhile to notate. We had to perform or bring in performers as needed for the pieces. We usually just grabbed classmates.
I think of Dr. Owen as always looking a little confused but it may have had to do with his puzzlement over liking something a purple-wearing, eighteen-year-old girl with a ponytail on the side of her head wrote. Writing something like that was fun and easy for me, but I remember the TA coming up and asking if he could use it for a choir he conducted, and craftily (or so he thought!) grilling me as though he didn’t believe I wrote it.
I didn’t think of myself as a composer—not even remotely. I was tickled to do so well in that class but it ended and we all moved onto to the “easiest” course, last.
It was Ear Training, and Professor Hurwitz was one of the best teachers I ever had. I had the good luck to retake Music Theory 1 when he stepped into the teaching position. He refused to let anyone fail. We were tested every single day, Monday through Friday. And we had to keep taking the tests until we succeeded. He was a funny, smart, kind, and singular man.
So, I had Professor Hurwitz for ear training, too. And he gave me a real gift. I breezed through that class—too, too easy. I loved it, and looking forward to theory class was novel. He’d play passages and we’d have to sing or play them back (piece of cake!). When we had our final, individual exams, he just laughed after mine and complimented me on my ear. I worried aloud over how terrible I was at theory. I felt like it was a real liability if I wanted to be “serious” about music. And he shook his head and said “Theory can be learned. What you have is far more valuable and much harder to get.”
I did everything by ear growing up. I dropped the needle on LPs and learned songs. I heard songs on the radio and worked them out. I harmonized with everything. I never thought of it as anything but “cheating” up to that point, though, as far as “real” musicianship went. I mean, I was always happy I could do it—I enjoyed my ear! But in music school, it wasn’t pointed out to me as a positive until Dr. Hurwitz, god bless him.
I did well in later music courses—especially Music History and Music Analysis. I had another memorable teacher, Professor Trotter, who clearly loved music. He did a drop-the-needle test on Bernstein’s Mass, which I (as a result) now know intimately and which remains a favorite, and said he thought the middle movement of Ravel’s Concerto in G could stop even New Yorkers in their tracks if played over a loudspeaker in Manhattan.
I don’t know if I’m answering your question. I had trouble calling myself a songwriter, or even a musician, until I reached, I think, my thirties. I felt like a pretender and it felt uncomfortable for some reason to say it or even think it—”I’m a musician.” I’m not sure when that changed. My husband bought me a four-track recorder and wow, I just flew with that. I had been recording parts with two cassette recorders, back and forth, back and forth, the thing getting higher and faster with each dub until I sounded like Snow White. But the four-track changed all that. Well, Jay did. Quiet but unstinting in his wholehearted belief, always. I am lucky and I know it.
It was around the time of the gift of the four-track that I began to feel more like a steward of the musical ideas that popped into my head, like I should give them attention and respect. Since then I’ve had little recorders tucked everywhere I go (I still have a dumbphone, which is worthless as a helper) and I get the ideas down when and where they come. I grumble when I crawl out of toasty bed in the middle of the night but I do get up! I get the ideas down. Those little digital voice recorders don’t have tracking capability, so I just sing parts consecutively and then put them all together at some later date. I don’t have anything resembling a process, but I get the ideas down.
Once I get an idea that’s sticky, it starts turning over in my head and working itself out. I’ll find myself popping up and down and in and out of bed because brain will just keep working. I just let whatever it feels like gnawing at be the thing(s) I work on. Most often I’ll just go about my day and things will work themselves out in my head while I’m riding my bike, or driving, or doing whatever. It can be really inconvenient and I’ve spent whole bike rides singing parts over and over again to memorize them so I can record them.
I have a lot of ideas I haven’t developed still on my recorders and I like a lot of them when I—once in a blue moon—go back and listen. But I write (or get ideas) pretty regularly (knock on wood) so I haven’t been too good about going back over things.
I also have a lot of faithfully recorded ideas that stink. And some that are very hard to figure out, or are just flat out indiscernible. Some make me laugh—I really have no idea what I was thinking.
Rumpus: I want to concentrate on harmony for a moment because I think harmony is a really interesting issue on the album. There are multiple songs on the record, it seems to me, where there are “blue” harmony notes, spots in a scale that infrequently appear in a pop song setting. I love them here. Sometimes it’s in the left hand on the piano. I’ve been trying to figure out how these moments work for you. Sometimes they feel like jazz harmony, and sometimes they feel like passing dissonances in baroque music. I’m not smart enough to be able to recognize them exactly, maybe a clash between a major and minor seventh occasionally, or a tritone? Anyway I’m interested in the question of what influences animate harmony for you, and especially whether there is jazz in the mix at all. These brief dissonances are immensely powerful on the album for me and give it some of its intense emotional expressiveness—so I want to know how organic this gesture is, how it works for you.
Taylor Brown: I am very glad the dissonance works for (on) you. It just scratches an itch for me, and it’s how I hear things. I like the tension and release created in using dissonance. Space and silence in music grabs me, too—using rests and time. And key and pedal sounds—when you lift your hands or feet, etc. I want to hear those noises. I’m not a big fan of the “tasteful fade”—I like to hear the instruments stop, the hands (and feet) lifting at the end of a song, the sticks set down, the breathing. All those little homey things bring out feeling in me and, I hope, others.
I faced an unanticipated battle because of dissonance, in my early days. Most musicians I worked with persistently urged me toward consonance. It was like dissonance was a hideous open sore to be avoided. One of my earliest reviews included the line: “She doesn’t know what she’s doing.” It was assumed I wasn’t making compositional decisions but rather, just fucking up. I got generally horrid reviews. Everything I liked most about my music seemed the most off-putting to others, for a long while. And it didn’t strike me as super weird, what I was doing. Mild, compared to now!
I was only just coming out of being holed up for a long time after a nervous breakdown when I first started playing out and with a band, and it took a lot out of me to push back against the consonantizing forces. I’m not a shrinking violet but I was unsteady and shaky and not used to being around people, and acutely aware of my ignorance where all things “band” and music biz were concerned. I wanted not to be a tyrant. My writing had been mine and shared only with my husband and sister for many many years up to that point. It was really jarring to be in what others clearly thought of as a collaborative situation when I already had such firm opinions about what my songs were. Not rigid, but firm. I’m a big fan of a great idea, and I love the serendipity involved in recording, and working with people I respect and trust. But I think it must’ve been frustrating to be in my band, especially in the early days.
I was called a micromanager by my bass player back then. I was unhappy with that. I knew I could be stubborn about what I wanted to hear, but I thought I was considerate and open to ideas, too. It felt terrible to be perceived as a micromanager, so I bent over a little too far backward for awhile, to accommodate some so-so ideas I regret including. Mainly, I stuck to my guns, though. Meeting Jeff Stuart Saltzman, with whom I’ve recorded the past eight albums (and who now is one of my closest friends) was a turning point. He offered to record an album with me for free after he’d mastered my second album. I wrote the short, very spare record Ormolu to test out how we’d work together. He was the first to fully appreciate the natural bent of my musical brain and to try to help to facilitate it. When I mentioned the micromanager thing to him, he just said, “It’s your music. You should be micromanaging it.” We became fast friends.
I do like the tritone. Also—if you spoke to Jeff he’d vouch for my dislike of sounding “jazzy.” When things start to sound “jazzy” to me, I immediately change course. I love old jazz standards and have sung lots of jazz in the past at weddings and bar mitzvahs and country clubs, but I don’t really listen to it and I have to be in the mood for it and I can’t stand it when someone starts playing all schmoozy on one of my songs. It’s either love or hate for me, with jazz. I think I get what you’re saying, though, as it relates to harmony (or disharmony).
Rumpus: Yeah, I was talking specifically about the “accidental” in jazz. There are lots of chords now that we hear in a jazz or new music setting that don’t sound “dissonant” because were really used to hearing them. George Harrison (whom I really love) managed to make augmented chords sound really routine in the pop song, as passing chords, and most people wouldn’t even know how common they are in his songs.
I was actually trying to play the bass line in one of your songs—I think “17 Year Cicada”—because I wanted to see where the dissonant note was in the walk down of the bass line. It’s really interesting to me, because you have these progressions, many of which are canons, with the left hand walking down in the scale, and then it’s like you walk off the conventional scale. They are really beautiful moments. I think it’s resulting in diminished chords, which are lovely, and which give the songs a lovely unsettled feeling. The way it’s jazz-like is not in the shuffle beat, the swing, or in the sense of discovered melodies, but just in the increasing tolerance, even love, in jazz for dissonant chords. The same tolerance animates Ives, Debussy (sometimes), Stravinsky, right? So there’s no reason to call it the exclusive province of jazz. But I responded to it because of shared terrain.
So it sounds like you are arriving at these moments through the expressive interest in them, and not from a music theory angle at all, which I really admire. But was it a process of discovery or were there songwriters you liked who made similar moves?
Taylor Brown: I love that you learned the bass line from “17 Year Cicada!” It’s news to me, whatever I’m doing there. I never figure it out unless someone asks me to.
Regarding your last sentence: I know “you are what you eat,” so I know everything I’ve listened to and liked is in me and has an influence on how I write. When I was a little kid, my siblings’ record collections came in handy—The Beatles, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Queen, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, The Who, Rufus w/ Chaka Khan, Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone, Steely Dan, Emerson Lake & Palmer.
My folks had musical theater albums—The Sound of Music, The Music Man. [The latter] is an amazing work, compositionally! It all intersects in a way where you can, I figured out as a kid, sing pretty much any song over another and it works! My first theater role was when I was in sixth grade, in The Music Man; I played Amaryllis at the big high school. I really got to know that show, and to love it.
My brothers also had Black Sabbath and New York Dolls but I don’t remember listening to those. I learned early Elton John and Billy Joel songs by ear on the piano. I was very into Keith Green and 2nd Chapter of Acts (a siblings trio) in high school and college. I lived in a Christian co-op with fourteen other girls. I’m a dirty heathen now, but it was a wonderful place to live at the time and I met one of my closest friends there. 2nd Chapter of Acts made some kind of amazing prog-rock, wholly unexpected songs. I still love them and Matthew Ward’s unusual lower harmony parts.
I came to know and love Hugo Distler and Charles Ives in music school. Also Bartok, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bach, Chopin, Monteverdi, Schütz. Later, Penderecki (some!), Ligeti (the choral pieces). I got to most of that music from performing it, though. I really didn’t listen to a lot of music for leisure, at that time. Thomas Dolby, Michael Jackson, 10CC, Randy Newman, Elliott Smith, Fruko—at some point I came to love all those. I only came to know and love AC/DC very recently, and Prince, Jellyfish, Buzzcocks, Jamiroquai. I’m playing catch-up. As far as recent things go, I really am hopeless and listen to very little. I bought the Solange album—I like very much what she’s doing.
So anyway, my point is that I appreciate that all the things I’ve listened to have had an influence on me. But I don’t think directly about any of them when I write. And I go so pleasantly numb and dumb when I write, I can’t tell you even what key I’m in or what chord I’m playing without having to stop and figure it out. A trait my band finds not exactly charming.
So, no, I don’t think about the music theory, ever, except under duress. I completely get geeking out on playing detective, on the puzzle-solving aspect to figuring out what’s happening harmonically and rhythmically, but it peeves me when I’m teaching a song and a player gets too hung up on the theory, in the moment. I want to say “Just listen,” like an asshole. I work best with folks who have strong ears and who don’t, in rehearsal, get too intent on naming the chord they’re playing or whether it’s a double dotted eighth note or the cutoff is on the and of the and of the and or whatever. I have little personal interest in whatever it’s called, at that point. I just like the noise.
I still have such an itchy reaction to theory that I get anxious and irritable when I’m asked something as reasonable and simple as the time signature when I’m teaching a song (because I usually don’t know and have to stop and figure it out, unless it’s a straight 4/4 or something). When I write at the piano (which is only some of the time) or am working out something at the piano, I just put my hands on the keys and go. I don’t think about where they are or what key I’m in or what the time signature is at all. I just move my fingers around and get to what I like.
My band now is so well attuned to my nonsense, they even recorded a song with me with no guide but intuition and watching my hands—no charts or rhyme or reason. I played it in several time signatures, at my whim, slowed down and sped up, and they all followed beautifully. I don’t know how they do it; they still manage to do it even when I play the song live and try to trip them up. I am evil.
Rumpus: I was going to ask about tempo and rhythm in the recording process, because one thing I really love is human detail in a recording, and in addition to being able to hear breathing, and pedals (on “Bag of Bones,” e.g.), there is a lot of slowing down for expressive purposes here and there. Really sensitive and beautiful use of changes in tempo. And then there are very strange time signature moments, too. I’m guessing, for example, that a click track is virtually impossible. (“Up You” would seem to be the only recording that would permit such a thing.) So, procedurally, how do you make these recordings?
Taylor Brown: This is the first record where we didn’t do tracking as a band in a separate, bigger studio for the bigger songs. The whole thing was recorded in Jeff’s basement and upstairs, one or two players in at a time.
Most of the time it’s just Jeff and me in a very small room in the basement of his house on SE Pardee, sitting about two feet from each other. But at the start, I usually manage a couple solid weeks of work for the initial piano and band tracking. After that, scheduling gets more tricky and piecemeal. We are both very quick with tracking, but working around my and Jeff’s schedules delays the overall time it takes to put the album out (combined with my dread and foot-dragging). The time actually spent recording, mixing, and mastering is not that long: it just gets drawn out because of life and scheduling.
My work process, fortunately, isn’t linear, apart from that initial, necessary period of tracking the piano, then the band. When it’s just me and Jeff, I relax more (I kind of fall into anxious host mode when having players in, even when they’re my friends). I enjoy playing and experimenting—especially with vocals—in the studio. Jeff likes occasionally shoving the odd instrument at me and saying: “play that.” He’s gotten very sneaky about capturing everything I do, even when I’m just dicking around in between takes, humming or talking or grousing or keeping time on my legs or plinking at the piano or thinking up a harmony or countermelody or part in the middle of a take. I sometimes stop suddenly and go, “Can I add this before I forget it?” and he’s ready for it. A lot of that stuff winds up staying in.
I frequently coerce him into playing, singing and muttering on my records. The song “Bruce Wayne’s Bastard Son” (on Susan Storm’s Ugly Sister) is just a straight take of Jeff learning to play a guitar part I came up with, trying over and over and failing hilariously until he finally succeeds. I love it—it contains all the frustration and personality. I had to twist his arm to keep it, though. He also plays a guitar solo I adore in that song, which he played without hearing the track. I told him to just pick a key and play it blind (deaf?). It’s freaky how perfectly it fit.
I generally sit at Jeff’s right elbow in a little round red leatherette chair with the only window in the room at my back and the right arm of the console to my right. It’s quite cozy. When it gets hot you can crank the window open. (I loathe the heat and Portland summers just keep getting hotter and longer and more oppressive.) You can slide a little wooden upholstered door over the window when recording. I’m designated slider/cranker.
There’s a couch sort of facing Jeff’s back, a couple feet away, which means I sort of face it, too. It goes with my chair. This is where players sit when they come in. None of the walls are square—everything’s off-kilter for mysterious sound reasons I won’t attempt to articulate.
As I said, we work on the biggest tunes first—the ones the band plays on. We’d both always rather do without a click track, but, for the band’s sake, decided to use one for “Little Gyre,” “Maker,”“ Up You” and “Heir Apparent,” maybe “Portland?” I forget. For the sections where I wanted some latitude (i.e., in “Little Gyre”), Jeff jiggered the click accordingly, slowing it or whatever. We wound up using the scratch vocals from “Heir Apparent,” “Portland,” “Marry Me,” “Yourself (You)” on the final album.
The players came in one at a time. Justin Harris was up first, playing bass and baritone sax on “Gitcher.” I slammed my bare hands (ouch!) and then my shod hands on the laundry room door for the thumps (that was Jeff’s idea). Drums (Mark Powers, Joe Mengis, respectively) were set up both downstairs in the isolated room adjacent to the control room (and the laundry room) and also upstairs in the more reverberant kitchen/living room.
Ben Landsverk and I work almost telepathically together, at this point. We multitracked the backup for “Bag of Bones” on a bad asthma day—you can hear the wheezing if you listen closely, especially at the end. I mostly just let Ben loose with viola parts and anything else he plays—he’s unbelievably fast and just gets it right, time and again. Jeff Langston (bass) scrunched his tall self onto the little couch downstairs to track his parts with me gesticulating cues wildly, across from him. He made it look easy from the get go, playing that part in “Up You,” and he listens so attentively. I can see him trying to get inside a song. He’s one of the few people I’ve worked with who always asks about the words.
I’ll give players songs in advance and also talk them through a song to warn them about land mines. I’ve waved my arms, held up signs, mouthed words, beat time to help orient and guide players on my songs during recording. But it is freakish how good the people I work with are at listening and simply intuiting those weird changes. I sang to Phil and Gayle Neuman the kind of thing I wanted on “March” (the increasingly busy variations on the main trumpet theme which Ben had notated for them) and let them go at it. Gayle said she’d just feel where Phil was going with it and she played along with him perfectly as he went through several variations on the theme.
On “Heir Apparent,” I struggled with getting what I wanted. I fear I was not communicating it very well—I confused everyone at the start—the players, and Jeff, too. I wanted it to feel epic, but I also wanted it to be spare. I wanted a huge drum presence, but I wanted it spare, not busy. I didn’t want guitar, and I wanted the bass to be pretty plain. Joe Mengis (drums) came in and I remember trying to get across to him what I meant, and I saw in his face when it clicked. I asked him to double (or triple!) the heavy hits on 1 and 3 and to hold back until the very end, and then to just go nuts. I really felt like that song was more about the drums than anything—I wanted them big at the end. He did a great job. The only other things really giving the song the size I wanted were the trombones that also come in at the end, and the vocals. In the end, it was the most difficult song to record on the album, but I’m happy with the way it turned out.
I like it fairly dark when I’m recording the more intimate songs—and in general, I guess! Bright light hurts my eyes and I like a cave-like atmosphere when recording (and in life). I wound up recording most vocals in the control, at the piano or just sitting in the red chair. I sang “Little Gyre” in the isolated room, and Ben and I sang the backup to “Bag of Bones” there. I might’ve sung “Maker” in there; I can’t remember. I sang all the quieter songs at the piano, singing.
Jeff likes to record me playing and singing at the same time whenever possible, and I prefer it, too. Better luck capturing the natural breath of the song, the heart of it. I can get a prettier vocal, tracking separately, but it’s usually slightly at the expense of overall feel and emotion. I can tolerate a clam if the feel’s there. Jeff’s very particular about mics, according to the song. He takes time choosing and setting up mics, just so. I have to be careful not to kick over mics at my feet, at the piano.
I’m not a relaxed person around others. My jaw’s always clenched and my tongue shoved hard to the roof of my mouth—even when I sleep. Jay will ever-so-gently straighten my wrist when we’re holding hands in public because I’ll automatically bend my wrist (and his) so hard toward my body, it’s at a right angle. I learned how to look comfortable a long time ago. I’ve performed all my life. But, as I know you know, you want to be as genuinely relaxed and free as possible when you’re recording—especially when tracking a quiet, intimate song. You want to feel as uninhibited as it’s possible to feel. Not an easy trick for me.
The person I’m most relaxed around, bar none, is Jay. He’s pretty much the only person I can almost fully relax around. I still need to be by myself for periods of time, to fully regenerate. He’s always understood. I miss Jay when he’s not around and I always look forward to seeing him, which is probably my highest compliment to him.
Jeff is probably as close as I get to feeling relaxed around anyone else. We’ve really seen the best and worst of one another. We’re known beasts; I can actually record a song like “God” and the others—and did—with Jeff sitting only a few feet from me and forget he’s there, which is an achievement of great proportions for the likes of me, honestly.
The transitions matter hugely to me. I see an album as one piece (and I’m well aware how outdated that is, but so what). I’ve done whole live shows transitioning without waiting for applause—that’s how much I love the transitions! I hate to break that cumulative feel I’m trying to create, the sensation. So I focus a lot in recording on how I’m starting and ending a song. I keep the “tape” running way past the last note. I never know what I might want to keep.
Rumpus: Can we talk about lyrics a bit? I have noticed that the lyrics are often very simple, but that there is an important superstructure that goes with the songs (“Bruce Wayne’s Bastard Son” is a good example). Is this interest in contextual narratives, scaffolding for the words, a residual element from being in and around the opera world? How do you conceive of lyrics? At the moment you have melody? Or after you have the melody?
Taylor Brown: I wasn’t ever immersed in opera; early music was my thing, and then weird Greek and Russian music. I’m not really a fan of opera. I think most operas are way too long and boring and could use a good pruning. My beloved little sis was in the prestigious Merola San Francisco Opera program and I went to see several of her Carmen performances as she toured (she was Micaela). They were doing an abbreviated version of the show and I realized then (with some embarrassment) that I like the Reader’s Digest Condensed versions of operas. So, no, not inspired by opera. I would like to write one, though! A short one, based on “Billy Budd.” I’ve already written some of it.
The Susan Storm album was an outlier for me—as close to organized writing as I get. The album’s half about the (usually disgruntled) relatives of superheroes/villains—Galactus, Batman, Susan Storm, Ambush Bug—and half about Catholic saints. I take liberties. So yes, entirely reliant on context! I was reimagining stories about these figures, and you definitely only really get the full meaning and import if you know who they are to begin with. I didn’t think of it at the time as presenting an assignment to the listener, though. I’m beginning to see yet another reason why my music fails to thrive.
Isn’t all art dependent on context, though? I do push the presumption of knowledge a little (a lot?), given my genre (pop music). But I love it when someone does that for me, whatever I’m listening to or reading or watching—when I get to learn something. There’s a selfishness in that way of writing for me, too. I’m entertaining myself when I write, mainly.
I think my lyric writing gets more short and sweet as time goes on. I’m attracted to trying to pack in as much feeling as I can in as few words as possible, as few notes as possible. I really want to create an overall impression or sensation and make it as immediate as I can, without bludgeoning. Unless I want to bludgeon. I want to make the listener feel it in the solar plexus. And simplicity has such power.
But then, I love a big gaudy song, too! I go back and forth between my arena rock pretensions and super simple songs quite happily. I like those contrasts.
I’m way less impressed with Bob Dylan than I am with Randy Newman. How Bob Dylan writes seems more easy to me (forgive me; I know that’s heresy). But, you know—wordy and predictable. Whereas Newman distills complex ideas down to this perfect, wry, unexpected devastating thing, the music and the words equally important. I get bored listening to Dylan. I will never, ever get bored listening to Newman.
I love the Early Netherlandish painters. There are things that are like inside jokes or symbols in some of my songs. Every great once in awhile a listener will notice and ask me about them and it’s just delightful to me. I realize my little song secrets are nothing to the myriad wondrous details in a Jan Van Eyck painting. I got a little giddy learning the symbolism in those paintings. Humans are such monkeys—that kind of thing appeals, I think. Maybe less so now, as our brains flatten out and tire from all the ready sparkle and constant stimulation available. Oh! And I sometimes write lyrics and music at the same time, sometimes lyrics first, sometimes music first, all over the map.
Rumpus: Well, let me ask a follow-up question then: To what meaningful extent are the songs confessional? I was thinking a lot about “17 Year Cicada,” and imagining that some people would take it as a song about cicadas, but it reminded me of the very excellent poems of my beloved friend Henri Cole, and the way allegory and displacement are central to his activity (see, e.g., “Pig”). Am I right that I am invited to see the cicadas as needing to have their allegorical layer to launch fully? And to what extent should we imagine you identifying with their plight? Newman (whom I greatly admire too) almost always hides behind character. Is that a strategy you employ, too?
Taylor Brown: Thank you for sharing the poem of your friend; it’s beautiful.
I’m not sure how to answer you. “17 Year Cicada” is allegorical, for sure. And it is about me, though I didn’t realize that till after I wrote it.
I saw the cicadas in Bloomington. I saw one get promptly eaten, after coming up out of the ground. Oh, the tragedy! Seventeen years underground, then, “I’m doing it! I’m coming up!” and… chomp. Poor cicada! I amused myself then by thinking about cicadas and their life underground. Then I thought about cicadas some more. Then I thought about cicadas some more. You know. The song went its own way, as they do, and it wound up much sadder than expected. As I said, I wasn’t consciously writing about me. But I’m always writing about me, right? It comes out.
If Newman’s hiding behind his characters, he’s not hiding very well. Some of my songs are autobiographical, but not all. If they’re not, they’re about something that pulls at me, bothers me, intrigues or preoccupies me. I like how using a character to illustrate some greater, uncomfortable point enables you to sneak it past in a more palatable way. I write a lot about subjects folks want to avoid thinking about.
I clearly feel the need to explore (and share) difficult subjects—truths, as I see them. It’s always been a pressing need in me. I get very frustrated with denial, with aggressively optimistic people and head-in-the-sand types—Americans, to a tee. I grew up with outright lies and whitewashing in my family, and that brought about personal disaster, so truth is a very important thing to me. Unwillingness to grapple with reality just bugs me.
I like that someone can listen mindlessly to my songs and enjoy them. I want them to be enjoyed on every level. I don’t write with an agenda but I do like to think they (my songs) might eventually sneak up on even the most obdurate listener, and permeate. I suppose that’s a helluva lot to hope for in the Age of the Disappearing Attention Span. For non-character-driven songs, see “Bag of Bones” (a love song to Jay) and “God” (a sincere lament).
Rumpus: I really, really love “Bag of Bones.” It has been on repeat around here, a lot. Per your answer above, I would observe that maybe there is no such thing as a non-autobiographical song, and yet I really like when the trappings are such that the expressing of self is a veiled emanation. That said, “Bag of Bones” is lovely and so emotionally available. It’s a complex, beautiful, mournful thing.
I want to ask briefly about Portland now, and then maybe we are close to done. Portland is dealt with very directly on at least two songs here (one of which, “Portland,” keeps causing me to cry, when it gets to the last bit of found recording which adorns it). I was there last summer, right before the rioting and street fighting there, and as I listened to the album, I couldn’t help thinking that the album was probably written well before the riots, but released just after, in a way that affects the deep mourning that is so often part of the album, deep mourning and appropriate rage, perhaps. So what’s it like being an artist in Portland now, and to what extent are recent events affecting you and your songs now?
Taylor Brown: You’re right that I wrote the Portland songs before the rioting. But then, I’ve felt like Portland has been in serious turmoil for at least a decade now (or, at least, I have), and in maybe less-serious but still very real upheaval for many years before that. And since what’s on my brain tends to come out in my music, no surprises here. We finally moved out to the ’burbs over a year ago and I only wish we’d done it sooner.
Portland of now is completely alien to many of us who’ve lived there longer than fifteen years or so. It went from happy home to “Wow, better coffee! Better food!” to “Uh oh” in a matter of a few years, reaching the tipping point in 2008 (according to me). Jay and I and my sister Katie had always intended to stay there, retire there, live there till death, and we made (and later regretted) decisions accordingly, investing deeply in the place we loved. Home. I’m ashamed to admit that I dragged my poor husband around the city in a panic for a few years, desperately searching for a quiet, sane corner, once the influx hit. Moving that much is not good for you.
The rapid changes in Portland really rocked our boat and forced major adjustments—and we are much better off than so many of our friends and acquaintances, many of whom were forced to move out of their homes. All our lives were overturned by Portland’s sudden, ghastly popularity. Most of my friends moved from somewhere else to Portland and I’m glad they did. Great people are still moving here every day, and many are, frankly, far more service-minded and preservation-minded than the average born-in-Oregoner. Newcomers have done great things for the city over the years.
But Oregon’s natural spaces have been literally trampled, sensitive areas ruined and overrun. I never heard any newcomer in all my life until recently say anything like, “SOME of us weren’t so LUCKY as to be BORN here,” in resentful tones, or to take such glee in the misery of displaced, disenfranchised, disgruntled locals. The folks who moved here in the more distant past fit in almost seamlessly, in my experience. Not so, now. There’s a real antipathy between locals and newcomers now. I hear the same about Seattle, Boise, and Austin.
It’s thanks to all the relentless newbie “curators” that I was able to gather the voices for my “Portland” song, though. YouTube is awash in proud, “I’ve been here an hour let me tell you all about Portland!” videos.
Rumpus: I really love the “Yourself (You)” reprise with the big chorus near the end of the album. Can you got through what that song means for you and how you got the big sound for the reprise?
Taylor Brown: The big sound came from a very little choir! We’re multitracked, but it’s just me, my sister, Ben Landsverk, Lisa Stringfield, Jade Maniscalco, and Jim Brunberg and his twin daughters, Dana and Vern (maybe nine years old?). We stood in a circle around a mic in Jeff’s living room and traded off on parts each take (Jim and Ben can sing high). We did a special take with just the girls—if you listen closely, they get mixed in a little later in the track. I had recorded the piano previously. Later, I added an almost inaudible mumble-sing track.
As you might guess, I’m not actually a believer in daily affirmations or aggressive positivity. But Run Tiny Human (to me) is, at heart, about how Americans are coping at this point in history, with an increasingly uncertain and frightening world. And that phrase and the peppy-though-unsettling-harmonically tune is shorthand for me. I wanted to bracket the album with that stubborn American optimism and affirmation, which worries me and irritates me at the same time it makes me sad. Frustrating and irritating because our time-honored ways of coping—adaptation and denial… gumption!—have contributed so significantly to our doom. Sad because of the desperation inherent in such expressions, and because of what I see coming down the road, and how ill-equipped we are to meet it.
The first iteration of “Yourself (You)” at the very beginning of the album is softer, more truly hopeful. I can imagine that person then listening to the rest of the album and eventually putting their hands over their ears and loudly singing over me to block me out, and then they get a bunch of friends together and return in triumph for the rousing “Yourself (You) Reprise” to drown me out at the end.
As it happens—the very last song of the album—I actually did mean for that to be hopeful. The reprise of “God.” The words are mainly about giving thanks for the beauty of the Earth, a prayer. The beautiful Earth. It makes me teary just to write the words. I wish we didn’t have to take down the beautiful Earth and all its wondrous creatures with us. Pretty Earth, beautiful, beautiful Earth. You’re right that this album’s about mourning, and a lot of that is about my own little home here in the Pacific Northwest.