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Greg Brown: Writing Songs, Letting Go

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Greg Brown is taking it easy these days, and he’s earned it. His career spans four decades and he’s recorded about 25 albums, not including the innumerable songs he’s written for others. ---

Brown is has a rich voice with a depth of poetry not present in most singer-songwriter catalogues. He’s an artist’s artist. He’s been covered by many musicians including Willie Nelson, Jack Johnson, Carlos Santana, Michael Johnson, Ani DiFranco, Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams and Joan Baez. In fact, Jeff Bridges personally contacted Greg Brown and asked him to write a song for the Academy Award-winning Crazy Heart. Brown contributed “Brand New Angel,” to the soundtrack.

He’s not just an incredibly prolific songwriter, but he’s a damned nice guy. I had the opportunity to speak to him a few days ago. Here’s how it went:

City Weekly: You seem to be taking it easy these days. What is your tour schedule like now?

Brown: I just go out and do weekends now. I hardly do anything in the summer. I’m just fading out, you know, fading away into the horizon.

CW: Neil Young once said, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” What would you say to that?

Brown: Take your pick, I guess. I’d choose fading rather than burning if I’m allowed the choice.

CW: Your 2011 album, Freak Flag, has an interesting story behind it. You had finished much of the recording when the studio was struck by lightning and you lost your recordings. So you wrote and recorded a whole new set of songs. Why didn’t you just rerecord the other songs?

Brown: I am not capable of doing that. I don’t have anything against the idea. I guess I’d feel like I was doing my homework or something. I’m pretty much “of the moment” whether I’m writing or playing. So once that moment’s gone, something else is going to happen.

CW: Does that mean the songs you wrote for the first album are just gone, never to resurface again?

Brown: Some of them may come up. There’s a really long one called “Into the Party,” that I really liked. That one may resurface. You just never know, I sure don’t know. Like with this album, I happened to be going through an old notebook and I found a lyric to a song called, “Tenderhearted Child” that I wrote when my youngest daughter (well, she’s not my youngest anymore—she was till we adopted Asha). So … I wrote [the song] for her when she was 5, which was 20-something years ago. But I liked that lyric and, oddly enough, the tune floated back to my mind and I ended up recording that one. So I never know what’s going to happen.

CW: So, this makes me wonder about your previous albums. Do they also just come to you in the moment when you decide to record?

Brown: Oh no, I write in fits and starts. I write. Then, when I decide to make an album, I go through and see what I got. I get together with Bo [Ramsey], who produces the records, and we kind of go through the stuff and make a demo tape and we, we just kind of try to get something to hang together and then go from there.

CW: Well, thank you for coming to Utah for one of your only summer concerts.

Brown: I’m going to come down and open for Ani DiFranco, an old pal of mine. She asked me to come down to play with her.

CW: I know Ani is very fond of your songs. Her cover of “The Poet Game” brings out a whole new side to that song.

Brown: Ani, she’s a very very musical person. She’s just full of ideas. She told me once she doesn’t sleep much, just wakes up real early and messes with her hair and writes songs.

City Weekly: Are you two planning on performing a song or two together?

Brown: We do a song of hers called, “Fuck You and Your Untouchable Face.” She likes doing that one with me because she says my “fuck you” is a lot scarier than hers.

w/Ani DiFranco
Red Butte Garden Amphitheater
Sunday, June 19
7 pm