Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, Bronwynne Brent has recorded two albums, the 2011 Deep Dark Water and 2014’s Stardust. Her music and songs have an air of self-confessed melancholy that are delivered with a wonderfully distinctive voice that has been described as sounding like Southern sunshine. Bronwynne topped the female artist category in both 2015 & 2016 Americana-UK polls beating off the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Lucinda Williams so she certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed over here.
I caught up with Bronwynne Brent before her show at the Ritz Acoustic Club in Burnham on Sea. She was accompanied by Johnny Sangster who as well as playing with her on this tour also played on and produced her 2014 album, Stardust.
On venues and audiences
It’s my third time in England. It’s like walking into a movie set, a Sherlock Holmes picture, every time we come over here. We don’t have places like this. We don’t have pubs. We love it! At home there are listening rooms and house concerts where people will actually listen but mostly it is festivals and bars where people aren’t really listening, they are just having a good time. I have either found an audience over here that really likes to listen to my music or people are generally more interested in listening to the songs over here. I haven’t worked out which yet!
I was just playing coffee shops until I had a CD to promote. It was really difficult touring the first album (Deep Black Water, 2011). I am not on a label so everything is out of pocket. I moved to Austin, Texas to try to do music but the town was so saturated with music that I could play gigs with absolutely no audience. I felt ridiculous. It was terrible.
How Did It Start?
I grew up into a musical family. I have two older sisters – Eden Brent is a blues boogie-woogie piano player and Jessica Brent who sings country and folk. Mum sang, Dad loves to play guitar. I used to watch my older sisters play and as I got older the three of us would sing 3-part harmonies. I am the quiet one in the family. They are noisy and loud. My subsequent and on-going low self-esteem with regard to my music may be due to that!
How does the quiet one with low esteem get up in front of an audience?
It is not good for my health! I have terrible stage fright. My palms are sweating, my heart is pounding. It’s terrifying. It does gets a little easier as the performance progresses. My sister always told me to keep going, that it will get easier as I get older and have more experience. It hasn’t yet! It also depends on the comfort level I feel at each venue. For instance, my stress levels went through the roof at a recent BBC Radio session I did in Scotland.
Listening to my sisters’ records growing up was my first exposure to artists such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and David Bowie. I have always listened to older music though, I have never really listened to contemporary music particularly and I can’t really cite anybody as an influence in particular.
The first album
Looking back, I really have no idea how that came about! I didn’t tell anyone in my family that I wanted to make an album at the time. I sent my demos. I drove to Austin Texas to try to get it done. I had heard a Heartless Bastards album and I liked the sound of it so someone said why don’t you get that guy to produce your record. That guy was Mike McCarthy so I sent him my demos. He must have liked what he heard as he got back in touch with me and he said he had a little studio I could record in. It went from there. I was 37 years old then and still did it all without telling my family!
What were you doing up till then?
I was still writing and playing music but I was doing all sorts of things. Sorry, I have a really bad memory! I was an anthropology student. Then I studied art. Took philosophy classes. I moved to New Orleans but if you aren’t doing the New Orleans signature sound that is demanded there it is a very hard city in which to break through that scene. They also don’t want to hire you unless you can bring in a certain number of customers through the door. To be fair I think I also gave up a little too easy.
Reaction to the first album?
There were some good reviews but they weren’t exactly Rolling Stone reviews you know! I sent my record to radio stations all over the country with a sweet little letter. I pushed that record for a really long time. I thought that I had this good record which would be all I needed to get reviewed and played and I would be fine. I think they all put it straight into the trash! It changed when I sent my record to this guy my sister knows and he gave a me a good review and that got the ball rolling to a certain extent. But it was when Bob Harris played it people really started to buy it. It makes such a huge difference when someone like Bob picks up on your music.
Coming to UK
I got a showcase at the International Folk Alliance Conference in Kansas City. They have these panels one of which was called The Griddle. They play 59 seconds of your song before each member on the panel gets to critique it. Loudon Temple was on the panel. My heart was pounding. My blood was rushing so fast. I have anxiety but that was something else! The song was Already Gone. Loudon said he wanted to talk to me. I knew he had an agency somewhere over here (Bloody Great PR), Scotland I think. I really wanted to go somewhere different. I wanted to try somewhere apart from the States. So, I sent him my CD and he booked me for a tour without even having seen me perform live.
Working with Johnny Sangster on Stardust
I always want to do something different. I had heard a song by Maggie Bjorklund called Summer Romance and I thought wow, I love that sound, who produced it? I found out it was Johnny. I looked him up and saw that he had a studio, Crackle and Pop, in Seattle. I watched some interviews of his and he seemed a really down to earth guy which I like. I sent him my first CD and some demos of new songs. Johnny was totally blown away by the voice. (Johnny’s words!)
What ambitions for any new record?
A Grammy would be great! It’s like when I buy a lottery ticket, every time I think I’m gonna win! It is always such a let-down when you don’t but you always have a little hope, you know? I think I am too old to be really famous, I know that now and I wouldn’t like all that attention anyway because I am too shy and reserved, but maybe a song in a movie or a commercial would be cool. Enough income to support me would be good! That’s all I’m asking. It doesn’t do that at the moment. I am still trying to get it out there. Sometimes I don’t know what drives me…. but something is!
The UK Tour
The tour is going well but as far as making money there is still a way to go before the economy flips and you start bringing home money to support yourself. CD sales on the night are really important to us. We are mid-way through the tour. We are playing quite small venues but that’s okay as I love small places with intimate crowds that make it feel like we are sitting in someone’s living room. As long as people are having fun that I don’t care how many people are there!
I am not very disciplined. When something happens in my life I want to write. I think it is a release. Like a cathartic experience. A lot of my songs lean towards the melancholy. That’s when I like to write but it is not always like that. Sometimes I just pick up a guitar and find a melody and words follow. I do get some inspiration from my own experiences and from personal events in my life but I also get that from other lives too. It is not always about me. I think there is a mix in most songs of made up and real experiences flowing into some kind of a story.
I am very picky with music. It takes a lot of luck to get on and get heard in this industry. Some get it, some don’t. I just don’t worry about what anybody else is doing. I don’t see this as a competition with other artists, I just enjoy making music because that is what I love. Your time will come. I wish everyone the best with their music but I just don’t see it as competition. It is so much easier to make music with now, it is so easy to share music on line. It is the public that are saturated with choice. There is so much for them to hear that they can get desensitised. That’s who we need to worry about.
That is why Johnny is on the tour with me. He is in Seattle, I am in Louisiana and it is really hard to get together and prepare so the tour gives us time to look at the songs, tweak them, sort through what works. There is a ton of ideas and this time is great for us. We are looking to record in May in which case the album release will be autumn 2017. If that doesn’t happen then the time frame will slip back and release probably won’t be until about this time next year. Maybe we will be over for another tour next year to promote it. I love what I am doing. This is what is going on in my life. I am putting everything into this.