John Prine influenced songs with a new facet for americana, comics.
There are a lot of new up-and-coming performers in the americana field. One such artist is singer-songwriter John John Brown who not only has an unusual name, that has a perfectly normal explanation as it happens, he also mixes his music with photographs and images which gives his musical art an additional dimension. He is also a winner of The New Folk Competetion at the Kerrville Folk Festival and as such joins a long list of previous winners that includes Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Richard Earl Keen and many others. To top it all he is an avid fan of John Prine and is very open about the influence this master songwriter has had on his own music. Americana UK’s caught up with John John Brown to discuss The Kerrville Folk Festival, his love of imagery, John Prine and his new album ‘Americana Comics’ and his plans to possibly bring giant comic books to the stage for his live performances once performing is allowed again.
How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
We’re all hanging in there. Thank you for asking. It’s been a strange time to be alive that’s for sure.
Before we go any further with the interview, why John John?
My dad’s name is John. So when I was growing up my mom would call out “John!”, and we would both show up in the kitchen beside each other. Next thing you know I’m John John. Now I’ve got a son named John, and we don’t call him John John John. I guess you have to draw the line somewhere.
For our readers who may not be aware of its history and significance can you describe The Kerrville Folk Festival and what it means to win the New Folk Competition?
Sure thing. The Kerrville Folk Festival is an 18 day festival in the Texas Hill Country that has taken place in the months of May and June since 1972. Upon entering the gates you are greeted by multiple calls of “Welcome Home!”, and you soon realize that you have entered a place that usually just exists in the imagination. Campfires burn bright all night, shadowy figures wearing cowboy hats float around with guitars strapped to their backs, and everybody is working on a song. The more you wander. the more you realize that the Kerrville experience is rooted in the generations of families who have been returning there year after year with babies and now grandbabies. Ultimately, the reverence for the creation of the song is what inspires them to make the yearly pilgrimage back to Kerrville.
The New Folk Competition is at the heart of the festival. 800 or so songwriters from all over apply each year to perform two songs to a packed audience listening with their hearts. I was first there in 2015 and then again in 2017. I came up empty both years, which is why I was very grateful to be one of the winners this past year. You are only allowed to enter three times. It’s definitely a humbling experience because some of the notable winners over the years have been Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and Anais Mitchell. The list goes on, and I just feel fortunate to have had the experience.
So far so traditional. Making it as a singer-songwriter is hard, but why add comics and photographs to your music?
I’ve always had a love for old black and white photographs. They’re so mysterious. So somewhere in between a G chord one day I wondered what it would be like to write a song about a famous photograph with the intention of telling the true story behind it. After a few years of research and woodshedding, I put together a performance series called New York Photosongs where I focus on the stories behind 8 iconic and obscure photos of New York State. I’m originally from Upstate New York. To me playing a song beside a gigantic old photograph feels magical in a way. It adds a visual dimension to focus on, and It almost feels like those brave people from long ago are right in the room with you. It’s almost like they’re singing there with you. It was definitely a challenge writing songs about 19th-century hoaxes though. Google the Cardiff Giant if you want a strange Wikipedia read. A crazy story and some potential prime song fodder.
As for the comics, a lot of the songs leading up to the writing of my most recent album were character-based story-driven songs, and these characters seemed to fit inside of a comic book. After seeing how much life was born out of performing beside photographs, bringing comics into my music felt like an interesting possibility to explore. I am now in the process of bringing giant comic books to the stage, and I have a few options to choose from. I am bouncing back between projecting them on a screen that looks like a giant comic book or actually printing off 4×5 foot pages as I did with New York Photosongs. Most of the songs tend to walk around the themes of finding a bit of darkness in the light and the belief that people are more connected to each other than they believe. I’m also hoping that it will be something that people will want to check out.
How many multi-media shows have you performed and what has the feedback been?
I’ve performed New York Photosongs 11 times. I had a bunch of other gigs booked but COVID stopped that in its tracks. I was going to play the Jalopy Theatre in Brooklyn last May, but that didn’t happen. Overall, the feedback has been really good and that was nice to see. I was initially concerned that a picture and a song might overstimulate the audience, but It was actually the exact opposite. People kind of become transfixed on the photograph and the story carries them along. I was originally going to project the images on a screen, but I opted for 4×5 foot pictures on an easel. I have found that the actual picture has a stronger pull on the audience. I’ll probably end up going that way for the comic show as well.
Unfortunately, due to COVID, my first Americana Comics multi-media show was cancelled at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City back in August. It was going to be projected at the time. Hopefully, I’ll have an opportunity to bring that to the stage sometime sooner than later.
What is behind your new album ‘Americana Comics’?
My new album is basically seven story songs. Six of the seven songs are based on real people I’d met while living in Central Florida a few years ago. There was a Vietnam Vet on a bike trail, a young man dealing with schizophrenia in Orlando, a Holocaust survivor I met at a seminar, and a writer I met at a gig. Most of the songs were born out of small conversations in passing. I’d get a picture of what they had been through from the conversation, and my imagination would fill in the blanks back home. It’s a blur between fact and faction. Sometimes the core of the song was outright told to me as in “Yossi the Balloon Man”. It was a story that really choked me up when I first heard it. By the start of the album, any song that couldn’t carry a clear plotline in a comic book ended up being stored away for my next album. That album will be on the happier side. I got most of the sad stuff out of the way here.
You have said that the two released tracks have been heavily influenced by John Prine, what do you mean by that?
Yes. After about a year or two of feeling like the old song well had run dry, I came across a Prine interview where he described songwriting as “detective work”. He wanted to hear songs that told “what was in somebody’s purse” or what “paintings were hanging on the wall” during an emotional point in the song. That idea resonated with me because it helped me approach my own songs with a new lens. I stopped giving up on songs and started digging into the kinds of details that I wanted to hear. Suddenly, I started to give more weight to a character’s idiosyncrasies in the midst of a personal conflict. I started to pay more attention to the peculiar parts of their surroundings and sometimes those details would help push the unknown parts of the story forward. The emotional part of the story is the hard part, and that’s where Prine is a genius. Songs like “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There” carry such depth. He also is living proof that you can write about anything if you stand behind it. “Sabu the Elephant Boy” and “Donald and Lydia” are great examples of songs that include minor details that are so out there and so right on They are completely unique, and I think you can make an argument that he writes songs like nobody else. I guess I am really grateful for John Prine because he showed me that you can stick just about anything in a song, and even though it might not always work you might get lucky once in a while. If I didn’t read those few Prine lines I’m pretty sure that these songs would have never made it down on paper.
Why is John Prine so special to you?
He is special to me because his music has the ability to feel like it has always been a part of your life. It’s like looking at a carving in your grandma’s driveway that’s 100 years old. As a songwriter, I am floored at his ability to combine humor and heartache often in the same song. Songs like” That’s the Way the World Goes Round”, “Illegal Smile” or “When I Get to Heaven”. He’s got such a way to make feeling down alright, and somehow that idea just lifts you up. It’s kind of like a magic trick. When he passed away I was really sad like a lot of other people, and I know that it’s due to the depths of his songs and to the other 20-30 songs that we wanted to hear.
Where did you record the tracks and who did you work with on the music and artwork?
I recorded the album at Buffalo Stack Productions in Beacon, New York with Andy Stack. It’s in the Hudson Valley. Andy is a phenomenal musician/songwriter who has played with some stellar artists such as Yola. He was actually about to start a gig on the Bob Dylan Broadway play “Girl From North Country” right before the world shut down. He is also a great guy, and I feel very fortunate to have had him record and produce the album. We brought in Jacob Silver(The Mammals, Bob Weir) on upright bass and Konrad Meissner(Brandi Carlile) on drums. The legendary old-time musician Bruce Molsky played clawhammer banjo and fiddle. The talented songwriter Adrien Reju contributed vocals and Jeremy Baum played a mean B3 organ. The album was cut live with a few overdubs thrown in.
The artwork was done by a talented artist I found on a website called Fivver named Sapri. I’ve never met him face to face and he is from Indonesia, and it’s been a real pleasure working with him on the comics. I’d basically send him over the notes, and he turned my songs into comic art. We have most of the album already drawn up, and I recently did a short run of 30 copies for the opening track “On Black Friday I Met Jesus”. I have zero artistic ability so it blows my mind every time he delivers me a few more drawings. I love it!
Robert Crumb has a history of linking his comics to music. Was he an influence?
He actually wasn’t an influence because I actually became aware of his work sometime towards the end of the project when I started Googling comics and music. You can really go down the rabbit hole, and you end up coming across some great stuff. He’s clearly part of the great stuff.
CMA snubbed John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker this year. What are your thoughts on that?
That was ridiculous. I’m not sure who was organizing that, but they really dropped the ball. To me, it shows just how commercialized country music has become. It seems that songs are mainly valued by how many streams they’ve gotten or in Prine and Walker’s case how many albums they’ve sold. The idea that sales are more sacred than originality came across loud and clear and people were rightfully let down by it.
What has COVID downtime meant to you, do you see it as a benefit overall because it allowed you to achieve something new or has it limited what you were able to achieve?
The biggest benefit of the COVID downtime has been the time that I’ve gotten to spend with my wife and three kids. We have twin 8-year-old boys and a 20-month-old baby girl. I catch myself saying, “I can’t believe that I’ll be paying for a college education in 10 years” while I’m walking around the neighborhood. It all goes so fast so it’s been nice to let it slow down.
I was also able to focus on finishing the album. Andy and I were able to give it our best with the extra time suddenly floating around. As far as writing new songs, I found it very difficult up until this past fall. I tried all of my old tricks that I usually fall back on like different tunings, partial capos, diving into my phone for old melodic ideas, but I was coming up empty. One technique that did get the ball rolling again was writing from a word prompt such as “junkyard”. I’d free write a short story around it starting with a character in mind for 10 or 20 minutes. It didn’t matter if the story even made sense. From the story, I’d usually pick out the most interesting ideas or images and then shave off a few words to create a first verse. It’s mostly garbage, but sometimes there’s one cool idea poking its head through asking to be in a song.
For me, the biggest limitation has been the inability to play live music and to experience the culture that live music brings to the world. The pandemic has shown me that music is much more than a series of notes on a page performed in different intervals. That being said, I’m hoping that live music will come back bigger than ever, that people will have gotten their phone fix for a lifetime, and that we will all realize that there’s something to be found in a lawn chair, a cold beer, and all ears on the stage.
Do you see yourself as primarily a performer or a songwriter?
Life is funny because I actually didn’t even think I’d ever play an instrument. I broke my back playing football in high school, and I spent the next 10 years trying to get back to health after a few surgeries. My back never fully healed so I picked up the guitar in my mid 20’s to provide another outlet. To me, music represented a force to overcome pain. Once I strummed my first clean G chord I was pretty much hooked on writing songs right away. I became obsessed with the simple parts that made a song and the idea that I could do this. For that reason, I see myself as a songwriter first. It’s where I started. I also didn’t know how to sing, and it took me years of writing a lot of bad tunes before I figured out what seemed to work and what belonged in a dumpster fire.
What do the visuals you incorporate with your music bring to the overall experience?
In a live setting, I believe the visuals help the audience process the story at a deeper level. I think some people are more visual by nature, and it’s possible that a storyline is easier to get into when the visual is present. That’s definitely true for combining photographic art and music in my experience. At times, I am actually made uncomfortable by the photographs. It’s like a ghost is looking right at me while I’m singing her a song. I think it makes it more real. As far as mixing comic art and music, I think it treads along the same lines. Comics are cool looking! You’re staring at a wacky world that somebody made with their hands; however, the key ingredients remain the same. A song that tells a story and an image that the audience can get lost in. Ultimately, people are drawn to art and they are drawn to music. Putting them together seems like a natural fit to me.
Apart from John Prine, who are your main influences?
Some of my main influences are the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, Mason Jennings and Bruce Springsteen. I also love guys like Al Petteway and Michael Hedges for the open tunings stuff. Tony Rice and David Grisman. “Tone Poems” by Rice and Grisman is one of the most musical albums ever and most of the songs only have a few thousand views on YouTube. Crushing.
Your music is on Bandcamp. Are you using the other streaming services as well and what are your views on streaming as an independent artist?
I am also on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Music and Amazon Music. For musicians, Bandcamp is the best because they actually compensate you in dollars as opposed to in pennies. They also attract listeners who genuinely want to support artists. On the other hand, I understand that it’s only a matter of time when the argument for the good old days fades away. You can’t fight technology, and I’d be lying if I told you that having the keys to the Spotify kingdom is a terrible thing. Any song you want to hear and all you have to do is touch a button. As a listener, that’s pretty awesome; however, there is a danger in it because when there’s too much to choose from, you tend not to give a song more than 8 seconds if it doesn’t pull you in. If “Stairway to Heaven” came out today a lot of people wouldn’t make it to Plant’s vocals and certainly not to Page’s solo. That being said, if I were writing songs in 1974 I probably would never have recorded an album because it would have cost a solid fortune. As with most changes, there’s the good and the bad.
Any plans to release the album on vinyl and CD?
I will be releasing a CD, and it will come bundled with a comic book for the opening track “On Black Friday I Met Jesus”. The idea is to listen to the song while following along in the comic. I did a little test run a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure what the market is for musical comic books, but I guess I’ll find out soon. Once I figure out a way to ship it at an affordable price I will also sell it on my website. In the meantime, if anybody wants my album Americana Comics with the “On Black Friday I Met Jesus” comic book, contact me at johnjohnbrown.com There is also a chance that I might release it on vinyl too.
What do you hope to be doing in 2021 and how are you going to get your new music to your potential audience as touring is unlikely until the second half of the year due to COVID?
I am really looking forward to playing some outdoor shows this summer, and I’m looking forward to bringing the comics to the stage. In the meantime, I will continue to bring the comics to YouTube. I also feel fortunate for press outlets like Americana UK for providing musicians a voice during these strange times. We’re all on a musical island remembering the not too distant yesteryear of festival life. In a way, I think it might come back stronger than ever, and I’m looking forward to that. It’s kind of like when you’ve missed lunch… it makes dinner taste better.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which 3 artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Sure thing. I’ll start off with a song by Anna Tivel. Her song “Dark Chandelier” is a masterpiece. It’s like Raymond Carver singing to the angels. Anna was also a Kerrville New Folk winner back in 2015, and I think she’s one of the best. “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” by Dave Von Ronk has been playing lately, Something about that tune just hits me square in the heart. Simple guitar and an emotive vocal. I really dig the song “Breakfast” by Darrin Bradbury as well. Great sense of humor and imagery.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
Thanks for giving my songs a listen, and I hope to bring them to you live one day. I hope you are all safe and well. If anybody wants to reach out, feel free to touch base at johnjohnbrown.com anytime. Cheers to a more musical 2021!