Chicago based Matt Brown is up to a lot these days and it was about time to get in touch and catch up on what’s happening in his world as a musician. We talked about his 2017 Monthly YouTube Series, his upcoming projects where he will play the role of producer, Big Sadie, teaching at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Matt’s latest record, Speed of the Plow, Folk Fights Back and more.
The Whole (S)tory (TWS): What sparked the idea for the 2017 monthly video series?
Matt Brown (MB): It was my version of a New Year’s resolution on a musical side. Part of it was realizing that I wasn’t going to be touring a lot this year and still wanted to be performing but in a low key way. The idea of performing in front of a video camera and collaborating with friends who were here in Chicago or touring through who might have extra time was enticing because I don’t have any plans to make another solo record in the next year or two. Instead of making an entire album of solo music or with a friend I decided these vignettes would make a nice collection. So many people are sharing music on YouTube I wanted to add to that. When I proposed to a friend that we do a duet he mentioned that a lot of people are streaming/watching music rather than listening to albums.
TWS: What genres are you focusing on in the series?
MB: I am challenging myself within reason to do as many different genres as make sense. The first video was straight up Old Time Fiddle tunes. The second was a Norwegian Dance Tune that I played Clawhammer Banjo on. The third one was back to an Old Time Ballad. The fourth one is going to be an old Trad Jazz number that I’m playing with Don Stiernberg in a Swing style. He was a student of Jethro Burns. We are honoring a recording that Don made with Jethro on David Grisman’s label where Don was playing rhythm guitar and Jethro was playing mandolin. On this one I’m going to be playing rhythm guitar and Don is playing mandolin. I’m not sure what else, this is only March and I’ve made three videos. There’s a lot more to do so hopefully there will be some interesting stuff on down the line.
TWS: Tell us about your producer side…what projects do you have going on?
MB: I’ve got a small project lined up with a friend of mine, Patrik Ahlberg, the great Swedish Musician. He and I had been talking about making an album of Swedish Music that he originally noted as a fiddle player but he’s going to record on a small parlor guitar. He wanted my assistance in seeing the project through the end of mastering. We haven’t started tracking yet, we’ve had a few meetings and rehearsals to get it started in the next little while. That’s the most immediate project.
I have a much bigger pipe dream that may turn into a reality. The album’s going to be called On Big Shoulders and it features Chicago musicians performing songs that have some relation to the city. I figured out the budget for the project from tracking all the way through mastering and it’s a lot more money than I have laying around. There may be some local grant money coming in that can help finish this project which I should know about this month. I’ve also been doing some fundraising. Hopefully this project will get done this summer. I’m hoping to use this to bring in more producing jobs in the future.
TWS: What are the planning stages of producing an album?
MB: It’s been different on each project. With the one I just mentioned, the planning has been going on for several months. The idea is there are lots of great artists in Chicago in the genres of Country, Americana, and really Roots Music derived from Blues history. I started asking friends who are great players here in town to be involved in the project. I thought of about twelve to fifteen people who I’d love to be on the record and narrowed it down to six. From there it’s been crystallizing the idea into something more specific over time. I also want to bring something that I had developed in my teaching regarding a lot of important roots music having been recorded in Chicago; Earl Scruggs, Lester Flats, and The Delmore Brothers recorded some of my favorite songs here just to name a few. The concept of celebrating Chicago talents combined with repertoire that has a link to the area and songs written by people from around here. I don’t know that other albums I produce in the future will have so much thought put into them beforehand.
TWS: How did you choose the songs to put on your most recent album, Speed of the Plow, with Greg Reish? When did the idea for the album come about?
MB: That record was an excuse for me to really focus on being a fiddle player which is my first instrument. Since I was fifteen I’ve been playing banjo and guitar and have had moments in that time when I wasn’t all that excited about being a fiddler. It just came as second nature. I decided I wanted to make another record like my first, Lone Prairie, where I only played fiddle and focus was on the instrument that I know the best. I decided to make it with Greg Reish because he is one of my favorite guitar players on earth. We knew each other from when we both lived here in the Chicago area. He moved to Tennessee and brought me down to Murfreesboro where we did a gig or two there and then a dance in Nashville which also included Rachel Baimen on the banjo (from 10 String Symphony). After that dance I turned to Greg and asked if he wanted to make an album together. I decided I wanted to make an album where I was only on fiddle and he was only on guitar. He’s a multi instrumentalist as well.
The concept is in honor of the records I love where one person is playing fiddle the whole time and another playing the same accompanying instrument for the whole album. The model really was an irish album from Martin Hayes called the Lonesome Touch. I didn’t mean to make an old time version of that record but to have the same template where it’s just fiddle and guitar the whole time and the music has a wide enough variety that you don’t sit there half way through the record wishing someone had played another instrument but being totally invested with the repertoire.
We decided we wanted to record it in Nashville if at all possible, it’s fun, exciting and there’s a lot of talent there as far as producers. I had a vision of who I wanted to produce the record and that was Dave Sinko. One day I was feeling particularly unreserved and checked the date and said hey I want to make this record in Nashville, would you want to engineer it and Greg and I had already worked out the dates that would work for both of us. I looked to see if any groups Dave worked with (Punch Brothers) were touring and he was going to be home so he was into the idea right off the bat. David asked me questions about my ideas for the album and within an hour or two he had agreed to do it. We recorded eighteen tracks in just a couple of days and by the end of day one we had recorded fifteen tracks. Which was not really what I expected but made for a really productive feeling by the end of the day.
TWS: You are a member of Chicago based band, Big Sadie…what are they up to these days and what are their plans for the future?
MB: I joined the band a little over a year ago. On Monday we are sending our debut album off to be mastered. We recorded it back in September. Collin and Elise, the founding members, who are the leaders of the band have been back in the studio a couple times just to finish off the edits and mixing. Everyones listened to the record in the past day or two and has approved the final. We have a record release show scheduled for May 19th in Chicago and Elise is also submitting us for band contests and a showcase at IBMA. Everyone else in the band, besides me, has a day job that isn’t in the music industry so I don’t expect a lot of touring but I think everyone would be up for short little tours out of the midwest if they are condensed, well planned and a lot of bang for our buck.
TWS: As a music teacher, what significance do you think passing music onto the next generation holds?
MB: I think it’s important to pass music onto the next generation because that’s how I received it both with classical music, which I don’t play anymore but I enjoyed learning, and with roots music, in particular Old Time Music. Most all of the valuable information I gleaned about music was from direct contact with a teacher or mentor and I feel really lucky to have found the Old Town School of Folk Music here in Chicago which has graciously employed me full time to do as a teacher what I had as a student in my younger days. I had two classical violin teachers, Linda Litwin and Rich Amoroso, who are phenomenal and an incredible array of old time musicians who worked with me from my very first fiddle teacher Palmer Loux to Bruce Molskey, Rayna Gellert, Rafe Stefanini, Dirk Powell, and many more. I feel lucky that I got to learn from all of them in formal classes and workshops and through camps like The Swannanoa and Ashoken and them taking the time jam and chat with me about who they learned with. Now I’m that way with my students.
TWS: Is there anything else you have going on?
MS: I am involved in a multi city project called Folk Fights Back, Rachel Baimen who I mentioned earlier is running the Nashville event, I’m putting on the Chicago version. The theme for this month’s concert is immigrants and refugees . I have four immigrants who are officially on the bill and some refugees who have been settled here to come talk between sets about their experience. One or two of them are going to sing or play a song as well. I think in March we have shows in Boston, Chicago, Nashville, New York, Stockholm, and Toronto. I believe it’s all artists who are based in those communities. The first one was in January and the next one is March 19th. I’m hoping these events will be held every two months and each event will have a different theme.
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