Had a great chat with Brian M. Owens from Metronome magazine, including some photos by Jesse Deflorio. Enjoy!
Where did you grow up? Were you born into a musical family?
I was born and raised in Atlanta, GA. It’s an underrated music city; local artists included everything from the Black Crowes to Outkast. My grandfather was a jazz drummer in Manhattan in the 1940s, and had a great sense of humor. I like to think I get some of my rhythm and punchlines from him. In elementary school, my brother Willy and I both thought guitars were super cool, along with ninja stars, X-Men, swords and hand grenades. Our parents were strangely uninterested in buying us actual weapons, so Willy spent a summer mowing lawns to buy a red Squire Stratocaster and a dinky little amp. But once he started playing football, he lost interest in guitar while I fell in love.
How long have you been playing guitar?
I was around ten years old when I started sneaking into Willy’s room to play his guitar. That makes about 21 years. My guitar playing can legally drink.
Who are some of your musical influences?
For guitar, I love Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Tommy Emmanuel, Freddie King, Duane Allman, and Nels Cline from Wilco. For songwriting, I love the Beatles, Ryan Adams, Nirvana, Feist, Jeff Buckley, and Bob Dylan. But these days, you have to be such an entrepreneurial jack of all trades to survive and thrive in the music industry, so I have really looked to multifaceted artists like Ryan Tedder from One Republic, Jack White and Butch Walker; they all play, sing, write, produce, and collaborate with so many different artists as well as their own projects, and they bring so much integrity and quality to everything they touch.
What guitars do you own and play?
I still have the same blue Fender Telecaster I got for Christmas in 7th grade that I tour with. It’s like an indestructible pickup truck you can take off-roading. It’s been all over the world with me. My other main axe I don’t tour with as much is a sunburst 1967 Gibson ES-335. I got it on Craigslist for a steal, and while some parts have been Frankensteined, it has such character to the ways it plays and sounds. And at our last tour stop in Austin, TX this past October, I picked up a 1954 Gibson L-48 for $800. Vintage guitars always have stories to tell.
Do you play any other instruments?
I play mandolin, keys, banjo, lap steel, harmonica, bass guitar, and basic percussion. If someone asks me to play X for a show or in the studio, I’ll usually say, “Sure, I play X!” And then get my hands on one and shed the tunes until I get it. The best way to learn.
How long have you been singing?
As naturally as guitar playing came to me, singing was the opposite. I sucked at singing for a long time before I was any good. I have always sung, even at clubs and venues when I was a teenager, and it was NOT great. One voice teacher told me after the first lesson: “You’re fearless.” Thanks? I guess? But everyone has their own personal journey with this particular instrument. I have taken a handful of voice lessons over the years, and I certainly have much more control and confidence these days. Touring full time has been helpful in honing it in. I usually do vocal warm ups with AA’s lead singer Zac Barnett before each show, and try to keep those muscles up to snuff. And the more I sing and the more I write, the more I am learning to get myself out of the way of the emotional currency of a song or performance, which is where you want to be. And because my singing ability has never been my strong suit, I have always put a lot of weight on lyrics, storytelling, and crowd interaction.
I have always written since I was ten or so. Sometimes they would be ghost stories, comic strips, formless poems, blues songs, or just journal entries. I started taking myself more seriously as a songwriter when I was 16 or 17, when I started getting my heart broken or wanting to impress the opposite sex. I started a band in Athens when I first got to University of Georgia, and I was the George Harrison of the group: lead guitar, backing vocals with the occasional song contribution and turn at the center mic. The lead singer Ben was a precocious songwriter and I learned a lot from him, and after a few years of gigging, as everyone else in the band started to focus more on school and careers, my passion and aspirations for music led me to focus more on my original material. When I would play boozy cover tunes at dive bars, I started throwing in some original tunes to see how people reacted to them. I frequented Atlanta’s Eddie’s Attic for their famous Monday night songwriter shoot out, where John Mayer got his start. That became the bar for me as a songwriter and performer: if you can make your tunes land at Eddie’s, you’re doing something right. I made it to the finals a few times, but never won. One of these days!
Who are some of the bands you played with in the past?
That band at UGA was called Ruse, and we made a CD back in 2003 when it was still very special to have a CD. I played with a handful of other southeastern songwriters like Joal Rush, Clay Evans, and Mike Willis, before enrolling at Berklee College of Music in 2007. In Boston I played with local punk-country legends Three Day Threshold, and with tons of friends’ bands while also writing and performing as a solo artist. I moved to NYC in 2011, and became a multi-instrumentalist for a wonderful indie pop artist named Alex Winston, as well as the musical director for comedian Sandra Bernhard’s live show. James and Zac (from American Authors) came to watch me play with both of these gals, and saw that I was playing a handful of different instruments, which I think was influential in them hiring me. And since joining up with them, I have gotten to work with many other artists and producers on Island Records and around the city. The more I learn about the music industry, the smaller it becomes.
How many original songs do you have in your catalogue?
I have written dozens and dozens of tunes over the years, but I usually have a roster of ten or twelve or so that I keep in the starting lineup for shows. Half old and half new. I think it’s important to try new material; I get irked if I seen an artist or band play the exact same set as I saw last time.
Do you have any solo releases out?
I released an EP in 2010 called ‘Salesman’, most of which I wrote while at Berklee. Since then, I have been demoing and demoing, working and saving money, and becoming a better writer and producer. I have studio time booked for early 2017 to lay down seven or eight new tunes that I really love.
Aside from playing with American Authors, do you currently play with anyone else?
Along with my own project, I play guitar for another Island records artist named Connell Cruise, and write songs with some awesome up and coming acts like Kiyo Co., Amy Vachal, Jesse Ruben, Ann Driscoll, and Merrily James. And living in NYC, I always get the occasional phone call to come sit in or sub for someone at Rockwood Music Hall or wherever.
How did you meet the guys in American Authors?
We all met at Berklee. Zac Barnett and I both worked for the student newspaper The Groove, and James was friends with my roommates. I saw them play in 2007 (as the Blue Pages) as the first of three acts at the Paradise Rock Club, so when we headlined that venue last year, it was a hoot to see it come full circle. When we all first got to NYC 5-6 years ago, they would come see my band play, and I would bring friends to their shows, and we became hungry comrades in a fucked up industry, helping one another scrape by. They were the hardest working band I knew. A year or so before they took off as American Authors, I actually filmed a music video of them in my dingy Greenpoint loft, which won them first place in a contest and thousands of dollars in prize money. I was stoked for them, and I knew they would one day return the favor. Spoiler alert: I was right.
Do you enjoy touring?
I love touring, I have been to four continents and counting with these guys. Whenever anyone complains about the occasional turmoil on the road, we all have to remember that we no longer work at a restaurant or hotel, so the fact that we get to tour the world playing music as an actual job is truly a blessing. You fall asleep in a bus in Los Angeles, and wake up in Las Vegas. It’s like time travel. And having graduated from the van to the tour bus is huge. When people who have more practical jobs say ‘How can you live in a bus??’ We simply tell them: ‘try sleeping with your head against a cold, foggy window in a 15 passenger van using the seatbelt as a pillow canopy, and then consider the comfort of a bunk on a bus.’
Where does your songwriting inspiration come from?
I often think of songwriting as writing a screenplay. I consider the characters in the story, what they want, what emotional state they’re in, what genre it might be, and then I write dialogue, and try to cast the melody and chord progression in a way that will best convey the story. And if I’m writing for another artist, and he or she will be singing it, I try to gain as much of their perspective as I can, so they can perform it from a place of honesty and empathy. I always keep a notebook handy, even if it’s a note or voice memo on my phone. I hear a line from a movie, or a song I really like, I will borrow and/or steal something from it, and use that as a seedling for a new song. Often times the final product is a far cry from the initial idea.
What direction does your songwriting take you in?
My own writing lately falls into the Ryan Adams/Jack White bluesy rock singer-songwriter territory. But I have been experimenting with more modern textures in my production after listening to more modern artists like Bon Iver and the 1975.
What’s coming up for you in the New Year?
I’m stoked to finally get in the studio for my second EP early 2017. American Authors are playing some shows in the Middle East in January for the USO, which is going to be an amazing adventure, and we will get to give back to the men and women who are over their putting their lives on the line. We played for the Marines in Okinawa a few months ago, which was a very rewarding experience. When we have a bad day, maybe an amp shorts out, or we miss a flight. When they have a bad day…well let’s just say it puts things in perspective.
Do you have any music videos on YouTube for your songs?
I have a handful of live performances, and some behind the scenes documentary stuff on my YouTube page. At UGA, I majored in TV Journalism, so I love making tour documentaries. I made many of the ones you see on the American Authors Facebook and YouTube pages. Hopefully one day I can make a legendary rock doc with all of my footage!