Interview: Briar Rabbit Talks New Album, Creative Process, and B.B. King

Briar RabbitNote: Due to a scheduling conflict, Briar Rabbit’s concert at Kavarna Coffeehouse in Green Bay has been canceled.

Briar Rabbit is changing the perception of pop music. His thoughtful lyrics are the heart of his music, and his melodies are the soul. That’s never been more apparent than on his forthcoming album, From Your Bones.

On September 14th, you’ll get to experience an artist in transition at Karvana Coffeehouse in Green Bay. I got the opportunity to talk with the Chicago-based musician ahead of this show to find out what we can expect from his performance. Here’s what he had to say.

“These days I’m performing solo. It’s more of an intimate experience. I like playing for an audience. Some artists like playing at their audience. I guess that’s where they give me the storytelling label from. It’s going to be very lyric-based; we’re going to have a lot of fun. You’re going to want to hear the words, you’re going to want to interact. You’re going to want to listen to the story.”

Recording From Your Bones

That storytelling is taking a big step forward on From Your Bones. Two tracks “So Long” and “Bothered No More” have already debuted; the full length CD will be released January 21, 2014. But according to Briar, “It’s possible there might be one or two copies at the show in Green Bay.”

He says this album differs from The Company You Keep.

“I think with this record I’ve really dug deeper and really found more of myself and defined what I am and what I really do,” said Briar Rabbit. “There are more thoughtful lyrics. More the essence of what I’m doing. It’s about me making the transition from part-time musician to full-time musician and what that means and what comes along with it.”

According to Briar, producer Josh Moshier was essential in the creation of From Your Bones.

“Josh is so necessary in the process of my life. I’m lyrics, music, and melody. That’s sort of my domain. Josh does a really good job of focusing in and honing in on ideas. He’s a film scorer. So what he does is a lot more of the setting of the stage,” said Briar Rabbit. “Josh is very particular. He wanted to make sure he got at the essence of it. I was on the ground level and he was in the tower able to see everything and guide me and give me directions and force me to do things I didn’t want to do which sounded amazing.”

The Stage Name of a Storyteller

Briar Rabbit is the stage name of Phillip-Michael Scales. I asked him if the name relates to the central figure in the Uncle Remus tales, Br’er Rabbit.

He says, “I’d say it’s the message of storytelling. I do agree and I do identify with Br’er Rabbit, but there’s a tradition of storytelling that comes with it all. I think that’s important. You’re finding all of these tales and the association you have with this character. You’re rooting for him. I think that’s how I live my life in a way.”

The Creative Process of Making a Record

I’ve always been interested in learning about a musician’s creative process. For Briar, he says it’s something that’s always been a part of his life.

“I’ve been this way since I was born. Super motivated, very heart on my sleeve. Picking things apart and putting them back together and displaying them. That’s very much me in a nutshell.”

The deconstructing and rebuilding of words is what I think makes Briar Rabbit a great songwriter and storyteller. In his song “Bothered No More,” Briar creates vivid images that transports the listener into the world he’s constructed with his thoughtful and carefully selected words.

Briar says his lyrics have, “Always kind of been an explanation of how things came to be. I’ve always loved questioning why. I’ve always loved breaking down situations. What I tend to do in my songwriting is explore why and how something happened that best way I can.”

He continued on saying, “I can’t write anything unless I feel it. I can edit the hell out of something if I’m not in that moment of feeling it. When it comes to the actual idea, I just kind of feel it and then things start pouring. And often times it’s when I’m doing something else. I’ve written songs when I’m driving. I think for “So Long,” the majority of my lyrics were written as I was driving and talking into my iPhone on my journey to Arkansas for a wedding.”

The instrumentation of Briar Rabbit’s compositions is an entirely different undertaking.

“The process for me is usually playing a lot of music and seeing what comes and seeing what feels good. I might get a melody in my head singing it to myself,” he said. “There are very rarely times I lay a golden egg right away.”

Thought-pop Defined

Briar Rabbit is a self-proclaimed thought-pop musician. When I started listening to his music, I began pondering my own definition of what this music sub-genre is, but I wanted to get the answer from the artist himself.

“Thought-pop is kind of two things. On one end, thought-pop has been a reaction to me being like, ‘I play pop music.’ and people being like, ‘Oh here comes another Bruno Mars.'”

Briar also stated, “Everything is lyrically based. I put so much thought into my lyrics. To overthink and over-analyze things, that’s my nature.”

Thought-pop also has another element – melody.

“My parents raised me on Motown, The Beatles, so melody is just kind of in my nature,” said Briar. “For me, it’s like put a good melody to it, make it feel good.”

Feeling is something that we as listeners should experience and that’s something Briar says audiences can take from his new album.

“On From Your Bones I’ve definitely landed on the emotion and expressed it in a way that people can get to. It’s like mixing the head and the heart finally together in a way that makes sense,” he said. “I think my evolution as an artist has been fighting that. If you were to go into my mother’s closet and find the old records I did in high school and college, a lot of the ideas would sort of be there, but the ideas didn’t get refined.”

The Great Routine

Briar Rabbit is also a brave storyteller who is willing to take risks. His five-track album The Great Routine! tells a challenging story about the controversial subject of race.

“It was written as a timepiece. When I was in that mode, when I was writing for The Great Routine! I was thinking of records like Neutral Milk Hotel and I was looking at Black Sheep Boy by Okkervil River. Where they kind of put themselves into this world.”

The track “Coon” sets the foundation for the work. Here’s how Briar describes the song and album: “It’s about a guy who wants to perform on the highest level and in order to perform on the highest level he has to degrade himself. And what do we take from that? Because of these minstrels we have black performers and black music. If no one took those steps, I wouldn’t be here.”

I asked Briar what he wants people to learn from The Great Routine! He answered, “I want people to start the discussion. I think I want people to feel okay discussing minstrels. Yes, there’s going to be an uncomfortable discussion of racism. My job as a thought-pop musician is to make you think, is to go though your emotions and make you think about things. And start to think about where you stand on things.”

A Lesson from B.B. King

Briar Rabbit is the nephew of legendary blues man B.B. King. While their music walks two different paths, they share a common ground as performers thanks to a lesson Briar learned from B.B. as a child.

“When I was seven years old, he told me to always be a gentleman. And that stuck,” he said. “Throughout his career, you’ve never really heard any negative press about B.B. King being rude to anyone. You’ve always heard he’s the nicest, most humble guy you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. And that carries a lot of weight.”

Briar continued on, “That lesson of always be a gentleman and always conduct yourself in a positive manner definitely, definitely helped me a million times over. I’ve had my entire set canceled by someone who soundchecked over me. Some band soundchecked over my complete set at a festival. I had driven five hours that night before to get to the show. So instead of raising hell. I got my acoustic guitar, went to a quieter place, dragged my fans over to the side and played as much as I could. Things happen; whether they are good or bad, people are going to remember how you react to them.”

Details on Briar Rabbit’s Concert in Green Bay

american introvert presents Briar Rabbit at Kavarna Coffeehouse on September 14th. Green Bay’s Tom Harter will open. The concert gets underway at 7:00 p.m. There is a $5 cover for the show.

Watch a live performance of “So Long” produced by Rooftop Sessions Chicago

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