The Taylor Brown singing on the 2009 CD Coal Road Sunset is a broken man. His romance is over, and the career moves he's so carefully made have left him questioning his life's very purpose. "I don't know myself at all," he wails on the lead track, "No Mechanic." These songs—emotional roller coasters wrapped in soaring and spooky modern-rock arrangements—exorcised a tumultuous period in Brown's life. Today, the 26-year-old singer/songwriter is more settled. His current creative fodder might not qualify as uplifting, but he hopes it's more thought-provoking.
"I feel like I have more to say on this album," he says of the as-yet-untitled next Taylor Brown and Company disc in the works for an anticipated April 2011 release.
Take the new song "Decade From Hell," inspired by a Time magazine cover story bidding farewell to the years that contained Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, wars, financial meltdown, and other disasters. Brown has lived more than a third of his life during those years, and in the song, he considers the cost.
"We're not processing anything," he says. "We're not admitting to ourselves that it's been hard. The song is just four minutes of just admitting it, processing it. No answers, no saying it's going to be okay."
Working with Eric Nowinski at Rock Snob Recording Complex, Brown hopes to capture the energy of his band's live shows and give the songs a rich treatment that advances them from the Americana singer/songwriter sound of Coal Dust Road to something more experimental. Brown praises Nowinski for pushing him and bandmates Terry Mahnken, Chris Dorsten, Kevin Hyfantis, and Bill Wolf to try new approaches, like playing pencils on piano strings or crumpled paper as percussion, all while locking down the best performances possible. Unafraid of criticism or self-analysis, Brown relishes being told to sing a line again—for the 20th time.
"I could live in the studio year-round," he says.
Brown grew up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and picked up the guitar he was 10. His dad showed him the few chords he knew, and Brown later added drums and piano to his repertoire. After high school, he moved to Knoxville for college, studying for a degree in theology and ministry.
During that time, Brown appeared on the local music scene as leader of Brown Hall Symphony, an indie-rock band with a violinist, heavily influenced by Damien Rice. Although the group achieved success by winning a citywide battle of the bands, Brown looks back with less than satisfaction.
"There are still some of those songs I'm proud of," he says. "But I was still figuring out how you write a song in your bedroom and then go perform it at a venue."
If he hasn't figured it out yet, he's well on his way. With an intensity that conjures comparisons to Rice and Ray LaMontagne, Brown captivates audiences with a fierce command of the guitar in his hands and the people in the crowd. He demands attention, whether he's wielding a guitar solo or fronting a full band. The confidence to perform so fearlessly comes from his family, he says, who never second-guessed what he wanted to attempt.
"It's been instilled in me to go out and try it and see what I can do," he says.
In Brown's mind, music and performance are inextricably linked, a notion he says he picked up during countless childhood viewings of the Beatles gamboling about in Help and A Hard Day's Night.
"I'd put a cassette in and map out my performance listening to the Beatles," he says. "I loved them. I was them in front of that tape player."
So far, Brown hasn't been pursued by hordes of British teens, but he internalized the concept that a singer is part actor, playing a character as part of a bigger story.
"You're not just some dude in cargo shorts and flip-flops when you get on stage and play a show," he says. "You are taking on a character, and people want to hear your story. Tom Waits does that in a brilliant way."
Brown had that very realization thanks to a local mentor. Matt Morelock, before he ran a music shop on Gay Street, hosted the WDVX Blue Plate Special, on which Brown performed on several occasions. After one afternoon's set, Brown solicited Morelock's advice over lunch. What did he need to know about this music business?
"Matt said, ‘People come to see a show, not just hear a show,'" Brown recalls. Dress the part, Morelock said, alluding to his penchant for felt bowlers, vintage suits, and overalls. "'Walk these streets and get up on stage as a character, as what you want people to see when you're on stage.'" Brown put the advice in action. "I've slowly changed my presence on stage because of that. People want to see something that they aren't seeing every other day."
His attire—a button-up shirt, a beard, and sometimes a hat—doesn't differ much from what other twentysomething guys wear daily on Market Square. But the subtle change sets him apart from the Taylor Brown of yore and sets the stage for the next phase of his career.