Dispatches from modern life with Rachel Taylor Brown
Rachel Taylor Brown’s art is rooted in the real world. The songs on her tenth album, Run Tiny Human – recently released by Penury Pop – navigate the choppy waters of modern life, with a melodic sensibility that owes a debt to her classical music background.
“I sang classical music professionally for a couple of decades, lots of beautiful and rare pieces,” Brown says. “I never felt switching between classical and pop was difficult, but always felt more comfortable singing pop/rock and my own music.”
Lyrically, Brown continues to mine the intricacies of intimate relationships, as well as topics far outside of our everyday perceptions. Investigating the life cycle of the 17-year cicada, for example. “I saw cicadas for the first time on tour in Indiana, several years ago,” she states. “I’d never seen them before and they were all over creation, humming and throbbing and crawling around, sluggishly, little beady red eyes aglow. I remember thinking, as I watched the birds come and snap them up, how depressing to have lived 17 years [underground] and then to promptly get eaten!”
Like her other albums, the tunes on Run Tiny Human include homespun ballads like “Wedding Song (Bag of Bones);” the full bore, distorted rock of “Little Gyre” and “Portland,” an arty outing, marked by fractured tempos with sampled voices drifting in and out of focus. Brown spoke to The Globe from her home in Shelbyville, a small town on the outskirts of Portland, OR.
Did the current political situation play any part in the composition of the songs on Run Tiny Human?
Yep, especially as it relates to dealing, or not dealing, with the collapse of so many things: the refusal to be good stewards; the impact of climate change, and the economic slide and collapse of the not-one-percent. Everything’s crumbling and falling apart and the money’s all going to further fatten the fattest wallets and toward the military. In America, we’ve all been frogs in the proverbial pot of boiling water for some time now, propping ourselves up with positive thinking, the idea of American exceptionalism, denial and distraction. (Shiny thing! buy it!). Working class folks are supporting a feckless rich white dude, whose only real interest is in enriching feckless rich white dudes. The American Dream – “one day it’ll be my turn!” – is still miserably alive.
How long did it take to record the album?
The actual recording didn’t take that long, but he process takes years, because of all the other stuff involved in putting an album out, mainly related to me and my available energy and time. It’s DIY and I’ll tell you; by album 10 of DIY you really begin to question your sanity and the feasibility of putting out albums that way, both economically and health-wise. The hardest part for me is that my nervous energy is going on high the whole time I’m making, and preparing to release, an album. I know a lot of that engine overheating is because of my history and an unfortunately active “fight or flight” system, but I think it may be at least somewhat true for others too. I spent Thanksgiving week trying to stop hyperventilating. I need to be alone in a dark, quiet room for about a year.
How was the album put together? It has the warm feeling of a living room recording.
It was made in a real studio, beautifully built, in (producer) Jeff (Stuart Saltzman’s) basement. Some of it was recorded upstairs in the kitchen and living room, though – just because we wanted a certain sound.
Most of the quiet songs were recorded live. I played and sang at the piano downstairs, with Jeff sitting about three feet away. This is the first time we recorded the band songs there. Usually we do them with a full band, in a bigger space. If it has a “homey” feel, it’s probably because I’ve recorded at Jeff’s house for the past eight albums and it’s like a second home at this point. Jeff and I are comfortable working together and hanging out for hours. We squabble like siblings.
There’s a jarring blend of styles in the arrangements. Quiet piano ballads, distorted rock theatrics, heartfelt poetry and dark irony. Do you take a conscious approach to the arrangements/composition?
How I think and hear things is how things come out. I’ve always loved a lot of different styles of music. I used to chafe at people who urged me to put out more “cohesive” albums. Why should I? I like hearing different styles bump against one another and, to me, my albums actually are cohesive and tell a story. So yes, they’re stylistically all over the map. Though I think they all sound like me. As far as the words go, I’ll flatter myself and say I’m a realist, raised on a solid bed of sardonicism. I really don’t think I’m a pessimist. I’m too sentimental and – despite myself – too hopeful for that. But I know I’m not an optimist.