Grey Reverend is the solo singer/songwriter project of American musician, L.D. Brown. Brown picked up an old guitar left at his apartment while living in Philadelphia, and fell in love. Along with his solo project, Grey Reverend has also played in The Cinematic Orchestra for around a decade and has collaborated with some incredible artists. Brown’s skill, passion and sincerity have resulted in two beautifully honest acoustic albums and a dedicated following across the world.
I caught up with the man himself at his first UK gig in years to talk about personal struggles, inspiration, his secret first albums and his last album as Grey Reverend.
This has been a busy year for you, what with The Cinematic Orchestra tour and your new album. What have been your most exciting and challenging experiences of 2016?
GR: The exciting part has been that I was able to complete a new album, which I didn’t think I was going to be able to do.
GR: Because the challenging part is that the neurological disease that I have in my left hand moved into my right hand, so I had to figure out how to play the guitar again. I had to write a record with even less accessibility to the guitar than I had before. So yeah, it was challenging, and exciting to get it done.
Brown is referring to the neurological condition that he developed a couple of years after starting to play the guitar. Focal Dystonia affects the sending and receiving of neurological signals and has severely reduced the dexterity of Brown’s fingers, and thus his playing ability. But instead of giving up, he simply adapted and kept going. To suit his hands restricted mobility, Brown chose to focus on the less strenuous finger-style of folk, singer/songwriter music – so Grey Reverend was born. It’s people like L.D. Brown who show us the incredible things that we can achieve with strength, passion and perseverance. His passion and his music have leapt the barriers that might’ve held them. This is a man who sets the bar for all of us.
So how has this album been influenced by what was going on in your life, and what was the creating experience like?
GR: Like I said, I didn’t really think I was gonna make the record. I guess about two years ago, around this time, I had actually quit music. I guess you’d call it a hiatus now. But yeah, I didn’t really want to do it anymore because of what was going on with my hands, and a lot of other things in my personal life – I didn’t have the desire to write anymore. Then, after wallowing and drinking a bit, I came out of it and decided that I wanted to (make music again). So I took the time to sit and think about it. I actually wrote the melody for ‘So Many Demons’ while I was in London. I was just walking down the street, and it came to me – I started humming it and I kept it and kept it and thought ‘I’m gonna write a song with that one day’. When it started off, I was just gonna make an EP – I thought I’d start off really small. Then once I started the process of making the record, things just started clicking, and the old process of writing kicked in again. I was able to get the energy to stay up late and work, to write and refine, take a few days, and just care about it enough it to make an album. I showed some of the early demos to a really good friend of mine in New York named Tim Bright, a producer and a great musician, and he co-produced the record with me. So he and I basically did it together in the end, which helped a lot. I owe a lot to him for that.
The teaser trailer for the album is quite different to your earlier stuff – atmospheric strings instead of your characteristic intimate acoustic sound. Is this bigger, grander sound something we can expect from the album?
GR: Yeah I mean, without giving too much away, I’d say that the record I’ve just completed is probably the closest thing to a pop album I’ll ever make. It’s not a pop album, but the production is bigger. There’s drums on it, electric guitars, backing singers, lots of pianos and electric pianos – there are a lot of instruments on it. But I still think it’s very much me – I just wanted to make a record that was a bit more fun, and a bit bigger than the stuff I’ve been doing before. Hopefully, people like it and don’t think I’ve gone like Dylan with electric or something. ‘So Many Demons’, one of the recently released tracks from the new record, is probably the best example of this new style. The track includes guitar, drums, piano, main and backing vocals – layering simple melodies and beats; it creates this wonderfully bright, bouncy atmosphere that offsets its darker, introspective lyrics.
So it sounds like this album is going to be a bit of an experiment or, at least, it’ll have some pretty different stuff on it – what are you particularly proud of or excited about?
GR: There’re a couple of tunes that I’m really excited to introduce to everyone. There’s a song that I actually wrote and played a few years later in Union Chapel here (London) – it’s a song called ‘Sunday Soldiers’. I was able to actually get a good recording of it finally, cos it’s a really tough tune to get right – so I’m excited for that to be on the album. To me, there are some really special moments of music on it. Some sounds that I’ve always wanted to get out and that, for better or for worse, I’m gonna get out.
You mentioned that there are going to be a lot more instruments on this record – does this mean you’ve been working with more people on this record?
GR: Yeah, there are a lot more people on it. There’s a handful of really talented musicians from New York on it. Dave Eggers plays the cello on it – he’s a really great cellist. A guy named John Delly contributed some piano – he’s fantastic. Loads of people worked on it, and then myself. A lot of it is just me and my producer, Tim, just plucking away at little things, grabbing instruments, learning how to play parts and then recording them.
You’ve said before that you prefer not working in studios, and your past releases have been, for the most part, bedroom-recorded – did working with more people and equipment mean that you had to work more in the studio this time?
GR: Partly. I recorded all the voice and guitar mainly at my home, but I can’t record drums in my house – it’s not big enough, and it doesn’t sound right. And for some other things, strings and whatnot, I needed the actual use of a project studio, so it was just a kind of back and forth. But the voice, guitar and most of the production that occurred was just me sitting at a desk with a tape machine and a computer and all that stuff, just working on it.
How was the experience to work with more people this time – did the collaboration change or influence the album a great deal?
GR: It can, but in this case, it didn’t because I was pretty vigilant about not letting that happen. When it would come time to hire out musicians or ask people to work on it, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. I wrote every single piece of music that’s on the record and then I would have people play it. I would have sheet music for people, and I’d say ‘this is what I want you to do and this is how I want you to do it’. It’d be open to suggestion, but it was a better starting point than just taking something that I kind of thought was a good idea, then playing it with other people and realising that it’s not a good idea, and wasting time. And for the most part, it worked out that way, my kind of being a megalomaniac about it.
Regarding your influences from the singer/songwriter genre, like Elliott Smith, Nick Drake etc. – what particularly strikes you about their work? And what do you try to achieve in your own work that stands out and influences others?
GR: I mean, those are two astounding musicians that were such formidable forces of writing and personality – they were very special people. You’d be a fool not to like them if you worked in, played or wrote music. As far as my own work goes – I put a lot of work into studying music, because I didn’t want to be a cliche, and I wanted to contribute to the art of writing music, like Elliott Smith and Nick Drake and other people like Bert Jansch, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen – the list goes on. I didn’t want to hone in on something and then run with it to make money. I wanted to actually have a sound that was honest and intentions within music that were honest – I can go to sleep at night with it that way.
I don’t sell loads of records, but I have really devoted fans. I get some really beautiful input and compliments from people about what my music means to them, and that’s what I wanted to do with it. To to be able to connect with people with a very open heart, musically, and not have it be some entitled pop thing where it’s like ‘Oh, this is a sound that everybody likes so here, go listen to it’. I want people to feel that it’s a very special thing, because it is to me. When I finish a song, it’s 100% everything that I can put into doing that. I’m not saying other people don’t do that, but that’s the kind of thing I saw in Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and now like, Jose Gonzalez, and Frank Ocean. When you hear that, to me, it’s just really powerful. The first time I heard Nick Drake, I think it was in the early 90’s, I was in a record store, and someone was listening to the song ‘River Man’ – and I just bought every one of his records right then and there, went home and just listened to him for months, for years straight, that’s all I listened to for years. And I didn’t even play the guitar yet, but I would just sit and listen to that music all the time. And when I did start playing the guitar, I realised that I had an affinity towards being able to write – so those influences were there, you know.
You mentioned Joni Mitchell as an inspiration – a musician who has played around with a huge range of styles and genres over her musical career. Is this something we can expect from you? You’ve said that this album is quite different to previous stuff. Do you plan on further exploring really different sounds after this album?
GR: Yeah, I mean…if I’m being honest, if and when this record comes out, it’s actually going to be the last Grey Reverend album that’s ever released – I’m not gonna do it anymore. I’ll do other music, but I’m not gonna do this anymore. I just have a lot of things I need to take care of, and I have this issue with my hands which makes it very hard to play live and keep up with playing guitar, and I want to spend some time looking at that. I’ll just, you know, do other things for a little bit. I’m not over the singer/songwriter aspect of music – I just wanna try other things. Some of it might not even incorporate singing really. I don’t really know – I never really know where it’s gonna go. I don’t have a lot of music waiting, just some ideas floating around. But I kinda like it that I don’t have anything much going on right now outside of this record, and I can sit and really think about what I wanna do. This album already feels bitter-sweet, but perhaps in a good way. The spread of L.D. Brown’s FD is devastating. But the struggle and determination behind the album makes it all the more special – and the completion of the record is just further testament to the power of music, and the strength of Brown himself. The news that this will be Grey Reverend’s last album is a great loss. But it’s going to be so exciting to see what the great L.D. Brown does next – whatever it is, it’s guaranteed to be good.
One final question: there have been whispers of a very early Grey Reverend album, called A Startled Wish. It’s been mentioned in old articles, but no-one can seem to find it online. Can you tell us about the album, and if it is, or will be available?
GR: ‘A Startled Wish’ is the first Grey Reverend album – the first Grey Reverend album with vocals on it. Technically there are three before it, but they’re solo guitar records and they’ve never been released. There’s one that might be released – it’s called Ipso Facto and it’s a guitar sonata that I did in like 2003 or something. But A Startled Wish is kind of the first version of me singing and playing songs that I wrote and released, and it’s really embarrassing. There are some songs that changed and actually ended up on, I think, the ‘Of The Days’ album. I recorded it all in an apartment through a 4-track onto a midi-disk player, and I did all the editing on a midi-disk player and used like tape loops and things like that. Yeah, it’s a cool album. It’s very honest…it’s a kind of strange thing. And it was released for just a brief moment, on this really not-so-great label. Then I had it taken down, and now I just have this small box of CDs in my house, the last 500 CDs of it that exist. I mean, you’re one of maybe half a dozen people that have ever really asked me about that. It wouldn’t really bother me if it got released but, at the same time, it’s kind of embarrassing if I think about it. But it is a real thing.
After the interview, Grey Reverend performed a stunning set, including old songs and some tracks off the new album. The performance was made particularly special by the extraordinary venue in which it was set – St John church. The grand old structure stands quietly majestic on the side of a busy London road, like a stolen glance into the past. Inside, plaster peels from towering columns and grand double doors open into a gorgeous cavern of wood and stone. The center isle leads up to a grand stage framed with archways and, on the night of the gig, bathed in curling purple smoke. It is to this scene that Grey Reverend added his sweet, solemn melodies – punctuated occasionally with thoughtful comments and anecdotes. The two supporting artists, Piet Buslay and Samuel, also deserve huge credit for their incredible performances, as well as the talent and hard-work that got them there (links below).
The gig at St John on Bethnal Green was such a rare and special experience for everyone involved – we can only hope that new albums breed new tours…
First support: Piet Buslay
Second support: Samuel
Grey Reverend: http://www.greyreverend.com/
Photo Credit: Beth Harvey