Brit-Pop, Georgian Bay style, with John Brownlow

John Brownlow will be playing in Meaford tonight at The Red Door Pub and Grille as part of a Songwriters’ Showcase that includes Bill Monahan and Dave Hawkins.  Although he is well known in the area, particularly by musicians who have benefitted from his talents as a producer and video producer, and from the attendees at the Bi-Monthly Songwriters’ Circle who benefit from his perceptive feedback, he doesn’t get out much to play since disbanding his group The Sportswriters a few years ago.

The Sportswriters ran for four or five years, and it kind of felt like it had run its course,” he said.  Part of the problem was that he is a restless creative spirit, always wanting to try a new direction, and part of it was because with every song he writes he has “a very specific sound in my head”.  The best bet for him, then, seemed to be to do it all himself.  “I had a few things to get out of my system,” he says.  Since breaking up the band, he has spent hours in his home studio working on his original songs, playing all of the parts himself except for the drums.  It’s been a process of sorting out the scraps of ideas he’d been collecting.

“I record every idea I have.  So I started with about 300 song ideas, half had lyrics and half didn’t, pared them down to 70 and then whittled those down to 30.”  He recorded those thirty songs with a variety of instrumental arrangements, carefully “putting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle”.  Now he’s finished, with songs fully mixed and mastered, and just has to figure out the best way to get them to the public.  But while he’s sorting that out, he’s written fifteen more since then, so he wants to record them.

“It’s all storytelling,” he says, “constructing a narrative”

It’s a prodigious output from a guy with a fertile imagination.  Although the songs range through different emotions, moods and sonic colourings, the one thing they all have in common is that they are unashamedly pop music.  He’s not into angst.  He wants to write and record songs that sound good coming out of the dashboard of a car.  The result is a collection of songs with more hooks than a salmon derby.

Another thing his songs have in common is that they sound like post punk Brit-Pop, calling to mind bands like Squeeze and early Elvis Costello.  That’s because that’s the musical environment that informed his musical education.  He grew up in Britain at a time when the original British Invasion bands, like The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Hollies, were from a bygone era, music his sister who was ten years older listened to.  “None of my friends listened to Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd.  The Sex Pistols negated all that.”  But they did listen to BBC, in a country that left little other choice.  “Radio One was the pop music BBC, and evenings it was John Peel.  He played the craziest stuff.  We learned everything we knew from John Peel.”

Entirely self-taught, John had started playing the guitar at age fifteen, when he and his friend didn’t even consider doing covers.  From the get-go, it was all original music.  His approach to songwriting, despite the punk ethos, was disciplined and organized.  “I made a list of ‘100 Perfect Songs’.  They weren’t really ‘perfect’, they were just songs that I liked, but I learned how to play every one of them, and that’s how I learned the craft of songwriting.”  Later he expanded his education when a friend who was a great vocalist asked him to play guitar to accompany him.  The repertoire wasn’t exactly his cup of tea but in learning the songs of the likes of Elton John, Billy Joel and Bread, he came to appreciate how pop hits are constructed.  His exploratory approach to learning from what he hears has never abated.  When asked how his current tendency to play songs with Brazilian Samba rhythms came about, he had to think for a minute.  “I don’t really know,” he said, “Probably it was from listening to Drew McIvor.  He plays a lot of that kind of stuff.”  He also developed an interest in jazz chords, “wondering why pop music doesn’t use them.”  And they too informed his songwriting.

He learns as well from the Songwriters’ Circles that happen alternately in Thornbury and Owen Sound.  It’s a gathering he really enjoys.  “It forces you to finish songs,” he says, “The discussion is great, and I’ve never been to one when someone didn’t play a really great song.  It’s best when people keep coming.  You can’t tell much from one song, but when I’ve heard five or six of somebody’s songs, I can get a grip on what they’re doing.”

His day job contributes to the process as well.  Originally a documentary filmmaker for the BBC, he evolved a career as a screenwriter.  “When you do documentaries, you write scripts,” he says.  He wanted to direct feature films and figured the best route to that was to start writing scripts for movies.  When he pitched his efforts, it didn’t lead to a directing gig, but created an immediate demand for his scripts and has made it possible for him to make a good living working from home in the beautiful hills of Southern Georgian Bay rather than Hollywood (he has a song about that).

“It’s all storytelling,” he says, “constructing a narrative.  It’s all about pacing, rhythm, building.”  While the other two songwriters that are part of the showcase tonight have styles that are quite different from his, and from each other’s, they all agree that songs, like films, are all about storytelling.

It’s an early evening at The Red Door, starting at seven and running until about ten, an evening packed with original songs.

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One Response to Brit-Pop, Georgian Bay style, with John Brownlow

  1. Gillian says:

    “More hooks than a salmon derby.” I laughed out loud 🙂

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