Now/It's: An Interview with Ethan Samuel Brown

Music is a strange and fickle beast, kind of like Nashville (or in other words - why yes, water is wet!). Unforeseen circumstances have been known to pop up at any given moment forcing those entrenched within both to roll with the punches, for better or for worse. With that in mind, I'd reckon to say there are few people in town that have witnessed the "force majeure" of both arenas than Ethan Samuel Brown. After coming to town in 2010 (making him an old-head by Nashville standards), Brown wasted little time diving in head first. Now running his own outfit of show promotion and audio engineering on top of making his music, Brown is primed to release his album The Outset Lament on September 29th, after a two-and-a-half year production and recording odyssey that would make a modern musical Odysseus finicky. Brown released the lead single for The Outset Lament, "The Sailor," earlier this week. 

Now/It's: Nashville met with Ethan Samuel Brown at the OG Barista Parlor, in the East Nashville neighborhood of Nashville. 

N/I - What have you been up to today?

Ethan - Nothing much. Just getting the day going.

N/I - Right on.

Ethan - These are early mornings for me, because I at work until 3am.

N/I - Yeah, I would imagine! So how long have been working at…. Is it Crying Wolf?

Ethan - Yeah. Since Wylie’s shut down, it’s probably been since March. Or April?

N/I - How long was Wylie’s officially in business?

Ethan - Six weeks. Yep.

N/I - Do you know why? Anything in particular? Or just general business ailments?

Ethan - Yeah, no one was really coming. That’s about it.I mean, the shows were doing fine - my operation was the same - but as far as the restaurant part, it just nosedived when it shifted from Mad Donna’s to Wylie’s, even though it was the same place.

N/I - I see. So you’re keeping busy with the live shows, promotions and what not. What about your music?

Ethan - It’s going well. We played at ACME a couple days ago.

N/I - That’s right! You were filling in for Leah Blevins?

Ethan - Yeah. Leah did a run with Sunday Best - we both have the same manager….

N/I - Tatiana [Angulo].

Ethan - Right. So [Leah] did a last minute run with Sunday Best, then she got in touch with Tatiana and she called me. It was fun. It was kind of weird, because we’ve never played downtown.

N/I - What was that like?

Ethan - It was cool. It’s similar to playing in other cities, but [ACME is] kind of the only place where you can do original music down there. It was fun.

N/I - Did you have to fill in with covers at all?

Ethan - No, it was just an hour set, so we just played all the songs in my arsenal.

N/I - How was it received by the ACME masses?

Ethan - It was fun. It went over well. I think had it been at 10pm, they may have wanted to hear some Florida Georgia Line or something [laughs], but we were in the dinner hour, so everybody was just listening. It was good.

N/I - So you had that - your next gig isn’t really until September, right?

Ethan - Yeah. Next month we go on a week run, and then October we’re going on another week run, and our next Nashville show is the September 28th, for the release show.

N/I - And that’s The Sailor? That’s the album? Or is that the single?

Ethan - That’s just the single that [has since released]. OneRPM is going to push it for us. The album is called The Outset Lament, and that comes out September 29th.

N/I - Cool.

Ethan - I always want to say September 28th, because that’s the release show, but it comes out on midnight, right after we get off stage.

N/I - Technically the 29th. That’s pretty solid. So where is the release show?

Ethan - Back Corner. It’s in Germantown. Have you ever been there?

N/I - I’ve been there once for Cale Tyson’s three week residency.

Ethan - That’s the first time I went, too. One of those residencies had a lot of friends that were coming up and doing their songs. I was impressed with it.

N/I - Nice. So who were your friends that played at the Back Corner thing?

Ethan - Jordan Hull and Charlie Whitten.

N/I - How’d you get to know those guys?

Ethan - I met Jordan at a house show in what would have been 2011, or 12.

N/I - Was that when you first came to town?

Ethan - Yeah, it was right around then. Like a year or so after. [Jordan] was awesome, so I introduced myself after the show. That house show was crazy, too. Looking back, it was like Natalie Prass, The Districts, and both of those artists are playing theatres, or amphitheatres now.

N/I - They’ve blown up. I think The Districts’ newest album came out today.

Ethan - Yeah, they’re opening for My Morning Jacket.

N/I - That’s wild. But so that’s how you met Jordan?

Ethan - That’s how I met Jordan. So I introduced myself to him - because I didn’t know a ton of people - and we went on the road together, for a while, because he’s from a similar part of the country. He’s from Southeast Ohio, and I’m from Northeast Kentucky, and lived in Cincinnati for a while. So we would do two week runs where we would hit Ohio and Kentucky. We did SXSW once. So we’ve gone on the road together a few times. I’ve known him for a while. But he was singing Harry Nilsson songs or something at that [Back Corner] show, so I checked it out, and I was super impressed with it all. I’ve never been to that part of Germantown. It’s a cool spot. It should be fun.

N/I - Absolutely. So how’d you meet Charlie Whitten, then?

Ethan - I think I met him through Jordan, but I don’t know that for certain. Honestly, I can’t quite remember where I met him….

N/I - Well that’s usually how it goes.

Ethan - Just through shows.

N/I - You see each other at enough of the same shows and it all seems to branch out from there.

Ethan - We’ve definitely shared a bunch of the same bills over the years, but I can’t remember the first one. But he’s a great dude, he was singing a different tune. If you remember those residency shows, he was having three or four special guests.

N/I - Yeah. The one that I went to was Sam Outlaw and Molly Parden. Pretty solid lineup every week, it seems.

Ethan - Yeah.

N/I - So is that well within….. [wobbly table wobbles precariously]. Whoa. That was close.


Ethan - Wobbly tables and hot coffee don’t mix.

N/I - We’re flirting with disaster.

Ethan - That’s what this place is known for [laughs].

N/I - So are you still going to shows all the time? Have you shifted into co-writing with people you share bills with? How does it change over the years?

Ethan - Well by doing booking and live sound for places, I see six shows a week, whether I want to or not [laughs]. But I’m not huge on co-writing, but I’ve done it a few times.

N/I - Sure. Does that have anything to do with the assumed 50/50 split of responsibilities, creativity, and input, hoping to find someplace in the middle?

Ethan - Yeah. A lot of times it might become you working their song, or them working on yours. I usually take a long time, and I get involved with the songs for weeks.

N/I - Right, so that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an hour-long session.

Ethan - I mean, I’m not opposed to trying it more and more, but as of right now, I’m not feeling it.

N/I - There’s nothing wrong with that.

Ethan - Yeah, so during the day I try and focus on my music and then go do the sound stuff for the evening.

N/I - So I guess you’ve experienced your fair share of shows that you wouldn’t have opted to go to, then?

Ethan - Yeah [laughs].

N/I - So how do you get through a set like that?

Ethan - A set that’s bad [laughs]?

N/I - Yeah, or not your bag, or whatever.

Ethan - I don’t know, there’s a lot of stuff that’s really good that’s not particularly in my wheelhouse, or on my radar - that’s probably the neat thing about being in Nashville. I can enjoy myself running sound for just about any show, but I don’t know. Nobody really “sucks,” even if their genre isn’t your bag.

N/I - So with running live sound, does that ever come into play whenever you play shows?

Ethan - Yeah. Definitely.

N/I - Are you really particular?

Ethan - Well I just have more experience with it. I feel like there’s an etiquette to working with a sound man that a lot of people don’t know. So I try and hold my guys accountable when we get on stage. Like if someone’s being too particular about a monitor mix, I’m like “That’s enough. We’ll play anyway.” So it definitely plays into that aspect. I also understand there are a lot of small things that can make or break a show, so you want to listen to their advice, because they know the room the best.

N/I - So you have to be the one to find the middle ground for everyone?

Ethan - Yeah. There are certain venues that are just really live rooms, so I’ll tell someone “Your bass level can’t be that loud,” and “You’re going to have to stand next to you, because otherwise it’ll be really boomy,” which will lead to people asking “Can you turn your vocal up?” and I’ll have to say “Can you turn him down?” So it’s kind of one of those things where you have to trust the audio engineer.

N/I - So do you play with full band pretty much exclusively now?

Ethan - I definitely would prefer to, but I would say it’s probably about 50/50. The high majority of shows I play out of town, I play solo just because I can’t necessarily….

N/I - I’d imagine that can get pretty expensive.

Ethan - Right. I don’t have a van, so unless we’re getting guarantees for every single night, I probably have to do it solo. But we’re doing it full band for this record. So I’d say it’s about 50/50, and when it’s a show in Nashville, it’s probably 80/20.

N/I - So the crew that you recorded the album with - is that who plays with you live?

Ethan - It’s a little bit different. On the record, the instrumentation was much fuller. There are string quartets and horns, keys and another electric guitar that we don’t play live. Also, Nate did most of the drums on the record, but most of the time our live guy is John Wood. We’ve been playing with him for a while. He’s really good friends with everyone in the band, and he and Michael play in a couple other projects. So Michael is my bass player, and those two really click. We usually play with John Wood, Michael, Jen Starsinic. Jen Starsinic and John Wood didn’t play on the record, but everyone else did. But for the release show, it’ll be closest to the album. We’ll have a full stage.

N/I - Okay. You’ll have some of your horns and your strings too?

Ethan - Maybe not strings - we’ll probably still stick with just the fiddle for the live show, but I want to get Tim George to play with us for that.

N/I - Nice. So how long have you been in Nashville?

Ethan - I moved here in summer of 2010.

N/I - So seven years. It’s changed a lot in seven years. How has that affected you? Any major shift or sea change, so to speak?

Ethan - I mean, there hasn’t been any downside to the growth for me.

N/I - Right. I would imagine for you it’s probably just more people to play shows.

Ethan - Yeah. I haven’t gotten priced out, knock on wood. It has been wild to see the changes that have made this neighborhood so much better. There’s been more venues. I definitely have seen - I mean, the talent has always been incredible - but there seems to be way more of it now than there used to be. Like when I first started working at Mad Donna’s, I worked sound for this festival called “Unlucky Fest” that Terry Rickards threw. He does the booking at Basement East now, but I came across the flier the other day, and that lineup was insane.

N/I - Who was in the lineup?

Ethan - Margo Price….

N/I - Back when she was Margo and the Price Tags?

Ethan - Yeah. Nikki Lane, Little Bandit, Lonely H…. It was really, really impressive. But when I moved here, it seemed like there was a batch of maybe twenty bands that were all the bands that were worth catching, and now I just feel like there’s four hundred.

N/I - Oh yeah. Now there’s a glut of talent, but in the best sense possible.

Ethan - Right. I don’t think it’s been diluted by people that can’t play.

N/I - Yeah, I would imagine the people that can play are somewhat inclined to find similarly abled people around them.

Ethan - There seems to be more of an influx of people moving here in groups, too. Like entire music scenes are picking up and laying roots here.

N/I - It’s pretty wild.

Ethan - There are lots of bands that are like “Yeah, we’re from Grand Rapids, and we’ve been playing together for twenty years.” There’s the Berklee migration, all of that stuff.

N/I - Yeah, the Berklee migration is interesting. As far as what would lead them to wind up in Nashville as opposed to New York or LA, or even Atlanta or Chicago.

Ethan - That’s the other thing, I don’t remember meeting a ton of people from Berklee until three years ago, but now I feel like I meet them all the time.

N/I - It’s intriguing. It’s like you were saying - everything continues to expand, but somehow avoid diluting. But at the same time, it’s become somewhat compartmentalized - at least to me. There are a lot of Americana people that gravitate toward each other. There’s more pop that seems to keep cropping up, but they’re super sectioned off.

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Ethan - Yeah. There’s that new Rudy’s Jazz Club that opened up downtown.

N/I - That’s right! Have you been there?

Ethan - I haven’t yet, but there’s a really cool jazz show that was at The Crying Wolf the other night, and they said they play at Rudy’s every other night. So that was something that caught my attention. I’ve run sound for tons and tons of shows, and I’ve probably only ever ran sound for six jazz shows in Nashville, so I was excited to hear that. We’ll probably start seeing more jazz here in town.

N/I - Jazz and hip-hop seem to be the two genres that are - not lagging - but the most underrepresented in town. But with Rudy’s hopefully things will open up. The hip-hop scene is the one that in my mind seems to keep running into the most obstacles, in terms of rooms that embrace local acts.

Ethan - Yeah, the Boom Bap Night is solid, but I don’t know of anything else.

N/I - True. Every once in awhile someone like Kiya Lacey will make a splash. DRKMTTR used to do a lot of hip-hop stuff, but it seems they’ve reverted back to mostly punk now.

Ethan - The place that’s connected to The East Room? I didn’t realize they threw shows.

N/I - Oh I know what you’re talking about, that’s a different place. What’s it called?

Ethan - The East Room?

N/I - No, the relic-y place connected to it.

Ethan - I thought it was called DRKMTTR, but maybe it’s something else.

N/I - I couldn’t tell you, obviously.

Ethan - It’s dark aesthetic, or something, I don’t know.

N/I - Yeah. Lots of taxidermy, things of that nature. I like it.

Ethan - I live right across the street from that place.

N/I - Have you ever been in? Buy a shrunken head or anything.

Ethan - [Laughs] I have been in, but I haven’t bought anything yet. It’s a cool spot.

N/I - Yeah. Anyway, things seem to be on the up and up, still. It all just boils down to where the ceiling is. It’s a good place to be, but where it ends up, I could not tell you. Anyway, who did you record the album with?

Ethan - Kyle Baker. This album was like a two year process, because I wrote, arranged, and recorded everything in my house, and I took it to him and said that I needed to clean up a bunch of stuff. It became a bigger obstacle to tackle it in that manner, so he said to just view it as pre-production, and start from there. So that was a year into the thing. We had a full set of recordings that became demos.

N/I - That makes sense.

Ethan - We started from square one with Kyle, and recorded all the basic tracks and pedal steel and lead guitar, vocals, backup vocals, and then he moved back to California to build his dream studio. It’s an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, so luckily, I’m an audio engineer, so I didn’t have to dig deeper into a budget. We did keys and string quartet where I just took my laptop to the musicians, and we recorded in the living room. Did all of those overdubs, sent them to Kyle to mix, and then Brian Virtue ended up mastering it. So that was another year and a half added to the project.

N/I - So it’s been a long time coming.

Ethan - It’s funny. I remember doing an interview for the record before we started the actual recordings two and half years ago about this same album. So it’s just like “Man, that was a long time ago.”

N/I - For sure. But it’s finally coming out.

Ethan - Yeah. I’m going to be relieved to get it out for sure. It’s been a beast to wrangle.