Now/It's: An Interview with Guthrie Brown

Something that's become more and more apparent is the distinct connection that many a millennial feels toward the beatnik generation. Despite being a millennial myself, I find that I'm drawn more to the post-beatnik brutalists, but that's beside the point. The beatniks had a discernible modus operandi, or in other words, a "vibe" (as we've covered in the past), that has a direct interconnection to the millennial mindset - exploring the human condition collectively and singly, but altruistic in some moments, and vain in others. Ultimately, it makes for a fascinating case study, but yet again, that's neither here nor there. What is here, however, is the connection that a particular beatnik - Kurt Vonnegut - ignited in my conversation with Guthrie Brown. The common connection provoked a fascinating conversation that could have rivaled any and all beatnik/millennial salons, covering everything from the magnificent connectivity of Nashville, the brilliance of Sufjan Stevens, Montana, following one's truest desires, and of course, Brown's upcoming release Keeping On. Much like the beatniks of old and millennials of today, Brown elicits a tangible energy that appeals to both, while remaining wholly his own.

Now/It's met with Guthrie Brown at Ugly Mugs, in the Eastland Neighborhood of East Nashville.

Guthrie - Ah, dude! Vonnegut?

N/I - Yeah man!

Guthrie - Great book!

N/I - You know what’s funny? I’ve read some Vonnegut, but I’ve not read a ton - probably not as much as I should, to be honest. I’m really into Raymond Carver.

Guthrie - Okay. I’m not familiar.

N/I - He’s sort of the opposite of Vonnegut, in a way. He’s super…. Muted.

Guthrie - Oh, okay.

N/I - He’s not passive or boring, necessarily, he’s very purposeful in the way he describes things. And he usually describes them at the bare minimum, whereas Vonnegut has a lot of energy to his writing. There’s a lot of dynamism - at least from what I’ve read - and even his poetry. That beat generation… everything just kind of bounces. I like Vonnegut, but I really like the Carver types, with their realism, just because it seems like writing everything, and then take away a lot. It’s building out the whole thing as opposed to the “scaffolding,” so to speak. That way you get the bare bones. Some people are into it, some people aren’t.

Guthrie - I got to check him out. That sounds interesting.

N/I - If you like Vonnegut, I think you’d be able to appreciate the fact that [Carver] is different, at the very least. As far as Vonnegut is concerned, I’ve read some of his poetry, Slaughterhouse Five, but then that’s about it.

Guthrie - I think Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions - I read a little bit of that one, but stopped. I was always fascinated by his humor - and how you put it - the bounciness of his writing. You could just tell he was chain smoking while he was writing, and never stopped thinking.

N/I - Up for days at a time, all off of a nicotine high. That’s good to hear you’re into Vonnegut. Are you a big reader?

Guthrie - Man, I’m pretty dyslexic, so I’m pretty bad. But when I grab onto something, it’s cool. I read a lot of biographies, like musician biographies. My goal is to get more into it. I’m leaving for Montana in a month, and I’m planning on reading a lot there.

N/I - You’re from Montana, right? Are you going back to visit family?

Guthrie - I’m going for this guitar, songwriter festival. It’s a camp thing, so it’ll be really fun.

N/I - Is it Skip Ewing’s thing?

Guthrie - i don’t know if that name sounds familiar. It’s called Crown.

N/I - I don’t know. The only other Montana guitar/songwriting camp I know of in Montana is Skip Ewing’s, I think.

Guthrie - Have you been up there at all?

N/I - I’ve been up a couple of times. Not for a songwriting thing. Mostly Big Sky - what I would assume is sort of the tourist-y stop in Montana.

Guthrie - That and the towns. Everything is so small there, it’s crazy.

N/I - And you lived there until you were, what? Seventeen?

Guthrie - Sixteen. And then I moved to Salt Lake City for a while, then moved to Nashville after that.

N/I - What was wrong with Salt Lake? Didn’t enjoy it?

Guthrie - I was actually working on a song for this ski movie, with my brother. It was a cover of “Midnight Rider.” My brother is best friends with a bunch of professional skiers, so [the cover was] for his segment in the movie. We went down there, it was awesome. I was supposed to go to music school in Minnesota, so I was just down there hanging. Then at the last second, I decided I wanted to go to Nashville.

N/I - Sure. What was the appeal of Nashville versus - since you were already out West - LA? Conceivably, that would have been a shorter drive.

Guthrie - I really didn’t even think it over that much. I remember knowing that everything I was hearing about Nashville was rad. Everyone that was coming here at that time - it was that or Austin. But I knew I wanted to embrace doing the “hard knocks.” Not going to school felt really romantic and fun to me.

N/I - How was that received by the other people in your life?

Guthrie - I was the baby - the last of four - so my parents had kind of given up, but [they] were really supportive. When I dropped out of high school, my mom went to the principal and said “If there was a class for starting a band and being in all the bars around this town and playing every night, he’d get an A. He just can’t do this stuff.” That’s kind of what I told them. I don’t even think I did homework. I got Ds and Cs, but I was such a slacker because all I was doing was playing music and fishing.

N/I - That led you this far along, so I’d imagine you’re satisfied with it.

Guthrie - For sure. It’s been fun.

N/I - When you first got to Nashville, was there much of a learning curve to overcome?

Guthrie - Major.

N/I - Did you have any preconceived notions with regard to how to go about things?

Guthrie - I moved down with my brother, whose eleven years older than me. When I was in Billings [Montana], I started a band there and we did as much as you could in Montana. So - just like so many people moving here - I had that “big fish in a small pond” mentality of “This is going to be great, it’s going to be easy!” But when you’re sixteen, you’re a cocky little shit.

N/I - Super headstrong.

Guthrie - Definitely a big learning curve. But my older brother, after we did the ski movie, decided we should just record a bunch for licensing, make money, and then we could do whatever we want. I did that for a year, and became very anti-social, and it was super depressing being here, because I didn’t want to be doing that. But it taught me how to record on my own. We would get submissions that were along the lines of “We need a Coldplay song, anthemic, two minutes, has to have to word “miracle” in it.” I had never tried writing like that, and I still don’t like writing like that, necessarily.

N/I - It sort of takes away the romance of writing. It’s almost a songwriting version of paint by numbers.

Guthrie - That’s right. But as a parallel, that whole world felt like college to me. It was a time where I wasn’t wanting to do this, but it was involved with music. But eventually, my brother moved back to Montana - Nashville just wasn’t for him. I stayed here, learned how to record, made an EP while I was working at this frozen yogurt shack in Green Hills and hated that.

N/I - Was it Sweet Cece’s?

Guthrie - It was Chill Yogurt. It’s out of business now, but that was pretty hilarious.

N/I - That’s sort of a rite of passage here - pick up a crappy gig to float on by until you get past the initial learning curve of Nashville. You hear so much about Nashville being a “seven year city” or a “ten year city,” neither of which I prescribe by, but it does take time for people to figure stuff out. Two of those things to learn are typically learning to swallow your pride in order to better understand how the Nashville “system” works.


Guthrie - You need to get out a lot. You can’t just lock yourself in.

N/I - Exactly, and I think that can be the toughest part. Nashville is definitely a small city in comparison to other ones, but I think because it’s smaller, it makes the networking and things related to that seem much more daunting because you can see six people you know, and are forced to say hey whether you really want to or not. I would imagine for you, as an artist and performer, it might be even stranger. The thought of perpetual networking.

Guthrie - You just can’t be a - this sounds very obvious, but you can’t be a jerk. And the people that are, you just know they’re in their own circle or whatever, but I’ve always tried to avoid burning bridges. I hate doing that, but sometimes not working with people can tricky. That has been the most tricky thing for me, saying that you used to work together with someone, but now you don’t. It can still be cool, but it is like seeing an ex-girlfriend, or an ex-partner, in a way.

N/I - That’s true. I know people who have little interest in the music industry side of things, but still notice and remark at the peculiar fact that you can be friends with someone who also happens to have produced your record, but isn’t producing your next one. Or any business iteration of that. You move on to new collaborators, like in your situation, you start working with Jacquire King. Hopefully everyone that’s worked with you in the past understands that business is business.

Guthrie - Or having a band. That’s such a big part of it, too. It’s a marriage, but you still want to explore other options. Business is business - you’re making sure you’re spending your time appropriately and getting the most done, and getting it done the way you want it to, too. I do feel like it really helps being here and experiencing that. Plus, it seems like it gets easier with age. Everyone that I look up to that’s ten years older than me, they’re all so professional and cool about it. That’s a cool thing.

N/I - Absolutely. So you get to Nashville, you record your first EP…..

Guthrie - Which is down now. You can’t even find it.

N/I - And it wasn’t even technically a Guthrie Brown record, right? Guthrie Brown & the Family Roots?

Guthrie - Well even before that, I made another EP. I just called it Demo. I met [publicist] Jake Lanier when he was managing the Listening Room, and he found me on Bandsintown. It’s this website that I just did a hail mary of putting a song up there to see what happens. [Jake] found it and I started playing four nights a week, four hour sets, and it was for barely anyone. People would come in and out, eat dinner….

N/I - That would have been before it moved, right?

Guthrie - That was the downtown location.

N/I - And it was kind of in a weird spot downtown as far as foot traffic was concerned.

Guthrie - It was hilarious. Jake was manager extraordinaire, and such a good friend. We had a lot of fun doing that stuff. I’m so grateful to have had a place where you can go and play your acoustic guitar with a nice sound system for four hours. Sometimes when there was one table top filled, I would just improv a song. Like “Let’s see if I’m going to totally screw up. And if I do, let’s see if they even notice.” Just off the cuff.

N/I - It’s almost like being a standup comedian, doing open mics. Sometimes you have workable material, and other times you just go up and riff the whole time to see what happens with it. It’s a good way to cut your teeth, I’m sure.

Guthrie - And to get comfortable with that, too. I’ve always felt more comfortable with performing than I have with recording, as a lot of musicians are.

N/I - Why do you think that is?

Guthrie - I think it’s because you start doing it. You just start a band. I was in a little child band when I was ten years old, and we’d tour the middle schools and play for them and talk to them - “This is a guitar!” - and it’s crazy to think about all that, but I can’t remember not doing things like that. Musical theatre and all that. I think it’s just because my mom is very musical; musical theatre and stuff, she does that.

N/I - That makes sense. I figure the fact that you can pick up a guitar and busk with some immediately verifiable return holds some comfort versus getting things situated with recording, amongst all the logistical things that need to be prepped in advance.

Guthrie - Basically.

N/I - So where does this new EP fall in the timeline of things that would lead to Keeping On?

Guthrie - I did the first EP on my own, then we did The Family Tree….

N/I - Which would have been 2015-ish?

Guthrie - Right. It was very Americana. My sister was in the band. Then after that, I signed a publishing deal with BMG, and that was with Jacquire. So he did an EP called Natural which was out in 2016. And that was basically where the band and I were just touring a lot, and we went into Eric Massey’s studio and knocked it out in a week, and with an extra week of overdubs. Which, that was the most fun experience recording ever.

N/I - Because it was super quick?

Guthrie - That and I signed a publishing deal, and thought it was the coolest time, and so exciting. And all my friends were there, and Eric was so cool. But after that, I guess the reality set it. I thought “Hmmm. Alright.” [Natural] wasn’t released properly, which is a good thing to know….

N/I - Why is that?

Guthrie - It was released in November, and there was no PR. I wasn’t being guided the right way, I think.


N/I - From a purely business cycle standpoint, November isn’t necessarily the strongest time.

Guthrie - Especially for a fun, upbeat pop record.

N/I - It’s almost strictly holiday records. I’m always amused when late October, early November rolls around, and you see everyone has ripped off a quick demo of a Christmas tune for some quick content in the cycle.

Guthrie - Isn’t that crazy? That’s just the norm nowadays.

N/I - That’s the thing, with the ease of self-recording, you can very easily could just do acoustic and vocals and try to make it some really moody, coffee house take on a Christmas song, and someone is bound to bite. Sufjan Stevens it up.

Guthrie - I love Sufjan. People can grab on and connect. I don’t really think anyone - in today’s age - really gives two shits about how a song was recorded or who recorded it.

N/I - That’s the other thing, too. For those that do care about how and who recorded a song, who played on it, and their personal discographies - there are entire outlets that focus on only that. The gearheads can go and….

Guthrie - Nerd out on whatever.

N/I - Exactly. Everyone has their own little section now.

Guthrie - That’s a good point, everyone does. All these sub categories are everywhere.

N/I - On my end, that’s what seems to be the most similar between what I do and what you do, as far as figuring out how to classify things, or categorize them? Or do you need to at all? You said that record from 2015 was Americana-ish, and what you’re putting out now is much more non-genre, if that makes sense. Or on my site, there are interviews with musicians, because there are a lot here, but I also talk to photographers and business owners. Does that make my site a music website or what? People want to pigeonhole things when there are endless options.

Guthrie - Anyone that does anything creative, whether it’s you wanting to reach out to chefs or photographers, I feel like that is a beautiful thing that once you get pigeonholed, you can feel the pressure to try and maintain it. For the Keeping On EP, I think I was resilient without being outspoken about it, because I was nervous. I knew it was going more - even talking to Jacquire, the producer, there was a lot of talk about going for something that has more commercial appeal and today’s production standards. I love all different types of music, so I was excited about doing it, but I was also really nervous about doing it, because I didn’t want to be the pop guy and get stuck doing that.

N/I - I think I understand that. It’s tough with anything - if it gets any form of traction - to pivot directly away from that. Especially in a music town, or the world of music in general. People can be very quick to say “Okay, we figured out Guthrie Brown, there we go.” So to try something else can be intimidating.

Guthrie - But then you look at an artist like Sufjan Stevens where he is just an artist. He just creates. And it’s all with such great intention, because it’s where he’s at in that moment. I think the reason why the Natural EP was released in November was because we were waiting on labels and stuff. And then the constant feedback we got - a lot of labels heard it, I think. At least that’s what I heard. Everyone was like “We have no idea what genre. We have no idea how to market this.” I feel like that’s a good thing, but I looked at it as a bad thing in that time.

N/I - I would imagine that in the moment, you look at it as a bad thing because it seems like “Great. If they can’t figure it out, who else is possibly going to figure it out?” But the more time you have with it, you can play with pushing it toward one world and then another, and if those don’t work completely, there’s bound to be an aspect that does translate somewhat. Again, those subsets might respond to it, and then you figure that out. Obviously, there are time and financial restraints that place a burden on that. In a perfect world, you could just sit here and figure out which person from the Americana, pop, and rock worlds would be receptive to it.

Guthrie - And I feel like when you get that sort of feedback - I feel like every experience that I’ve had has been when I was super green. I just respond with “That sounds good to me,” and be hopeful for things. But in hearing that sort of feedback, Jacquire and I think “Alright. We’re going to make something really consistent.” And that was a little bit scary to think that way. I recorded three songs in the beginning of the year in 2017, and then I basically had all summer to think about “What are the next two?” and how they’d fit into that. If I write a more pop leaning song, the next day, I write a country song, or write a folk song. I just have to do that. But this trained me to live inside this project. Moving forward, like you said, I don’t have to figure out who I am, because I already know, and I can explore it, and train myself to make things that are cohesive bodies, all the while being totally different. That would be the dream, in my mind.

N/I - I would say so. That then allows people like Jacquire to collaborate and place their thoughts and feelings in it, but it also doesn’t force you to be too precious if you wanted to do Guthrie’s version of goth rock or country.

Guthrie - Ryan Adams does that very well. He’s very ADHD in his interests. I love that, I think it’s great. It also breeds being prolific in a way. You just have to get it out. I feel like he learned to just not care about what everyone else thought.

N/I - With Ryan Adams, it always seemed to me that he gets everything out, and then refines it. Or he places the restraints after the fact. Like how much tweaking is going to need to happen in post. I think that is a cool and fulfilling thing to do - getting things out unaffected without being too precious about it.

Guthrie - Totally.

N/I - Are you a bigger Ryan Adams fan or Sufjan Stevens fan?

Guthrie - Probably Sufjan. Mainly because the Illinoise album. I was lucky to have older siblings, because I was getting turned on to good music when I was really young. I’ve always felt that when you’re listening to that stuff when you’re young, you just can’t help but think you’re onto something that no one else is. That’s always a cool feeling.

N/I - Between the two, I’m a bigger Sufjan fan as well. I had the same feeling, and hopefully didn’t let the whole “I listen to Sufjan Stevens!” vanity get to me too much.

Guthrie - Because when you go to high school and meet other people, and they like the same music that I like, I was ecstatic. I had someone to go “Have you heard this record?” to, and just listen together. You’re either enthusiastic or you’re reserved about it. It’s like “They’re my band, you can’t really like them.” and it’s just like “Okay dude, chill.”

N/I - Exactly. And it seems like a lot of bands I’m into have that same fan reputation, so I don’t know what that says about me. Bon Iver is one that makes me think of that same pretension. They’re basically an arena rock band now. Albeit, they change things up with their live shows, it doesn’t seem old hat.

Guthrie - Headlining Bonnaroo with two shows.

N/I - And they had a nice mix of devoted and casual fans there, so that makes the two sets that might not include his most beloved songs even more interesting to any and all who watch.

Guthrie - It’s cool to have fans like that, because when you become, in essence, a very popular band, you have the freedom to do whatever you want. Someone like Bon Iver not having to play his most popular songs is a more power to you type thing.

N/I - Absolutely. Is that something you do? Like the record that came out in 2015, do you play those songs at all anymore?

Guthrie - Sometimes. We just did this show in Seaside. It was 30A, it’s so beautiful. They did The Truman Show there. We played that domed amphitheatre. We’ve done that three or four times, because it’s such a great gig. The whole town comes out. I misread it one time - this is how dyslexic I am - it said one hundred twenty minutes, and so I was like “Dude! It’s only an hour and twenty minute set, it’s perfect!” So we had that all planned and my band was reading it and they said “You’re such an idiot, Guthrie.” So then it became what old songs can we throw in there, or cover songs? So for long sets I’ll throw those in. Or acoustic ones. But in the past year, I’ve been doing the Natural EP, and these newer songs, I’m still finding my way to figure it out. Because when we did that Florida show, we brought tracks down and played with tracks, and I could see where that would be cool, but I’m still trying to find my way of not being a person that plays with tracks. I want it to be a moment, but then take it away.

N/I - And that’s just because there’s more production?

Guthrie - There’s more production, and then I really, really like connecting and not having to think too hard about “Oh man, don’t miss this guitar part,” or “Three, two, one, this is going to happen.” The more you do it, the more comfortable you get. Dawes is a huge influence. I love Dawes, and I feel like the last few times I saw them, especially the “When the Tequila Runs Out” album, there were some tracks like that one where they played with tracks, and then you come from all these great rock songs and then the hits, and there’s an acoustic set. It’s such a great arc. I love that.

N/I - You can do either or. They opened for Kings of Leon at the baseball stadium, and Kings of Leon did the same sort of arced set.

Guthrie - There’s something really cool about changing things up like that. Paul McCartney did the same thing. I saw him in 2014, in Missoula, Montana, and it’s still the most amazing show. There’s a mountain beside the stadium that the show was at, and the whole mountain was full of people watching the big screens. You could tell that he was feeding off the energy so hard. He’s someone that does the Bon Iver thing, he’s done Wings, he’s done things for himself where he doesn’t play the hits. But then to see the full show of covering all the ground, it’s incredible. That would be the dream.