Riveting Riffs Logo One Sayonara Sorrow - Ben Brown

Ben Brown Photo One

Singer, songwriter and musician Ben Brown from Austin, Texas sat down with Riveting Riffs Magazine recently to talk about his new album Sayonara Sorrow, a collection of songs whose music is as beautiful as the lyrics are poignant. A common thread throughout these songs is social commentary, which should not be mistaken for being political, because that it is not. Commenting on social issues through music is a familiar theme For Ben Brown as the Pennsylvania born songwriter and his brother Jeff, who tragically passed away a few days after this interview, recorded the song “That’s How the West was Lost,” with their band The Savage Poor.

Ben Brown Photo TwoHe says, “The song, “What Will Happen to All that Beauty,” was inspired by novelist and activist James Baldwin. James Baldwin was a writer and activist in the sixties and seventies. I was reading some of his writings a few years ago and the line “What Will Happen to All that Beauty?” is a direct quote from one of his essays called The Fire Next Time. At the end of his essay, he talks about what will happen to the beauty that is blackness. He equates beauty with blackness. He says what will happen to the beauty of blackness, in the United States if we don’t reconcile the racial injustices. He said this in 1968. When I read that line it sounded profound and like a great title. Shortly thereafter I heard music in my head that seemed to fit the mood and the tone, so it went from there. I made a YouTube video with a quote from James Baldwin and some stock footage of 1960s civil rights activism.”

Ben Brown takes the lead vocals on the song, “What Will Happen to All that Beauty,” while producer Mick Flowers lays down the drumbeats, Jeff Brown plays bass and Tim Cappello’s (Tina Turner, The Lost Boys) vehement saxophone graces this song and others on this fabulous album. Ben Brown also plays guitars and keyboards.

As for the former song we mentioned, Ben Brown says, “The song “That’s How the West Was Lost,” is from The Savage Poor album The Grown Ups.

Social Justice and Social Justice commentary has been an issue and concern in my writing and was in the writing of my brother Jeff Brown years. In The Savage Poor I would argue that the writing takes a slightly more ironic tone. In the solo work of Sayonara Sorrow it is a bit more direct and a bit more personal. Social commentary and social justice was fodder for the work that we did for a number of years.

As for the new album, “Some of the themes that are explored through Sayonara Sorrow are, in order to make sense of the world you have to seek your own answers. The counsel of the world will not always get you where you need to go. The paradox of that is the self is not the final frontier. We share the world, we share the experiences we have in the world and while you have a duty to yourself to find your own answers and meaning in your life, you have a duty to take care of others. I believe we have a duty and a responsibility to not harm others, to take care of others and to make sure our individual path doesn’t infringe upon the rights and dignity of other people.”

We find ourselves in agreement that our society may in fact be in or embarking upon a new age of counterculture. For his part Ben Brown says, “I agree with that. I have always been interested in counterculture in general and people who live on the fringes of society. I am not talking about people who are weird for the sake of being weird, but people who do not conform to expectations.

There is a Paul Simon song when he talks about and I will paraphrase, as weak as the winter sun, we end our life on earth, names and religion come just after the date of birth. It is like when we are born, we are given a name and a religion. We are given a set of beliefs and to live a meaningful life you have to seek your own answers. Sometimes the status quo tends to go towards the middle. It tends to keep those who are in power, in power. It tries not to offend anyone or to look at anyone too closely. I suppose that is good for selling movie tickets and things like that. It doesn’t necessarily serve a life of exploration and meaning.”

Ben Brown has stated previously that he believes the songs that appear on Sayonara Sorrow are too personal and intimate for a Rock and Roll band. He explains why, “I came of age musically in the late eighties and the early nineties and I saw the transition from what is now considered stylistically, middle of the road music, which then went into the alternative movement. Some people talk about Grunge, some people talk about Alternative.

There were great writers who influenced me during that period and some of whom were established. For instance, a group like U2 who went from being very earnest in the early eighties to ironic and satiric in their writing in the early nineties. That sort of work and the writing of Leonard Cohen and others had irony in their music. They said what they didn’t mean to underscore the point and that influenced a lot of the writing that I did before I did this album.

When I decided to make this album, I thought if I am going to have a record with my name on it what can I say that is honest and authentic? A lot of the songs were very direct lyrically. It is hard to present those things to a group of musicians with whom you have been playing for a number of years. You don’t know how someone is going to respond to it. (The songs) are authentic and personal. Some of those songs were not used by The Savage Poor. They were put aside as being too personal or too intimate or maybe soft in a way. About half of the record (was comprised) of songs like that and another one-half of the songs were written during the pandemic and specifically for the album. When I say the songs are too intimate for a Rock and Roll band, I mean sometimes the music is ironic to me and this has more of a personal approach.”

On Sayonara Sorrow each song has its own distinct flavor.

“I think most artists that are able to achieve that feat, want to defy categorization or maybe they don’t know how to define themselves. If I was at your home and looked at your record collection there would be a spectrum of sounds and ideas. I don’t think anyone can be truly original these days unless it is the synthesis of disparate influences. I think it is a marketing strategy to say this artist makes this kind of music. I don’t think that is the authentic nature of most artists that they make just one kind of music or that they just have one kind of idea that they continually perpetuate. I think a record should take you on a journey. I think this record achieves that. What is unifying about a record is finding songs that are authentic to your own path. That path as we know, human life zigs and it zags and I think the songs (on Sayonara Sorrow) reflect that,” says Ben Brown.

Some of those eclectic influences began to take hold in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where Ben Brown and his brother Jeff grew up.

“My parents are great fans of music. They played some of the protest music of the 1960s and a lot of folk music (of that era). My father was also into Soul and R&B. Neither of my parents, that I am aware of had aspirations to do music professionally.

It is a little bit of a mystery where music came from for my brother Jeff and me. It turns out our grandfather was something of a musician and a songwriter, but I think it was more of a hobby than anything else. Ben Brown Photo Three

My father listened to a lot of Bob Dylan and it is hard to avoid the influence of Dylan. My mother was from New Jersey and she listened to a lot of Soul. My brother and I had liked a lot of the 1960s girl bands. One of my inspirations was Ronnie Spector.

My brother Jeff Brown was a searcher. He was a music collector and I would cherry pick from albums that were sitting around the house. Things that would speak to me I would pull from. I benefited from an older brother who was passionate about music and his music that was around the house. I could siphon off the things that spoke to me.

My brother was in bands in elementary and middle school, which was very rare for where we grew up. I benefitted from having an older person who was still a young person who was passionate about music and could open doors in my mind about what was possible,” he says thoughtfully.

As for how and when he started take his music to the next level Ben Brown says, “I became interested in music from a very young age. There were only one or two bands that were notable where I grew up. I didn’t become active in music until I was near the end of high school. It wasn’t from lack of desire. It just wasn’t something that I saw happening. I wanted to start a band, but there was no one in my circle that was doing that kind of a thing.

My brother and I started performing together in a band called No Show Ponies. We wrote the songs together. We went to rent a four-track recorder and they told us there was a gentleman with a home studio and it was going to be the same price to record with him. We went to his house and we recorded a CD. We received some local attention and positive feedback. Like anyone else in life we gravitated towards things for which we received positive feedback. It gave us meaning and it felt like something we were passionate about,” he says.  

I found this period of the pandemic to be a period of nostalgia and exploring things that were formative at a young age. Between the folk and protest singers of the 1960s and a lot of the Soul and R&B that came out of the civil rights era. Those things were formative for me. Those songs taught me a lot about songwriting, authenticity and phrasing,” he says.

Ohhhh My Gosh! “I Can’t Afford My Baby Anymore,” sounds like a vintage tune from the early 1960s and Tim Cappello’s saxophone enhances that mood, as Ben Brown turns classic crooner. This is a cross-generational song and whether you are sixty or twenty you will relate to this song. This is not a call and response, but Tim Cappello’s saxophone takes on a very human voice and if you close your eyes, you imagine a conversation with Ben Brown. We wouldn’t be surprised if this song surfaces in a feature film or perhaps a streaming production like Netflix. Are you listening filmmakers and Netflix?

Ben Brown talks about the song, “Lyrically what I was trying to do is use romantic language to talk about financial injustice in the world or I was trying to use financial language to talk about how romance so seldom works.

Everyone can relate to the person I loved left me or I left them, but this song is really about the financial straits most of the world is in during this period of history.

As far as cross-generational I thought of a late 1950s, early 1960s sound. To me “I Can’t Afford My Baby Anymore,” is really a retro Pop song. When I heard it in my head, before I recorded it, it sounded like a woman singing a sixties Pop song. The sound of it is something you would hear on a 1960s jukebox. I suppose you could say I was going for the feel of cross-generational. The saxophone played by Tim Cappello aids in that effect.

What that song for me is either using romantic language to describe someone in the throes of financial peril or using economic language to describe someone in the (midst) of irreparable romance.

That song was an exercise in can I write a romantic Pop song, but make it about an issue?”

Since you mentioned Tim Cappello let’s talk about him.

“Thanks for asking. Tim Cappello is a world-class, world-renowned musician who has enjoyed the partnership of quite a few celebrated musicians. He has recorded and toured with Peter Gabriel, Carly Simon and Tina Turner was probably his longest engagement.

I first became aware of Tim Cappello from the movie Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome when he played saxophone on “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” with Tina Turner. I was very young when that song came out, but I remember the music video and he strikes an image in your mind when you see him and hear him play. When I started writing the album and when the songs started coming into focus, I thought they would have themes of a dystopian future. It seems like that was in the air with all the things that were going on. I was listening to music that captures that spirit. I thought of “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” from that film of a dystopian future. I didn’t have any idea that I would meet Tim Cappello. I met him when he did a solo tour in 2018 / 2019 and he was in Austin.

The joke that I tell is a lot of these songs were too personal for my band The Savage Poor and too intimate for a Rock and Roll band. I recorded them and then I found the most flamboyant, over the top saxophone player I could find, as a layer to cover over this personal and intimate music. I like that juxtaposition,” explains Ben Brown.

The fourth song from Sayonara Sorrow “Long, Long Way from Home,” is described by Ben Brown as, “one of the more abstract, cinematic songs on the record.”

Ben Brown Photo FourHe goes on to describe how he gave birth to the song, “In my creative process I have to eliminate distractions and get quiet and if I do that, ideas usually come to me. What came to me first was the title. I didn’t know this at the time, but if you listen to the record, it is about going out into the world in order to explore the self.

For “Long, Long Way from Home,” the idea is sometimes people go out into the world and they come home with the wrong answers. Specifically, if you listen to the song its theme is if you have to go out to find the meaning of life, if you do that without duty to others it is empty. The end of the road is not self-actualization. That is important, but we have a duty not to harm or infringe upon others along the way. If you go out into the world and the only answers that you find, are I have to look out for number one then you have lost the path.

For me the song is about a character who is in conflict with someone else and that person has gone out into the world and come back with the myth of the self. You are responsible for yourself, but you have a duty to others. If you don’t recognize that you haven’t walked the path.”

As for writing the song he says, “I learned a trick that if you can write a song with just one chord to it, you can put any window dressing on it you want. “Long, Long Way from Home,” has just two chords that repeat. I also like songs that have twenty thousand chords, so I don’t adhere to this strictly, but the writing technique is if you limit the song to one or two chords you can put any window dressing on the song that you want. As a result, the song had a lot of negative space and when I gave it to Tim Cappello, I knew he could color within the foundations. The song has this existential, plaintive feel to it. Jeff and I always said limitations can crystalize an artistic sound.”

Before we talk about some of the other songs, let’s talk about the production team and why you chose them.

“Mick Flowers came into my orbit about eight years ago. He was a successful drummer in California and he transitioned to a prop master in movies. He works both in California and in Texas. He has a studio here and he is one of those people who is willing to go anywhere musically. If you want to talk about someone who wants to stay away from the status quo, he has the spirit of an artist who wants to follow a song anywhere that it wants to go. That is very exciting when you record, because there are no rules and you follow the inspiration.

His studio the Shire Recorders (the studio) is where a small group of people collaborate on projects. Jeff and I were two of the people who worked on those projects and Mick was generally the producer and the drummer for them.

I knew if I worked with Mick (as a producer) I would get something interesting. What Mick brings to the table is a sense of adventure and the pursuit of let’s make something that is unconstrained, by the needs of the market. I knew in working with Mick I would get a quality product that would go into the void and return with something interesting. It was his spirit that drew me to working with him,” he says.

As for Jared Wenkman who mixed and engineered Sayonara Sorrow, “Jared Wenkman is something of a protégé of Mick Flowers. He is the man with the magic ears. He worked a lot on the recording and certainly did a lot of the mixing. The thing about Jared is if you told him what you wanted, he could get it for you. He has pristine ears and he is very patient and supportive. With both Mick and Jared, it is not a battle of ideas it is a process of people who want to go there with you.”

Nick Joswick mastered the album.  

There is a bit of a surprise that one notices in the album credits, where a thank you appears to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and it piqued our curiosity.

Ben Brown explains, “This record was not like any record I have ever done and it was recorded during a pandemic. We worked as a skeleton crew. There weren’t a lot of people who worked on the record. There were only two people at the studio at any given time. Normally, as a band you are all in the room together. That creates an energy. With this record it was the engineer and me or the engineer, producer and me. Things were done in layers. Most of the time when you make a studio album you record the drums and then you record the bass and maybe you add a keyboard or a guitar. Often the lead vocalist is recorded toward the end of the process, because you are performing to the music. In order to evoke that emotion, it is good to have as close to a finished track as possible. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away the day before I sang all of the vocals for the album. I thanked her (in the credits) for a lifetime of progressive service, but also because her spirit inspired me while I was singing the record. It gave me the strength to sing all of those songs and all of the accompanying parts. That is why she gets a credit. Her spirit was looming in the studio when I sang all of the tracks.”

The song “I’m Afraid of the Dark,” is a metaphor. As children it is not uncommon to be afraid of the dark and perhaps for those even older. It is the fear of the unknown and what lurks in the darkness. It is the fear of being harmed by something we cannot see. The song is a metaphor for a more dystopian future and perhaps on a more personal note the fear that we will not be remembered.

“In order to understand that song I am going to give you a little more than you asked for. “I’m Afraid of the Dark,” almost didn’t make it on the album for two reasons. I thought the song was too straightforward and too simplistic. The writing is also, very, very direct. It feels almost naked to me and vulnerable in a way.

The song was inspired by a quote by John Lennon when somebody asked John Lennon, and I think in fact it may have been David Bowie, how do you write a song? John Lennon said, that’s easy mate (Ben Brown does his best John Lennon impersonation), you just tell the truth and you put a backbeat to it. I thought how can I be really honest in what I am saying? I can get rid of adornment, style and irony and tell the truth.

Looking back when I was a young person, I was afraid of a lot of things, as I think we all are. The song has three verses and I think of it now as what you were afraid of when you were a child, what you were afraid of as an adolescent and what scares you as an adult. If we are honest, we all start to think about our legacy as we get older. What will I be remembered for and has this life been meaningful? I don’t know if a lot of people would admit that in the light of day, but part of being an artist is when you make an album you have a document that says I was alive. I made something and I did something. As people get older that is something that they ask themselves what will I be remembered for and will it be for something meaningful?” he says.

There is a line in the song that says, “It seems no one can tell fact from opinion and we decided to dig a little deeper into that with Ben Brown.

“When the children of this generation takeover they are not going to need a schematic or a blueprint in order to understand absurdity. They are not going to need a diagram to understand corruption, absurdity and manipulation. When we watched American television and read American newspapers in the last year (2020), I was continually dumbfounded that people didn’t know how to find reliable sources for information. I am not blaming individuals for being ignorant, I am blaming a society that makes it very difficult. We have corporate owned mass media that floods the airwaves and the internet and everything else with bullshit. It is frightening to me that in normal discourse with average people, every day they seem not to be able to differentiate between their beliefs and verifiable facts. Ben Brown Photo Six

I don’t want to sound like I am coming from a place of moral authority or that I have the answers, because I am figuring things out as much as anyone. It is a scary point in history when people are reading things casually on the internet and they are documenting them as facts.

There is an old acronym haste is the enemy of art, but these days it seems that access is the enemy of art.  Everything has been commodified through social media and everyone is selling some version of their lives. Capitalism has been successful (he starts to laugh) at commodifying what it means to be alive.

Technology is profound, powerful, exciting and also terrifying. There is so much content and so many things for people to sift through to find what we redeem as either authentic or meaningful art or reliable information. People aren’t trained to do research, but also who has the time for that. It is a strange world we are living in. It is a strange moment. We have access to all of the information in the world with just the push of a button, but we don’t know how to synthesize the information and how to process it. It is a strange moment that is exciting, exhilarating and terrifying,” he says.

Perhaps, this is an appropriate place to talk about the song, "When Fear Disappears," and in particular the lyric, “Change into the real you, that’s when fear disappears.”

“I want to be clear that my creative process may be different than yours or anyone’s. I have people ask me all of the time, can you write a song about climate change or can I write a song about some other issue. My answer is neither yes or no, because the writing process is mysterious. I have never in my life sat down and said I want to write a song about “x” and been successful. My writing process is to get quiet, eliminate distractions and to be patient. If you are patient an idea will present itself. I don’t know where the ideas come from. I just try to catch them. Some people use meditation. A great thing you can do is to read books and watch films and experience culture. You will collect ideas in that way. What comes to you in terms of writing anything is mysterious. I don’t understand it. However, that phrase “when fear disappears came to me.”

I don’t know if I fully subscribe to this, but film director David Lynch’s works are very abstract and he tried to avoid ascribing meaning, (as in) what did I mean when I put it down? I don’t know if I agree with that or not. He wanted it to be open to personal interpretation.

That song “When Fear Disappears,” is a map to understanding the record. As a young person we are afraid of the world, because the world is complex and mysterious and we have free will and all of these choices how to have a meaningful life. That song suggests if you want to have a meaningful life and you want to eliminate the fear of existence you need to follow what gives you meaning. Specifically, the lyric change into the real you harkens back to what we talked about earlier, diverting oneself from the status quo to a path of what is meaningful for you. I wasn’t thinking about this when I wrote the lyric, but to me that verse pays homage to someone with an identity that doesn’t conform to maybe a gender stereotype or some other kind of lifestyle. Become who you know you are, as a way to eliminate fear.

That may sound counter intuitive, because fear of who you are, requires that you work through fear of rejection, fear of reproach, fear of rebuke. The best I have been able to come up with in my life, is if you want to come up with a life of meaning and be free from fear then you have to cultivate your own answers,” he says.

Sayonara Sorrow opens with singer and songwriter Barbara Nesbitt singing background vocals on “Get Lost.”

“Barbara Nesbitt is another songwriter who has come into the fray of the Shire Recorders, which is the name of both the studio and a small group of artists in Austin who collaborate to make different projects, one of them being Sayonara Sorrow. She worked on an album by my brother Jeff, which is called The French King is Decapitated and she sang harmony vocals. She wowed everyone. She has her own career as a songwriter and one of her many abilities is to sing harmonies.

One of the many ideas that came in was the idea of Doo Wop and I had an idea for a female Doo Wop section. If I played for you the demo of the song, I sang a part similar to that, but we wanted to bring in a strong female voice. From working on my brother’s record Barbara had a relationship with Mick and the Shire Recorders, so when I reached out, she agreed to come in. I insisted that in the mix we boost it up as loud as possible, because to me (her vocals) are something of a climax to the song.  She is very easy to work with and she exceeded my expectations. She performed the entire layered chorus of Doo Wop that I wanted her to do and she did it very quickly,” says Ben Brown.

We do not rate songs or albums, so let’s use an old baseball cliché, Ben Brown knocked the ball out of the park with his new album Sayonara Sorrow and if you are not online purchasing it within the next forty-eight hours you will find the album sold out. Oh right, that was the old days, when LPs and 45s ruled the day, these songs and this album would be flying off the shelf.  You can buy the album through your favorite digital store and you can listen to it on Spotify.

Please take time to visit the website for Ben Brown.

This interview is dedicated to the life and memory of Ben’s brother, songwriting partner, and lifelong bandmate, Jefferson Brown.    Return to Our Front Page

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This interview by Joe Montague  published September 14th, 2021 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos are the the property of the producers of Ben Brown unless otherwise noted and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine.