Unlocked: Aaron Brown of Aaron and the Spell on connecting with the past and valuing space
This week on Unlocked, we’re featuring Sing, the debut album from emerging Philadelphia soul ensemble Aaron and the Spell. When songwriter Aaron Brown wrote the title track of his record, he was drawn to a childhood memory of visiting his grandmother in Florida and attending her very music-oriented church. While not necessarily spiritual, he wanted to capture that emotion and channel it into his songwriting, which has taken a roundabout journey from aggressive punk rock to melodic soul. I chatted with Brown on the phone this week to get his perspective on the path he’s followed.
The Key: Let’s start with “Sing,” and your grandmother’s church in Florida. What about that memory was so interesting for you?
Aaron Brown: It was such a contrast from living in the city. When I was going there, back in the 80s and 90s, it was on a dirt road, there was one room, they didn’t have any air conditioning. There was cows, you could see cows from the window. There was a cemetery in the back, and everybody buried in the cemetery was a relative of mine. It’s something that means a lot to me, that feeling that there’s just generations of family and just oldness around.
TK: Right now, your music is very is very soul / rock oriented. But your background as a musician is in completely different styles.
AB: It’s been a long journey. For a while I was heavy into Nick Cave, and [his album] Murder Ballads. I was based around Scranton for a while, and there I was really into really aggressive styles of music. I was into ska for a while, and the local punk scene in Scranton. And the music I was making at the time, my band was called Alien Red, and it was this very super aggressive, way aggressive. One of the songs that was on the record we made was called “Kill the Dog,” another was called “Capitalist Condition.” Super aggressive stuff. I think that album is on iTunes still!
TK: What was your role in the band, did you sing, did you play guitar?
AB: I sang, wrote the words and played guitar.
TK: Was your style of singing much different from where it is now?
AB: Yeah, it was just very forceful, quite a bit of screaming, very loose. If you think of John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band, the first solo record he was making where he was doing a lot of screaming and just letting his voice go where it was going to go, it was kind of like that. Just doing stuff, not necessarily thinking about it.
TK: How did you make a transition from that very intense, very expressive scene to the music you’re making now, which is still very expressive but in a different, melodic kind of way?
AB: I fell in love with Nina Simone, and then it was all done. Then I learned space, and I learned the subtler emotions, really how to convey that. I just fell in love with space. What that can do, how that can make you feel a certain way, and with her stuff, it’s so emotional. And sometimes she screams, but there’s a lot of space, she gets really into the lyrics. And her voice maybe isn’t that great, but its just so amazing every time I listen to it. She just showed me the value of space, and the value of not oversinging, and the value of really focusing more on how the emotions feel to you, how the lyric feels to you, and not focus on the crowd per se but focus on you.
TK: When you started performing and making your new body of work as Aaron and the Spell, how did you get connected with all the people who played on your record? There’s this circle of super-talented, go-to musicians in Philly, and it feels they’re all on Sing.
AB: For a number of years, I would go to every open mic in the city. And one of the ones I went to almost every week, and still do, is the open mic down at Fergie’s. And you just get to meet a lot of people down there, and you get to know of a lot of people. I met Claire and Ali Wadsworth [backing vocalists] down there, I met Ross Bellenoit [producer] there as well. So that’s the one hand, the scene and playing open mics a lot. The other way is just through Turtle Studios, and talking to Joe Levine over there, and he put me in contact with all these people. And Ross, he’s amazing. I’d say “oh, I know who we should get for this part, this person.” And Ross would say “oh, I know them.” So it was a cool kind of thing that happened where I knew people I wanted and Ross recommended them as well. And there they were.
TK: The Spell varies based on who’s available. For your Key Session, it was a smaller configuration, just Ross, Ali and Claire. At Folk fest, you had drums and bass and other stuff added on to it. And when we talked after your set at Fest, you told me “wait till next time, we’ll have the horns.” Do you like having that flexibility, where you could play just yourself if you wanted to, but it could be a big epic thing as well?
AB: Absolutely, and that’s what I’m kind of seeing as the Aaron and the Spell name. It’s the music that’s the same, and what comes out can be different at each gig. It’s like, how many colors do you want to used to color in the music? You could just do black and white, or you could use 1500 different shades, but really the music is the same. When I chose the name, I was thinking about going with my own name, but there’s like a zillion thousand Aaron Browns out there! [laughs] So I thought, why not try to do something else? And for me, the Spell bit, one of my favorite tunes Nina Simone does is “I Put A Spell On You.” From that standpoint, emotionally, in the cheesiest sense, I want to put a spell on people.
Sing is the featured album in this edition of Unlocked; hear the spotlighted single “Don’t Cry” in Monday’s post, read Tuesday’s album review; watch Aaron’s video playlist in yesterday’s post and check back tomorrow for his archived appearance on Helen Leicht’s Philly Local Hour.