IF YOU GO
What: Atta Girl Concerts presents Randall Bramblett
When: 7 p.m. today, April 25
Where: Folk School of Chattanooga, 1800 Rossville Ave., Suite 4
Venue website: www.chattanoogafolk.com
Artist website: www.randallbramblett.com
1975: "The Other Mile"
1976: "Light of the Night"
1998: "See Through Me"
2001: "No More Mr. Lucky"
2004: "Thin Places"
2006: "Rich Someday"
2008: "Now It's Tomorrow"
2010: "The Meantime"
2013: "The Bright Spots"
When he entered the studio last year to work on his latest album, "The Bright Spots," Randall Bramblett took a page from Frankie Goes to Hollywood and relaxed.
Bramblett, an Athens, Ga.-based blues/soul multi-instrumentalist, said he has a tendency to become obsessive during the recording process. For his ninth studio release, "The Bright Spots," however, he made a conscious effort to get out of his own way.
"It can get pretty microscopic sometimes, trying to figure out how to record a song," he explained during a recent phone interview. "This time, we didn't really overthink it too much. The songs just fell together."
After several consecutive self-produced efforts, Bramblett decided to experiment with funding "The Bright Spots" through a Kickstarter campaign, which successfully raised $30,000 in five weeks.
Although it later attracted the attention of New West Record and will officially be released in May, Bramblett said he has been selling the album at shows and playing the material from the record in his sets for months now.
As a result of letting the music happen instead of forcing it to take shape, Bramblett produced an album that Creative Loafing described as "arguably his finest in a catalog of classy, soulful, Southern singer/songwriter efforts."
Tonight, April 25, he'll pull material from "The Bright Spots" and the rest of his catalog when he performs a solo show at the Folk School of Chattanooga. Bramblett is known for his versatility, switching between saxophone, mandolin, harmonica, keys and guitar during his sets, but tonight he'll stick primarily to the latter two instruments.
Bramblett is perhaps best known as a solo artist, but he has been a fixture in Southern music since the 1970s, when he was a member of jazz fusion group Sea Level and, later, of Traffic. He also has collaborated with marquee artists such as Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood and The Band's Robbie Robertson.
Although these songs have been in his sets for some time now, Bramblett said he is feeling a resurgence of enthusiasm leading up to the official release of "The Bright Spots."
"You get tired of doing the same old things," he said. "Playing new songs and seeing people's responses is a real energy booster. For the band, playing these new songs has been a lot of fun."
Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Georgian soul/R&B singer/songwriter Randall Bramblett about why he took a more relaxed approach to recording his latest album, the role of meditation in his creative process and his love of Howlin’ Wolf.
CP: Your new album, “The Bright Spots,” is coming out in May. How do you feel about it? Are you happy with how it turned out?
RB: Totally. We didn't agonize about it too much. We did part of it in Nashville, and we just had fun with it. They came up with some great stuff. We did five songs up there and brought all that back to our producer's studio in Lawrenceville. He put drums on everything, and we recorded seven more songs at his house. We just had a good time doing it. It didn't take as long as some of my other ones. It came out great. It has a cutting edge sound and some unusual stuff and good songwriting. All of it was fun. It just feels good. It felt good putting it down, it feels pretty hearing it back and it's fun to play it.
CP: Agonize is a pretty strong verb to describe your creative process. In what sense do you mean that, in terms of recording?
RB: It doesn't take us years, but sometimes, we struggle with songs - how to record them or what the song really needs. I bring in demos, and we sometimes have to try and reconstruct some of that. It can get pretty microscopic sometimes, trying to figure out how to record a song. This time, we just didn't really overthink it too much. We don't totally agonize about songs, but they sometimes take longer to figure out what the song really needs. This time, the songs just fell together.
CP: What do you attribute that to?
RB: I think the songs kind of play themselves and inspire me. First of all, we have a lot of great players who have great ideas. That, and the songs have inspired me. They were just good songs and everyone jumped right in and got inspired by them. If you don't have a good song, it's hard to come up with good stuff on it that makes sense because the song isn't good enough. These songs were fun and rocking, and people came up with some great stuff. Having good players and engineers makes a huge difference, too, because all the sudden, you're hearing the songs in a new way, which inspires everyone, too.
CP: When did you record these and where were you at, emotionally or personally, when you were writing these songs?
RB: It was last August and September, and I was here in my basement studio, where I am right now. [Laughs.] I wasn't particularly depressed or in a weird state. These songs have probably been written over the last couple of years, maybe a little longer. I can't describe a particular place I was in because every song is different.
What I try to do is just try to collect as many good songs as I can and then look at them when it comes time to record and see what fits together, which are the best songs and how they fit together. Some of the songs, like “Detox Bracelet,” turn out to be a song about someone who has landed in detox and trying to find hope in that situation. But they're all different. They all come from a different place, but there's a little bit of darkness and hope mixed into them.
CP: When you were culling down the 20 songs you recorded, did you notice that the ones you ultimately selected had that common theme or was that something you realized after the fact?
RB: Yeah, and most of my songs do have that, actually. You can listen to “The Party's All Gone” and think it's a party song if you don't pay too much attention to the lyrics, which are basically that you're killing yourself. I guess they have that theme of some kind of desperation, when you're in that kind of desperation, there are some gifts there. That's the theme, I guess.
CP: What kind of an evolution does this album represent from “The Meantime” or your earlier work?
RB: Well, I think the “Meantime” was just a project I did just to do a piano and vocal album, a quieter record. There are no guitars on that record because I felt like doing a quieter, slower record.
The other ones I've done in the past have had more of an Americana feel to them, but definitely, they've all got funk and blues in them. This one has much more of that and even more of the Motown feel.
I think I've been thinking about and singing some blues songs and thinking about Howlin' Wolf and reading books about him and relistening to his stuff and some other blues stuff. I just love the blues. I don't go around singing the blues, but it's so much of a part of what I love about music - that and R&B music. I think I just let myself do some songs that were more closely related to that.
Whatever that is is a blues thing, sort of, but it has a weirdness to it, too, from the loops. It's got an edge to it that is definitely a modern edge because of the loop that is running behind it and the guitar sounds.
When we were doing that up in Nashville, the engineer stuck a harmonica mike, one of those old bullet mikes, next to my good vocal mike. He did that so I could sing through the bullet mike running through a distorted amplifier. What that did was evoke some Howlin' Wolf feel or old blues feel, and we ended up using it on most of the songs because it added a wild edge to the songs. It's just like how Howlin' Wolf would sing so loud that it would distort the preamps. We used that on the secondary mike on almost everything because it inspired me to sing things differently and because it sounded cool. We used that mike even when I came back to Athens to record to make sure we had that same sound on the vocals.
CP: Are you taking any equipment on the road to replicate that vocal tone at your live shows?
RB: If we had the money, we'd be doing that. [Laughs.] I'd like to have a soundman go with us, but right now, we're not going to have that. If we go out on tour, we'll probably do that. When you're playing around in the South, you're relying on other sound people who barely have time to do a sound check. It's a good idea to be able to use that, and we may start bringing that in some, now that you mention it.
CP: How have audiences been reacting to this new material?
RB: Great. Really great. There are a lot of people saying they think this is the best record I've done. You get that on almost every record, but I've heard that a lot more on this one. It's fun but it's also dark. “Detox Bracelet” has turned out to be a lot of people's favorite song. I never would have guessed that. I wasn't even sure it should be on the record, and I liked it when we recorded it, but I never would have thought people would respond to it the way that they have.
CP: How do you usually feel in the lead up to an album's release? Does it affect your feelings on stage or your excitement about live shows?
RB: Yeah, it gives you a little boost because you get tired of doing the same old things. Playing new songs and seeing people's responses is a real energy booster. For the band, playing these new songs has been a lot of fun.
We've been playing them for a while now. I had this thing done back in November because it was a Kickstarter project. I wasn't sure I was going to go with a label. It was done, and I sent out 200 or so to all the people who contributed on Kickstarter and also was selling them at my shows as a pre-release deal.
Then, I started talking to New West because I didn't want to do another self-release record. I just think that for me, I just can't get it out there enough by myself. You have to have a publicist and radio promotion, so it just works better for me to get a label to help with all that.
This thing has been sort of out, at least at my shows - as a pre-release but I'm not selling it on my website - for a few months now.
CP: Your bio also says that you have written some songs as the result of morning meditation. How long has that been in your songwriter's bag of tricks and how did it get there?
RB: I wish I had more going on right now in my meditations, but occasionally, something will come up. I started doing that when I read “The Artist's Way,” Julia Cameron's book, a kind of workbook for creativity. She wrote it as a way for artists to get unblocked. It's a great book about how to keep your creative juices flowing.
One of the things you do is write three pages without any critical thinking or editing or anything - sort of stream of consciousness. I haven't been doing it much lately, but I used to do it a lot. When you write three morning pages like that, stuff comes up.
I used it as a way to pull either an idea or a title or a theme or an attitude and put that in the back of my journal and would tear it out eventually and go downstairs with that. It's a lot easier for me to write when you have something to look at and sing. Once you've got that, it's a hell of a lot easier to do than looking at a blank page. There are some people who don't even start writing unless they've got an idea, but her idea was that it's best to show up every day and write something to break out of that stuck place that you can end up in. Just keep writing and don't edit so much and try to figure out if it's any good; just get the thing going.
That's what I was doing for a while. I would have stacks of pieces of paper to start with and then go with some drum loops and fool around on the guitar until I found something. Once I have the idea for a song, it's not that difficult, but it's getting that idea and getting the seeds planted that can be hard. Then, I just play with it like a puzzle for god knows how long until it falls together.
CP: What are you playing at shows these days? Can audiences expect a comprehensive play through of “The Bright Spots,” or will you mix things up with back catalog material as well?
RB: Yeah, it's just me solo at this gig in Chattanooga, so I'll play some stuff off the new record solo, with guitar and piano, but I'll definitely play something from all my CDs. It is a solo performance. I'm sure we'll be back to Chattanooga with the band soon.
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...