Hi there, bombers! This week, I have a very special interview with a local musician making his way in the musical world. I met Christopher “Lawrence” Brown (he changed his stage name to Lawrence Brown for obvious reasons) a few years ago through his sister. Every time I’d see him, he’d be carrying his guitar, or playing it on the corners and walls of State College. The first thing that struck me about him was his vocal talent and how he could convey so much feeling and emotion with it. I saw him perform to a packed house at a venue in State College called Cafe 210, where his beautiful, melodic, melancholy original songs really moved the crowd. Just last week, I dropped in to see him and his friend Nate playing at The Darkhorse, friend to musicians new and old. I caught up with him after the show and we talked about his music, his experiences in Austin, and his struggles as a young songwriter trying to make his way in a competitive, saturated music scene. Here’s what he had to say:
THE BOMBER JACKET: So is this the first time playing The Darkhorse?
Lawrence Brown: No, I’ve been here a few times. This is the first time since I’ve been back home from Austin. So it’s been about six months. A while.
And you were playing mostly covers tonight, right?
Yeah, when I’m in State College, that’s what I feel like I have to do, so…
Do they tell you that you have to do that or do you feel pressured to do that?
I feel pressured to do that.
Why is that?
Because people come out, they’ve been drinking, they don’t want to hear your own music. They want to hear music that they know. Unless it’s a band. I think being in a band is different. If you have a rocking groove, you can dance to it or something, then by all means, I’ll fucking rock out to that. But if it’s a mellow thing like this, I just end up playing, not my own music, but music I think is going to make people excited.
So if it’s mellow, solo or duo, you’d rather play other stuff than your own music.
Yeah. Honestly, State College is the only place where I feel that way.
Although when I saw you at Cafe 210 (another live music venue in town), you played a lot of your own songs.
Yeah, yeah. That was also the first time I’d ever played, so I didn’t really know what I was doing.
But you got a good reception there.
Yeah, it was great. Brought out a ton of people and I made a lot of money, met a lot of people, it was just great. So I guess part of it is just the pressure I put on myself.
So why do you feel discouraged to play your own music when you have already successfully played your own music out at a bar here and people enjoyed it?
I don’t know. I guess I get excited. I mean, I spent the last, probably two months just getting excited, learning other stuff in order to advance the music that I’ll start writing eventually. What I mean by that is I spent a lot of time writing about a year ago, when I first started playing at Cafe 210, I was at a certain place technically. So the last few months has just been learning new songs in order to get my chops back up so that I’m able to write different things, you know. Starting to write other music, I’m just not going to play my old stuff until I have new material to write as well. So it’s also a matter of just waiting till I have my own new stuff ready before I actually go ahead and do that.
Below is one of Lawrence Brown’s original songs that he played at the Cafe 210 show last year:
I’ve heard some of your original songs. You have some beautiful songs.
Yeah, but it’s different though. Playing them for you is different than playing them for most people that are coming out to get shit-faced and hear music they know. So I mean I guess it’s a compliment that you’d say that.
What about interspersing them in between the songs that you’re doing?
Right. I think eventually that will probably be the next thing I do. But for now, I’m not even going to think about it.
Because honestly, it’s not like you write crappy songs, you write great songs. Your songs are beautiful, and they come from i feel like a deep place inside you.
Right. But they also represent a dark place. And if you’re out trying to have a good time, it’s hard to add those in, because I don’t want people to feel bad or just sink into their own emotions that I’m bringing out in the songs. You’re trying to have a good time. And that’s really what I’m trying to do now, is write songs that are from a different point in my life, from a different perspective, or more happier, about different subjects. And that’s what I’m really waiting for–to get where I have enough material that I’m able to combine both my own songs and songs that I cover, and be able to play them at the same time. The songs I played at Cafe 210–I still love those songs–it’s just, unless I’m playing for an actual audience, at a venue or something, where they’re listening just for my music, I don’t feel comfortable playing all my own stuff.
You said you’re working on happier material now. Any examples of stuff you’re looking at, or things from your life that you want to turn into music?
Not even just happier subjects, but turning sad songs into happy songs by the way I play them, how fast I play them, what chords I use…there are a lot of sad songs that are fun to play, because of the melody, or other things. So, I’m writing songs like that, but also still trying to figure out what it means to write an upbeat song. I’m honestly still figuring it out. It’s something I don’t know. Because I feel like I’m still not there in my own life where I can write that. So for now, it’s just changing the song technically to make it less jarring, I guess. Easier on the ears, easier to listen to and not be put in a bad mood.
I don’t feel like you should have to push yourself into that. If what comes naturally to you are these beautiful, melodic, sad songs, then that’s what you’re feeling. They’re quality songs. They’re sad and challenging, but there’s certainly an audience. Not a huge audience here in State College, but there’s an audience for that, you know?
That’s probably the most difficult thing. That I can go anywhere else, and there will be people who will be more receptive to it, at a venue or listening establishment.
At the same time, you have the talent to challenge some of that, and put some of your own stuff out.
I know. I think it’s also a matter of having confidence enough to know that I can hold myself up against everybody, anybody, and compete. And not become settled with being here. Not that this is a bad place, but it’s an easy place for me to live. Confidence has a lot to do with it. I went to Austin, played there, I was playing there every week.
What was your experience in Austin like?
It was amazing. It was really really hard leaving. Every week, got gigs, got shows, playing every week. I was only there for about a month, but I had things lined up, I was meeting people…I don’t know. It was my own struggle that made me come back here. But of all the places I’ve lived in my life, that’s probably the one place I’d definitely return to.
What are your plans for the next few months?
Well, one thing I really enjoyed that I started doing around this time last year was traveling and playing. All over the eastern half of the country, booking things on my own. And that’s something I really want to do again, get out and travel, get as far out as possible, and hopefully play bigger and bigger places, and get more and more respect.
But you’re still able to live and support yourself.
Yeah, and travel and all those things.
I’ve mostly seen you do solo work. Do you have any ideas for a band? If you could get a band together, is there any stuff you’d want to play?
Sure. I think the hardest thing is that I spend most most of the time playing by myself because I trust myself, I don’t trust anybody else. And so it was a big deal having Nate come play with me, and I’ve slowly started integrating drums and that stuff. It’s a matter of finding people who are dedicated and who are going to be in it for the long haul and that takes some looking. I found Nate, but it took a year and a half. But yeah, to answer your question, I hope to at some point. I’m also learning a few other instruments, which has been really valuable.
What have you been learning?
The bass, the banjo. I just bought a fiddle, playing the mandolin a little bit as well. Getting used to doing other things.
Well that’s a good idea. I couldn’t see you not singing too though, or not being a part of that somehow, because of your voice.
Honestly, that’s what I love more than anything now. I got the opportunity to play with some people out in Bellefonte on Wednesday, just singing. It was great. It’s something that I thought before was the weakest thing I brought to the table, whereas now, I’m still developing it but I feel like it gets stronger and stronger every year. I feel like I know myself better and I know what keys to sing in. Now it’s more like it’s a necessary component for me, rather than before it was almost a hindrance in the beginning. Like, “Oh I feel uncomfortable singing,” or, “It make me feel insecure.”
How did you get more confident about your singing?
Just playing and playing and playing. Finding songs that were the right level, the right key for me. Songs that I liked. Songs that I could feel the raw emotion of, and really belt out something. It took a long time. I went through a phase where I played shitty songs that weren’t for me. For years.
What’s the shittiest song you think you’ve played?
John Mayer. For years, I had this looong stint of him. I just couldn’t pull it off. The keys would get fucked up, I’d always sing out of key, so yeah I gave that up. That was about a year and a half ago. I went back to the basics–the simple shit that my guitar teachers taught me. That’s where I was at. That’s where I sort of found myself.
What do you find yourself listening to these days?
I’m sort of all over the place. A lot of soul music now, like Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, all those guys…Aretha Franklin, Motown–a lot of Motown–Temptations, that kind of stuff. I’m really interested in black musicians, because when they sing, I can really feel what they’re putting out.
I feel like Bo Diddley would be good for you.
Yeah, that’s one artist I haven’t looked up yet. I know the name, I just haven’t looked him up yet. I’m always looking for new stuff, so…
Bo Diddley The Black Gladiator. Really funky album. [We take a moment to talk about the album. Needless to say, I highly recommend it.]
Where do you want to be a year from now, ideally?
I’d like to be doing this as a full-time thing where I’m actually traveling around getting paid enough that I don’t have to worry about it anymore, I guess. The first step is finishing the rest of my record and sending it out to people, seeing what response I get, and just hitting the road with it–getting as far out as possible.
Do you feel that listening to certain music has helped you through problems or situations in your life?
Uh, yeah. Big time. When things got probably the hardest they’ve ever been about a year and a half ago… My favorite artist is Townes Van Zandt. He’s a Texas songwriter from the ’50s and ’60s, he died early ’90s when he was in his fifties, but he wrote a lot of sad music, and that was what I was mostly influenced by. It was after I heard that that I knew it was okay to write what I wanted to about my own life, you know? Because I related to him so much. Sorta like an old time version of Elliott Smith, that sort of feel. Except he’s country western. That’s a style of music I emulated, I just emulated everything about him. And it really appealed to me in a lot of ways, cause it felt nice to be able to relate to somebody, and literally every song I listened to of his was…I don’t know, it just got me going. I put his songs on all day.
And do you feel like your own music can do that for other people?
My own music? I mean I’d hope so. I don’t hear about it enough in terms of what it does for anybody else to know how they really feel. I think it’s the hardest thing, because I know what I felt when I listened to it. Other than you or a few close friends, family, it’s hard to tell.
So far, what’s been your biggest success?
I guess the biggest thing is how far I’ve come in such a short period of time. Literally started writing music about a year and a half ago, and since then I’ve traveled to six of the biggest cities in the country, played music there and gotten paid for it. It’s the progress I’ve made so far in the time period that I’ve been doing this. That’s one thing I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. It’s so easy to say “Well, I’m not making a lot of money,” or, “I’m not a big artist, no one knows my name.” Those are things that I dwell on too much. I’m just busting my ass to get my name out there, sometimes emailing 30 or 40 people a day, venues all over the place, to be given a shot.
What is one thing would you most want our readers to know about you?
I want people to know I struggle not just with music, but with life, because essentially for me they’re one and the same. But I want them to know that even when we struggle, some beautiful things can result. For me one, of those things was expression through music.
Can you shed any light on your own struggle? I feel like you had a major life event a year and a half ago. Can you tell us a little about it?
Well, for a long time I’ve had really debilitating depression and this continues to be an ongoing battle for me. I started writing music as a sort of therapy. But when I first started seriously writing I was just overcoming a suicide attempt and it gave me an outlet to express myself that I desperately needed.
Do you have any advice for other people going through deep depression?
Spend your time around people as much as possible. Get involved whether through work, school or hobbies. Don’t sit in your room and think.
Thank you for sharing so much with us, Chris. We really appreciate getting a glimpse into your life.