Album Premiere: Big Brutus – The Odd Willow

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You are going to want to sit down and dive deep into Big Brutus‘ sophomore album The Odd Willow, and we are happy to have an early stream to prepare you for Sunday’s Album Release Show at The EARL in East Atlanta Village.

Big Brutus is Sean Bryant, an Atlanta-based singer-songwriter who first jumped onto the scene with his debut album (Tiny Box) released last March. The debut was a melancholy album with expansive sonic sounds that left you floating as Bryant explored the darker side of relationships. While Big Brutus is typically listed as a “singer-songwriter”, that doesn’t quite do justice to the project. You see Sean Bryant is much more than that. He’s played in multiple bands very different from Big Brutus, including being the lead guitarist for post punk weirdos Slang, whom Ezra Furman last year said Slang might be the best band he’s ever seen (The Guardian). On The Odd Willow, Bryant steps even further away from what you would typically think of when you hear “singer-songwriter”, bringing a bigger, edgier sound on his sophomore album, including showing off more of his electric guitar riffs that he’s given on other projects.

The Odd Willow feels darker and heavier than (Tiny Box) as Bryant dives into death and mortality, yet there’s still the hope that we all experience as we go through the up and downs of this life. It’s an album that will seep deeper into your veins with each listen; you’ll discover something new each go round as the album furthers it’s meaning with each listen. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of moments that hit immediately.

The album opener “Death” kicks into gear with a big band New Orleans style sound giving you a preview of what’s to come as Sean sings “Death is in the room, With a black balloon, He has found my timid candle, Every flame eventually pops, …and it goes hiss, hiss, hiss…” before immediately jumping into the haunting second track “Scenery” over eerie strings. The two songs together start the album out strong on a reflective journey, giving the feeling that this is the magnum opus of a much older songwriter, showing Bryant is wise beyond his years.

From there, the album takes you on a twist of styles as Bryant jumps around his softer to edgier sides including first single “Bury Bone” that starts lighter around Bryant’s electric guitar riffs before ending the song on a mini freak out, delivering the emotion of the song. Some may construe this as losing focus, but that’s the opposite of the truth. Multiple listens shows a laser-focused songwriter able to meld different styles together into one tight and becoming album that’s meant to be heard from start to finish. “Games For Nameless Things” is an angry slow burning alt-rocker where Bryant laments “There’s a nightmare. Darting eyes that glare, And I just can’t believe the state of this place.” “Louise” is a gorgeous folk story with shared harmonies by Rachel Wright from Villain Family. “New Voodoo” will torment you with a heavy horns. “Hotbox” is a delicate earworm that screams of a reflective late night drive where nothing is making sense, yet it’s all there right in front of you to take, and attest. The album reaches it’s pinnacle on closer “Tradition” where Bryant samples a 1979 Jimmy Carter speech ending with: “This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth,” giving meaning to not only the album, but how a lot of us are feeling in 2017.

Big Brutus’ sophomore album The Odd Willow is a heartfelt look into the depths of this life, and the ups and downs that come with it, by a songwriter and artist that’s mature beyond his years. Listen to our first stream of The Odd Willow below before the official release this Sunday, March 5th. And don’t miss the album release show Sunday night at The EARL, which will be Big Brutus’ last show in Atlanta for a while. In April, Sean is leaving for a bike tour across the U.S. where he will bike from Boca Raton, FL, to Eau Clair, WI, with his acoustic guitar while playing pop-up shows along the way and raising money for International Rescue Committee. While you listen to The Odd Willow, check read our interview below with Sean where he talks more on the album, those that helped shape it, and more details on his planned bike tour:

OE: The Odd Willow releases exactly one year after you released your debut, Tiny Box, when did you first start writing this album?

Sean: Some of these songs were already in the works when Tiny Box was made. A few were just ideas with no rhythm or melody, and some were just music with brief scratches of lyrics here and there.

OE: Since first releasing Tiny Box, what has transpired in that year to inspire the songs that came to be The Odd Willow?

Sean: Well, I think the biggest thing might have been the year 2016 in general. It was a rough year for a lot of people I think, and for me… well, I went through the same cycles. I felt anxiety at the idea of not accomplishing what I wanted to, and sadness at the death of so many musical icons I admired. I loved and lost, dealt with loneliness, etc. When I started working on the album, I think my mind just sort of gravitated to those ideas. I wanted to do something different and new, and the idea started forming to not really make a collection of songs, but more a collection of emotions. Some songs are big and bombastic and (to me) anxiety inducing. There’s some New Orleans inspired marching band type stuff in there. There is even a nice folksy song (Louise), which to me, was always the merging of the ideas: That you can be running all the time with fear and a certain anxiousness to your movements, but stopping to see the beauty in someone can make you slow down and come back to earth in a way.

OE: A lot of Tiny Box had a real airy feel to the songs, like a kind of calming effect (well definitely not all the songs), yet the themes were dark. Fast forward to The Odd Willow, a lot of the songs sound bigger and harder if you will. Yet with some obvious themes of death and mortality, it feels as there is more hope in the songs. Which is interesting to me looking at the two albums sonic sounds compared to the lyrics. Can you talk about this?

Sean: Well, Tiny Box was supposed to sound (if listened from start to finish) like a relationship crumbling, so in a way it needed that spectrum to cross. It always needed its calmer parts to be what they were… which was this calm before the storm, so to speak. With The Odd Willow, I honestly felt the theme of mortality and getting off your ass and doing something before you die was way heavier, and just needed more heft to get it back. The album sort of takes a very fast approach at you before settling down a bit in the middle in order to lull you into this sense of calm, before it abruptly gets loud again. The only goal was to produce an unease in the listener that they couldn’t pin down. If it makes them hate the album, well then I suppose I did my job. The response of hearing something quiet and pretty slammed up against something hard and unforgiving reminded me of everyday life. Have you ever had a great day until someone cut you off in traffic? Have you ever been pissed until someone just sat with you while you vented to them? I wanted to capture those qualities in the songs… or at least in the sequencing. Hopefully the album didn’t suffer to much for it, but it was always the goal. I wanted to keep people on edge, and see how much I could push that before they started to hate what I was doing. I don’t really see myself as a singer/songwriter. I’ve worked in so many bands over the years and have absorbed so much that I just want to make albums that represent something… and hopefully touch people in the process.

OE: As mentioned, on The Odd Willow, some of these songs are “bigger”, which you can immediately hear on the opening track “Death”, which includes big New Orleans style horns. Was this a planned approach as you went to record these songs?

Sean: This was a planned approach! I’ve been to New Orleans a few times over the last few years for various tours and stuff, and I’ve been fascinated with that sort of death culture ever since… ya know, the big parades and the celebration of the end and the embracing of that and the present simultaneously. It felt right to embrace that sound when making the album, even alluding to it in some of the lyrics, like “New Voodoo”. That one was a standout to me personally, cause the words and music sort of came together in this real awesome southern gothic kind of way. It changes rhythms multiple times, adds and takes away instruments at random, and finally settles on horns and organ just going crazy. The lyrics meanwhile talk about New Orleans, and just paint little vignettes of life around that city that I’ve read about or witnessed first hand.

OE: You’ve obviously been real involved in the local Atlanta scene, lead guitarist for Slang, which has helped you get to know some of the talent in the scene. Obviously you’ve gotten plenty of help recording this album from other local musicians, including some guest vocal appearances. Can you tell us about some of the other musicians that contributed to this album?

Sean: Well everyone I was in Slang with showed up on the album in one way or another. Rachel Wright from a local band called Villain Family sang on “Louise” and “Prelude.” Tasha LaRae from Arrested Development fame sang on “Hotbox and Tradition.” Jason “JJ Boogie” Reichert (also from Arrested Development) also worked on the album, playing some piano and percussion, as well as mixing and mastering. Geoff Goodwin and his wife Liz tracked everything with me (they are in an awesome band called Hot Sauce and Honey). Liz sang and arranged the horns, and Geoff played bass/piano/vibraphone/accordion/etc. A goal of recording the album was to get as many different people involved, and have their voices be heard as well.

OE: How did these other folks help shape the songs?

Sean: Well like I said, I wanted everyone to feel like their contributions meant something. I wasn’t intending to write a singer/songwriter album. It was supposed to be this look at anxiety and death. So we talked about that with everyone, and then more or less, I gave them the room to see what they came up with. Rarely did I have to reign in any ideas. These people are all high caliber musicians; they all really stepped up to the plate for the art, and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. I love them all dearly.
OE: Over the last year you’ve played a number of shows around Atlanta, some shows involving a band playing with you, but plenty of shows with just you on the stage. When recording, how do balance these songs with what you can do in the studio, as compared to how you present the songs live? Is that something you consider, or are these two separate entities live vs. studios?

Sean: Well, a goal of recording in the studio to me is to really use it to your advantage. I want to explore what it has to offer and be able to use it to help bring the album to life. But also, I never want to get away from being able to strip away all the noise and weirdness, and have the songs stand on their own with just an acoustic or piano. With this particular batch of songs, I wasn’t really worried about what I did to them in the studio because they all started life on an acoustic. I knew that in a moment’s notice, I could break them back down and they’d still stand up with their heads high.

OE: Now on your second album as Big Brutus, is there anything you’ve learned since the release of your first album that you’ve applied to the second? Or maybe not so much about the album itself, but anything you can share with other young musicians that you wish you knew then about the business, recording, touring, etc.?

Sean: Hmm, I don’t know. I’d say the biggest one is don’t worry about what people think too much. Tiny Box was released to little fanfare, and because of being in Slang, the expectation that it would be something much different that what it really was… then it ended up being something that people found meaning in once it was given room to grow. I’ve read some early reviews for this one as well and I think it’s the same story again. People expect something and a first reaction could be great, but it can also be one of disappointment. The thing is, people will find your work. The important part is to just keep trying and to keep pushing. You will fail many times before you succeed. Don’t get me wrong, I am not where I want to be in my musical career, but I make the albums I want to make, and when someone understands it or empathizes with it, it means a lot. But it’s not the end of the world if someone liked the slower stuff and not the harder stuff or vice versa. People are allowed their tastes, and you as an artist should just make what you want.
Mike: I noticed that in the last few months you finally got Tiny Box up on streaming services such as Spotify. Is there a reason you decided to utilize more streaming at this point? Can we expect to find The Odd Willow on streaming other than Bandcamp?

Sean: You will be able to find both Tiny Box and The Odd Willow on Spotify and Itunes! The Odd Willow goes live March 5th I believe, to coincide with the release date. I just wanted my work to be more accessible to the people who wanted to hear it, and this was one of the best and easiest ways. It seems like a logical next step, and is pretty easy to do. You can put whole works on streaming services and never make another hard copy of the album. That feels weird as someone who makes albums intended to be digested as a whole, but hey it’s the world we live in. There’s no use fighting it.

OE: A lot of musicians release an album and plan big tours around their release. But I understand you are taking a different approach after your release show on Sunday. On April 2nd, you plan to leave Atlanta and bike across America. Tell us more about your plans and how did this all come about?

Sean: Well it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do, and so I figured why not combine ideas and just tour the album by doing something subversive like biking everywhere and busking. We are doing a whole promotional campaign while I am gone, so I can just focus on meeting people and playing. Also, since I’ve wanted to do this since I was a teenager, I figured I should knock it out before I turn 30! Lastly, it gives me the chance to help raise money for International Rescue Committee, an organization dedicated to helping refugees in areas of crisis around the world. I really want to make music to help people, and the merging of the two ideas felt natural and very tangible in a way that I could comprehend and do in my own unique way. I have no desire to be a person who tours and stuff to make it big. Yes, I would like to be able to support myself with my art; but at the end of the day, if I am not doing things for others, it’s all just a giant wankfest to me. If you’ve been given a gift, use it to help people.

OE: I caught the end of your interview the other night on WRAS, talking about the bike tour. You mentioned that you while there aren’t set plans for shows, that you will have a guitar and may play some sets along the way. Also, you mentioned that you are ending your tour at Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin, and have even approached them about playing some kind of pop up set at the fest. How can your fans and supporters help you along the way, who do I need to talk to for a Bon Iver/Big Brutus collab????

Sean: Well if you want to support me, please grab a copy of the new album off Itunes or Bandcamp. I am toying with the idea of setting up a donation page to help me on the tour, but we DO have a donation page up and running already for IRC (DONATE HERE). Or simply go to their website and donate to their cause. Another great way would be to bombard the Eaux Claire people’s email saying you’d like if I could play a short set to raise awareness for IRC. Yea, do that haha. Obviously that will lead to the long dreamed Bon Brutus album we’re all waiting for.

OE: I’m sure whatever happens along the way on this bike tour will be very inspiring for a musician and songwriter such as yourself, look into the crystal ball, what can we expect from yourself/Big Brutus in the future?

Sean: Well it’s funny that you say it’ll be inspiring, cause that is my main selfish goal of the whole experience. I want to “research” an idea I have for a third album, but to do that I want to be on the ground floor meeting Americans and talking to them. The end of the last song on The Odd Willow has a Jimmy Carter sample that sums up what I was feeling while making the album, and sort of alludes to where I want to go. This country has become very divisive in it’s stances and politics. I definitely fall on one side of that, but I am open to meeting people and empathizing with their stance and the life that leads a person to that opinion. There’s a lot going on in my own backyard right now, and I want to explore that in a unique way, and hopefully find a way to express it. I’m becoming less interested in singer/songwriter type stuff, and more interested in treating an album like a novel at this point. I want to capture moods and emotions, even at the expense of a song. I want to write about people other than myself, or blur those lines at least. Maybe I’ll make a sexy pop album one day, but for now I’m content doing whatever the hell I want. That’s why this album was called The Odd Willow after all. Be odd. Be who you want to be. You will find your place amongst the others in time.

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Mike Gerry

Head music fiend at OpenEars Music

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