Q&A: Greg Brown

The veteran singer-songwriter discusses his new CD, "Freak Flag," his influences, his family, and causes dear to his heart.


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Tell me the story behind the creation of your new album, Freak Flag.

We pretty much recorded the whole thing in Minneapolis, then a thunderstorm blew in to the Twin Cities. The power went out in the studio. We had been recording directly to computer using Pro Tools—which I had not done before.

Was this your first time recording digitally?

We'd always recorded on two-inch tape and then mixed the album on to digital equipment. But this time, we went directly to Pro Tools. So the right procedures were apparently not followed in terms of backup and things like that—I didn't know anything about it. So, when the lightning hit and the power went out, there went the album. It was just gone. And they said, we can get it off the hard drive, but I knew. I don't know much about technology, but I knew that thing was gone—I could feel it.

So I took that as a sign I'd made enough records anyway and should shut up. I went home to Iowa laughing; everyone else was crying. I just had to laugh, because it's a good reminder that what we do . . . y'know, it has some importance, but it ain't that important [laughs]. But then, after a few months at home, I ended up going down to Memphis and re-recorded maybe half the songs from the Minneapolis session, while bringing in some other songs. So it ended up being a different record, with different musicians. We didn't try to re-create what was lost, you can't really do that. We headed south instead of north and it turned out better.

Did the spiritual feel of the record change from version #1 to version #2?

That album we did in Minneapolis just keeps getting better and better, and will continue to do so. It will probably morphe into a masterpiece of some kind because it's gone, and nobody will ever get to hear it. I remember having a good feeling after we did the stuff in Minneapolis—I thought we had some really good stuff there, but we had to let it go.

It may end up being your Smile album. On the second attempt, you feature a guest shot by Mark Knopfler.

Yeah, the way that happened was that Bo and Pieta had opened Knopfler's North American tour last year, and Knopfler—he seems to know everything; I didn't get to go to the shows last year but wish I could have—he and Bo got to talking about an old song of mine, "Flat Stuff." I didn't think anyone else had ever heard it. But Mark knew that tune somehow, and Bo suggested to me that we redo it with him on the track; Bo thought it would be fun.

It came out fairly cinematic, so we sent it to Knopfler over in England and he added his part. That's the way they do it these days; everything's on the Internet. A couple of years ago a friend of mine out East sent me some tracks from his album that I contributed to. To tell the truth, I didn't really like that, I found that method hard to get into. But I'm sure Mark's done a million of those.

The album also features Richard Bennett, quite a music veteran.

Richard lives in Nashville and has a daughter who lives in Memphis. He came over to play with us one day and had such a good time he asked to come a second day. He's just a totally delightful person, and obviously a great guitar player. It's amazing, all he's done: He played with Liberace and Elvis and was Neil Diamond's music director for years.

You recorded a couple of songs by your wife, Iris DeMent, and Pieta on Flag.What was that like?

That made me nervous as a cat! With my own songs, I just go in and record them the best that I can; if they come out badly, it's my fault. With those songs, I just didn't feel I could get them right, especially Pieta's song. It's changed a lot since the recording; I do it completely differently now. But i really didn't relax until I brought the tapes home and Iris and Pieta heard them and said they liked my versions. They're just two really good songs.

Do you and Iris share musical ideas?

We talk about music a little bit. I'm a real jammer; I'll play with anybody. Iris really is not; she won't sing with me in public because, she says, I never do songs the same way twice. That makes it hard on a harmony singer. But we've sung together at a few festivals.

Most of what we do is pretty separate—we'll run ideas by each other or sing in the car or the kitchen. I'm more spontaneous; my songs tend to come out of me just sitting around jamming and playing. Iris is a real worker; she hones her stuff. He songs are like tight little ships and mine are like leaky old rowboats. That's just the way it is.

I've always jammed with people. A year or two ago I went out with John Hammond and David Lindley, and I just assumed we would jam at the end of the night. We did three or four shows in California. I said, "Let's jam," but Lindley said, "Well, if I had five days to rehearse I'd be up for that." And Hammond said, "I don't jam." Not everybody's into it. It might have been that they were just being polite, and trying to find a nice way to say they wouldn't jam with me.

"Tenderhearted Child" sounds like it was written for your 11-year-old daughter.

That song actually is one I found in an old notebook—I have a habit, when I'm going to record, of looking through them, and I just happened to spot it. I remembered the tune and realized I had never recorded it. I throw most of my old songwriting notebooks away, but I do keep a few of them.

I actually wrote this song years and years ago for my daughter Zoe, who's in her 20s now. I pulled it out and realized I liked it. So, I'd guess that song was written 20 years ago. 

Q&A: Greg Brown

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