Geneseo's Grammy nominee
Mike Brown's journey to the bright lights of LA and back again
When life gives you lemons, as the popular saying goes, the resourceful among us make lemonade.
Such is the case with Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer-recording engineer, and Geneseo native Mike Brown, who doesn’t shy away from discussing the succession of hand injuries that forced him to come up with the workaround “trilling” method of guitar picking that has become his signature.
Brown had already lost use of two of his fingers when he recently got his hand crushed in the door of a service elevator while picking up a recording console in Virginia. “I had to re-learn how to play,” Brown explains from the Geneseo recording studio he founded in a renovated church space in 2009, “but it actually made me a better player. It’s weird.” Little terrifies musicians more than the thought of losing use of one’s hands, but Brown says he never considered quitting—even when faced with the challenge of adjusting to his picking hand essentially being reduced to dead weight. “I can do the trilling now with my middle finger, the one that still works well on my left hand,” he says. “I couldn’t do that before. There’s a bunch of nerves that got severed in my arm, so now my brain doesn’t think it’s difficult to do. In a weird way, karmically [sic], I got rewarded, I guess. But I’ll play with a hook on my left hand—or with my feet—if I have to.”
Brown maintains a sense of humor about the whole thing, even going as far as naming his upcoming solo album Songs for Seven Fingers, which is scheduled for release later this year and will include cringe-inducing X-ray artwork. Brown places a high value on presentation, and it shows. His last album, Automatic Music Can Be Fun—a collaboration with longtime friend Zac Decamp, released under the band name Geneseo—earned an unlikely Grammy nomination in the Best Recording Package category, based on the strength of its inventive and visually striking scratch-off design. Brown attributes the credit to Buffalo-based graphic designer, six-time nominee, and two-time winner Brian Grunert, perhaps best-known for his Ani Di Franco album covers.
And while it’s hard to imagine that Brown’s dry candor suits him for the glamor and glitz of LA’s red- carpet crowd, he did attend the fifty-sixth annual ceremony in January 2014, an accomplishment he takes pride in—mostly on Grunert’s behalf. “We were up against Jay Z, Metallica, David Bowie, and Reckless Kelly,” Brown explains. He accompanied legendary pianist Garth Hudson to the Grammys when the surviving members of the Band were presented with a lifetime achievement award in 2008, but he sounds amused about this most recent trip. “The Jay Z record had a Super Bowl commercial and sold millions of copies. We had literally sold three copies on Amazon when we got nominated. If you could win a Grammy for being the least qualified, we would win that. I’m proud of that part of it, because it’s an award for making a cool piece of art. But the rest of the awards process is just silly and weird.”
Straddling that line between polished songwriting acumen and barroom grit, Brown’s work won’t be mistaken for pop country any time soon. While some of his tunes are rife with hooks, the seasoning in his playing oozes from the stage, where he switches between acoustic guitar, pedal steel, and Fender Rhodes organ. Brown’s songs, and even his demeanor while performing, simmer with an all-too-human edge that unsettles as much as it thrills—precisely what music should do when it comes from the heart. Where so many musicians working in the country-Americana mold fabricate heartache and wanderlust, Brown doesn’t have to fake it.
Before moving to Los Angeles, he spent six years recording what would become his solo debut, American Hotel, in literally every state—complete with seventy-five special guests including late Wilco guitarist Jay Bennett, Los Lobos saxophonist-producer Steve Berlin, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Artimus Pyle, to name just a few.
Now, when he isn’t working on his own music, Brown devotes his time to recording other acts in his studio. Returning to the area he was born, he says, has had a stabilizing effect. “I’d rather be around genuine people and genuine emotion,” says Brown. “And I try to make records like that. In five years of having this building, I have not worked on one record of anything of my own or anyone else that I didn’t genuinely want to do. I’ve worked with some difficult people, but at this point it always comes down to trying to make good art. You can focus on that around here.”
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni currently lives in Rochester, writes for Paste, MTV Iggy, Nashville Scene, and 55 Plus/In Good Health magazines, and teaches an interviewing workshop at Writers & Books.
Caitlin McGrath is a regular (585) photographer and cofounder of lifestyle blog The Merrythought.