“In New York, you’re never alone. So sometimes the only place you can find privacy is in the bathroom with a guitar.”
As an artist and performer, Kirby Brown wears many different hats. (The Stetson hat he’s pictured in below being his favorite.) But the poet-musician is first and foremost a storyteller before anything else. Raised in a family of musicians, he was surrounded by sound and found that the best way to tell his stories was through music. Influenced by the poetry he discovered early in his childhood, it’s his zeal for narrative that is apparent both in his songs and in conversation. Lively and animated, yet at once thoughtful and calculated, Kirby is a talented singer-songwriter with many tales to tell.
From growing up in Texas to moving to New York City, Kirby is yet again writing a new chapter in his life as he plays a farewell show this week before leaving for Nashville. We spoke with the soon-to-be Manhattan expat on where his music will be taking him next. Click play on the mix Kirby created for us below, and learn more about the man in the Beaumonts.
You’re from Texas originally, but how did you get started in music and eventually end up in New York City?
I started playing guitar when I was thirteen, and from there I sort of brought together the words and the guitar — and accidentally ended up with a bunch of songs. I spent a lot of time in Texas touring regionally but I’ve been in New York City for about three years now. I moved here to start over, in a lot of ways. I wanted to write a new record and give myself a new challenge. I wanted to change and diversify my life a little bit.
WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO LATELY IN TERMS OF MUSIC, AND WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE FOR THE FUTURE?
I’ve been trying to finish a record. I’ve been traveling back and forth between Texas, Muscle Shoals, AL, and New York, where I’ve been doing a lot of post-production with my producer and engineer Beau Bedford. We’re really close to finishing. We’re doing a music video and I am actually planning to spend some time in Nashville starting in April… sort of indefinitely. I’m shopping for the right label home right now and we’re trying to find some touring opportunities and spend some time on the road. I’m basically transitioning from a time of making a record, to promoting a record.
I’m still writing. I’m always writing in between.
Tell us about your creative process. How do you go about writing your lyrics, and what goes into arranging the songs?
Everything for me starts with a guitar, most always. I’m not one of those guys who builds tracks on my computer and writes to that. I write a lot in the bathroom because the acoustics are really good in there. In New York, you know, you’re never alone. So, sometimes the only place you can find privacy is just shutting yourself in the bathroom with a guitar.
Some people start exclusively with music or exclusively with lyrics. For me that process is sort of married, where I’ll start strumming and humming along with an idea. A word, a phrase or a line will pop out and if it if marries with the music then I’ll end up chasing that idea down. I’ll write the bones of a melody, and a few lines. Then I’ll go back and compile other verses and pick the best ideas.
My process feels like it has changed dramatically from when I was younger. I was always barely working and barely surviving and I was just gigging a lot. I had so much time, so I would write four or five complete songs in a week. But the older I get, the less mental and emotional bandwidth I have to even sit down and be quiet long enough to present itself as a fully-realized idea. Now I have an iPhone full of thirty-second long memos of ideas. A lot of my process now is digging back through my own archives I’ve created over the last few years and seeing if any of that inspires me or revisiting ideas. In some ways technology is becoming a bigger part of my process than it used to be.
How would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard your music before?
I guess the best way describe it is what people call singer-songwriter music, or Americana, or roots music. Folk rock or country rock, even. It’s sort of hard for me to put my finger on this because I’m too close to it. A lot of my influences are some of the more well known and legendary songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Warren Zevon, and Dylan. I mean who is going to get away with saying Bob Dylan isn’t an influence?
I would say that my sound is a very American, organic sound. It’s a medium for me to tell stories, really. I don’t want to do anything that gets in the way of what is being said. I also grew up on a farm in a town with three hundred people listening to country and gospel music, so it’s not like that doesn’t shine through a little more heavy-handed than a lot of things do.
What are some of your favorite things to do in your neighborhood of Chinatown?
There’s a really great and cheap dumpling spot called Vanessa’s Dumplings on Eldridge Street and I just found out about it this year. It’s right across from this other place I like, Fontana’s, my neighborhood bar. They actually closed last weekend. It feels strange—I’m leaving New York, Fontana’s is leaving New York. The end of an era.
There’s a new place around the corner from my place called Mr. Fong’s. It’s a really hip place now, but when it opened it was low-key. Now it’s really popular but it’s a cool bar. There’s always 169 Bar!
What new music or up-and-coming artist are you currently listening to?
Up and coming… I feel like I’m always so behind. There’s a great lot of Texas songwriters who are friends of mine—whom I’m always looking to for inspiration: Leon Bridges from Fort Worth, K Phillips who’s in Nashville these days, Wesley Geiger and Paul Cauthen out of Dallas, Dan Dyer out of Austin. I guess I got lucky and accidentally found a bunch of super talents for friends. Beyond my direct group, I’m always studying what Sufjan Stevens does with narrative—talk about a poet! I just saw this guy John Moreland in LA last month for the first time, and I was on the verge of tears the whole show.
What are you reading right now? What’s one book that was meaningful to you?
I’m constantly reading poetry. My dad really got me into it when I was a young kid. A lot of the Contemporary American guys lately: Donald Hall, James Wright, Theodore Roethke, William Carlos Williams. As far as other literature goes, I would say that a big turning point for me was reading the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and East of Eden by John Steinbeck is huge to me.