Donny Brown is a musical artist born & raised on Saginaw’s East Side that has traveled to heights and experienced a success many have aspired toward, but few have attained. An accomplished drummer, producer, songwriter, and vocalist, Brown cut his teeth working the clubs of Old Town and Bay City’s Midland Street back in the 1980s with groups like The Mick Furlo Band and Water 4 the Pool.
He finally attained a hard-earned success when he formed The Verve Pipe with Brian VanderArk and Saginaw’s A.J. Dunning and Brian Stout, eventually selling millions of albums when their third album and first major label release Villains broke internationally in 1996, sporting a pair of Billboard Top 10 Singles that took them on tour with the likes of Kiss, with whom they opened at London’s Wembley Arena.
For nearly 20 years Donny continued creating and performing with The Verve Pipe, most recently with a successful collection of innovative songs written for children entitled A Family Album back in 2009. Additionally over that period Brown cultivated a growing reputation as a top-notch producer, working with groups such as 19 Wheels and aspiring local talents such as Nick Andros, Andy Reed, and Frankenmuth’s Chris Zehnder.
But then one year ago, Donny decided to call it quits with The Verve Pipe and open a new page on his career, while bringing fresh direction to his life. Fans and audiences will have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of that new direction when he performs ‘Live & Up Front’ in concert at Saginaw’s The Red Room on November 29th in a show featuring material from his newly released EP, along with many additional compositions Brown has composed and woven together for other artists over the years. Known for his drumming talents, Brown will be playing guitar and singing his new material along with fellow musical cohorts Andy Reed on bass & vocals, Scott Van Dell on guitars, Chris Zehnder on guitar & vocals, Jake Bartlett on drums & percussion, and Jake Greenwood on keyboards & percussion.
Long before leaving The Verve Pipe one year ago, Brown consistently received requests from artists approaching him to either play on their sessions or assist as producer and oversee their recording sessions – largely due to his fastidious attention to detail. And to my mind, the key to understanding the profound talents of Donny Brown stems from the cascade and waves of contradictions – that much like audio waves – deliver the full timbre and resonance of the brilliance behind his tone. Brown is driven by a need to express himself both through the content and texture of the images presented through his material.
Even in the early days, Donny’s gift for songwriting was not unnoticed by those within the music industry possessing a keen ear for talent & quality. Right after The Verve Pipe went to Number 1 with their RCA debut Villains in 1996 and prior to the recording of their follow-up album, IRS label founder and manager of The Police, Miles Copeland invited Brown to a ‘Songwriter’s Retreat’ at one of his castles in France for several weeks in the summer. Brown was invited along with the likes of Ed Robertson from Barenaked Ladies, the legendary Carole King, the Hanson Brothers and others, where they would spend time collaborating and working on new songs together.
When asked about that experience Brown says that while he maintained all those relationships, he regretfully never pursued that road. “We’re still friends, but I never bothered to get Carole’s phone number, and never pursued that avenue as I possibly should have. First off, I don’t live in L.A. or Nashville where that kind of action and momentum for a songwriter can be advanced; plus I always had The Verve Pipe happening, which I was happy to do. I was always writing with The Verve Pipe in mind and trying to write what was viable for that band.”
As he prepares for his front-and-center step into the center-stage spotlight, armed with a strong coterie of vibrant new material and a razor sharp mix of musical friends to present his new songs, one cannot help but begin by asking why Donny decided to quit The Verve Pipe one year ago – a group that he helped define and shape the sound of back in 1992, when their first recordings were released.
“It had gotten past the point of being fun,” Brown confesses. “It was too much like a job that wasn’t fulfilling in the right ways. I think I’d gone to the end of the road of how I could feel creatively within the band. The confines of the group defined what I could and could not do musically and I did not want to pursue that rather narrow road anymore.”
For their last recordings The Verve Pipe released a pair of successful albums with songs written for Children – their ‘Kid’ albums. “The great thing about writing music for kids and why I believe it was so successful is because both Brian and I both had to write from a kid’s perspective on that project. He wasn’t this ‘rock guy’ and didn’t have to sound like anything that came from The Verve Pipe. It just had to be a good kid’s song. And because of that I think those albums are great.”
“The more success you have with a sound that you ‘shape’ as a band, the more you’re defined by that sound,” reflects Donny. “And that’s the paradox. Do you continue to reinforce that sound or do you have the latitude to break away? It’s also about the band dynamic. You want to be respectful of it, but you also want to bend and expand your band mates’ boundaries towards your own boundaries, so it’s a little bit more like a collaborative band dynamic. I was with The Verve Pipe for 21 years, but it wasn’t that hard to walk away. It was like I’ve done a lot and worked hard at this for many years, but it was time to move on. I wanted to do something fun again and wanted music to feel differently for me, so it was a very personal decision.”
Musically, for this listener it is one decision that seems to have paid off, especially as Donny takes me through a track-by-track assessment in his Lansing studio of how his creative process works.
“There are my songs and I’ve also had songs on Verve Pipe albums, but they were all shaped by the band. For the last year I’ve mainly been working on rearranging my musical life and didn’t immediately delve into songs,” he admits. “I took a little breath, played drums a little more, played guitar a lot more, and worked with my friends on various projects. The last year I’ve had more friends over to the house playing music than ever before. It’s a fulfilling, worthwhile thing that brings joy and I need and want that. I want music to be that,” he states.
“When I was a kid music meant the world to me. I brought that love of music to Old Town when I would watch Rollo Woodring play with My Dog Bob, or Mike Orth perform with Sinister Footwear, and all these guys I’ve watched over the years. Jim Perkins – what a talent! Not to mention all the people gone now like Bob Grundner and Doug Sheltraw, let alone Nick Andros.”
The composition process Donny has developed is a fascinating one that draws upon two seemingly opposing elements: first, employing hand-held digital recorders so he is always prepared to record an idea, whether on the road, driving in a car, sitting at home, or walking the dog. Secondly, from these musical fragments he will weave together a musical tapestry that eventually becomes a completed song through hours of meticulous detail work in the studio.
“I have dozens of these recorders and several of them are full of ideas,” he explains. “One recorder contains pop ideas, another contains ideas for the ukulele, another holds acoustic ideas; and all contain separate songs. All are catalogued differently, only I haven’t converted these to digital formats yet.”
“I’m my own worst enemy in terms of the writing process and my creative process is probably no different than what happens with you when you’re writing a story,” he continues. “I’ll get the song to a certain point and want to make it better, but then a deadline comes along and you are forced to take it to a point where it’s good enough for the rest of the world to hear or see. I don’t want people to hear my material until that time, but at some point you’ve got to let go of it, so I’m learning to let go a little bit more.”
As an example of how this process cycles, Brown points to a composition called 14 Days. “Once these idea fragments are digitized, I’ll start a recording session. The idea for 14 Days came from a time when I was getting out of school and had 14 days left on my lease. I was also dating a girl at the time and knew I was going to be done with her as well, because I was getting out of here and going to be on my own, so it was the end of this part of my life and I started thinking about the experience as use for songwriting fodder. The first lyric goes: So here we are again….I’ve got my hands across my chest…but leave my contemplation on the mattress….and get ready to get dressed. The goal is to have the song be in the moment so it has it’s own life.”
The origins for Brown’s solo project came from Donny’s buddy J.J. Bamberger. “He put me up against the wall after I played this gig at the State Theatre with Andy Reed last summer and said, ‘You’ve got to do a show of your own.’ I’ve worked with Andy on his shows and am like, ‘I don’t have a record or anything’. He said, ‘Make an EP’. He kept pushing me and advised ‘If you say it’s an album release you’re going to be working at it forever’, because he knows me. I wanted to perform in the Fall, so started in July on this project. With this show we’ll be testing the waters.”
“I want to have my music out there, but because I’m known as a drummer and songwriter, I’ve always filled a supporting role,” reflects Donny. “Frankly, I never envisioned myself as a ‘front guy’. The world doesn’t need another one of those, but I like to think my writing is good enough that the music will do the talking, more than me being in the spotlight. That’s basically what this is all about.”
“Within this folder I have country ideas,” continues Brown. “I started writing songs with a Country band for a singer/songwriter girl, so have several female oriented songs. Michelle Branch has this song she did with Santana, so this girl singer asked if I could write something like that; and then a buddy called and said he needed one for a girl who could be singing something for Disney, so I started writing this one called You Should be Mine. It’s bent towards a young girl but I’m playing guitar and drums, Jeff Wallikangas is on bass and the chorus has this Burt Bacharach feel, followed by the Santana lead guitar part.”
Armed with this coterie of songs that people either approached him about writing, or that he has written for his own gratification, Brown probably has a dozen albums worth of material in the works. “I don’t want to sound too romantic, but a lot of this EP project is about doing the songs I write the way I want them to sound. That’s a very big part of it. Five of these songs I wrote that I love the most will comprise the EP.”
“When you write songs if you write something that’s a story or something artistic, you’re going to be writing with certain standards in mind – a mode of emulation, if you will. You know when you are writing if something is capturing that level of standard and where you’re drawing your influences. They cross-pollinate but have a life of their own, as does everything I do.”
One song on the EP, Bitter Rival, is from a recording project that Donny calls ‘Summer’. After the EP he hopes to release his long-standing Macaw project, which is written around the idea of emulating the sound and standards of legendary Beatle Paul McCartney.
Another new song Donny penned called ‘Lucky Number’ is inspired by many things from his childhood on the Eastside of Saginaw. “This one is especially inspired by my father and is an homage to him”, he notes.
“The 2nd verse goes: ‘I’m only a fraction, only a piece, of the total man I want to be….Because I look at my Dad…and I think that’s the man….I want to be. But I’ll gather moments and I’ll gain control….And I’ll mend myself until I’m whole….Because I grew up with People….unable to bring home enough food….to put on the table…..And I know I should count every blessing….but hunger to me… is a trait worth possessing.’
Then I splice in another segment about women I’ve known in my life that goes: ‘1 girl seduced me….2 deceived me…3 conspired with 4 to leave me….5 she put me …6 feet under….So will you be my lucky number now? I’m only a fraction….only a piece…of the total man I want to be.’
Stunned at the austere beauty of this work echoing throughout the Studio, with such a singular and liberating musical vision, does Donny prefer writing songs by himself or working with other people? “I like having other people around to collaborate with, but I’m very strong willed and opinionated about what I like and do not like. I want my music to be personal. I want references to my life and people that I love in my life. Even if it’s a story, I’m putting myself into this story. And if you interject different pieces of your life into the same song, then that becomes part of the story. I’ve also written songs about my brother Danny that I can’t play quite yet – they’re too difficult,” he admits.
At his Red Room Performance Novembr 29th, Donny will do a set of original material, not just his own new songs but also his own versions of songs done with The Verve Pipe that he wrote, such as ‘What Happiness Is’. “I would love to do more shows like this upcoming one, but it’s hard to get people together. Jake is here in Frankenmuth again, but Andy Reed is the busiest guy in the world, and I’m a busy guy too. If I go further down the road with it and the show feels great, I can call a friend of mine in Lansing who’s a promoter and ask for an opening slot when they bring somebody to town. I’m hoping I can take that route and let people get into it.”
“What I’m most excited about is getting a chance to do this,” concludes Donny. “I’m envious of my younger friends like Chris and Andy; and I’ve been fortunate to go places in the world and play music all over, but I’ve never had that feeling of being the ‘guy’ – the guy out front.
“It becomes that through evolving a catalog of material, and I’ve done that with a band, but now with this latest stage of my performance and musical life, I take a lot of strength and personal self-confidence from looking at my good friends that do this kind of thing and how fearless they are about it.”
“When I see Jeff Yantz on stage singing and having a good time, I’m envious. There’s no black and white – he’s doing it. And there are lots of guys like that in the neighborhood. I can’t believe I’ve waited so long to do it! So if this outing is not as great as I want it to be, I’m willing to accept that. Before everything that I put out there had to be great, but now my mindset is, maybe it won’t be great, but if not it will be the next time around.”
“One thing is for certain: It’s never going to happen unless you roll the dice.”
Donny Brown with special guests The Van Dell-Tones will appear at Saginaw’s The Red Room in the Dow Event Center, 303 Johnson St. on Saturday, November 29th at 8:00 PM. Doors open at 7:00 PM and tickets are only $15 in advance, $18 the day of the show. Tickets may be purchased at ticketmaster.com or by phoning 989.745.3000.
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