Bio : Seth Avett
“There's something within music that I don't understand unless I get inside of it,” says Seth Avett. For his latest release Seth Avett Sings Greg Brown, Avett transcribed, interpreted and went deep inside ten songs by the indie legend who's been one of his guiding lights since he first heard him at age fifteen.
“When I heard Greg Brown's music, it opened the door to a world of songwriting inspiration,” Avett says. “And since then, I've been connecting to the arc of a man's life and his story. It's laid bare the simultaneous nature of the entire human experience in a way. When I was younger, I felt like he was walking me through a lot of these more grown-up experiences with such a friendly hand.”
For those who may need reminding, Greg Brown is the ultimate songwriter's songwriter. Over a forty-plus-year career, he's occupied the same rarefied air as Loudon Wainwright III and John Prine - a keen-eyed poet and diarist of the human condition. And he's done it mostly on his own. “This is a man who put forty records out because he had to,” Avett says. “He made his own record label. He played the coffee shops, the bars, the little theaters. He built it. He's a world-class artist who did it all under the radar, which is just mind-blowing to me.”
As Avett's new solo record makes clear, this collection is an expression of admiration and gratitude for one of his heroes. But it's also a reflection of his own artistry and ability as an interpreter.
Though Brown's songs have been a part of his listening diet for decades, Avett gained a more profound appreciation once he put his own voice behind them. “I wanted to explore, not just through listening, but through my hands, through my body, through my own vocal cords, what some of the deeper meaning of these songs are,” he says. “They're very malleable – lending themselves more easily to interpretation and discovery.”
Opener “The Poet Game” is a generational prism, each verse refracting a story of love, lost youth and social decay. Its mission statement of why songwriters write sets the tone for a tour-de-force that touches on themes of uncomplicated joy (the calypso-flavored “Good Morning Coffee”), lust (“You Drive Me Crazy”), capricious fate (“Just a Bum,” with stunning lines like “We're at a pink slip's mercy in a paper universe”), home (the Stephen Foster-esque “Iowa Waltz”) and acceptance and mortality (“Laughing River”). The album's centerpiece, the seven-minute “My New Book,” is a riveting meditation on love and redemption, and one of Brown's finest tunes. Throughout, Avett's buttery-rich voice hovers front and center, buoyed by his precise, shimmering acoustic, sustaining an intimate and inviting vibe.
And though on the surface it's a covers record, it dovetails seamlessly with the most recent Avett Brothers album The Third Gleam and Seth's solo outing IV, which find him in equally stripped-down settings exploring the light and shadows of his own personal stories.
“After spending so much time on my own versions of these songs, then A/B-ing them with the originals, there was more of a journey than I thought,” Avett says. “The songs that ended up on this collection speak to me now as a man in my early forties quite specifically. Where I am in my life and how I look at all these big concepts – romance, aging, fatherhood, death and life.”
As all-encompassing as it became, the project had humble beginnings. In 2017, it was simply a way for Avett to channel his off-days while on tour into something productive - recording a few of his favorite Brown songs. He says, “I wanted somewhere functional but beautiful to disappear into in those odd, vacuous moments on the road.”
Hotel rooms became temporary studios. Mics and cables mingled with bedspreads and mini-fridges. While Avett initially considered this a colorful part of the back story, he sees it differently now. “I always thought of this project as the thing that I made in hotel rooms,” he says. “That it would be a product of the exhaustion from the road, and the environmental aspects. Hearing the air conditioning click on. Or there's some songs I did down in Mexico where you can hear these tropical birds at odd times. I like all that. But it's almost cooler that that stuff's a mystery, rather than me announcing, 'Hey I made this in hotel rooms all over the place.'
“I have to be honest, when I started, I fantasized about it being a record that I'd release,” he continues. “But I had no real reason to believe that fidelity-wise that I'd feel comfortable releasing it. I'll listen to an Iron & Wine record all day long that sounds like it was recorded on a jam box. But for myself, I can't get over the hump of fidelity – great mics, great preamps, the room, all that stuff. So this was also an exercise of trying to let go of that a little bit.”
In the final stages, Avett brought the recordings to his home studio in North Carolina, and enlisted ace engineer Dana Nielsen “to mix and push the levels.” Since the album was mostly a solitary pursuit, Nielsen also acted as a valuable sounding board. Avett says, “You can have such reverence for something that you just won't let it be, like you put it on a pedestal and say, 'Oh, it's got to be perfect.' What does perfect even mean? So there was a fair amount of preparation, but a lot of that was listening, then figuring out the chords and just running it. I probably played each song three or four times, then I told Dana, 'Maybe use the first verse from the first version, then the second . .' and he'd say, 'No, this take is the one.'
The album inevitably led to a much-anticipated meeting with Greg Brown himself.
“Before we met, I had sent him three songs,” Avett says. “I think that helped open the door a bit and make him more willing to take me seriously. Otherwise, I'm just some dude coming out of nowhere, like, 'I love your songs and I made this record.'”
The two hung out for hours at Brown's home in Iowa, which he shares with his wife and fellow artist Iris DeMent. Avett says, “He has such a unique, incredible kind of sage-like energy. The most confusing thing to me now is how in the world he made so many records, because as I know him, as a man in his seventies, the day is coming to him. He doesn't seem to be chasing anything, and the idea of ambition is just hilarious, when coupled with his spirit and personality.
“I see him as a master songwriter,” he continues. “I don't think all of this work is indicative of his narrative. There is an autobiography through his forty records, but he is speaking for us. Like all the great authors and poets speak for us. He is in those records fully, but there's a lot more in them than just him.”
And with Seth Avett Sings Greg Brown, he hopes that universal chord will resonate with listeners who are unfamiliar with Brown. “With this record, I just hope they get an introduction,” Avett says. “And for anyone who can enjoy it, I hope it's a bridge into a place that otherwise perhaps they wouldn't have walked into.”
For Avett, that bridge is one that he's certain he'll be crossing for years to come. “I was listening to his One Night live record recently, and I was making discoveries left and right. It's never-ending. I haven't discovered Greg Brown. I am in the process of discovering him. And this record is just a single point in something that is ongoing. It's not an event that happened. It is happening.”