Major Love is the moniker of Canadian songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Colleen Brown. They will be performing as a part of Skeleton Park Arts Festival this Saturday! In honour of their upcoming performance, read about the band’s latest album, learn who Colleen considers to be her guitar heroes as well as her advice for budding musicians in the interview below with fellow beloved musician and this year’s SPAF host, Luther Wright.
Luther Wright: This is not your first time playing the festival but you have since settled in the area. How are you enjoying being part of the Kingston arts/music scene?
Colleen Brown: True! When I first came out here in April 2016 we lived in a number of sublets – Wolfe Island, Elginburg and South Frontenac, before settling in the Skeleton Park ‘hood. So we hovered around Kingston as long as we have now been in the City itself. But my partner Eli Abrams (aka Steve Snarfwell) has been so entrenched in the Kingston scene for the last decade (as bassist for Rocket Surgery, among others) that I was immediately welcomed in his sphere and introduced to everyone several times each – by their nickname, alternate nickname, and (maybe, eventually) their actual names, haha.
Our song ‘Tear It Down’ – the video for which features a Kingston home-demolition care of Zane Whitfield – has now been included in the ‘Miss Emily Sings Kingston’ show, so I think we’ve finally, orfficially arrived!
LW: Your band Major Love has a new album coming out and from my sneak preview I think it’s sounding fantastic! What are your plans for its release and touring?
CB: Well thanks, I’m pretty pleased with it! Yes, the album will come out Aug 24 2018 on Cowboy Junkies’ label Latent Recordings. We released a 4-song EP on March 9th and the first two singles Tear It Down and So Good both charted in the CBC Radio 2 Top 20, which is quite a boon, as far as I’m concerned. We’ve got a pretty full summer of shows (both Major Love and some solo Colleen Brown shows) and I’m in the midst of confirming the album release dates – I know we’re taking over the Monday night at the Toucan for August 27th! We’ll try to make it as fun as one of the ol’ Rocket Surgery Mondays. (and Hopefully have a few cameos to that effect!)
LW: In this era that’s heavy on the singer songwriter performer is Major Love a project that reflects your continued eagerness to rock and collaborate with a band of like minded compadres? And how did you end up together?
Definitely Major Love reflects the need to rock, and that’s nothing new for me. I played bass and sang in an Edmonton garage-rock band with some of my best friends – called The Secretaries (featuring a dancing horn section called the Brassholes) – for about a decade, though we didn’t tour outside Alberta very much. That project eventually lost steam, so I started seeking out other musicians to record and tour with. I guess I’d also been thinking that some of the songs I had been playing with the Colleen Brown band – they didn’t necessarily sound right alongside the previously released Colleen Brown material. The music I’ve written and released over the years has been really broad stylistically, but it became very clear to me that the new songs I was writing were something different… existing somewhere between the singer/songwriter and garage-rock worlds. I had an epiphany while I was out in the UK/Germany on my first tour abroad (in 2015). I realized that the real reason I wanted to play music was because I loved being a part of a music-family aka Band. I didn’t want to be a solo artist – touring alone – it’s just not as fulfilling to me. That same tour I shared a stage with another Edmonton band called Scenic Route To Alaska, and we basically became best buds immediately, and started recording the album within a month of returning to Canada. It just immediately clicked. They still have their project and it’s become quite successful over the last two years, so they can’t play ALL the shows. They’ll be here for the album release tour. For SPAF I have a separate but equally awesome group of pals including Kingston’s own vocal goddess Christina Foster and Brendan Soares (who drums with Rueben & the Dark) plus Ryan Gavel and Bryn Besse from Toronto. I’m pretty lucky to end up with a group of ringers who are also excellent human beings. (Eli is out on tour with Terra Lightfoot, bringing down our Kingston representation, haha.)
LW: I could use loads of adjectives to describe your songs (and songwriting) and most of them would work: fun, bouncy, clever, deep, heavy and completely unique and your own. Is your mind always at work formulating phrases and melodies that lead to songs, or are you of a disciplined school of setting time aside to focus on songs?
CB: Aww shucks, that’s great to hear. Yeah, I’m a bit of both, I guess. I’m of the mindset that Creators are really just as much Curators – it’s our job to stay open to inspiration, and to polish our instruments and our receptors and just Be Ready. There was a point in my early teens when I decided that I was going to be a songwriter – and for me that’s when I REALLY started studying piano, voice (and later guitar), but also listening to music in a really focused way – headphones on, liner notes in my hands – and trying to understand the magic of other peoples’ music. Or if not understand, then hopefully absorb some of it. So definitely there has been a lot of discipline in that. But I think what’s really key now, for me, is that I have trained my antennae to stay up most of the time, searching for inspiration, so it’s second nature now. And when it does arrive, I try to drop whatever I’m doing and explore that inspiration for as long as it lasts. Lately I’ve also been trying to train myself to be less distracted and less controlling, so that when it arrives I just go with it, and stay out of the way. Usually the songs arrive pretty quickly, lyrics then melody and chords (sometimes all at once) but some times it takes discipline to polish them up. And regardless of how hard I work on them, at least half will never be heard publicly. There’s no loss in that though, trust me!
LW: From listening to your many fine albums it’s apparent that you like rich, heavy guitar tones. Who are your guitar heroes?
CB: I can tell you that there are dozens of albums I have studied deeply and they all have some electric guitar in common… albums like Dreamboat Annie by Heart, Ziggy Stardust (Bowie), Hejira and Court & Spark by Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley’s Grace and Big Star’s #1 Record Radio City. But man-oh-man I have definitely learned the most about guitar by studying my band mates and, honestly, working around my own physical limitations. I don’t think I’ll ever be a shredder, much to my chagrin, but honestly I’m happy to just let the guitar serve the songs, sitting underneath. I had a busted tendon in my left ring finger just last year that took several months to heal, but I think it’s a blessing in disguise. I’ve worked at getting my fingers back in shape and I’ve had to mess around with fingering and voicings. That’s part of what is exciting to me about guitar – it’s still a total mystery to me.
LW: Can you tell us a bit about your musical history from back in your days in Alberta?
CB: Sure. In fact my first ever paid gig was almost exactly two decades ago, in my hometown of Lloydminster. I got $50 to play 4 original songs at a former strip club! That was really a thrill. I grew up studying Royal Conservatory Piano and Voice, singing in choirs, church, and doing musical theatre and ballet. I moved to Edmonton to study vocal jazz at MacEwan and when I graduated I was hired to sing and dance with two other women in a show-band called the Kit Kat Club. We did R&B/Pop music from the 60’s 70’s 80’s, choreography and costumes, the whole bit. That was a real education, performing at festivals and corporate gigs, playing for a lot of suits, playing in casinos back when people could still chain-smoke directly in front of the stage. I had horrible stage-fright – I’d be physically sick and shaking before basically every show, for the first few hundred shows at least, haha. In the meantime I was always writing and playing, and working to pay for studio time. I put out my first solo album in 2004 – and it wasn’t great but it was a huge learning experience and it helped me to discover my voice as a songwriter, and get my foot in the door. From there I started playing in The Secretaries (which started as an all female trio but grew to 6 players) and playing with my own band. Both projects really built up a loyal local following, and I eventually signed with a manager and Emm Gryner’s record label Dead Daisy in 2009. They re-released my second album Foot In Heart in 2010 and that’s when my own music got some real momentum and notice on the national stage. One song ‘Love You Baby’ was used in a TV commercial for Radio 2 Drive that played during the Superbowl in Canada, which I think is hilarious now because… a football would later become the source of my busted tendon/mallet finger on Canada Day 2017. It all comes full circle, folks!
LW: Relating to that last question, is where you are now creatively and band leader-y where you imagined you’d be when you started out performing?
Oh man – well, the short answer is No. I remember being a teenager and daydreaming that I would be basically a Vanessa Carleton/Chantal Kreviazuk/Michelle Branch hybrid star. I was very ambitious and attention-hungry in my earlier days, I’m not ashamed to admit. I’m glad none of that stuff ever came to pass though – early notoriety has got to be incredibly difficult as an artist. I imagine it’s very limiting. Anyone who listens to my discography start to finish – god help you – will certainly come to the conclusion that I have musical wanderlust. The trade-off is that I’ve mostly been a one-woman-business-team behind the scenes for a really long time. So I’m very grateful to have been able to explore and develop musically, but now to also have a team of people to work with on this Major Love album through Latent and their team – people whose business acumen I trust and musicality I admire.
LW: What words of encouragement or advice do you have for gifted musicians that are going for it against their better judgement (because inside they just have to…)
CB: Well, first of all, I think it’s important for every human to be creative. So play music, make art, dance, sew, cook, whatever your heart desires.
But also: the late Senator Tommy Banks (RIP) said that when he first embarked on a music career as a jazz pianist, he realized he had to make a decision between being an artist and being a craftsman. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. If you’re going to be a crafts-person (i.e. Session Musician) then you should go to school and play your instrument every day for hours and hours until you’re the best musician in your neighbourhood/city/country, and then you should figure out how to be friends with everyone while also being the best musician in the room. Haha. You will certainly find employment that way.
And if instead you decide you really need to be an artist then I would say:
Have fun. Listen (really listen!) to great albums, start to finish, no distractions. Meditate. Play music with friends. Wear silly outfits. Don’t get too caught up in alcohol or other stuff. Be good to every single person you meet in every part of your life regardless of whether they have a Big Name. And only pursue music as a career if you’re totally prepared to sleep on dirty floors for 4-6 hours a night, drive in a cramped van all day, put all your day-job money into it, and MAYBE EVENTUALLY find some success – no guarantees. If that sounds like fun to you, you are also a masochist, and perfectly suited to a career in music. And then I say GO FOR IT with all your heart and no backup plan.