So much has erupted out of music and performance in the last two weeks, as we come to grips with a surreal world of COVID-19 isolation. Live-streamed shows, multi-voice and instrumental pieces recorded and assembled remotely, and improvisational jams via Zoom.
After a time, we’ll all be able to sit together in one place and play and listen to music again. But even so, there will be a new normal.
Last week I got a chance to hear the phenomenal Chad Browne-Springer, who presented an intimate, extraordinary evening of music sitting cross-legged on his bedroom floor with an array of looping and effects gear. In a sense, Chad Browne-Springer is already living and playing in that new normal.
Browne-Springer doesn’t perform his songs in any usual way.
His instruments: “FL Studio,” a digital audio program and platform, and a microphone. A vocal artist and songwriter, Browne-Springer performs by layering tracks of his own voice, recorded in the moment and on the spot. He manipulates melodic and percussive “instrumental” vocal tracks, and then calls out the lyrics over the song he’s just created.
Browne-Springer goes about this in a relaxing, almost hypnotizing process. It’s like watching a friend expertly cook a gourmet dinner, from sous-chef-ing to final garnishes. The process is intricately part of the performance. At the end you sit down at the table.
Browne-Springer has a substantial set of solo recordings that have charted his unique development as a musician. He also is the frontperson for flute-funky New Haven cosmic R&B group Phat Astronaut.
His work has a capella and gospel-like singing, with soul, R&B, jazz, and electronica influences, rolled out at a trance-like pace. Harmonies and rhythms repeat, sometimes over suspended durations as he builds the song. Browne-Springer methodically listens, adds, listens, adds. There is no hurry.
As a watcher-listener, a curious, magical thing happened. Listening in real time as Browne-Spring added tracks one by one, he often started with the most durational vocal line, and then added shorter vocal lines. Last, he layered multiple tracks of vocal percussion. By the end of this process, we were simply listening to… the song. It was hard to distinguish the particulars. What arrived was a fully integrated score.
Browne-Springer sang stunning, liquid lyrics, in vocals processed with resonant reverb and vocoder. It was a poetry that flowed from the heart – startlingly honest, full of pain and loss.
In the song “english databank,” he sang “feeling like a slave to the world, my soul is so exhausted,” The meaning and words were re-ordered and repeated, gaining their own energy and power.
Browne-Springer introduced his songs with great storytelling – anecdotes about his life and collaborators. As he sat in profile with his gear, he often turned to his multiple streaming devices, answering tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts, saying hello to friends listening in. One friend asked to see his gear at his feet, so he shifted the cameras at bit, and we could see four consoles that he manipulated as fluidly as one might pluck a guitar.
Aptly, Browne-Springer covered a Prince song.
In a retooled, spacious cover of Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” he recorded the instrumentals for the verse, sang a verse, switched to recording the bridge’s backing vocals, sang another verse, then switched back to sing the bridge. This complex song later transitioned to original lyrics material, then worked its way back to Prince, ending suspended on, “I wanna be the only one you come for.”
In the second half hour of the show, Browne-Springer moved to another source of backing tracks. These were base tracks that he had recorded on a two-month road trip-tour – a “Couchspedition” around the country in 2017 with Hartford poet Brett A. Maddux. Song material, it seems, emerged from anywhere and anytime on this trip.
There was a song based on an instrumental recording Browne-Springer made on a small finger harp (“I don’t know how to play it, really, but something came out of it”) from a friend’s apartment in Washington, D.C.
In a cemetery in New Orleans, the beautiful mausoleums, “Tiny House tombs” as Browne-Springer called them, inspired the song “Heaven’s Window.” In a hotel in Nashville, waiting out a hurricane warning, Browne-Springer and Maddox word-and-music jammed together on “Nashville Remedies.”
At the end of one relaxed, mesmerizing hour of music and stories, Browne-Springer said – “Well, I’m going to go re-heat my coffee. But I’ll probably just keep playing…”
We hope so. Look for more music by Chad Browne-Springer in the future.
Clare Byrne is a dancer-and-choreographer-turned-songwriter who has performed and taught in New York City and environs, Burlington, VT, and around the world. In addition to songwriting via guitar, harmonica and piano, her multi-art projects have included Weekly Rites, an improvisational dance blog, and The Poor Sister Clare’s Traveling Dancing Monk Show, an experiment in gospel dance and gardening in Vermont.