After a 15-year hiatus from his singer-songwriter self, Brian Straw has returned to music with his debut album, the double-length Baby Stars/Dead Languages, which is available today.
I recently sat down with Straw to discuss fresh starts, album anxiety, and wearing as many hats as creatively possible.
AH: The last few years have been a strange journey for so many of us. Does having your album kick off 2022 feel like a fresh start?
BS: I’ve been sitting on this record for so long, that trumps the pandemic even for me. I’m excited to get it out. I can’t help it be a fresh start. I suppose, in some sense I can start to focus on performing, which I haven’t played at all really since the pandemic. So I’m gearing up for that and that’s something new for me. Well, recently new.
AH: Because you’ve been sitting on this album so long, do you feel like you may be carrying more anxiety with it because of the build up?
BS: That’s a great question. I mean, I am feeling some anxiety about the release for sure, because not only have I spent a lot of time working on this record, but it’s been a long time since I’ve released anything at all. So I do have some expectations that the old fans will tune in again and hopefully I’ll reach some new ones. But I’m definitely feeling some anxiety. I hope that it’s received well and we’ll go from there.
AH: Beyond how it does with fans, how much does the album mean to you personally?
BS: It’s a big… I guess you’d say a marker in my life. It feels like I’m on the right path finally. Because I should be writing and performing and releasing music as much as possible. And so personally, this is a special moment for me. It’s like starting over.
AH: That musical path—the business side of it—has changed a lot. Have you had to reeducate yourself leading up to this moment?
BS: It’s a very different landscape in terms of the digital ecosystem that music seems to exist in nowadays versus brick and mortar distribution. There are some firsts for me this go-around though. It’s the first record where I’ve had a little bit of a budget to work with and have been able to farm-out for distribution and publicity. It’s also the first record to be pressed to vinyl. I’ve had my hands in every stage of the process of recording and releasing this record. I even cut the master lacquer myself and will be running QA at the pressing plant where the record is being made. I will hand inspect each and every record myself.
AH: How far back do some of these songs go?
BS: So the songs that I recorded with the band, which will be side C of the double LP, those songs were written and recorded about six years ago. So that’s the oldest batch, those three songs. And then the newest material, I recorded during the pandemic, so very recent. So it spans a range.
AH: Do you feel like there’s a difference between who songwriter Brian was on those songs from six years ago and who he is today?
BS: I’d like to think so. I haven’t drawn too many differences. I’d say listening back to the older material, my voice has changed. That I’ve noticed, my voice is a little bit lower and I’m even having difficulty reaching some of the notes that I did six years ago, which is interesting. But I think I’m singing better overall. My voice is just changing.
AH: What would the Brian of 15 years ago think if he had a chance to listen to this record now?
BS: That’s a cool question. I’ve refined everything. The songwriting process, the speed at which I write. I’m able to sit down and write. It’s not as much of a chore as it used to be. So I think I would be excited about the direction that my songwriting has gone in. I’d be impressed with the production. I’m happy with it now. So, I’m sure I would be happy with it 15 years ago.
AH: Americana as a genre is certainly having a moment right now. Do you feel your style of songwriting is better timed for now just given what people are consuming?
BS: I suppose so. I have a few songs that lean towards that genre. I sometimes wish for the sake of convenience that I could just fit snug in a current music genre, but that’s not me. I wear a handful of hats and none are permanent.
AH: I’ve read that you said making this record became your therapy as you continue on your journey with sobriety. Will this album serve as a positive reminder for you to stay on that path?
BS: Yeah, I think so. I’ve been writing again and practicing and I will be performing so I’m getting ready for that. And it got away from me for so long and my, kind of, creativity burst, which coincided with around the time I stopped drinking. So I equate the two, for sure.
AH: There’s so much temptation in the music world. How do you separate yourself from the negative aspects and still be a part of it?
BS: Hmm. I drink non-alcoholic beers. That’s my solution. I guess, I’m lucky in that. I haven’t given into any kind of temptation and I don’t intend to and I feel really strong about that. I still go to bars. I like hanging out in bars and I’m just able to keep my head on.
AH: Do you have any advice for musicians who may be in a similar position as you and looking to navigate the world while clean and sober?
BS: I don’t have this big outgoing personality and didn’t want to do AA, but I needed help. I turned to friends who had battled addictions themselves. I received a lot of support this way. Talking to my friends in the scene was really important. I didn’t feel like I was battling it alone that way.
AH: When people hear that somebody took a 15-year hiatus, they think that person was completely away from it, but you were still engineering records for other artists. How did that impact your own creative journey? Were you still taking things from that process and applying it to what you are doing now?
BS: Yes, I learned quite a lot working on other people’s records and watching how other artists work. And one of the big things that I learned was how to work efficiently. And I learned that by picking it up from… Just from experience, working with various artists. So that helped inform my abilities to finish a record finally, because I was still playing out and trying to record in that 15-year period where I didn’t release any music. And I failed numerous times to make this record. There’s probably a few versions of it sitting on a hard drive somewhere. I’ve definitely picked up a lot of tools from working with other artists.
AH: In being with those other artists and seeing them call wrap on their accomplishments, did that motivate you to say, “This has to be me now. I’ve helped so many other artists and now it’s my turn.”
BS: I don’t know if I felt like it was my turn. There’s still a certain amount of creativity for me in engineering. And I get a release from that. It’s a completely different animal and way of thinking, on the production side versus the Brian Straw singer-songwriter side. They complimented each other and I’m lucky in that I can produce my own albums on my own, without assistance really.
AH: Having worn so many hats during this process, what are you most proud of?
Brian: I’m really happy with how the record turned out. I think the thing I’m most proud of is just finally finishing it. And if people listen to it, awesome, but I don’t have any big expectations and I’m just happy that it’s coming out into the world and I can let go of it.
AH: Where is your head at now with your music, and how does it judge the future of your career?
BS: I’m baffled and scared. I try not to drown in it. I’m changing and adapting, re-arranging and building. I’m working hard to survive. Nothing has been certain. Releasing this project to the world at this point in time serves as some kind of therapy for me. It goes deep and I put a lot of myself out there. There’s some anxiety that goes along with that. Am I revealing too much? Will I be understood? Those are chances you take when you let go of something deeply personal.
For more information on Brian Straw and his debut album, visit www.brianstraw.org.
Find new music on our playlist here: New Americana Music playlist by Americana Highways