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Concert Preview & Interview: Liz Brasher

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview & Interview: Liz Brasher
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The rising Memphis-based singer-songwriter will be at Newport Music Hall tonight performing tracks from her impressive and recently released EP "Outcast"

Liz Brasher’s EP, Outcast, is a feast for the ears. In the span of just six songs — most of which are under three-and-a-half minutes long — she dexterously whirls between blues, gospel, rock, country and old school soul. Most artists have some level of versatility in their vocal range and tone, but listening to Brasher so adeptly and so satisfyingly shift from the sultriness of “Body of Mine” to the classic rock wail of “Come My Way” will clue you into just how skilled a singer she is.

The North Carolina native-turned Memphis local has had a big year so far, making an acclaimed appearance at SXSW this spring, landing on NPR’s prestigious Slingshot up-and-coming artist list, and preparing for the release of her first full-length album, Painted Image, in October. In the meantime, she’s touring the country with an ambitious set of dates that will most certainly give America a proper introduction it needs to Brasher’s talents.

Tonight, Brasher’s pungent voice will no doubt fill Newport Music Hall to the rafters. A couple of weeks ago, we sat down (me in my office and she in a van while driving across Montana) to discuss the multiple cultural, musical, and educational influences that have helped shaped her path as a musician thus far.

You grew up in an incredibly diverse multi-ethnic household, which is the complete opposite of my experience because my family is anything but.

“Yeah, I’m first generation U.S., and my mom is from the Dominican Republic. My biological father, who I’ve never met, is actually Italian, but I was raised by my Dominican mom and my Jamaican stepfather in a rural town…this small town of Matthews, North Carolina.”

That had to be a fascinating experience living in the center of that particular blend of perspectives and ideas and values.

“It was fascinating. I think it was a little bit confusing until I got older, but confusing in the best way possible because I never really understood where I fit in. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized ‘oh, you don’t fit in anywhere, and that’s totally okay.’ It kind of allows me to float around to a lot of different diversities, you know? Between races and religions and cultures, just everything. I think I have a wider appreciation for a lot of those things, more than I would have had I not been so diverse.”

You’ve talked about your music being spiritual and that your earliest musical experiences were in church. I always think it’s intriguing to talk about religion and spirituality when it comes to music, because I think the two often get interchanged when, at least I believe, they don’t always inform one another. So how do those influences show up in your work?

“So, for me it’s more than just a religion, it’s more of a soul-to-soul experience. When you look at soul music in its context and history, and also blues, and also rock-and-roll, you’re gonna go back to the church, and there’s a good reason why. People were looking to have a direct connection and were looking to have some electricity within that. And that’s kind of what I seek to do more than anything is to spark that inside of people. I want people to be face-to-face with something honest, and to see that they can deal with that humanly. So it’s more about the soul, in general.”

As I did my research, the term “southern” has often been used to describe your sound. For those of us that were raised above the 39th parallel — or the 49th, in my case — what makes music inherently southern?

“Well, I think southern music, at its core, is music that’s about suffering. So, you’re face-to-face with either crying out, ‘Oh, woe is me!’ or being very resilient. And so southern culture and southern music encapsulates that for me. It’s the resiliency.”

“Outcast” is one of my favorite tracks off the EP, and I think that idea of not belonging or being out there on your own, as you just mentioned, takes on an entirely new meaning in the music industry, which just seems like a place where you could get lost or feel like an outsider. How have you navigated that as an artist so far?

“It’s great that I’ve gotten the start I’ve with a label like Fat Possum, because they’ve always been a label that’s said ‘f you’ to the mainstream and have just done whatever they’ve wanted to do. And they’ve survived. So it’s always great to have people like that, plus my entire team, on board like that, and they’ve made a whole career and livelihood out of just doing what they believe in. I’ve been surrounded by great people that believe in what I’m doing and are letting me experiment and express myself in that. So for right now, it’s fine being an outcast! [laughs]”

And that’s an idea that’s permeating throughout, and dividing, America right now — being or feeling alone in your principles, your values, your understanding of the world around you. I think “Outcast” could probably speak to people on a number of levels and across whatever those lines are between them and others.

“I mean, I hope so, because I feel like I needed to hear a song like that when I was younger. To know that it’s okay to not be accepted — you think it’s the end of the world when you’re in it. But looking back, it’s not and it’s okay.”

Everyone has been talking about Nashville and its role in the industry. So what part is Memphis playing in terms of its influence and culture? When you consider how integral Memphis was as a building block of so many genres in American music, in terms of the recordings that came out of places like Sun Records or Volt/Stax, it must be a pretty awe-inspiring place for a musician to live.

“Memphis has very much always been, and I think still is, where musicians just do what they want to do. And — surprise, surprise — it sounds really freakin’ good. It’s a place where people are uninhibited by what you see in Nashville. People having to conform to certain things. So of course it makes sense for me to be in Memphis. But also, it’s something that I heard just recently…somebody said something like ‘Memphis is…’ or actually they said, ‘If you want to find the groove, it’s three hours east of Nashville.’ And that’s very true. That’s where the groove of the whole country, the soul of the whole country had to get filtered through Memphis. And you still see remnants of that.

Honestly, I think it’s rebuilding, and I think it’s going to come back as one of the big forces in the music industry very soon.”

Let me just rewind for a second to your formative years. What do you remember about some of the very first gigs or shows you had in your career?

“I grew up singing in the church as a child. You know, I vividly remember having to take my first solos and things vocally there. And then I was always in band, and I had piano classes, so I had performances with things like that. But it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago and I started studying the roots of American music that I decided to pick up a guitar and form my first band. I remember we played to this huge…it was a church, actually, but the church was just hosting any kind of show people wanted to play, and a good friend of mine, Ethan Butler, was playing a show and we were opening it up for him.

It was wild! It was like ‘I don’t even know what I’m doing on a guitar and people are responding. Wow! They’re attracted to what I’m doing! Maybe I should keep doing this!’

You mentioned studying the influences in American music while you were in Chicago. In your opinion, who are the artists in our musical history that have been criminally overlooked or undervalued? Who would you want your fans to know more about?

“So I think at the top of that list is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I think the fact that the majority people are now just starting to discover who she is is really sad. I’d also put Bobbie Gentry on that list. Those two are contemporaries from around the same time, but never really…even though they had…especially Bobbie, she had one hit, they never really found a place to stay. So she had to go to Vegas and do all that weird showgirl stuff. But I think as a songwriter she was great. And Townes Van Zandt, Sunhouse, Lead Belly…and Pops Staples. I wish more people focused on him and his guitar playing.”

And now you’re on this tour that’s going to be absolutely huge for you. Thinking back to those early shows you used to play, what little experiential gems are you picking up as you’re now connecting with audiences as you showcase your new music. Has anything been surprising to you?

“One is when we hit a song and people know the song. That’s been pretty surprising because that hasn’t happened until now. For people to know ‘Cold Baby’, or ‘Body of Mine’, or even ‘Outcast’ is pretty cool. And then, what’s also been great is that a lot of people don’t know who I am — most of the country doesn’t know who I am. So going out there and just having to win an audience over, who I would think is generally pretty skeptical, you know, like, ‘Who is this? What are we about to see?’ And then seeing them all by the end of it become true fans, and fill up the room and move closer to the stage to be closer to the action. That’s been so cool! [laughs] So, that’s just helping me move along.”

Liz Brasher will take the stage tonight, along with Red Wanting Blue and The Receiver, 7 p.m. at Newport Music Hall, 1722 N. High St. in the University District. General admission tickets are $20 (plus applicable taxes and fees) and are available through Ticketmaster. More about Liz Brasher and her music can be found on her official website.

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