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An interview with Paul Brown - 56th Annual GRAMMY Award nominee

Bobby Rush and Paul Brown at Ocean Soul Studios
Bobby Rush and Paul Brown at Ocean Soul Studios
Paul Brown

Imagine attending an awards ceremony, the excitement level is usually always high. But, one could say the excitement level gets cranked up to eleven out of a maximum of ten for Music's Biggest Night...the GRAMMY Awards. And, probably so much more if you are a GRAMMY Award nominee! What must it feel like? What does it take to get into that position in the first place?

Bobby Rush Down In Louisiana Album Cover
Bobby Rush

Paul Brown is an award-winning, producer, engineer, songwriter and musician, from Memphis, TN, who currently lives in Nashville, TN. Brown received a GRAMMY Award nomination in the Best Blues Album category for his work with Blues legend, Bobby Rush on their release entitled, Down In Louisiana for the upcoming 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards. He is one of those rare individuals who has a unique expertise, perspective, and aptitude for bringing out the best in others, while also bringing out the best in himself. He is sought after by musical legends, musical pioneers, to up-and-coming new talent for his generous heart, goodness of character, and ability to instinctively understand the creative process and utilize his exceptional skills to achieve end product that is truly captivating and quite remarkable. He has a sincere love of his profession and a complete dedication to and passion for his craft.

I recently had the honor and privilege of chatting briefly with GRAMMY Award nominee Paul Brown, via telephone, leading up to his participation in the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards on Sunday, January 26th, 2014, and live performance at Americana's Pre-GRAMMY Salute & Tribute to The Everly Brothers: Remembering the late Phil Everly at the Troubadour in Los Angeles on Saturday, January 25th, 2014.

William Kelly Milionis: Hi Paul, thank you so very much for this interview opportunity. It's truly an honor and privilege to chat with you. How are you?
Paul Brown: Oh, thank you. I'm good, man.

Kelly: Congratulations on your GRAMMY Award nomination, your first...how does it feel?
Paul: It's very surreal [laughing] it really is man. Thought I was gonna be nauseous. [laughing] You know how they run, right? They do the pre-telecast and they don't drop the bomb until the minute after. I was actually on a gig with this great Blues guitar singer named, Sean Chambers. I was about eight minutes from getting on stage with him and man I was looking down at my phone every few minutes checking to see if the list came out. And then, I tell you, I'll never forget that feeling ever, seeing our album on that list. [out of breath]

Kelly: That's a great story. You are nominated with Blues legend Bobby Rush for his Down In Louisiana release in the Best Blues Album category at the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards. When did you first meet Bobby Rush?
Paul: Oh my gosh, I started playing with Shirley Brown, the Stax artist, back in 1991, I believe. About that time I met Bobby, because Shirley Brown and J. Blackfoot, whom I also played with, they all kind of ran in the same circuit. We all called it the Chitlin' Circuit. We had met briefly, he saw me, I saw him and I just loved his shows. It wasn't until, [laughing] believe it or not, I had just gotten off tour with Jimmie Jamieson in Survivor so I was living in the barn in the back of Ann Peebles' house and just got off this year long tour with Survivor and I was just kinda wondering what I was going to do next. And then, I get a call out of nowhere from Bobby, you know and he goes, "hey, I don't know what you're doing, but I'd love to have you out on the road." And, I'm like this is great because Ann is not really doing anything right now and this other gig just fell through with Survivor. I ended up going on the road with him and man, we instantly connected. I mean it was so amazing! We ended up doing the first record called, Undercover Lover that actually did pretty well too. From there, when we started working in the studio then I think that was around 2002, and man, our energy together in the studio was just so incredible. I think the thing that Bobby really gets about me is that I totally understood where he was coming from. Man, I had all these other influences coming from my heart because I'm a big classic rock kid, you know. I had Zeppelin, and Aerosmith, and all this stuff flying through my head man, and I tell you man it just culminated and grew and it's really been an amazing experience.

Kelly: Truly shows how well you both work together and what you bring to the table. You both have that creative spark that starts the fire when you are together. The mark of a great producer and engineer is the ability to pull out or capture the best performance from an artist at that given time which you have done on so many occasions in your career and with so many different artists. Do you see a marked difference in performance with Bobby Rush from Show You A Good Time to Down In Louisiana?
Paul: Not so much from Bobby, because Bobby is Bobby. Whatever he does is just amazing! I think I saw it in me, and what I was bringing to the table. On Show You A Good Time, I programmed all the drums. It's just crazy what I built out of little bits and pieces of stuff to make these songs, you know. When I listen to that record, there's another thing to man, when I listen to Show You A Good Time, and it won the BMA Award [Blues Music Award, Blues Foundation Memphis] which was really crazy because it wasn't really promoted that well. When I listen to aspects of that record, I am like, gosh I just wish I would've done it a little bit this way or that way. Well, with this record [Down In Louisiana] I was so determined not to go back and look at them like that. So, first and foremost everything has to be live...everything. And, that's the biggest factor that I see in the difference between those two records. And so, what I did is, I got my guy, Pete Mendillo, the drummer who toured with me and Survivor, with Ann Peebles. He's got this John Bonham, Al Jackson thing in his spirit and his soul you know and when you see him play and you see him record you feel that. I knew that he would bring that kind of outside-of-the-box element to this record and put a feel on it that I couldn't have ever done and that I didn't do on the last two records I did with Bobby. The same, without a doubt, goes for my dear friend and guitarist Lou Rodriguez, who played with Country legend Neal McCoy for fifteen years, and has this incredible Funk history before that. Every session I was always beyond amazed at the guitar parts Lou would come up with to complement Bobby’s own guitar parts. Same, of course, goes for Bobby’s long time bassist Terry Richardson, who had driven up from Atlanta just three days after a kidney operation. Man, I am so grateful we got him on this album. So it was just me and these three beautiful spirits to create this awesome live element you know, that was a big difference for me. I think the one thing I can say though, is every record that Bobby and I do together, I always manage to bring something out of him vocally that maybe I didn't realize was there on the previous record, because he's just got so much in him, you know!

Kelly: There is definitely a different feel between Show You A Good Time and Down In Louisiana. Show You A Good Time has a laid back, a bit out-of-the-pocket groovy feel to it. Down In Louisiana has a brighter, tighter, in-the-groove performance feel and it moves or flows very well...
Paul: It's got a good flow doesn't it, throughout the whole record. On Show You A Good Time, the flow was really weird for me and it wasn't Bobby. It was just really how I had to do the production given the budget that we had, you know.

Kelly: You are definitely a highly accomplished musician, keyboardist. One of my most favorite instruments is the Hammond B3 and you do play the Hammond B3. I've grown up musically in the 60's, 70's, and early 80's, and it would always seem if a musical artist added that Hammond B3 element to a song, that song would always go to number one.
Paul: You're so right. [laughing]
Kelly: It sort of lost its way though in the late 80's and 90's, but I have seen a resurgence in the use of Hammond B3. Have you seen its comeback?
Paul: I do think there is a massive resurgence in B3, man! I think part of it is with the resurgence of classic rock coming back and classic soul, you know. When you hear these commercials today, you hear so much more classics than you do the new stuff, you know. Like car commercials, you hear these B3 licks because you were absolutely right man, back in the day you played B3 on a track and it was going to be a great record and that's just it. It's just come back in that kind of way and I think it's amazing.
Kelly: Because you are so adept and so talented on the Hammond B3, when do you decide to use it on a track? Is it an instinctual, innate decision?
Paul: It just reveals itself. I sort of really don't try to contemplate on that too much, you know. The vibe just sort of dictates it. You hear the track, you hear this rhythm section, it's like for instance, just three weeks ago I got a call from Derek St. Holmes, the lead singer for Ted Nugent, he's like, man can you come in and do this session. I was like sure man. This guy that owns the studio out in Leipers Fork here in Nashville, it's a beautiful studio. I walk in and it's Derek St. Holmes from Ted Nugent and Brad Whitford from Aerosmith and they're doing a second solo album. I bring the B3 in and he's personally just kind of wanting piano and different things like that. When I heard the track, it's just like B3, my approach is when I pull the track up, I start playing. I don't think, I just feel. It's like what comes out of my fingers just happens and it's just purely by a feeling, and heart, and soul, that has nothing to really do with - oh man you know, should I put B3 on this? Bobby has never had a B3 solo on any record in his life that I've ever heard. In the first song, Down In Louisiana, we're going along in the track and all of a sudden I'm playing along and I just play this solo and I'm just like, oh my gosh, this worked. This is cool. I'm so glad that I connect with an instrument that way. It brings something out of me that no other keyboard does, that's for sure.

Kelly: There's a unique passion that comes from within with musicians and musical artists; those 'supercreatives'. There's a passion that comes through when they perform with their instrument or when they write a great song lyric or when they perform to the best of, or above, their capabilities. You can just feel it...it's palpable and it speaks volumes for you and the talent you have that you are able to give back to the world such great music.
Paul: Well, thank you so much man. Again, going back to when I first saw that nomination man, you know you're talking about a kid now, this is a kid now 50 [years old] so you're talking about a kid that has no school training in studio, because I didn't go to college and everything I learned was by feel. The first record I produced was with Stax Records guitarist and engineer Bobby Manuel, and I did an Ann Peebles record with him. It was the first record that I had co-produced. This was only in 1994, wasn't that long ago. It gave me a sense of feel. Coming from a homeless school man, living in barns, and just scraping. I've been a NARAS [National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences] member since 1996. I've submitted quite a few records and of course they all make the first rounds but you know everyone that would come out I would feel good about the record and then the list would come out and it wouldn't be there; it just seemed like such a far off dream. I'll tell you what man, when I looked down at that, because again to take you through it a little bit, here's the deal man, I'm getting ready for this gig and I'm on a cell phone and there is this GRAMMY365 live blog stream that you can go to on your phone and you keep refreshing it and it kinda tells you play by play what's going on in the GRAMMY telecast. At 10:01pm, I hit the refresh button and that pdf file of the list comes up, man. I find the Americana Roots Field, and I find our category. I'm scrolling down and I swear it's like slow motion, man. My stomach is turning cartwheels and I'm a nervous wreck. I'm seeing Billy Boy Arnold, James Cotton, Ben Harper, Joe Bonamassa on the list and oh, we're not gonna make it. Then I see our name, and I'm not kidding you man, I almost passed out. Here's instantly just started every crazy musical experience in my life that I did to sacrifice for my kids you know and the time for relationship whatever it was like everything was all validated you know, like Ok it was worth the climb man and this is by your peers as this is judged and there were many other cats on this ballot including Buddy Guy...
Kelly: and Buddy Guy did not receive a nomination...
Paul: I know, I know, that just does not happen in Buddy Guy's world. So, it just really validated all the crazy musical experiences and the climbs that I made. Even if we don't win I tell you what man, I feel like I took Bobby down a different road on this one you know, than even the Show You A Good Time record, I just took him down a much more organic road for me you know. I've never in my life done Cajun Zydeco stuff so for the title track to come out with this cool feel that doesn't sound fake...
Kelly: Yes, who played squeezbox?
Paul: Oh, me! And, I've never played squeezbox! I've never played squeezbox in my life man! I'm serious!
Kelly: But, that set-up the entire record...it's the little nuances that the listener can pick up on that makes the record so great. That GRAMMY nomination is so well deserved.
Paul: It's huge man, it really is huge. It's an experience that I will never forget, man. The process, I spent hours after that reaching out to voting members on GRAMMY365 and really reaching out. I really feel we have a lot of important people who will vote in the Blues world. I got so much wonderful support from the New Age world, from the Jazz world. Scott Healy, Conan's keyboard player, who is also nominated, has become a dear friend of mine through this process. He would've never even thought of the Bobby Rush record. He probably would not have thought about the Blues category. You know what man, I gotta tell you, I'm so grateful at this time in my life I don't have like an unjaded heart. Every time that I sit down, if I'm recording or playing live or bringing a vocal out of somebody or getting to play a certain way as a Producer, I'm so grateful that I still have the spirit that I had when I was fifteen. And no matter what the budget is, it just doesn't matter. It's like everything that I do musically, I put my whole self into it and become that.

Kelly: Again, it speaks volumes for you and your talent because you get that feel from your material and it comes off in a unique way and it's real; it's not forced.
Paul: Well, I thank you so much man. I gotta thank Bobby too, man, because I pull a lot out of Bobby, man, but Bobby has brought a lot out of me. He's like given me these roads to go down that I would've never had and it's so amazing. And again, I just gotta tell you man, that the other thing that really means a lot to me is the fact that whenever I thought about a GRAMMY nomination or win, I always associated with a big studio; you know with lounges, and 2nd engineers, and interns, and a different cat mixing, and all the bells and whistles, man. But, we did this record out of a small studio that my wife April and I, who is a great new age artist herself, we just built this out of our own budget. It's a small, but very inspiring place. There were no second engineers, there were no big lounges, there's no separate mixer. I have one guy that masters all of my records and he has for years. Kevin Nix and Larry Nix and they've done all the Stax stuff with more credits, and they've always managed to, whatever my shortcomings my ears have, they've brought them up to par. You know what it tells me, is that there is a shot for the little guy man!

Kelly: That's true. You can come out of nowhere if you have the right product, the right recording, and the way it's recorded, and you've captured and presented the feel and passion...and you've got that.
Paul: And, I sure came out of nowhere brother. [laughing] Nashville is a big city man, with a lot of studios man. [more laughing]

Kelly: How did you come up with the name of your studio Ocean Soul being that you are in Nashville and not near an Ocean?
Paul: Man, that was my wife's idea. We were shopping in Lowes, shopping for paint. My favorite colors are purple and turquoise, I love those two colors. And you know, she found those colors and I believe that was the actual name of the paint. And she goes this is perfect. And then Auralex turned me onto all of the beautiful acoustic foams. She designed these amazing fish out of the acoustic foams and it's like Ocean Soul...that's it man! And, this is what it's got to be. Plus, it's very calming.
Kelly: Your wife actually designed the fish?
Paul: She did, man! [stated emphatically and proudly]

Kelly: How is it that you are in Nashville, a Country music hub, you've been mentored by Louise Mandrel herself, that you've not had many Country music clients?
Paul: I have not. Because when I came to Nashville, I hooked up with Louise when I was fourteen or fifteen and she became my big sister and took me on my first tour. Then, out of nowhere, because the school thought I was getting special treatment, on my seventeenth birthday she did this birthday party for me, about a month or two after that they came and told her that I did not want to see her anymore and they told me she did not want to see me anymore. And I was crushed. And so she disappeared from my life. For years and years we never knew where each other was. I would send letters to her mom who had her management company, but she never got them for some reason or another. When I moved to Nashville in 2004, I really did not have a studio when I came to Nashville. I came to Nashville to take a gig. So for the first four years in Nashville, April and I lived in an apartment. We found this house a couple of years ago that had almost a studio that we just finished building out together. So when I finished building this out, I really wasn't thinking about country. I just thought I want to do great soul records and rock records out of here. I just thought if I could bring out all the things that I have from Memphis, there will be something really viable about that maybe not so much here in Nashville, you know. It just kind of played to my advantage. Not that I don't dig country music, but it's just not something that I really came to do. The gig that I took was a blues gig, it wasn't even a country gig to come here. But if I do a country record, man it's gonna be a lot a soul in it.

Kelly: That's great. It's obvious that you are passionate about your music and your craft and you're always trying to raise the bar and then when you set that bar you always try and raise it again.
Paul: Man, you are sure one hundred and twenty percent right about that!
Kelly: Do you have any advice for those beginning their career?
Paul: Man, you know, I would say stay humble and true to yourself. And, never stop learning. Now, at 50 [years old], my wife is battling stage four Metastatic Cancer and its really made me retool some thinking, some priorities. I tell you what man, the hardest thing to do and the hardest thing for me in my life, in my musical life, has been to balance my personal life with it because of how I grew up. And I pushed myself so hard you know, and I think if you do things with good karma in mind, with a pure heart and you're honest, you just can't go wrong. It will keep your heart from being jaded by this business.

Kelly: You are going to be on the red carpet soon. Have you decided what you are going to wear?
Paul: Oh, [laughing loudly] man I'm working on stuff now. [laughing] Now, I can tell you what I do have. I have a white pinstripe suit and bellbottoms and if you open up the inseam it says, custom tailored for Willie Mitchell by Lansky Brothers [much laughing]. It's just so mind blowing! I got the suit because one of my dearest friends in the world, and a guy who taught me about arranging strings and horns, was James Mitchell. James Mitchell was Willie Mitchell's brother and he arranged most of the horns and strings for all the Al Green Jr. and Ann Peebles stuff...all the beautiful strings. When he passed away, I wore an outfit of his at his funeral. After that, his family invited me over to his house and gave me all his clothes from the 70's, including the outfit he wore when he played on the Aretha Franklin Live at Fillmore album. I've got the black pair of slacks that he wore on that gig and they're just amazing. They are bellbottoms, but they're just crazy awesome. I think I'm going to wear that down the red carpet. I wanna bring some of that because most of the stuff that I have was given to me by guys like bass player, Leroy Hodges, that played on all the Al Green and Ann Peebles stuff. I mean, we were rehearsing for a tour with Ann and he pulled up in his Camaro and he opens the trunk and he gets all the stuff that he wore back in the day...everything. He was like, man, I know you'll wear it. I'm just gonna give it to you. [lauging] So I wanna wear those to pay homage. I've got a really killer seamstress working with me for what I'm actually gonna wear on that red carpet. It will definitely be one of a kind, that's for sure!

Kelly: Will you will be performing live with Blues legend Bobby Rush at Americana's Pre-GRAMMY Salute & Tribute to The Everly Brothers: Remembering the late Phil Everly at the Troubadour in Los Angeles on Saturday night?
Paul: I will! I just confirmed it. Bobby and I are going to be doing Gone, Gone, Gone. I'm going to have an old Wurlitzer, a Rhodes, and Bobby's gonna have his Strat. It's going to be the two of us...that we are.

Kelly: I am truly humbled, honored and privileged to have the opportunity to chat with you. I thank you so very much for this interview. I wish you all the best and continued success in your career and good luck on Sunday, January 26th!
Paul: Well brother, it is so good. Again, I can't thank you enough, man, for what you do and the support, man, I swear I can't, you know it means so much. Thank you so much and back at you brother. Thank you brother, you take care, man.

*I would like to extend a big thank you to Ms. Lynn Orman Weiss of Orman Music. Her love of music and of Blues music specifically, is revealed through her passion, effortlessness, and dedication to her craft, just like that of Paul Brown and his exceptional creative talents. She is a music preservationist and one who has provided promotion and publicity for the likes of legends David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Ella Jenkins, and Bobby Rush; escorting them during the GRAMMY Awards red carpet festivities. As she has stated, "these artists are true national treasures, unsung heroes who deserve all of the recognition while they are alive. It is such an honor to represent them." She was responsible for securing this interview.*

Tune in to the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards live on Sunday, January 26th, 2014, at Staples Center in Los Angeles and broadcast on the CBS Television Network from 8:00-11:30pm (ET/PT).