Tracing an Orbit: An Interview with Brie Capone

Tracing an Orbit: An Interview with Brie Capone

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Brie Capone

Brie Capone is gorgeous in every way. The 20-something singer, who moved back to Asheville earlier this year, has a distinctive sound that is deeply soulful, intimate, jazz-inflected, and sensuous. She recorded her new EP, Orbit, at Asheville's own Echo Mountain Recording Studio. The album was released in August, and Capone has since decided that she and Asheville get along just fine. 

Although Capone was born in Boston, her family moved south to the Blue Ridge when she was 12. She returned to Boston for a stint at Berklee College of Music, and then made her way to New York City, where she played with a band until deciding to head home to the mountains and her family. Orbit collects songs from the past few years together in a way that gives listeners intimate glimpses of Capone's life, through moments of triumphant love and connection as well as times of heartbreak and disappointment. Although Capone didn't write the songs with one album specifically in mind, they fit together perfectly, tracing the orbit of her own life and the trajectory that her art has taken. 

Capone makes a point of collaborating with other area artists, and she'll be playing a show with CaroMia at the Bywater on December 3rd (she's also got a solo show this Friday at One World Brewing). Orbit was created collaboratively, as well, with additional instrumentation and production provided by Peter Brownlee and other members of local outfit Midnight Snack. These supporting musicians flesh out songs that are gorgeously performed and felt, but the heart and soul are all Capone. Her powerful voice on "Scars," an ode to love so good--or bad--it hurts, puts her in the company of greats like Amy Winehouse and Adele, while songs like "Vinyl" has the rollicking feel of blues-y Southern rock played in a late-night dive bar. The title song, "Orbit," could find a home on any Joni Mitchell album until it sinks down into Capone's earthier, sexier, register. It's a beautiful, deeply satisfying track, where Capone's powerhouse vocals layer over piano, guitar, bass, and percussion. 

I spoke with Brie Capone about the album, her career so far, her return to Asheville, and what's up next. 

Ali McGhee: Tell me a little about you--your backstory. There are clearly Southern influences in your sound. Do you identify as a Southern musician?

Brie Capone: I grew up in Boston, and my parents moved to Asheville when I was 12. So I wasn't born in the South, but I've developed a real love affair with the word 'y'all.' My music isn't full on Southern, but it's got Southern blues rock, as well as indie and folk, influence. My mom and dad both influenced me a lot musically. They were always listening to different stuff: Barbara Streisand, Bonnie Raitt, Steely Dan...

I started singing at eight years old. I was into musical theatre from a young age, and I was excited to perform and be on stage. I got a guitar for Christmas one year and songwriting just kind of happened. I was already writing poetry, and songwriting just sort of came along naturally. I loved the effect it had on me. And I had a super crush on John Mayer [laughs], and I found out I could do that too, what he was doing. I wanted to be John Mayer, haha. I fell in love with performing and creating. I like to perform for people. I like interacting with audiences and including them in my shows. I want to put together a good show where I can interact and make people laugh. That's important for me. I was a singer in high school, and then I went to Berklee.
 
AM: This is a haunting, deeply personal album. Can you talk about the genesis of this project? 
 
BC: I had been living in NYC for three years for a band, and we decided to call it quits. I had the option of staying in New York and figuring out life up there, but I started looking at other options and felt like it might be time for a change in general. So I started to plan the move and this album simultaneously. I had songs that never really quite fit the feeling of the band that I'd started and stopped, and I had songs from earlier that I liked but didn't get to pay attention to. And Asheville happened to have one of the coolest studios in the country (Echo Mountain). I found out a couple of bands I really admired had recorded there, and I thought, 'If I live in a place like that and have my family there I can go over the summer and record this music I have, and I can meet up with musicians here and see what happens.' That was the idea behind it. 
 
AM: How do you feel about being here, now that you've spent several months? Are you here to stay for a while?
 
BC: I think I'm on the fence. I'm at this weird point in life where I really have nothing keeping me here in the sense of responsibility except to my career. But does that mean staying here, or maybe traveling to promote the EP I have? I've met incredible musicians, even though I was working on my main project here I also started writing songs and coming up with production ideas for other projects, which has been awesome. So what do I do? I've booked some acoustic shows outside of Asheville just to travel and spread the word and see what happens. I'm not 100% sure I'll be here for the next 10 years, but I love it here.
 
AM: What other musicians have you been collaborating with here?
 
BC: Since I've been back I've worked a lot with Peter Brownlee, the bass player from Midnight Snack. Several members of the band also went to Berklee but we didn't know each other; it's a super weird coincidence. Peter was super helpful with the EP, and a lot of guys from Midnight Snack came and played on it. We've been collaborating on a bunch of projects. Zack Cardon (the guitarist) and I have started writing music together. CaroMia and I started working together because of a songwriting night as Isis. There are lots of talented, independent artists here.
 

AM: How do you feel about Asheville's music scene now? What do you love about it? What do you feel is missing?
 
BC:  I've noticed a lot as a person coming back to Asheville after being away for a little while. There definitely is more of a vibrant music scene in general. I found very welcoming people always willing to jam and work on stuff.
 
We have room to grow generally as a city in our support of musicians. It's not that musicians here aren't professional--"professional" is not the right word because people are really professional, but having a larger audience would be helpful to sustain us. We're not like a Nashville or an L.A. The scene here has its own vibe, but there are ways we want to be more independent and be able to be full-time musicians, because a lot of us have part-time jobs. We're sustained somewhat by festivals that come through, and the brewery scene has done an amazing job of bringing people here and has facilitated musicians. Andrew Scotchie and the River Rats just played at Highland, for example. So it's a really cool thing that lots of different breweries are facilitating the music scene here. But recently it became obvious that if I was going to stay for longer I needed a way to get money. Being a musicians wasn't going to cut it. So I just started working at a store downtown.
 
AM: How do you compose your songs? Do you start with the lyrics or the instrumental/piano line? You mentioned you write poetry--how do you decide whether something will be a poem or a song?
 

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BC: I think I've always had a love for melody lines, but I seem to lean more towards observations, I guess. I take an observation and ask, 'Is this worth creating a world or a story around?' So I end up writing notes to myself with concepts or ideas, little voice memos. Maybe it's something that makes me laugh, or words that sound good together. I ask myself, 'What imagery does that produce?'

AM: Can you give me an example of that?

BC: Recently, I came up with and liked the phrase "Wild women wilt." What would it mean to be a wild woman? And what does it look like for her to wilt? That brings in the concept of personifying her through a flower or a cactus, perhaps. At that point I can see that this could be bigger; it could be a storyline.

I tend to work more that way, and melody lines come with that for me personally. I play guitar and a little piano, so it's always more about seeing how words and phrases work with chord changes, and matching feelings and emotions with major and minor chords. 
 
I have nights where I end up writing in prose or rhymed lines, and looking at how words line up. Depending on the subject matter, I might just really like a rhyme, but sometimes it's more that I'm trying to think through something.
 
AM: This EP is lovely, but my favorite song might be "Orbit." There's so much happening in it, from your gorgeous lyrics and vocals to all of the guest musicians. The lyrics are fascinating, bringing together ideas of love, death, and the cosmos. Can you talk a bit more specifically about this song?
 
I wrote "Orbit" right as I was leaving NYC, and it became the EP title because it was a good fit for what I was going through, leaving people I loved for myself, for my mental health and soul, but kind of orbiting at the same time, revolving and seeing what comes next. I think it was both how I was feeling about my orbit, and about us, the earth, in orbit in general. I was leaving someone I really cared and loved, one of my first loves, and feeling like it was like dying for the first time. I got all spacy about it. I was thinking about the fact that when we see stars they might already be dead. Also the idea that we, ourselves, give off light. And I think Bowie had just died. I felt very "in the stars" at the time.
 

AM: The video for "Scars" is gorgeous. Tell me about the process of creating it with your director. How did you choose the location (near Skinny Dip Falls on the Mountains to Sea Trail)? Were you freezing? That water is freezing! 

BC: I was dying on set, it was so cold! There's a scene when I come out of the water all in slow motion, but in real life in the next second I was gasping and yelling for air. I had come up with the concept for the video, I had gone up there with a few friends and I fell in love with that area. After being in the city, coming back and being surrounded by all this nature felt right for me. It was how I wanted things to be represented on the EP and for me. That was a beautiful location, and I started to get an image in my head of me naked in the water. I thought it would be really pretty with all my hair.

So I sketched out a couple of ideas for it and then I was talking to my producer, Peter (from Midnight Snack). He was super helpful in helping me figure out how we were gonna make it happen. I came to him and said, 'I want to be on a mountain in October, naked,' and he said, 'I think we can figure that out.' Andrew Anderson, who directed the video, is a local artist and has done more hip hop videos, videos with the local rap scene, but I loved the video quality and his style, and he was interested. Peter helped facilitate that, we recorded it on his iPhone and did a basic layout first.

AM: Were there any specific musical (or literary/artistic) inspirations for the album, or for specific songs, that you'd like to share? Or in general for you as a musician?
 
BC: Dawes--really I admit I'm kind of a fangirl, they're just a very talented band from Los Angeles, CA, that has that California sound. I hear influences of Jackson Brown. They just released an album produced by Blake Mills. They tend more towards the rock than the California country sound, like the Eagles. Taylor Goldsmith is the frontman and he has his own lyrics, and style. I gravitated towards them in NYC. I felt very drained the last year in NYC and wanted to be out of the city, in nature, closer to home. I wanted to go somewhere where people would interact, and be human with you, and I started listening to their music and they have that vibe. They have a song, "Take Me Out of the City," that was so perfect. It's that old-school country rock blues stuff I thought was awesome. Also Father John Misty, I love him and I really love the raw sound he brings, so he was influential.
 
I just started reading Don DeLillo. I really got into his style of writing as well and read a couple of his books as I was writing some of the songs here. 
 
AM: When can we catch your next performance, and what's the next project?
 
BC: I'll play Friday at One World Brewing--an acoustic solo set. And I'll play with CaroMia December 3rd at the Bywater, more acoustic stuff.
 
When I finished the EP and started to promote it I had two shows with a full band--the guys that recorded on the album--so that was super fun. It's been really cool to just book a show and go by myself to do that, but one goal would be to have a full band for larger shows. I do love the time I've been able to spend talking to people and meeting people and being available without needing to worry about three other people from a band being there.
 
I'm working with Zack on some new ideas. We eventually want to record a new thing. It would still be a project under my name, but it's been great to meet someone else and work with them and see where it goes. It will sound like me but I came from a different direction than usual with the way I was writing some of the choruses. That's still a little tiny baby, there's no release date yet. 
 
Catch Brie Capone at One World Brewing this Friday, and see her at the Bywater with CaroMia on December 3rd.