Brian Owens

by Amanda Flinner

With a Grammy Award-winning duet partner like Michael McDonald on board, it's not hard to figure out why Brian Owens chose "For You" as the lead single for his Soul of Ferguson album. It's also not hard to figure out why Brian has been dubbed "the second coming of Marvin Gaye." When the former Doobie Brother first heard him singing "For You," he thought he was hearing an old Motown tune. McDonald's solo career has been stacked with critically acclaimed interpretations of classic soul songs, so he knows his stuff. And he was wrong. "For You," like all eight songs on Soul of Ferguson, is a Brian Owens original.

The St. Louis-born soul singer, who has performed for everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to former First Lady Michelle Obama, wrote the vibrant track as a testimony of faith. Paired with McDonald's vocals and backing from the Deacons of Soul, it soars into a transcendent love song that could've come straight out of Hitsville, USA. But Brian's roots run deeper than his musical influences, through the streets of his hometown of Ferguson, Missouri, where he shares a home with his wife and six children, to the church where he grew up singing hymns and gospel tunes. Shades of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and the Temptations color the album, but faith, family, and community form the foundation of Soul of Ferguson.

Leading up to the album's release (February 24, 2017 - you can get it on iTunes), Brian gave Songfacts a rundown of his soulful tracks.
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): You and Michael McDonald are both from Ferguson, but when did you first cross paths?

Brian Owens: I got the opportunity to open up for him in St. Louis, I think in 2015, for a benefit concert and we were connected by his best friend who still lives in the Ferguson area. I got to sing a couple of tunes with him and two months later ended up doing three shows with him, opening up for him on the road. While we were out on the road, much to our surprise, he would listen to our soundcheck, which is really cool. At one of the soundchecks he was listening and he came up afterwards and he asked about the song "For You," said that he dug it. That's pretty much it there.

He talked about how he liked it and the possibility of doing something with it, but it wasn't until maybe four or five months later that I pitched the idea to him again as the duet. After explaining to him what it was about, he was like, "Yeah, that's cool. Let's do that."

Songfacts: So, you didn't originally envision that song as a duet.

Owens: No, I'd actually recorded that song before. So, the song was never intended to be a duet. The content is really about transcendent love, love of God, and all that kind of stuff. So, I thought, "Oh this could be a cool duet," if it worked out, and it did. He killed it, to the point where I had to go back and redo my vocal.

Songfacts: So, at what point did you know that was going to be the lead single for this album?

Owens: Oh, pretty much the point when he said he'd do it. You got Michael McDonald on a single, you don't really think too hard about, "Oh, so, what are we going to put out first?"

But the good thing is that it turned out to be a really good track in many ways. Simple. Still, you know, it's one of the bigger tunes I've written but with his voice on it and the interplay with us, it definitely took it to a different place.

Songfacts: When did you become a songwriter?

Owens: That's a difficult question. I would say that since I was probably pre-teen, in those years, like around twelve, but it was never in a prolific sense. I wasn't the kid who learned to play piano, was writing all the time, learning to play guitar. I was really good at improvisation, making things up on the spot.

I don't think I got into writing writing until maybe the first couple years of college. Then I didn't really embrace it until I was in my 20s and really started exploring doing more songwriting and trying to write music that had meaning in the words and positive messages and transcendent thought and all that kind of stuff.

So, that's sort of how I've evolved. I feel like the older I get, the better writer I am. I don't exactly know why that is but I can see that being true. The more experiences I have, the more children I have, the more people I come in contact with and become involved in their lives, it always gives me a motivation to write, even though, still to this day, I'm not the prolific writer that sits down and writes a tune every day.

Songfacts: Right, so you don't have a set writing schedule where you sit down and have to write for a block of time.

Owens: No, I don't. I'm not saying that I won't one day - I could always adopt that. I like collaborating so I do that sometimes, but generally speaking it's more about things being crafted over time. I'll get a thought today and it may not be a song for a few years, and I think I'm not alone in that type of process. Once I find everything and I'm creating an album, that's a completely different mode. So, then I may be in a process where I'm doing daily writing, but usually in the meantime, in those off times, I'm doing other things that help me be creative and engage me in that way.

Songfacts: When you were talking about becoming a better songwriter the more experiences you have, that made me think of "Pretty Fine Thing." You're recalling a teenage experience of being in love, but it's from the standpoint of being a married man.

Owens: Yeah, and it's about the same woman, which is interesting. The first time I really saw my wife she was 14, and I wasn't ready for her at 17. I didn't really understand who I was and walking in my purpose and I kind of shrugged it off: "Oh, she's only 14? Oh, no."

Everything in that song is true: "The blueprint of my dreams that I pray it will come true." I didn't know when I was looking at her that that's who God was going to bring into my life, when the time was right. When I had come to a place of submission, I was ready to take on the responsibility of being a husband and a father. I didn't know that she was the one that He would bring.

It's a playful tune but it's definitely that transition from how I thought when I was a boy to now being a grown man and seeing the transition from her going from being my friend to being my fiancée to being my wife and my lover and now the mother of my children. Those different aspects of what make her a person, it's a powerful thing to see evolve because as she's evolved, it's evolved me – my understanding, in the way I see life, in my relationships, in God.

"Pretty Fine Thing." I struggled with that as the title. I was like, "Are some people going to be offended by that?" By that phraseology "Pretty Fine Thing." But there are a lot worse things in the cultural vernacular that people can use and I think the content of the song definitely suggests a respect for women and a respect for my wife. You know what I'm saying? To me it's not different from calling your wife "Baby." Some people may be offended by that and I'm like, "That's my wife."

Songfacts: Yeah, it's not like you're yelling it at some woman walking down the street.

Owens: Yeah. The song is contextually specific, meaning it ain't about no other woman. So, as long as she's not offended I don't really think that's bad.

Jarrett Johnson is a Grammy Award-winning songwriter who worked on Michael Bublé's 2009 album, Crazy Love, as a writer, producer, and vocalist. He also co-wrote Soul of Ferguson's "Pretty Fine Thing" and "So High."
Songfacts: That was one of the songs that Jarrett Johnson co-wrote. What did he bring to the table?

Owens: We've known each other for almost 20 years and because we know each other and we come from the same place in terms of our worldview, when I send him a hook or an idea and I say, "I need lyrics, I need a verse" or whatever, I don't have to wonder what perspective he's coming from. It makes it really easy for us to have a writing flow.

He's a really good lyricist and he's really good at simplifying ideas. I do a lot of play on words sometimes and hidden meaning, so it balances that out, so it's not a whole song where you're going, "What is he talking about?" It gives more of a pop sensibility to the feel of the lyric without taking away the deeper meaning of it. There's still sustenance there, there's still some meat in it, but it has a pop sensibility that's approachable.

"Pretty Fine Thing" is definitely a lyric that shows that. It's like a '60s pop tune in the feel and in the lyric. But when you really listen to the lyric, there's meat in it.

Aside from recording his own material, Brian has often tipped the mic to legendary performers in his Masters Series, with tribute concerts to Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, and Donny Hathaway. In 2014, he released the album You're All I Need – Brian Owens Sings Marvin Gaye.
Songfacts: You've also said in the past that performing covers helps you make your original material better. Were there any specific artists or songs that helped shape this album when you were putting it together?

Owens: Oh, my gosh. Okay, now let me ask you, who do you hear?

Songfacts: Well, straight off the bat, I thought of The Temptations… Curtis Mayfield. Marvin Gaye. I guess I knew the answer to this one myself!

Owens: You totally did it. I mean, look, every artist is the sum total of their influences. Even the ones that we feel are the most original, if we dig deep enough we'll find out, "Oh, that's where you got that." So, the idea of original/originality is being an original vehicle. It's not necessarily that the ideas or the esthetics are original. In a lot of ways, in me embracing those influences I find my own voice and it's comprised of the different colors.

It's like an artist who has a broad palette of colors that they work with. That's how I see the influences. There's a broad palette: you have the blue of Curtis, you have the red of Marvin, you have the green of Otis, you have the browns and the tans or the yellows of The Temptations. Whatever those colors may be, they make up my palette as a vocalist and I get to choose, depending on the song, which one I want to go after but once I put it on the canvas, how I put it on the canvas is Brian.

That's the originality. The colors are what they are but it's how they end up on the palette and how I use brushstrokes and the perspectives and those kind of things, which are just as important to how we define a vocalist or a songwriter as the way they sound. It's the whole thing.

You can definitely listen to my album and go, "Man, that reminds me of Curtis Mayfield, oh that sounds like some Stax horns, oh that sounds like this." Yeah, because that's what I listen to, that's what I study. I think that's a good thing because it's always informing my forward progression as an artist and as a writer - just expanding to more stuff.

That's why people who study classical music still study the same people. There's some new people that you study, but by and large you're going to study Bach, you're going to study Beethoven, you're going to study Mozart. Why? Because that's the foundation.

Same with jazz. You listen to Miles and you listen to Monk and you listen to Coltrane, because that's the foundation. Well, the foundation of soul is Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Motown, Stax, Muscle Shoals. For me, it's about getting into the roots music of other genres that are related, like the music of Johnny Cash and interpreting that music.

It all informs me as a writer. Especially Johnny Cash. I really, really dig Johnny Cash, and I really like Hank Williams, too, and the way they wrote. Those are two songwriters who are good people to study, so I have. More so Johnny Cash than Hank Williams but the influence is definitely in there.

Songfacts: The way things are now, with everything being digital, a lot of people cherry pick songs to download instead of buying a whole album. How important was it for you for people to experience this album as a whole, all at once?

Owens: While I do think it's important, I also understand, if that makes sense. Because even for me I see this album as an old-school LP - there's a Side A and a Side B. And the songs are really why the album can be experienced in its totality, like if you're listening to it on a CD.

I also see two sets of ideals: The A-side is basically what I would call love songs and the B-side is what I would call life songs. At this point I'm like, however people want to listen, just listen. That's the important thing. However you want to listen, just listen.

At some point this year, I'm sure we're going to put this on vinyl, and that's a whole other listening experience. Ultimately it comes down to what this music feels like in real time. I'm open because here's what I believe: People who really, really love and want to experience music, don't experience it in one way. Just because they download it doesn't mean they won't experience music in another way. If they're a music lover, they will.

I don't have a problem with somebody putting me in their playlist along with other stuff. That's kind of how '60s radio was. Top 40 radio, you may hear The Stones and then you hear The Temptations and then you hear Dylan and then you hear Cash. You would hear a wide range of musical expression, and I'm certainly open to filling in a hole in people's playlists.

Writers have to be really aware of the fact that you just want to share your music with people, and CDs may not be the best way to do that. Digital or Spotify/streaming or licensing is really where it's at - your music being used as a soundtrack, and that's what you want.

I just want the music to be used as a soundtrack. Whether I'm the soundtrack on your playlist, I'm the soundtrack on the commercial that you hear, or I'm a part of the soundtrack of the movie that you love. Ultimately, it's about people being exposed to and experiencing the music and now, more than ever, we have more ways to do that. It takes a little bit more strategy maybe and a little bit more thought put into how you position a brand and how you present things. But I don't want to be like, "Kill the download. You must listen to my album in its entirety for you to fully experience it." I'm like, "No, dude, if you listen to a song at a time, you'll get it."

Songfacts: Moving on to a couple of those songs, how did your kids end up on "Beautiful Day"? Was that a last-minute thing?

Owens: Yeah, it was. We'd already recorded the song and I wanted an intro because I just didn't like the way that it had started before. I wanted an intro but I didn't know what type of intro to use. One day, we went to a park in our town, Ferguson, and it's a really nice park because it's basically a school playground so you can go there after school's out. I have six kids but I had four of them that day, ranging in ages from eight to I think my son at the time, the youngest, was almost two. They were just playing, and the cool thing is the jungle gym there has a piano in it, like a tinker-tinker piano.

I took my iPhone out and started recording them running around and I said, "Oh, play that, play that." And then I was like, "Hey, guys, sing 'Beautiful Day,'" and they sang it. Then I came back and edited it down and I thought, "That's really cool."

I always try to involve my kids or my family in some way on records, I don't know exactly why.

In 2014 Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson following a convenience store robbery in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident brought national attention to the St. Louis suburb, where protests and riots erupted in the streets by residents who demanded justice, and sparked a conversation about race and police brutality. A grand jury ruled in favor of Wilson, a painful verdict for the community.

Brian turned to music to cope, but also launched several charitable initiatives to help his hometown move forward, including L.I.F.E (Leadership, Innovation, Faith and Excellence) Cultural and Performing Arts, which focuses on empowering youth through arts and education, and the music-therapy program Life Songs, in conjunction with the St. Louis Symphony and the Sterling Bank for Life Community Partnership. Learn more at brianowenssoul.com/.
Songfacts: The whole album, it has such a sense of optimism and hope, but you don't shy away from painful stuff either. What do you remember about writing "Prayer for My Children"?

Owens: Oh, it was right after Mike Brown, and from doing interviews and talking to people, working out what was going on, it was, "How do I explain all this to my children?" That's basically what "Prayer for My Children" is. It's a prayer, but it's also an explanation to them of expectation and letting them know, "This is your dad's worldview on what's going on. This is how I pray you will come to see the world you interact in."

Actually, that song was a part of a suite. There are two more songs that went with it, but we extrapolated it out and put it on this album.

To be truly optimistic you have to be realistic. Real optimism isn't Utopian, like you view life as a Utopia. To be optimistic, it's helpful to be realistic about what's happening, what's going on. You need a transcendent framework to help bring explanation so that you can have optimism.

I have a hope in something that's transcendent. Therefore, my optimism is rooted in something that's beyond the reality that I see. So, I can look at something and say, "Yeah, that's the reality, but here is a transcendent way of viewing that reality." This is why I can be hopeful and tell my children what I tell them in "Prayer for My Children." I think my favorite line in that song is, "Color and country don't define or make you who you are. God's love is the only thing that sets each one of us apart and binds us together."

We're all uniquely made. We're all created uniquely but at the same time we share so much in the fact that we were created by God. It's not too heavy but it's like our wrapping paper is our wrapping paper, but we all have a soul and a spirit and a mind and we have more similarities than we do differences.

February 24, 2017
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