Ziek McCarter of Con Brio

by Dan MacIntosh

The frontman for the soul/funk flamethrower talks about his most personal song, and their "relay race" style of writing.

The seven-piece band Con Brio (translation: "with spirit") describes their music as a declaration of independence you can dance to. To that end, lead singer Ziek McCarter's physical performing style has drawn comparisons to both Michael Jackson and James Brown. And paradoxically, songs like "Free & Brave" make distinctly political statements, yet still remain sexy.

We spoke with McCarter at the Arroyo Seco festival in Pasadena, where he explained how the band creates songs and discussed one of his most personal songs, which deals with the 2011 death of his father at the hands of Texas police.

Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): What would you say is your most political song?

Ziek McCarter: I would say the most political song is likely "Free & Brave," but another one that's not necessarily political but touching the economic, capitalist nature our nation is a song called "Money."

Songfacts: That gets right to the point, right?

McCarter: Yeah. "Free & Brave," it gets a little political, but that's not the intention. The intention was to really process and create a positive momentum from a traumatic experience in my life. I wasn't really speaking to politics.

Songfacts: It's a personal song, but it's taken on a wider meaning.

McCarter: It alludes to the nature of police brutality, as well as other things. Poverty. The way we process and consume foods. Certain themes that I was drawing upon in that song. Those were the things I was carrying during that time in my life. It was inspired by one personal, traumatic event.

Songfacts: "Free & Brave" has been described as, in part, a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. How can music help the rest of the country understand what it's like to be a minority?

McCarter: Music has historically done that. Music has historically united us. United and influenced the assimilation of different cultures.

You know, there are still some stragglers that have their views, but music, I have seen historically in essence, speaks to the souls of humans, not just one particular audience. At many hip-hop shows, the demographic is mostly young, white teens. That emotion, that experience, might not be so parallel, but still it inspires.

Songfacts: How do you prepare for a situation where you're preaching to the choir? When you come to a festival like this, Arroyo Seco Weekend, I imagine you're going to find a lot of likeminded people that already agree with you. How do you reach the people that might not come into the tent, so to speak?

McCarter: I'm not here to preach to anybody. I'm here to be a liaison for elevation of our experience for that moment, no matter how long that moment is, 45 minutes or 90 minutes, however long I'm on that stage I just want to touch and see a part of ourselves musically, physically, emotionally, spiritually for a change they've never seen before, which is that moment. We want to elevate that moment we have.

We all walk away, like, "That's how you do it! That's how you have a good time. That's how you push past and harmonize and unify." That's the essence of what we are here to do.

Songfacts: But you don't want it to be such a message-heavy event that they feel like they're in church, right? You want them to have a good time. But if their consciousness is elevated while they're having a good time, it's a win-win situation.

McCarter: Right.

Songfacts: So, tell me about the songwriting process. Do you come to the band with songs, and then they add their parts? How do you write songs together?

McCarter: It's a little bit of both. Some songs are brought in from start to finish. "Free & Brave" is an example of that. It's a song I brought in, top to bottom, then worked it out. Then there are different nuances and personalities the band added to the song.

That's one way. And then another way is when the guitarist will bring in a skeleton of something, and I'll listen to it, catch a vibe with it and write some lyrics to it. Sometimes, we end up doing this relay race thing where there's an idea. We're in a room and we'll toss it around. We try so many different versions of the sections where we're, like, putting little things together. It's a very tedious process sometimes. But we all come out on the other side unified and deliver a song.

Songfacts: So, songs don't generally come quickly.

McCarter: Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. One song we wrote, just this past week, called "Texas Summer," literally we had a section in rehearsal. I wasn't there, and the guitarist, Ben worked out something with the band and sent it to me. I caught wind of it, and I thought, "That's really cool. I wanna touch that when we get to rehearsal. What was that y'all recorded and sent to me?" We played it and instantly, the lyrics came in that rehearsal. I went home and refined it a little bit, but the inspiration just hit. It hits in different ways sometimes. It's not just one way. It varies.

December 6, 2018
Steve Rosenfield Photography - What I Be Project (1), @Andrea Kash (2)

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