Since taking the world- or at least Portland, Oregon- by storm with her debut album Do Not Stare eight years ago, Rachel Taylor Brown has inspired plenty of kudos from fans and confusion among critics struggling to define her nonconformist sound. Nearly eight years later, the self-described introvert and comic book geek is back at it again with Susan Storm’s Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes, a sprawling album depicting the dark, inner lives (and sometimes deaths) of heroes both imaginary and real. I caught up with Brown via phone, and we discussed, among other things, salt shakers, summer reading, and the eventual takeover of the world by our manatee overlords.
John Winn: So do you collect salt shakers?
Rachel Taylor Brown: No!
JW: You must have been joking with me.
RTB: No! I didn’t say anything about salt shakers…Oh! Okay! I was joking about it because you said something in your initial email about “Talking about the album or anything you wanted to.”
RTB: [laughs] I thought , “Yeah, that’s a risky thing to say to someone, depending on what their hobbies are.”
RTB: I don’t actually collect salt shakers. I thought I could talk about them for the next two hours.
JW: I was just curious because you seemed to have been excited about them.
RTB: [Laughs]. I was just imagining you saying to someone, “Yeah, we can talk about whatever you want,” and then launching into something as exciting as talking about salt shakers. It really amused me.
RTB: Like the interviewer’s nightmare.
JW: [Laughs] Yeah. Now this current album…let me think… Superheroes and Saints or Saints and Superheroes?
RTB: I’m sorry. It’s a little bit hard to hear you.
JW: It is?
RTB: Yeah, it’s kind of muffled sounding.
JW: Is it the volume?
RTB: No, I think the volume is okay.
JW: Hmm hmm. It’s just my voice.
RTB: Where are you from?
JW: I’m calling from my cell.
RTB: Oh, okay.
RTB: It sounds like you have a little accent.
JW: Yeah, I’m from the South.
RTB: What part?
JW: North Carolina, actually.
RTB: It’s beautiful down there.
JW: Yeah, just the part of Greensboro, High Point…
RTB: Yeah, I’ve only seen a little bit of it… I’m trying to remember where we were… But it was really pretty.
JW: Let me think. Is this the third album you recorded?
RTB: No, it’s my sixth.
JW: That’s what I thought! Because I was doing some research and there seems to have been some confusion whether it’s your third or your sixth or… I just wanted to make sure.
RTB: I think it’s my sixth. Let me count in my head. [Silence]. Yeah, it’s sixth.
JW: How does it feel to be a music veteran?
RTB: [Laughs] I guess I don’t feel like a music veteran.
JW: You don’t?
RTB: I do, in years wise. I do. But part of it may be that with each album that’s come out, I only set out the last two albums, or In Music We Trust did, so there is that confusion about which album’s going or which album I put out or how long I’ve been doing it. So with each album I’ve put out, even some people still call it my first album. So I know I’ve been doing music for a long time, so I believe there is some confusion out there so that makes me not quite feel like a music veteran, because, not quite many people are familiar with it.
JW: So when you start to do a track or an album or whatever, is it something more spontaneous or have you just started to, you have a process going?
RTB: I really work spontaneously. If I don’t have, you know, an idea I don’t make one come. I tend to go with whatever’s happening in my head, and I, I don’t know. Even if I, knock on wood, write irregularly, I really pay attention to what’s circulating in my head.
JW: A lot of people have compared you to Tori Amos. Do you see a lot of similarities in that?
RTB: My thought about that… I’m actually not that familiar with Tori Amos’s music, I don’t listen to music at all. But it’s a natural comparison to make because we both play the piano and we’re both women and we both have red hair. I don’t know. As far as our music is concerned, I don’t we are alike at all. In terms of subject matter and the way we write, I don’t feel kinship there. I mean, I admire her. I feel like sometimes people make that comparison, they are at a loss. What do you think?
JW: For one thing, I’m finding it hard to believe that you don’t listen to music, being that you’re a musician…
RTB: I think that’s part of the reason why.
RTB: Either I’m playing it myself or I’m playing with this other band I play in. I do session work, some music editing, stuff like that. So when I don’t do that, I tend to like quiet. I used to listen to music when I was younger. But I just don’t do it now. I listen to something once, maybe. But I’m not one of those people who always has music on or is always wearing their iPods. I tend to like quiet.
JW: I understand you are a self-described comic book geek, so I have to ask, have you seen Watchmen.
RTB: I haven’t. Have you?
JW: No. I’ve been looking forward to it.
RTB: I heard from Jeff, who I record with, who is actually more of a bona fide comic book geek than I am, by comic book geek standards, and he said it was a little disappointing. And I have read Watchmen.
JW: So you read the comic book.
JW: The graphic novel.
RTB: Yeah, yeah, I have that. So I’ve read it but I haven’t seen it. But I’ve heard some things about it. So I’ll go see it.
JW: What do you think is better, comic books or graphic novels?
RTB: I like them both. They’re just different. I like reading comic books and graphic novels.
JW: But do you have certain moods where you like one or the other?
RTB: Yeah, if I feel like something less serious. Watchmen wouldn’t count.
JW: [Laughs] Yeah. Obviously.
RTB: I’d be more likely to reach, like, my Spider Man anthology or like Little Lulu. But I could as well reach for Linda Berry… She hates to be called a graphic novelists– she prefers to be called a comic book artist. Yeah, I guess some of the graphic novel stuff is a little weighty, and it could have a longer story arc, so it’s like reading a book.
JW: You collaborated with Chris Robley of the Fear of Heights many times. How did that relationship come about?
RTB: We both met during a benefit in Portland, and he played right before me. And we were both crossing paths and I do get a little introverted in those situations, and I sometimes feel a little too inside myself to say anything. But I did mention to him that I liked his music and he took off, and I started playing and I saw him poking his head out the room, and I found out later that he called our friend (now our mutual friend John) who drew for both of us and he said “Hey, you should come listen to this,” and we just kind of kept in touch from then. And he asked us to be in his band the Sort Ofs, which is kind of in hiatus right now, and I asked him to play with me, and he played with my band too. We kind of share the same band personnel now, because we both know the same people.
JW: What is it like for two pianists to collaborate together?
RTB: Well, we don’t… Chris and I haven’t written anything together, so there’s no conflict there. It’s nice to work with someone who knows the piano, and I play the guitar too, but not as well as Chris does… But it’s nice to play with someone who knows the instrument, ‘cause, he can show me if he has a particular line in mind or I can show him, and I know he can pick it up just from watching or from by ear, and he knows I can do the same thing. So it’s really convenient. It’s a lot easier.
JW: Do you find yourselves critiquing each other’s work?
RTB: Internally, probably yeah. [Laughs] But no, we don’t, we don’t sit down. We ask each other for, you know, the other person starts a song or an arrangement or how a recording’s going or something like that and we ask for advice. But we don’t get down to the nitty gritty. I’m a big fan and admirer of Chris’s music and he’s been very supportive of our music too. He’s kind of a nice mutual friend.
JW: Have you noticed a change in your music or sound over the past few years?
RTB: Over the last year?
JW: No, over the past few years, since you’ve been recording.
RTB: I feel like it’s been distilling more and more. When I started working with Jeff Stuart Saltzman he mastered my first couple albums and he guessed we maybe could record something and I wrote the album Ormulu to work with Jeff, to see how we worked together. And that was a key meeting for me- he’s one of my closest friends now. At the time, he was one of the first people who seemed to get what I was about, and what I was doing. I always felt people wanted to niche me in this girl singer-songwriter… You know what I mean? This kind of certain place, and the band I had at the time, I felt like I needed to cater to their personal tastes too, and the stuff I brought them in to learn. So it leaned a little bit more to this folksy singer-songwriterly kind of thing, which I’m proud of these early albums, I don’t mean to be denigrating them or anything… But I think I’m just coming more to myself, I guess. Working with Jeff makes me feel more confident of what I’m doing and about my ideas, because he’s very supportive of that, and I feel more and more like I can go where my head’s going and I’m working with someone who will help me translate that.
JW: You also mentioned being a big reader. Do you have any recommended summer reading that you’re getting into right now?
RTB: Summer reading?
RTB: I guess, what I…you know, I don’t do summer reading in summer, necessarily. You know, I just reread one of my favorite books, Cruddy by Linda Berry. It’s kind of heavy.
JW: What do you mean, “heavy?”
RTB: I mean, it’s a really dark kind of disturbing novel, but it’s great. I totally recommend it, and like I said, I read it before. Summer reading…[pauses]. So what are you reading?
JW: I’ve just started on The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.
RTB: That sounds interesting. Is he Islamic?
JW: Yeah, he grew up in Pakistan.
RTB: How is it?
JW: It’s pretty… It’s written from a first person point of view, about a kid who joins an Ivy League school, Princeton actually… And he joins this weird, mysterious investment firm and he quits and basically becomes a mujahidin. It’s a very interesting book.
RTB: That sounds good. Nonfiction for summer is a good choice. I just got a bunch of these… Like the last Comic Books Journal, that’s not a book per se. Oh! I just started into, but I don’t know how “summer” this is…The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?
JW: Oh! Michael Chabon!
JW: I’ve been waiting to get into that. I’ve read two of his books already.
RTB: Which ones? Wonder Boys, right?
JW: Um, no. The Final Solution and Gentlemen of the Road.
RTB: Oh… Um, and then I read this book, A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell, about Italians who helped fleeing Jews in WWII. That’s based on fact, but then again, not very summery.
JW: Yeah, I can imagine. This is my last question. I know you’re a cat person, so I have to ask, which animal overlord would you like to see take over the world, cats or dogs?
RTB: [Laughs] Oh, God. Definitely not cats, I don’t think. Much as I love them.
JW: You think they’re too intelligent?
RTB: I think they’re too vengeful [laughs]. I love all animals, pretty much. Um, narwhals seem pretty nice?
JW: [confusion] They all seem pretty nice?
RTB: [Raises her voice] I said narwhals? They seem pretty nice. Aren’t they considered a getting along kind of species?
JW: I can’t hear you. You seem kind of muffled.
RTB: I was saying narwhals? N-A-R-W-H-A-L-S?
RTB: Is that how you say it?
RTB: Do you know what I’m talking about?
JW: Could you describe them?
RTB: Maybe I’m thinking of manatees, they’re like manatees, except they got the horn thing.
JW: [pause]. The horn thing…
RTB: They’re supposed to be pretty nice even with the horn thing. They’re spelled narwhals, with an N, like nut, A-R-W-H-A-L-S?
JW: [Contemplatively]. Narwhals…
RTB: Yeah, like the sea creature?
JW: Uh huh. Kind of like underwater unicorns.
RTB: But I think I may have been thinking about manatees, because the manatees don’t have the big pointy horns, so they don’t hurt you. But they’re considered to be gentle, nice animals, right?
JW: You don’t think they’ll make us into slaves?
RTB: You think what?
JW: You don’t think they’ll make us into slaves?
RTB: No, I think they would be benevolent rulers. I think cats might make us into slaves.
JW: Yeah, cats, but I don’t know what dogs would do.
RTB: Dogs would be ineffectual.
JW: They would be kind of neutral.
JW: Yeah [pause]. Well thanks for talking with us Rachel.
RTB: Yeah, well I enjoyed it.
–Interview by John Winn