An interview with Rachel Taylor Brown, Half Hours with the Lower Creatures

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Though not one of Portland’s widely known talents (yet), singer/songwriter/pianist Rachel Taylor Brown can certainly lay claim to one of the city’s most imaginative musical minds. Her sparse, 2006 mini-album Ormolu firmly established a fruitful and satisfying musical relationship with producer Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Sleater Kinney, Stephen Malkmus) and marked the addition of toy pianos to her wide musical arsenal. Her upcoming full-length album, Half Hours with the Lower Creatures (the title comes from a 1918 marine biology text book), takes a bold step forward in Brown’s musical arc, utilizing the Fear of Heights band and pushing them into some stunning prog-like arrangements, with pointed lyrics questioning our “higher” moral authority. After having met at a Fear of Heights appearance with Chris Robley last fall in San Francisco, as well as an intimate performance in Portland where Brown led a trio consisting of multi-instrumentalists Robley and Ben Landsverk, Rachel was all too happy to chat with Michael Fortes about her recent hometown CD release show, the philosophy that ties into the theme of her new album, and the travails of being a below-the-radar independent artist. She also candidly reveals the details of the harrowing personal experiences that have shaped who she is as an artist – and a person – today.

Bullz-Eye: Hello?

Rachel Taylor Brown: Hi, Michael?

BE: Rachel!

RTB: Hi! Did I call at the right time? Alex sent me a note.

BE: This is exactly the right time, 7 o’clock p.m.

RTB: Oh, good! How are you?

BE: I’m doing just fine. How are things going up in Portland?

RTB: Um, it’s good! It’s a little cloudy, but nothing coming down at the moment.

BE: Par for the course!

RTB: (laughs) It was pouring down earlier today, but it’s looking pretty good right now. I’m thinking of going on a bike ride if it keeps it up.

BE: Sweet! Yeah, I was bummed when Alex told me that your tour plans were in flux at the moment, ‘cause I remember last time we talked there was some speculation that you might have been swinging through San Francisco this month or next month I think?

RTB: Well, yeah, I’d hoped to do it in June, but I’ve just been having trouble setting anything up. Nobody knows me down there so I think it’s going to take a little bit to get my foot in the door. That said, I could probably be a little more diligent about it! (laughs) I get defeated early, and then just go sulk.

BE: Have you had any success parlaying your association with Chris, since he’s been through here several times?

RTB: Well, yeah, he gave me the names of several contacts, and I sent emails to the Hemlock [Tavern], I think I contacted them a couple of times. I originally had been thinking of going down right after the CD release, and I think sometime in February I had sent an email about being down that way in April sometime, and I didn’t hear back from anybody except I think the Make Out Room got back to me to tell me that they had some comedy night going on the night that I was asking about. And I wrote to Café, what is it?

BE: Du Nord?

RTB: Yeah yeah, the one that you were playing at.

BE: Oh yes!

RTB: How did that go, by the way?

BE: It was a lot of fun! We got a really good response.

RTB: Oh, cool!

BE: There will be videos to share probably in a couple weeks.

RTB: Oh really?

BE: Yeah.

RTB: When was it?

BE: It was Monday the 31st [of March].

RTB: Oh, so not that long ago.

BE: Yeah, all last week was the Blue Bear School of Music band workshop showcase, for four nights.

RTB: Well, I’ll have to look at the video.

BE: I’ll make sure you get that.

RTB: I’ll watch you get down with your bad self!

BE: (laughs)

RTB: But yeah, I sent a couple more emails when I decided to push it to June. Oh, what was the other one? I was really trying to target, like I’d mentioned to you, places with pianos on the premises. So someone had told me about, is it Hotel Utah or Café Utah?

BE: Hotel Utah.

RTB: Right, someone had mentioned they had a piano. So I contacted them again, I contacted Café du Nord for the first time, I contacted the Hemlock Tavern – I had left them a CD when we performed down there with Fear of Heights last time. Um, and then, who else? Seems like I contacted one other place down there, and I’m blanking on what it was, but…

BE: There are certainly a lot of them!

RTB: Well, if you have any good suggestions, send ‘em on, ‘cause I do want to get down there in September, I just kind of pushed it off a little bit further, and looking at like the third week of September coming down there now.

BE: Well, I’ll definitely wrack my brain and see if I can come up with anything for ya.

RTB: Yeah, if you can think of anything, it’ll be much appreciated.

“I wanted to get a feeling across to the audience … that I didn’t feel like they could get if we were stopping and clapping between songs, or if I would say, ‘hey! This next song is about blah blah blah.’”

BE: Cool. Now, when you do finally make your way back down, do you still plan on bringing the entire Fear of Heights band with you?

RTB: I want to, yeah. The show, our CD release, was last weekend, and that was the first full band show…

BE: Was that the first full band show you had done as a solo artist?

RTB: No, I had a different band, which I had disbanded before making this CD, about a year and a half ago. That’s a long story. But, the first time that Arthur [Parker, bass], Chris [Robley, guitar], John [Stewart, drums], Ben [Landsverk, viola] and I performed the Creatures CD material was at the CD release show [at Mississippi Studios in Portland], that was our first live show. And it sounded amazing. And it was packed out, they had to turn thirty people away. I sold something like 30 CDs, I think, and people were really excited about it. So yeah, I’m excited to bring the whole band with me when I come down there.

BE: I’m really excited now that I’m hearing this, wow!

RTB: They sound so amazing, Michael. I mean, I’m asking them to do such impossible and mean things! (laughs) I’m even crueler to them as a full band, as far as the demands, than I am on just Ben and Chris. They’re all having to sing, and they recreate – I didn’t bring in any extras – they’re covering, it’s not an exact replica, obviously, of the CD, but they’re pretty much covering most of the parts on the CD including the vocals.

BE: Well that’s pretty amazing, because you have a lot of layered vocals on this disc.

RTB: Well, that “Abraham and Isaac” like multi-part scream thing at the end, we’re doing that live, with everybody coming in every other note, in the band, and it sounds amazing.

BE: Yeah, that must sound freaky!

RTB: Oh, they’re so good! They’re so on, I just feel very very, very very very lucky, they’re just so talented. I mean, it just sounded amazing. So yeah, I’m really excited to come down there with them. And my thought is, if we got one date in San Francisco, people are traveling a lot in the summer, that’s the main obstacle, but they’ve all agreed that if I got a good single date down there, we’d all make the trip down like on a weekend or something like that. So it could be before September that we get down there.

BE: Well, I’m definitely keeping my fingers crossed for that!

RTB: Yay!

BE: And, I was reading on your site about these Russians that put your album up for illegal download. How did you find out about that?

RTB: That was at the show you were at!

BE: Ooooh!! (laughs)

“I would be lying in bed and I’d have the shit scared out me thinking repeatedly about what forever was.”

RTB: (laughs) They were there! They were probably sitting next to you. [The band] thought it was a joke, ‘cause you know, these three guys come up to the table. Krissy [Robley, Chris’ wife] was at the [merch] table, and they bought my CD but they didn’t buy Chris’, and so we had this big inside joke about it. “Ha ha ha, they bought my CD and they didn’t buy yours.” And then I got home, and I had a Google alert on the album title, even though it wasn’t really out there at all. I got this Google alert that it was for sale, and I found five or six Russian, and I guess they’re known… do you know about this?

BE: I’ve heard about some of these Russian sites, but I haven’t actually poked around too much on them.

RTB: Well, yeah, I guess it’s like a criminal racket, and they probably just saw a 2008 date on my CD, which is why they grabbed it. Nobody knows who I am, so I doubt I was seriously impacted by it, but it was the only way that anyone could get my music at that time. I didn’t have it available for sale even as mp3s anywhere yet, so it was kind of a heavy sigh moment. I thought they wanted my CD, but no, they just wanted to try to steal!

BE: Which in its own way is kind of flattering that they thought it was worthwhile to put up there.

RTB: I don’t know how they could have known, can you? I mean, they just probably looked for something with a 2008 date, or maybe they overheard us saying, “oh, it’s not out yet,” so they probably look for things that aren’t released yet and get a jump on them or something.

BE: That sounds like a reasonable theory there.

RTB: Yeah, ‘cause they wouldn’t have known me or who my music was, I’m quite sure.

BE: You never know!

RTB: They’re not sending me money, I’ll tell you that!

BE: I’ve been thinking a lot about the toy pianos ever since that trio show that I got to see at Mississippi Studios.

RTB: How have you been thinking about them?

BE: I’ve been wondering how that fascination developed.

RTB: You know, on the CD before this, you know I record with Jeff Stuart Saltzman?

BE: Was that Ormolu?

RTB: Yeah. Ormolu was the first CD that we recorded together. Jeff has all these interesting instruments lying around in his house, which is a studio, and when he’s working on something, I’d start playing around on different instruments. Like the VSF 30, that’s where I first saw the Yamaha VSF 30 and I had to have one. And it’s kind of the same thing with the piano. A lot of what I have, I’m just copying Jeff Stuart Saltzman (laughs) because he has so much interesting stuff around his house. So that one song on Ormolu, there’s this kind of like experimental tune similar to “Hemocult” on Creatures where it’s toy pianos and Mellotron and things like that. And that was one of the times where I was messing around on the toy piano, and then Jeff is just really good at just silently setting up microphones around me when I’m involved in doing something like that, and that whole tune just ended up being improvised on toy piano and all the other stuff, kind of like “Hemocult” was. And so, yeah, once I played Jeff’s toy piano, I wanted my own toy piano, and I wound up with three or four, ‘cause I’m greedy.

BE: Was that the song on Ormolu with the abbreviations in the title? [On the CD, the track is titled “ins. r. burr”]

RTB: The full title is “Inserting Raymond Burr.”

BE: “Inserting Raymond Burr,” OK, got it.

RTB: If you want the story on that sometime, I will tell you.

BE: You can tell it to me now!

RTB: I can’t tell you the real story on “Hemocult.” Maybe sometime.

BE: Is it too gross for human consumption?

RTB: (laughs) It compromises people’s privacy, which I might be willing to do at some date, so ask me again later, but I can’t do it today. But, with “Inserting Raymond Burr,” Jeff and I were just talking, and we were talking about Godzilla the movie, and in the course of talking about it he was talking about how they inserted Raymond Burr into that movie when they made the American version, or the one that we wound up seeing in the States. Does that ring a bell with you? ‘Cause he was in it.

BE: I can’t recall off the top of my head.

RTB: And it just cracked me up, just the phrase “inserting Raymond Burr” into that movie, and I wound up bringing it up a number of times that day. And that was the day that I was playing on the toy piano, and that song wound up being called “Inserting Raymond Burr.”

BE: A lot of your songs seem to indicate either an atheist or agnostic viewpoint. Where do you place yourself in the belief spectrum?

RTB: I don’t know… agnostic is where you’re not sure, right?

BE: Yeah.

RTB: I don’t think really either, ‘cause I kinda do feel sure there’s something, but not what anyone taught me about God, and it’s not new agey and universy, do you know what I mean? But just like there is this… I don’t know.

BE: Certainly not something or someone that would order a father to kill his child?

RTB: Right. Or who cares to micromanage our lives, you know, or who saves some people for a reason and then lets other people die. You know? I grew up Lutheran and then actually went through the born-again experience in high school, which always kind of grated on me even as I was going through it because so much of what was taught and what was written in the Bible just seemed wrong and crazy. But I really tried, you know, I tried to make it work. But if you keep learning, and you just… I don’t know. I don’t know what your beliefs are so I don’t want to say anything that’s like…

BE: Oh, don’t worry about me!

RTB: (laughs) I don’t know, it kind of ties into the album. If you keep learning, and the more you learn about history and human nature, the more blatantly obvious it is that the religions, at least to me, the conclusion I came to was that, you know, the religions have been set up with a purpose, as a means to an end.

BE: Like they’re constructed to manipulate?

RTB: Exactly. And I think, also, constructed for much more noble reasons, in all cases. But mainly, I think constructed, you know, to be able to point to this greater thing and say, you know, “he said so,” “God endorses our campaign,” and it’s been kind of more a manifestation and illustration of that thing in people, in all of us, and I include myself, that desire to be higher up than someone else. To get ahead. That whole hierarchical thing that we’re always dealing with as human beings. And that’s why that title of that book, even though “lower creatures” is a scientific term, and I know that, for the invertebrates and things. Just the idea that whoever decided that that was the name of invertebrates to me is illustrative of human beings and how we’re chosen to kind of put everything in some kind of order with someone higher and someone lower. Some bit of creation higher and some bit of creation lower.

BE: As if it’s creating a value system, implied anyway.

RTB: And yeah, the religions are a system in which to enforce the values, especially on the people who don’t benefit so much from them.

BE: That’s the key word there, “enforce.”

RTB: (laughs) Exactly! I don’t know though, on a personal level I’ve always kind of… I don’t know, as a kid I, before I knew what I was doing, I guess, I was talking to whatever was out there. I would be laying in bed and I’d have the shit scared out me thinking repeatedly about what forever was. Like you picture space and it just going on forever and ever and ever, I remember doing that. And I just remember kind of just talking to myself, to the room, and I still do that! (laughs)

BE: (laughs) That’s sort of like, it’s almost an extension of creativity.

RTB: Yeah, I think that’s true. Also psychosis. (laughs)

BE: (laughs) Could look at it that way! Psychosis can lead to good music too.

RTB: Yeah, some good music. I don’t know, that wasn’t very well expressed, but did that answer your question?

“If you keep learning, and the more you learn about history and human nature, the more blatantly obvious it is that … religions have been set up with a purpose, as a means to an end.”

BE: Yeah, I think that answers it. And, I don’t know how comfortable you are going into this topic, but I was certainly fascinated to read about the eight-year hermit aspect of your history.

RTB: No, I’m totally comfortable with it. It’s not something I put out there, I mean, I’ve been a little purposely vague about it because I don’t want to become a poster child for people like me or for it to be mistaken as my entire identity. But you know, things that happen to you, and what happened to me growing up was like a huge impact on me as a person now because it affects… for me it was sexual abuse as a child, and it was within my family. It was one of my older brothers who did it. And I didn’t really start dealing with it until the onset of that eight years, which was when I kind of came out about it, even though my mom had known about it. ‘Cause I was worried about my niece by another brother, and that kind of was like, many years before that had been leading up to that dam bursting. And then when that happened, and then another brother of mine who was actually my closest brother, died in that same timeframe, it all just kind of combined. And it was actually quite humiliating to me. I’ve always considered myself this incredibly strong person, but at that time, my family, once I told, even though they promised to protect my niece and all this kind of stuff, it kind of went around to this, and nobody denied what had happened. And my brother who had done it, who’s seven years older than I am, didn’t deny that it happened. And he said he was going to move away and all this kind of stuff, but if you read anything about sex abuse in families and things like that, what tends to happen is the family kind of rallies around the person who did it, and blames the person who it happened to for breaking up the family. And that’s kind of the situation I found myself in. I had been this great second lieutenant to my mom and total family supporter all my life. And so when that happened and then when my other brother died in that time period, it was just, it just was too much for me. And I was sitting in my sister’s apartment, and we were getting ready to fly over for the funeral for my brother, and I was realizing I was going to have to see the brother who had abused me, and my family who all hated me for having told about him, and I just had this colossal, classic, almost comical collapse in her kitchen. I was just crying, and I don’t even remember how long I was there, and she got me out and got me home. And I was staring at cheese for many years after that! (laughs)

BE: Did you say staring at cheese?

RTB: Yeah, staring at cheese. I don’t know why I use that as an expression. You know, it took many years to… it wasn’t just to work out of the depression and the nervous breakdown, but to work through the abuse that had happened and everything. And that’s kind of what that whole time period was about. And I come from a family that didn’t believe in counseling, that kind of had a scornful attitude towards non-self-reliance. So I really didn’t get the help that I probably should have, and felt that I had to do it, you know, through reading and through writing, and through just really, you know, spending time with myself and getting to the stuff that needed to be gotten to that kind of had been squished down for a lot of years in order to just get by day-to-day. But, when I say alone, that’s inaccurate because my husband, Jay, I don’t know what I would do without him. He was there every step of the way. My sister Katie was there. A lot of friends kind of disappeared, but while I was angry about it at the time, I totally understand it now. I really was upset about that and resentful for a long time, and then I realized, gee, if you have one person in your life that’s going to stick with you the way that I have, like, more than one person. I have like a handful of people that stick to me in that way. But if you even have one, God, you’re lucky as hell. You’re extremely blessed. But, anyway, that’s probably more than you wanted to know, huh Michael? (laughs)

BE: That’s pretty amazing. I actually dated someone who went through a very similar situation, so it’s definitely something I’m familiar with.

RTB: And it’s very hard on the significant other of someone like me, or the person that you’re dating. I worried a lot about Jay. He’s unnaturally a caretaking kind of person, and it was such a long haul. And I found out later – they kept it from me – how worried they were about me at some points. But, you know, I worried about him not taking care of himself and just, that burden. And there’s nothing you can do when you’re that low, when you’re that clinically depressed. I mean, there are things that you can do, but it’s not like you can snap your fingers and say, “oh, don’t worry about me anymore, everything’s fine.” You can say that, but it’s meaningless until it’s actually true.

BE: To circle back, in thinking about all of what you just went through, I’m wondering now which came first – the breakdown or the songwriting? It seems that songwriting and music has been a strong outlet since then.

RTB: I’ve been songwriting since I was in my teens. Those were really terrible songs! I’ll share one with you sometime. But, I’ve always had that drive in me, and I’ve always done it. I didn’t take it seriously until a few years before, maybe five years before the breakdown. I started treating it like a responsibility. like, well, “every time I get something in my head, I should go record it.” I always felt silly thinking that way, but it did feel like a responsibility. Like, it’s slightly outside of myself, even though it is myself, and that’s almost too mystical-magical-arty-farty sounding to even say. But it had a bit of that feeling. And so, I always had written, so it just happened. But then, when I worked through everything over those eight years, one I got rid of all that shit and got it out of my system, it was like I had this razor-like focus and I knew this was exactly what I should be doing. And this is my job, even though I make no money at it! (laughs) But I just felt an even greater responsibility to it, and besides that, I love it more than anything. I love sitting down and writing a song more than anything.

BE: I can certainly hear the passion in it, even in little vignettes like “Arlington.” It’s just a little piece of melody. How often do you hear just little pieces of melodies versus entire songs coming to you at once?

“I was just crying, and I don’t even remember how long I was there… and I was staring at cheese for many years after that!”

RTB: Frequently. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like to listen to music when I’m not playing or rehearsing. I like quiet, that’s another reason. But, I kind of feel like it’s a constant stream to be tapped into. And if I’m sitting by myself, or a lot of times it will happen when I’m trying to go to sleep, which is annoying because then you have to get up, and feeling cranky, trying to get something into the little hand-held recorder. I think if I just stopped for a minute, and we were silent, I’d hear something going on in there. I kind of feel like everybody’s that way, if you could quiet down all the stuff that’s going on all the time. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but, yeah, I’m recording ideas or working on a song every day. It’s not assignment writing. I only do it when I feel like it, when I’m actually hearing something. When I have sat down to try to write assignment songs… well, I guess it worked with Seven Small Winter Songs. I kind of like those. And that was a challenge I issued to Chris, to write ten Christmas songs in one day! (laughs) He had something else going on that day, unfortunately, so I did it by myself and I just kept seven of them to put them on the CD. And they’re little short things. But I guess that’s the only time I can think of when I really set myself an assignment to write something. But otherwise I totally go with the flow.

BE: As far as arranging goes, on the new disc, “Abraham” and “B.S.” – which is a great title, by the way – were those always meant to be a piece, flowing one into the other?

RTB: That’s how I played them, what happened when I was playing them live. And yeah, when I sit here at home, I wrote them very close to one another. I don’t remember which one came first. I think “Abraham and Isaac” came first. So yeah, it wasn’t always that way. But once I wrote “Beautiful Savior,” and I was doing live shows, I just… I love transitions, and if I could do shows keeping more transitions intact, that would make me really happy. And that said, I have to say, at my CD release, I did that. We didn’t play “Hemocult” live, we played it overhead and we had the lights dimmed. And then I had my sister make them go full bright when we slammed into “You’re Alright.” And I thought, I was all kind of nerve-wracked beforehand over the fact that I didn’t want to talk through the whole thing, I just wanted to go! (laughs) I wanted the transitions to stay intact, and I wanted it to be a night. I wanted to get a feeling across to the audience through those songs and through the transitions that I didn’t feel like they could get if we were stopping and clapping between songs, or if I would say, “hey! This next song is about blah blah blah.” And so I was getting all angsty about that beforehand. And I decided, alright, I’ll stop once before I go into “Fallujah,” just so that people don’t feel terribly uncomfortable. And I wanted to reassure them that we’re really happy they’re there, and to introduce the band and thank people and things. And I got to the point where I was going to say that, “you might have noticed that I have a thing for transitions, and I apologize for just plowing on.” And then I realized that they had just gone with me all night. There was one song, I think, I think they clapped after “Stagg Field,” and then they just… it was like the most intuitive, lovely audience ever. They were silent at the perfect times, and they were just following everything beautifully. They were super appreciative at the end, but I just… I was starting into that spiel where I’m not going to stop after every song, and then I realized, “I don’t even have to say this, you guys got it.” That was kind of nice.

BE: That is nice. That’s like what Miles would do.

RTB: (laughs) Ah ha, well! That’s a good thing.

BE: Well, I don’t want to hog all your daylight so you can get your bike ride in tonight.

RTB: Woo hoo! Come on up and go on a bike ride with me!

BE: Oh yeah, I’ll be up in a few hours! (laughs) But yeah, it was great talking to you.

RTB: Yeah, did you get what you needed?

BE: I got everything I needed.

RTB: Excellent! Well, you have a good evening.

BE: Thanks, you too.

RTB: Thanks a lot. Take care, Michael. Bye!

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