Sari Brown stood in the middle of the stage at The Ark with a Martin D-42 slung over her thin shoulders and a striped hat pulled over her short dark hair. What she told the audience was a window into her 15-year-old world. “I wrote this song in driver’s ed,” she said of “Hymns in Minor Keys,” about searching for peace in life.
The preface on a recent Tuesday evening elicited a chuckle from an audience, on average, three times her age, and it kicked off an opening act that was by turns quietly soulful and outrightly funny. Most of all, though, it was surprising, given her youth.
Driver’s ed notwithstanding, Brown is not a typical teenager. She’s an aspiring folk singer who started performing at open-mic sessions and coffee houses just a year ago after impressing her guitar teacher with a couple of songs she had written. One was a politically charged ballad that skewered ills ranging from factory farming to the brainwashing effects of advertising.
Brown is also home-schooled, and aside from using a textbook for math, relies on her own curiosity to guide her studies. “I don’t have a sense of summer breaks or weekends or anything in terms of schoolwork,” she said. “It’s just a part of my life.”
Brown lives with her mother, stepfather and three siblings in a strikingly purple Scio Township home. In her neat upstairs room, there are three guitars: the Martin D-42 her stepfather bought her, a glistening electric guitar perched on a stand next to her desk and a lucky guitar she calls Stella. In her closet are the heavy black mixer and speakers she lugs to coffee houses that aren’t wired for sound. On the walls are a framed Van Morrison poster, a scrap from a friend’s truck, and a mounted set of shelves with CDs and stuffed animals.
It’s actually thanks to folk musician Dan Bern that Brown and her family live in the Ann Arbor area. Three years ago, they lived on a 42-acre wooded plot in rural Oakland County. One night, they trooped into Ann Arbor to see Bern perform at the Ark and by the time they arrived back home, Sari and her older sister Ayla Brown were enthralled with the city and wanted to move there. Her mother and stepfather agreed and within a few weeks they bought a house just outside Ann Arbor.
While weighty issues like love, politics, and religion all figure into Sari’s work, so do some uniquely Ann Arbor experiences. In one winding blues song, she tells of encountering a drunk in front of the People’s Food Co-op who catcalls, “Hey baby, nice legs” then apologizes, saying, “I thought you were a woman!” To Sari, it was amusing more than insulting, a thread worth weaving into song.
Sari didn’t start taking guitar lessons until a year and a half ago, but her musical influences were ingrained much earlier. Growing up, her mother Barbara Weiss often played the music of Van Morrison, Neil Young and James Taylor and often would dance with the kids. Sari’s father Doug Brown plays piano and sings in an R&B band. Weiss says Sari’s interest in songwriting was born out of her love of words. As a toddler, Sari would pull books out of the bookcases one after another, turning the pages and jabbering aloud as if she was really reading them. As she got older, she began turning out stories and poems regularly, some which have since turned into songs.
Although Sari says other people would probably describe her as “cute,” “young,” and, she hopes, “talented,” Brown describes herself simply as a poet. She is sitting on her living room couch dressed in pajama bottoms studded with characters from “I Love Lucy” and a plaid shirt thrown over a penguin T-shirt. Her family’s tiny Chihuahua-Terrier Chica bounds over her legs yipping for attention.
“In terms of how I live life, I just think poetry is in everything ... I just think it's like viewing life with a different set of lenses that make me appreciate or understand. I can’t even totally grasp it, it’s just something more.” Brown doesn’t seem pretentious when she says this. In fact, for a teenager with a couple of Ark performances on her resume and plans to play at a New Orleans coffeehouse within the week, she’s unexpectedly grounded. Shari Kane, of the Ann Arbor blues duo Madcat and Kane, recently began giving Brown guitar lessons and says the teen is bright, original, and has an impressive sense of herself. “She seems to know who she is and what she wants to do. ... She doesn’t seem to have the complexes that go with that age.”
Well aware that she’s young and has plenty of room for musical growth, Sari is hardly gunning for a meteoric rise to stardom. Rather, she’s hoping to branch out slowly from her occasional, mostly local performances where her audiences are well-populated with family and friends. Still fresh in her mind is her first paid performance last June at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tearoom. “I was nervous, but it was just really cool. I got paid. It was my first paid gig," she recalled. Her take was $40 plus tips. “If I can make a career out of [music] I think that would be really great. But I also feel like I don’t have all my hopes set on that career. I’ll always be a musician, but I have a lot of plans for careers, unfortunately that will not make me a lot of money ... being a farmer or a writer.”
That is fine with Barbara Weiss, who sometimes worries that things are happening too fast for Sari. And she realizes that the music industry is riddled with pitfalls ranging from self-absorption to alcohol and drug addiction. “I want her to follow her dreams and her heart ... but I want her to remember what’s important.” Weiss said.
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