An interview with Sari Brown in Michigan Music Dish

For those “not in the know,” who are you exactly?
I am a Michigan-bred farm-girl-turned-Ann-Arborite, with Motown music and social justice activism running in my veins. I come from a big, messy, loving family to whom I owe my indomitable spirit. I’m a frequent songwriter, an occasional performer, and a constant grinner. I’ve been with the Earthwork Music collective, also a homegrown product of Michigan, since the beginning (both their beginning and mine), although I’ve only released one album on the label, in 2004. I’ve been performing since 2002, when I was fifteen and I played a show opening for Seth Bernard, and I sang my fierce ballads about the evils of factory farming and consumerism and advertisement culture. Since then I’ve gotten a lot less interested in complaining about what’s wrong, and instead just try to encompass the rightness of the whole human experience in my songs—the dark, the light, the divinely ordered, the irreverently chaotic—without judging any of it. This new direction in my music might have something to do with the fact that I am now studying comparative religion at Marlboro College in Vermont. My studies occupy most of the time that I used to spend gigging, so at present I would list my profession as “student” before “musician.”

How does music affect you and the world around you?
I would have to write at least twenty pages on this and then get back to you, and even that wouldn’t come close to being a complete answer. But I will say that it makes orange things oranger, and it makes thunder storms rattle deeper in your chest. It makes me believe in God, sometimes, when I’ve temporarily forgotten how to. It makes people want to live fuller, and I don’t just mean in the light-hearted, happy sense: I mean live more fully both their pain and their jubilation, both their confusion and their perfect, evanescent moments of clarity.

If you had the option of playing in a coffee house, a bar, an indoor theatre, or an outdoor festival, which would you prefer?
An indoor theatre. Granted, the intimacy of coffeehouses can be nice, especially because you can see everyone’s face and it creates this sort of sitting-around-in-the-living-room vibe that I appreciate a lot, because I hate feeling like there is a any stratification or divide between the audience and the performer. Also, outdoor festivals have their charm for obvious reasons. But I’m really a lover of the classic when you get down to it, and I make no exception for the black, moody magic of an indoor theatre, and the focus of attention that it provides. Then I feel like I can build a true performance, like a piece of art unto itself. Plus, in the more formal theatre setting, I don’t look out of place in fancy evening gowns or vintage wedding dresses. I have a terrible weak spot for pretty dresses. Oh, and such venues usually have nice sound systems, and competent people to run them, which can—let’s face it—make or break a show.

What advice would you give to anyone who wanted to pursue a career in music?
Never take yourself too seriously. The minute it stops being a joyful process of self-discovery and musical adventurousness every time you get to play a show, you’re not doing it for the right reasons. OK, so maybe that’s a little unforgiving—I should amend that. There will be times, undoubtedly, when you have to trudge through uninspired or uninspiring shows, with a dead crowd or you’re just too tired to play well or whatever the case may be. But ultimately, the music itself should never be a chore, and it should never be anything but a direct reflection of what’s in your heart. You hear a lot of people say that the best, most universally relevant art is the stuff artists produce just for themselves, just to make themselves happy. While I would argue that you can make great art with other people in mind, with the goal of pleasing others, I agree that, at its root, the driving force must always be that you do it for the joy of it—because it gives you a deep satisfaction to see more of a certain kind of beauty cast out into the world.

What was your most recent CD purchase?
I haven’t bought a CD in awhile—in fact, recently I’ve been more in the mode of trying to get rid of CDs, because I moved to Vermont to go to college, and I wanted to take as few things with me as possible. But I think before Christmas I bought a copy of “Al Green Is Love.” He is. The very first thing he sings on this album is “I started to write this song about you / And then I decided that I would write it all about love.” That kills me.

Did you have a high school nickname?
I didn’t go to high school because I was home schooled—or, more accurately, we call it “unschooled.” But there is a great nickname story from when I was fifteen and I was first starting to hang out with all the Earthwork Music gang. Daniel Kahn started calling me “Toothbrush Brown,” because I had played my toothbrush on Luke Winslow-King’s record. Which is to say, I literally brushed my teeth, toothpaste and all, in rhythm with the song, while they just stuck a hot mic next to me. At one point I started laughing and then dribbling toothpaste everywhere and that’s all on the recording.

Who's your favourite historical figure?
Jesus Christ.

Elvis vs. The Beatles:
For raw emotion—which I admittedly often fall back on in my musical tastes—Elvis. But they’re really just different birds, so I don’t know if I”m comfortable with an apples-to-apples comparison. I will say that the Beatles are probably a lot more interesting and delightful and surprising than Elvis, and there’s plenty of moments I’d rather listen to them.

Glass Half Empty vs. Glass Half Full:
Break the Glass.

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