“Young” is a tricky word. It can be a put-down — like “naive” or “foolish” — or, when used by those obsessed with surfaces, it can be the most superficial of compliments. There is also, however, a hopeful, forward-looking, self-exploring energy and a certain ability to move, physically and artistically — unencumbered by personal history, property and family — that the word “young” evokes.
Singer/songwriter Brian Perry is 25 years old, and both he and his music are young in that latter sense. Everything about him looks forward and inward at the same time.
His new CD, A Little Help (First Go Round Music, 1997), opens with a simple, bittersweet waltz-time ballad called “You Are Here,” containing the lines, “Just this morning I got up/the mountains were smiling down on me/the trees were dancing in the breeze/the taste of possibility/things yet to be/dreams yet to be.” His lyrics tend to avoid complex symbolism and vague, ethereal visions. Instead, he aims for simple emotional impact.
His voice is an unassuming, clear tenor with an unusual (and pleasing) rapid vibrato and occasional powerful soarings — but there’s an element of shyness that gives the listener a sense that he is still learning how to use it. Likewise, his guitar-playing on the disc is limited to firm, rhythmic strumming and simply chorded finger-picking patterns (with fills, leads and percussion provided by Perry’s friend and co-producer Shawn Mullins, guitarist David Patterson and Marty Kerns’ keyboards), but again, one has the sense that his musical boundaries are expanding fast, that he’s only just beginning to sense the enormous possibilities of music.
And that’s fine. He’s been a full-time musician for only a year- and-a-half. He’s learning, and he’s not afraid to say so — in his liner notes or in person. As he openly confesses, he is not a man of few words.
Home for a week (after a busy January playing all over the Southeast), Perry described his start, over a cup of tea at a downtown bookstore. He had been in college in New Orleans, studying to be a high-school English teacher, when he first began to play. During a bleary, all-night drive back from a Melissa Etheridge concert in Houston, a friend asked him what he really wanted to do with his life. “I said, ‘You mean if I could do anything?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘That’ [referring to what Etheridge had done that night]. She said, ‘Let’s do it.’ … So we had a friend teach us some chords, and maybe two weeks later, I wrote my first song. And after that, there was no turning back. … The more I wrote, the more I came to the conclusion that this was what I’d been waiting for all my life. I’d found my passion.”
Why was he drawn to the singer/songwriter side of music? “There’s a power that musicians have, to just be honest about what they’re going through in their lives — and, in so doing, make us feel like we’re all connected,” he explains. “At the times when we feel most alone, we put on Melissa Etheridge, the Indigo Girls … Garth Brooks, even, and there’s something in it that reaches out to you — and suddenly, you’re not alone anymore, and you’re not crazy in the things you’re thinking.”
Like many other singer/songwriters, he performs alone, despite having included other musicians on his CD. What is it about performing solo on an acoustic guitar that’s so appealing? “The intimacy of it,” he answers immediately. “There’s an intimacy and an honesty that’s encouraged in the singer/songwriter genre that’s looked down upon in the pop genre. You become friends with the audience, you become connected with them. … What I try to do is … to break their hearts open, and in so doing, they do the same thing to me.”
Asheville, of course, is folk city these days. It’d be hard to throw a brick downtown without braining an aspiring singer/songwriter. There are times when this proliferation can make us a tad weary of sensitive introspection, especially in the gray heart of February. Doesn’t Perry think that, maybe, there’s enough of that kind of thing — that maybe it’s time to look outward a little?
“I disagree with that, flat out,” he states. “I find that, if I can somehow accurately describe or capture whatever it is that I’m feeling in the deepest recesses of my soul, [it] is, almost without fail, a universal emotion. And almost without fail, there’s going to be somebody in the back of the crowd who’s going to say to me, ‘God, I can’t believe you understood that break-up I went through.’ And I was writing about my dog dying! But I’m just isolating that emotion. Is that overdone? I really don’t think so; I don’t think it really can be. Can the things that connect us ever really be overdone? I hope not.
“There’s clearly a place for looking outside,” he continues. “But I think if we look in, we find the outside. … If my music doesn’t move someone, that’s fine, as long as there’s something out there that does. … If someone says, ‘Your music sucks,’ well, they’re wrong. If I were to not be able to write another song, there are already people I know who have been moved by [my music], and it’s helped them, and it’s certainly helped me.”
One of the songs from A Little Help, “It’s Time,” just won the grand prize at the nationally judged Louisiana Hot Songs contest. Part of the prize is studio time, so “recording this year is a whole lot more likely than it used to be,” Perry notes. He says he’s open to a more ambitious sound, with more complex instrumentation, but he doesn’t want to lose the heart of what he does. “It’s all in pursuit of my own voice. … I’m still shooting for my own voice,” he insists.
And that’s fine. He has time. He’s young — in the best sense of the word.