Three Asheville-based acts release new music

MAKING MOVES: Natural Born Leaders gained NPR attention this year with their contagious sound and the release of their 'About Time' EP. Photo by Michael-Jamar Jean Francois

Three very different Asheville-based artists are celebrating the release of new music. Soulful prog-hop group Natural Born Leaders mark the release of their debut EP About Time with a Saturday, May 5, show at Asheville Music Hall. Folk singer-songwriter Chuck Brodsky debuts his 10th album, Them and Us, at The Grey Eagle on Sunday, May 6. And singer-songwriter Brie Capone commemorates the release of her second EP, If I Let You In, with a May 5 performance at Isis Music Hall.

There was no blueprint

One of this year’s most eagerly anticipated local releases is the debut album from Natural Born Leaders. Even in an era of countless cross-genre mashups and hybrids, the band’s music resists pigeonholing. Natural Born Leaders’s sound starts with a relatively conventional rock instrumental lineup: guitarist Rex Shafer, bassist James Eddington and drummer Kevin Murtha. Jazz and R&B textures are provided by saxophonist Ben Survant, while lead vocalist (and lyricist) Mike Martinez brings folk, soul and hip-hop flavors to the group.

But the resulting music made by the five musicians sounds nothing at all like rock-rap hybrids Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Faith No More or Rage Against the Machine. “There was no blueprint” in putting together Natural Born Leaders, Martinez says. “We all come from different musical backgrounds, and we just try to make it work.”

The prog-hop label is a useful a way of defining Natural Born Leaders’ music, and the group itself sometimes uses the term (along with many others) in its own promotional material.

The four songs on About Time are a varied lot. “Do You Mind” starts off with a melodic bass line that conjures visions of northern Africa; the supporting bass figure has its foundation in funk. When the whole band kicks in, there are elements of reggae, but those are delivered in an ambitious, progressive rock style. And Martinez’s vocals alternate between sharply crafted rap phrasing and soulful, melodic singing.

Martinez says that the group develops its material in an unhurried, collaborative manner. “Nothing we’ve done has been hard to come by,” he says. “Everything’s been really natural. The way we started was organic; the way we got all our members was organic. We put our intention out there with everything we do and just hope that it comes back.”

He adds, “Generally, it does.”

Natural Born Leaders’ music is dense and layered, and Martinez’s lyrics share those qualities. “I only write lyrics to songs that I absolutely vibe with,” he says. The lyrics to each of About Time‘s songs were written in one sitting. “Do You Mind?” “The Return of Jafar” and “Time Flies By” all began as jams. “I’ll blast a jam through my speakers at home and write the lyrics quickly,” Martinez says.

An early lineup of Natural Born Leaders included MC Austin Haynes out front with Martinez. Having two MCs meant that the group’s music was more hip-hop-oriented. But once Haynes left, Martinez’s folk-blues background revealed itself more in the group’s new material. Once the group entered Artcore Studios, producer Patrick Doyle helped Natural Born Leaders channel their jams into concise songs.

“We wrote the songs,” Martinez emphasizes, “but Patrick really helped us figure out what our music meant and what directions we should go with it.” Even in the space of four songs over 20 minutes, the group’s improvisational character still comes through.

Live onstage, the band members build upon the songs’ foundations, following their collective muse wherever it leads them. “I improvise lyrics a lot, too,” Martinez says. He half-jokes that he does so because he can’t remember his own words. “And a lot of time, I’ll freestyle rap. I’ll end up changing words around, putting this line here, moving something elsewhere.”

So, while About Time is an accurate audio document of Natural Born Leaders, it’s also a snapshot of the band in a given moment. “Every show is different,” Martinez says.

There remains a relationship between the studio versions of the group’s songs and the way they’re played onstage. “I don’t like making songs I can’t play live,” says Eddington. “But what’s fun is that when you work on a song in the studio, you end up changing it.”

Then, in concert, the songs change yet again. “There’s a give-and-take, a back-and-forth between the two,” Eddington says.

Natural Born Leaders are currently focusing on promoting their EP, but the band is already at work on new material as well. “We kind of like the idea of just putting out a few songs at a time,” Martinez says. “Ideally, we’ll put out a new EP every six months.”

WHO: Natural Born Leaders with Spaceman Jones and the Motherships and Secret B-Sides
WHERE: Asheville Music Hall, 31 Patton Ave., ashevillemusichall.com
WHEN: Saturday, May 5, at 9:45 p.m., $10 advance/$12 day of show

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Common ground

Except for a trio of records he released in the final years of the 20th century, Chuck Brodsky has long been the model of the independent, do-it-yourself artist. It’s just that now, the music business is catching up with his approach. “The whole business model has changed,” says the singer-songwriter. “If you hustle, you can have a career independent of record labels and managers. But it requires spending a ton of time on the computer.” And that, he points out, is time an artist might otherwise spend actually making music.

But Brodsky has found effective means of making music and bringing it to his growing base of fans. His recent Kickstarter campaign succeeded in funding Them and Us. It’s his third crowdfunded album, and he’s a fan of the crowdfunding model. “It allows artists to own the rights to their recordings, which is huge. And it empowers fans by letting them play a big part in helping make a record,” Brodsky says. Though he does his share of performances in music halls, he finds that house concerts further strengthen that bond between performer and audience.

Brodsky is skilled at what former U.S. Sen. Al Franken calls “kidding on the square”: approaching serious subjects and leavening them with wry humor. And Brodsky employs the method with subtlety in songs like “Call It Chicken.”

“Preaching is easy,” Brodsky says. But he points out that those messages sometimes don’t reach beyond “the choir.” So he makes a point of not hitting his listeners over the head with messages.

“Things that are genuinely and universally funny don’t need a lot of commentary from the writer,” he says. “Humor disarms people to where they just might be able to see your point.”

Though he was born in Philadelphia, Brodsky has called Asheville home for more than two decades. And he says that living in Western North Carolina has informed his songwriting. “I’ve always approached writing with one foot rooted in the traditional, and the other foot going wherever it goes,” he says. “I write songs about what I see, or things that move me, so I started writing about what I was seeing here and about what moved me here.”

There’s a universality to his worldview that makes it appealing to a wide audience. “Experience has shown me that we all have a lot more in common than we’re allowed to believe,” the musician says.

When making Them and Us, Brodsky didn’t set out to craft an album built around a specific theme. But there remains a unifying character to the album’s nine songs, one tidily summed up by its title. “There are countless ways to divide people into ‘them’ and ‘us,’” he says. “We have all sorts of ways to label somebody as being one of ‘Them,’ and we fail to see that there is really only ‘us.’”

WHO: Chuck Brodsky
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Sunday, May 6, at 7 p.m., $15 advance/$20 day of show

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Flying solo

Singer-songwriter Brie Capone first moved to Asheville when she was a teenager, but her musical journey would eventually take her far afield. Capone studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston and then moved to New York City to launch her career. Her group The Humble Grapes recorded a self-titled album, but that project didn’t last. “My band broke up,” Capone explains. “Amicably.” By that point, she realized that solo work was her real goal.

And she wanted to leave New York. “I had a few songs already in my mind,” she says. “I also needed some healing time and a new project to do so.” Those circumstances led her back home to Asheville.

Capone recorded her first solo EP, Orbit, at Echo Mountain Studio. “My roots here aren’t really deep,” she says, “but I do feel that Asheville is home for me.”

An Andrew Anderson-directed video for “Scars,” one of the standout tunes on Orbit, won the Judges’ Choice prize at the 2017 Music Video Asheville awards. The elegiac tune exemplifies the rich and expressive character of Capone’s music. The next month, she won NewSong’s LEAF Festival Singer-Songwriter Competition.

For her solo work, Capone has made the decision to use the EP format rather than full-length albums to release her music. Her reasons for doing so come down to two things: time and money. “I just wanted a simpler format to put out as much music as possible,” she explains. “I really like a smaller batch of songs. I’m also thinking about producing more singles — that’s how people listen to music now.”

Capone believes that her latest EP, If I Let You In, reflects the character of Asheville. “This batch of songs has all come from this past year and a half,” she says. “I was really inspired by the different pace of Asheville, and I felt like I learned more about myself over this past year.”

The first single from the EP is “Weigh In,” a song Capone says grew out of a lyric that got stuck on a loop in her mind. “I had the line, ‘I want to go downtown, I want to go to bed. No one’s interesting,’ and I thought that was sort of a funny problem,” she says. “Two different wants at once, on a scale, going back and forth.”

For her EP release show at Isis Music Hall, Capone will share billing with Stephanie Morgan‘s group, Pink Mercury. Capone’s carefully arranged songs are sure to provide a contrast with Pink Mercury’s improvisational approach. Capone jokes that there’s another difference between her and Morgan: “She has better stage moves than me,” Capone says. “I’m not mad, just aware.”

Capone’s ambitions might someday lead her to move beyond the EP format into full-length albums. Musing on that possibility, Capone suggests a possible concept: “Robots from the year 2045 who learn to love. I’d want a full orchestra for that.

“But,” she hastens to add, “I’m not there yet.”

WHO: Brie Capone with Pink Mercury
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Saturday, May 5, at 9 p.m., $10

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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