Many times in life the most complex people appear simple and non-assuming upon first glance, whereas people with intricate and impressive resumes are - quite fundamentally - simple and basic once you get to know them.
Brett Mitchell and I are talking about the challenges presented to a 'working musician' in today's economy when he offers a revealing statement: "In Michigan especially these days, if you're not into business or computers, you've got to try harder."
For Mitchell the extra effort is paying off. With the recent release of his second CD of original music, Small House (see the accompanying review on the facing page) Brett Mitchell has grown leaps & bounds in terms of the stylistic coloration that he brings to his material, without ever losing sense of the notion that the best songwriting shares intensely personal emotions within a public context.
Blessed with a unique voice, an ear for song construction, and a look reminiscent of a young Cat Stevens meeting a younger Bruce Springsteen on the Jersey shore, on the surface Mitchell appears to have all the ingredients to become the 'next big thing' in Rock 'n Roll. But then reality shines through and he confesses such a prospect daunting given the fact that he detests the pretentious cliché's of Rock 'n Roll.
"Too many current artists are into the flash and showmanship and the songs get lost in the process."
"The Essence of Art is that you create and somebody else appreciates. Songwriting is the only way I can express certain emotions. I have to think something good is going to happen out of what I do, but I'm not set to go on American Idol. As long as I'm working and have places to play and people to listen, I'm good.
In the two years since his debut solo release Stereo, Brett Mitchell has assembled a new band and let his eclectic fondness for music shine through on Small House.
"The biggest change is the that the new release is more of a group effort. I still play drums on certain tracks, plus banjo and vibraphone, but the new line-up contributed a fuller sound, and working with Andy Reed was amazing, because as a producer he shares the same love for experimentation that I do," notes Brett.
"We'd put a microphone on an amp at the end of a hallway, or a blanket over a snare drum to give it a drier sound, and that's what I love about my favorite records - the sounds you'll never get again, no matter how hard you try, because its stuff caught in the moment."
Thematically, the music Mitchell composed for Small House embraces a period of self-discovery in his life. "I was going through some problems for awhile, trying to find myself, and I moved into this new small house that I bought and it was like lifting off a blanket, moving on to a different part of y life," he reflects.
"The music is more about change and saying, 'Yeah, my past has some mistakes, but the beauty of it is you can say I'm not going to be that person anymore. This is what I want to be. The music represents a newer mentality that I have."
Expressing himself in a 'group' context is not without its challenges, but as with everything in life, there is a trade-off for Mitchell.
"I'm still trying to get used to being out front, because I don't have the rock star mentality. I wish that I did because it sure would help me out more. Playing solo I tended to concentrate more on every little thing, whereas with the band it frees me up to get away with a few things, such as working the audience more. As a solo artist I was a little bit more vulnerable. The band is great because we do 40 songs a night and 10 shows a month, and I love the fact that we have more material to draw from now."
When it comes to distinguishing himself from contemporary musicians, Mitchell pauses, finding the question difficult to answer.
"I tend to get down on myself a lot and ask myself why am I any different from other musicians out there?" he confesses. "More so than anything, I'm a huge lover of music, period. I'm always listening to it. As much as I hate myspace.com for what it is sometimes, it's great to listen to music you'd never hear, like a local band from California."
"It's hard for me to distinguish between whether somebody likes my music or my songwriting, because then you have a duty at that point to continue making music for the people that want to hear it. Some elements are unique to what I do. I definitely have a folk influence and a pop/rock leaning and was always into that '70's singer/songwriter thing. That's where I want to be."
Citing artists such as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young as seminal influences, I ask what draws Brett so strongly to that style.
"It's appealing to me because its selfish music in a good way," he reflects. "You get a sense listening to it that the only way they could cope with that particular day was to write that particular song. Neil Young is not very sociable at all and if he didn't have that music where would he be?"
"You wonder about some of these cats," he continues. "Sometimes I'll see a band and they have a cool sound, are really tight, all dressed up, with all these moves that you've seen a million times, appealing to a lot of people. But to me that takes away from the song because you're so distracted by all this stuff. Then you finally see that the song's really not that good. Certain bands I ask myself where the love for song craft went; but then I listen to the most ridiculous eclectic range of music you can imagine, from Louis Armstrong to Sweet and Thin Lizzy," he laughs.
Having toured New Jersey last Spring and Nashville, in addition to constant Michigan gigging, Mitchell has gotten around enough to formulate opinions that help inform his approach.
"Some people want a Juke Box band, and that's the same all over. It's hard to find that cool scene where it's all about creative art and doing something new. We play in Grand Rapids a lot and sometimes you'll hear a cricket between songs; other times, you'll get tons of energy back from the crowd that you put out, so it makes it worthwhileŠwhen you find that guy in the audience that gets what you're doing."
"I definitely like to showcase the idea that you can entertain but not be just another band in a smoky bar. Trust me, you can hear the same thing in every bar in America. I'm trying to represent the kind of music that I like and that defines who I am." You can get Brett Mitchell's CD 'Stereo' and his new release 'Small House' by going to myspace.com/brettmitchell or brettmitchellmusic.com