For singer/songwriter Brett Mitchell, success is a juggling act balanced by hard work, persistence, and passion. He is no stranger at being honored by fans at The Review Music Awards, having won numerous honors over the years beginning with the band Gutbucket, which he formed with guitar virtuoso Dave Kellan over a decade ago and cut his teeth with drumming professionally and touring by the age of 17. Now at the age of 30, Mitchell has truly come into his own, having secured honors at the 2013 RMA's for Best Solo Artist and Best Male Rock Vocalist, as well as both a Popular and Critic's Choice Award for Best Songwriter.
Mitchell has been described as 'the new millennium's version of Marshall Crenshaw', only that description falls short to explain the multi-leveled approach towards instrumentation that Mitchell has mastered - he is a veritable one-man band with his solo work, drumming and playing guitar simultaneously while singing with all the tonal inflection one could hope for.
To assist his songwriting, Mitchell taught himself guitar and by 2005 recorded his debut album, Stereo, playing virtually all instruments. One by one musicians approached him to support his live performances, and his band The Giant Ghost was formed. In 2007 Brett released his second original CD project, Small House, and his most recent 2011 release, Falling Apart at the Seams, received rave reviews in national publications such as Spin Magazine.
In the aftermath of attention basking in the limelight of his 2013 RMA achievements, recently I caught up with Mitchell to discuss his reaction along with his future plans to augment the momentum that his musical creativity is receiving.
Review: You managed to secure four awards this year: Best Solo Artist, Male Vocalist, and Best Songwriter in both the public choice and critic's choice divisions; so I'd like to explore each of these with you. What do you feel are the key qualities that define a good solo artist?
Mitchell: I think the song repertoire is important because it's just you, a one guy show. When I'm listening to a solo artist if they are just playing the same stuff that everybody else plays I lose interest quickly. Also, there needs to be some entertainment “quality” to the artist. Because you're only one person, you have to keep the crowd entertained so you have to be a skilled performer. It's a bonus if you are a multi-instrumentalist . Adding anything to make the sound bigger, such as harmonica, along with guitar, is a plus.
Review: What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing solo work as opposed to performing with a band?
Mitchell: The advantages of performing solo are that you can transition into any other song and not worry about whether your band members can follow you…like at the drop of a hat; less stress as far as set up and tear down; and you can play a bigger variety of venues because you can squeeze in any corner and play, which you can't do with a band.
The disadvantages of a solo performance include the obvious one - that it limits your performance; there are certain songs and things you just cannot do all by yourself. Another disadvantage is that you don't have any room for lagging during the actual performance, you have to be on top of every second of every song. When you have, for example, a party crowd and people are getting into the music and they want to party and rock, sometimes as a solo artist, you can't really bring that next level to the table. There's only so much you can do. Also, there are certain songs, originals or covers, I like to play that I have to do my own spin on because, solo, they will never sound like the real song.
Some solo artists use a vocal harmonizer or a drum machine, but what I like to do is set up my bass drum and high hats with a tambourine just to keep a simple beat while I play guitar and harmonica. This helps to emulate a bigger sound and it opens up more doors to be more entertaining as a solo artist. People seem to dig the “one man band” thing. However, I don't feel it's necessary to do that at all shows. At singer/songwriter showcases sometimes one person and a guitar creates an intimacy with the audience that is just as effective.
Review: Over the years your reputation as a songwriter has steadily grown as your material has evolved. What are some of the factors that you feel go into creating a good song that is memorable and carries impact?
Mitchell: Well, fortunately there is no one simple formula for a great song. For me, it seems like songs sometimes sprout out of an idea but then there are times when I actually have to put some work into a song, sit down and work through it until I feel like it's good enough. However, the catchiness factor of songs lies in melody - a familiar melody that can stick in your head. As far as lyrics go it has to be simple but yet universal to have an impact. I think one of the most important factors in creating a great song, is portraying your artistic expression GENUINELY. Even if it doesn't seem to be necessarily traditionally the hit song type, more so than the catchiness and familiarity characteristics, it's the earnest intention of the songwriter that can ultimately make the song memorable or have impact on a listener.
Review: What are some of the goals that you strive for when creating your own material?
Mitchell: I should have a specific goal but what makes my own material my own is that it's just from my own head, from my own ideas. Sometimes my goal can just be making sense of it in my head. Songwriting for me is an outlet; it's my way of life and therapy of making sense of my life, I guess. If there's ever a goal it would be coming up with something I feel represents me.
Review: Although you won 'Best Male Vocalist', you also have a solid reputation as a drummer, guitarist, and overall musician. What qualities do you feel distinguish you as a vocalist?
Mitchell: Like you mentioned, I'm a drummer that started writing songs, a Dave Grohl of sorts, but I never, ever thought I was a singer. I would consider myself a songwriter over a singer. I'm always trying to challenge myself vocally by taking on songs with keys that sound like they might be out of my range but aren't, but I always kind of feel like singing is my weakest musical skill.
What I've found throughout the years of growing as a musician, though, is people seem to think I have a unique voice. That makes me realize how many iconic singers have contributed to the musical universe such as Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Jimi Hendrix, Carole King, I could name about 1000 more, singers that aren't necessarily in the traditional sense “great vocalists” but are cherished by listeners because of their voice. That seems to be what distinguishes me as a vocalist. I'll be the first one to say I can't sing half of the stuff that I wish I could but that doesn't keep me from wanting to continue to sing for the love of music and, also, for the people who seem to enjoy it.
Review: What are your plans for the upcoming summer and year ahead? You've worked in bands like Gutbucket and the Giant Ghost and also pursued solo work; do you plan to continue working with each of these avenues?
Mitchell: There are a lot of cool festivals I'm going to be playing this summer such as Dunesville, Ann Arbor Summer Fest, Harbor Beach Maritime Festival and other beachy, summer hot spots around the state, both with a group and solo. I'm always moving forward, wanting to expand my sound and looking for the people who are interested in playing my original music with me. I think being a singer/songwriter/frontman allows me to play with a variety of different groups rather than only playing with the same 3 or 4 guys; it helps keep things interesting and fresh and challenging. I just recently traveled to Nashville for some solo shows and plan on continuing to travel. I will be playing with Gutbucket for a few shows in NYC soon. My first love will always be drums so I am always interested in playing with other groups as a drummer.
Review: What is your reaction to being honored with these awards? And feel free to add any additional thoughts on any topic that I may not have touched upon.
Mitchell: The fan voted awards make me feel like 'Wow, I have great fans that like my music' and that's such a good feeling to know that people are actually paying attention to what you're doing. I am sincerely flattered with all the awards, but especially with the Best Male Vocalist because I never, ever considered myself a singer. However, the Critics' Choice Songwriter award was a huge surprise because it's voted by a panel and that made me feel appreciated and it gives some sort of validity to the hard work that I've put in. It's important to me that I am appreciated among the musical fellowship of this community because I've grown up looking up to so many artists in this area who are still writing and entertaining and of whom I have great respect and admiration, so it makes this award all the more special.
The future is wide open because I am hoping to start a new chapter in my career, making plans to expand the giant GHOST, taking on some more players to make the sound fuller, focusing on a group that showcases my original music. I have an album's worth of material to start recording again soon, hopefully within the next 6 months, and I can't wait to get going on that project.