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‘We can't move forward until we are grateful for where we are’: A conversation with Norman Brown

Norman Brown
c/o the artist
Norman Brown

Guitarist Norman Brown always has something interesting and inspiring to say and that was the case when we got together to talk about his newest album. The project is called It Hits Different and it’s out on March 29 on Shanachie Records. Norman shared some of the stories behind the songs and explained how his spiritual path has positively affected his life and his music.

Listen to our conversation, above

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott:  Look at you in Georgia. Are those Georgia pines back there behind you?

Norman Brown: Yes. Those are Georgia pines right here. We got horses in the back. I'm just chilling on the deck.

You got the red clay, everything. I’m super excited about the new record. It's called It Hits Different. I saw this quote from you where you said, “Music is a language. It speaks to the invisible part of us that moves the physical part of us.” I really like that.

It's the truth. It strikes that common chord and it actually connects us as well.

It certainly does. It's hard to believe it's been over four decades now of you connecting us with your music. I've known you since the very beginning. I just want to ask you, “Do you want to say thanks again to George Benson?” because I know you have a great deal of gratitude for the part that he's played in your journey along with everybody else.

Absolutely. George has been great. That's my mentor right there. That's my hero. I learned to play from Jimmy, Wes, and then George. I had the opportunity to play with George in his life, and stand next to him, listen to his feedback on me and my career.

The first thing I heard was the interview when Just Between Us came out. The record “You Have Lost,” the very first one. The interviewer asked him, “Hey man, what about this new guy - Norman Brown, stole your style or something like that?” Apparently, George says, “Hey, that cat plays with a lot of fire. I like that.”

That sounds a lot like him too. You do play with a lot of fire and you've been doing it on a bunch of records. I think this is your 14th project now. It's called It Hits Different. What’s different about this project? What do you mean by that?

Well, it's a new day. It's 2024 and that's different than 2023. It's a new day and it's different. Each second that rolls by, it's different. I wanted to tap into that vibe to stay on the current side of things.

You've done a good job of that, by the way. I do love your background music from the birds. It's just so cool.

I'm telling you, peace is our nature and we have to protect that and guard that at all costs. You know how life is for us. It tends to go up and down. We think that it takes our peace away or stuff takes our peace away or people take our peace away in different scenarios. It's not true. We allow our peace to be taken away.

Yeah, and we should not do that.

That's right, we have to reclaim that, so we do.

We continue to just create our own stories that become this whole fabric that really tells the truth. You are a great storyteller and one of my favorite stories of yours is the one about your first guitar. Your brother and your dad, both of them were instrumental, not only in your early exposure to music, but they're also key in making it possible for you to start developing your own guitar skills. Like every good story, I would like to hear it again.

It started with my brother going to talk my father into getting me my own guitar because I used to sneak and play his whenever he left. Now I'll tell you, Pat, I didn't know this dude, my brother, played the guitar. I shared a room with him for eight years. I'd never seen him play the guitar. I didn't know he played.

One day I come home, I'm eight years old, the house is full. I'm checking out all these people, they're dancing, partying, having a good time, smiling. I look in the living room and my brother's sitting there playing the guitar with a bass player and a drummer. It knocked me off my socks. I sat there and watched, waited till it was over, watched the people went home.

The thing that stood out was how beautiful the people felt. How that music made them feel so good. I wanted to do that. I watched my brother. He put that guitar in the same closet I was getting my shirts out of for eight years. I see him put it there so after he leaves, I go get it. It starts talking to me. “Come on, pick me up, play. You gotta practice every day. You gotta practice every day.” I did.

Finally, my brother says, “Okay, we're gonna talk to daddy and get you one of your own.” He took him out one Saturday morning. My father used to like to go drink with his buddies. My brother drove him around so he could go in deep, as he called it, and talked him into getting me a guitar. He came home with this guitar, and it was beautiful.

It's a great moment. I know that every time you play, you evoke the memory of your brother. You talk about your dad. I think it's because these are the stories, as I said, that just create the life that we have and inspire you to do the music that you're doing.

It totally made me the man that I am. These two men shaped me big time. My father was a big man.

You wrote a great song for your dad too, “Pop’s Cool Groove.”

“Pop’s Cool Groove.” It's a combination of pop as in my father and pop as in popsicle, my brother.

It Hits Different

Let's talk about this new record now. It's called, as you said, It Hits Different. I listened to the whole thing and I love “Chicken Shack.” That's my favorite song. Tell us about that song.

When I was little, I used to go to my grandmother's farm down in Louisiana. There were chickens walking around, you could go wring their neck and do this whole thing. We had a well where you could get your water from, and an outhouse. I went back there as a young teenager and drove, and I found a juke joint down this dirt road in the middle of nowhere. There's this shack, no floor, pool table, record bar and a bar and people sitting there getting in. That blew my mind, Pat. I was like, “Dang, is this 1920?”

And that inspired “Chicken Shack.”

It really did.

Now it's got that groove that comes from your straight-ahead side. I know from the music that you really grew up listening to. You just alluded to pure – how do you say it?

That's it, that’s pure, genuine. Yes, absolutely. It’s pronounced A-U-S-A-R.

That's also very cool. It has a kind of ethereal sound that goes along with your current life philosophy - the principles of mine, I believe that's it, right?

That's exactly right. The first law which is the highest act of love. I made a record called The King is Here, that was symbolizing the second step in creation when God created the world. Man was on Earth, because man is God on Earth. And Ausar is the name that the ancient Egyptians gave that deity. When I wrote about the kings, I was talking about that. But I didn't name him so for this record, I said, “I have got to give the king his name.”

So Ausar is God on earth. It's the first law. It says your nature is an unconquerable peace that nothing can challenge or disturb. Reclaim your peace that you may then acquire God's peace and wisdom flowing through your being.

I guess that's what you're doing out there on that deck. Reclaiming your peace. There’s really nice drum work on that. Who was playing the piano because that was great too?

That’s Phil Davis from down here. Trey Gilbert is on bass, who's actually playing in my band. And Lil’ John Roberts on drums.

John Roberts is cooking and is great. There are some other songs that I think your longtime fans are going to really embrace. I know “Strolling” has got that classic Norman Brown sound with those crisp guitar notes that float on top of the groove. “Cloud Chase” has the same thing, too. Also “Sundance.” That sounds like Norman Brown to me, too. That sound is really your signature at this point. I think it's why people recognize your music right away.

You’ve got to have your voice and you have to stay true to that as you grow and expand. That's the challenge as an artist is to keep the integrity of what the people fell in love with. That flavor and while also bringing them something new and current for the time we're in.

I think you do a good job with that. I also heard some singing on the title track. Since I know your voice, it seemed that was somebody else singing on “Just Driving Down Peachtree.” Who was that?

That's my partner, Wirlie Morris. Wiley is a great producer who’s produced different artists. He produced Return to Forever, also Usher and Charlie Wilson. But he's also such a beautiful singer. I said, “Wiley, you have to sing these songs.” I was getting over something with my whole throat thing and going through pneumonia at the time we were making the record. So I said, “I want to feature you on this” and he just blew it up.

I hear a lot of great things about that whole Atlanta music scene. I know since you moved down there, you've been collaborating with different people. Tell us about what it's like right now to be in Atlanta making music.

It's a wonderful scene down here. I don't get much on the local scene to be honest with you. I know a lot of the local cats and I've put an Atlanta band together, but the vibe down here is so chill. It's California and it's New York. It's a blend of those two but here in the south, it's got a freshness to it. It's different.

You seem to have really settled in nicely there and found a space where maybe you can find some of that personal peace.

This is it. I'm going to be staying here. I love it here. I really love Atlanta and I love flying out of the airport. I can get everywhere in one flight on the same day. It's a beautiful thing.

It's the hub.

Quality of life though. We live in the hustle and bustle of big cities and my lifestyle traveling all the time. When I get home, I want to be home. I don't want to be driving down the 405.

I feel you, my brother.  You wrote a very long thank you section for the liner notes on this album. I think gratitude is really important, but I got to tell you, Norman, since my eyes can't really read that print anymore when it's as small as what was on the mock-up that I got, why don't you just tell me why gratitude is so important to you at this stage in your life and career. Who are you thanking on this record?

We can't move forward until we are grateful for where we are. We tend to overlook that. We get so caught up into what's coming at us all the time, especially in a fast-paced world or lifestyle. We tend to overlook that simple principle of gratitude in each other. We walk past each other and don't speak. Sometimes we walk on each other. I speak to people. Sometimes they look at me like, “Why are you speaking to me?” I'm like, “Dang, okay. I'm sorry.” That negativity interrupts the positive flow of nature.

I think gratitude, I know gratitude is the bomb. It's the way to go. It's the starting place for forward and upward. I thank everybody that was involved—from my blood to my loves to my friends and all the musicians and technicians on this record and of course people like you that have the same job of getting this music out to the world.

It's an important gesture, and I think that when you give out the gratitude, you receive something at the same time.

There you go, because what I do to you, I do to me. What I put out, I get back. We have to know that. There's a duality principle that runs through the fabric of creation. Up, down, left, right, forward, back, left hemisphere, right hemisphere, boy, girl, night, day. You know what I'm saying? It's just continual. Tension and release, question and answer. It goes hand in hand. When you put out an energy, there's something called cause and effect. That's also a law on the tree of life. Whatever you have caused to happen creates an effect and the effect is in polarity equal to the cause. If I put out negative, negative has to come back. That's called balance.

The laws of attraction.  I'm sure you've heard Jonathan Butler's latest project, called Ubuntu, which is an ancient African term which really refers to humanity. Because I am, you are. We're hearing a lot of that in the music. Now, music has always had the power to bring people together in a really special way, and we live in a world right now where there's so much division and there's so many things that separate people, but we have music to bring it all together.  It seems to me that you guys, especially in this genre, are focused on that and it comes through in the music that's happening right now. Do you think it has something to do with the period in which we're living right now?

I do. I think it's the time we're living in and I think we can harness now that we have an elevated consciousness. We finally realize what we're doing. I know it took me a while as an artist to say, “Okay, what am I going to write about?” I had been writing music without thinking. I was just writing. I really wasn't paying attention to what it was when Just Between Uis came out. Afterwards I figured out “Oh, it's just three-minute music, me and the guitar.” He said “Cover after the storm came out.” Oh, I just came out of a stormy relationship.

It's been a problem time in my life. You know what I'm saying? Better days ahead? I didn't know Mojazz was going to close down, and that I would have to wait four years to get another record deal. Better late than never and all the records flowed like that. Finally, let it go, and it was another troubled time in my life. I figured, write about this. I wrote about “Let It Go,” and it all lined up, intentionally, subconsciously and after the fact. I think the more we do that, the more we get to talk about it and we all catch on. We're all one. That's the bottom line.

I'm really excited about the new record. It's different. But I know you're always thinking ahead. I know you're working on a Christmas project. Don't you have a new Christmas project that's in the hopper? Tell us a little bit about that.

I think we need some new original holiday Christmas music to celebrate the season. Me and my producer, Wirlie Morris, have come up with this fabulous album. These songs are so badass. We really wanted to break the mold on this one. I may do one or two covers, something everybody is familiar with, but I really have a vibe which I'm going to let you feel it.

I've been hearing advance buzz on this. I have a different question because I know the impact that this artist has had on you. I have a request. How about a Hendrix project? There are a lot of young people now who have never heard “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” ”Castles in the Sky,” and “Crosstown Traffic.” I know you want to do it, Norman, and put a little brownie Brown on it.

You got it. I'm going to start working on it.

You’ve got to do it. I'm going to give you a short list.

Please gimme a short list of songs that have to be on there. You know what else I'm doing though? I'm also promoting my body butter, Brown Sugar. Yours is coming in the mail. It's all natural. My daughter makes it. Go to the website and get it. This is what I use for my skin.

It's great watching your kids grow up. They are just lovely and they're so wrapped up in all these different aspects of your life. That's got to be gratifying for you as a dad.

It really is. They're all beautiful, isn't it? I got some beautiful grandchildren. Wait till you hear my granddaughter play the guitar.

I can't wait for that. Well, I know that aside from making great music for us, your goal is really what we were just talking about, bringing people together. I saw another quote from you, and I want to end with your thoughts, if you wouldn’t mind expounding on it a little bit. You say, “A life united in harmony in the state of a joyful peace is what you're looking for.”

Absolutely. Interconnected, interrelated, therefore interdependent. Absolutely interdependent. and at peace and enjoying that we're here to serve each other. Let's just do that. Let's do what we love to do. I work with some sixth graders. These kids were so funny. On the internet, there was this classroom teacher who was using my song to calm her class. I see this and I go, “Oh, wow,” and it happens to be down here in Georgia.

I drove two hours away, showed up at the school, went to the principal's office and I asked for an assembly. She gave it to me. She put her little kids together. I spent three hours with these children. I had their attention for three hours and I was talking about service. We sang that song a little bit together. I played a little bit for them. Then I asked them what type of work they wanted to do when they grow up. They said firemen, hairdresser, policeman, milkman, and all this stuff. Then I talked to him about service, how we serve each other, how the products that they get, the things that we use, that somebody's taking care of it for us.

Somebody took care of the chickens, took the eggs, packed them up, drove them to the store, so on and so on. The service we do for each other. After I finished talking to these kids about that, the fireman decided to be a hairdresser. He wanted to be a farmer. It was hilarious, man. I told him, it's about what you like and what you're good at because you're going to spend a lot of time doing it.


This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.