Hailing from one of music history’s most famous families, it’s no surprise the second generation of Jacksons follows that same path. Austin Brown, son of the eldest Jackson sibling Rebbie (yes, the Rebbie who sang “Centipede”), is in a class all of his own, taking everything the family taught him and carving his own niche in the music industry. Being the nephew of the late King of Pop and Janet Jackson may seem like a “Thriller” night, with people pre-judging Brown on his family ties alone, but he isn’t going to just “Beat It”; instead, he’s standing strong and challenging the preconceived notions. “They’ll just have to listen to the music, just listen and let the music speak for itself,” says Brown.
Soultrain.com caught up with singer/songwriter Austin Brown to discuss how he is fusing music’s past with the present and future, and paving his own way.
Soul Train: For those that haven’t had the opportunity to hear your music, can you describe your sound?
Austin Brown: My sound is like, I really love soul music, I love pop music, and I’m a studier of music. Really it’s however I’m feeling. We try to take influences that inspire me to make music or be a musician and we try to fuse it into our own specific sound using the new technology that we have right now. That is the basics to the old soul references, it’s pretty much a soul, pop, and sometimes rock fusion.
Soul Train: That’s a good description. You mention that you are a student of music that you study and really learn about it. Do you think that is what’s missing in the industry today, the fact that some artists don’t really take that time to learn the art of music?
Austin Brown: Technology has made it a lot harder and a lot easier for people to seek out old school artists. Hard in a sense to where things are changing so fast and people are constantly trying to catch onto the new thing. It’s easier because you can go to the past to pull up references. So it’s a mixture, but at the same time I definitely feel that studying music is the way to go. That’s what made our “greats” great. If Stevie Wonder wasn’t studying jazz and fusion like Count Basie and Miles Davis then we wouldn’t have heard that influence on his music, especially when he became funkadelic and soulful and using jazz chords with his music. I think everything goes in circles.
Soul Train: You come from a very musical family. Has music always been your first love or was there another path that you wanted to pursue?
Austin Brown: No. It was always 100% music. I loved it and it always intrigued me. I wanted to figure things out with music and I’m still learning.
Soul Train: What do you think about people making assumptions about your music based on the fact that you are a member of the Jackson family?
Austin Brown: It’s funny, my Uncle Michael used to always say “its okay, people are always going to say the family, use it. Use it, we worked hard for it, but just show your musicality, and show what you have to offer.” I get it, people will always have their comments and qualms when they first hear about me, but it’s fun seeing how I will hopefully win them over one by one and it’s been a fun journey.
Soul Train: How do you feel when people tell you that you sound like your uncle Michael Jackson? What do you think of that comparison to the King of Pop?
Austin Brown: I think it’s only because our tones are similar (laughs), but he’s such an iconic legend that I will never put myself in that category. I love making music and songs, but it feels good, because my uncle was the one that taught me how to do what I do along with my other relatives. It’s really cool, but I in no way take that seriously when people say that. It’s very flattering, very cool.
Soul Train: You have a song that you released a video for called “Ménage a Trois”. Now Austin, explain yourself! (laughs)
Austin Brown: (laughs) My mom is still angry about the title of the song but loves the actual song–that’s the funny part, but that’s exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to take a subject of love and flip it to get your mind to go somewhere else because I’m saying the words “Ménage a Trois”. Now we all know what the term means, but also if you look it up in the dictionary it means an arrangement for three people living together, it doesn’t have to be sexual. So I wanted to figure out a way to tell a story like they did back in the day like Stax Records, where it’s a straight love conflict with passion. Using “Ménage a Trois” is a cool reference that means between three, but at the same time, it’s going to get your mind to go whoa, where are they going with this. At the same time, the video more so, well the song has a more of a Stax Records, James Jameson doo-wop feel to it, I didn’t want the video to be that way, I am a huge fan of the old Gap commercials and really it was all about the performance. I wanted to do something where people could get to know me and my personality, so it’s so easy when you hear the background and the Jackson thing where you straight up get the type of person that I am so I really take it seriously, so I want you to get a feel of what it’s like to hang out in my living room with my friends. We’re just a musical bunch of kids that like to have fun.
Soul Train: Let’s backtrack a little bit. Before you released the “Ménage a Trois” video, you released a trailer called “85”. Can you go into what that was about?
Austin Brown: (laughs) Everyone always asks me what “85” was about. I think it threw a lot of people off guard. The point of the video was to get attention and to really say all the things that I knew people were going to say about me in the beginning. I was able to get an amazing director–he was the producer of the film Transformers and he’s a visionary. I knew it was going to be hard for me to have a voice because of my background; you can get the attention, but it’s what you’re going to do with it once you have it. So I wanted to say the things that people were going to say about me first, I wanted to get that out the way, and now they will be able to pay more attention to the music. I’m a huge fan of fantasy and art, and that was just an artistic statement. I love animation, I love dance, and art, and so all of that combined we put into the trailer.
Soul Train: You’re more than just a performer, you are also a businessman. So why start your own record label instead of going to one of the big-name labels?
Austin Brown: Well, because I wanted to artistically to do what I wanted, and I’ve gone through the label system before. I went through it when I was 13 years old. I didn’t go through using the family name; I did what everyone else does, the same grind that everyone goes through, and I went through the being signed and being put on the shelf. It’s hard when you are an artistic person to get people to see your vision. I wanted to make sure that no matter what happens, this time around people are able to get a true sense of who I am and my musicality, people that I create with and what we want to bring to the table.
Soul Train: So in your opinion, would you say that’s the avenue artists should take today?
Austin Brown: If you’re someone like me that really enjoys the process of creating music, then yes. Look at artists such as Drake and Frank Ocean, who were really into making their music and went the indie route then started getting attention. We live in a world where the norm is what people see and it’s different when it’s actually the norm. So, you really have to set yourself apart from everyone and stick to your guns artistically and not really break from that until you get to a place where people will accept and acknowledge what you have to offer in the grand scheme of things.
Soul Train: What do you listen to? What’s your favorite song?
Austin Brown: I just bought a Billy Joel album! I mean I’m all over the place, I have my days when I want to listen to music like Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell. I’m obsessed with music from the late 60s and 70s so I may only want to hear Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, Earth Wind and Fire. And I have my moments where I want to listen to 90s hip hop like De la Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Groove Theory, Public Enemy–it just bounces around. I have my jazz moments and listen to Miles Davis, or I can listen to a 1930s song by Count Basie. It comes in waves and just really depends on what I’m feeling at the moment. I have a really big musical library that I take pride in and I want to be able to reference music when I need to.
Soul Train: Will you ever go on tour with your family members?
Austin Brown: No, not right now. That’s not something that I’m looking to really do, but who knows years from now. My thing right now is to continue connecting with those who are enjoying my music. That’s my main goal and to introduce kids to all the genres of music that inspire me to do what I do.
Soul Train: When is your album going to be released?
Austin Brown: Well right now I’m doing this thing called Music Mondays, and I’m releasing songs from the album every single Monday and streaming it for fans to get. So as soon as this Music Monday runs out then you’ll have the full album that we are putting together. I don’t’ know the exact date, but just go to my website AustinBrown.com every Monday for new music.
Soul Train: What’s the most valuable lesson that you have learned from your family about the music business?
Austin Brown: Wow, that’s an interesting question. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I think the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is humility. It doesn’t matter what you do, no matter how successful or unsuccessful that you are, always keep a humble attitude. No matter how great someone is, things can be taken from you just like that, things can change. You always want to keep a positive outlook on life and to keep your integrity no matter what you do. Anything can be taken from you, in many different ways, so you always want to be positive and keep a good head.
Soul Train: Let’s switch gears and discuss Soul Train.
Austin Brown: I love Soul Train! I wish the show still came on. A lot of my family members got to perform on there–even 3T–but I didn’t! Soul Train catered to R&B, which I love!
Soul Train: Did you have any favorite episodes?
Austin Brown: I am always watching Soul Train online. I loved the Jackson 5’s performance of “Dancing Machine.” Michael at 14 years old doing the robot and was so clean with it, was just outstanding. All of their performances were just classic. My mother Reebie’s performances on Soul Train, you know I have to throw that in there! (laughs)
Soul Train: (laughs) You better or else!
Austin Brown: I also loved the episode when Don Cornelius and Marvin Gaye were playing basketball. That was hilarious because you can see Marvin taking it so seriously. Everything about Soul Train is cool, it was a place for blacks that didn’t have too many places to really showcase their music and show their artistic expression. It really brought that to the forefront. You had the Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand, but Soul Train was just a place where soul could really be expressed. If it weren’t for that, the artists that we look at today as legends wouldn’t have had that platform. So what Don Cornelius and the whole Soul Train crew did was really, in my opinion, take black music to the next level.
Soul Train: A lot of artists seem to think that music is a dying art that hip-hop is taking over and pushing the other genres out of the way. Do you agree?
Austin Brown: No, I really don’t. It’s so easy to blame someone else when you’re not looking at yourself. Look at the Grammys: music is still definitely alive. Look who won. Adele won and she is an amazing, phenomenal artist doing soul music that started with Motown. It’s really how we interpret the music. I don’t think it’s dying, I think it’s the way that R&B and soul artists are attacking it may be dying. Q-Tip said something really crazy to me, he said, “You’re living in a time period, Austin, where you can really go there with your music, so go there artistically. Go there with your songs and kids will have something to reference.” For example, my song “Ménage a Trois” is very retro and vintage and you’re not sure where that music comes from. You can go on YouTube now and look up the Four Tops, The Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas; you can look up those songs that influenced that and connect the dots. So it’s really the approach that’s causing us to think that certain types of music is dying. Hip-hop is an expression, so if someone is talking then you better listen, it’s coming from the heart. The most successful rappers are the ones that are actually saying something.
Soul Train: So what about when artists complain that the music today is suffering because of the lyrics that are lacking?
Austin Brown: Well, when you’re in the club, and you want to have fun, you don’t really care about what the lyrics are saying! (laughs)
Soul Train: Good point! (laughs)
Austin Brown: That’s why we have to be better about our music decisions. One of my songs, “Write it on the Floor”, it’s a metaphor, saying the ink is the music, and let your feet become the pen and just write it on the floor. It’s a straight club song. We have to figure out a way for music to be like poetry but at the same time get people out and party. I don’t think music is dying in anyway, I think we just have to be a bit clever in the approach.
Soul Train: What’s next for Austin Brown?
Austin Brown: Well I am about to shoot two new videos and am working with my creative team to come up with the treatments for that. I really am just in study mode, all I do all day is study music, and pick the brains of the people that I look up to. I want to really do something different that defines my course in music in the next 10 to 15 years and I’m going to do it, it’s just going to take a long time. We are also getting ready to go on the road, hitting a lot of festivals and performing.
Soul Train: Do you have any advice for aspiring singers, songwriters, performers?
Austin Brown: My advice is know why you love it, and make sure if you really do love it for the right reasons then all of the other stuff will come. Also, be patient, don’t force it, just be patient. Patience is a virtue.
Now sit back and take a retro soul filled ride and check out Austin Brown’s new single “City of Angels.”
Shameika Rene’ is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and writing for various websites such as Charlotte Vibe, Creative Loafing, or her own site, www.themofochronicles.com. She’s also a special guest contributor on The Social Hour on Urban Soul Radio. Follow her on Twitter @mofochronicles.