Published on January 15th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Brave Baby Rings a Bell with a Lushly-Produced Debut
Brave Baby is on the verge of earning a favorable cult following and taking a terrific artistic leap forward, and frontman Keon Masters seems anxious and eager about it. Speaking with Metronome over strong and expensive coffee at Black Tap recently, Masters talks in excited, rapid phrases as he tries to explain how he and bandmates — guitarist Christian Chidester, drummer Wolfgang (Ryan) Zimmerman, bassist Jordan Hicks, and newly enlisted keyboardist Stephen Walker — reached this pivotal point in their early music career.
“There’s a point in every singer/songwriter’s or band’s career where you’ve really got it,” Masters says. “Some kids find it earlier, some kids find it later, and some people never find it, some people always have it, and some people lose it. There’s that point where you really get it, and it all clicks. You don’t know what ‘it’ is until you get it. It takes you getting over yourself to finally get, and then that’s a cycle that happens over and over. Some of it is personal, and some of it is artistic. I think we finally, collectively got it over the last year.”
The Brave Baby story began five years ago in the S.C. upstate (near Charlotte, N.C.) when Masters, Zimmerman, and Chidester began playing and writing songs together. They eventually formed the indie-rock band Wylie and began playing around the Carolinas with a fairly straightforward, guitar-driven style. It wasn’t until Masters and his colleagues relocated to Charleston in 2010 to attend the College of Charleston (and work part-time jobs) that Wylie started to morph into a more sophisticated and orchestrated affair. Masters put extra effort into his lyrics and song ideas, and he brainstormed heavily with Zimmerman and Chidester in Zimmerman’s new studio in a downtown storage unit.
“Wolfgang has done great things for a lot of people in town as a studio producer, and he’s made a lot of musicians’ albums sound great,” Masters says of his bandmate. “He’s like a gem that we have here, and he sometimes gets overlooked.”
Wylie was slowing morphing into Brave Baby, detouring from the “radio-ready, straightforward pop/rock,” as Masters puts it, toward something more sweeping, moody, and unique.
“Artistically, we were all on the same page,” Masters says of the sessions of late 2010 and 2011. “Musically, those guys were way ahead of me, though. Christian and Wolfgang are excellent musicians. I can still kinda hang.”
The core Wylie guys performed under the band name until the fall of 2011, when they renamed themselves Brave Baby.
“Figuring out band names can suck,” Masters laughs. “Any band name can sound bad at first, but you have to own it and make it cool. If we’re going to be lame and childish, maybe that’ll be what Brave Baby becomes, but right now it’s just what we are. It was tough to pull the trigger and change the name after being called Wylie for three years. Now, we just have to make the connotation happen.”
With Jordan Hicks (also Elim Bolt) on board, Brave Baby hunkered down in Zimmerman’s facility last March and began tracking a pile of new compositions for what would eventually become the 11-song collection Forty Bells, due this week on the Charleston-based independent Hearts & Plugs label. Many of the early takes were scrapped for what gradually came together over the summer.
“This is almost like our second record,” Masters says. “We recorded an entirely different collection before, and we ditched it, so it took quite a while to assemble. Everyone got pissed off about different things as we went along. It was a long process. We have 15 or 20 fully recorded songs on hand that no one will ever hear, probably. But we manage to put the strongest songs together.”
As Brave Baby recorded their best stuff, Masters and his crew became acquainted with local musician Dan McCurry (of Run Dan Run). McCurry was already amping up plans for Hearts & Plugs, an effort that he started casually as a side project in 2007 with his bandmates. Over the last two years, McCurry developed the label as a solid homebase for like-minded Carolina rock and pop acts, including Columbia-based folk/pop/electronica group the Lovely Few and the twangy, echo-laden indie-rock group Elim Bolt, fronted by singer/guitarist Johnnie Matthews.
The new sounds Brave Baby was mixing fit in well with the burgeoning roster of Hearts & Plugs acts.
“We fit really well next to Elim Bolt,” Master says. “I think both bands are washed in reverb and have some similar production qualities. One difference might be that I’ve never tried to embrace the Southern approach, as far as my tone and delivery. We’ll embellish some Southern themes sometimes, but we aim for that grandiose, larger-than-life sound with little scenes from verse to verse. I’ve really never tried to sound like anything else or emulate another singer — and I know that I’m not an awesome singer or anything — but have the tendency to surprise ourselves with something good.”
There’s no shortage of good ideas and clever arrangements on Forty Bells. Some songs like the elegant and emotive opening track “Magic and Fire” or the upbeat “Lakeside Trust” bounce from oscillating, chiming guitar chords and frolicking rhythms. Then there’s the scratchy, jangly tumble of guitar-heavy tunes like “Nothing in Return” to the delicate, hushed tones and implied string-section backing of closing track “Denmark.”
“I wrote most of the lyrics,” Masters says. “And the three of us [Masters, Zimmerman, and Chidester] wrote the music Sometimes, Wolfgang will do something entirely on his own, like the song ‘Grandad.’ That was all his. I like that. It allows the listeners to get to know the band better, and I like that. Elim Bolt kind of works that way. Their songs are almost all Johnnie, but his bandmates add their own things, too.”
Despite the open-ended mystery of the album title (title track “Forty Bells” is the third one on the disc, too), Masters admits that it actually refers to the noisy security system at Zimmerman’s studio. “A bell would ring 20 times to open and 20 times to close,” he says. “We became slaves to the bells. While we were recording, we’d have to wait the bells to stop whenever someone came in or left. It was killing us for a long time, but it was our home and our spot. Somehow, that became the idea for the title. They replaced the bell a couple of months ago.”
While Brave Baby’s Forty Bells may be a self-made, low-budget debut on one hand, it’s a stunning, supercharged kick-off on the other — a collection of hearty anthems, epic ballads, and reverb-drenched rock from a bright, young band ready for new greatness. Ding ding.
Brave Baby shares the Pour House stage with Elim Bolt and Octopus Jones on Thurs. Jan. 17 at 9 p.m. Admission is $10 ($8 in advance). Admission includes a free copy of Brave Baby’s new album. Visit bravebabymusic.com and heartsandplugs.com for more.
Stream the songs on Brave Baby’s Forty Bells here.
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