Though he’s only 25 years old, Theo Brown’s life already seems straight out of a screenplay. The St. Paul R&B artist, songwriter, and percussionist is getting ready to unveil his debut full-length album, and it’s the capstone of 10 years spent working toward his dream of making a life in music. In that time he’s completed classical training, appeared in Best Buy commercials, beatboxed with John Legend, and lived through the hurricane that devastated New Orleans — events that Brown laughs off with an endearing shrug and casual smile.
“The stories in my life are very cliche, but they’re hilarious,” says Brown, chatting over a cup of chai tea at the Black Dog Cafe in Lowertown St. Paul. “It’s like, that doesn’t happen in real life! Why would you experience the worst natural disaster in American history and live to talk about it?”
Brown graduated from a private high school in St. Paul in 2005 and made the journey down to New Orleans shortly afterwards. But two weeks after moving into his dorm room, Hurricane Katrina hit. “It was a very interesting experience to be a part of because the nation was watching the whole thing unfold. My dad and two of my best friends from high school drove down from here, all the way down to come get me — and that’s another story in itself, the whole situation was crazy — but I was never scared through the whole thing. It was pretty nutty though. I was stuck in my dorm on campus for a week. There was seven to nine feet of water throughout the whole city, especially where we were because it gets lower in some parts of our campus. So yeah, after my dad picked me up we drove straight back up here and I was here back in time for the State Fair,” he says, shaking his head.
The hurricane didn’t deter Brown from pursuing his degree in music, however. After returning home he studied for a semester at St. Thomas and then returned to Xavier University to finish his studies. Brown says that time he spent living in New Orleans heavily influenced his solo work.
“While I was down there is when I started to develop the style of music that I’ll be doing at the CD release party,” he says. “I started writing a lot. I was still doing spoken word my freshman year of college, I won a couple awards doing that, and then I started focusing more on playing piano and singing. So my college experience was a lot of the influence of New Orleans music and brass band music and jazz, and also studying classical music hardcore.
“In the summers when I would come back up here, I would go to the Blue Nile on Tuesday nights and during those summers of ‘07 until now just made a good circuit of friends and musician friends here, and I would practice my songs there. So I would sign up on open mic night, play with the house band, and just kind of get a feel for it and get a small buzz, at least in that circuit there in Minneapolis.”
Brown’s new album, Of the Night I Am, captures those New Orleans and jazz influences in addition the myriad influences he soaked up during his childhood. The son of two musical parents — Brown’s father is a percussionist that specializes in Afro-Cuban and West African rhythms, while his mother is a classically trained pianist and organist — he says he was exposed to a wide variety of musical genres from an early age.
“My chores as a kid were like practicing my scales or playing an assortment of percussion instruments,” he says. “My mom is very into Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and then she listens to the Four Tops and the Supremes. My dad is Latin jazz-meets-Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Led Zepplin. And then I, also, am a huge hip-hop head. So it kind of spans everything. I just have a very wide range of influences,” he says, laughing. “Very wide.”
The album’s best track is “I Wanna Be With You,” an organ-driven R&B tune with a Latin beat and a well-timed melodic hook. Between each track, Brown includes interludes of percussion solos that start to seem tedious repeat listens of the album, but do serve to showcase his talent on several different instruments. Of the Night I Am’s shining moments come when Brown starts colliding disparate genres, as in the Incubus-meets-Heiruspecs slow-burner “Between the Lines” or the jazz fusion strains of “Freedom.”
Brown’s artistry is a direct reflection of his larger-than-life sense of ambition and infectious positive energy, which emanate out of him as he describes his new disc. It’s that enthusiasm that helped him get backstage at a recent Esparanza Spalding show to meet one of his musical heroes in person, and also landed him on stage next to John Legend when he was performing a solo show at St. Thomas.
“That’s a hilarious story, actually,” he says, grinning mischievously. “Last April, one of my friends from St. Thomas told me hey, John Legend is going to be here doing a poverty forum. Since I went to St. Thomas, I just grabbed my St. Thomas ID and snuck in. He did a speech, and then after that he opened up for a question and answer portion. I made sure I was the last person in line. Everybody asked serious questions about poverty, and then I was like, hey, can I beatbox with you? And he didn’t believe me — this was in front of like 150, 200 people. And they gave me a microphone and I did my thing and he was like ‘Ok, ok, cool. Well, we’ll do two songs together.’ So we ended up doing his first single, which was “Baby When I Used to Love You, and I did the exact beat that Kanye West made and he was really surprised by that — and then my microphone cut out halfway through. He did about four more songs, and then we did the last one together, which is the one on YouTube.
“I’m still pissed off about that, because after we finished the song we shook hands as we walked off stage, and I should have said something to him then like, ‘hey, I’m a singer-songwriter! Let’s talk after this!’ But I didn’t. I was caught up in the moment,” he says, shaking his head. “We shook hands and he said ‘good job’ and then I went back to my seat. I was like, ahhh. To this day, we are trying to find a way that I can get back in contact with him, because I would love to open for John Legend, it would be so cool. I get comparisons to John Legend all the time.”
In addition to his solo work, Brown is active in several different projects around town, many whom he connected with via the Tuesday night open mic gigs at the Blue Nile in Minneapolis. He’ll be playing keys with Maria Isa tonight when she opens for Ghostface Killah at the Cabooze with her project Villa Rosa, and has shows on the books with R&B cover band Not Guilty and Michael Jackson tribute band Heal the World: A Tribute to Michael. Brown says he likes the idea of having his hands in a lot of different projects and pushing himself to develop as an artist.
“This CD-release party, in my life anyway, is a big deal, especially for everything that’s transpired in the past 10 years,” he reflects. “I’m 25 now. When I was 15 that’s when I made up my mind, I want to be an entertainer — whether that’s acting, or just being a pianist, or just being a vocalist, or whatever. My biggest influences in life, as far as people go, are Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson, and Michael Jordan. All three of those guys were people who did it all really well, so that’s kind of my M.O. I can be good at one thing, but I’d rather do all of it really, really well.”
And the way he tells it, you have no choice but to believe him.
Theo “Soul Chicken” Brown is playing a CD-release show with David Feily, Kenneth Garnier, Miguel Hurtabo, Back Pocket Hymnal, and DJ Deuce on Saturday, April 21, at Honey. More info here.