While Nick Brown’s name might not be immediately familiar to local music fans, he has been a regular presence on the Madison scene since 2008.
In recent years, the singer-songwriter, who is set to celebrate the release of his solo debut, “Slow Boat,” with a concert at the High Noon Saloon on Friday, Jan. 11, has eschewed the spotlight in favor of a supporting role, playing bass guitar in groups like Earl Foss & the Brown Derby.
“It’s fun to play bass because you have to work very little and you still get free beer like everybody else,” said Brown. “You also get that same sweaty wad of 26 bucks at the end of the night.”
Still, the musician, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., raised by a journalist father and a university administrator mother, never doubted he’d eventually release an album of his own.
“Before I moved to Madison I was more often the frontman, so I’m a big egotist and it suits me really well,” he said, and laughed. “And I’m only half kidding.”
Brown, 35, started writing his first songs at 16 years old, and some of the tunes on “Slow Boat” date as far back as 2004. Sonically, however, numbers like the country & western swingers “Play That Song,” sound decades older, coming across like recordings put to tape at Memphis’ famed Sun Studio back in the 1950s.
Though the album draws primarily from old-timey genres like country and folk, Brown funded the project using much more modern means, raising more than $3,700 in less than a week via the crowd-funding website Kickstarter.
“My experience with Kickstarter had always been it was people like your mom’s friends (making donations),” he said. “There was definitely that, but then there were also people I didn’t know or have any connection with.”
The resulting album could aptly be described as Brown’s attempt to connect to the world around him, and a majority of the songs on “Slow Boat” contain at least some autobiographical element. “I’ve got a restless heart, babe,” he sings on the lonesome ballad “I Will Be Gone,” making reference to his frequent travels. In addition to logging countless miles on tour with a variety of rock bands, the musician spent time living everywhere from New Hampshire to Austin, Texas.
“I actually moved to Austin with some very vague idea of becoming (a singer-songwriter),” said Brown, who grew up idolizing Texas-based artists like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Alejandro Escovedo. “I got down there from Ann Arbor and it was 114 degrees. I remember walking outside and thinking, ‘What am I doing here? How do people live like this?’”
Brown coped with the heat, in part, by working as a pool maintenance technician, a job that allowed him to sneak in a cooling dip whenever the afternoon sun became too much to bear.
“You just have to get a flathead screwdriver and go next to a wall and if anyone questions you just say you’re scraping off calcium deposits,” he said. “I think they taught me that my first day. Cleaning calcium deposits is code for ‘It’s 3 p.m. and I’m dying.’”
Brown first picked up a guitar at 15 to join a friend’s blues band, a trio that got together after school to bash out admittedly terrible covers of artists like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker (“I don’t want you to get the idea we were actually good,” he said). From there, he moved on to play in a variety of rock and punk bands before choosing to strip things back down to the foundation for the largely acoustic “Slow Boat.”
Asked about his next solo venture, however, Brown sounded like a man ready to again crank up the volume.
“I want to make a loud, happy, simple rock album,” said the singer of his next project. “I have family members and a girlfriend who are always wondering why my songs are so sad, because I’m generally a fairly upbeat guy.
“I never know how to answer that,” he continued. “I think next time out I’d kind of like to write some happier songs to shut ’em all up.”