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Jun 01, 2012

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Soul Searching

ALIVE goes behind the scenes with STL soul singer Brian Owens.
Story: Ettie Berneking
Photos: Christopher Gibbons

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St. Louis' Brian Owens is quickly making waves as an up-and-coming American soul singer. He started out singing country covers for the troops as a lead vocalist with the US Air National Guard band, Sidewinder, but his newest album, "Moods and Messages," has helped him find his own voice—with much industry acclaim. When Owens recently returned to his hometown to record a bonus track with Angie Johnson (a former contestant on "The Voice" and fellow Sidewinder band member), ALIVE jumped at the chance for a backstage pass (at our neighboring Shock City Studios) to talk about life, music and the journey Owens has begun as a singer-songwriter.

ALIVE: When do you first remember being introduced to music?
BRIAN OWENS: I have tons of memories of my parents singing around me—singing was just a part of what we did. I was singing harmony when I was 4, and already mimicking really good singers.

ALIVE: Who were your musical influences growing up?
BO: A lot of my favorite singers are soul singers: Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Al Green and The Temptations.

ALIVE: What made you decide to ultimately pursue soul and blues?
BO: I think, after a while, it just made sense. I had so many influences and did so many styles of music that when I found my own voice, it was about finding the genre that best suited the message of my music and the style of my voice.

ALIVE: You joined the Air Force at 21 to sing for the troops; what did you learn about performing during this time?
BO: I had to sing a lot of things in the military. I even sang country. Mostly, I learned how to be a front man and how to sell anything. Then, I learned how to sell anything and be myself— 'cause those are two very different things.

ALIVE: Why did you decide to transition away from singing covers?
BO: I asked myself, if I died today, what would my kids have of me that tells them what I want them to know about life, love, faith—all of that stuff—if I'm just singing covers? That's when I really started writing.

ALIVE: Is this album part of the legacy you want to leave them?
BO: With this project, if it's the last thing I do, I feel comfortable leaving. It's my legacy, and it can spawn another legacy. When you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, it's a whole different feeling, and I finally feel like I'm there.

ALIVE: Your singing career has really taken off— where would you like to see it head next?
BO: People always ask, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" You know what? I don't know. I can tell you what state of mind I want to be in. There are things about our dreams that we can't control, and I don't want to miss out on the journey because I'm so focused on the destination.

For more on life and soul music in today's world, read Brian's extended interview below.

Brian Owens Online Extras

ALIVE: Music was a really significant part of your childhood, but did you sing in any groups growing up?
BO: Everybody in my family sings. My dad sings, my brother sings, everyone around us sang. My dad was in a singing group, but I never sang in our church choir. No, I was always in smaller ensembles—more like a capella. Singing that way was good training for harmonizing.

ALIVE: Did you always know that you wanted to be a professional singer?
BO: No, actually I didn’t want to do it professionally until I was 18 years old. Until then I wanted to play basketball. But I think it came naturally because of nurture. I was in an environment where the music was good, so I think that’s why I came to want to do it as a professional career later.

ALIVE: What is it about soul that you’re so drawn to as a singer?
BO: A lot of my favorite singers were soul singers. Mostly because all them came out of the black church and that’s the style of singing there. There was this understanding of the blues cause it was the B side to gospel. And then when it came to popular music at that time a lot of those singers grew up listening to Nat King Cole and a lot of jazz. So they had this freakish versatility with their voices, and their phrasing was tremendous. When you put all of that together that’s how you get Ray Charles and Bill Withers. Even if they’re singing over strings it’s still soulful, or if they’re singing a jazz tune it’s still soulful. I think musically I identified most with those artists.

ALIVE: If you had to describe your own voice and personal style what would you say?
BO: I think my voice is a sum total of a lot of different parts. So one moment you can hear me singing a song that reminds you of Marvin Gay because I can sound like Marvin Gay. But a lot of singers are like that. When I first heard Johnnie Taylor records, man I thought it was Sam Cooke. But that’s who his mentor was. And he slowly developed his voice and now it’s like Johnnie Taylor is Jonnie Taylor. Every great singer I know had some beginning where they were not mimicking but studying great vocals and taking different attributes from each of those and making it something unique.

ALIVE: Do you worry that soul and blues are loosing their place in today’s musical scene?
BO: Even hiphop has its roots in blues and funk and James Brown. That stuff never goes out of style because it’s the roots of American music.

ALIVE: Why did you decide to leave covers behind and start writing your own music?
BO: I was going to spend my life singing covers until someone very close to me said you need to write cause you’ve got something to say. So I started writing more, and now I couldn’t imagine doing a record that wasn’t my own music.

Continued after the jump.

ALIVE: It’s rare to find musicians today who writer their own lyrics as well as the sheet music and then also perform.
BO: I think it’s interesting that people look at this and are like wow you wrote all this? I mean, do people not write anymore. I just thought that that’s what people do- they write their own music. Now I’m not naive I know most popular music is written by other people, but I just thought well didn’t you at least come up with the music for it. Marvin Gay- “What’s Going On” would not have been “What’s Going On” had it not come from the modern Marvin Gay. He sat down at the piano and wrote that album.

ALIVE: Do you remember writing your first song?
BO: I actually don’t remember writing my first song. It was probably when I was like 12, and I’m sure it was something not even very good. I think I was meant to write as an adult once I got some life experience. I think a lot of stuff that I’m saying on my record now I would not have said when I was younger- I would have hesitated and worried if people would like it or if I could even say that.

ALIVE: You talk about wanting to leave behind a legacy for your children with this album. That seems a bit morbid for a young man in his 30’s.
BO: I was 28 when I really started writing, and my wife was pregnant with our first son. We’d experienced the death of a close friend around then, and that’s when I really had to get comfortable with the mortality thing. And because of my faith I’ve become comfortable with the idea of death. But there was something about having a kid on the way that I started looking at my body of work. I thought I recorded all this stuff and none of it he could really listen to and think man my father really felt strongly about this or that. So from then on I started to write music that really spoke to that.

ALIVE: As a writer and musician, what do you hope to do in the future?
BO: I’m the kind of cat that someday I just want to write books. Absolutely. There are a lot of things that I say and music is the perfect vehicle for that. But there are a lot of things I want to say that a song won’t do. Or a song would just be the start of it and to really get it out it has to be written out.

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