National Recording Artist Brian Owens Drops New Album, Appears With STL Symphony and Peter Martin This Week
St. Louisan and national recording artist Brian Owens is having a big month. As manager of the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON church and mentoring program, he’ll lead the group tonight in a dynamic free concert featuring the music of Donny Hathaway—another St. Louis-raised musician—at Powell Symphony Hall as part of the Symphony’s Celebration of Black History Month. Then on Friday, Feb. 7, he’ll perform as a special guest vocalist with jazz pianist Peter Martin at the Sheldon Concert Hall. But perhaps most notably, Owens has just released his second album, “Preach,” featuring four tracks of classic soul that are as meaningful as they are fun to listen to.
Owens’ music sounds and moves like it came straight out of the Motown catalog of classics. Think “Second that Emotion” or “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”. With their distinctive rhythm guitar, generous horns, and forward, crisp beat, Owen’s brand of rhythm and blues is the perfect vehicle for his instrument; a voice that glides through the notes as silky-smooth as Smokey Robinson’s. Lyrically, he focuses on a spirit of togetherness and the power of people to make positive change. “We the people, we know what’s going on,” he sings in the title track, “Preach.” It’s a call for each of us to unite and right the wrongs we witness every day. There is a refreshing, positive outlook toward the future and, ultimately, his songs are uplifting, hopeful and motivational. Above that though, it’s music that makes you move.
ALIVE caught up with Owens and got the lowdown on his message, his upcoming performances in Japan, and his ongoing Masters series of concerts at the Sheldon.
ALIVE: Tell us about your work with the IN UNISON Church and Mentoring Program for the Symphony. How long have you been managing them and what do you find meaningful about it?
Owens: I love it! I have been with the Symphony since September 2008 and have had the pleasure of watching this program really grow. I think that what I find most meaningful is the way in which it allows the most important avenues of my own life—faith, family, community and music—to converge for the good and service of both the current and future generations of our city. Whether it’s mentoring the IN UNISON scholars and fellows, visiting with churches or serving as an ambassador for the cause of art, culture and legacy, I love every minute of what the symphony allows me to do!
ALIVE: You’ll be presenting “Someday We’ll All Be Free” The Music of Donny Hathaway, at the Symphony on Feb. 5. Tell us about the program. The promo refers to the evening as “powerful.” How so?
Owens: Donny Hathaway is by far one of the most influential and prolific voices of the 20th century and he is one of our own, a St. Louisan. He had the rare ability to intermarry sacred and secular music using both the soulful and the symphonic. The evening will be powerful because of his musical genius as well as the amazing and varied talent taking part. From Peter Martin and the 442’s—which is comprised of symphony members Shawn Weil and Bjorn Ranheim along with Adam Maness and Syd Rodway of the Erin Bode Group—to powerful vocalists like Sarah Stephens, Justin Hoskin, Leslie Johnson and our talented In UNISON students.
ALIVE: Gospel music seems to be a big influence on you. Did you grow up singing in church choirs?
Owens: I grew up singing in church but my only choir experience was at school. My church music life consisted of small group a cappella singing and my school music experiences where much more traditional—I even sang barbershop! I think the varied experiences served me well. In the end, gospel and tractional spiritual music is a part of the musical pedigree of every vocalist I love and emulate, from Marvin Gaye to my dad.
ALIVE: You’ve just released your second album, “Preach.” There is a unifying theme between all the tracks. Tell us about the message in your music.
Owens: “Say something that means something.” That is my new objective with every word and note. I want to continue to discover and share musical experiences that uplift, encourage and still challenge us all to be all that we are created to be. I think a large part of that is our being honest with both ourselves and our fellow man.
ALIVE: What is your favorite thing about your new album?
Owens: I love the honesty of it and the overall vibe and sound of it. We recorded everything straight to tape and in one or two takes. The entire process was very freeing creatively!
ALIVE: In April, you’re heading to Japan to represent American soul music on a tour in partnership with Japan’s Sweet Soul Records and Yamaha. How long is the tour and what are you most looking forward to about the experience?
Owens: We will be in Japan from April 27—May 2 and just being in Japan has me excited. I’m also looking forward to seeing my friends at Sweet Soul and playing for all the music-lovers over there. I’m honored to be an ambassador for American soul music.
ALIVE: In 2014 you’ll continue your Master Series, honoring the music of Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Johnny Cash at Sheldon Concert Hall. Explain the “Master Series.” How many performances have there been in the series so far and who have you honored?
Owens: I not-so-jokingly refer to the Master Series as getting my PhD in classic soul. It’s a musical challenge for me to really dig into the work of these great artists. It’s not only musically fulfilling, but a chance to share with audiences live performances of work that is now mostly heard on recordings and that some people in my generation have never heard live. It can remind us all of the power and universality of this music.
In 2013 I celebrated Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke and as you mentioned, in 2014 I will celebrate Ray Charles (April 18), Otis Redding and the artists of STAX (June 5) and Johnny Cash (Aug. 7). The Master Series is generously underwritten by Sterling Bank and I’m so excited about holding all the concerts at the Sheldon.
ALIVE: Which artist has most influenced you?
Owens: Vocally? Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and my dad in equal portions!
For more information or to listen to tracks from Owen’s album “Preach,” visit Brian Owens’ website.
Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly