PROFILE | 08.21.15
Kirby Brown arrives to our interview in Warhol-like fashion, wearing dark, circular sunglasses, holding a perfectly erect umbrella, with a cigarette burning between his lips. It’s raining and Brown looks painted into the SOHO scene. We ﬁnd refuge in Temple Bar, one of his favorites. He removes a straw hat to reveal a mess of yellow hair and begins to talk—his accent is undeniably southern, a twangy nod to the dairy farm he calls home in Damascus, Arkansas.
Brown spent his formative years in central Arkansas and northeast Texas. Intending on staying in the South, Brown’s plans to move to Nashville were altered by an inspirational 5-day trip to New York in 2012. “I loved the energy,” he says. “It was completely different. A whole new world if you will.” He moved to New York the week he turned 25.
Kirby is a poet; a storyteller who happens to use music as his medium. “I start by making random sounds over a melody. Sort of scat. Sometimes a word will jump out or a phrase and I’ll chase that down. There’s no formula to it. There is a weird, mysterious, spiritual nature to it you don’t want to put your ﬁnger on. If you knew all the answers to it, it wouldn’t be special anymore.”
The kitchen table is the hub of Brown’s Chinatown apartment. This is where the “serious business” of good card games, song-writing and deep conversation take place. It’s also, clearly, where all the cigarettes are smoked. “New York totally gives you the anonymity to come in as a stranger and create. People only have to know as much about you as you let them. Maybe that’s true in other places, but especially here because you have so little access to the same people over and over again.”
He references a rare interview with musician, Larry Norman where Norman was asked “Where would you say your music ﬁts?” Norman replies, “I don’t know if it ﬁts? Does it ﬁt?” Music, home, love, faith are largely unclassiﬁed concepts in Brown’s mind. “You don’t think there’s magic in the things you can’t quite get your hands on? You put something in a classiﬁed box, and then you limit its potential. All the best things in life are not easy to name.”
He doesn’t claim to be a New Yorker, but he hesitates to call himself a Southerner. “Sometimes I don’t like it [being called a Southerner] because so much comes with it, but in spite of myself I’m from Texas.” And Southern “things” do, in fact, inspire his work. A dog. A pick-up truck. Some woods to roam around in. He draws inspiration from country, folk, and gospel music, like plenty of Southern musicians before him. “I like the short narrative: really simple, common Brown pens a poem in one hand with cigarette in another images. I’m into the down-home thing,” he says. Being in New York has allowed him to embrace the parts of his identity and upbringing that he once wanted to leave behind.
“I used to be afraid,” he says. “There’s something that comes with growing up in a small town, especially from a family that doesn’t have a lot of money…you don’t have access to unbridled opportunity. I feel like I’ve left behind the feeling that [something] wasn’t possible [for me] because I was too constricted. It’s been really empowering to move to New York because I wanted to prove to myself that I could ﬁgure it out.”
Though he’s not a “New York for lifer.” “Home, home” is Damascus, Arkansas because the “land's been in our family for 100 years. It’s my one tactile thing. It’s my place, ya know?” says Brown. But home for Kirby actually seems to be more than a 100 acre plot of land with his name on it. “The concept of home is a confusing one,” he says. “The narrative of my life has been to try and chase down some idea of truth, or to make some sort of arrival [at home]. Like being a stranger in a strange land. I’ve never felt at home anywhere in my life. There’s a Bible verse in there somewhere.”
Brown is on a path that many artists have traversed before him. And he knows it. “Great writers of the 20th century had a migratory pattern from home to somewhere else and back to home. Hemingway ran circles from New York to Key West to Paris to New York to Key West.”
Brown wonders if his coming to New York could be a search for home after all. “I came here and I thought ‘well this is something I don’t know about yet, and maybe there is something I haven’t had yet that I can get here.’ The South is a good place to leave behind and it’s an equally good place to come home to. You can feel so connected with a place, or you can feel such signiﬁcance in a place, but it doesn’t mean it can give you what you need on the day in and day out.”
For now, Brown is a Southern expat disguised as a New Yorker. The word “y’all” is unconsciously sprinkled throughout his speech, and when asked about it he replies, “Is there another word for that? ‘You all’ is just not an option.” Brown chooses to live in the moment in his relationship with the City. “When it’s over I’ll know and I can move on…we can both move on. Although I think the grief cycle for New York City will be much shorter.”
And his advice for a Southerner coming to New York? Come with a good umbrella.
“An open mind, and a good umbrella.”
UPDATE: Kirby Brown played his farewell New York show March 25th, 2016 and is now living in Nashville, Tennessee to pursue his music career.
Written by Stewart Bean
Photographs by Lindsay Brown