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Interview Mon Apr 07 2014
Philip-Michael Scales, performing under the stage name Briar Rabbit, has been making quite a statement for himself in the world of music. Born into the family of musical legend B.B. King, his uncle, then attending the prestigious Berklee School of Music, and now, touring the country in support of his recent release, From Your Bones, Scales has set himself apart with his unique musical style of wisdom-infused folk music.
Each of his songs are punctuated with lyrical ingenuity, all telling stories of raw and relatable emotions and situations that occur as part of human nature and the beauty of life itself, heartbreak, despair, and all. The vulnerability present within his musical catalog promotes his songs to include a quality of sheer honesty and also exquisite candor. He will be gracing Chicago with his musical presence for a show at the Hideout this Thursday, April 10. I was grateful to get a chance to speak with him about his dynamic music, his songwriting processes, and his extremely soulful views on creativity, authentic living, and following your dreams.
Where does the name "Briar Rabbit" stem from and when did you decide to start performing under this name?
I started this project around 2010, something like that, and I just really liked the freedom of it. I did storytelling exhibitions in high school and middle school and I liked the idea of storytelling and the character of Briar Rabbit always stuck out to me. The character was a bit of a wise-ass.
What inspired you to pursue a career in music?
It started when I was in 8th grade, on the last day I had a concert on my best friend's backyard porch. It was just something that felt right. I got in that place and I was like, this is my thing. It seemed like the only thing that sort of made sense. It was just like yeah, that's what I do.
You also attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music, how did your time there shape your career?
I think I learned a lot in terms of my musical, technical stuff at Berklee, and also business. The coolest thing is the networking aspect, and the relationships you make. For example, I played shows with American Authors when they weren't as big, I went on tours with the bass player and drummer of Passion Pit. Obviously when you get to a place like that, I went to hang out with a whole bunch of other kids who were all so good. Just being around the songwriters and that level of musicianship upped my game. I think that's one of the biggest takeaways -- being around better musicians and the best of the best.
Your uncle is the legendary B.B. King. What was it like growing up with his influence, and what did he teach you about the musical craft?
He has always been on tour, and it's one of those things where I see him a couple times a year, and I don't know, I just never really knew any differently. He loves history, I learned a lot of history from him and he's a self taught guy. Really he just instilled in me to be a gentleman and be patient, and that's just how I roll. And obviously if I played blues guitar it would be an influence. I feel like there's a level of call and response in blues and I feel like there's call and response in my music as well. So I think that it has that influence as well, even though it's not straight up blues.
The music on your newest album, From Your Bones, is extremely lyrical and poignant, where did the inspiration for this album come from? The wisdom present is effortless.
A lot of it came from just sort of life, really. I know that sounds vague and general -- I mean, it's a process. It's a step in the process -- I fell in love, I fell out of that love, so that gave a lot of songs right there. "Bad Blood," and more, I don't think a lot of records have that sort of continuity. Other songs like "Invisible" are more about fighting for your space in music, and fighting for your career. I think sometimes your ambition can make other people uncomfortable and you end up saying, "I'm going to be a musician and I'm going to make music" and other people look at you funny until you actually do it. Some of the songs in there were reflecting that. A career comes with its up and downs. One day you could be playing Taste of Chicago and a record label is interested in you, and the next your gear could be getting stolen. The highs are super high and the lows are super low. That's where all the inspiration really came from for that record.
Your blog states, "It's not easy or glamorous in 2014 to be emotionally honest but I feel like it beats the alternative." Is this philosophy something you bring into your song writing?
Yeah, I think that definitely, that's kind of the only way I know how to be me, and the only way I know how to be me is just be emotionally honest. Some of those 21 ways lists or however many signs of modern relationships, for example; you get power from ignoring people, and it's like, because we only text everyone we have to, it's like the world is completely immediate, but at the same time we're supposed to act like we don't care and that juxtaposition has always been very fun to me. To be honest with someone and say, "Hey, I like you," I think owning your own kind of emotional situation and saying "I like you" can scare the shit out of somebody. I think it's good, like what else are you gonna do? Am I really supposed to sit there and pretend that I really do not like you? It seems weird to me. I can't pretend to not like you. If I act like I don't like you, I probably don't like you. That's how I'm wired and sometimes it gets me into trouble. At the same time, hopefully when people listen to what I'm saying sometimes, I feel like an emotional translator. Like, maybe this string sort of feels like this. And that's the job of music, and that's the coolest thing about music. You can listen to the same song 550 times in your life and then you can hear it once and you are in the perfect spot and it can make you weep like a damn child. That's the thing about music, because it can mean so much to so many different people depending on how it hits you.
What is your song-writing process like?
It's a weird process, most of it involves the fact that I can't do anything else until I isolate myself. I'll put my songs into a journal and I keep bound journals and write in pen. I like being able to go back to things and rewrite them. I have it in front of me physically there. Usually I'll go out and pick up twigs to nest, like you pick up twigs and build a nest when you get home. Sometimes I have really prolific moments where it's like bam bam bam, and other songs you pound that out.
What song resonates with you most on your current album?
Right now, I don't know maybe it's a bit of "So Long" because it's like yeah, things are fine, things are gonna be okay, we're good. Either that or "Invisible." I'm doing what I love for a living. It's awesome, I get to perform on a stage and put on shows. There's no better feeling in the world than being exactly where you're supposed to be at the time you're supposed to be there. When you're in the groove and in the flow, there's nothing better than being.
Where do you see Briar Rabbit's music going in the future?
I feel like my music will be a progression, I think it's moving towards taking on a lot more positive potentially, there were definitely some moments on From Your Bones that were a little darker. It's not going anywhere crazy but hopefully it moves forward and keeps progressing.
Any upcoming Chicago appearances beyond the show at the Hideout next week?
I'm doing a really cool showcase study at Uncommon Ground on June 28 and 29. It's going to be me solo, called The Company You Keep, featuring a bunch of musicians, coming from all throughout Midwest. It really will showcase other great acts.
Just for fun, what music is on repeat for you right now, and what is your favorite Chicago spot where you can get creative energy?
I've been listening to Frank Ocean a lot recently, I think hip hop throws me sort of, business-wise. It inspires me life-wise; it doesn't inspire my music but definitely life-wise. Watch The Throne has also been on repeat lately. In terms of a Chicago place where I get energy from, I really like Rainbo Club. Something sort of went down there for me, I met awesome people and celebrated birthdays there. If I want to get work done, I'll go to Gaslight but the whole first album was Rainbo Club.
Briar Rabbit will be performing at the Hideout on Thursday, April 10, a stop on his tour. Doors open at 7pm, and the show begins at 8pm with opening acts Seabird and Jared Bartman. Tickets are $10, and the Hideout is located at 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., 773-227-4433.