For Our Griffins front man DJ Brown, writing and performing songs is not just a hobby — it’s a necessity.
“I write songs because honestly, I feel like I have to,” he says. “Otherwise, it would be very difficult for me to be out in the world.”
On recordings, the 21-year-old Brown is deeply confident and passionate, weaving complex tales of family friendships and self-discovery. In person, however, Brown is soft-spoken and shy, avoiding eye contact, and glancing downwards at the table.
“When I’m performing live, I shake uncontrollably,” he admits. “And I don’t talk. Occasionally, I mutter things into the microphone.”
That is, of course, until he starts singing — and the nerves and fears simply melt away.
“The motivation when you’re playing live for me to is, one, to be true to the moment and what I’m singing, and two, to get lost,” he explains. “So wherever we start, and wherever we end, I’m in a totally different place.”
Skyflight Productions will present Our Griffins in concert March 6 at The Willow Tree Coffeehouse and Music Room in Johnson City. Show time is 8 p.m.
Tickets are $8 and are available at brownpapertickets.com.
Music has always been an escape for Brown, as well as a source of support. The name Our Griffins comes from Brown’s mother’s maiden name and was spurred by the passing of his grandmother in 2011.
“When a person close to you dies, a lot of things go through your mind,” he says.
Titling the project after his grandmother felt like a way to pay her tribute. He originally planned on calling the project simply Griffins, but added the Our later when Griffins was taken. Yet what began as a compromise, he says, has since come to represent a layer of intimacy that informs all his writing.
“It’s funny how the ‘our,’ a mistake, came to signify something greater,” he said.
Family also influenced Brown’s latest record, “Michael Boyd,” which teems with stories both personal and borrowed, and which was inspired by an old photograph of Brown’s uncle, Michael Boyd, at age 6, found while rummaging through family memories. The photo was taken only weeks after the young boy lost his brother in a swimming accident on the Delaware River, and his expression is haunted and somber.
Still, uncovering the image proved particularly enlightening for Brown.
“I was with my mom, and we were sitting down looking through some old family photos, and that picture came up,” he says. “And for some reason, it really resonated with me. And it made me think about a lot of things I hadn’t thought about. As in, things being connected. So… you don’t know who your ancestors are, and there’s really no way to find out. It made me think about that concept, and it made me end up writing around that concept.”
“Michael Boyd” encompasses both family stories and Brown’s own story of struggle and self-discovery. It was recorded by Todd Schied, with Eric Slick (Dr. Dog) on drums and Brad Kunkle on bass, and was mixed by Brian McTear (Sharon Van Etten) at Miner Street Studios. McTear describes the experience as the start of something big.
“Our Griffins’ music is powerful and spacious,” he says, “and Brown’s penetrating voice reveals a kid who grew up struggling with his identity, a gentle introvert, much happier to observe the behavior of others, than to speak out loud about himself.”
A native of Easton/Nazareth Penn., Brown first learned to play guitar at age 14 after taking lessons from a parent’s friend. Inspired by old blues guitarists, he took to it naturally and began gigging with a band of older musicians in 2008, after meeting up at a dive bar. The experience would spur life-long friendships.
Through the group, Brown hooked up with producer/manager Todd Schied, who invited the band to his home-recording studio one weekend to lay down some tracks.
“It was a great experience,” Brown remembers. “We went out to Todd’s place to record six songs. But what ended up happening was we did three songs I had written. And they were like the first three songs I wrote. And I was pissed off. I was shy. And I didn’t want to do it. But I did it anyway. In turn I learned a lot from it.”
This would be his first taste of recording, and enough to get him hooked. Shortly after the session, the band kicked him out.
“I was only 16 at the time, and was younger than everyone else,” Brown explains. “And they had just gotten to college and were ready to play more seriously.”
Left alone with his thoughts, Brown began writing every day, suddenly overflowing with songs just pouring out of him. At the time, he wasn’t enrolled in high school (“I lasted three days in public school before I had a nervous breakdown…” he explains), so he’d spend his days working on home-school work, and writing.
A few months later, he received a call from Schied, asking if he wanted to continue working on music. At first he was nervous, but ultimately decided to jump back in.
“So I had my folks drive me up there — because I didn’t drive back then — after being like, ‘can I go up to this guy’s house in the woods?’” he laughs. “So it was kinda a weird experience, but it was also great. Todd’s a great guy. He cares about people — he cares about me. So I would go up on Fridays, and we would just play. He’s a drummer, so he would play drums, and I would play guitar.”
Under Schied’s direction, Brown released his first EP, “Conversations,” in 2011, and since then has continued to grow both musically and personally.
These days, Our Griffins is a set band, consisting of Brown, Travis Hobbie, Luming Hao, Alex Luquet and John Kimock on drums. And while the name Our Griffins was originally chosen to represent his family, Brown says that these days, the band is a family in and of itself.
“It’s the little things that are great with this band — hanging out together, making jokes, gaining friendships,” he says.
The band has gigged extensively around the Philadelphia area, and while Brown has been busier than ever as a result, he still finds time to write and record new songs.
“Sometimes it gets to the point where you just have to do it,” he explains. “You’ll be sitting down reading something, or watching a movie, or hanging out with friends — and suddenly, you have to leave, and write… something. You don’t know what it is, but you gotta do it. It’s as if it’s falling off your bones.”
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