Combining his melodic vocal-driven songcraft with lush kaleidoscopic production and guitar textures, The Wheel spins open an interdimensional portal that weaves indie folk-rock into psychedelic dreamscapes on his debut self-titled album.
It’s no coincidence that Avram Brown named his new musical project The Wheel. In many ways, the singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist has come back to where he started on The Wheel’s self-titled debut.
“There’s something about it that feels very full-circle to me,” says Brown, who grew up immersed in singer-songwriters and became an improvisational guitarist steeped in jazz and psychedelia as a teen. Then, while living in Boston, Brown turned his attention toward music production, which became his focus for years. The Wheel combines those pursuits into a collection of 10 thoughtful, emotionally resonant and subtly catchy songs that blend guitar and piano, plus occasional strings and horns, with Brown’s expressive voice. First single “Coyote Mask” features steel guitar, layers of hazy harmony vocals and a piano part that Brown recorded with an instrument that once belonged to Elliott Smith.
“What happened with this record is that I finally brought those three colors into one palette,” Brown says. “I’ve been able to integrate lyricism and poetry with my folk influences, but there’s still this production thing, and there’s some psychedelic improvised guitar work.”
Recorded in Portland, Ore., where Brown has lived for eight years, the singer co-produced the album with Raymond Richards (Blitzen Trapper, Local Natives, LCD Soundsystem). The two were working as resident producers at the late, lamented B-Side Studios, recording Brown’s music between other projects.
Some of the more recently written tracks find Brown coping with the fallout from the end of his 14-year marriage.
“Nothing inspires new songwriting like heartache,” Brown says. “There was a lot of introspection, a lot of connecting what I was going through emotionally with what I was experiencing physically. The Pacific Northwest was a relatively new place for me, so I was spending a lot of time with trees while processing heavy stuff.”
Brown’s musical journey began when he was around 5, in Rochester, N.Y. One day he put his mom’s copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the turntable, aimed the speakers out the windows and went outside to roller skate while singing along.
“It’s one of my earliest memories of feeling like music is something that’s mine,” he says.
A decade later, Brown went with his parents to see a concert by the sitar master Ravi Shankar and tabla player Zakir Hussain. By then he had taken up guitar, evolving from a budding songwriter into a lead guitarist. Seeing Shankar and Hussain perform changed everything for him.
“I was clear-eyed and totally sober, but I left in this altered, meditative kind of state as a result of their improvisations,” Brown recalls.
From there, he dug into the Grateful Dead, and soon landed in jazz, especially Herbie Hancock’s 1973 album Sextant, which showed him the creative possibilities of improvisational music. “I went down the rabbit hole and put the idea of songwriting on the back burner altogether, and just focused on being this improvising guitar player,” Brown says. “That was my whole thing, my whole musical identity.”
Experimenting with multi-track recording equipment opened up a new horizon for him.
“My focus for a long time was, how do I get better at making sounds come out of speakers that are similar to the stuff in my head?” Brown says. “It became way easier to explore the studio when it was someone else’s music. I was almost uncomfortable being the artist and the producer at the same time.”
As the backlog of songs he was writing grew, though, Brown began to reconsider the divide he had created between artist and producer.
“I decided to finally park myself at a studio and make a record and actually pull a band together,” Brown says. “I’m finally throwing my hat in the ring as an artist myself, basically.”
The Wheel includes contributions from Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Earley, violist/arranger Kyleen King (Brandi Carlile, The Decemberists), recording engineer Larry Crane (Elliott Smith) and veteran session player Ralph Carney (Tom Waits, The B-52’s) on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, in what were likely his final sessions.
At its core, The Wheel is the heartfelt expression of a musician who has learned just what it means to fully express himself. After letting his musical ideas incubate for so long, Brown is finally ready to share them with the world.
“I feel a little bit like the release of this album is cracking open up the door of this hermetically sealed portal, and I’m coming out of the cavern and into the light of day,” he says. “As I blink and squint in the sun, it’s like, hey, this is what I’ve been doing in this little cave.”