by Mick Rhodes / Claremont Courier January 20th, 2022 photography: Andrew Alonzo
Ontario-based singer/songwriter Patrick Brayer, “The original brooding author of hardscrabble country-noir songsmanship,” is unhinged, in the best sense of the word.
“If I was totally in control I think I would be bored,” Brayer said of his songwriting process. “This stuff happens, and one thing leads to another, and then all of the sudden I seem to have written something that’s more profound than I really am. I’m surprised by it myself.”
Rich in vivid poetic imagery, much of it mined from territory familiar to Inland Empire residents, Brayer’s lyrics demand attention. Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits come to mind, but his writing has an extra dash of cinematic surrealism and a hypnotic magic even those esteemed lyricists can’t reach. His narrators pull you in like no other songwriter working today. He is his own thing.
Now “Cabbage and Kings,” — the latest in Brayer’s 40-plus year recording career in which he’s released more than 60 records — is out today, Friday, January 21, on local indie champion Shrimper Records. It’s a collection of highlights from his typically prolific previous decade of literate, powerful material. It’s subtitled, appropriately, “An Inland Shrimpire Anthology.”
In conversation, the 68-year-old Brayer is thoughtful, affable, generous and self-deprecating (his website banner reads, “The Patrick Brayer Toleration Society”). He was raised in nearby Fontana, and the city is a character in scores of his songs, of which there are more than 500 in his estimation. Born in San Jose, California, he arrived in what would be a fortuitous locale — rural Fontana — in 1958, where his family had purchased an egg ranch.
“I was so shy growing up I couldn’t talk to people,” Brayer told the COURIER. “So I developed a way through poetry and music. I did it I guess to draw people toward me. And I began to make friends. And it introduced me to everybody I ever met.”
Like countless roots musicians, the young Brayer was spellbound by Harry Smith’s incalculably influential 1952 Folkways Records collection, “Anthology of American Folk Music.”
“That was a big deal,” Brayer said. “Growing up in Fontana there was not much music going on, but I found the Harry Smith collection at the library. It’s a treasure trove.”
His early work was helped along by the raw naivete of his own limitations.
“Yeah, I would have sounded like Jimi Hendrix if I could, but I couldn’t, so I had to figure out something else,” he said. “I’m lucky I wasn’t able to copy so good.”
Brayer’s first album, “Cold Feelings,” was released in 1979. It contained “Imitation of the Blues,” which would be recorded (as “Good Imitation of the Blues”) by mainstream country music superstar Alan Jackson on his 2006 “Like Red on a Rose” album, which has sold more than 800,000 copies since. Brayer’s “Secret Hits” collections began appearing on cassette in the 1980s. “My Sixtieth Shadow,” the 60th record in the series, came out last year.
By his own count, he’s now more than 500 tunes into his songwriting career, with 60-plus albums released over the past 43 years. To say he’s been prolific isn’t enough: he’s close to being in Willie Nelson (95 records over his career) and Bob Dylan (83) territory, and those guys each had a 17 year jump. Neil Young started putting out solo records in 1968, and he’s released a measly 56.
“It’s a way for me to organize myself, I think,” Brayer said of his compulsion to write and record.
Though not a household name, Brayer has collaborated with or had his work covered by artists such as Alison Krauss (who used “So Long So Wrong,” a song he co-wrote with Walden Dahl, as the title track for her Grammy-winning 1997 record with Union Station), Ben Harper, Stuart Duncan, Chris Darrow, Darol Anger, Atreyu, John York, Michael Hedges and the aforementioned Alan Jackson.
Mainstream songwriting notoriety enabled him topurchase a multi-track recorder, which expanded the instrumental palette of his mostly self-recorded, self-released records, on which he plays most instruments himself.
“I can’t move on until I’ve recorded them, because I don’t have a good memory,” Brayer said of his songwriting process. “I never play it the same way twice, not because I’m cool, but because I just can’t remember.”
The songs begin with an idea or a title. He writes it down, then begins to address the concept.
“As I do that, then I start getting in the zone and I have to get out of the way,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but I’m letting it flow, built on what I wrote down. And then one thing after another kind of comes. It’s magical. It’s part of the process. It’s part of why we like to do it. That’s why I like to do it, because it becomes something else.”
He’s always looking for new raw source material. He finds it in conversations, everyday things, movies, music and in books.
“I just look at the sentences,” Brayer said. “Over the pandemic I re-read all of Nabokov and Faulkner.” People ask, “’What are you doing?’ And I go, ‘Man, have you seen their sentences?’ People complain about ‘Lolita.’ Have you seen the sentences in that? They’re just glorious.”
(Brayer performing at the Folk Music Center in Claremont CA back when he dared look like this)
He wants people to arrive at their own interpretations of his songs, which, he said, can evolve over time.
“I think that allows people to think what they want to think, and see something in their own life, not about my life, but about their own life.”
Brayer has seen modest financial reward over the years. But that’s never been the point.
“If you sit around and wait for somebody to give you money, you wouldn’t be writing very much,” he said. “I wouldn’t. I never considered that.”
He wrote “Imitation of the Blues” when he was 18. Over the years since he’s been asked why he doesn’t just write more like that one.
“I just tell them that’s not the way I work,” he said. “My process is the thing takes over, something takes over, and I allow it to. I’ll dabble at a few takes, but I pretty much need it to come out the way it wants to come out. So I’m really not in control. I [tell them] I would write another one if I could, but my process doesn’t allow me to do that. Thus I’ve evolved, for better or worse. But I accept what I’ve got now. People can be critical or not, it doesn’t really much matter.
“You’ve just got to allow it to happen. It’s not about money. It’s not about fame, or anything like that. Mixed in is your own self-therapy. It’s all in there too. You’re hoping to share. I’ve seen people moved and … you feel helpful. You feel at least some sense of accomplishment because you don’t have it all to yourself.”
“Cabbage and Kings” is available today on all the streaming sites. Much of Brayer’s immense catalogue can be found on his Bandcamp page, https://patrickbrayer.bandcamp.com/music.