By Jan Vanderhorst
It's difficult not calling Brent Titcomb a survivor of the music business. With a career spanning close to 40 years in length, his body of work, is every bit as evocative and relevant in today's world as when it was first created.
His latest cd 'Beyond Appearances' captures the essence of a Brent Titcomb performance, the joyful exuberance, deep introspection, and well-executed musicianship. He is able to immerse himself into each song he performs, thereby enveloping his audience in a warm, kindred feeling. Quite frankly, you can't last this long in music if you don't have that gift.
What's surprising about Brent is that 'Beyond Appearances' is only his fourth solo recording.
As a member of the seminal Canadian folk-rock group "Three's A Crowd", he recorded 'Christopher's Movie Matinee' in 1967, which was produced by Cas Elliott of the Mamas and Papas and Steve Barry.
Sustaining a career in music which isn't totally dependent upon recorded output is not impossible if you possess the right qualities.
Brent's success as a songwriter over the years has been a great help to him. His songs have been covered by Glen Campbell, Andy Williams and Donny and Marie Osmond, but it's been Canadian songbird Anne Murray who's given Brent his greatest exposure as a songwriter, scoring a hit with 'Sing High, Sing Low' and choosing Brent's 'I Still Wish The Very Best For You' as the B-side to her million seller 'You Needed Me'.
Brent's abilities as a vocalist and guitarist have been heard on albums by Bruce Cockburn, Don Ross, Oliver Schroer and many others. But what has really served Brent well for many years has been his versatility in non-musical projects.
"To be quite honest", he says, "I got burnt-out (musically). It's a lot of work keeping a group together and I was always the last one to get paid. So shortly after (1982's) 'Time Traveller' I only did a few things I related to conceptually and I disbanded the group. I was really considering not doing (music) anymore for a living and wouldn't get back into it unless the
energy was there."
A few years later Brent's son Liam was born.
"I got into family life", he says of that time, "and switched my focus into voice-over work and acting in television commercials to keep bread on the table."
Brent's voice was heard in animated shows 'Clifford The Dog', 'Care Bears', 'C.O.P.S.', and 'Ring of Power'., along with commercials for American Airlines, Chef Boyardee, Purolator and the Canada Mint. On screen he appeared in commercials for Cendon Yellow Pages, Kellogg's, Chrysler, Kraft Ranch Dressing and an award-winning spot for Canadian Tire, among others. "Then lo and behold", he recalls, "the energy came back and I got
interested in music again."
It was at that point Brent hooked up with long-time partner Tommy Graham who produced Brent's first two albums 'Brent Titcomb' and 'Time Traveller'. "Without pushing the flow", he says, "we got together to see if we still had some magic in us, and there was! The first two things we did were souvenir items for Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados; somewhat like a
Solitudes record, with natural environment sounds. We did that to get our chops together and then we started on my (project).
It took a long time (to put together), because I was only able to get a few hours here and there, so it covered over a year's time to (record) it." Sometimes an unfortunate by-product of moving away from performing music is a corresponding downturn in musical creativity. If you don't have a gig to prepare for, you don't need new songs. So it was a very pleasant surprise for Brent to discover his songwriting skills returning to him once he re-entered the studio.
"It had virtually evaporated for a long time", he relates, "I wasn't going to push the flow (of the music). If the energy was there, then I would honour that. Once (we were in the studio) again the guitar sounded really good to my ears and the next thing I knew, there were some tunes happening again, and most importantly, that Tommy and I had a really great connection. He has really been obsessed over the years in capturing my voice."
So with the help of a Rolands 16-track porta-studio, Brent and Tommy Graham got down to work. What they discovered was a change in Brent's voice. "My wife and I have had a healing practice for about 15 years", Brent explained, "the voice is used as an intuitive instrument to tone a person. When my wife and I enter into this kind of work, our voices become one. So when I came back to singing (songs) again, my voice had really grown and matured and gotten much broader and deeper. I hadn't foreseen that. I didn't think it would relate back to singing actual songs. There's been quite an evolution I was happy to discover."
The heightened texture in Brent Titcomb's voice can be heard in 'Blackwater Rising', the first song on 'Beyond Appearances'.
"(The song itself) started (as I was) driving this highway (northeast of Toronto). You go through this little town called Blackwater and I thought that would be a great concept for a song, in terms of the environment. (Then) it quickly became a personal thing. It's the dark side of ourselves, it's those patterns of habitual neurotic aspects of ourselves that rear their heads every once in a while that tempt us, that we're trying to work through and make peace with. So it's kind of (like) making peace with the dark side of oneself."
How many times have I been here?
How many times before?
Oh that dark side in my face once more
But now I know there is a place
to see things from above
There is no guilt or fear
There's really only love
"It's one of my favourite (songs) on the record actually."
Also on the cd are two of Brent's earlier songs, 'Bring Back The Love', which he had never recorded, but was covered by Glen Campbell and Anne Murray in the 70's, and 'Tibetan Bells', which first appeared on Brent's first album.
"'Tibetan Bells' happened as a complete accident. We had taken a break (in the studio) and when we started to work again I picked up my guitar and it was in perfect D tuning. I just habitually started doing that 'Tibetan Bells' riff. Tommy raised his eyebrows and ran to get the mics and set them up and we got a take on them. I was thrilled with that version, I think
it's the definitive version.
"Then we started talking about whether we should include it (on the cd). I realized that when I wrote it in 1968 a lot of people were totally unaware of Tibet. Now it's become far more in the consciousness of people (as far as) the plight of the Tibetan people, so I decided I would release it and dedicate it to the Dali Lama."
Given that Brent has been playing music professionally since he mid-60's, is he surprised he's still at it when so many of the people he started out with have given up?
"It really is a hard life (being a performer)", he says, "It's not easy to be a creative person in any discipline, because you have to be self-motivated and you're always hustling. You don't have any dependability or security whatsoever. Some people cannot take that. After the years it wears them down and they opt out and would rather have the security of a specific pay cheque every week they can depend on.
"I'm really surprised I'm still around", he laughs, "to be honest with you. I can't believe it! With all the things I've lived through, it seems I've lived several lifetimes. But at the same time, my folk heroes and models, when I started out were already getting on (in age). I realized in that particular idiom these people play until they drop. With the rock and roll model you couldn't imagine the Rolling Stones being middle agers and still doing their thing. If you didn't make it by a certain age it was all over. But fortunately the role models I had aspired to played until they couldn't play anymore. So that's how I live. In fact, I think I'm better than I've ever been. It's like a fine old wine. You just get better at what you do." What has helped non-mainstream artists promote their music is the proliferation on the internet. But getting on the cyber highway doesn't mean you're on easy street.
"For an independent (artist) there are more ways than ever before to market yourself, but it all boils down to you doing all the work co-ordinate your grassroots following and make people aware of what you're doing. You have to work at that all the time. My wife has spent hundreds of hours linking and connecting to all kinds of people, so we're quite new at developing our
"In the early days marketing was not a term that would enter your mind. (Life) was just about having a good time, playing music, travelling around and now you really have to understand business and you have to learn to market yourself. That's just the way it is. You're in business and if you want to make a living at it, that's what you have to do."
To find out more about Brent Titcomb, his website address is: brenttitcomb.com
Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org