Jesse Brewster

BREATHER Brewster found a much-needed break during the pandemic. ‘After 20 years of hauling equipment around and playing gigs and running all over on tour, it was good to stop for a moment,’ he said.

No limits to the creative impulse 

Singer, guitarist and songwriter Jesse Brewster has been a professional musician for most of his adult life. He started in cover bands, moving on to groups that played original songs in the late ’90s and early ’00s. “I was a freelance guitarist and background vocalist,” he said, from the North Bay home he shares with his wife and kids. “I wrote melodies and arrangements, no lyrics. That changed in the early ’00s. My older brother passed away from Polycystic Kidney Disease. I wrote a song about my brother’s death and kept on writing.

“The music was going in all kinds of different directions, so I decided to make an album to benefit the PKD Foundation. I’d been in recording studios before, so I was familiar with the recording process. I knew quite a few musicians and singers from playing locally, so it came together quickly. The album was called Confessional. It made some money for the Foundation and, after that, I just kept writing and making records.”

Confessional, released in 2005, contains a blend of folk, rock and R&B. It’s the same mix Brewster explores in his latest album, The Lonely Pines, his fifth solo effort. “I had the album in progress before the pandemic and I kept working on it,” he said. “I was diagnosed with PKD a few years before my brother died, and I’ve had a kidney transplant, donated by my wife, Sarah, so I’m immunosuppressed. I was extra careful and kept to myself, doing everything remotely. I have a home studio, so I was able to work on it and maintain social distancing.

“The pandemic shut down performing, which I depend on for my income, so it was difficult. I did a couple of streaming performances, but I’m not a huge fan of the streaming thing. I was busy writing and recording, so I wasn’t desperate to perform. I did do some concerts on my front porch, for the people in the neighborhood. The desire for live music, after a couple of months, was pretty strong, but I shut it down after a while. I was concerned about the space between people. I didn’t want to be responsible for any spread.

“There were three songs I hadn’t recorded yet, so I did them at home, playing all the instruments, except drums. I sent it to a friend to record remotely. One of them, ‘Close to Home,’ was written about the pandemic, during the early part of the lockdown. It’s the first thing I recorded in my new home studio. I’m not a recording engineer per se, so I had a few growing pains. It was a bit of a challenge, doing it during the pandemic, but I like the way it came out.”

The new tracks on The Lonely Pines fit seamlessly with the material Brewster had already recorded with his co-producer and drummer, Gawain Mathews. The album opens with “Let’s Run Away,” a mellow country rocker with a relaxed groove and a strong hook. It’s an invitation to a potential lover to escape her mundane life and start again in California. Brewster’s solid electric guitar fills and Mathews’ propulsive bassline support a playfully seductive lyric. Mathews adds some tasty honky tonk piano to “Bitter Pill,” a waltz that explores the familiar landscape of heartache from the perspective of a jilted lover. Brewster’s brief, twang-heavy baritone guitar solo is complimented by Mathews’ sly Dobro asides.

“Follow It Down,” one of the album’s self-produced tracks, uses a measured tempo to explore the struggle to stay creative. Brewster’s ambient electric keyboard textures and distorted guitar solos strike a fine balance between rock and R&B. The album’s most atypical track is “Amber Kinney,” an Irish ballad featuring Brewster’s mandolin and Mary Pitchford’s excellent fiddling.

“I picked up the mandolin when I was recovering from my kidney transplant surgery,” Brewster said. “It’s the second song I’ve written and recorded on mandolin. I like the storytelling aspect of Irish tunes. Mary is from the U.K. and shines on these kinds of songs, so it was great to have her play on it.”

Brewster said that, despite the circumstances surrounding its creation, making the album was a comforting experience. “I’d been writing songs and planning an album, then March came along,” he said. “It was a scary time, but it was also the break I’d been waiting for. After 20 years of hauling equipment around and playing gigs and running all over on tour, it was good to stop for a moment.

He added, “I finished the album and had time to start work on recording another project. The working title is called Tha Building; I called on many friends from around the Bay in the R&B world. I’d been thinking about making this record for a long time. The first band I was in when I first started playing professionally was a funk and hip-hop group, so it was exciting to get back into that genre. I have 11 songs ready, in various styles from Motown, to modern R&B and hip-hop.

“I’ve also been developing a rock opera for Broadway. My partner in this project is Alessandro Pellicani, a choreographer. He came up with a concept called 7 Doors, about the seven stages of grief. A few years back, he asked me to write a trial song, which he loved. I wrote 12 more and made solid demos for all of them. There are so many layers to the idea of grief. There were no genre limitations, so I wrote a tango and a big hard-rock, Evanescence-type thing and many more.

“Over the past few years I’ve been traveling back and forth to NYC doing showcases and trying to raise money for the production, and now we have a producer. It’s currently in a holding pattern because of the ongoing shutdown. I think something’s going to come out of it soon, if not on Broadway, then possibly as a movie or series.”

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Editor of The East Bay Express, Associate Editor of Oakland Magazine, and Alameda Magazine, Columnist-In-Residence at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)'s Open Space, Advisory Board Member of Nocturnes Journal of Literary Arts, and regular contributor to several websites and magazines. Miller is the founder of The Afrosurreal Arts Movement through his publication of The Afrosurreal Manifesto in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 20, 2009.