It was left to Victoria, British Columbia’s Jesse Thomas Brown to craft one of the first known songs about Naperville.
Initially inspired by an aim to impress a city native, Brown, 33, dug deeper. “When I heard the name, I thought it seemed like a word that would sing kind of well, and it looked good on paper, and it seemed like a good title. These are the kind of things that you think about when you’re a songwriter – you just live observantly,” laughs Brown in a phone interview. Finding that the city was, at the time of the song’s writing in 2006, ranked among the top in America, he wondered: “What would the vantage point be of this world from the best place to live in America?” Concerned less with details of setting and more with the global idea, “Naperville” adopts the perspective of privileged youth all too aware of privilege’s corruptions.
The track, the first off his 2011 album “An Idiot’s Tale,” is, like much else on that album and 2008’s debut “Tanglewood,” retro-tinged piano-based chamber pop, embodying Brown’s central interest in telling story through song – with many pieces taking inspiration from similarly unexpected locales.
“I think most people that write about geography tend to write about their immediate living space,” says Brown. “But I grew up all over the place. My dad was in the military, and so I never really had a place that I identified with as home, because we were moving around every two years or every four years at the most.”
Instead, Brown sees geography as another ingredient of storytelling. “I do find that when you tell someone in a song where they are, it gives an instant ability to visualize a lot more than you can usually do when you have so few words to work with. And people can either identify with a place you’re talking about, or they can imagine it.”
Brown credits his narrative approach to several rather eclectic influences, among them Stephen Sondheim, Bernie Taupin and Kris Kristofferson. And some of Brown’s more unusual muses reveal themselves in historical tales like “Lights of New Orleans,” which winks to Mark Twain with the repeated lyric “two fathoms” – the definition of nautical term “Mark Twain.” Composer Kurt Weill’s departure from Nazi Germany is evoked in 2008’s “Curtain Call.”
“So yeah, influences like that probably lead to the little historical epics,” Brown laughs.
Brown’s material also draws upon present-day concerns, with songs like the immigration-focused “Ellis Island” addressing some hot topics. “I wouldn’t choose to think of myself as a political songwriter,” he says. “But if I feel strongly enough about something, and that weighs on my mind for any length of time, then I figure it’s usually worth writing about.”
The starting point for each of Brown’s compositions, however, is the music itself, where aural allusions to sources ranging from Elton John and Billy Joel to old-school folk and country can be gleaned. Brown is currently at work on his third album, which will feature his biggest enterprise yet – "Nikki," a 16-instrument “wall of sound” production inspired in part by Bruce Springsteen, the Four Seasons and Phil Spector. “It’s like a little early ‘60s pop song with a big orchestral arrangement behind it and castanets and glockenspiels. It’s very over the top, there’s nothing subtle about it whatsoever.”
Brown’s emphasis on pure music also led him to offer a free instrumental-only version of “An Idiot’s Tale,” something he plans for the next album as well. “It’s quite a lot of fun to hear the songs without the vocals, because you can hear the different parts of the arrangements more clearly,” he says. “It’s more of a novelty, I suppose, and a self-indulgent sort of project more than anything, but the musicality probably comes out a bit more, because when you’re listening to songs you tend to be focusing on the words.”
Brown has spent his career working independently, a position that confers artistic freedom and a flexible timeline, but at the cost of a tighter budget and reduced audience. "To me, the best thing I can possibly do is share my music with people," he says, "and being independent, it sort of limits how many people you can get to share your work with.”
But Brown's main joy comes in crafting his musical realms. Asked to identify a song with special meaning, Brown ponders the question. And despite the geographical expanses, the cross-century characters and worldly concerns, Brown ultimately concludes: "They're all a little piece of me, in a way."