Emily Jeanne Brown’s music is a conversation with herself. Her first release, which came out last month, is a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” and she has an original song titled “Begin” that was released earlier this month. Both are introspective explorations of the intimate relationship one has with oneself. Brown, who is originally from California, now lives Bedstuy, but her California roots are evident in her sound which sometimes recalls Laurel Canyon in the 1960s and 70s. This makes sense for someone like Brown, who cites Joni Mitchell as a primary influence.
Though Brown has been writing songs for years, her first forays into music making had a different feel than her new and upcoming releases. Previously, the influences of women like Brandi Carlile and the aforementioned Joni Mitchell were more evident and her sound was less electronic, more folk. They’re not missing in her new music, they’ve just been joined by other influences like Sharon Van Etten and 80s synth sounds, combined with her earlier, more acoustic sound to form her own unique style.
Brown is also an actor. The two pursuits are not entirely separate and certainly interact within her. Brown says that the collaborative aspects of acting, like having scene partners or working with directors, has informed the way she works with creative partners in music. Brown worked with illustrator Chamisa Kellogg on visuals for “Begin”, who created a hand-drawn animation of a woman flinging herself through nature and space, letting herself be free and be moved by the world.
Brown met her romantic partner and frequent collaborator Eric Mendelsohn, two years ago. They now live together. According to Brown, some, though not all of the more electronic vibes of her music come from him. In a follow-up conversation, Brown expressed some hesitation attributing her work to someone else, especially as there is a history of women’s contributions to music being eclipsed by the men in their creative life.
“Working with Eric has been so freeing because we live together, so we can make changes, discuss ideas, and hop into our home studio and work whenever we feel inspired. But I am also very serious about making sure that we stay conscious of our working dynamic as its own separate thing from our personal dynamic; I think that’s really important to protect the creative work and the relationship in the long term.”
Like acting, songwriting also has specific storytelling goals that need to be reached to effectively relay a story, a feeling, or a theme. “I feel like all aspects of my identity and all the endeavors that I put myself into inform each other,” she says. “I think that as I’ve gotten older, I recognize that I need to zoom out– instead of trying to identify as any one thing…. And these are all the different ways that I do that.”
Brown got her MFA in acting at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Her return to music is a return to something she’s loved for a long time, since childhood. It mirrors the themes she revisits in her songwriting and arranging. But as a trained actor, she also has an inroad to access themes that she connects with by interpreting the songs of others.“I’m on Fire” is a song of desire, in Springsteen’s case a man’s sexual desire for a woman. But Brown took a different approach in her rendition:
“I had this vision for the voice of the song: instead of it being like a man desiring a woman, it was sort of like the inner parent talking to the inner child,” Brown says. “Which is also a theme in ‘Begin,’ like your own inner wisdom sort of speaking to your inner child.”
Covid restrictions have presented many performers with a barrier to connecting with people and social media has proved to be an outlet. While experimenting with performing covers on Instagram Live “I’m On Fire” emerged as a favorite and Brown decided to release her arrangement. Covering Springsteen is a natural bridge between Brown’s earlier songs and her new music. The family mythology even goes that the first time Brown’s mother felt her move in utero was at a Bruce Springsteen show.
When Brown was a little older than a fetus, but not by much, she fell in love with the singers Jason Mraz and Tristan Prettyman. When she was around fourteen years old, she reached out to Prettyman, and they started corresponding via the internet.
“I was like her little groupie,” Brown says. Prettyman even arranged for Mraz to call Brown on her birthday one year.
“He heard a recording that I did of one of his songs. It was a big deal. He told me that I sounded like Linda Ronstadt and I was like, I don’t really know who that is.”
Brown, like Prettyman before her, is engaging with potential fans and listeners via the internet now more than ever. There can be an element of artifice and veneer to what an artist puts online, but Brown is doing her best to sidestep that.
“It’s not like me posting on social media is reaching some massive audience beyond the people that know me already,” she says. “It’s more about, what am I doing to take care of and share with, and commune with the people who already are invested in me?”
Growing up, Brown had a piano teacher named Carol whom she loved, but Brown says she didn’t practice enough and quit lessons. “This has been my lifelong thing: being good at a lot of things and then not actually learning the value of work ethic – like that’s been my little crutch my whole life,” Brown says. But coming back to music is making her reevaluate some of that thinking. “I don’t have to be like a phenomenal guitarist to do this, or the best songwriter. I can just go for it because I care and I want to try it and that’s okay.”
Brown’s music is a natural fit with the current movement of women in indie folk pop. Her songs would easily be at home on a playlist with boygenius, Maggie Rogers, Fiona Apple, HAIM, Phoebe Bridgers, Sharon Van Etten or even Taylor Swift’s latest work. It’s lyric driven, soft and slow. It’s reminiscent of folk, but leans more towards rock than country, especially with Brown’s penchant for synths. “I’m on Fire” and “Begin” are available now on her Spotify. You can find more about her acting and voice coaching at emilyjeannebrown.com.