The Road to Self-Knowledge: An Interview with B.R. Lively

In the summer of 2016, singer-songwriter B.R. Lively took life on the road to the next level, moving into a ’91 Winnebago full-time. Since then, he’s toured across the U.S., bringing only his dog and his indie-folk tunes.

Lively’s debut solo album, Into The Blue, comes out next month, chronicling his deepening relationship with nature and the post-breakup soul-searching that led him to this new stage of life. Two singles are already available, and they showcase an expansive production to complement Lively’s stripped-down songwriting sensibilities. “The Blue” features a cinematic string quartet, while “Summertime Sky” gestures at jazz influences with its piano and horns. Lyrically, both tracks reflect Lively’s resolve to be mindful of the natural world and the moment of life he’s in.

Leading up to the October 6th release, The All Scene Eye interviewed Lively on the making of the record, as well as the journey of self-discovery that shaped it.

How did you know it was time to make a debut solo album?

This is the fourth record or EP that I’ve released; the first three were with different groups. I’ve always considered myself a songwriter, and I’ve found recently that songwriting is the craft that I feel most connected to. Regardless of whether I was with a band, I’d always found solace as a solo songwriter, just a man and his guitar, you know? Growing up listening to great singer-songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, and Nick Drake, and the purity of one person and one instrument. That’s always been the root of my musicianship, I feel.

So when the time came recently, I had gone on a couple of tours on my own, by circumstance. The band that I was in disbanded, not under negative terms, but just with everyone doing their own things. I’m constantly writing new material, so I just started collecting all these new songs I was writing, and naturally I gravitate more to, “ok, I’ve got all these songs, I want to make a record,” whether at that point in my life I’m with a band, or I do it on my own.

When I met Gordy Quist from [Band of] Heathens at one of his shows, I didn’t have an idea of making a solo record at all. But he started telling me, “hey, I want to start to produce,” and we started talking about the kind of records we love, and realized there was a real similarity in the the type of record we wanted to make. Something that was more folk, like warmer, earthier, like a Nick Drake or Alexi Murdoch kind of record. I showed him some of the tunes that I had written on the road, and he really dug them. So it was like, “alright, well, let’s make a record.” I told him about my friend Thomas Avery who has been my partner throughout all the projects I’ve been a part of, whether he’s composing strings or playing instruments.

But I knew that since these were songs that I had written, they were fully mine. I wanted to, for the first time, immerse myself in someone else’s practice and their approach and I felt that I identified with Gordy and his crew of people. It wasn’t like, “oh, ok, I’m going to be a solo person and make a solo record, and that’s my goal” it was like, I was already solo touring and everything organically fell into place with the crazy timing of it.

You can tell that there’s one person and their guitar at the center, but there’s also a lot of really rich arrangements. For example, one of the songs that’s available right now is “Summertime Sky,” and there’s such a wealth of elements. Can you talk more about filling out the songs?

For the record in general, we tracked me and my guitar, Scott [Davis] on bass, and Richard [Millsap] on drums. Thomas Avery was in Atlanta at the time, so he wasn’t able to be in Austin to track with us, and we ended up having to send him the tracks afterwards to overdub. He’s a full-time composer, he writes and arranges music, and he had arranged a quartet on the last record we did together. It had been a newer thing to him to arrange music for records, because he did more for TV and short films.

To be honest, when this one came along, we gave him the reins for what he wanted to do. We gave him these tracks with drums, bass, and guitar, and he was like, “alright, we’re feeling some horns.” Gordy and I gave him some notes, just some ideas, but we really wanted him to give his creative input to each song. He’s the piano player on “Summertime Sky,” and he hired these two guys who work in the studio he worked at in Atlanta to play trumpet and trombone. He’s just super talented, and he and I connect on a level that’s hard to explain, musically. Since we’re such good friends, and we’ve played in so many bands together, we know each other’s tastes, and what we’re looking for in the music. So when I bring in something I’ve written, he knows exactly how to complement it every time.

With “Summertime Sky” he sent me some takes of the horns that they overlaid on it, and we discussed. He sent another horn too, I think it was a baritone trombone, but it made it sound a little bit uneven, so we ended up going with just the trumpet and trombone. As far as arrangements and composition, he hand-writes everything out and scores it all. He did the strings, he did the horns, he played the organ and piano on some tunes, he’s just a beautiful arranger in general. He was a huge part in making these songs sound the way they sound. It totally blew Gordy and I away.

There’s more of a philosophical question here. The album focuses on returning to nature, and there’s this very poetic bio on the Facebook page about dissolving your sense of self, but how does that reconcile with making a solo album, which is typically centered on the idea of the self?

Like I said before about the timing–the events that were taking place in our personal lives were also very interesting to me. As I was going through this process before the record, I was in a super long-term relationship that ended abruptly from heartbreak and betrayal, and it totally wrecked me, threw me for a loop, turned me upside down. Not to compare myself to the level of suffering that’s in the world today, but I feel like every individual suffers on their own terms in a relative way. I had turned to drinking, and doing destructive things to fill the hole that had left me.

There was one day I realized that I’m not going to do that. I’m going to make the conscious decision to fill the hole with the things that are important to me–healthy things that will help me grow–and strip away the things that are inhibiting me from growing and moving forward through this. I was learning about the ego, and I had found how much we grow and build from our own minds, from what’s around us, from the world itself. This false sense of self is fueled by everything we’re inputting and the things that we’re told, and the things that we tell ourselves. It takes something of an epiphany, whatever you want to call it, whether it’s great love or great suffering, to step outside this ego self that is fueled by doubt, fear, and anxiety, and get to the core of the self. You look at children, and children are not worried about anything. They are who they are, and they don’t care, and you can see that purity in them. It isn’t until you start to grow and develop that you build this world around us that is our perception and our reality, but you have such a tough time looking into who we truly are, uninhibited.

As a songwriter, and as somebody who has been in bands, I had felt like, “I need to do this, because this is what I should do, this is what I’m told to do, this is the formula, this is what everyone does, you’ve gotta do this, you’ve gotta look this way, gotta have this image, gotta set things up to where it looks good.” As much as I can tell myself that I’m focusing on the song and being true to my art, there’s always this sense of like, “okay, well, why am I really doing this?.” When I started to realize that in my life there was so much that was keeping me from what I had found within myself, I needed to step away and go off and remove myself from it temporarily in order to allow myself the room to dive into that. Going on the road on my own was so helpful because I was getting out of Austin, getting out of that relationship, getting out of the things in my life that were keeping me from focusing.

I found in this new revelation within myself, I don’t know, I don’t want to sound pretentious here, but when someone makes a transformation like that, and they’re still surrounded by things that mirror their old self, it’s really tough to be completely present in that new self. I’m still learning to allow myself to be present everywhere with this new sense of self that has really been there all along, that I feel like I’ve finally gotten in touch with. It’s almost as if I finally recognized it–that I can just turn around and be like “oh, there I am.” To me, that’s why it’s been important that it’s been a solo journey, because no one else can do this for me. No one else can tell me who I am. No matter how close they are to me, no matter how much I love them, no one else can truly know. So I’m just trying to discover that for myself. I’ve found that through music, through writing, I can find that most purely. That speaks to me and that reflects how I truly feel at the core. Everyone, I feel like, goes through this process throughout our whole lives. The dying of an old self, the renewal, if you will. It’s healthy to grow and recognize there are certain things that don’t serve us anymore. We’ll shed those away and move forward.

This was something I was learning all along, and the breakup was just a catalyst that gave me the last oomph to be like “alright, you’ve got no more commitments, you’ve got nothing else, just your music, your family, your relationships, and let’s move forward.” It’s been enlightening ever since. Just liberating. Making this record, like, two weeks after getting broken up with, it was something so raw and so fresh. I’ve been going through this and realizing I’m not angry, I’m not bitter or resentful toward this person, this is how I feel, let’s be present in this, and let’s allow this to process in a healthy way. I went sober for nine months–I didn’t touch anything. I want to have a clear head. I want to process this loss and this grief, so I can make sure I come out of this not with an expectation of anything, but just for my own soul, for my own heart, to come out on the other side ready for what’s next and know that I did what I needed to do to heal.

I want to talk more about the literal journey, and the experiment of living on the road that’s been going on for over a year now. Have you always been an outdoorsy person?

I’ve always loved the outdoors. I didn’t grow up camping that much, but I always loved going outside, climbing trees and rocks, swimming rivers. It wasn’t until I moved back to Austin after Georgia that I really started going camping with some friends. I immediately fell in love with it, and I feel now that I find so much more communion in natural things than in anything else. I knew that moving into a camper would force me to be outside when I’m not in the car, regardless of the weather. There’s no chance for me to sit inside on the couch watching TV, I don’t really care about any of that. To be in touch with what’s going on and learning from it, I’ve always loved it and I feel like there’s so much I haven’t seen and experienced. For me, especially since finding this new sense of inner connectedness, it was only natural that I gravitated even more toward nature.

A lot of artists and a lot of bands try to stay focused on one place to build up a following and launch themselves to go somewhere else. Would you recommend to other people this route you’ve taken instead?

I don’t think I can say that. I don’t think this is for everybody. I think everybody has a different path, and I think you have to look at yourself from different standpoints. From an artistic standpoint and a business standpoint, what kind of goals are you trying to accomplish with what you’re doing? I’ve had this conversation with myself and other people many times. You need to build a regional following somewhere to build up a buzz, get things going, and sure, I understand. I think in many circumstances that can be the best route to take. Through my experience, and especially the experience I went through recently, I don’t know. What I’m doing and what I’ve done has been the right thing for me to do right now. Who knows how long I’ll be doing this. I told myself many times, “maybe I will find a place to settle down.” Because I want a sense of community,and that’s what I’m more wanting to find eventually. That’s what you get when you’re staying in one place, and you build a following. It’s less about a following, it’s more about the community, and the relationships that you build.

That’s a better way to put it.

I totally value that so much. That was the tricky thing–I talked to other people I knew that are on the road doing the same thing I’m doing. They say it’s great, but it’s hard to find and build a community because you aren’t rooted anywhere, you aren’t grounded. For me, this is my life, in the long term. I’m less worried about the amount of followers I can get in a short amount of time and more worried–not worried, sorry, I shouldn’t say worried–but more focused on connecting with people where I am on a soul level, in a very invaluable way.

Touring cross-country like I’m doing, or sticking in one area, I guess it depends. Is it financially feasible? Can you afford to pay the gas to go all these places or not? Sticking around one area, you’re driving less, so therefore you’re not paying much. For me, taking away the rent, the bills, and all that stuff, it helps so much to keep my expenses minimal. To allow myself more room to reach out to different people, to go different places and drive farther distances. I think right now I’m enjoying going to these places, some I’ve been multiple times, some places I’ve never been before.

I’m excited to go up to Philadelphia next month, and up to New Hope too. It’s got a really good community of musicians and writers up there that I’m excited to meet and hang out with, and I think that’s awesome. For now the opportunity that I have is to get to go and experience different communities and meet new people who have this sense of rootedness in where they live and play, and have a mutual connection between them, and something that we can keep and develop over time.

I don’t think there’s a right answer for anything. There’s no “you’ve gotta do this to do this.” In my experience, there are ways bands have been successful, and ways they haven’t. It’s all an experiment, and everyone’s trial and error, and you can’t ever tell what’s going to work. You have to find out: what are your values, where do you want to see yourself, what do you want to do, why do you want to do it, and what would make the most sense for you at that time?

For me, living in Austin, it made sense to have a band and play as many shows with that band as possible, and of course having guys in the band who all have different lives and jobs, not everyone can be on the road all the time. It’s not financially feasible. There’s all different factors that go into play to decide whether or not you want to do anything. I think it can be anything, I don’t think there’s one way more right over another.

What’s your favorite music for a long stretch of driving?

Jazz is my go-to. Ever since Georgia, being in a Jazz program and getting introduced to that whole world, it’s blown my mind. Listening to George Russell, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, those cats, it’s amazing to listen to what they’ve done. I gravitate to jazz when I don’t care to put anything else on, or more recently I’ve gotten into West African blues, with Ali Farka Toure. Most of the time I drive in silence, since it’s pretty meditative for me. Or I have books on tape I like to listen to.

What was the last audiobook you listened to?

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Before that was Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Classic. Neil Gaiman is a great writer, my partner turned me onto him, he’s great. I just downloaded a bunch more for this next trip.

What are you most looking forward to about having this record out, and what comes after that?

I’m a completely different person now than I was when I made the record, so it’s like, I’m excited to get this record out, have that moment captured, and share it. I’m excited to play these shows on the road that I have coming up, and then get back to the studio and make another one. I’ve got a bunch of new tunes that I’ve written, and I’m excited to play, so we’ll see. I’m trying to live day by day as I’m planning, obviously I have to plan for the future for the dates of where I go, but I’m enjoying where I’m at right now. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and I’m excited. Nothing specifically to be honest. I just hope to continue growing and find a way that I can give back, integrate myself into doing something to better the world, and figure out how I can contribute in a greater way.


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