The New Face of Darien Brahms
By Chris Busby
Darien Brahms’ new album is remarkable for many reasons, the foremost being the fact it exists in the first place.
Local rock musicians rarely stay on the scene more than 10 or 20 years. Bands break up, their members “mature” and settle into careers and families, or they refuse to “mature” and settle into addiction and depression. There’s no real money to be made gigging around here and there are very few opportunities to reach a wider audience, especially if you don’t fit into any of the corporate music industry’s molds.
Brahms, 45, has been playing rock in Portland for over three decades. She broke the mold 20 years ago and refused to sweep up the pieces.
During a recent interview at Rosie’s, Brahms recalled her first gig. It was at Surf 6 in Old Orchard Beach, and she was “11 or 12.” She and her brother Paul, now a highly regarded painter, played about a half dozen cover songs on acoustic guitars. “They were all the same chords,” Brahms said. “I think they paid us to leave. We ended up having to go to some hotel room to pick up the cash” from “some weird guy … I’m not quite sure what was going on there.”
Brahms played in cover bands during high school, but also began to write her own songs and perform solo. In the late ’80s she crossed paths with a promising young musician named Manny Verzosa. “I met him in front of where the Nickelodeon is now. It’s December and he was playing R.E.M. covers,” she said. “I was a pretty big showoff in some ways at that point — I wish I had that bravado back. I was like, ‘Hey, can I borrow your guitar?’ I’m left-handed, so I turn it upside down and I play one of my own songs. It was one of those, ‘Hey, cool, let’s get together and play!’ moments.”
They named the band The Holy Bones. “We thought we were really sort of avant-garde pop musicians,” Brahms said. The group played a psychedelic mix of roots music and punk rock influenced by that band from Athens. They generated a lot of local buzz and played to some big crowds. Then Manny moved away.
“I remember that. Oh God,” said Brahms. “Your first real band, when it breaks up, it’s like your first love breaking your heart. It’s the most heinous feeling in the world.” But there would be a worse one.
Verzosa eventually signed with Capitol Records and played with numerous groups emerging ahead of the indie-rock revolution of the early ’90s, most notably The Silos. He died in a car accident in Wyoming in 1993 while en route to Portland from California to play with that band. Brahms dedicated her second solo album to him.
Brahms also generated major-label interest in the early ’90s. She released her first solo album, Hello! Hello! To the People, in 1992 on Bad Habits, a label started by the local record store of the same name. She played industry showcases in New York and landed slots opening for acts like the Violent Femmes, Warren Zevon, and The Mamas and the Papas. Then, the day before she was set to sign a deal with RCA, the A&R person at the label got fired.
Looking back, Brahms acknowledged that she may not have been “emotionally ready” to take on the big leagues at the time. Though you’d never suspect it seeing her confidently prowl the boards, she’s had her struggles with stage fright. But the industry “kinda gave me the willies,” she said. “It’s very sexist in some ways. I felt like they were already trying to change the way I wrote songs, and not necessarily for the better … They didn’t know what they were talking about, and they kind of wanted to mold me into something that I wasn’t. I’m basically a tomboy. I wasn’t going to put on tighter clothes for their sake. Some people can do it and it’s fine, but it’s not my thing.”
Brahms was also told her music was too eclectic — she plays a unique mix of rock (punk, classic and indie), country, R&B and reggae. “I didn’t fit one mold stylistically, and I can’t. It’s not what I do. I like too many different kinds of music and it just comes out when I write.”
Lacking major-label support, Brahms has financed her solo albums with a mix of hard labor and good luck.
Little Bundle of Sugar, released in 2000, was paid for in part with proceeds Brahms won on a short-lived, nationally televised game show called Paranoia. (She overcame a severe case of nerves to correctly identify the state where the original London Bridge was relocated: Arizona.) Green Valentine was released three years later, thanks in part to a grant Brahms got from Jim Beam, the bourbon company. That one was also a nail-biter.
“I have this problem where sometimes my sense of humor just comes out like Tourette’s or something,” Brahms said. During the final interview for the Beam grant, Brahms was asked if there was anything she wanted to add to convince the judges she deserved the money. “I said, ‘Actually, I feel like I’ve had so much of your product, and I’ve suffered from it, that you guys owe me reparations.’ The phone went dead silent and I was like, I just screwed up my grant. Then they both burst into laughter and it worked in my favor.”
The new album was funded by an online Kickstarter campaign. She set her fundraising goal at $5,000 and ended up getting about $6,500 from fans and sympathetic strangers. It was enough to pay the musicians and cover the cost of studio time for recording, mixing and mastering.
Brahms, a self-employed painting contractor, has done a lot of dirty work over the years to pay the bills, like cleaning out filthy, abandoned apartments. But being on stage can be just as messy — and much more dangerous. “I’ve played festivals where drunken people were throwing mud at me, throwing fruit at me,” she recalled. “I’ve been electrocuted several times on stage and flown into the drum set. I had someone doing cocaine above me in a balcony and it trickled into my mouth. It goes on and on and on.”
A few years ago, Brahms was impersonating David Bowie for a Halloween show at SPACE Gallery when she had to fend off a very large, and very intoxicated, man dressed as the tooth fairy who jumped on stage and tried to hog the microphone. Addled by a surge of adrenaline, Brahms was able to shove him into the crowd, whereupon the enraged fairy ripped the cable out of her guitar and threw his vodka drink in her face before half a dozen costumed women in the audience pounced and beat him into submission.
These sorts of shenanigans are nothing, however, compared to what she’s been through in the past two years.
In the mid-1990s, Brahms began suffering from Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), an affliction that affects the jaw, causing teeth to grind and clench. Over time, the disorder made it more and more difficult to perform. “I would be in so much pain after doing shows it would take me several days to recover from it,” she said.
By early 2010, the disorder was causing lockjaw. One of Portland’s most powerful singers could barely open her mouth. The only lasting solution was surgery.
“They literally sawed my face in half and put it back together,” Brahms said. And as awful as that sounds, the recovery was worse. “I don’t do well with drugs and anesthesia. It makes me depressed, so there was a lot of that going on.” She was unable to sleep properly or eat solid food. Her diet for eight months consisted of little more than smoothies, soup and nutritional drinks.
“I got incredibly upset and sad when people ate solid food in front of me. I dreamt of real food that I could sink my teeth in and rip apart. I was ready to take down an impala like a starving lion and eat it raw. No joke.”
Although her longtime girlfriend, whom she’d lived with in a house they owned on Munjoy Hill since the ’90s, was “incredibly supportive” during this period, the ordeal seemed to amplify strains in their relationship. Brahms recovered from the jaw surgery, but the relationship did not. Then, on the heels of her recovery, she found out she had melanoma. A year after that was discovered and treated, yet another serious health problem surfaced, prompting a hysterectomy last December.
So yeah, it’s remarkable that here she is, poised to release her strongest album to date, a collection of a dozen songs — some written years ago but never before properly recorded, others penned during her painful convalescence. The theme that ties them all together is love — losing love and finding it again. Kickstarter aside, that’s what really made Dogwood possible.
“I met someone and fell in love in a way that I’ve never fallen in love before, and we ended up going to Massachusetts and getting married,” Brahms said. “I never thought I’d get married, ever. To me it was always sort of this vague thing out there that heterosexuals did, and then once I fell in love, it made sense.”
Brahms had played benefits in years past for groups advocating marriage equality (and likely will again before Mainers head to the polls for another vote on the issue this fall), but the struggle always seemed more political than personal. Not anymore.
“Now it really bothers me, knowing that people that don’t even know me or know my relationship, and possibly are in incredibly dysfunctional marriages themselves as straight people, have the right to tell me I can’t get married when I’m happily married,” she said.
Some of the songs on the new album reflect Brahms’ newfound marital bliss, like the upbeat country number “Yes Yes Yes,” the rough-edged rocker “Porcelain,” and “There’s Something to Be Said,” a slinky Stax-style soul rave-up.
Others — like the chugging, confrontational “Cat Dragged In” — reflect the bitter aftermath of a break-up, though not necessarily in retrospect. “The first song I wrote after my surgery was ‘Black Eye,’ because when they break your face you get these black eyes,” Brahms said. “My whole face and my whole chest was this giant bruise. I had no idea what I was writing about when I was writing that song, other than messing around with words, but the song totally came true. When you go through a major break-up, sometimes you lose some friends and you maybe don’t act in a way that you feel proud of, because your wits aren’t about you.”
One of the best songs on the album, “Jekyll and Hyde,” is from the same period. “Oh, how you do lie,” Brahms softly sings in its shimmering intro. Then the song shifts into what sounds like the soundtrack to a Spaghetti Western, and it gets angry. “You give me mouth-to-mouth, then you give me mouth,” goes one lyric.
Brahms has always had a way with words. The brash opener on Dogwood, “Queen of Porn,” begins with these lines; “She used to dress up like the Queen of Porn and holler to the bar / And stick out like a quarter in a penny jar / Now she’s a stranded high heel thrown from the window of a car.”
At least half the tracks on the new album have horns, courtesy of a three-piece section comprised of sax players Brian Graham and Lucas Desmond and trombonist Dave Noyes. Dogwood is “pretty much a rock ‘n’ roll record, and I think horns, like a tambourine, drives it over the rock ‘n’ roll hump,” Brahms said. Ace drummer Chicky Stoltz (an old friend who played with Brahms a decade ago in the Latin-lounge group Munjoy Hill Society) is back, as are past collaborators like guitarist Adam Bean, pedal steel player Cartwright Thompson, and Jack Vreeland on keys. Bassist Jerome Shuman ably fills the bass role long held by MHS alum Paul Chamberlain.
Bile aside, Brahms made a conscious effort to keep the album upbeat. “I want it to be a summertime record,” she said. “I intentionally tried to tap into some happier feelings I’ve had. Traditionally I’ve suffered from, like, major depression and stuff, and I think a lot of my melancholic songs come from that.” The new songs are “probably still kind of jaded, but I just want to give more weight to the positive, without being a Pollyanna about it, and maybe have a happier life in general.”
Brahms has a new look to match her new outlook. The surgery altered her jaw line and thinned her face, made it more angular. And she recently got a dogwood flower tattooed on her bicep.
The flower symbolizes “undying love in the face of adversity,” she said. “Supposedly [dogwood] was used to make the cross that Christ was nailed to. Although I’m not religious, this strikes a chord with me as far as a story of suffering goes.”
There are several things that keep motivating Brahms to make music. One is the satisfaction of seeing a song through from inspiration to completion. There’s the camaraderie with fellow musicians and the rush of performing live — “it does something to your endorphins … it’s kind of like sex or something,” she said. And there’s the reaction of the fans.
“I think it makes them happy, and that’s a good thing, you know?” Then she reconsidered the question and added, “It may not make them happy. Maybe they were going through a divorce and they say, ‘Your record was like my soundtrack.’ If it does that, that’s totally worth it.
“It’d be great to make a chunk of cash over it,” she continued, “but if that was my motivating force I probably would have sold out and did what they told me to do back when I was showcasing. Worn my Viking suit.”
Darien Brahms plays a record release show on Fri., June 22, at The Big Easy, 55 Market St., Portland, at 8:30 p.m. Tix: $7-$8 (21+). For more on Brahms, visit darienbrahms.com.
“Queen of Porn” and “Jekyll and Hyde” from Dogwood (2012)
“Sweet Little Darling” from Number 4 (2008)
“No Place Like You” from Green Valentine (2003)
“Whistle Boat” from Little Bundle of Sugar (2000)