Spencer Mackenzie Brown looks vaguely uncomfortable as he sits at the bar inside Lawrence's Bourgeois Pig. He takes long sips of the bourbon cocktail in front of him, smiling with some trepidation when I sit down at the stool next to his. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter seems more at ease when the topic of conversation turns away from his singing and his songwriting.
Until the July release of his debut EP, Part One, Brown was never the center of attention. A year ago, he was the lead guitarist in another group, the Plugged-In Band — a Christian group that Brown says he "stumbled into" in 2007. He says it was mostly just a learning experience. And one thing it taught him is that he prefers to stay busy.
"When the Plugged-In Band ended, I realized that I needed to keep playing music," Brown says. "It was a natural move into writing my own songs and trying to better myself as a musician. The next step from playing lead guitar was writing songs that people remember, and continuing to work on that and getting better. Part One has been a culmination of those efforts."
The efforts pay dividends on songs such as "Travelin' North," a swift, gritty track that recalls the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man," and "Burning Cold," which taps into the same rowdy, rootsy vibe. Brown's high-pitched rasp, especially on the slow-burning "Wasn't for You" and "Call Me," glints like gold, and throughout the EP, the songs are alternately tarnished and light-catching.
"The songs that I love are the ones you can relate to, that bring you back to a certain moment or get you through a certain moment," Brown says. We've moved onto the patio at the Pig, and he talks a little easier in the sunlight. He watches some traffic pass and says, "I'd like for that to come off in my music, for people to find something that they can relate to. I think whenever I write a song, it's a way of me processing and dealing with something, and once I write it, it's almost like I'm over that, and that thing is a part of that song and no longer me. Sometimes I'll go back to that, when I'm playing or sitting in my room practicing, but it also changes meaning over time."
Three of the songs came together in the fall of 2013, when Brown had moved from Lawrence to California's Hermosa Beach area. It was a brief stint — just six months — but it afforded him some perspective.
"I suppose that when I moved to California, I was not content with my life," Brown says. "I left for a reason: I wanted something new. I didn't want to be stuck. Everybody gets stuck, and I felt that way. And I'm back here now, but it felt natural. And the music happened that way, too. The EP felt natural. It all came together really easily. I'm happy with Part One. I try not to listen to it because if you listen to it too long, you start to hate it. And I'm ready to move on to my next EP, Part Two, and see if I can do something better."
All indications are that he can. Even when Brown is mournful, as on the regret-intensive "Wasn't for You," he puts you at ease. "Call Me" sounds like a man who means it, as though playing the song a few times in a row would bring Brown to your door with a bottle and as much time as you needed. We've all been there a few times, he says. Yeah, we have. But this time, Brown is here to help.