“I don’t think I could write a top 40 hit,” says Phillip-Michael Scales. As Briar Rabbit, he doesn’t shy away from the word “pop”, although he does affix an unusual prefix to it: “thought-”. The 27-year-old songwriter bolsters his friendly tenor with warm, organic instrumentation, but doesn’t share the alt-country twang that’s come to occupy a good part of Chicago’s DIY music scene. Somewhere among the full-band Americana, nihilist garage rock, and sparse electronica, Briar Rabbit curls into its own locus on the Windy City’s musical map.
Like many who enrich Chicago with their music, Scales is a transplant. Originally from Detroit, he studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music before bouncing back west—this time, just a little further. He still wears Chicago like a badge; the cover of his debut record Briar Rabbit & The Company You Keep depicts Scales standing in front of the city’s iconic four-star flag.
From Your Bones by Briar Rabbit (Chicago, IL)
His albums boast a full band, but lately Scales has been striking solo on the live circuit. When it’s just him, a guitar, and the crowd, he’s better able to drive his lyrics home, which he feels is essential to the life of Briar Rabbit. “When I play with my band, people come up to me after the show and say that my band sounded good,” says Scales. “When it’s just me, people come up to me and tell me that they loved my lyrics. I can hear people reacting to a single line.”
As a lyricist, Scales balances deft metaphors and surprising turns of phrase with lines as blunt as “sometimes the best teacher is pain”. Rather than slice through emotional knots, he works to untangle them, strand by strand. Songs on The Company You Keep struggle with the conflicting desires to belong and to be alone, the complicated dance of aligning yourself with new surroundings. On his followup EP, Scales sinks his teeth into a lesser-told story.
The Great Routine, released in 2011 in honor of Black History Month, adopts the perspective of a black minstrel show performer in the 1800s. In four beautifully crafted songs, Scales tackles the largely (and often deliberately) forgotten popular American entertainment from the inside. Minstrel shows forced black performers to assume degrading caricatures of themselves for white audiences, but they also afforded them the opportunity to be adored. Characters in minstrelsy were like the Disney figures of their time: iconic and beloved by children and adults alike. The paradox of debasing yourself to be loved serves as ripe subject matter for Scales, who sinks into the narrative with sweet, hooky melodies. The record’s title track funnels a spritely beat, sharp electric guitar, and cooing background vocals into its hook, creating a volatile dissonance between content and surface.
The song ‘Coon’ is certainly one whose lyrics prompt a reaction, says Scales. In a country where the phrase “singer-songwriter” instantly brings to mind a white guy wearing an acoustic guitar and maybe a beard, Scales uses the genre to illuminate a complicated episode in America’s racial history. For him, it’s another good, multilayered story—another emotional knot around which Briar Rabbit’s songs flourish.
Scales is anticipating the release of Briar Rabbit’s third record, From Your Bones, due out January 21, 2014. Thematically, the album will explore the relationship of the individual to his settings, the sense of feeling out of place at a day job, of muscling through the work you need to do to survive even if it has nothing to do with you. Scales has been honing in on songcraft, patching together the elements that culminate in Briar Rabbit’s idiosyncratic affect. “If you listen to most of my songs, it’s like taking apart a watch,” he says. Maybe an atomic one; layers of instruments fit together like gears, but the heart of the music lies somewhere in the invisible interplay of Scales’ words and their delivery.
Briar Rabbit might address Scales’ place in the world, but the music also situates the listener. One lyric on From Your Bones reads, “I’ve been waiting for you like a bus in the rain / I’m soaked to the bone, but I’m so glad you came”. It’s a line written for the city by someone immersed in it; as Scales says, “someone living in the suburbs wouldn’t relate to that.” There’s humor in here, too; on the short-form folk jangle ‘Oh My’, Scales sings, “Oh my sweet little atheist / You’re the only proof I got that God exists.”
The stage seems to feel most like home for Briar Rabbit. After playing NXNE and a few chains of Midwestern dates earlier this year, Scales is about to set out on tour again. He’ll start tonight with a single release show at Chicago’s Schubas Tavern, collaborating with a band again to play new music from the forthcoming album. Of all the work that goes into Briar Rabbit, connecting with his audience emotionally in real time is easily what Scales gets the most excited about. “It’s this weird, breathing synergy,” he says of his performances. “It’s like being a really good host.”
Briar Rabbit plays Schubas Tavern with Lying Delilah tonight, 9/5, at 9pm (tickets $10).