She finds inspiration where she can: the Catholic Church and comic books.
[FREE-SPIRIT POP] Rachel Taylor Brown has gotten used to people calling her music "weird." It doesn't really bother her anymore, even if she disagrees. "It doesn't sound that weird to me," she says from a booth at Dots Cafe, a favorite haunt near her home in Southeast Portland. "I think a lot of it is just plain listenable."
And she's right: Brown's discography is packed with gems, from the otherworldly ballads of 2006's Ormolu to the key-changing choral pop of her 2001 solo debut, Do Not Stare. But the discs themselves are so eclectic and unpredictable that describing Brown's catalog demands another word. Weird, it turns out, is an easy one.
Of course, the songwriter has never done things by the book. Her roots as a musician reach back further than she can remember, to a childhood as the sixth of seven rambunctious kids from Boring. Brown's siblings picked up instruments to keep themselves entertained, and she would toy with the family piano as a child, pretending to know what she was doing as she fumbled with the keys. Piano lessons came at age 6, but she hated those, and upon entering the University of Oregon School of Music, she was one of the few students in her class who couldn't read sheet music.
Things would eventually work out for Brown, who married her college sweetheart, then found work with Northwest classical choirs after moving to Portland in 1990. But it took a nervous breakdown in the mid-'90s, combined with encouragement from friends, to get her publicly performing the original music she'd kept quiet for years.
Brown's first two albums, Do Not Stare and 2005's Jonah Days, balance the songwriter's own aesthetic—generally an adventurous and dissonant style of balladry—with her various bandmates' more pop-oriented leanings. But 2006's Ormolu takes her in an entirely different direction: Brown plays aching, stripped-down piano songs reminiscent of Randy Newman and Smiley Smile-era Beach Boys. It's haunting and gorgeous material for which Brown gives a lot of credit to producer Jeff Stuart Saltzman, with whom she has worked on her last three albums. "Jeff was the first person who really only let me be myself," she says. "I had a great experience working on my first two CDs, but I felt like whenever one of my weirder or more dissonant ideas would come up, I'd have to fight for them."
Brown's latest full-length, Susan Storm's Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes, is one of her weirder ideas. But the loose concept album's songs are engaging both musically and thematically, from a Nine Inch Nails-sounding fetishization of St. Fina's self-inflicted misery to an operatic and surprisingly sympathetic look at Galactus, the world-eating giant from the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer comics. "It just kind of tickled me, Galactus having a midlife crisis and wanting a son," she laughs. Revealingly, that was her approach to the entire album—she just thought saints and superheroes were fun to write about. It turns out when Brown, who says she doesn't actually listen to much music, follows her own muse wholeheartedly, the resulting material is more than just listenable, it's fascinating. And yeah, maybe a little weird, too.
SEE IT: Rachel Taylor Brown plays Mississippi Studios on Sunday, June 7, with Ages and Leigh Marble. 8 pm. $12. 21+.