On the third floor of the Institute for Contemporary Art, there is a monument.
One Friday afternoon, after many months of passing by the strange building on Broad Street, I crept aboard the mothership. It might have been the unique architecture that drew me in, I do not know— it could as easily have been the two dozen ICA advertisements papering the so-called Arts District.
Otherworldly noises beckoned toward Gallery C. There, you will find a massive sculpture built by Chicago’s Rashid Johnson. I do not exaggerate when I say that I’ve never seen anything like it.
The sound, it turns out, was dancing from the keyboard, pouring through the pipes of a jazz musician named Calvin Brown. Brown, 30, is the mind behind the project Calvin Presents, and was a participant in a series of performances by the ICA selected to pair with the Johnson sculpture (titled Monument).
Brown was born in D.C., is a product of Atlee High School, and graduated from Berklee College of Music with a degree in film scoring. He’s been everywhere— New York, Boston, Hong Kong. Now, he’s back in Richmond, playing music full-time, and in November, Calvin Presents released an EP titled Dream.
On Feb. 1, Brown was gracious enough to sit down and talk about Monument, his music, and where he’s headed next.
DHR: How long have you been back in Richmond?
CB: Five years…?— I came in 2014, so that would be— yeah, wow.
DHR: Already, I know. Are you glad to be back?
CB: Yeah. Richmond’s cool. New York was great in a lot of ways, but it kind of took a toll on me. It’s cool to come back somewhere slower. There’s space here to make stuff. I’m not breaking my back to live.
DHR: Were you making a living off music in New York?
CB: Oh, yeah. I was staying busy up there. It’s a lot, though. Everything up there is a lot.
DHR: Are there things you miss about bigger cities like New York and Boston?
CB: Yeah, absolutely.
I miss the diversity— there were more different kinds of everything. People, music, culture. It’s just bigger. I miss that melting pot.
I miss public transportation. I know we have that here, but most people drive. I miss having to interact with people— just sitting next to someone, you might strike up a conversation. That doesn’t happen in your car.
DHR: Alright, so this Rashid Johnson piece, Monument.
It’s a sculpture, but it’s also a structure. There are so many moving parts. It’s hard to take it all in. As a viewer, I’m sure there were things that I missed.
But part of your job as an artist, and a performer at the ICA, was to take inspiration from the piece and play a set.
How did that process go?
CB: Actually, I didn’t take a lot of direct inspiration from the piece. It was more about the space for me.
The space in Gallery C is very reverberant. The ceiling is high, and sound kind of splashes everywhere. I couldn’t use drums. I have this huge band that I usually perform with, and now I’m like, I can’t use all these instruments. So I decided to go a more electronic route.
I hit up Reid LaPierre from one of my favorite bands, Night Idea, and he suggested Jake Taylor. My concept for this was for everyone to have really clear, unique rolls. I would play and sing. Jake provided beats, and I asked him to chop up samples from the EP for us to improvise around. Reid was going to trigger samples, sound effects, and noise. Being the sole source of harmony and melody allowed me a freedom to improvise with these tunes that I could never have in a band setting.
Also, though, the piece, to me, is about Blackness— from the James Baldwin books to the shea butter sculptures. I tried to imagine my EP Dream in that way. I asked Reid to sample the I Have a Dream speech, as well as some James Baldwin speeches, and this really amazing video that’s been floating around the Internet of a conversation between Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni. I tried to think about this idea of freedom being a dream— something that’s aspirational and beautiful, but also something that’s fleeting and illusory.
I also sampled a TED talk by a Belgian psychotherapist and author named Esther Perel. Her work explores modern ideas about love, marriage, and infidelity. Her quotes complicate and expand on this theme from my EP of love as a dream. In love, perception is its own kind of reality.
DHR: It was surreal, I will say that.
It was kind of like being in church. I was zoned out but tuned in at the same time. When it was over I felt like I had come out of an intense reverie.
CB: It’s awesome that you had that response. Mixing in those speeches— James Baldwin, I Have a Dream, et cetera— that’s how I connected with the piece. There’s nothing in my songs really about Blackness— they’re kind of all love songs, really. (Laughs).
DHR: I’m sure that if you were to ask Rashid Johnson, there would be intention behind everything about Monument, but the piece feels a little improvisational, too.
CB: I’m still not sure what it is. Like, what is that?
CB: Yeah. Like, what is that. You know what I’m saying.
DHR: That’s what I’m saying, too. I don’t know.
CB: That’s the thing.
DHR: How much time did you get to spend with it?
CB: I came in, checked it out. I saw another performance there.
DHR: What songs of yours did you play?
CB: I kind of did the whole album. The idea was to go through the EP, in order, and perform the songs in a new way.
DHR: So you have an ensemble, a band. The project is called Calvin Presents. Is that the band name or your stage name?
CB: This is confusing to me, too. I don’t really know.
DHR: It seems like a lot of frontment say that.
CB: Well, eventually, I want to write sypmhonies, score films, all kinds of stuff. I want it to be like, Calvin Presents X. Calvin Presents Y. But then at the same time, I guess the band should have a name. (Laughs).
I’m still figuring it out. But I love those guys, man. They’re some of my best friends. Josh McCormick, Taylor Laub, Austin Martin, Carroll Ellis, Kenneka Cook, Sam Reed.
DHR: Have you always wanted to be a musician?
CB: Before music happened to me, I was reading and writing a lot. I read a lot of James Baldwin when I was very, very young— maybe too young.
But I felt like I didn’t know enough about life to be a writer. Baldwin knew so many experiences, or rather, he could imagine so many experiences besides his own. It was a daunting standard.
When I discovered the piano, it took up all the space in my brain. I was obsessed. I ended up going to music school and studying film scoring. I never studied voice or songwriting formally in college, but I started writing songs and recording them in my room in my spare time. Songwriting has been the perfect bridge between my love for words and my love for music. As far as singing goes, I’ve always liked to do it. It’s fun. It feels good, you know what I mean?
DHR: Would you describe yourself as a singer/songwriter?
CB: The piano is always going to be first. Pianist, composer. I still hesitate to call myself a singer, even though I do a lot of that now. There are a lot of better singers, but I like the songs I write too much to give them away.
DHR: How would you describe the genre of music on Dream?
CB: I was influenced by a lot of things. Jazz? It’s jazz— and soul, too. I don’t feel like I play genres, though. I speak through genres. Certain genres, to me, communicate different things.
There’s also Gospel. I am a product of the Black church, entirely. I still play at church.
DHR: Do you consider yourself religious?
CB: I believe in God.
DHR: Are you more of a poet or a short fiction writer?
CB: I was always really into poetry. But I think James Baldwin’s fiction is really what scared me out of writing.
He knew so much about people who were so completely different than him. He could write a white character, a straight character, a gay character, a this, or a that, he had all this insight.
It’s also about imagination. I realize that as I get older. As much as it’s about knowledge, it’s about imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes.
DHR: After all this time— thirty years of life, living in multiple major cities, a successful career as a musician— do you think you have enough perspective to take another crack at it?
CB: Fiction? Nah, probably not. I write characters in my music, though. I have some songs where I imagine other people’s perspectives.
But more than anything, with age, I’ve come to trust and value my own perspective. That’s important, too.
DHR: Who were some of your major musical influences?
CB: As far as some of the more experimental stuff— like the Outro to Care, for instance— that’s just reverse audio. DJ Harrison did it— he co-produced the record. And that’s something Prince liked to do a lot.
Georgia Anne Muldrow— she’s a huge influence. She knows a lot about jazz music, but she also loves hip hop. There’s a fearless to her music. There’s a willingness to push the listener that I always connected with.
As far as pianists go, I love Keith Jarrett, Mulgrew Miller, Robert Glasper.
DHR: How do you go about writing a song?
CB: Usually I start playing around with some chords. I’ll mumble until something kind of fits the vibe. Sometimes I start with a lyric.
I try to find a point of entry that feels really solid, then I keep coming back to that, adding onto it, but always making sure that the original seed is still there.
DHR: What was the recording process like for Dream?
CB: It was cool. I started my band about a year and a half ago. Devonne [DJ Harrison], he came to a show. He was like, man, we gotta record that. And of course, I was like, yes!— but really, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The recording itself was really chill. Basically, we took the band into the studio and did what we were doing live. Morgan Burrs was on the guitar. Hector Barez was on percussion.
But after you make the record, you gotta work the record. You gotta sell the record. Play shows, deal with booking people, send e-mails, et cetera. Press pictures. You gotta pay to mix, master, all these things.
It started off really casual. It’s a little less casual now.
DHR: Are you signed or independent?
CB: I’m independent.
I couldn’t see anyone ever telling me what to do with my music, ever.
I couldn’t see that happening. Like, why do it, then?
DHR: So there’s no designs of fame and fortune— it’s all about personal expression?
CB: Well, as a kid, I would look for people who were like me in the media and in the culture, and I would feel like, “That’s not me.” I just really didn’t see myself.
There’s a kind of renaissance happening in Black film and Black music right now, and people are recognizing that we’re not all the same, that there is diversity within this so-called minority, and I really want to be a part of that.
DHR: Do you enjoy collaborating with hip-hop artists, as in the songs Fall and Spin?
CB: Yes, I like collaborating a lot.
I’m the kind of person where I want to find out how we can push each other.
It’s like jazz. It’s all about being in the moment and responding to whatever’s thrown at you— negotiating your different understandings of whatever it is you’re trying to do.
I love hip hop, though. I really do.
DHR: You’ve got one song that’s pretty political, Spin. What’s the message you want people to recive when they listen to it?
CB: When Trump got elected, I was so stunned by it, I couldn’t really sleep that night.
I’m not a super political guy. I’m not really up on current events. I recorded that song after Trump got elected, and I sent it to a few people, and they were like, “Well, this is sad.” I was like, man, nobody’s tryna hear that sad stuff, and I forgot about it.
I try to avoid the news as much as I can, actually. It takes a toll on you. But then there was the situation with the kids in cages at the border. And that just really, really bothered me. So I came back to it and eventually put it out.
There’s a line in that song: “Where do we go?” It’s the refrain of immigrants and refugees, but it’s also a question for us as Americans. “Where do we go?” This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. This is the best the world has to offer, supposedly, right? That’s a flawed perspective, anyway, but that’s what we’re taught. We are supposed to be the standard.
Where do we go, when this no longer feels like home? Mars? Gil Scott said home is where the hatred is.
I don’t consider myself an activist or anything like that, but I’m a musician trying to find my way in all this, and music is what I have to offer. Of course I’m going to write about what I see.
DHR: What are you working on currently?
CB: I’m just kind of writing songs. I’ll have something that feels like an album, then I’ll feel completely different the next week. We’ll see what sticks.
DHR: What does the future hold?
CB: In general, I want to keep growing. I have a lot to learn about music.
The record release really changed my perspective on music. I’ve had to do a lot of thinking.
What does music actually mean to me? Why am I actually doing this? Is it about being liked? Is it about being popular?
And even if it’s not about those things, in order for me to continue to do my work, and make a living at it, I need to find my audience.
I never had to think about any of that before this record, because I didn’t have a product. So now I have to think about this thing that I’ve been doing for twenty years in an entirely different way. Hopefully I figure it out.
DHR: Alright, last question. Where’s the next place Calvin Presents is playing?
CB: Gallery 5— on March 1.