Words & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“I’m like the Artful Dodger meets Al Capone.”
I met Brandy Row about 4 years ago, but really our paths should have crossed much earlier. I’d been looking for a guitarist to help me record some songs with a talented blues singer, and the manager of Soho’s So High Soho recommended one of her employees. I wanted someone local just to make things easy. “Brandy Row. He’s a multi-instrumentalist” she suggested “and best of all, he lives nearby.” But never could I have imagined how nearby – Brandy’s flat and mine shared a wall! He was my next door neighbour, only I was two floors above him.
I discovered an animated, passionate character for whom, it soon became evident, life was both toxic and intoxicating. He looked a lot like a modern day Robert Mitchum from Night of the Hunter, carrying the same gravitas and intensity but with a caustic sense of humour. This guy was totally absorbed by the desire to write and perform his own music. And his sartorial style was a living embodiment of his dark, sometimes apocalyptic lyrics. Suited like he might be attending a funeral in a Flannery O’Connor Southern Gothic novel, his hands and face covered in a constellation of peculiar tattoos, Brandy Row was definitely not your average Fitzrovian.
And to think our paths had never crossed… How could I have missed him? So I started photographing Brandy to make up for lost time and delved into his music. I discovered his folky psychedelic solo material but also, a harder, 70s english punk side which he showed off with another project, The Gaggers. But even his bluesier material had a punk edge to it so I was curious to know where that came from. “People like Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Robert Johnson, Stiv Bators, The Stones, Etta James, Alan Watts, Karen Dalton, Iggy Pop, Lux Interior, Bill Hicks, Joe Strummer, Bruce Lee… they all influenced my songwriting and even life choices! I also love all that Delta Blues stuff and the 50’s 60’s Chicago movement, the list goes on and on!!”
One of the highlights of his life happened last summer, when he got an opening slot for some of the artists he had long admired. “I played a couple of shows in the UK opening for a supergroup formed of Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), Earl Slick (who worked with Bowie) and Slim Jim Phantom from the Stray Cats. More recently, I opened up for Adam Ant! What a great show! He’s someone I use to dress up like as a kid so him calling me asking me to support was a trip!”
Speaking of trips, Brandy toured America again earlier this year. “I’ve toured a lot in America: the Midwest, the East Coast, West Coast. I met some great people that have changed my life. The last time I was in the States was a few months ago now, I did a tour that started on new years eve in Brooklyn, New York City, at a place called The Beast of Bourbon, run by an english castaway that has been anchored in NYC for 20 years.” It was there that Brandy hosted and promoted a night and got a bunch of musicians that he’d known and shared a stage with many times before in the Big Apple. “It was a great night! My band flew out to do the show. We played into the New Year, then I flew back to LA with my good friends and family Tina de la Celle and Julian de la Celle.”
Touring. Working. Recording. Working. Every penny Brandy earns he throws back into his music, funding 7” single releases, photo shoots and even elaborate videos. And his most recent video might well be one of his most ambitious not to say craziest… “Julian de la Celle and I went to the Nevada desert to shoot a new music video. By the time we were done shooting, I was covered in blood, as part of the story had me being filmed with an array of replica weapons. Anyhow, we drove to Vegas after that, but I had to stop in a busy parking lot to use the toilet! We were all sleep deprived and a bit frazzled. I opened the trunk and all the guns and knifes from the shoot spilled out! To make matters worse, for some reason I had 100 dollars in one dollar bills in my pocket. They all flew out, blowing across the windy desert carpark. That day, the good people of Nevada saw the Artful Dodger dressed as Al Capone, wearing a black mac, splattered with blood, chasing dollar bills in a desert rest stop, waving a gun and cursing in British gibberish at the money flying above his head… the sort of thing that makes a good video in its own right! Needless to say, we got out of there pretty quick.”
The last few months of Brandy’s life have seen him return to studio, off the radar with social media, concentrating on new material, evolving musically yet again. “I’ve been recording a new EP since January with my very talented amigo Rex Whitehall and a great producer and sound engineer called Alastair Jamieson, who owns and operates from Park Studios in Birmingham. It’s full of great 60’s equipment, old reverbs, everything. A great vibe!” Based in a beautiful Victorian building in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter, the studio has become Brandy’s second home. “Alastair brings out the best in me and the sessions we have are organic, we capture magic from the madness!”
But Brandy’s ideas for all this new material more often than not originate from his real home, back in Fitzrovia. “My whole writing routine consists of long walks around Fitzrovia and Soho at night. I get a vibe from an idea at home, record it, chop down a mix then put it my ears and take it out to streets. Out there, history seeps from every wall… you see what reality is really like, and that’s what I take from the area: triumph, failure, the truth, fraud, outcasts, junkies, artists, chancers, movers and shakers, its all out there in the dead of night!”