Early this year revered northern hillbilly son Elliot Brown quietly released a debut album, ‘Lies Your Momma Told Me’, with his new musical project Eli Driftwood. Breezy single One Of These Days held top spot on bFM’s Top 10 for two weeks, around the same time his band opened for Jake Bugg in Auckland recently. He is a hard one to catch, but NZM’s Anna Loveys managed to steal some time while Elliot (that’s him pictured centre) was down from the far north one day, to talk about the new album, cowboys and whisky.
The rain was lashing, the sky was flashing, and the wind was howling like a wildcat through the Mt Eden village café awning. On and off it had been, in true Auckland fashion. Eventually a dark van pulled up outside the church across the street, and out jumped a man in a suit. As the suit drew near, the honest face of Elliot Brown came to light. It was the face of a young man with an old man’s soul.
“When I was growing up, I believed my grandpa was a cowboy because he owned a .44 Winchester, and I used to think, ‘Woah, that’s the coolest damn thing a cowboy could have!’”
From his far north home of Kaiwaka, “the little town of lights,” this country soul was a long way from home.
“I’ve never been off the North Island in my life! I grew up in Hawke’s Bay, but was born here and the whole family is from up north. I spent most of my life up in Kaiwaka.”
Humble and self-managed, Brown is making the occasional journey towards the big smoke for live shows. He hints towards possible outside management in the near future.
“It’s up in the air, but a few people have been in contact. I’m just waiting for Tony Soprano to come along and give me an offer I can’t refuse!”
Over the span of several years, Brown has quietly shared the bill with folks like Sam Hunt, Chris Knox, The Sharpie Crows and Anika Moa.
He has also released two solo albums, ‘Delirium Tremens’ (2009) and 2011’s ‘Road to Destruction’ both evidencing Brown’s strong penchant for poignant lyricism and downright honesty. Continuing to carry that deep, dark and honest trait in his songwriter’s charm, Brown is now focusing his efforts on his latest project: Eli Driftwood. But who exactly is Eli Driftwood?
While this is true, Brown fronts the band and provides the material, along with brother Roland Brown from Wellington folk-punk outfit The Boxcar Rattle. The remainder of the band is bassist Paul Brown (ex-Lost Rockets, Grass Cannons and not family) and drummer Andy Frost (Ghost Wave).
Although Brown is focused on this new project for now, in the future he plans to release more solo music. It is inevitable.
“I always have done and I always will. I didn’t realise that there would be anyone listening to the Driftwood project. If I’d known that, I probably would have just kept with my name, but you never know which songs will be picked up and which won’t.
The Eli Driftwood moniker is a tribute to the late American folk singer/songwriter, Jimmy Driftwood.
“It’s a project and tribute to my hero, Brown declares. “He [Driftwood] wrote Tennessee Stud and The Battle of New Orleans. I think it’s very sad that no one knows the man himself.
Thinking ahead, Brown feels that what he considers his best work will never be seen or heard by the outside ear, much like Jimmy Driftwood’s catalogue.
“I’ve got hundreds of unreleased songs – I’m like a poor man’s Tin Pan Alley, he chuckles. “There are some songs that I think are my best songs, but I’ll probably never get to perform live or on record.”
He may have been widely ignored to date, but new album, ‘Lies Your Momma Told Me’ has been pulling interest all around the country. The nine-track album was quietly released this January on Bandcamp, gaining attention months later by various media across radio, print and online.
“Some really good people have picked up on the album and have been really supportive. If things had snowballed, I’d be moving up in the world from drinking Becks and Château de Cardboard!”
This new level of interest led to the band opening for break out British folk act Jake Bugg, at Auckland’s Town Hall in April this year. Though clearly nervous, they acquitted themselves with some aplomb, showcasing Brown’s songwriting versatility. Before I can draw our conversation to the details behind this sweet new release, the enchanting wordsmith swiftly asks me, “Do they do whisky here? motioning to head over to the counter. Unfortunately the café could not supply the magical elixir, so we had to settle for herbal tea. And so we continued…
The album was recorded from Roland’s humble abode, in a collaborative effort.
“We took turns in the studio helping each other out, so I’d record a song and he’d come in, record vocals and vice versa. So it’s really a compilation of songs that simply came together from this process, with no binding conceptualisation. There is no consistency because I never try to do concept albums, I just write songs.”
The album was carved purely by the Brown brothers’ imaginations, with no expectations or limitations over sound and style.
“Some of the good and bad things about my music are strange. What makes me laugh is someone saying I’m trying to sound like I’m coming from the ’80s or early ’90s, or from the whole folk revival thing going on with bands like Mumford and Sons. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single Mumford and Sons’ song, and I don’t even know what the ’80s sounds like!”
The rain had stopped.
“Do you mind if we go outside for a smoke?”
We crossed the road and sat on the church steps. As Brown was lighting up he began talking about plans to relocate to the US. Fort Worth is the destination because, according to Brown and anyone else who calls themselves country “…over in Texas, Bob Wells is still the king!”
“I just like the idea of living in Texas,” he says staring off into the distance shrouded by smoke. “I like the idea of it being slow-paced, mostly countryside and having Dallas and Austin, with the best music scenes on the planet.”
Being the polite cowboy he is, he asks where I would live if I had to choose a US state, based on its music scene.
“Now, why the hell would you say Tennessee?” he responds with a cackling laugh.
Bearing in mind that he hasn’t yet broken free of the North Island, hopefully this won’t be the last we hear from Brown and his gang.