Brian Owens: Music serves a greater purpose than fame
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 6, 2013: Brian Owens is a talented, homegrown singer/songwriter with multiple performance dates scheduled this week in Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia and at the Sheldon in St Louis.
His Sheldon performance on Thursday, Aug. 8, marks the debut of Owens’ “Masters Series” – in which he will pay tribute to the music of legendary singer/songwriters such as Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Bill Withers and Johnny Cash. Thursday’s concert will focus on Gaye.
Like all professional musicians, Owens wants to share his music with audiences -- here in St. Louis, across the country and around the world. His resume includes sharing the stage with noted singers such as Dianne Reeves and Christine Brewer, opening for the likes of Ramsey Lewis, Boney James and SpyroGyra, and having his 2012 recording, “Moods and Messages,” distributed in North America by BDG/RED – a subsidiary of Sony, and by Sweet Soul Records in Japan.
But achieving fame and fortune as a musician is not the ultimate goal for Owens.
“For me, there has to be a greater purpose in my music than making a name for myself,” Owens says as we share a table one morning last week at City Diner in Grand Center. “I want to say things with substance. I want to create music that moves people – and find ways to showcase both my music and the great work of other artists – as well to support the community. And that’s what the Masters Series is all about.”
Owens, born and raised in Belleville, clearly has his musical career in perspective. For him, it’s a profession that has to find a balance with the other aspects of his life: his dedication to his wife, Amanda, and three children (with a fourth expected in about a month), and his commitment as a strong Christian who also has a strong sense of community.
Owens is also the IN UNISON program manager and community programs coordinator at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, a job he describes as “great.”
“It involves extending the Symphony’s music out into the community,” he explains. “And that fits my own beliefs about music being a way to be an integral part of the community – in a way that helps connect with the community and sustain it.”
Owens' love of music and his belief in its value to the community as well as his Christian commitment started at an early age. The youngest son of Thomas and Roberta Owens, Owens grew up singing at Centreville Church of Christ in Belleville with his older brothers. His father sang in a gospel group called the Soul Searchers; and by the time he reached high school, Brian had decided music was the path he wanted to follow.
After graduation in 1998, Brian studied music for two years at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., then decided to take a break from college and perform in a vocal group at Busch Gardens in Virginia.
He was recruited to enlist in the Air Force in 2001 and used his vocal talents as part of the Air Force Band of Mid-America, based at Scott Air Force Base.
Owens spent several years with the band as well as a smaller ensemble called the Starlifters, expanding the range of his musical interests. After his discharge, he enrolled at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, then transferred to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he completed his undergraduate degree in music. And he participated in the Air National Guard group, Sidewinder.
While attending UMSL, Owens was singing in bands like the jazz combo, Commonwealth. But an encounter with legendary jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves in 2005 changed the way Owens viewed his musical career.
“I happened to be part of a birthday tribute to her out in Colorado, and she invited me to be part of a master class she was doing at Carnegie Hall in 2006,” says Owens. “That was an amazing experience, and I think it really changed my perspective on singing and performing.”
Owens had already begun recording. His first release with Commonwealth in 2003 was followed by his debut as a leader, “B Natural,” in 2006. Owen’s 2007 live recording, “Inspired,” was next. Last year, he released “Moods and Messages.”
When it came to opportunities to not only tour, but play often on the area music scene, family came first. And the job at the Symphony was a good fit. Working there, he also came to realize that there was potentially a better strategy to follow in presenting his music – one that could also help him have an impact on the community.
“I learned early on that as a musician, you have to guide how your audience perceives you,” explains Owens. “It’s a natural thing for you to be perceived as ‘only a local musician’ if you’re playing in clubs three nights a week. So I’ve worked to change that. Because I don’t play here that often – and when I do I try and make it special – I’ve slowly moved from being seen as a St. Louis artist to a St. Louis-based artist. Now I’m moving into a view of me as a national artist – and eventually an international artist.
“To help do that, I try to look at myself as not just a single musician – but an entity like the Symphony. How does it offer and share the value of the music it makes with the community to help get it out there? It tries to find sponsors to make that happen. And that’s what I’m trying to do as well with my Masters series.”
Thanks to a continuing partnership with Sterling Bank, Owens has been able to put together what he’s calling “the Masters Series.”
“I’ve always wanted to do a concert series for several reasons,” says Owens. “One: It’s important to me to preserve great music by great artists. Two: It challenges me as a musician to interpret this great music in a way that’s true to the original artist -- as well as to my artistic sensibility. And finally, it’s an opportunity to present this music in a live concert context that has meaning. I’m not just singing one Marvin Gaye song. I’m putting that song into a concert framework that has depth and meaning.”
For Thursday’s Marvin Gaye concert at the Sheldon, Owens is using Good For the Soul (keyboard player Adaron “Pops’ Jackson, guitarist Shaun Robinson, bassist John King and drummer James Jackson) as his backing band. To that, he’s adding more percussion and Jason Swagler.
“Adam Maness of the Erin Bode Group and 442s is doing the arrangements,” adds Owens. “So we’ll also have a string section: Ginna Doyle and Hannah Hart on violins, Grant Riew on cello, Sean Byrne on viola and John Paul Byrne, bass. And I’ll also be singing with Theresa Payne as well as a Japanese artist, Nao Yoshioka.
“I got to know Nao when someone from Sweet Soul Records, which distributes my CD in Japan, asked me to produce tracks for her. We really hit it off, and we decided to work out a way for her to come to the U.S. and play concerts with me – and then for me to later go to Japan to perform there. So she’s coming to over to play in Wilmington and Philadelphia next week – and will also be at the Sheldon concert.”
Owens has already set a date for his second Masters Series concert – and plans are in place for several more in 2014.
“I’ll be doing the next concert in the series at the Rustic Goat (2617 Washington Ave.) on Oct. 11,” says Owens, “and that will be a tribute to the music of Sam Cooke. I was originally thinking of doing the music from his great live album recorded at the Copacabana in New York. But lately, I’ve been listening to another live album of his recorded at the Harlem Square Club. So I think I’ll be using songs from both those recordings.
“I also definitely want to do a concert featuring Ray Charles’ music – especially his country and love songs. And Otis Redding of course, and Bill Withers and maybe Johnny Cash.”
For Owens, there’s a common thread in the music of all these performers – one that transcends the usual definition of what’s usually labeled soul music.
“I have a broad idea of soul music,” Owens says. “that it’s something that really has to do with our souls. It’s music that’s not tangible, but it creates a feeling that definitely is real. And that’s what I feel when I hear Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On.’ It’s all about making music that connects with people and that is also socially conscious. And that’s my goal.”
It’s a goal Owens believes he can achieve while making his home in St. Louis. He’s seen his friend, Angie Johnson – like Owens a former member of the National Guard group Sidewinder – become a media sensation after the band’s performance of Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep,” become a 2011 YouTube sensation by achieving well more than a million hits.
Johnson was subsequently invited to perform on the “The Voice,” and released a four-song CD, “Sing For You,” on Sony Records this past May.
“I’m happy for Angie, but I’m also glad it didn’t happen to me,” says Owens. “Finding a larger stage for my music is good, but I also don’t want it to pull me away from my family and my life here in St. Louis. That’s not what God wants me to do. With my music, I’m trying to be an engine for things bigger than just myself.
For more information about Brian Owens, visit his website: www.brianowens.tv.