JEFF BRODNAX: TIMELESS SINGER/SONGWRITER IN A CHANGING WORLD
Great music is timeless. No matter the decade, the genre, or the performer, music transcends in a way little else does. Whether listening to Led Zeppelin in the era of its creation or decades later, its excellence is unchallenged. It was reactionary in its making, and there is an equal reaction in every person who hears it. That is art by nature. Jeff Brodnax is a musical artist who creates from within what he reacts to in the world around him. From a young age, he felt a reactive nature that bent towards music as its voice. With a diversity of musical influences and a drum kit, he sought the physical in music until his reflection in a mirror unveiled something more. Performing in front of a mirror, he found his voice, which led him to places where his soul could connect with people and lyrics would become the journal of those experiences. From Seoul to soul, Jeff found a dynamic fusion of common ground in music.
Jeff’s early music education came from his surroundings in Chesapeake, Virginia. He got an introduction to soul music from the Southern Baptist church he attended, heard some funk his sister liked, and was schooled on the classics of James Brown and Marvin Gaye that his parents listened to. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, he also heard the rock music that ruled those decades. It was a unique time to experience the diversity that music offered regardless of race, creed, or geographic location. Sly Stone and Led Zeppelin could share a turntable and equally impress the listener, and Jeff was bursting with the creative energy this music gave him. He got a drum kit and thought he’d found the instrument on which to express his pent up rock aspirations. His fascination with this activity was not lost on his father, and when discipline was needed, his father locked the drum kit in an aluminum shed they had out back. The motivation to get it back was intense. As Jeff remembered, “It was like putting a lock on my soul.” His high school band director, however, didn’t share his enthusiasm. Rather than continue to play drums with the band, he told him he’d be better off turning his snare drum into a lampshade. He considered him undisciplined with no desire to learn the notes. Unfazed by this assessment, he continued to play rock music and pound on his kit at home. At the time, it seemed the perfect muse for his musical expression.
Though Norfolk, Virginia was just 12 miles from where Jeff grew up in Chesapeake, he said he didn’t know until he was older that the city had a thriving music scene. Punk and alternative rock were developing in the 80s and 90s, and bands like R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Bad Brains were making their mark with a different sound. After high school, Jeff took his creative skills and music aspirations to the local job market. Garage bands don’t often satisfy the requirement of earning a living, but putting a car in that garage and learning to rebuild an engine did. Jeff considers himself a builder, with an adeptness for putting pieces together in both concrete and abstract ways. For two to three years, he rebuilt engines and did construction jobs during the day while playing gigs with local bands at night. Elvis From Hell and Thin Lads were two of those bands that gave him another outlet to build something. As he described it, he was a “builder of soulful expressions through music,” and it was this kind of artistic construction he craved most. The next step was giving his soul a voice in the abstract rather than the physical.
As the 80s turned to the 90s, a vocalist and frontman personality emerged from Jeff’s performance sessions in front of a mirror. His musical soul was no longer content as a drummer. He wanted to be out front where his voice could be heard, and in 1990, he got that opportunity. 24-7 Spyz is a rock band that formed in the South Bronx in 1986. Their music was a groundbreaking fusion of styles that included soul, funk, reggae, R&B, heavy metal, and hardcore punk. It was a mix that was nearly tailored for Jeff’s voice and multigenre influences. In 1990, two of their four members left the band and they were in search of a lead singer and a new drummer. Virginia musician and friend of Jeff’s, Joe Lawlor, gave his demo to 24-7 Spyz, and subsequently, he was hired as their new frontman. After a brief stint with former Bad Brains’ drummer, Mackie Jayson, they added Joel Maitoza to fill the empty drum seat. With original members, Rick Skatore (bass, vocals) and Jimi Hazel (guitar, vocals), it was a lineup that grabbed the attention of the industry, fans, and a record label. East West Records America signed them to a deal, and they released their EP, This is…..24-7 Spyz!, in 1991. When the band started to take off, Jeff moved to New York City to support their efforts. In 1992, they released Strength In Numbers to critical acclaim. Moving away from their previous diversity of style, this album fused heavy metal and soul, and is widely believed to be the height of the band’s creativity. Yet despite the accolades, the label pulled their support as popular music began to embrace the elements of grunge. Without financial backing and a changing music scene, the band’s members spent less time as a group and focused more on their individual music projects. At the end of 1994, Jeff left the band to reconnect with some friends from Virginia and continue to fuel his musical soul.
For the next four years, Jeff was the frontman of the funk rock band, Egypt, comprised of Virginia natives, Joe Lawlor, Andy Waldeck, and a rotation of drummers before Kevin Murphy became their anchor. He got to show his hand as a songwriter with this band in co-writes that led to their two impressive albums, Drowning in the Promised Land and Soul Hammer. They turned a police paddy wagon into a traveling van and toured up and down the east coast, playing every night. This was a band where the four members fit perfectly together, blending their exceptional musicianship with intense music that exposed a primal need to both groove and rock. They served up lyrics through Jeff’s vocals that were both a soul check and an upper cut, just to make sure you were paying attention. Kevin was the hammer to Jeff’s soul, and their live performances were a driving force their fans still rave about. Nearly 20 years since they last toured together, Jeff still considers them brothers, and as families do, they have a reunion show for their fans in Virginia every year in late December. It’s a testament to the quality of their music and a celebration of band chemistry that doesn’t happen very often. It would be the last of Jeff’s band gigs for a long while, and the beginning of a solo career that sent him searching for a place his music would resonate.
Feeling the need to stretch his creative legs and bend in a new direction, Jeff moved back to New York City after the Egypt years. He found work with various art companies, including the prestigious Matisse Foundation, which serves to advance excellence in the arts through education, research, and project grants. It was a day job that left him free to play music after hours. A musical soul isn’t one that lends itself to being cut off from outlets of expression for long, and Jeff found a quiet place where his voice could be heard in the New York City subway system. For seven years he took his guitar to a carefully chosen spot in the grid and played solo acoustic performances for tip money. On good days, he said he could make $200 in four hours in the right place, at the right time. Downtown, late at night, passengers might wait 40 minutes for a train, which gave him ample time for an acoustic show. So long as he stayed away from the noisy Times Square Station, his soft, mellow music could be enjoyed rather peacefully. For fans of the music, he sold his CDs for $10, selling 10,000 of them over the years he played there. It was an enterprising way to engage new fans and feed his creative craving.
Every musician hopes they can make music that fans will connect with, and for Jeff, that became very personal during his time playing in the subway. There was no means of social media or label promotion to reach the fans with his music. The only thing between him and the listener was physical distance and air. He could see the connection in the look on someone’s face, or get their reaction in a conversation after the performance. It happened many times over the years, and some of those connections he still remembers. He said, “It’s a heartfelt scenario to impact someone with your songs and change the trajectory of their life with the right song, at the right time.” It happened with a woman who heard one of his songs and made a life-changing decision as a result. In a turn of events, she decided to accept a marriage proposal based solely on hearing one of Jeff’s songs while waiting for a train. He still remembers the encounter vividly. They kept in contact and he was invited to the wedding. What could be more satisfying for a musical soul than to elicit such a powerful reaction? Gate receipts may tempt the mind, but such moments in the subway were a treasure to Jeff Brodnax.
While New York City is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, it can’t replace the life experience one gains through travel. Playing in the subway, Jeff met a woman from Prague who was a booking agent in Europe. She was impressed by his performance and invited him to come play there. The tours didn’t pay a lot, but expenses were covered and he had a place to stay. He played in Prague for two months and did a German tour that started in Berlin and took him across the country. With just a backpack, a suitcase, and his guitar, he had everything he needed to bring his music to a new audience. His solo songs were quite different than what he’d been singing previously, as there was raw emotion and heartfelt lyrics that accompanied his acoustic, soul rock melodies. Where language barriers may exist in polite conversation, a melody sounds the same in any language, and when music touches the heart, it needs no translation. Jeff found that hanging out with the locals, and singing about what moved him, was a valuable step in his musical journey that provided common ground in a diverse landscape.
In another encounter that led to travel abroad, a Korean woman approached Jeff while he was playing in the subway and asked if he would be interested in playing in Seoul. It ended up that she took several of the subway musicians to Seoul for three months. The subway system there was a vast departure from what they’d been used to, with the underground system resembling a shopping mall. Jeff said they were treated like rock stars and stayed in five star accommodations. He was playing the same music he’d played in New York, in a place with a completely different vibe, to an unfamiliar audience. But when an artist puts himself so completely into his craft, listeners connect to the emotion they feel in the music, both in its creation and performance. Music is a universal language that needs no interpretation. Great music finds its way through cultural barriers and differences dissolve in a blazing sun. Jeff found himself walking home one morning, after an all night session of playing, going against the crush of morning commuters. The sun’s bright light brought attention to the oddity of his appearance at that hour, guitar on his back, still buzzed from the night’s activity. It was a transcendent moment of artistic clarity when he realized that his music truly had a place in the bigger picture, and the appearance of the messenger was largely irrelevant.
Returning to the states after his travel abroad, Jeff went back to Brooklyn. He worked in a bar for awhile and took his music back to the commuters in the subway. It was familiar ground in a transitional period. While playing, he met a guy who was from Virginia, not far from where Jeff grew up. Jonathan had lived in Paris for a time and related his experience in the music scene there. It was an appealing option to meet new people and see where the opportunity might take him. Over the next four years, he flew to Paris for four or five months at a time. He got a deal with a small indie label and started making new music, testing it with listeners all over France. It was never about substantial earnings or high powered connections. The intimacy of some of the venues was the perfect proving ground for the songs he recorded as a solo artist. The music wasn’t written to touch a massive crowd through the intense sound of an amplifier. The heart and soul of the listener was Jeff’s intended target, and the French were open to that connection. In 2009, with the help of producer and mixer, Bob Ebeling, he recorded his solo album, Forcing Me To Bend, in Paris. The music is full of introspection and heartfelt desire, beautifully expressed in the softness of Jeff’s voice. One of the lyrics says, “I finally learned to sculpture what I see, melody…..,” from a song called “Homecoming.” What a beautiful way to express finding himself through music and the importance it held in his life. About his time in France, Jeff recalled good food and indelible experiences. It was reassurance that home didn’t need to have a specific zip code. Wherever the music led him, that was home.
At the end of this period in France, Jeff moved to Chicago with an ex-girlfriend for a year, taking with him only his guitar, equipment, and some clothes. It was a new landscape musically, and another opportunity to stretch himself as a solo artist. In 2011, he returned to Virginia as a home base, moving in with one of his former bandmates. He briefly reunited with 24-7 Spyz for some tour dates in 2011 and 2012, while continuing to work on solo material and recording songs. Making a move to Washington, DC, he put his personal life and his life in music on a different trajectory. In October, 2014, he married a woman he met twenty years earlier at an Egypt show. It was a connection through music that lasted, and one that he is tremendously grateful for. Finding one’s place in life and music isn’t always mutually compatible. This is a relationship that supports good things on both sides of the equation.
Jeff has spent all of his adult life in music, touring, writing, recording, and performing. He’s been around for the ups and downs of the industry, and the transitional periods where one genre gave way to another. He recalled the early days of hustling gigs nightly and the day-to-day lifestyle that entails. It was steady money that allowed musicians to earn a living, without being a national act. Today, with the ability cell phones have to put music at your fingertips, you don’t have to leave home to see a live show. It reduces the opportunities for bands to tour locally and make a living doing it. Today, Jeff is putting his creative energy into writing music for the entertainment industry. He has a publishing deal with a Los Angeles-based company to write music for movies and the television market. Building a catalog of music increases your chances of placement and getting a paycheck. After years of being out on the road, he’s back in the studio. He says he’s woodshedding a lot these days to learn to play instruments he hasn’t played before. On the music he’s recording, he plays everything. It’s a rather new experience to have Logic Pro in the house, where you can record without the expense of having a band to play with. For the time being, he’s concentrating on his solo work, and writing music in varying genres. He still misses being part of a band, and hasn’t ruled out the possibility of touring again if the right opportunity presents itself. Soulful rock still has a gravitational pull on him, and he’s writing along those lines hoping for the right guys to play it with. It’s an itch that never goes away for someone like Jeff, whose soul breathes through music.
First and foremost, Jeff Brodnax is an artist. He approaches music with an intense connection to the world around him and an appreciation for the rich musical history he’s been influenced by. Whether he’s performing acoustically as a solo artist or as frontman for a rock band, he is a messenger of the music with his voice as an instrument. The depth of his emotion puts an honesty in the lyrics and a timelessness in his vocal performance. Viewed as a carefully sculptured piece of art, Jeff’s soul is ever present in what he sings and the music he writes. Quality matters, and he feels a responsibility to the creative process to make meaningful music. Jeff grew up in an era where musicians did what they had to do to make music, the way they wanted to make it. They craved creativity, and would do anything to feed the beast. As music lovers, we paid for the art they created and were happy to do so. The passage of time doesn’t devalue the music they made, despite the public’s willingness to pay for coffee over artistic content these days. In the heart of a musician, there are no coffee grounds in their idea of Seattle’s Best, just the grit and espresso strength of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. Jeff embodies the rock spirit of that group, and can equally channel it into an Egypt performance or a solo acoustic set. His one desire is to make good music and touch someone through artful resonance. Where the spoken word may be received as a sermon, add a melody and you may open the mind and heart. In his music, Jeff reminds us that there is a life lesson in being forced to bend. Listen and love. Find the substantial in simplicity. Hear the roar in a whisper. Value your soul and give it wings. Supporting an artist like Jeff gives you the power to pay it forward, giving him a voice that reflects the past, present, and future.
Visit Jeff’s website: http://jeffbrodnax.com/
Support Jeff’s new animated video project: https://www.facebook.com/events/985741664831441/988799111192363/
Purchase tickets to Egypt’s Annual Reunion Show at Jammin’ Java December 26:
Jeff Brodnax – Live with Egypt
Jeff Brodnax – The New York City Subway
Jeff Brodnax “Peculiar Ways” @ Le Zebre Paris 2008
Preview and Download Drowning In The Promised Land via iTunes:
Preview and Download Soul Hammer via iTunes:
Preview and download Forcing Me To Bend:
Preview and Download “Flower” via iTunes:
Preview and Download “Leaves Are Turning Blue” via iTunes:
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