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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

For Brett Newski, Less is More

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Brett Newski imposed strict limitations on himself while working on his latest album, American Folk Armageddon, which he recorded at Shane Hochstetler’s Howl Street Recordings. “I told Shane to make sure I didn’t get carried away putting a bunch of layers on the record,” the Milwaukee songwriter says. “Anytime I was trying to add something that wasn’t necessary, it was his job to metaphorically smack me and remind me to stick to my guns. So we tracked it quickly, with just bass, drums, acoustic guitar and maybe a couple tiny sprinkles here and there—one or two extra voices—keeping with that less-is-more philosophy.”

That stripped-down approach has always spoken to Newski. “It showcases the songs better,” he says. “It unveils the songs, because they aren’t hidden by a bunch of powerful noise or super giant guitars or that kind of stuff, so that approach has always made sense to me. I like how it makes for a more intimate show. Watching local legends like Willy Porter or Peter Mulvey, it’s great just watching them do their thing and work a room.”

Newski’s own approach is vaguely punkier than Porter’s or Mulvey’s—he gravitates toward a spirited folk/power-pop hybrid, “power folk,” as he calls it—but he shares their songs-first vision. Since going solo after clocking years in various indie-rock bands, he’s been able to tour far more aggressively, a perk of having no bandmates with conflicting schedules and touring preferences to work around. He now spends seven or eight months a year on the road, traversing Europe, Africa and Asia, where he wrote much of American Folk Armageddon. For a time he lived in Ho Chi Minh City, where between gigs he supported himself by writing commercial music for a series of Saatchi and Saatchi tampon ads (yes, he has copies of them, and no, he won’t show you).

“It’s cool living in a place like that,” he says of Ho Chi Minh City, “because everybody there is some sort of character. There’s no straight-and-narrow kind of folks. Everybody is just a little crazy. You meet people from New Zealand and Israel and Australia and Germany, and everybody has at least one screw loose, and I say that with love. It’s fun to surround yourself with these great people and experiences.

“That’s what’s wonderful about playing Asia and South Africa, those kinds of spots,” he says. “You accumulate these bizarre tales that might not happen in other places, and the small-room songwriting circuit is a great way to incorporate some of those stories into your set.”

Brett Newski plays an American Folk Armageddon album release show on Saturday, May 24 at Hotel Foster at 9 p.m. Archie Powell and Quinn Scharber open.