Halfway through a thought, Colleen Brown is interrupted by the waitress. “The guys at the front want to know how much your CDs are,” she asks, oblivious to our conversation. Brown sheepishly explains the prices, and the waitress leaves. Brown looks up, her lips puckered in a kind of mischievous meekness. “This wasn’t staged for your benefit, by the way,” she points out, before letting out a throaty giggle.
It would have been the perfect crime. We’re talking, after all, at the Atlantic Trap & Gill, where the rising singer-songwriter still pulls the odd shift, and where regulars and staff greet her like an old friend. But then, Brown hardly seems like the type to pull something so cunning. For starters, her look has all the deviousness of a stuffed animal. Her light brown hair is cut into a bob, that frames her brown, anime eyes and is usually clipped by a bright, plastic barrette. She talks in a kind of baritone lilt, and is prone to smirks and childlike funny faces, though when you touch on a subject close to her heart – like what her music means to her or what she owes to family and friends – she looks almost on the verge of tears, her appreciation still in full bloom.
Even on stage, where she projects a rustic glamour in personally hand-sewn dresses and dangling earrings, she’s refreshingly forthright. She almost babbles with excitement, and is quick with jokes and mocking self-effacement. All of that fits perfectly with her music, which is not so much confessional as it is emotionally raw, powered by her soulful voice and backed by folk- and rock-tinged hooks big enough to fill concert halls. In the smaller clubs she still haunts, her music can be overpowering.
“I’m an open-hearted person, and I wear my heart on my sleeve,” explains Brown, whose 2008 self-released album, Foot in Heart, shadows that sentiment in its title. “If I was a guarded person, I probably could have saved myself a lot of hurt feelings, but then, it’s not who I am. I wouldn’t be true to myself if I was like that.”
If there is a common thread through Brown’s ascent from a demure teen steeped in piano and voice lessons to a musician about to embark on a national concert tour, it is remaining true to herself. Performing is innate for her, evident in the times she would entertain family friends visiting the Lloydminster home she grew up in by putting on her best clothes and twirling around the living room.
Her creative streak is equally deep. In her childhood, she relieved boredom by baking or sewing (hobbies she continues to this day because they “help her feel like a whole human being”), and she wrote her first song at 11, just to see if she could.
After graduating from Grant MacEwan’s music program, Brown found her footing at open mics and as a singer in the Kit Kat Club, a high-energy show band that performed pop standards. Her 2004 self-released solo debut, A Peculiar Thing, made her a name on the local scene (and started up the Joni Mitchell com-parisons that follow her to this day). Her rep-utation has been bolstered by her turn in The Secretaries, a collaboration with long-time friend Amy van Keeken that sees Brown indulging her more rock-ish and raucous tendencies.
But it’s her second solo release, Foot in Heart, that has started perking up the nation’s ears, especially those of Dead Daisy Records head Emm Gryner, an accomplished singer-songwriter. Gryner heard Brown’s voice for the first time on CBC Radio. This past March, Gryner’s label re-released the album through Outside Music, a far-reaching Canadian distribution company, pushing Brown further into the spotlight.
“I love her voice and the complexity of the songwriting. It appeals to your heart,” Gryner explains from her home in Toronto. “I think indie artists are sort of too cool to go for it sometimes, and I love that Colleen, her music, is really bold. It’s not small, it’s not quaint.”
You can sense an undeniable satisfaction from Brown, but she seems more humbled by her recent success than anything. She is appreciative but aware that it’s only one more step down the road. Which seems rather apropos, very true to her nature.
“It’s success I can tell my parents about so that they know I’m actually not going to live in poverty for the rest of my life, so that’s rad,” Brown jokes, before turning more pensive. “When it did come up, it was great. But it was kind of like the next step. I wasn’t ecstatic. I wasn’t jumping on the couch or anything. I wasn’t acting like I won the lottery, because I didn’t – I’ve been working at this for a decade.”
She stops, thinking for a minute, her face once again pulling into a kind of childlike, puzzled look. “No, what am I saying? I’ve been working at this my whole life.”