JC Brooks’ mom was a singer in bands before he was even born, so you could say “that voice” is in the blood, but the frontman for JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound didn’t really take notice of his own gift for stopping traffic (in a musical and proverbial sense) until college.
“When I was in high school, I always did school plays and I was in choir, and I was never the lead or anything like that, but I loved singing,” he said. “I knew I had something when I got to college. I felt like I could sing, all my friends thought that I could sing, but I actually started out as a film major. I auditioned a couple of times before I got into the theater program and when I finally did, I felt like I kind of had something.”
Here in New York, where Brooks and his bandmates will set up shop Friday night at City Winery, we call that modesty. And that may be a Windy City thing, because if Brooks was born and raised in the Big Apple, he might be singing his own praises from the rooftops. Instead, we’ll do it for him, as one of the unique and soulful voices to hit the scene in the last decade. And three albums in, it’s about time the rest of the world gets on board, but Brooks isn’t holding his breath for stardom to smash down his door. And content may not be the right word to describe his state of mind these days, but he is able to enjoy the fact that he is making a living doing what he loves.
“It’s a hard question and something we’ve been asked for years,” Brooks laughs when asked if he feels that “the big break” is coming. “I would love to say ‘yes.’ As you get older as you’re doing this, it becomes more important to you that you’re able to use this thing that you love to keep a roof over your head, that you can do something that enables you to not have to work for anyone else, and you have creative freedom. That overrides any ‘why am I not famous’ talk and that’s something you get when you’re way, way younger. When I was 23 or 24, I was like ‘f**k, time is running out. If I don’t do this by the time I’m 25, nothing is going to ever happen for me.’ (Laughs) But as you get older, especially when you look around and see so many people who are trying to do what you do, it makes you so grateful and it gives you a decent sense of perspective.
“It’s nice to be at a point where I’m supporting myself with my art and I get to have fun and people have fun with me,” Brooks continues. “It’s not like I’m having fun in a vacuum where I go and flip out and everybody is like ‘ah, that was pretty all right.’ People have fun with me, so it’s nice to bring good times and do something that gives people a break for a minute.’”
Brooks’ attitude is a refreshing one, and if you’ve caught JCBUS’ live shows or you listen to them on their latest, Howl, it is a band having fun and subliminally – or sometimes overtly – forcing you to get up and have a good time. This isn’t a sit and muse band. This is a get up and move band, and with some lineup changes since the last time they hit NYC, they feel they have the right group assembled for this summer tour and their next album, which Brooks expects to hit sometime next spring.
“We’re writing and recording right now,” he said. “We’ve been pretty busy the second half of the summer, so we’ve already carved out some time to get into the studio in September and finish this thing up.”
As for the sound of the follow-up to Howl, expect to hear a band continuing on with what made that record so good while still making their own path and doing exactly what they want to do musically.
“For so long, we had felt beholden to be this kind of throwback, retro soul thing, and at some point we decided that we like so many other things, and why can’t we play around with that and new sounds?” he said. “And eventually, that thinking became Howl and we were all very happy with that. Everyone ended up pretty happy with the production and the song-type style and things like that. Howl hasn’t sold as well as (second album) Want More, so even though it hasn’t necessarily paid off financially, we feel a lot more creatively fulfilled, and we haven’t heard bad things about it. I think that “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” song on Want More, propelled a lot more sales.”
The Wilco cover on that 2011 album certainly brought more people to the party, but Howl kept them around while also broadening the band’s fanbase. The next record should do even more, but Brooks and the band (guitarist Billy Bungeroth, drummer Kevin Marks, keyboardist Jeremy Tromburg, bassist Theodore Berry IV and percussionist Jovia Armstrong) aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel in the songwriting process. It’s business as usual.
“The process is pretty much the same,” Brooks said. “It’s always been with some songs that a person in the band will bring it in pretty much as a complete idea and we learn the parts and put our own touches on it and play that. And other things just come from us jamming in rehearsal. We also have writing sessions, but we’ll be warming up during rehearsal and start jamming and come up with a riff or a section or two and then I’ll take it home and I’ll write some lyrics, and it goes back and forth like that. So sometimes it’s singular and sometimes it’s collaborative.”
So far though, it’s always been good, and while Brooks remains humble when it comes to his singing, he does know that he can deliver when it’s time.
“A song is a song and a song is a story, and I feel like I can tell any story,” he said. “I can’t do Beyonce’s runs, but I could tackle one of these songs, and if you’re looking to hear a story, I’m your guy.”
JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound play the City Winery in NYC on Friday, August 14. For tickets, click here.