Colleen Brown: The Joni Mitchell of Edmonton

Colleen Brown GigCity EdmontonColleen Brown has been compared to Joni Mitchell so many times that she isn’t even bugged by it anymore. Colleen, not Joni.

It doesn’t help that the Edmonton singer-songwriter sings Joni Mitchell songs rather well, and even was part of a tribute show in Toronto in March. Brown recalls she was a little nervous after meeting Joni’s daughter Kilauren in the audience during the break – so much that Brown forgot the words to a song she’d been singing for years and actually had to stop and ask the audience for the words. A welcome human moment. With perfect timing, Joni’s daughter herself shouted them out and the show continued – “And that’s when I felt like I had the room on my side,” Brown says. “It was part of the show.”

This sort of thing is tough to live down for a folk singer who’s been working hard to create an original identity. Her fourth album is called Direction, the Edmonton CD release happening Friday with a sold out show at the new CKUA Performance Space (which needs a better name), along with two house concerts in the weeks to come.

“It’s actually fine,” says Brown on the Joni thing. “There was a time I got annoyed by it, but the way I feel about Joni Mitchell is that I totally love her music and I admire her, so I guess it’s a good thing. Every musician wants to come to that place where they feel they totally own their sound and are doing something original. So there’s part of me that would like people to stop comparing me, but they never will. It’s not going to go away, so I might as well these songs I love, and more than that I kill on these songs!”

There will be no argument to such shameless horn blowing. And while Direction might not completely live up to its title, er, musical direction-wise, as it is literally and musically all over the map, Brown has found her own voice in these artfully-arranged and intensely personal songs. She even turns in some guitar solos, for the first time, no mean feat considering she trained on piano. Standing out in the ballad department is the haunting Come to Arizona, a reference to wanting an ex-boyfriend to come visit her at her parents’ place in Arizona, for some reason, and made more haunting with strings; and among rockers is the highlight Soap and Denim, more than just a song about clean laundry.

It was in performing music by other people where this singer learned to overcome what used to be crippling stage fright. She sang in the popular local cabaret act the Kit Kat Club, believe it or not.

“In singing other people’s songs what I realized that people were more interested in the songs than me,” Brown says. “We Colleen Brown GigCity Edmontondid a Burt Bacharach song [sings]: ‘Forever, forever you’ll stay in my heart and I will love you,’ and I knew I could sing the shit out of that song, but nobody would pay attention. Then I’d sing Girls Just Want To Have Fun. I can’t sing Girls Just Want To Have Fun well. No one can. Only Cyndi Lauper – and people would go nuts, dancing, singing along, really in love with it. I started to realize it’s more than just going up on stage and singing all the notes well.”

This attitude doesn’t work when you’re singing the music you wrote, putting your personal identity on the line. Brown’s learned to make her butterflies work for her instead of against her.

“Now when I get goosebumps,” she says, “that’s the real tension I’m looking for.”

Brown is soon to leave for a tour of Europe, where she will set herself a challenge to write and record one new song for every country visited. The results will be available exclusively to her subscribers. Details here.