A Wide-Ranging Full-Length Debut from Brother Wilson
Triad-based singer/songwriter Joel Hodnett ranges from country-rock to blues and soul
The new record from Brother Wilson starts with some twang, some strumming and a country-rock song about the difficulty of changing, the battle between the will and the powerful lure of longing and need. The album covers a lot from there. Brother Wilson is the solo project of Gibsonville-based singer and songwriter Joel Hodnett. The record is called Utopia, but it’s more about the hurdles to finding paradise — earthly or otherwise — than it is about basking in endless pleasures and delights.
There are soul-blues tunes, some pop-leaning songs about inspiration and uplift, a bit of hi-gloss countrypolitan mechanical-bull disco, there’s a jazzy folk tune about technological and social-media overload and there’s even a pretty and dark instrumental with a rippling guitar line, piano and atmospheric effects. It’s a wide-ranging full-length debut, but it’s not all-over-the-place or disjointed. (Hodnett released what he calls “a very modest EP” under his own name in the past, but this new project presented a chance to refocus and start fresh.) The throughline is Hodnett’s exploration of vulnerability, sensitivity and regret within song settings where one might often find more macho swagger.
I spoke with Hodnett recently by phone from his home, about making the record, about songwriting, about his formative musical experiences as a boy. We talked about how some of the songs — like the muscular blues-rock of “Lonely” — called out for a more chest-thumping kind of tough-guy attitude, but instead, the song, with its snarling riffage and Hodnett’s roughed-up growl, is basically about being insecure, about worrying about seeing an ex out with someone better looking who might be better all the way around. “I don’t do lonely well,” goes the refrain.
Part of Utopia’s appeal is that, even if the song styles are familiar, there’s something surprising about Hodnett’s candor.
His main goal, he says, was “to not be fake, to not pander to expectations.” Working with Matt Bowers of House of Fools, Hodnett went into the recording process with the idea of making something that held together as an album. Some artists like to shelter themselves while working, avoiding the influence of other songs or other recordings, but Hodnett says he listened attentively to some of what he considers to be the great recordings of pop and rock music from the second half of the 20th century and beyond, thinking about production details, pacing and song architecture.
“Music is so much more than just the lyrics on the page,” he says. With that in mind, Hodnett says he paid special attention to recordings by Stevie Wonder and Thin Lizzy, among others. You can hear the hint of Stevie Wonder on the gospel-soul of “Feels Good” (co-written with Bowers) and even in the positive-outlook vibe on “Inside the Lines.” Vocally, Hodnett can do blue-eyed soul, gruff rock and country-folk, all of it sounding fairly natural.
The idea that music could address our frailties, suffering, desire for community, and our place in the world is something that Hodnett got early on.
“I’ve always been around music. I played and sang music in church,” he says.
His mother played piano, and his dad played guitar. He learned both instruments eventually, but singing was his first musical experience. Hodnett remembers his first Sunday “performance,” and the sensation that everyone in the congregation was listening to him sing a solo as a 4-year-old.
Hodnett, 32, says he chose the name for the project, Brother Wilson, in part because it evoked the sense of community, familiar respect and wide spiritual kinship that he associated with church as a kid, with the tendency of elders to refer to men as “Brother” and women as “Sister.” (Wilson is Hodnett’s middle name.) Praise music played a part in Hodnett’s musical evolution. One of his first bands was in that realm.
“We mainly did churches and youth conferences and stuff like that,” Hodnett says of that group. “It certainly gave me a confidence.”
If praise music got him started, secular music may be what shaped Hodnett as a songwriter. As a long-time fan of Greensboro’s House of Fools, Hodnett credits a casual hello to the band after a Chapel Hill show with his decision to pursue his own music. Over the years he developed a friendship and musical connection with former House of Fools member David McLaughlin. The two did acoustic duo shows, honing their skills mostly playing covers, but also getting a chance to build up stamina, stage chops and an understanding of what makes a song work.
“It makes you a better performer,” says Hodnett of the three- and four-hour bar gigs.
One of the interesting lynchpin tracks on Utopia is an instrumental called “Kepler,” which comes right at the middle of the record and serves as a sort of turning point, bending toward the second, slightly darker half of the album. “Kepler” has a heartbeat pulse, a high sparse melodic guitar line, some gentle piano, slightly ominous low-end chords and cinematic bird sounds. It’s followed by “Days Like These,” a wry tune about being chained to one’s smartphone but unable to connect with people in a meaningful way. It has a very 2017 feel to it. “I been stuck in a haze for three long months/and those energy drinks don’t pack a big enough punch,” sings Hodnett.
That all leads to “Ghost City,” maybe the album’s most epic undertaking, a bit of rhinestone cowboy country-disco-funk with a four-on-the-floor Eagles feel, and a cautionary tale of glitter and cocaine to match. Airbrushed backing vocals fit right in. There’s a shiny harmonized guitar solo as well that might bring to mind 38 Special or that connection to the Thin Lizzy that Hodnett listened to going into this project.
The album closes with “Home Sweet Home,” which evokes U2 with its rumbling tom-toms and big sense of yearning. “Standing still makes you dream of the wild blue yonder,” sings Hodnett.
Hodnett hopes to take these songs out live, maybe to assemble a band that can pull off the versions that he and Bowers put together in the studio. But he’s mostly just psyched to share the music with people, to create that sense of community that he values in music-making.
“I want people to feel like they have a connection with the music,” he says.