"And now that you don't have to be perfect,
you can be good." – John Steinbeck, East of Eden.
Former Charlottean Tyler Brown is using Cal Maro as the moniker for his latest music project.
The "Maro" references a derivative of his last name and the "Cal" part was inspired by a character in Steinbeck's East of Eden. Brown hoped to draw insight from Cal, a character who embraces his humanity in a wild and free way, and to approach his music with that persona.
"I really wanted to do something with this project that had a pseudonym to give me a little more ambiguity and room for creativity," says Brown, who now resides in New York where his record label Yung Wolf Productions is based.
In April, Brown released his first album as Cal Maro, taking on a new sound to go along with his new name. Prior to that, he had released two albums under his own name: 2010's Comeback City and 2012's The Hollows. Of the latter, you can feel experimental layers of sounds creeping into his acoustics, which shifted into a beat-driven, keyboard-laden affair for his Cal Maro debut.
"Pretty much everything I've done with music up until Cal Maro was guitar oriented because that was my instrument. On the entire Cal Maro album I think there are a total of three guitar tracks, which is nuts. Everything else is keyboards and digital production," says Brown. "It was definitely not an area I was familiar with beforehand.
"The Hollows was all raw real instrumentation. It had a ton of production, layering and lots of different stuff going on, whereas I looked at this one and said, 'If I want to go digital, I still want it to feel real and have some nakedness to it."
The album's vibe is ambient with electronic disarray that at times drifts into R&B territory, weighing a lounge-like feel with indie experimentation.
The album's first single, "Water," helped Brown to determine the album's creative direction.
"I can honestly say with the exception of obviously being a part of a couple of different bands where I didn't have full creative license and responsibilities, that I think this is the first time that as a creator, beginning to end, it feels like the right thing. This is the most conviction I've had with a project," says Brown.
The other bands that Brown refers to, all in the earlier days of his musical journey, were Within Reach, Richard Parker, Odds Are and Replicas. Hardcore at first, his genre preference shifted in college. It was the likes of Ryan Adams, Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver that pushed Brown into more acoustic territory. A lack of time on the part of other musicians that he knew in college pushed him along a solo route.
As for the album's R&B approach, Brown says it's been a long time coming: "Since I was a kid I also really loved soul and R&B stuff." He includes Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers on his list of influences and recalls listening to Aaliyah CDs and to Destiny's Child's The Writing's On The Wall with his sister. Other influences include D'Angelo and Frank Ocean.
At the upcoming Cal Maro show in Charlotte at Snug Harbor on Nov. 26, Brown will be joined on stage with other musicians: Joshua Thomas on drums, Christian Spence on guitar (both of whom he played with in Replicas) and Ethan Ricks (Shadowgraphs, Of Sinking Ships) on bass.
That's a toss up from the album's DIY approach. Brown did all the musical work, aside from a line that his girlfriend sang on. It was later mixed and produced by Ben Hostetler and mastered by Dan Millice at Engine Room Audio in New York.
Brown notes that most of the tracks on the album are about relationships, be it those that are personal or observational.
There's also a stronger confidence to the album's material. The vulnerability and hopefulness of The Hollows is gone, replaced by more acceptance and/or resignation to a particular situation or relationship. You feel that on songs like "Down," also released as a music video, and "The Gate," a song about recognizing that love is selfless.
"Fall," another song on the album, takes a similar approach lyrically. The music builds a repetitive tension with static distortion.
"It's about the season of fall and not wanting to have to spend it alone. Fall leads into such a lonely and dying season that is winter," says Brown. "It's realizing you're lesser without love, but there's a sweet release."