eden brent
Eden Brent looking mighty fine lounging at the piano: ‘I always wanted to be a jazz musician or a porn star, but I just wasn’t that dedicated. Those crafts require entirely too much practice.’

Porn’s Loss, Music’s Gain
Eden Brent serves up all manner of tasty blues on Ain’t Got No Troubles, even the R-rated kind

By David McGee

When she was growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, Eden Brent demonstrated advanced proficiency as a classical pianist at a young age. Her skill was such that she enrolled in the highly regarded music program at North Texas University (formerly North Texas State U.). But during her college years the feisty Ms. Brent developed a serious case of boogie woogie fever and the rockin’ pneumonia flu after meeting Delta blues piano great Abie “Boogaloo” Ames. Fleeing North Texas, she enrolled, so to speak, in Boogaloo’s school of the blues. Though she eventually did finish her degree (“I suffered for three years in the jazz program, then I took a break for a year or somethin’, then I went back and finally got a degree from North Texas, and I’m so proud of it, because I suffered terribly for it.”), her post-grad work was at the University of Boogaloo, and it lasted for nearly 17 years, until his death in 2002.

“I tell people I’ve got a bachelor’s degree in music from North Texas, but I’ve got a Ph.D. in Boogaloo,” she says, erupting in her infectious, smoky cackle.

But you gotta wonder, after all that training, if she doesn’t yearn for the symphony, or a Carnegie Hall recital.

“You know, in order to study music at any university you have to be somewhat proficient in serious, or classical, music,” she says patiently, having clearly been interrogated on this point before. “So yes, I did study that, but my goal was never to be a member of the symphony. I want to tell you, I really love to play Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff when I can tackle it, but classical music requires a discipline that I’ve never had. My mother took me to the doctor when I was a little baby, because she’d already had two kids, my older sister and my older brother. And her other two kids had got up and were trying to walk around. Not me. I would just lay there and was happy as I could be. So she took me to the doctor because she thought there was something wrong with me. And the doctor said, ‘No, there’s nothing wrong with this baby. She’ll get up when she wants to; she don’t want to get up yet.’ I think that sort of lackadaisical part of my personality I was born with.

“I did not have the discipline or devotion,” she clarifies. “I always wanted to be a jazz musician or a porn star, but I just wasn’t that dedicated. Those crafts require entirely too much practice.”

Okay, this is not going to be your typical interview, clearly. But then, Ms. Brent is not your typical blues belter either. A two-time Blues Music Award winner, she has a sizzing new album out, the tellingly titled, New Orleans-influenced Ain’t Got No Troubles, and a lot of folks who don’t normally pay much attention to this music are suddenly, in fact, paying attention, as well they should, and stumbling all over themselves trying to compare the singer to great vocalists of times past and present—Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughan, Janis Joplin, even, as a balladeer, Diana Krall, are some of the names summoned by reviewers trying to get a handle on Eden Brent’s style. For one who admits to not having the drive or discipline to be a jazz musician or a porn star, Ms. Brent finds all these comparisons amusing indeed.

The friendship between Boogaloo Ames and Eden Brent has been preserved in a 1999 PBS documentary, Boogaloo & Eden: Sustaining the Sound, produced by Cypress Bend Productions and Mississippi Educational Television. The warm feeling the two have for each other suffuses this five-minute clip from the documentary.

“It was never my mission to be a singer anyway,” she says emphatically, so as to leave no doubt as to the truth of her assertion. “I was trying to be a piano player. But a little—and I hesitate to say this because I don’t feel like I deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with her—but like Nina Simone. Nina Simone was one of the best piano players in the world. In fact I think one of my favorite piano solos of all time is her doing the piano solo in ‘Love Me or Leave Me.’ It’s excellent. It evokes this Bach contrapuntal movement stuff, it is so beautiful. You know, she started singing kind of by accident. Because we’re all born with a voice, I think that people understand that, and so sometimes it is the voice that even allows you to present your instrument to a crowd. It’s not that nobody ever says, ‘Wow, I like the way you play piano,’ because that happens. But more often people say, ‘Gosh, you’ve got a great voice!’ I mean, my poor daddy spent a lot of money on my out of state tuition and I spent a lot of time with Boogaloo trying to learn to play the piano. But people understand the voice because everybody’s got one. Everybody doesn’t play the piano. Everybody sings, even if they just do it in church or just humming along with the radio. I’m grateful that it turned out the way that it did, because I love lyrics. Had I not been a jazz musician or a porn star, I probably would have been an English teacher. I love literature, I love language, gosh, it gives me a kick to read Shakespeare. I love presenting ideas and the different ways you can present them with language, so naturally I love lyrics. I’m grateful it turned out the way it did, that I sing okay and am able to play piano for people, too.”

Nina Simone, ‘Love Me or Leave Me’
‘One of my favorite piano solos of all time is Nina Simone doing the piano solo in ‘Love Me or Leave Me,’ says Eden Brent. ‘It’s excellent. It evokes this Bach contrapuntal movement stuff, it is so beautiful.’

Playing and singing she does indeed, and rousingly so, on Ain’t Got No Troubles. Unlike her debut, Mississippi Number One, the new long player was recorded not in Memphis but in New Orleans, with local players of repute, and produced by Colin Linden (whose resume includes Cassandra Wilson, Mavis Staples and Lucinda Williams, among others), who proved pivotal to Brent realizing her vision of the album. Eight of the dozen songs are Brent originals and it must be said that the woman who gets a kick out of reading Shakespeare flat brings it as a lyricist. Wherever Will is in the world, he’s smiling. The easy rolling title song, bright and buoyant musically, catalogues all the seeming necessities the singer lacks in her life (no money, “no boss man,” no buddies, no friends, no man, no religion, “no invitations that I must decline”—you get the drift), and she bounces her way through this litany with cheery countenance, a frisky piano solo, clattering percussion and horns bumping along throughout. If you want to hear the husky Janis Joplin in her voice, go to the devastating southern soul ballad, “Leave Me Alone,” an anguished, heartbroken contemplation of love gone awry, with Brent’s keening, horn-like voice backed by a gospel organ, meditative piano, stinging electric guitar and a soothing, swooning, gently surging horn section. Or consider the strength of her resolve as expressed in the assurance her voice projects in a song from outside sources, “Beyond My Broken Dreams,” which, like the title track, goes beyond the detritus of a failed romance to take heart in “a new day dawning,” referring to a fresh prospect enetering the picture—undaunted, she is, and ready for another go ‘round, the song’s gospel foundation bolstering Linden’s howling slide guitar establishing the welcoming horizon Brent anticipates in her triumphant vocal. The sprightly Delta country blues of “If I Can’t”—Linden fingerpicking bouncy acoustic asides and fills behind Brent’s lighthearted vocal come-on—sounds like nothing so much as Maria Muldaur channeling Mamie Smith. When Ms. Brent’s stunning reading of Will Kimbrough/Gwil Owen’s “Goodnight Moon” closes out the album on a quiet, tender note of lonely yearning, a song about goodbyes, you hear in her restraint and in her ache the nuanced reading of a vocalist working on a higher plane, attuned to feelings marianting in sorrow between the lines of the beautifully crafted lyrics, but which Ms. Brent makes palpable with every wound her subdued vocal cry reveals. On the other hand, in the rollicking “My Man,” Ms. Brent the writer carries on an honorable blues tradition by getting salty on us, singing lustily how “my man butters my bread/and scratches my back/while we’re laying in bed/He works like a mule, but he’s a thoroughbred/Like a Triple Crown winner he’s spirited” (how beautiful an understatement is that word "spirited"?)—and so on. (“When I wrote that song I had been up all night,” Ms. Brent explains of “My Man”’s origins. “I was at home minding my own business, I was down to the last of either a fifth or a liter of vodka, it was eleven o’clock in the morning and the sun was shining through my window, and I was at my grand piano and had the best time writing that song. I don’t know how long it took to write it, but once I got through it, I was just gigglin’.”)

The Making of Ain’t Got No Troubles
Behind the scenes footage from the recording session at Piety Street Studios in New Orleans, including interviews with Ms. Eden and producer Colin Linden.

Ms. Brent is one of four siblings in a music loving family. Her mother was a big band singer (and wrote three of the songs on her daughter’s Mississippi Highway One debut), her father a huge traditional country music fan who loved Hank Williams and Marty Robbins. She has two sisters, the older being Jessica (a country fan), the young Bronwyn (alternative folk, says Eden), and both have recorded albums of their own, and a guitar playing, rock ‘n’ rolling brother who “keeps threatening to open up a bar called The Whammy Bar.”

“We’re all musical and have all found our own voices,” says Ms. Brent.” It’s really interesting. On family occasions we all get together and sing, but on our own we do something quite different. My whole life has been inundated with music, and what’s interesting about that is it’s music of all kinds.”

Boogaloo Ames came into the picture when Brent was growing up—“any dinner party you went to practically, he’d be playing piano”—but she says it never occurred to her to ask him to mentor her until she had completed her first year at North Texas.

“It had never occurred to me to ask him to teach me,” she says. “I knew him, and I’d heard him a lot, but it never occurred to me until I got to college and wasn’t getting the practical education that I wanted. I was getting a brilliant academic education, but not the practical part that I really longed for, so on that Christmas break is when I said, ‘Hey, Boogaloo, would you teach me?’ And I was kind of nervous to ask him. Up to that point I would see him play places and I would request songs and stuff, so we knew each other, but we weren’t close friends or anything. Without hesitation he said, “Sure.” So I paid him a good bit of what I could at the time, and subsequently the Mississippi Arts Commission, we applied for and received a Folk Arts Apprentice grant, which is a very cool program that the Mississippi Arts Commission sponsors; so for a period of three months the Mississippi Arts Commission paid him a lot more money than a college student could afford. And during those three months he taught me, and learned a lot more than a college could have taught me, because I took it very seriously. I learned more in those three months than I had in any one given year we’d studied together.”

Ms. Eden and Boogaloo developed what she calls “a friendship and a kinship” in their 17 years of working together—“he felt like family to me.” Ms. Brent’s friend, journalist Julia Reed says of the Eden-Boogaloo partnership: “She was a young white woman of privilege and he was an aging black man in the Mississippi Delta, but theirs is a phenomenal story of mutual admiration and need.”

Well before Boogaloo’s death in 2002, Ms. Brent knew her calling was to “continue his heritage. I felt I needed to honor what he had done for me, but also to remember his style, and to honor it by keeping it alive. I became dedicated to that in the same way that I’m dedicated to try to present my own style in music. I would say it bears an equal weight in what I hope to present in the future.”

Eden Brent discusses the origin of her double entendre-rich ‘My Man’ from the Ain’t Got No Troubles album, and performs the song, backing herself on piano. ‘My man butters my bread/and scratches my back/while we’re laying in bed/He works like a mule, but he’s a thoroughbred/Like a Triple Crown winner he’s spirited.’

Asked if she wanted to make a statement by recording Ain’t Got No Troubles in New Orleans, Ms. Brent offers a refreshing “not exactly”—capitalizing on the Katrina tragedy or even seeming to would not fit her profile. Actually, the recording site has more to do with Eden Brent than it does with the Crescent City.

“I intentionally I got a little farther away from home—instead of recording in Memphis I went to New Orleans—I was playing with musicians and working with a producer I had met only in passing. So I intentionally took myself away from my comfort zone so I could let the music be what it could become. I think that freshness and excitement translated into the recording. The only overdubs are the horns and Jon Cleary’s (B3) part; everything else is live. You can hear that, because I make mistakes! And I don’t care, because it’s so honest.

“I consider myself as an entertainer or a live performer,” she adds. “I’ve never considered myself a recording artist. Since I don’t have some huge volume of work that people can go back to, then I feel like I have a lot of freedom. I’ll never forget when Neil Young did this record Re-ac-tor [Ed. Note: 1981], and a lot of critics just got on him about it, because it was all of a sudden in a different direction than Harvest or some of his more celebrated work. So what I feel really lucky about is since I don’t have a track record I’m free to do what I want. Every record can be a new adventure. Music is this never ending journey, this unreasonable pursuit, so naturally you want to achieve something different and new.”

‘Had I not been a jazz musician or a porn star, I probably would have been an English teacher. I love literature, I love language, gosh, it gives me a kick to read Shakespeare.’

She laughs heartily when the saucy lyrics of “My Man” are read back to her (“that song has a lot of racy innuendos,” she admits without flinching), but mention “Goonight Moon” sounding like it is the final song in the sequence for a reason, and she’s far less jocular. The song strikes a chord in this woman, whose life is the road right now, and who really does not have most of the things she lists as being absent from her life in “Ain’t Got No Troubles.”

Her sisters, doing a duo act, performed “Goodnight Moon” as the last song of their gig. A crying Eden approached them backstage with “That was so beautiful,” to which one sister responded, “Eden, you’ve had a little too much to drink.” But no amount of alcohol could dull the song’s impact on her.

“I’ll tell you, it means a lot to me because I have to move around a lot, so it’s so beautiful and wonderful to go to new places and meet new people, but then it seems like just when I’m finally having fun and getting to know people, then I have to turn around and go somewhere else. It says the way I feel—that I really love what I do, and there’s such a joy in meeting people but such a sadness in always having to say goodbye way too soon. I wasn’t even thinking to put that tune on the record, but I had been performing it, and I love it, so when I got to the studio I was kind of warming up, just getting to know the piano and trying to get comfortable. I was playing that and Colin looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t we try to cut that?’ And I said, ‘Okay.’”

Listening to how artfully and soulfully Ms. Eden puts across the ballads on Ain’t Got No Troubles inspires a question as to whether she has ever thought about doing an album of saloon songs, for instance, and a broader question about where she goes with her music from here.

“You know, the sky’s the limit to me” is her immediate, firm response. “I don’t have anything in particular that I long for, besides a Grammy award and a gold record. Hey, look now, the gold record part I think I could easily achieve. All we have to do is tell everybody to buy this record.

“I do aspire to make people feel something different, to take them someplace new. If someone comes to one of my shows, or listens to one of my records, I would hope that whether it’s a sad song or a happy song, that I take them for a moment away from whatever’s on their mind, whatever bothers they’ve had or perhaps to enhance the joys they’ve had. Like to watch a good movie or read a good book where you get so involved with the other characters that for just a moment you’re able to forget about yourself. That’s what I hope to do with my music, or with a song, or with a new record.”

ain't got no troubles

Eden Brent’s Ain’t Got No Troubles is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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