Brett Newski is a prolific singer/songwriter with more than six full-length albums to his name. Taking inspiration from the Barenaked Ladies, he fuses ‘90s alt-rock with a strong acoustic presence and a healthy amount of humor. He is also the host of the podcast Dirt From The Road, where he has spoken with guests including the All American Rejects, The Lumineers, and Toad the Wet Sprocket. His upcoming project is a package-deal combination of an album and an illustrated book, each titled It’s Hard To Be A Person: Defeating Anxiety, Surviving The World, and Having More Fun. It is a project that features Newski’s own illustrations which make fun of his own anxiety and depression with the goal of offering tips and tricks to help people feel better.
Read on for our interview with Brett Newski, where we discuss his career, songwriting process and upcoming projects.
What drew you to music and songwriting as a creative artform and outlet?
Brett Newski: Well, I think as a younger person I was spending a lot of time hiding in my parents basement. So, instead of playing a shitload of video games, I got a guitar. And actually, to be honest, I did also play a shitload of video games. But it felt productive, it felt like I was accomplishing something. I remember getting a little four-track recorder. I got it as a birthday-Christmas present, and I remember putting down some power chords on a track and recording a little melody and hearing it back just blew my mind, that I could be multiple people at once, recording in my parent’s basement. So, that’s kinda what got me going on the six-string.
Is there a moment in your life that you recall realizing you wanted to pursue music as a career?
Brett Newski: As an occupation, yeah. When I was in college, I had kinda taken a two year break from music, ‘cuz I had played college basketball and kind of lost touch with music a bit, which was weird, ‘cuz I had never done that before. And I think it was probably eating away at me a lot, more than I thought, looking back at it. When I got to college, my neighbor was a really good bass player and really creative writer. We were both into the same kind of alternative guitar music. It was a great relationship and we started a college party band, just playing Weezer covers in the pubs. I remember after the first gig we played, it was at this dive and we were pretty shitty, but the manager came up to us at the end of the night and cut us a check, and we were getting free beer and free fries, and I was like “wow, we should probably keep doing this. This could be a thing we could do and make some money while being paid to party.“
Back in 2011, you toured Southeast Asia alone while writing your first album—what inspired you to go on that journey and what did you get out of it?
Brett Newski: I had met this, very random encounter, I had met this random Australian guy who was traveling through, quintessential handsome, tan Australian guy who loved to surf and read literature, and he was talking to me about all these places, he was circumnavigating the world, and he was hyping it up to me. I was like “woah, I wanna do that. I’ll take a crappy little guitar on my back and muck around Asia for a month or two after school.“ I did that. It really blew my mind, opened my mind to traveling, that it could be a really affordable, budget thing. I was actually saving money by traveling. It kind of made sense for the time. Being a young person and free-wheelin’ person without any responsibilities, it was pretty cool. As lonely and soul-crushing as the lows were, the highs were pretty great, too.
As an artist who has released more than 6 full-length studio albums since 2013, with that quantity of music, has writing albums become more difficult for you or is inspiration kind of boundless?
Brett Newski: Material hasn’t really been a problem. It’s something I think you have to be really intentional about. I think there’s a romanticism about songwriting that you have to be smoking cigarettes or drinking whiskey, then the lightning will just hit you and you’ll capture it in a bottle, and it’ll be amazing and you’ll be this sad, prolific legend. I just don’t find that to be the case. I think there’s a methodology with songwriting, where you basically have to set time aside. If you have a week, do all your songwriting in a week. Every morning, block off three hours, and then you start to get a rhythm for it. Even if you don’t come up with a tune every single time, it still builds a lot of bones for songs and you can keep track of them. I keep track of all cool lyric lines and words, I just keep them in a little spreadsheet on my phone. It works as a bit of a firestarter when you want to start up a new song. Rather than starting from zero, you have some lines to pull from and then it kind of sparks you and gets you going.
What does your songwriting process look like?
Brett Newski: I have a huge computer screen. And this is gonna sound super lame and not cool and not romantic. But I have a huge computer screen, and I just start pasting words I like all over the screen, so I can look and then I can copy and paste them into a word doc. I can really just karate chop everything together, a lot more efficiently that way. I used to have a hundred notebook pages of chicken scratch all over the floor, which sounds cool but my handwriting is terrible and I couldn’t even read my own handwriting. It’s good to use tech to kind of organize your brain.
So you start lyrically and once you have that you move into crafting the musical components?
Brett Newksi: Wow, interesting you say that. I always used to start with chords and guitar chords and melodies, and now, maybe it’s almost reversed, since I started doing this lyrical spreadsheets. Now I kind of grab a cool takeaway line and start with that.
Has starting with lyrics rather than the music, changed the way you approach what kind of music you attach to a song?
Brett Newsk: I think I’ve made more of an effort in recent years to dive back into the ‘60s and ‘70s and some of these catalogs and albums that sound timeless, and my collaborator and drummer Spatola’s been a big part of that ‘cuz he’s a human super-discography library. He knows every album ever, he knows the Billy Joel deep cuts and what kind of amp they used on the third record—I go to him for some of the classic stuff. I think before, when I was just making a surface-y effort into diving into older music, I just thought of classic rock as big arena guitars, kind of like local festival guitar tones. You go back into some of these Thin Lizzy records and T-Rex albums, you can see why Spoon is a band; they just ripped off T-Rex. You can see how these are such massively influential bands. The songs are good and the production holds up. It’s not this big cheap, shitty, arena-sounding reverb snare drum, the testosterone rock. It’s fun to find finesse in music, as someone who’s maybe never had a lot of it in my early days as a musician, it’s cool to have a little more finesse in your writing and recording.
Can you explain the It’s Hard To Be A Person project—how it came about and what it means to you?
Brett Newski: Yeah, I mean easily the hardest project I’ve ever done. Took me for damn ever. It’s kinda like 10 years of ideas and three years of drawings in a book. I wanted to do something that was gonna creatively kick my ass a bit. I hope this doesn’t sound puffy-chested or anything, but I feel like I can make albums ‘til I’m blue in the face. I’ve just done it for so long. It’s just comfortable. But a book I knew was really gonna kick my ass and be a huge battle. And I just thought it’d be an amazing thing to help people out and be, hopefully more useful to a wider audience than an indie-alternative rock record.
With this project, you have the book and then the album kind of serves as the soundtrack to the book—how was the writing of this album, because it serves as an accompaniment to the book, different from the writing of your other albums?
Brett Newski: What spawned those songs is I found all these old lyric books in my parent’s basement of shit that I had been writing when I was in highschool. So it’s all these coming of age themes and ideas. A lot of it was total garbage, to be honest, but some of it, I was impressed that I came up with it as a 14-15 year old kid. I think when you’re young and trying to figure it out and starting at things, your confidence is wobbly. Maybe you don’t have the self-awareness to realize what’s good and not good. When I was 16, I was like “well, no one’s signing me and putting my records in shops, it must not be that good.“ How do you even start in the music industry? I wasn’t able to fathom how that was even possible. It’s cool to go back in time and dig out some of these lyrical scraps and realize it wasn’t wasted energy. It’s still useful. I can remold it and upgrade it and put it into new songs from the voice of my 16-year-old self.
So is every track on the record a reimagination of old songs you had written as a kid?
Brett Newski: Most of the tracks, I would say. A lot of stuff, I went back in time and thought about how I felt in my high school brain. Hopeless romantic relationships, having a crush on a girl for the first time, having absolutely no chance. Dealing with mean people, who were mean to you for no reason because public high school in America is like a turf war. Themes like that, and then all tying into the mental health thing and combatting anxiety, how to utilize depression, stuff like that. How to feel better in your own brain, even though I’m not an expert. I think it’s important because there’s tons of experts out there. But if you just want information from a regular person, I’m your guy!
The tagline of the album is “defeating anxiety, surviving the world, and having more fun.“ During the pandemic, how have you been defeating anxiety, surviving the world and having more fun?
Brett Newski: I found a pretty good groove in the pando, just because my world was touring and that was, I thought, the only way to move the needle and get the word out about songs. You do have to be efficient with your time and energy ‘cuz touring really drains your battery. With anything, there’s a point of diminishing return. I think people really underestimate the power of just sitting in silence by yourself and trying not to think about anything. That’s the best way to restart the game and get a fresh start on level one, which is oftentimes what you need. You can always beat level one, that’s the great part about level one.
Has that environment of sitting by yourself in quarantine been a good opportunity musically to get into songwriting in a way that you maybe didn’t have a chance to while on tour?
Brett Newski: Yeah, man. I mean I found kind of a creative tornado in my little house here. I remember, top of Covid, just sitting in a chair in my house, not having to promote shows, not getting emails from promoters, and it was just amazing to sit in a chair like “I don’t have to do anything right now.“ And then I would start fumbling around on the guitar, drinking coffee, probably too much coffee, and writing down ideas, coming up with riffs. Spitola, my bandmate, is such a great recording engineer, and he lives down the street. We would get together once a week, bang out a song once a week. It would take us like four hours ‘cuz we kinda have a nice rhythm together. It was just a fun, magical time. You kind of remember again why you started doing it in the first place, to make stuff. That’s kinda what feels the best.
Do you miss touring at all?
Brett Newski: No. None whatsoever, to be honest. I had done 1,600 shows in like eight years, so I was pretty torched. But, I’m pumped again. That’s what I needed. Now we’re putting some things on the books. It’s gonna be better than ever, it’s gonna be Better Than Ezra this year.
You’ve released a mix of full-length albums, EPs, singles—do you have a preferred format for releasing and writing music?
Brett Newski: Albums are fun if you’re a touring band, ‘cuz you need a physical thing to sell at shows. I think I’m adjusting to that whole single launch template, and that’s cool, too. I’m pumped about that. It’s nice to be able to focus on a new track every month. You hear things from your elders, or people who work at Spoty, “you’ve gotta put out a song every other week, once a week, if you wanna be rewarded from the algorithm.“ I’ve tried stuff like that and it doesn’t feel like you’re being rewarded from the algorithm. I think it’s just good to do things that feel good without burning yourself out and have some relative consistency to it, because the algorithm wants your soul.
As a musician, what has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced so far in your career?
Brett Newksi: Greatest challenge, I feel like being faced with the fear of falling out of love with touring was a big challenge. Going a year or two being like, “shit, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore. This has been my obsession for a long time and now I’m not getting the same love and joy out of it.“ I think that came in the form of taking a big break. You only get so much energy with anything, and you gotta really spend it wisely. I think especially as Americans, we get more into a trance than a lot of other countries, just ‘cuz we’re so obsessed with productivity and stuff and social media and posting and showing off, our perspective, to me, is very out of whack. I think it’s why I feel so relaxed in other places. Being away from the hyperspeed of America. As awesome as America is, our DNA wasn’t necessarily built for the speed of it.
As the pandemic starts to lift and your book/album project gets released, what’s next for you?
Brett Newksi: I want to keep the podcast going. I’ve got this podcast called Dirt From The Road, we’ve been getting a lot of really neat guests. I’ve been able to talk to a lot of my musical heroes, comedian heroes, stuff like that. Keep trucking on that, hopefully get to do some travel for the podcast. I’d like to broadcast from another city or country maybe once every other month. And yeah man, just keep creating at a reasonable pace, but realizing that work is a second priority to my inner circle of friends and family, my people.
You can check out Brett Newski’s music here.