Indie-soul: Brownbear singer on community, Demons and his anthem to black Scots
“I do it for my people,” Matt Hickman sings on the newly released album by Scottish band Brownbear.
This one line, delivered in the track, Unity, reflects one of the Scottish singer-songwriter’s driving inspirations – embracing and speaking up for the community around him.
Hailing from Largs in Ayrshire, Hickman is preparing to hit the road on a Scottish tour with performances from Irvine to Stornoway, showcasing an album that has been five years in the making.
‘Demons’ is deeply personal and also tells of the isolation of lockdown which, like many others who were cut adrift from friends and family, forced him to confront his own “demons and life traumas”.
“I think we're longing for music that has a real connection but is also still accessible,” Hickman explains.
“The joy of music is when you do something that is both emotional and says something but remains universally connecting. That’s the path to being together.”
That time alone with his thoughts made Hickman realise he was ignoring his own emotional well-being “by touring and working”.
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When he did return to the road, he was determined to not only find new ways to tour, but ensure that he looks out for the communities who welcome him in.
The tour, which starts in April, does not include a single show at venues where staff are not guaranteed a living wage or union minimum.
“Musicians lost all of their income and their livelihood through lockdown,” he said.
“I’m not asking for a big fee, I’m asking for people to be able to pay their bills. If people don't pay the minimum for us to be there, I just won’t go now.”
He added: “I just want to share music and share songs with folk. Although we might not have the biggest fan base on the road, I have a beautifully connected and appreciative fan base who’ve made me feel like it’s been worth it.”
The ten-track LP combines Hickman’s gift for storytelling with his distinctive ‘adopted genre’ of indie-soul.
“I feel like there is a comfort to soul records and there is a personalness,” he explains. “Soul has everything you need.”
That personal touch is noticeable in each of the songs, especially in his self-dubbed “anthem” to Black Scots - Unity.
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The song was created in response to the murder of George Floyd, an American black man, by a white police officer. His death in 2020 prompted a number of anti-racism protests in Scotland and saw many Black Scots share their experience of racism in the UK.
As Hickman explains the issues raised were ones that the black community had “been trying to discuss for years”.
“I was sitting there thinking I've been trying to tell you that for years and you didn't care, and now you care because it is cool to care,” he said.
Explaining that he wanted the song Unity to be “unapologetic”, Hickman added: “It was a lot of angst and a lot of anger, but I also wanted to write an anthem that’s not explaining ourselves to anyone.
“Black and African people aren't defined by racism and slavery, we have so much heritage and culture that should also be at the forefront.
“It's not enough just to accept people, we have to celebrate people. It's not enough to just be not racist, we have to be celebrating those other cultures.
“I'm in a unique position where half of my ancestors were the enslaved, and half of them were the enslavers. I think accepting all of our roles in that history is a way of moving forward.”
Combining his black and Scottish heritage is also at the source of forming his musical sound.
Speaking on their music, the singer added: “I suppose it is indie and I’m bringing in soulful influence and sounds from the African diaspora and I am just blending it into something.
“I am going to call it indie-soul, I’m going to try and make it my own thing.”
From songwriting to performing, Hickman also keenly embraces his Scottish heritage explaining that he believes less emphasis should be placed on making it big in London.
“Scotland sometimes gets caught up in this idea that we have to compete for a place in London,” he explained.
“As a country full of people who are passionate about songs, about creativity, we should have more belief in ourselves that we can do it on our own.
“We don’t have to rely on a UK industry, I think we could have Scottish music industry and we could be exporting worldwide and we need to just have that belief that we can do it.”
In fact, he credits his Scottish background as being a source for his song writing with the country, as well as Ayrshire specifically, having a “tradition of being creative and being great writers”.
He said: “I think Scotland has a beautiful history of being both very direct, but very thoughtful.
“It’s like this lovely counterbalance that works great in our favour and I think Ayrshire is no different.
“We have an amazing history of writers and even from Largs – Graham Lyle is one of the most incredible songwriters and I was so blessed to meet him when I was younger.”
As the band is set to reach its tenth anniversary next year, Hickman hopes there will be a more extensive tour in celebration.
That tour could even allow him to fulfil a lifelong dream of headlining Glasgow’s Barrowlands, which he describes as the “most iconic venue in the world”.
But he emphasised that he is very much “taking things in my stride”.
Demons | Acoustic Album Tour
April 25 | Mull | An Tobar
April 27 | Skye |Skye Bridge Studios
April 28 | Stornoway | An Lanntair
May 4 | Galashiels | Mac Arts
May 5 | Greenock | Beacon Arts Centre
May 6 | Irvine | Harbour Arts Centre
May 11 | Pittenweem | Bread & Butter