If you want to get the big picture on the debut solo album from Keon Masters, Many Thanks, you have to look back at his former band, Brave Baby. There was a time, just a few short years ago, when Brave Baby was arguably the biggest and most beloved band in the Charleston music scene. They have since gone on hiatus, after a long and storied existence as a band, but Keon welcomes and embraces the association.
“I’m not ashamed of Brave Baby,” Keon says. “Brave Baby’s cool. I’m not trying to keep them separated. It’s my voice all over the record, so you’re gonna know.”
Keon was the frontman in Brave Baby, and he sang lead on most tracks across both of their albums: 2013’s Forty Bells and 2015’s Electric Friends. On December 31st, 2017, Brave Baby played a sold-out New Years Eve celebration at The Royal American, and a few days later they had a band meeting that led to their current status of indefinite hiatus. As of now, that New Year’s Eve show is the last time that Brave Baby has played a show.
“We had that big New Year’s show with Human Resources,” Keon explains. “Remember that? We had that show, and we met four days later to unload the van. Me and Christian [Chidester] and Ryan [Zimmerman] sat down and had a talk. I left that talk kind of abruptly, because they were saying we needed a break, even though we had just sold out Royal in like 20 minutes. Everyone was really eager to do their own thing.”
According to Keon, the members of Brave Baby had a hard time agreeing on which creative direction to take the band. Keon wanted to go one way, Christian wanted to go another, and Wolfgang yet another. With each of their creative energies pulling in different directions, a decision was made to take some time off. Still, though, Keon is clear that there is no animosity or hard feelings between the members of Brave Baby, and they are all still friends. In fact, Christian even rips a solo on “Blade of Grass”, the fifth track on Keon’s new album, Many Thanks.
“I hung out with them this week,” he says. “I was at Ryan’s yesterday watching the football game. And I love them.”
It’s easy to see where Keon’s frustration with the way that Brave Baby left off comes from, though. In October of 2017, just two months before their hiatus began, Brave Baby released a single called “Soothsayer”, which is currently creeping up on one million Spotify streams. That’s nearly double the streaming numbers for their next most popular song, “Plastic Skateboard”, which is currently sitting pretty at nearly 400k streams. There was also a music video released for “Soothsayer”, and at the time it seemed that Brave Baby was gearing up to release another record. They had the momentum, and if they could have agreed in the creative sense, they could have ran with it.
“It was kind of a forced hand,” Keon explains. “I never wanted to go solo. There’s a whole third Brave Baby album just sitting on a hard drive. It took me like 3 months to figure out how to write a song by myself again, after Brave Baby decided to take a hiatus.”
With Brave Baby taking a break, Keon knew that he wanted to keep making music, but it took him some time to find the right vibe. His first release as a solo artist came on the 2018 Scene SC Sampler, in the form of a moody love song called “Ballad #81,317”. That wasn’t exactly the direction he wanted to take, but he explains that he had always wanted to make an Elton John-style love song, and that’s exactly what he did with “Ballad #81,317”.
“That’s the date I got married,” Keon says. “I thought it was kinda funny too, because it’s not the first love song that was ever written.”
The 2018 Scene SC sampler also includes a track from Wolfgang [Ryan] Zimmerman called “Paper Trails”, which he now plays with his new band Invisible Low-End Power. At the time of the sampler’s release, the Brave Baby hiatus wasn’t public knowledge, but looking back it seems obvious.
“I have countless demos, dude,” Keon continues. “I was always writing with the boys. I would come up with a verse-chorus, bring it to the boys. Thumbs up, thumbs down. If I got thumbs down, I would never go back to it again. If I got thumbs up, we’d keep woodsheddin’ it. And same for them. They’d bring ideas to the table.”
Keon kept writing songs in this way, but instead of having “the boys” to run them by, he just had himself. As he explained earlier, it took him some time to get into the groove of writing the type of songs that you’ll hear on Many Thanks. After “Ballad #81,317”, Keon started to settle into the energy of Many Thanks when he wrote “<3 of the City” and “Got 2 Luv It”, which are both singles off the new record, and are also two of the first songs he had written for this project.
“I was like, Okay, here we go. I’m starting to feel it. Found the vibe.”
With the vibe sorted out, Keon went through the process of self-recording and self-producing the majority of Many Thanks with the help of Steven Walker, who once played keys in Brave Baby and now tours with SUSTO. He explains that the process involved a lot of back and forth between recording sessions at his house and Steven’s house. Once everything was in a place that they felt comfortable with, Keon brought the album to Coast Records for mixing sessions with Matt Zutell. Keon says working with Matt helped to open things up a bit.
Once the album had been created, Keon looked towards a release strategy. Doing this naturally caused him to look back once more at Brave Baby, and specifically back at the release of their final album, Electric Friends.
“The release show for the last Brave Baby album was at the Music Hall,” Keon recalls. “We duffed, dude. We duffed that shit. The show was awesome. There was probably like 600-700 people there. We had crazy light production, this big semicircle half moon on the backdrop, and crazy 3D mapping projectors. SUSTO opened. It felt cool. It felt like we had arrived in this really awesome way, that the town was super behind us, we had everybody’s support, and we had all this mojo.”
The problem here is that Brave Baby decided to host a hometown album release show in May for a record that would not be available digitally until August. At the Charleston Music Hall show, Brave Baby gave out physical copies of Electric Friends, and by all means the show was a local success, but this proved to be a mistake in the grand scheme of making the record as big as it could have been.
“It’s the biggest mistake, probably, I’ve ever made,” Keon explains. “We thought it would be cool because everyone could have it locally. But we really missed out on that digital splash of where 700 fans listen to the album all at once. Everyone who’s in town is like, ‘I want to share this with you, but I can’t.’ When your biggest fanbase can’t share that digitally, you shot yourself in the foot from the get-go. I loved that event, it was awesome, but we rushed to make it happen.”
“Even our national team thought that was a good idea, because they wanted the press cycle to happen for three months,” Keon continues. “But that press we paid for didn’t do shit. Dan McCurry got more press from Hearts & Plugs working out of his goddamn bedroom, home office, sorry, and we were paying $2500 per month to some bigwig who knew what the fuck he was doing, didn’t get us one blog review for Electric Friends. I was like, Dude, I love that you’re sending this to like, Stephen Colbert, but are you sending it to the Extra Chill’s of the world? It’s so important. And we didn’t have $2500 per month to spend, but we made it happen. It was awful.”
With Many Thanks, Keon has shifted his focus away from a physical release and is instead choosing to focus on making a digital splash, perhaps like the one that Brave Baby should have made with Electric Friends. In fact, at this point in time he isn’t even printing CDs or vinyl copies of the record. Instead, he has opted for 8×8 and 12×12 prints that feature the cover art. Keon explains that in his experience many fans just purchase vinyl for the art, and since the 12×12 prints are the same size as a vinyl record, but much cheaper, he hopes that fans will purchase and display them in the same way.
“I’m gonna sign the back and say, ‘Thanks for purchasing, embrace the digital age. Glad the like the artwork, but stream this shit.’ CDs are just a waste. You buy a new car, there’s not even a CD player.”
Keon goes on to explain that when Electric Friends dropped, he wasn’t quite hip to the streaming world, although it had already become a huge part of the music industry at that time. With his current approach of “embracing the digital age”, Keon hones in on Spotify.
“Have you seen what a Spotify Artists app looks like? Have you seen the update?” Keon asks. He pulls out his phone and excitedly scrolls through some of his Spotify stats. “I can look at these songs, I can look when it’s peakin’. This is for me. It’s cool. I can look at all that shit, and I can do that for the whole album. And I can see the cities. That’s more tools than you can get in ten bucks.”
This also led us to a discussion about Spotify’s compensation for artists, and how many modern artists are frustrated with low payouts from Spotify and other streaming platforms. Keon has a more optimistic outlook on Spotify, and sees the platform as an incredibly useful tool for artists. He sees Spotify as an opportunity to spread the word about his music, and to have people outside of Charleston who have no idea who Keon Masters is to listen to him and already be familiar with him, so if he ever decides to route a tour through their city, they might come check out the show.
To explain this outlook, he offers and analogy from his friend Aaron Utterback, who plays in Human Resources, had a short stint in Brave Baby, and also played bass on Keon’s new album.
“Aaron’s pretty good at analogies sometimes,” Keon says. “He was like, ‘So, say you’re a banker, but you really like drivin’ cars. You want to be a Nascar driver. So you sink all this money into building a racecar, and all of a sudden you want to go race. Do you think Nascar is just going to allow you to go race? No, you have to start at the bottom, you gotta pay to race, dirt tracks, and then, if you’re good enough, you can race Jimmy Johnson. Spotify allows you to make whatever you want, and you’re racing Jimmy Johnson, that afternoon. You are off to the races, off the rip.”
Overall, Keon is excited to be off to the races with the release of Many Thanks. The entire process has been one of learning and growth for him, and now that he’s got the ball rolling, he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“I just need to assemble a wheel and push it down the hill. Honestly, I just need to get moving,” Keon says. “I’m already moving pretty quickly. I’ve got 3 tracks recorded with this guy Dan Gleason [of Grouplove] who’s been doing the Babe Club stuff in Atlanta, before my album is out. I could see myself just, year after year, trying to release 8 to 10 songs.”
Keon hasn’t fully counted Brave Baby out yet, either.
“We never broke up,” he explains. ‘We were just like, ‘Let’s take time.’ I still leave the door open. I think Brave Baby’s gonna release something. I don’t know when, but I feel like we will. I don’t want to do a reunion show, though. If we do a show, I want to put something out. Maybe we don’t play all the time, but I want to put something out. Let it live online, or something.”
The debut album, Many Thanks, by Keon Masters will be released tomorrow, Friday, October 4th. Keon will celebrate with a full band release party at The Royal American, joined by North Carolina’s Arson Daily and fellow SC band Dead Swells. Facebook event here.
“I wonder if I should wear a suit,” Keon says. “Maybe I should wear a suit.”