Ox’s Browning Discards His “Folk-Porno” Rulebook

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ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, JULY 22, 2004

DEVOTEES OF VANCOUVER’S singer-songwriter scene should be familiar with Mark Browning. He was a fixture on the local acoustic-folk circuit a couple of years ago and could often be seen doing his thing down at the Railway Club. Looking back, though, Browning is not particularly proud of those solo days. In the liner notes to Dust Bowl Revival, the debut album by his current band, Ox, he describes the music he was making back then as “folk-porno”, and he says that he had become a caricature of the oh-so-sensitive singer-songwriter.

“It just got to the point where it became really limiting,” the tunesmith relates on the line from an Edmonton tour stop. “And I just found I got really sick of it, and sick of myself. I was in the studio in Vancouver recording stuff and at the same time listening to the track and thinking, ‘Man, I don’t even want to finish this song; this is shit.’ I just sort of threw in the towel and decided to just write whatever I wanted and make it as crazy as I wanted.”

Once he’d cast off the trappings of the too-serious composer, Browning hit his mark with Dust Bowl Revival, which is loaded with raw, fragile, and beautiful alt-country tunes. His freewheeling approach to writing and arranging paid off with tracks like the Neil Young–ish “Stolen Car”.

“I played that for a friend of mine in Vancouver, [singer-songwriter] Robert Wilson,” he says. “I said to him, ‘Okay, now, what I’m thinkin’ is taking the chorus and only sticking it at the very end of the song, and doin’ the rest of it with just piano at the beginning.’ And he said I was crazy because it was a potentially commercial song and I’m makin’ sure that it’ll never be successful. When he said that, I knew I was doing things right.”

Commercial or not, after Dust Bowl Revival was released independently last summer, it caught the ear of the folks at Universal Music Canada, who picked it up for countrywide distribution. “When the record first came out, I really didn’t expect participation from any labels at all,” Browning notes. “I thought, ‘It’s a college-radio record; it’s kind of a fuck-you label! record.’ But it started to do really well, and I was getting phone calls and e-mails and we’d be in Now magazine as the buzz band for festivals and stuff. It’s really nice, ’cause [the record deal] basically means that you have a big team to work with on things, and they’re really artistically motivated. They wanted the record because they love it.”

Although he’s spent time recently in his birthplace of Sudbury, Ontario, Browning says that he’s not really based anywhere, that the road is his home. He’s currently touring with bassist Ryan Bishop and drummer Rose Murphy, who’ll accompany him when Ox plays the Railway–his “living room in Vancouver”–on Thursday (July 22).

But don’t expect Browning to hang around long before succumbing to that far-off highway call. In that respect, he’s a bit like his road-ready dad, who’s pictured four times in the Dust Bowl Revival booklet, posing behind the wheel of a ’60s convertible and in front of tourist destinations like the then-unfinished World Trade Center.

“He got around,” Browning says. “He was a radio man who started up stations in Calgary and Edmonton and then back in Ontario. He’s a funny guy, though. He really likes commercial music, so he’s always givin’ me a hard time and tellin’ me how the latest George Michael has a really nice beat. It drives me nuts.”

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