ARTICLE MARCUS HOLMLUND
PHOTOGRAPHY BJORN IOOSS
STYLIST MOSES MORENO
JUST WHEN YOU THINK YOU KNOW EVERY JACKSON, ANOTHER ONE INTRODUCES HIMSELF—AND IMMEDIATELY MELTS YOUR HEART. WE SPOKE WITH AUSTIN BROWN, NEPHEW OF THE LATE GREAT MICHAEL, ABOUT HIS BUDDING MUSIC CAREER, HIS FAMILY, AND HIS FUTURE
One summer release you may have been too blurred to catch is Highway ’85 by Austin Brown. Nephew to Michael and Janet Jackson, and son of eldest, Rebbie, Brown is a new reason to love the world's most talented clan. His debut mixtape is a bright, fully realized record, which melds his famous family’s super-soul aesthetic with his very own brand of eclecticism. Fusing elements of funk (“Volcano”), glam rock (“Highway To The Sky”), neo-soul (“Stargazer”), and 90’s jazz rap (“Groove ‘92”) to create something he calls ‘backpack kid music,’ Brown has crafted his own sound off the bat. “We may come from different backgrounds, we may come with different musical tastes and different things we want to express in our art—but we put it all on our back and we bring it with us wherever we go. That’s the sound. That’s the movement—the fusion of everything you’re about. It’s about never holding back,” he explains.
“I started making an album in 2009 with my good friend, producer Rodney Jerkins, called ’85. By the end, it sounded more like my family than I had wanted. The reason being: I had made the album right after my uncle had passed away. I was going through the grieving process like everybody else, only I was doing it to music. A lot of the production didn’t represent me the way that I wanted it to. That’s where the Highway ’85 project comes into play. It’s different… It’s really me from top to bottom. I’m happy it sounds the way it does.”
Even with heading out on his own route, 27-year-old Brown ultimately can’t escape his genetics. “It’s funny because even if I’m not singing to my family’s tune or whatever, people will still find something in my voice that reminds them of them. Our tones or tonalities—there’s no doubt we share similarities. It’s inescapable. I try and be as honest as I can with my music. I will never hide from how I sound.” And for good reason—one of Highway ‘85’s silkiest delicacies, “City of Angels,” is a sultry seventies style throwback, in which Brown doesn’t shy from his higher register. Much akin to Michael’s falsetto and Janet’s sexual sighs, the track balances homage and individuality flawlessly.
When it comes to music, the bug bit Brown early on. “I was never going to do anything else. I started playing piano when I was four or five years old. I grew up around performers. My mother would bring me onstage with her during her shows. Music’s always been a part of my life. I think, more importantly, music has always been my life. I saw from an early age how you could bring so much joy to someone from onstage and how expressive music can be. ”
With one mixtape down and a full-length album in the works, Brown is heading into what he calls ‘hibernation mode.’ “My love for music is always changing. Sometimes I’m more of an artist who wants to be in the studio all the time making beats. I could do five or six beats a day with my partner, Tommy Parker. But then, say I’m on tour and performing; that’s the greatest feeling in the world for me. So, some days I’m more of a performer. Or maybe I’ve had the worst day, or a real bad relationship—that’s when I’m more of a writer. Music rides with the emotions in life. It makes you a singer one day and a writer the next.”
His plans for the future? “I’ll keep performing, I’m adding some East Coast dates soon. I’m also in negotiations with a label right now. Collaboration-wise, me and Pharrell did some work together and I hope to have that come out sometime down the line. Me and Q-Tip did a track together, too, and I just met Just Blaze out last night. He’s someone I’d love to get into the studio with. We’ll see.”