In some ways, it all started at Otey’s Tavern. It was December of 2016, and a then-fledgling The Brook and the Bluff had spent all year trying to figure out how to be an original band and book gigs, all of that. And then came their first all-original show. “Otey’s…isn’t really an original show place, but we got all of our friends out there and played original songs. And the response was awesome,” drummer John Canada recalls.
If the band spent 2016 finding their footing, they hit the ground running in 2017. They played more than 40 shows from Auburn to New York City, including the National Association of Music Merchants’ Nashville summer festival, and added a new bassist to their ranks. And 2018 is shaping up to be even busier. They’ve already toured across the Southwest and played in Los Angeles, are in the process of moving to Nashville, and are now putting the finishing touches on their first album.
Lead singer Joseph Settine and guitarist Alec Bolton came together as The Brook and the Bluff while attending Auburn University in 2014. They named the band after their respective hometowns—Alec is from Mountain Brook, while Joseph hails from Bluff Park. Although they spent their initial year performing acoustic covers at local venues, they were already writing their own pieces with a full four-member rock band in mind.
What you might not guess is that every member of the band has a background in choir music, which you can hear in their songs’ vocal harmonies and arrangements. Joseph and Alec said they wrote their tracks with the intention that every member of the band would be able to sing—a relatively rare trait among rock groups.
“We approach a lot of things vocally first. If we’re doing something, we want to make sure that we leave a good amount of space so that we can put voices into it,” Joseph explains. “It’s always really important that there is a good bit of vocal in everything that you do, whether that be stacking harmonies or three melodies going on at the same time, everybody getting a chance to sing.”
After graduating from Auburn in 2015, Joseph and Alec moved back to Birmingham and continued to play cover shows as well as record a three-track demo of their original tracks titled “The Rough Cuts.” In the fall of that year, John attended one of the duo’s performances in Auburn and volunteered his skills as a drummer and vocalist.
Shortly after joining the band, however, John was offered an accounting job in Nashville. While he initially considered making the move, John, along with Alec and Joseph, instead decided to fully commit to The Brook and the Bluff.
“Starting in May 2016, we took another dive into it because we all said we want to do this full-time,” John recalls. “We planned for more full band/trio cover gigs as well, kept doing that all summer, and ended up going into the studio and recording our first song ‘Masks’ in Bates Brothers [Recording Studio]. That was awesome.”
The band headed into 2017 with the goal of playing 52 live performances, and ended up playing 44 all-original shows all across the South and East Coast. The trio tried out two different bassists before Fred Lankford officially joined the band in the fall. Fred grew up on the same street in Crestline as Alex, and as adolescents, they had jammed together in Alec’s basement.
The band is planning to release their first album in early 2018, though they have been selling an early version of the album at their concerts since last summer. The CD features eight tracks Alec and Joseph wrote when they first came together in Auburn.
“These songs specifically were written acoustically but always with a full band in mind,” Joseph says of the songwriting process. “They’re not necessarily my influences now, but my influences at the time were Alabama Shakes and the [other] bands I saw that were getting big from Alabama. I tried to do that with my own spin on it.”
“It came pretty naturally, just us two sitting in a room bouncing ideas off of each other,” Alec adds.
“A lot of times, when you hear it in your head, you hear everything. You may only be able to sit there and play it with an acoustic guitar, but when we were writing these things it was always with a bigger sound in mind, because I never wanted to be just an acoustic player,” Joseph says.
When asked about what non-Alabama musicians had influenced his songwriting, Joseph cites John Mayer “and always the Beatles. Everything I’ve ever done—it’s like a backdrop . . . The Beatles have always been the foundation of wanting to create.”
Among those who appreciated the band’s style were members of the National Association of Music Merchants, who invited The Brook and the Bluff to play at their summer 2017 showcase in Nashville and then again at the Association’s January show in Los Angeles. The band took the opportunity of their excursion to California to put together “a DIY tour,” says John, who as the band’s designated booking agent and manager got them shows in Jackson, Baton Rogue, Austin, Malibu, and Phoenix on the way to and from the NAMM showcase.
After the tour ended, the band headed back to Nashville – this time for the long haul. The band is hoping that living in the self-proclaimed “Songwriting Capital of the World” will allow them to make vital connections with music industry insiders. Nonetheless, their name and their music will always reflect their roots.
“We’re pretty proud to be from Birmingham, that’s for damn sure,” Fred says.
The Brook and the Bluff on How to Make It as a Band On- and Offline
You’re releasing your first album soon, but you have already released most of the songs over the last two years as singles. Why did you choose to release the music in that way?
Alec: We recorded the full eight tracks, and then decided to release them individually rather than release them all at one time because in today’s musical world, if you’re a relatively unknown band, there’s a good chance they’ll never be heard.
Fred: No one has the attention span to listen to a full album.
John: Strategically it’s much more advantageous for you to try to put a lot of attention on just one song at a time because there is so much content out there. There is no shortage.
Alec: And most people don’t listen to a full album, especially if they don’t know your band already. They’re not going to listen to the whole album multiple times through.
John: The big thing is playlists, streaming services, Spotify.
You’ve been featured on Noisetrade and in Spotify’s viral playlist. How do you best leverage those kinds of platforms?
John: It’s been hugely beneficial, just because it gives you a kind of instant credibility. When you’re booking shows or trying to get features in certain things, you can say, “Hey, our song went number 22 on the US Viral hits charts from Spotify, which is the largest streaming platform in the world.” It’s really about trying to capitalize on those opportunities that you have, so we’ve used that stat for a lot of things that we’ve applied for and gotten some awesome things. For example, we played for the National Association of Music Merchants in Nashville this summer, which was an awesome show. And we’re going to play at the big Winter NAMM in LA in January. That was something where if we hadn’t gotten that Spotify stuff, we just would have been another one of their submissions among a ton of bands. It’s given us a cool, distinguishing factor.