Between Michael, Janet and the Jackson 5, pop music’s first family casts a long shadow. But that hasn’t stopped Austin Brown, son of eldest Jackson sister Rebbie Jackson, from shining. Since releasing his debut, “Highway 85,” via indie South 5 Records earlier this year, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter-producer has been drawing critical praise, crowds — and inevitable comparisons.
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At a recent show at Webster Hall in New York, there were unmistakable traces of his uncle in Brown’s soaring falsetto, sharp dance steps and boyish good looks. But he didn’t mention his family name to the enthusiastic crowd, and much of his online press and promo doesn’t either. “It’s a blessing and a curse — I’m not trying to be anybody else,” Brown told Billboard afterward. “I can’t help the way I sound, I can’t help the way I look, I can’t help the way I dance. I just create naturally.”
Like the Jackson generation before him, some of Brown’s earliest memories are onstage. “I must’ve been about 3 years old — my mother was in Japan on an amphitheater/club run,” he recalls. “She brought me out the first night to dance with her, and I ran off crying. I freaked out. But after that I would do every single show with her and just dance for a few minutes and do my thing. That was when I first realized I liked the stage.”
Brown says his late, legendary uncle took notice of his moves as well. “He taught me different ways of dancing — that was one of my main memories I shared with him. He taught me different ways of dancing, how to dance on tempo, how to go off beat and then catch yourself. He taught me how to go off the top of my head — I don’t like to think when I’m performing.”
On “Highway 85’s” standouts, including “Menage Trois” and “Volcano,” there are disco-pop elements that recall Michael’s “Off the Wall” and doo-wop harmonies that hint at classic Jackson 5. But Brown, who co-writes and co-produces all his tracks, gracefully mixes in elements of EDM, rock, hip-hop and funk with a live band — at Webster Hall, he covered ’90s rapper Skeelo’s “I Wish” and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Stand!” (original Family Stone bassist Larry Graham is one of Brown’s mentors). He’s also worked with Rodney Jerkins, Q-Tip and Pharrell in the past.
Brown says he dropped his debut independently partly because of industry pressure to exploit his family connections more. “We wanted to release it with a major, but people wanted me be something I wasn’t,” he says. “Everyone I would collaborate with had this fantasy of working with Michael. But I’m not trying to be that. He’s the greatest to ever do what he did, and no one will ever touch that.”
He hopes to revisit working with a major for his follow-up, expected summer 2014, according to Christian Loor, his manager, who says they’ll be announcing some new partnerships soon. Austin’s about to start recording with his new band and co-writer/producer Tommy Parker in New York, where he moved earlier this year to focus on music and escape the media madness that often hounds his family. “L.A. is a place where stars go to be stars — they feed into their own hype,” he says. “I don’t want to have that life. I just want to make great music. I got to be mentored by one of the greatest musicians ever, but at the end of the day my music will speak volumes on its own.”