Acoustic folk singer/songwriter Phillip-Michael Scales, better known as Briar Rabbit, is a thinking person's artist. Take his stage name, for instance. When taken at face value, it's just a cool name for a band or solo artist. Nothing out of the ordinary there, right? But once you delve deeper into it, you realize exactly what Scales is hiding in plain sight.
The name Briar Rabbit is derived from Br'er Rabbit, the trickster figure of African folklore who often succeeded solely because of his wits — not exactly the product of a careless mind. "I've always kind of connected with the character of Bre'r Rabbit because he was always good at getting himself out of trouble by tricking people," Scales says. "So I kind of liked it. It was playful and evoked all that stuff."
Latent folklore from a folk artist.
Born in Southfield and raised in Bloomfield Hills, Scales attended Roeper High School, and credits the private school's relaxed-rules environment for the development of his artistry: "The cool thing about that school is that they kind of stay out of your way," he says. "They treat you virtually like you're in college from the time you're in middle school ... They really kind of gave me room to roam. They let me put on concerts; they let me try being a promoter at high school. It really helped shape me, and they didn't shame me. They weren't like 'Oh, no you can't do that. That's a waste of time.'"
Eventually, Scales fell into musical theater, an experience that was only momentarily gratifying, and eventually traded one aspect of the stage for another: "I thought theater was cool for a while," he says, "but what I found was [that] theater felt limiting to me ... I've always liked the autonomy that came with music and expressing yourself."
Scales eventually picked the guitar back up (he began writing songs at age 13, when his aunt gave him a guitar) and began a career as a musician — a move that would propel him on his skyward trajectory.
After synthesizing his two loves — music and theater — the folk guitarist eventually applied to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he majored in music business. However, the school's broad curriculum proved disappointing to Scales.
"Most of those classes weren't geared toward going from 0 to 500 people," he says. "It was like, 'How to go from 500 people to 15,000 people.' That was the broad strokes business stuff that they were talking about."
Though the school didn't teach him much in the ways of grassroots marketing, Scales thinks it was a valuable experience nonetheless. "I wouldn't trade it for the world," he says. "I think it really was the people I was surrounded by. You were surrounded by people who now play with Passion Pit ... the American Authors opened for me. Twice. They're all my friends ... these people are making incredible strides in the industry, and I get to be friends with them ... I get to see different things ... It's cool to have that network of other dope musicians around to make you better."
And better he was, seemingly inspired (both by his time in Boston's historically tense racial environment and by being around his fellow musicians) to pen The Great Routine, an acoustic folk EP about a minstrel show character based on Bert Williams, the first black performer in minstrelsy.
Though the EP was easy on the ears, the album's lasting impression was less digestible, as it ends with the character's grisly suicide: "I wanted in that story for him to take the power back," Scales says. His versatility as a thought-provoking artist comes through on From Your Bones, his recently released LP that masterfully charts the complexities of a devastating breakup over a laid-back folk soundscape.
Scales wants his audiences to feel something. "I want to give them a show that's entertaining, that makes them feel things, and that makes them think," he says. "I just want them to feel it, think about it, be entertained, laugh a little, feel a little, and that's it." — mt
Along with Kate Voegele, Briar Rabbit will be performing at the Blind Pig on Wednesday, November 12. For more information, check him out on at BriarRabbit.net or @BriarRabbit on Twitter.