Veteran Tucson singer-songwriter Namoli Brennet calls herself a "lyrics person," but she doesn't discount the importance of good melody.
"Good lyrics with a bad melody don't really do much for me," Brennet says during a recent interview at a downtown coffeehouse. "But I can live with bad lyrics with a good melody. It's weird, because it's still moving."
Often, there's elegance in simplicity, she says.
"Sometimes, 'Baby, baby, come back,' works just fine. Like all that Motown stuff—those people could sing about a piece of crusty bread, and it would still sound great."
Brennet will celebrate the release of her eighth album, Black Crow, with a CD-release party at Club Congress on Saturday, Feb. 27, which also happens to be her 40th birthday. Accompanying Brennet will be bass player Sabra Faulk and guitarist Mitzi Cowell, as well as singer Rebecca Horton and brass player Julie Nicolay.
The concert also will feature the premiere of a new music video for the song "Grapes of Wrath," from her 2009 album, Until From This Dream I Wake. Tammy West and the Culprits will open the show.
Although she played drums as young as 4 years old, and has studied guitar since she was 8, Brennet's formal training came in college. Her undergraduate degree was in composition and jazz piano. She came to Tucson 15 years ago to study choral conducting in graduate school at the University of Arizona, but eventually dropped out.
"There weren't many options in music when I started school. I mean, you can't really major in 'wanting to become a singer-songwriter.' The prevailing wisdom is maybe you should get a teaching degree, or give lessons to kids. I think going for composition was my compromise to be able to study music."
Since then, Brennet has recorded and released all her albums through her own Flaming Dame Records. She plays almost all the instruments on her records, and engineers and produces them herself in a home studio.
Because Brennet records at home, she crafts individual songs and albums in a piecemeal fashion, over the course of several months or a year or two. But Black Crow came together last summer much more quickly than usual: She wrote the 13 songs on Black Crow in six or seven weeks.
"I started writing in July or August, and I had almost the whole CD recorded in September." And now it's available for public consumption.
In contrast to the darker themes of her preceding album, Black Crow is mostly upbeat. When she wrote the songs, Brennet was coming from a place of contentment in her life, thanks to a deepening relationship with her girlfriend, Alyson Krominga.
Brennet also played all the instruments—acoustic, electric and slide guitars, mandolin, piano, bass, violin, tambourine, harmonica, EBow and banjo—with the exception of brass instruments and some drums.
Can she play anything she picks up?
"It depends on what you call 'play,' I guess. I mean, I don't really play violin, but I have a violin, and I play some on this CD, because I just liked the way it sounded plucked. It's probably barely audible.
"If you're lucky enough to be able to hear an instrument and mess around with it until it sounds half-decent, I don't think you actually have to know how to play it, per se. You just have to know how to hear something you like and be able to trust that instinct that you can use it in a song."
Even as a trained musician, Brennet says she often relies on her instincts when writing lyrics and melodies.
"I think that the melody is a language of its own. There's a real magic to fitting lyrics and a melody with chords. The melody is sort of harmonious with the chords, and at one point, it sort of rubs against them. You can pick words that sort of wring this feeling out. I sort of feel like with a song, there are a lot of different levels of communication going on.
"There's the obvious one with the lyrics, but also with the chords, they set the tone. The melody sort of embellishes that."