Bold Ambition: Adam Labeaux Explores the Power of Courage and Vulnerability on “Brace Face” Album
Adam Labeaux searches for the true meaning of courage in himself and others on Brave Face.
The folk-rock singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist explores the power of tenacity, vulnerability, and authenticity on his latest album.
“It does have a lot to do with these central themes, and these are things I tend to touch on a lot, including the human condition,” said Labeaux, who resides in Ann Arbor.
“I tend to write dark folk, and I gravitate toward this subject matter and a focal point that maybe people don’t want to look at all the time. But I always have hope, and I always feel there's positivity to come out.”
That positivity and courage shine across Brave Face’s dozen tracks, which feature earnest lyrics, passionate vocals, and ‘70s-inspired folk-rock instrumentation flavored with jazz and soul. Imagine if Labeaux formed a new supergroup with members of the E Street Band, Steely Dan, and Toto.
“I’m the first to admit that sometimes I write songs to give myself words of encouragement that I’m not getting from someone else,” said Labeaux about his fourth album.
“If nothing else, I find that when I’m at my lowest and when I’m most manic that usually it means I haven’t been writing enough. I haven’t been expressing it, and I really need to get into that space and have that cathartic moment.”
Not long into Brave Face, Labeaux experiences a cathartic moment on the spirited classic-rock jam “Ember,” which acknowledges a lifelong passion for another alongside fiery electric guitar, bass, organ, and drums.
He sings, “It’s not a race / But you were right on time / You came through with colors flying / With just a wave you set the stars in line / Now I’m a satellite of Zion.”
“In the movie Adaptation, there’s this incredible moment when one of the characters is at the tail end of his life and his brother’s talking about this girl he fell in love with in high school,” Labeaux said.
“And he says, ‘Didn’t you know that everyone was making fun of you and that she was ridiculing you behind your back?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I knew. My love for her was mine, and I own that, and there was nothing she could do about that. It was my moment, my thing, and this is how I felt.’
“‘Ember’ to me was kind of like that. … There's a connection between these people. It doesn’t even mean that they got together, but it’s somebody they just connected with and were filled with that life and joy.”
Next, Labeaux trades catharsis for camaraderie and connection on “Pass It Around.” Buoyant saxophone, acoustic guitar, bass, piano, and drums celebrate friendship around a campfire as Labeaux sings, “Kick off your shoes and dance again / Open up your eyes; everyone’s a friend / I hope you’ve got time and room for just one more.”
“That song is meant to be every single campfire I’ve ever been to where we passed a bottle, we played songs, we got silly, and we stayed up until sunlight. And maybe we’ve played the same song we’ve played 10,000 times; it doesn’t matter,” he said.
“We’re just here to enjoy this moment, and one of the things that I love most in life is connecting with people in such a stripped-down and instant way.”
After finding connection on “Pass It Around,” Labeaux addresses societal and personal challenges head-on throughout the gospel-tinged title track. Hopeful organ, drums, trumpet, acoustic guitar, bass, violin, and piano reflect his can-do attitude.
He sings, “Gotta get up, put your two feet on the floor / Try to shake it off, and ask ‘em for some more / Gotta pull yourself up [open up the shades / get back in the race] / Hold / Lift your head up and face the new day.”
“It was when the Super Bowl came to Detroit in 2006, and I remembered reading this story about [then Detroit Mayor] Kwame Kilpatrick. And instead of taking money and putting it into building these buildings back up, he put facades on all these burned-out buildings,” Labeaux said.
“It was smarmy on his part, but when it comes to Detroit as a city, almost treating it like a personality, it was such a proud and industrious city. People looked to Detroit as an example … and it literally put on a ‘Brave Face’ for all the cameras.
“That seemed like such an incredible metaphor to me that I just held onto it and then personalized it and created a much more intimate story.”
On a more personal level, the title track also hits closer to home for Labeaux.
“There were times I was homeless, and you’ve got to convince yourself first to put one foot in front of the other; and that’s one of the biggest challenges sometimes just to say, ‘I’m going to keep doing, I’m going to keep getting up, and I’m going to keep facing it even though the wind is blistering my skin. I’m still gonna get up, and I’m gonna make it happen,’” he said.
“It’s a roller coaster, and it’s a wave—you’re going to be up, and you’re going to be down—but the only way you’re going to get to the next spot is by doing it again.”
Labeaux wrote most of the tracks for Brave Face during the pandemic and shaped the album with co-producer / The Macpodz bassist Brennan Andes at Ann Arbor’s Big Sky Recording. What started simply as a live band recording quickly morphed into a fully produced album with a large cast of collaborators.
“We took this four-piece group into the studio after one rehearsal of the songs. And the way the songs turned out to me was so successful and so magical that I had to respect them and flesh them out the rest of the way,” said Labeaux, who also re-tracked the album’s guitars, re-recorded the vocals, and added overdubs.
“Brennan got his co-producing credit because he’s such a creative force and an opinionated person that in the studio as things were developing he might tell Jesse [Morgan] on keys, ‘Hey, do this thing and this thing, and that often turns this spot into something really cool.’”
That “cool” factor also exploded with Labeaux’s collaborators, who include Daniel McDonald (drums, percussion), Jesse Morgan (piano, electric piano), Amy Petty (backing vocals), Liz Girard (backing vocals), Shannon Lee (backing vocals), Colin Murphy (violin), Sara Gibson (cello), Daryl Bean (saxophone), Ryan Dolan (trumpet), Galen Bundy (organ, synth), Michael Harrington (pedal steel), Richard Delcamp (banjo), and Ken Yamori Ball (synth, electric guitar).
“If you’ve heard some of my previous albums, you know that I do tend to like a bigger production,” said Labeaux, who’s inspired by KISS, Olivia Newton-John, and Steely Dan.
“We spent two days tracking, and once we did that … the way that the band came together and the way that it sounded, each one of the songs was so good and so unique that I said ‘This one has to have a harmony here,’ and ‘This one has to have horns here.’”
Many of those same Brave Face collaborators also appear in three new live performance videos Labeaux shot for “Clutch,” “Pass It Around,” and “Make a Mess” with videographers Toko Shiiki and Donald Harrison at Willis Sound.
“It’s always an honor,” Labeaux said. “When I call on players, I have some of the best players in the world right at my fingertips, and what they do to a song is always magical.”
Labeaux is showcasing the magic of Brave Face live through a series of shows, including July 20 at the Ann Arbor Art Fair and July 22 at Original Gravity Brewing Company in Milan.
“I spent some years touring the country with a looper. … I was one of those guys. But for this album, I kind of want to bring it back to something more real,” he said.
“While I might use a looper a little bit just to be able to play some leads or to change the vibe of a tune a little bit, for the most part, my intention is to be direct from me to an audience.”
Outside of his shows, Labeaux is celebrating 10 years of hosting Ann Arbor’s Broken Branch Summer Series in his backyard. The free house concert series will feature Billy King and the Judy Banker Band on July 1, Anne Erlewine and Eric O’Daly on August 5, and the Broken Branch Breakdown on August 18-19 with Misty Lyn & The Big Beautiful, Chirp, and other local acts.
“Yes, it will keep happening on a small scale,” he said. “Large scale, I have a dream of buying a larger property and expanding it into something bigger and more festival-like.”
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.