One of the hardest-working musicians in Tucson's rock-oriented music community is a classically trained, lifelong violinist who hasn't yet quit her day job.
Vicki Brown didn't even start playing in bands or doing studio sessions until 2003, the same year she earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Arizona.
Brown has played with several local live acts, done dozens of recording sessions for other artists, and created music that has appeared in theatrical, dance and film productions. She also has made two highly regarded solo albums, the most recent of which, Seas and Trees, she released earlier this year.
Seas and Trees is a fascinating blend of avant-garde improvisations and ambient sound textures. She composed and recorded much of the album using violin, viola, Casio organ and electronic effects.
The only other musicians on the CD are Thøger Lund (a Dane who plays with Giant Sand) on bass and Casio, and Laurent Allinger (a veteran of the French bands Little Rabbits and French Cowboy) on vinyl sampling and theremin.
With Brown, making music is organic and instinctual.
"None of (Seas and Trees) was composed prior to recording," she said in a recent interview over wine at a bistro near her downtown Tucson home. "All the content was improvised. I did some editing after the fact, such as to repeat a passage or to cut some stuff out."
Her process is to create music and exist with it in her environment for a period of time. "When I do something at home, I have a loop I play or something, and I'll fall in love with it. I can have that thing on for an hour, just while I am doing stuff in the house. It never gets boring. Or, that's better: It never gets bored with me. I don't know what it's doing, but it's becoming music."
She's familiar to local music habitués for playing with such acts as Amy Rude, Campo Bravo, Marianne Dissard, Gabriel Sullivan, the Drakes and, most recently, the chamber-rock band led by singer-songwriter Brian Lopez.
When playing or recording with other musicians, Brown says, every situation is unique. Sometimes she'll perform parts that were previously composed or arranged. And on other occasions, she is invited to add her unique stamp. "Like with Marianne, for one song, she said I had to just bring my effects pedals and do the 'Vicki Brown thing.'"
Brown grew up in Wisconsin and received a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin in 1992. She came to Tucson in the mid-1990s to finish her master's degree in quantitative methods at the University of Arizona. For her psychology doctorate, she focused on program evaluation and research methodology; she works as a research associate at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tucson.
After school ended, Brown wanted to focus at least some of her time on music—on loud, spontaneous music.
"I really wanted to be onstage with an amp, plugged in, without any music in front of me. ... It's, like, six years later, and it still feels like I've only just started."
Back then, Brown lived near some notable musicians who encouraged her.
"I had Howe Gelb as a neighbor. I had John and Joey from Calexico as neighbors. I had all these musicians I knew. I would hear them all rehearsing and playing, and I knew there was something I really wanted to do in that vein."
Brown made her first album, Winter Garden, released in 2006, for the then-local label KEEP Recordings. The invitation to make a record came out of the blue, she said.
"I learned GarageBand in a hurry. I had no idea what I was doing. I had to buy myself an amp. I didn't know what a FireWire was."
Since then, Brown has collected numerous recording invitations. Recent sessions include work with Steve Wynn, Chris Cacavas, Naim Amor, Conner Cecil, Dan Twelker, Beautiful Bird and Ian Moore. "I get calls from Wavelab, and I get calls from Jim Waters over at Waterworks (Recording). I've worked with a lot of studios. I do like to do recordings for other folks."
Brown was named Best String Player in the 2008 Tucson Area Music Awards (TAMMIES). She also contributed to a song, "Swan on Black Lake" by the blues-rock band Year Long Disaster, that was nominated for a Grammy Award. (She collaborated on the string arrangement with Joey Burns from Calexico.)
In September, Brown played viola in the theater production Coming in Hot, produced by Kore Press, in which actor Jeanmarie Simpson provided dramatic portrayals of the writings of women in the military. Kore also included her music on a CD of poetry titled Autumnal.
Brown, 41, also keeps busy playing live with the dance group Movement Salon, which practices a discipline called "compositional improvisation."
An important influence on Brown's approach was a class in improvisation that she took at the UA with respected jazz musician Paul Horn. Of Horn, she said, "He's one of the ones who inspired me in this direction. Also, John Cage, who says you begin anywhere, and you keep going. There are no wrong notes."
Brown seems to have never met a challenge she doesn't like. She's happy with the progress of her 6-year-old career in music, although never complacent.
"This way of making music has been so different than what I grew up with. I love playing classical music—that's what I play to keep my chops up—but this is where I am at today, and it's working so far.
"I don't know what I would do if I didn't have music. I don't want to say that I would die or anything, but ... ," she said, letting the rest of the sentence dangle.