Wellfleet singer-songwriter Alex Brewer’s new album, Unquoted, is a tribute to his community. Brewer is fascinated by artistic scenes — Paris in the ’20s, Laurel Canyon in the ’60s — and he finds particular inspiration from Provincetown during the 1910s, when the town was populated by the likes of John Reed and Eugene O’Neill.
Hoping to bolster the present-day music scene here and showcase its talent, Brewer, who has hosted the Feed Your Love Open Mic at Wellfleet Preservation Hall and been a featured artist at the open mic at the Mews Coffeehouse in Provincetown, has assembled an impressive group of Cape-based artists to perform on Unquoted. The sole exception is a bagpiper, Jim McKenna, from Billerica.
Brewer, 32, lives in one of the hip mid-century cottages of the Colony of Wellfleet on Chequessett Neck Road. He sings the lead on only two songs on Unquoted. He says he was partly inspired by John Prine, who died of Covid-19 in April, and the 2010 album Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, in which Prine’s songs are covered by other musicians.
“There’s no reason why a collection of one person’s songs sung by other people has to be a reward for a long career of songwriting,” Brewer says. “It’s just a different way of doing things.”
He sees himself as a writer first: a lyricist and a poet. In conversation, he often quotes lines of poetry from memory to help illustrate points, and his writing shed — built from scraps salvaged from his work as a carpenter — has a floor-to-ceiling shelf of books built into the wall. Jon Evans, a multi-instrumentalist and producer who recorded Unquoted at his Brick Hill Studio in Orleans, thinks of Brewer as a “renaissance man.”
Brewer began composing music and writing songs in high school in New York City, and his obsession with Bob Dylan and Lord Byron led him to study English at Colgate University. In college, he immersed himself in the poetry of Robert Frost, whom he still admires.
A couple of weeks ago, Brewer read “animal poetry” from his home for a Payomet Performing Arts Center live-stream. Towards the end of the program, he casually said, “We should replace religion with the poetry of Robert Frost.” Somehow, coming from Brewer, who is warm and upbeat, it felt less like a rejection of religion than an endorsement of Frost.
“I would call Alex primarily a writer,” says Tianna Esperanza, a local singer-songwriter who performs on Unquoted. “He definitely has this personality where he likes to isolate and just write, but he also seems to be about community as well. That, in a nutshell, is the album.”
The artists Brewer selected for Unquoted come from a variety of styles and backgrounds. One song, “The Rose of Saratoga,” told from the perspective of a horse who dreams of a certain female rider, is featured on three of the album’s tracks, each quite different: one with McKenna on bagpipes, one with Michael Holt of Truro on piano and vocals, and, finally, one with John Thomas of Provincetown on piano.
Esperanza says that Brewer gave everyone a lot of freedom of interpret as they wished: “I think he wanted each song to resonate with the artist who’d perform it.”
Despite the eclectic mix of performances, Brewer’s lyrics give the album a unified voice, which is poetic and often funny. The range of emotions on Unquoted is reminiscent of the songs of Prine, which inspire both laughter and tears. “Provincetown,” which Brewer sings himself, is a cheerful journey through the town’s day and nighttime attractions. He also sings the lead on “Leola,” which is somber in a cowboy way. “Lonesome is the valley of my heart” is the first line.
The cowboy lyrics aren’t an act. “That was like this adventure I went on,” Brewer says. “I found a job — this was like two years out of college — at this ranch in South Dakota. It was this guy’s, Leroy, who was selling his herd and he just needed people to get it ready. I don’t know if you remember that preacher who was preaching the end of the world in 2012? Well, Leroy was really on board with that. I was like, ‘I don’t think the world’s gonna end, Leroy.’ He was like, ‘It’s gonna end — you’ll see.’ The rapture. He was a totally normal dude other than that.”
In the song, the Leroy character is called “the preacher with the gun.” The complicated part of songwriting, says Brewer, is finding the right words to access the emotion of an experience. He compares it to woodworking — both activities are like solving a puzzle or putting the right pieces in the right spots until you have a finished, useful object.
Unquoted, which came out in January, is Brewer’s first album to be launched on streaming services, such as Spotify. On Sunday, Sept. 6, he’ll be streaming a live concert of its songs on ptownmusic.com. Much of the album’s large cast of musicians will be there.