Singer/songwriter Briar Rabbit plays the Mill


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Phillip-Michael Scales began writing songs in middle school, but he has learned a lot about music since then. The Chicago transplant grew up outside Detroit and studied music at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston. Now, around a decade since his first show in eighth grade, he is blazing a musical trail with his signature genre called "thought pop."

"We put on this show in my best friend's backyard, and it was just terrible. But everybody loved it," Scales said. "Since then, things have been progressing and changing, and now I'm doing what I'm doing now."

Scales, who plays under the name Briar Rabbit, will perform at 9 p.m. today at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St. Admission is $8.

A major factor in Scales' musical growth was his time spent studying music at Berklee, where he learned the technical side of his craft. He discovered terms to attach to sounds he'd been hearing for years or tricks to add his bag to aid him in songwriting. Scales said he still makes his music by ear, but if he's ever struggling, he can consider decisions to "technically" make.

But what inspired him most in music school were the other students.

"When I was growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, it was like, 'I'm the s*** because I'm one of two kids who writes songs,' " he said. "I moved to Boston and realized 'Oh, I'm just like all the other kids.' So it was a great challenge for me to try to stand out."

What helps Scales stick out from the crowd of other musicians is his brand of songwriting.

Josh Moshier, a friend and fellow musician, collaborates with Scales frequently.

"His lyrics are very story-driven," Moshier said. "And I think that he's also interested in the band sound, so it's a compelling blend of your traditional singer/songwriter format with more of a live-band aesthetic. But most of all I think he just writes good songs."

Scales' genre has been tagged as "thought pop." He said that there are a lot of pop artists, such as Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Bruno Mars, and that the music he creates is not that kind of pop music.

"They are all right, but I don't think they provoke thought for the masses," he said. "They are kind of watered down so people can get their meaning with just one listen. What I hope to do, without sounding too pretentious, is to offer more to the listener with more layers in my lyrics and by posing some more thoughts in my lyrics."

Scales described his style of songwriting best with a metaphor. He said pop artists will come out and say, "You broke my heart, and it hurt."

But Scales said he refines his lyrics with a scalpel; he doesn't attack his audience with a chain saw.

Scales' performance at the Mill tonight is not his introduction to Iowa City, it is his return.

"He's been here in the past, playing with other musicians from the Minnesota songwriter scene," said Chris Wiersema, the talent buyer for the Mill. "The enthusiasm and genuine enjoyment he had for playing in front of people really left an impression. He's the sort of performer who can make a large room feel small."

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