Brett Newski looks exhausted.
He’s stationed at a table in the upper level of a Bay View café, beside a pair of laptop-toting girls, near a man dressed in business attire who appears to be telecommuting, and across from a room of people engaged in conversation, reading, and in the midst of mid-week afternoon relaxation. In his first full day back in Milwaukee after 111 days away, Newski—no doubt jetlagged from his flight from London and still maladjusted to the time differential—could use a break himself.
Instead, the musician’s table is buried beneath a mass of posters, stickers, CDs, and shipping envelopes with names of Midwestern and east coast venues sloppily scrawled on them in fountain pen. After hitting the road alone at the end of January to play more than 20 shows in seven American states before heading to Europe to play in Switzerland, Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, and the United Kingdom over the course of almost four months, Newski returned “home”—in the loose, place-mail-is-forwarded sense—this week.
What should be the site of a well-deserved coffee break is, instead, a makeshift shipping depot, as he’s already prepping promotional materials for his next tour.
“To be honest, I’m still trying to figure it all out,” Newski says. “It was kind of a grind. I got really burned out at times, but I feel more at home on the road than I do at home, I think.”
The self-dubbed “power-folk” performer typically spends more than half of each year on the road, usually couch-surfing, sleeping in hostels or balled on floors of new acquaintances in order to spread his songs to any place that will listen to them. Newski has played in more than a dozen countries and in every continent except Antarctica.
“I’ve always had trouble finding zen in chilling out,” Newski says. “I love to play shows and travel. Power-touring has always made me feel like I was making the most progress.”
The Eau Claire native and longtime New Berlin resident has lived a tour-intensive lifestyle since moving to Milwaukee almost a year and a half ago, but his traveling began years earlier. In the summer of 2011, Newski bought a one-way ticket to Asia, and eventually settled in Vietnam. There, he played in “Brett Newski & The Corruption” with a person from Great Brittan, and another from Canada. The band, whose popularity the namesake likened to “a freak show,” was once profiled on MTV Asia, but wasn’t particularly popular beyond being regarded as a Vietnamese novelty act. However, during his approximately 18-month stay in Vietnam, Newski technically made a living in the music industry.
“I ended up getting work doing commercial work,” Newski says. “That was my best job, my highest paying job—making music for tampon ads. There was other stuff too, but it was a lot of tampon ads.”
Somehow, the allure of composing aural accompaniment for feminine hygiene products wasn’t enough to keep Newski in Saigon permanently. Feeling as if he’d done all he could there musically, he returned home to southeast Wisconsin to start fresh in Milwaukee. It was here that he became reacquainted with Jon Phillip, Trapper Schoepp And The Shades’ drummer—as well as a touring drummer for numerous other projects—and Good Land Records founder.
“Never in all my 20-plus years of making music have I met someone with as much ambition and determination as Brett. His energy and attitude towards music, work, and life is infectious,” Phillip says. “He has given me new life and made me see paths that were either hidden or nonexistent. He’s a focused guy who is always thinking a thousand steps forward.”
The two became fast friends and, later, roommates—at least in the sense they both call the same place home between either of their staggering tour schedules. Though back in his home state, Newski’s penchant for wanderlust hadn’t diminished. He booked tours stateside and announced his presence to his new home base with a flurry of local shows.
“The only thing I think he could afford to work on is learning how to settle down. The guy can’t even watch a movie because he can’t sit still for more than 30 minutes,” Phillip says.
Miraculously, Newski managed to stay put in Milwaukee long enough in 2013 to lay down 12 tracks at Howl Street Recordings that populate his latest album, American Folk Armageddon (released May 13 by Good Land Records).
“It’s stripped down, but it’s all hitting really hard,” Newski says. “It’s the first album I’ve done that’s been a clear representation of what I’m about. This is a cohesion of traveling, wandering, and soul-searching, but finally starting to figure it out.”
The influences of foreign living, uncomfortable touring conditions, and his altogether offbeat lifestyle are liberally brushed atop the otherwise straightforward, meat-and-potatoes cow-punk compositions. Lyrics about the rat race, the solitude of the road, and fighting against Western conventions of status and financial security resonate, without preaching too intensely.
“I think the sky is the limit for Brett because of his work ethic and accessible sound,” Phillip says. “American folk music has a passionate, dedicated audience, especially overseas. If given the proper chance, I think he could succeed in that market.”
Newski plans to play some local shows this summer, including Summerfest and the Summer Solstice Music Festival before embarking on a run of Midwest and east coast shows with label mate Pete Donnelly (of The Figgs). At the end of July, Newski enlisted Phillip to play with him on a European jaunt through Switzerland, Poland, and Germany.
After that, who knows what’s next for Brett Newski? Certainly not Brett Newski. The only thing he’s sure of is his desire for a life without any semblance of certainty.
“As life gets stranger, it feels more normal to me,” Newski says. “You fuck up a million times, but it does you good. It’s super scary, but it’s the biggest thrill you’ll ever have.”
Brett Newski will formally release American Folk Armageddon Saturday, May 24 at The Hotel Foster. The show begins at 9 p.m. Archie Powell and Quinn Scharber open.