Sound Seekers by Fateema Sayani is published weekly at OttawaMagazine.com. Read Fateema Sayani’s culture column in Ottawa Magazine and follow her on Twitter @fateemasayani
Patrol cop Joe Brownrigg’s outlet is songwriting. Since 2011, he’s been releasing folk albums that deal with what he sees in the grimiest parts of capital city.
The guitar-slinger in blue will release his third album, called Free, Sunday at the Daily Grind.
It’s his second release this year. In May, Brownrigg released The Wild, which features songs called “The Forgotten Ones”, “Almost Home”, “Give It All Away” — and other titles that convey hopelessness. The tunes are sombre with hints of sunny harmonies when a verse calls for it.
These are songs are about hard-done-by kids, domestic violence, and pimps. They take place in hospital waiting rooms, on the street, and in the projects. A few songs deal with the story of a drug-addicted prostitute that Brownrigg, 34, says is one of the worst cases he’s seen.
“I felt this overwhelming need to help her,” he says, “but I found it almost impossible because, as anyone with drug addiction in their family knows, it’s really hard to help someone with those problems.
“Put yourself in my shoes where you’re a cop and they have absolutely zero trust in you. In fact, all they have for you is fear. How do you help a person when you’re in that position? What do you do? How do you help them? It’s an impossible question,” he says.
While he finds the songwriting process cathartic, Brownrigg says he hasn’t completely answered those questions for himself.
“It’s an ongoing battle,” he says. “But I realized that you can’t give up. I try to do the right thing all the time in some pretty heavy situations. I don’t feel like I’ve ever given up on anything.”
He says a lot of people on the street give up on themselves because they don’t have anyone around to help them out. The drug-addled prostitute was like that.
“She would say that she doesn’t care anymore, but I could see in her eyes that she did,” he says. “When I see a fighting spirit in somebody’s eyes, it inspires me to help them to do what I can to make sure they have an opportunity.”
Brownrigg says he too has a fighting spirit as a result of a tough rearing. He grew up fast in Ottawa public housing. Because of that, he was eager to put down roots early in life in order to have a sense of stability. He became a cop at 22 and is married with three children.
His new album, Free, deals with the weight of that responsibility. Brownrigg says he had to pass up on any opportunity for adventure and even disregarded passions because it didn’t fit what he was trying to do, which was to set up a solid footing in life. He doesn’t refer to it as “regret,” but says he’s hoping for some down time to see the world one day.
For now, he funnels his wanderlust into the album making process. He records at Bova Sound and jams with some of the best-known players in the city. The members of his backing band at his CD release show will be Matt Ouimet, Steve Boudreau, Phil Bova, and Jake Von Wurden, most of whom Brownrigg knows from his time playing in the melodic punk bands The Fully Down and Chubb.
The songwriting and recording falls in between the demands of a young family and shift work that takes him to all parts of the city —including back to his Ottawa housing roots. Does his experience in the projects give him rapport with the people he deals with?
“It gives me a better understanding, definitely,” he says, “I feel a lot of empathy and sometimes sympathy for the things I see in those places, but I don’t wear it like a badge of honour and say, ‘I grew up in public housing, I know exactly what you’re going through,’ because it’s not fair to the person I’m speaking with.”
His job as a frontline officer that responds to 9-1-1 calls means he has to be sharp, since every case is different and every day has a new demand. For example, Brownrigg had to cancel our Sound Seekers interview when he got a last-minute assignment for guard duty of an attempted murder victim. When he shows up for our rescheduled interview in uniform, the young folk in the coffee shop look sheepish as if they’re inclined to hide their stash. Others seem suspicious — and I wonder how often Brownrigg has to answer to the bad headlines that Ottawa’s Finest seems to get a little too often.
“We get frustrated when there’s bad media, because we all feel it,” he says, noting that when there’s bad news, every cop will get nasty glares wherever they go. Brownrigg says a friend put in perspective for him. “He said, ‘Joe, your job is supposed to be hard. You’re supposed to have accountability. This is the public service.’
“When you have it in that perspective you understand it a bit better,” he says.
Brownrigg says being a cop also means carrying an emotional toll that weighs heavily. “Unless you’re the coldest of the coldest people, this is going to come home with you.” He says he hopes that officers get the chance to express themselves, even if it’s in a diary. “However you need to process these thoughts and come to grip with yourself and what you see on the street.”
As for the tough guy mask cops are supposed to hold and his revelatory songwriting — Brownrigg says he’s squared the two.
“It takes courage to develop yourself to that point,” he says, “I had to put myself out there, put my name on it and say, this is what I want to say,’” he says. “I can’t stress it enough: I’m lucky that this is my outlet.”