Summer 2011. Brett Newski lost his job, his girlfriend and his band, UW party regulars the Nod. Faced with these circumstances, many musicians hang up their instruments or spend a summer writing songs in a cabin in the woods. Instead, Newski bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok, Thailand. He hasn't looked back since, though he does visit Madison from time to time. He'll perform with his latest band, the Kind Assault, on Feb. 28 at the Dragonfly Lounge.
"I wandered around Southeast Asia solo for several months, playing all kinds of weird gigs in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Hong Kong and the Philippines," Newski says. "Some booked ahead of time, some booked day of. It was very makeshift, from hotels to hostels to rooftops to small clubs."
Newski's sound has changed since the days of the Nod. The new approach centers on introspective folk rather than party-ready rock. During his travels, he recorded his 2012 album, In Between Exits, in rough and ready studios. He also gathered quite a few great stories.
"At one point, I was jamming on the street in Hanoi, Vietnam, and a crowd of locals started gathering around, clapping and such," Newski says. "They convinced me to play a set in their 'business establishment.' I went inside and started playing in the lobby, and a bigger crowd of strange characters gathered. I soon found out I was playing a gig in a 'happy ending' massage parlor."
The Eau Claire native has also connected with artists he probably wouldn't have met in the U.S. One of them is South African songwriter Matt Vend. Newski shared a bill with him at a packed dive bar in Bangkok. They soon became friends.
"That show was great. Matt later visited me in Saigon, Vietnam, and we wrote songs together over the Tet holiday, when the city had emptied," Newski recalls. "It felt like a zombie apocalypse. We ended up driving a crappy little motorbike up the South China Sea.... The bike cost me $100, and it was literally duct-taped together. Must have been hilarious for the locals to see two tall, gangly [guys] piled on a little motorbike."
In 2012, Newski and Vend toured together in South Africa, which opened a number of doors. Rolling Stone South Africa recently premiered Newski's video for "Dirt," a song from his upcoming album, American Folk Armageddon.
Newski now considers Milwaukee his home base. But that doesn't mean his journey has ended. In fact, his experiences overseas inspire him to keep moving his career forward -- and keep taking his act on the road.
"Touring has always been an obsession. It's fortunate that music and travel go so perfectly together," he says.
Traveling also gives him time to think.
"Even though morale can dip, and I have to sleep in the occasional rat hole, [traveling] is worth the adventure," he says. "I find it healthy to see the U.S. from across the pond. It has enabled me to see things in a new perspective and acknowledge some of the things I love and do not love about America."
Goodland Records will release American Folk Armageddon on May 13. The record contains many of Newski's observations from the road.
"Sometimes I feel the world is getting very small. But every time I think that, it comes down and crushes me as a reminder of how big it really is," he says. "This is definitely an album for the underdog, a little person against a giant world."
Sometimes music is all Newski has to keep him company.
"Touring into foreign territory is rough when you don't know anyone. It's freaking lonely," he says. "One of the biggest goals is avoiding soul-crushing shows, and also not dying."
But Newski sees his music career building momentum, little by little.
"I have very few soul-crushers, which is a sign of progress.... Gigs have gotten better, crowds have increased, and I've been able to live off music," he notes.
But he's still trying to find a sustainable work-life balance, which "hasn't been too doable playing 200-plus dates per year."
Luckily, Newski's passion for performing is more potent than his exhaustion.
"I love it and wouldn't trade it for anything," he says.