Southern transplant Chastity Brown has captivated audiences all over the country with her soulful folk compositions. Her tight instrumentation and bittersweet lyrics evoke the struggles of the working class and only occasionally traverse the more popular relationship territory of her peers. Following two solo releases, including "Sankofa" (2009), Brown brought in band mates Michael X, (percussion), Adam Wozniak (upright bass) and Nikki Schultz (backing vocals) for "High Noon Teeth" (2010), a powerful collection of toe-tapping tunes that blended rhythm & blues with Americana style rock.
I met up with Chastity Brown at Common Roots Café in Uptown, where Peter Sieve of Rogue Valley happened to take Brown's order for espresso and a glass of wine.
Let's start from the beginning of your story. How did you get into music and what brought you to Minnesota?
Chastity Brown: I started playing saxophone at an early age. I lived in a super country, country town outside of Memphis. I always hated it but I play the music I play because I lived there. I didn't play out until I was 20, in Knoxville. Six years ago, a friend of mine was moving up here and I tagged along. I looked at City Pages to get an idea of what the scene was like and started gathering people.
How would you describe your sound? A lot of reviewers seem to throw the word "jazz" around when they talk about your music and that's the last genre I'd put you in.
CB: I don't mind it because the labels "jazz" or even "classical" imply a certain amount of respect for the musicians that play that kind of music. The musicians I play with are jazz musicians and we can lean that way, but we don't. So it's super flattering to call my music "jazz" but it's not completely accurate.
Not that you have to categorize you music at all...
CB: No, but this comes up a lot. I've been polling people who've seen my shows. Some hear banjo and say I'm straight-up Americana. If you ask the blues lovers, they say, "She bleeds the Blues." Some would compare it to the kind of rock that my peers are putting out, like The National, but my music isn't as layered in metaphor as indie rock is. I don't know exactly how to peg it. What the fuck am I? Appalachian Neo Soul? Americana Soul? I definitely don't want to be dumped into the "chick with a guitar" category. The label I'm working with doesn't know how to categorize me, either. I started working with them on a dance remix for "Strong Enough" to be released in Europe. We were jamming one day in the studio on a Blues tune and the tape happened to be rolling. When the label heard it, they said, "We want you to do what you do." So we did that instead. I just finished recording the new album and it's a huge step up, creatively and artistically, from what we did on "High Noon Teeth." It's more produced, detailed, nuanced.
What inspired the shift?
CB: Going on the road. It made me aware that I'm not the only one who really loves what we're doing.
Did you doubt that?
CB: I didn't doubt it, but we're grassroots, we're connected to the local community and it was just a really cool feeling to see it abroad. Working with a producer was also a huge influence. At first, it freaked me out, because I felt like, "This dude is fucking with my shit." I'm used to playing seven, eight, nine minute songs. I could sing the same line for a minute-and-a-half, but he showed me that it wasn't really necessary. It's like a writer working with an editor; you have to edit your writing and I had never edited my songs. We spent two weeks working on two or three songs, making sure every second was as strong as it could be.
Did you do storytelling songs on the new record and if so, are the stories autobiographical or fictional?
CB: Fictional. I'm singing from my personal perspective but these songs are not as obviously about me as they were before. "Sankofa" was an album of deeply personal songs I'd never sing again. [Laughs] It was shit I needed to write about, but "High Noon Teeth" was not as personal and with the new album, I'm moving even farther away from that. The new album is more...imaginative. An interesting thing happened on this record where two or three songs came out in one fell swoop, while we were recording. It's kind of freaky, which is what you hope for.
Jeremy Messersmith (whom Brown is opening for at the Cedar Cultural Center on Nov. 23) recently wrote a song inspired by the Occupy Minnesota protest. Has an event like that ever prompted you to write a song?
CB: I think it's appalling how misguided the regular Joe Blow is who thinks these rich mother fuckers have their best interests in mind...but I don't write that blatantly about events. A chunk of my songs are about bleeding hearts, about how we will speak up for ourselves, about the belief that we will make it through this somehow. I've been reading about the Occupy Wall Street movement and I'm sure the more I read, the more enraged I'll become and will probably be moved to respond to it.
Let's talk about your local collaborations. You've performed with the improv collective Coloring Time. What was that experience like?
CB: Joe Horton, who is at the helm of that project, is one of my closest guy friends so he can talk me into anything. I have so much respect for everyone in Coloring Time; there are so many bad-asses involved. It's a kids' play pen. If I don't feel like singing, I don't sing. It's a nice little treat. It's so hard to get people to come out to a show here, but with Coloring Time, there's no work involved in promotion, no head space. I can just kick it.
Is it harder to promote shows here than it is in the South?
CB: I learned how to promote here. Down South they say, "I'll pay you $25" or "I'll give you a meal" to play and you say "Okay." Knoxville musicians take pride in not seeming ambitious. There's a stigma attached to taking yourself seriously. In Minneapolis, if you don't take yourself seriously, good fucking luck, bud! There are professionals here and you need certain skills to navigate the system. I'm lucky that I have a partner who is very methodical and I have friends like Joe (Horton) and Alexei (Casselle) who I can call on for advice. As country as I am and as laid back as I am, I'll never be a bulldog. I'm not slow, I just take my time and that's not how the business works.
Speaking of Alexei, when you had your release show for "High Noon Teeth," Roma di Luna (the former husband-wife duo of Alexei and Channy Casselle) opened for you. Are you as sad about their recent split as I am?
CB: There's the music side and there's the friend side... (Pauses.) Overall, yes it's sad, but viewing them as artists, they are both incredibly dynamic in their own right. When I met Alexei, I only knew him in the Roma di Luna context. Then I saw a Kill the Vultures performance and he was a completely different person. I yelled something at him during that show and he looked right at me in a way I'd never seen before and it was the scariest shit. What Channy's doing with her new project (Polica) is great, too. (Pauses.) It's sad and it's not at the same time. As a friend, that's as much as I can say.
Do you ever see yourself making a radical change in your music like that or are you comfortable with where you're at?
CB: I have been pulling on the coattails of different friends. I'd like to do something with an alter ego where neither of our names would be immediately associated with our other projects. Alexei and I are both interested in historical music, so I was talking to him about doing something super-gritty, uncovering some old tunes. Bobby (Mulrennan) and I also have 15 songs that we've written and nobody's heard. We love the songs but they don't work with what we're doing on the new album. (Pauses.) Maybe they're just things that keep us writing and we don't have to share them...or maybe someone will read this and want to collaborate! (Pauses.) These are really good questions, by the way.
Thanks. It's a challenge to avoid asking the same questions as everyone else.
CB: I appreciate you not asking about my hair. Interviewers always say something about my hair. The last thing I want to talk about is the way I look. I mean, I get it, I don't look Minnesotan; I don't sound Minnesotan. Then there's Jeremy Messersmith, who looks just like his music sounds. I look like a punk city girl and I'm way more country than I let on.
What sorts of mannerisms would tell us that you're country?
CB: I have a different internal rhythm. Down South, there's not as much urgency as there is in the Midwest and certainly not as much as on the East Coast. Even the business meetings are relaxed. Up North, we operate indoors. Down South, we spend ten months of the year sittin' on the porch, hangin' out, doing nothin'. Everything down South happens on the porches.
So what is your porch here?
CB: My backyard. I have a vegetable garden. I have perennials. I hang out in the woods and camp as much as possible.
But the snow!
CB: Yeah...I don't see myself settling down here by any means, but there is something about this town... (Pauses.) I think because it took so long to make friends and get into the local music scene, I spent a lot of time with myself and that's how I came to accept who I am, how I sound, how I sing. I had a big growth spurt in this town. I hope that when I leave, Minneapolis knows that I created in the way I have from being here. Minnesota has legitimate job opportunities for artists and a school system that lets you talk to students about protests songs. The public here acknowledges that you've developed a craft. That doesn't happen down South...well...maybe in Nashville...but that's a different world. I can understand how some artists don't want anything to do with it. When I release an album, I think, "This will bring us new work." I can't think beyond that. I don't think, "Maybe this will be the next big hit!"
Does anyone aspire to that anymore?
CB: In Nashville they do. You talk to people in the music biz and they want to be the next Shania Twain, Faith Hill or Garth Brooks. When people tell me that, I say, "Sorry. We can't hang out." (Laughs.) That's the hardcore folkie in me, because goals like that remove us from what music is: a platform for us to hang out. Music is what keeps us connected.
Published on Metromix Twin Cities in Nov. 2011