Friday, November 25, 2011

Erica Rivera Interviews Austra


Austra is an operatic dance trio from Toronto featuring vocalist-pianist Katie Stelmanis, bassist Dorian Wolf and drummer Maya Postepski. Though Stelmanis’ name has graced other albums, including 2009’s “Join Us,” Austra’s latest release, “Feel It Break” (Domino Records, 2011) is considered by many to be her true debut. Stereogum called the trippy, hypnotic collection of tunes “excellently dark and danceable” and "100% dud-free." I spoke to Stelmanis in anticipation of her show at the Triple Rock Social Club on Nov. 26.

Your music career originally started in opera. Talk about the decision to move away from that genre of music and how it still influences you today.
Katie Stelmanis: When I was 19, I went through a transitional point in my life and I decided to take a break from opera because I'd discovered different types of music and I just never went back. I still go to the opera and it obviously influenced how I got into music, but it's not a big part of how I'm making music now.

The focus of the music you make now is not lyrical, so when you compose a song, how do you know when it's finished? Is it a feeling that you're going for?

It's a feeling, in the same way you know any piece of art is finished. The lyrics are one small aspect of the completion of a song. When all the pieces fit together, it's finished.

Is the aim of your songs to help listeners zone out or are you trying to get them more in touch with their bodies through dance?
KS: Both. Previously, I would write music to be listened to with headphones, but that didn't translate well to the stage, so as a band we decided to try upping the drums and the bass. That reverb, the heavy drums and the bass lines are what make the live show more enjoyable. It's the best of both worlds.

The band's name is also your middle name, which means “goddess of light,” yet your music is so often labeled as dark. Can you speak to the other contrasts of dark and light in your life?
KS: Austra is my middle name, but I didn't know that it meant "goddess of light" until well after the band was formed, so it wasn't conscious. The variation in contrast is exactly what we're trying to attain in the music with the major and minor chords, the slow and the fast-paced music.

As a Canadian who has spent a lot of time in the United States, what’s your take on the differences between the countries as far as censorship is concerned, particularly regarding your "Beat and the Pulse" video?
KS: That video being censored is a clear depiction of the United States and its stance on censorship. There's so much hateful, violent, racist material that is not being censored on YouTube, while our video just has female nudity. In contrast, the video is on Daily Motion, a French-based site and it's not censored. It's another example of North America being afraid of embracing sensuality and nakedness.

You’ve said you’re a musician first and a lesbian second. How much of a role does your sexuality play in your music?

The questions was "How would you define yourself?" and I said, "A musician first and a lesbian second," but as I thought about it, I realized they were integrated. I can't label myself one and not the other. As a musician, my sexuality is not at the forefront, but it is for me as a person. Both are important.

Does it offend you more when an interviewer does or does not ask about your sexuality?

I'm not offended either way, to be honest. If they don't ask, I think it's normal, because it's not the focus of the music. If they do, I won't shy away from answering. We are a band of diverse sexualities and diverse backgrounds. We celebrate that.

Tell me about performing at SXSW this year. Were there any other musicians you were excited to meet?

SXSW is amazing. It does big things for our band. We played a whole bunch of shows, big and small. We didn't get to see many other musicians play because we were so busy going to and from gigs. There are no cabs or transportation in Texas! But SXSW is where things happen for us; we were signed to Domino there and we were introduced to a lot of media and press. It's a very worthwhile experience for musicians.

What do the holidays look like for you, either traditionally or this year in particular?

This year in particular we will be finishing a tour on Dec. 18 in Europe, then playing New Year's shows in Germany and Latvia, so we'll be spreading out and staying with friends. It's going to be a fun, relaxing holiday.

Published on Metromix Twin Cities in Nov. 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

Erica Rivera Interviews Markéta Irglová

While her name might not immediately ring a bell, when you read through Markéta Irglová’s musical credits, you’ll know right away who she is. Irglova was thrust into the spotlight at the tender age of 20 when “Falling Slowly,” the song she co-wrote with Glen Hansard for their sleeper film “Once,” won an Academy Award. Irglova was the first winner in the Academy’s history to be brought back by the show’s host (Jon Stewart) to finish her acceptance speech, in which she proclaimed, “Fair play for those who dare to dream.”

What followed for Irglova and Hansard seemed very much like a dream come true. The couple became iconic in the music world as their onscreen romance blossomed in real life. Irglova and Hansard continued recording together and soon released the album “Strict Joy” under the moniker The Swell Season. As their fame rose, the romance fizzled, but the two continued to tour the world together making music. The emotional journey of the conflicted lovers was caught on camera and recently released as a documentary which is quickly collecting accolades.

With the Swell Season on hiatus, Irglova embarked on her first solo endeavor, “Anar.” The album is an intense and deeply sentimental record that features themes of indecision, loss, and, ultimately, the redeeming qualities of love. On “Anar” (the Persian word for "pomegranate"), it is clear that Irglova, a woman already wiser than her 23 years, has matured and come into her own as an artist.

I talked to Irglova about the whirlwind of her career, accepting her celebrity status and what her relationship with Hansard is like now.

Erica Rivera: Describe the context in which these songs were written and why you decided to do a solo recording.

Markéta Irglová:
The Swell Season was going to take a break so I found myself at the point where I had to choose between not making music or go to college or whatever else I wanted to do at the time. I didn’t want to stop making music and I already had studio time scheduled to record an EP, so I created the circumstances and the conditions to continue making music.

In the Swell Season with Glen, I wrote two or three songs a year and the rest was mostly him. I was happy and comfortable with that and never felt the need to go deeper, but when I put myself in that headspace of doing my own recording, I found myself sitting at the piano everyday and the songs just started coming out. I was surprised, but so inspired. I kept going. When my studio time came, I had enough songs for a full record, which was not what I initially planned, but I thought, “Why not make a whole record?”

ANTI-Records, who worked with the Swell Season, found out I had recorded an album and they asked to hear it. Then they offered themselves up for "Anar." It was one of those times when something wonderful came out of the unexpected. It was a small idea that suddenly opened up a whole new chapter of embracing myself as a solo artist.

ER: That sounds similar to what happened with your success with “Once.” It must be both an exhilarating and overwhelming when you experience a rush of events that weren’t necessarily what you planned on.

I’m totally okay taking it on. I trust the flow of life. I try to listen to what my next step should be and I think these things happen because I’m not trying to figure out the next ten steps. I ask myself, “What am I guided to do?” When I meditated on that question in this case, the answers were 1) make music and 2) move to New York, which was more conducive to recording than being in the countryside of Ireland. Once I made that step, the next step presented itself.

As long as I focus on what I feel and don’t worry about where I’m going, it works out. Having no expectations but being open to everything is what makes wonderful things happen. If I don’t worry, there’s no obstruction and life flows easily. It sounds impractical, but “Expect nothing; be open to everything” is really all it is.

ER: What is it about New York that inspired you on this album?

It was a fresh start for me. When I moved to New York, I felt very strong emotionally and mentally. Aside from touring, I’d spent a couple of years alone and because of that, I was able to go out in the world again. I was ready for a busy city and to interact with others. So, I guess I was inspired by life, really. I felt so happy and free and open and that reflected itself in my music. It was a very rich time, creatively.

ER: Is that the reason behind the image of a pomegranate on your album cover?

The pomegranate is a sign of fertility, which is what creativity is. It’s also a very feminine symbol and I think this album shows a very feminine side of me. With Glen, I had a beautiful balance between the masculine and the feminine. He brought the passion and the rawness and my aim was the harmony and the softness. Without Glen, I was trying to create something harmonious and very soothing and soft. I think I really embraced my femininity on this album.

ER: People who have followed your career since “Once” and the Swell Season might hear these songs and assume they’re all about Glen. Would that be an accurate assumption?

No, not really. I’ve been married for half-a-year and in a relationship for longer than that, so my current partner influences my music, too. He’s the closest person to me in my life and he makes his way into the songs. Aside from that, these songs couldn’t all be about one particular person because that’s not how I write. I observe relationships in my life and in other people's lives, I allow myself to go through emotional processes and then it all goes through a filter and becomes a song. The album is an outward reflection of what’s inside my head and my heart. I am the person I am because of the experiences I’ve had but I’m also creating a new self each moment.

I understand why people might think the songs are all about Glen. Of course Glen is in them…but in an abstract way. We’re still close and I love Glen very much. He’s dear to my heart and he continues to inspire me. But everything I write is a new opportunity to see things in a new perspective.

ER: In the Swell Season documentary, there are a couple of scenes in which you seem rather uncomfortable with the attention you receive from fans. Has that changed over time?

It’s changed a lot. The idea of celebrity has always been very strange to me because it’s taking the focus away from the music and attaching it to a person. When we put someone on a pedestal or idolize them, we’re giving our own power away. The reason it felt uncomfortable then is because I hadn’t processed it enough at the time, so it came out as resistance and feeling confused. I didn’t know back then how to say I didn’t agree with it.

The way I’ve found to remedy that is to try to interact in a sincere, honest way with people. If we relate like human beings to human beings, it’s a more open and sharing connection. I’m not unreachable. Don’t feel nervous or idealize me. I’m not perfect. When we strip off the celebrity, connecting to people on that level is really beautiful.

ER: The Broadway version of “Once” is opening next month. How does it feel to hand over your project to new actors?

MI: Funny you should mention that because I went yesterday to watch a rehearsal. Glen was there, too, though he’d seen it before. It was wonderful. I was pleasantly surprised. I really like it. I’m proud and I’m honored to see all these people taking a creation of mine and Glen’s and everyone who worked on the film and making it their own. Initially, I had the sense that this shouldn’t be a re-creation of something we already made; it should be a new creation and I didn’t feel right trying to control that. They kept the production simple, like the film is simple. It wouldn’t have made sense for it to be a shiny Broadway show. The core is still in there and I’m very, very happy with it.

Originally published on Metromix in November 2011.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Erica Rivera Interviews Owl City

Owl City is the electro-synth-pop project of Adam Young. Raised in Owatonna, this Minnesotan musician shot to fame with 2009’s hit single “Fireflies.” Now, at age 24, Young has proven himself capable of more than one-hit-wonder status with three major label albums and extensive international touring under his belt.
I talked with Young in anticipation of his free performance, exclusively for college students, at the University of Minnesota’s Field House.

Your bedroom and your basement come up a lot in interviews. Does that weird you out? Are there any other rooms of your house that deserve a shout-out?

Adam Young
: [Laughs] It does come up a lot. The funny thing is that my bedroom was in my parent’s basement and that’s where I was banished from the time I was 16, 17, 18. There was only one room in the unfinished basement. Now I have my own place but I still work, sleep and live in the basement. The studio is basically taking over this big house. The rooms are like my children and I’m the parent.

What’s the most surreal experience you’ve had as a result of your fame? Is there a particular pinch-me moment that stands out most in your memory?

Yeah, the first time I flew out of the country, it was to Hong Kong, China. I was halfway through the show and I had this moment where it hit me that here I was, nobody from nowhere, and these people who lived a million miles away from me, who probably didn’t even speak English, knew all the words to my songs. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

When you go onstage now and see the enormity of the response to your music, do you still get the rush or have you come to expect it?

I still get the rush. The rush and butterflies. If either went away, I think the magic would stop. Despite the inevitable, mundane, routine that is part of touring—because touring is a repetitive thing, you’re doing the same thing night after night—I try to take time to recognize what an incredible blessing this is. I think of it as I get to do music; I don’t have to do it as a job.

Do you have a rider on your contract? What’s on it?

Yeah, we do. It’s typical, boring stuff…a lot of hummus. Tortilla chips. Mild salsa. I’m not hard core with the hot salsa. Guacamole gets on there sometimes—no runny, store-bought guacamole. Sandwich stuff, ham, lunch meat, Diet Coke. I’m actually Kidney Stone man now. [Laughs] Yeah, I get kidney stones—which are one of the most painful things, by the way—and the doctor said I should drink lemonade like nobody’s business because the acidity eats away at the lemonade has made more of an appearance on there.

What are your strategies for dealing with negative press?
AY: I’m like a tortoise in his shell. I enjoy not reading what’s being said about my music, good or bad. If I read the good, I’d probably have a big head and be a prideful bro; if I read the bad, I’d probably kill myself. Apathy is my strategy.

You’re playing at the U of M tomorrow. Did you go to college?

I went to a humble college in Owatonna called Riverland.

What did you study?

I went for general education...but I was told one-and-a-half semesters in that I was on academic probation because my grades were so bad.

If Owl City ended tomorrow and you were Adam Young, starting over again, would you go back to school?

Probably not. I'm sure I’d have to take a test to get in and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t do it. [Laughs] I was apathetic in high school. I couldn’t do math. I was always in the refresher math course. My brain is small when it comes to figures. I can’t make things connect. So if Owl City was all over tomorrow, I’d probably go fill out an application to load trucks.

While I was Twitter stalking you, I noticed you bought a new car. Would you like to take this opportunity to brag?

[Laughs] I’m such a bro. I’ve never been a car guy. My Dad is a car guy and he was always looking over my shoulder, like, “You’re doing this all wrong. Why are you doing the music thing?” There was always this tiny thread of tension about why I wasn’t into cars, ‘cause I’m his first and only son. I’ve never had nice cars; I’ve always driven old minivans, but now I have the means, so I bought the total bro car, a Mustang. I went all out. I feel guilty and...I kind of don’t. [Laughs] In a small Midwestern town, that’s the thing; you drive a car like that and people stop and stare.

Are you growing a ‘stache for Movember?

[Laughs] These are amazing questions! I just haven’t shaved for two or three weeks. I’ve been on tour since June and I just got tired of shaving. I hadn’t thought about Movember, but it’s been 17 days…so, yeah, I guess I am participating. [Laughs]

Published on Metromix Twin Cities in Nov. 2011

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Erica Rivera Interviews The Cake Boss

The Cake Boss Buddy Valastro

Buddy Valastro is best known as the star of TLC’s wildly popular “Cake Boss” program. Mixing traditional recipes with modern design, Valastro is a man who lives on the cutting edge of culinary arts. In addition to whipping up incredible edibles on cable TV, Valastro has penned a new book about how he made Carlo’s Bakery a household name. Valastro is currently on tour, giving away the tricks of the trade in his live show “Baking with the Boss.” We asked Buddy about the Cake Boss empire, the must-haves for home bakers and how he “treats” himself.

Your new book “Cake Boss” is a combination of the story of how you became one of television’s most admired bakers paired with some your recipes. How did you decide which recipes to share with the public and which ones to keep top-secret?
Buddy Valastro: I tried to include a combination of recipes that were popular in my show and ones that are easy for the home baker to make. Some of the items (like lobster tails) are difficult to make at home but I still wanted everyone to be able to try it.

How has your baking changed since starting the show on TLC? Have you had to compromise your creativity or has it encouraged you to step outside your comfort zone?
BV: My recipes have pretty much stayed the same, but our decorating is at an all-time creative high. We've been replicating a lot of buildings for companies, which is always a creative challenge. I've also noticed that a lot of our cake orders are non-traditional; just this weekend we took orders for an Alice in Wonderland-inspired wedding cake and a bar mitzvah comic book cake. We're always trying new things, new ways to use edible materials creatively.

Some of your cakes look like they’re as much about baking skills as they are about engineering. How did you learn the construction part of creating cakes?
BV: Trial and error! Like most of my skills at the bakery, I learned how to do the frame work by learning from how other people used the tools. My brother-in-law, Mauro, worked in construction before the bakery and knows a lot about the engineering aspects of the cakes.

Despite the occasional drama on the show, you seem like a very positive person. How do you stay humble, happy and grounded in the midst of all this success and your professional obligations?
BV: It's all about family. We work together all day and then go home and make a big dinner. We might fight, but at the end of the day we're family and that's the most important thing to me.

For many of your fans, baking is a hobby and pastries are occasional treats. You bake day in, day out and could eat cake 24/7 if you wanted. If you had an entire day to yourself, what would your idea of indulgence be? How would you spoil yourself?
BV: I would love to sit at home all day and play with my kids. It's my favorite thing to do in my time off. All of my family is so close. We're always over each other's houses.

What do you miss most about your life, pre-fame?
BV: I'm still just a baker from New Jersey. The only change is that I get to share my passion with the world. I love meeting with fans of the show and hearing how we inspired them to make a special cake or dessert.

Who is at the top of your “I want to bake a cake for you” list?
BV: I've met so many great people, but my favorite cakes are always for the kids. My four kids mean the world to me and I love making other kids smile. That's why I love doing the live show; having the opportunity to create a fun, educational family night.

Is culinary school worth the dough for aspiring bakers?
BV: I think that there is a lot to learn in this industry, whether you go to school or become an apprentice. I learned everything from my dad and I always encourage hands-on learning because it is the best way to learn technique.

Who do you turn to for pastry-related advice?
BV: Sal [a long-time employee of Carlo’s Bakery who passed away] was a great mentor and taught me a lot about the art of baking. One of the first jobs I had in the bakery was working with the pastries and learning to “pull” lobster tails. I mostly focus on cakes now, but I have a talented team of guys that have been working here for a long time. My brother-in-law Joey is in charge of the “oven room.”

Name the five best tools for home bakers.
BV: A good mixer, rolling pin, utensils (measuring cups, spatulas, etc), high-quality ingredients and a good attitude! No matter what the recipe, any baker can do wonders in the kitchen with some good ingredients and an upbeat attitude!

Minnesotans can get a taste of Buddy's jaw-dropping baking skills when he comes to the Orpheum Theatre on Nov. 15.

Published on Metromix Twin Cities in Nov. 2011

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Erica Rivera Interviews Little Scream

Little Scream’s music is as quirky and contradictory as her moniker. A violinist and pianist since childhood, she began writing songs at age 15. It was years later, in Montreal, that she took the stage, shed the name Laurel Sprengelmeyer and became Little Scream. Her genre-blending, spacey sound and multi-layered, elegant instrumentation caught the attention of the indie music scene and she soon opened for acts like Atlas Sound, Stars and Handsome Furs.

Little Scream’s new album, “The Golden Record,” was titled after the 1977 Voyager space shuttle and features her own oil painting as the cover. Co-produced with Richard Reed Parry and incorporating the talents of members of Arcade Fire, Belle Orchestre and the National, “The Golden Record” is a delightfully complex collection of songs, leaving Little Scream poised to be the buzz band heard around the world.

I talked to Little Scream while she enjoyed a Rice Krispies treat in a British Columbia airport.

The last time you were in Minnesota, you opened for Sharon Van Etten. You brought a local saw player whom you’d just met onstage. Tell the story of how that happened.

Little Scream: We were playing a show, I think it was in Utah or one of those strange in-between places, and a guy came up to us afterwards and said he was a saw player from Minneapolis on a work trip. Saw is an instrument I really wanted to put on an album but I just never got to have it, so I invited him to play when we came to Minneapolis. We met up a couple hours before the show and he had heard the album so he knew what sound we were going for. He’s actually playing with us at the Triple Rock show and going with us to Chicago and Milwaukee, too.

That must take a certain amount of trust to bring someone you don’t know to perform with you. Do you invite musicians to back you like that often?

LS: From time to time, but no, not a whole, whole lot. In Montreal, there are certain musicians I can do that with, like "Let’s have a cellist for this show." It’s a fun, fun thing to do, but I’ve pulled in the reins on that somewhat because I want to have a solid show. It’s a balance. I still want that awesome spontaneous element in the show, too, because it makes it more exciting for the audience.

You were born in Iowa but Little Scream was conceived in Montreal. How did your path lead you there and why did you decide to stay?

LS: I hadn’t been there before I decided to move there. I was dating somebody at the time, a French speaker whose brother lived there, so I went with him. Then I got into a cool program at Concordia and found work right out of school, so I always had Visas. It took a couple of years to admit that I’d moved there because I felt very transient, but it’s a great, vibrant place and it is my home now, though I’ve hardly lived there this past year.

Do you have Canadian citizenship?

LS: I have permanent residency and the citizenship is being processed. I’m going to keep my U.S. citizenship, too, but I’ve been living in Montreal for ten years now and it feels like home to me.

Having lived in both the U.S. and Canada, are there certain things you think one country does better than the other?

LS: That is a tough question. It’s a good question. I would have to think about that for a while. [Pauses] What the U.S. could learn from the people of Canada is how to have political discussions without going to extremes. It’s unfortunate, but people in the U.S. don’t communicate like adults when they’re talking about politics. People in Canada can disagree with one another and still make things happen in the government. Don’t get me wrong; the U.S. is an amazing place and they have a sense of confidence that is lacking in Canada. Everyone here is always saying “I’m sorry, I ‘m sorry, I’m sorry.” It’s like the Midwest in that way. Maybe that’s why I feel at home here. That’s a really great question, though. I’m sure I’ll come up with ten great responses as soon as we get off the phone. [Laughs]

You did a really cool video with La Blogothèque. How did that come about? Did they just call you and say, “Meet us at this park?” And what is the deal with the runner at the end of the video? Was he a band member?

LS: More and more people are taping live, acoustic videos these days, but La Blogothèque is the original. We got contacted by them on the last couple of days of our tour, but because it’s outdoors and acoustic, we couldn’t accommodate the entire band. So we went to this park and our keyboard player Kaveh (Nabatian) happened to jog by. We couldn’t bring keys, so there was nothing for him to play, but since we ran into him, I told him to work out in the video. I made him do jumping jacks.

What’s great is that at the end of the video, the runner’s footsteps act as percussion. Did you plan that?

LS: It just sort of happened. If there’s anything I could have had more of in that video, it would have been more of Kaveh working out. I wanted it to be the “Workout to Little Scream” video. [Laughs.]

Do you have plans to make a more stylized video, something like a Florence & the Machine, over-the-top production with costumes?

LS: We had a lot of video plans but we’ve been traveling so much, some things we haven’t gotten around to yet. It’s funny because videos are both easy and hard. It’s easy to have ideas for concepts but it’s tricky to make them come out in the way you want them to.

You’ve said that “The Golden Record” wasn’t a concept album and that the songs are each their own universe. After completing the album and listening to it all the way through, however, did you see any themes or a narrative arc or do the songs still seem like separate entities?

They are still separate universes but the order they were put in was conscious. There is a definite narrative arc with the elements of triumph, hope and despair, at least for me. It’s like a soundtrack to a film that only I know the story to.

You’re also a painter. Is that related to your music or are they separate endeavors? Has a painting ever inspired a song or vice versa?

LS: They’re separate but they come out of the same vein. I didn’t realize until recording this album how related they are, but I showed some people the paintings and listening to them describe the paintings made me see the parallels in my songs. I also paint because I’m shy and painting is the opposite of performing in that regard. I paint alone, in a studio, where no one’s watching me, but with music, I can’t hide.

Do you get stage fright?

LS: Yeah, I do. It’s tricky because while I’m playing, I’m fine. It’s in between the songs when I have to talk that I feel weird, shy and awkward. I’ve been thinking I need a stand-up comic or an actor to fill in for me between songs so I don't have to feel that way.

You also seem to have a fascination with planets and all things celestial.

LS: I do. I love astronomy and space and stars. It’s constantly mind-blowing. I’m like a teenager on weed when I think about space. I’m in awe of how big the universe is.

Published on Metromix Twin Cities in Nov. 2011

Photo above by Rachel Granovsky

Erica Rivera Interviews Chastity Brown

Chastity Brown

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