Iconic Twin Cities singer-songsmith Chastity Brown unquestionably has come into her own, enjoying such determinedly hard-earned success as finds the richly gifted balladeer headlining premier venue the Cedar Cultural Center.
After gigging extensively in the Knoxville, Tennessee area, Brown moved to the Twin Cities area in 2005, made her recording debut in 2007 with Do the Best You Can—recorded live on the Minneapolis Television Network show TC Musique—and has steadily built a strong following. Her second album, Sankofa, , a solo outing on vocal and guitar, came out early last year and, now, she releases High Noon Teeth with the personnel who will be onstage June 12th at the Cedar: herself (vocals, guitar, keys), Michael X. (percussion), Adam Wozniak (bass), and Nikki Schultz (backup vocals). The album offers a fascinating mix of poetic reflection (“From My Old,” “A Melody”), love songs from a wizened perspective (“Push You Away,” “Lose Ya Now”), and pensive storytelling (“Only This,” “By The Train Tracks”). You couldn’t ask for a better fit of artist and venue. Chastity Brown is contemporary roots music personified.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, Brown took time on a sunny afternoon to sit on her patio and reflect on her craft, career, and the upcoming gig, which marks her first time headlining there (also on the bill are No Bird Sing and Channy and Alexei Moon Caselle of Roma di Luna). She is, to say the least, an interesting interview. For the most part, she has an almost deadpan expression. It’s not one of boredom, just a somewhat detached attitude of reflecting on things. She thinks. A lot. Then, every once in awhile, something strikes her as amusing and a smile spreads on her face, warm humor brightens her eyes and seems to animate her whole body even as she sits just about perfectly still. All as she relates in a smooth, constant flow, her thoughts, recollections and observations.
You can check for Chastity Brown’s other upcoming appearances, read her bio and reviews, see photos and, just in general, acquaint yourself with her at chastitybrownmusic.com and myspace.com/chastitybrown.
You were born in Tennessee.
No. I was raised [there]. I was born in New Hampshire, and lived there until I was six. Two of my older sisters and all of my mom’s side of the family lives there. A lot of aunts and uncles. And I have a sister on my father’s side in Harlem who was raised [there] by her momma. And then I have a brother and sister in Tennessee.
Yeah. Well, I’m the baby of five on my mom’s side, the baby of five on my father’s. A few of them I haven’t met yet.
What’re you doing in Minnesota?
A friend of mine was coming here—I’m friends with her family—and her father thought it’d be cool if I came. So, her mom sent me a bunch of [local] articles to check out the music scene. Or whatever I was into. So, I just kind of tagged along. It’ll be 5 years in September. She left eight months after living here and said, “Fuck this.” We lived in Excelsior, ’cause it was close to her parents and to [Minneapolis]. But, turned out to be we were the only, like, color out there. She looks like she could be my older sister with long dreds and she’s, like, a six foot, light-skinned woman and, you know, just felt this wasn’t the place for her. After a year of living here is when I started to get more involved in the music scene. And then I met Kara, my partner, and I just decided to stay. I started playing with Michael, my drummer, about the same time that I met Kara. I never had worked with someone so supportive and just so, like, bad-ass—he’s such a bad-ass drummer. I’m so lucky. He just knows me so well.
How was it playing back in Tennessee?
I played a lot in Knoxville, Ashville, some gigs in Nashville and with some of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met. One of my buddies, he doesn’t live there anymore, sounds like what you would think Ray Charles with a guitar sounds like. Him and a couple other buddies, they took me under their wing. The first time I played in front of people, besides at a party, I was at one of their shows. Casey, the guy who kind of sounds like Ray Charles, was, like “We got a special guest. Chastity Brown’s gonna get up and do a couple songs.” He didn’t really ask me or tell me. He’d just call me up. Every show I went to of theirs they would always have me come up. Finally, October 11th, I think, 2002 was my first show. At a cafe in Knoxville. Which was such a memorable experience. And then I was kind of like…I wouldn’t say hooked, because it’s a such a weird, interesting relationship between playing in living rooms and playing in front of people. Especially when people think that you’re like, “Listen to me.” And that’s not the case. I’m, like, “Lemme share something with you. Let’s connect.” But, there is something that only happens when you’re on stage. And that feeling is just bizarre.
Not a lot of black acoustic artists in these parts. There’s the likes of Richie Havens, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Guy Davis when they come through on tour. And you. Got any thoughts about that?
I do think about that, in relation to people’s perception of roots music right now. Carolina Chocolate Drops are doing such a magnificent job educating, I feel. ‘Cause, in reference to the African banjo meets the European fiddle, here is bluegrass, here’s country music. So, I try to think about it as a way of educating folks [about] what comes inherently natural to black folk. Which I feel is storytelling and not just talkin’ about sex, y’ know? That folk element has been kind of lost because of marketing. With that in mind, if I can just keep working at it, sharing it with as many people as possible, I’ll have an opportunity to possibly get some support to drive further. Whether that be East Coast, West Coast, North, South. I really like small towns. Small town folk just love live music. Bigger cities have a scene that you kind of bust through or try to connect with. Small towns are, like, “Fuck, yeah. Come.” Yeah, I’m really conscious of the fact that I’m a mixed woman playing roots soul music, folk music.
I’d hazard a guess that your following largely is white women.
It is such a crazy mix. Last September we did a series at the 331 Club and there were these biker dudes, hard core dudes who were dancin’, clappin’, and cryin’. It was, like, you gotta be kidding me. I can’t believe this is happening. So, there’s more and more balance of race at our shows. Which is really freakin’ cool. As well as every type of culture. Whether it be suburban folks who don’t really come to the city that much but were either at the bar or wanted to come to our show specifically. GLBT community. Black community. I remember one time when I was playing at the Global Market, one of the security guards told this other guy, “That ain’t black music.” So, I feel like that has been a little bit of a barrier. [But] I’m gonna do what I do. You can dig it or not.
It’s amazing how many black people don’t realize the actual range of black music.
Yeah. It’s a weird thing. I don’t know.
You’re completely independent? Do your own managing, booking, marketing?
I get help. Kara helps me, the band helps me. Kara’s super organized. I get help in that way. I make the phone calls, set up the interviews. I want to send [High Noon Teeth] to some independent labels, just see what happens.
“By The Train Tracks,” that’s some pretty dark work. Where’d the story, those lyrics come from?
I was messing with that song for like three or four months. I could see an image in my mind and was just trying to figure out what the hell is this man about? Why do I keep thinking about this? Why is coming out in this kind of guttural, blue style? The story just started coming up slowly. And I still wasn’t happy with it. Then, one night, I was jamming with my buddy Joe from No Bird Sing, him and some other buddies. Started playing that song a little bit different and then this whole stream of thought came out, like, three or four verses.
You don’t sit down and write your words out in one fell swoop. You put parts down in your journal, have some in your heard. Any particular reason you work like that?
That’s something I’ve learned about myself recently. My father died when I was seven and he was a musician, played keys and trombone and sang. My biggest memory is of him singing Fats Domino tunes. I found out three years ago, from my sister Iris in Harlem, that [he] never wrote down his songs. Ever. He always just pressed record on the tape player. And I realized I really have never written down the lyrics until after the album is finished and I promised I would write the lyrics out for folks. I think it’s just in my blood. I wasn’t that I consciously wasn’t going to write things down for any weird reason. It was just in my blood, which I think is the best thing to find out. The coolest thing.
Your chord progressions and melodies are anything but typical. How’d you come by your style?
I guess, you know, for sure, the influences of, like, what I listen to now versus what I grew up on as far as from like country to soul music, but I grew up on gospel. My two absolute favorite, most influential musicians are Van Morrison and Nina Simone. So far as how the songs play out, it’s all about feeling. I’ll just kind of search on the guitar. If I’m honin’ in on some chord or a groove, I keep playing until I find everything that supports that. And then try to listen for things that might not be necessary. ‘Cause you can go shit-tons of places where sometimes you only need four chords. The melodies come the same way.
The Cedar Cultural Center is a natural fit for you. How’s it feel, looking forward to the gig?
I have this kind of gurgling excitement. We gotta get in some solid rehearsals. I know that we’re ready, because we worked hard this winter, but, we’re all feeling like we need to stretch out. It’s hard to anticipate what the evening will be like. It was a really good turnout last year for Sankofa at the 331. I was talking with e.g. [bailey] and he was like, you need to trust that you have an audience. This next week and a half is a sharpening-the-stone kind of thing. My mom’s here and she’s gonna be sitting in the crowd.
The release event for Chastity Brown’s High Noon Teeth is at the Cedar Cultural Center on June 12th at 8:00 p.m. Doors open at 7, tickets are $10 in advance and $12 day of the show.