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Chastity Brown - Interview

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 30 / 6 / 2013

Chastity Brown - Interview


Malcolm Carter chats to Minnesota-based singer-songwriter Chastity Brown about her debut UK release 'Back-Road Highways' which combines elements of folk, gospel, blues and jazz,

‘Back-Road Highways’ is the first album to be given an official UK release from Minnesota-based singer-songwriter Chastity Brown. But Brown is far from a new kid on the block. Her debut album ‘Do The Best You Can’ was released as far back as 2007 in the States, and in between that introduction to her music and Brown’s latest batch of songs on ‘Back-Road Highways’ two further albums were issued. Brown has also spent a considerable amount of time building up a following through touring extensively throughout America. Brown is one of those artists totally unaffected by current trends or fashions. The music she produces has its roots in folk, gospel, blues and jazz all of which Brown blends seamlessly into some of the most passionate, soulful music you’ve heard recently. While echoes of Nina Simone, Roberta Flack and Richie Havens, to name just a few, can be heard in Brown’s work the overall sound is one that is unique to this talented musician. Currently it’s impossible to name another artist who is covering the same ground as Brown. During the course of those four albums and throughout her gigs, Brown has honed a sound that, while glancing over its shoulder at the past, is very much the sound of 2013. Maybe that’s why Brown attracts so much attention with her music. It is almost impossible despite whatever type of music you prefer, not to be moved by the sound Brown creates. It’s rare to discover an artist who can draw together such a wide range of musical styles, but Brown seems to do so with ease resulting in a natural, earthy sound that is impossible to ignore. With a name-check and one of Brown’s most popular songs, ‘After You’ (which is one of the tracks on ‘Back-Road Highways’) featured in the well-received BBC/HBO television movie ‘Mary and Martha’ ,and ‘Back-Road Highways’ being well-received across Europe, the time seemed right for us to break into Brown’s busy schedule and ask a few questions, so Brown’s new European admirers can hopefully learn a little about this unique musician. PB: ‘Back-Road Highways’ is your fourth album but the first many Europeans have heard from you. Can you tell me a little about how you got started in music? Do you come from a musical family? CB: My father was a blues and jazz musician. He passed away when I was young, but his music made a clear impression in me that I didn’t realize until later in life. When I first began playing, it was a matter of coping with my older brother who played tenor sax and my sister who played classical piano. So, I started with the alto sax when I was twelve years old and then picked up the guitar was I was fifteen. We grew up in a full gospel church that was known to just let the music “take over” the service. It was a type of emotive improvisation that, although I don’t prescribe to any religion, I am thankful for the learning experience of singing out of the depths of oneself. PB: Born in New Hampshire, raised in Tennessee and living in Minneapolis, much of what we’ve read about you centres around your move to Minneapolis. Did your musical career coincide with the move and did you release any of your albums before you moved there? CB: I self-released an EP before moving to Minneapolis from Knoxville, Tennessee. I cut my teeth playing in coffee shops and bars in the south and learned a great deal from the friends in music that I made. Looking back on that time I was so unsure of my creative impulses and myself. And in fact, I feel like I was still trying to sound like the peers that I admired. Something about leaving home caused me to accept what comes natural to me – my soulful southern roots. PB: I feel that the place a musician is raised in forever affects and colours their music. Would you agree with that and, if so, which of the three places mentioned would you say had the most effect on your music? CB: I do agree. Tennessee has by far affected me the most. PB: ‘Back-Road Highways’ was recorded in Nashville, which is in some ways a return home for you. Was that one of the reasons the album was recorded there? CB: Well, my label is based in Nashville. And my momma lives just a few hours away. So recording there allowed me to sink my heels in a way that felt so right. There was no place else that 'Back-Road Highways' could have been recorded. In a way…it was my road home. PB: You’ve toured extensively in America but have only undertaken, as far as I’m aware, one short European tour. Given the warm reception of your latest album in Europe is a future tour there likely to happen soon? CB: Yes! I will be returning on September 12th to tour the UK for a few weeks, and then will head on and do a few shows in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. There will be detailed information about the shows on my website chastitybrownmusic.com. PB: Did you get a good reception in Europe? Most European countries are far more open to discovering new music than we are in the UK. CB: I was pleasantly surprised. The handful of places that I played were so welcoming. PB: You had a short residency in Germany I hear. How did that come about? CB: Yes, I was invited to do an artist residency in Kiel, Germany at an arts/cultural centre called Hansa 48. The director of the centre was visiting friends in Minneapolis two summers ago and he heard me play at an outdoor festival. It was his invitation that sparked this whole venture. PB: One of the most exciting things about your music is that it doesn’t fall into any one of the genres we are all so fond of using. It’s a subtle, compelling mix of so many styles. For me, after living with ‘Back-Road Highways’ for a while now, I always use Richie Havens and Michael Kiwanuka when trying to explain to newcomers broadly who Chastity Brown’s music could be compared to. Who would you say has influenced your music? CB: Wow. I appreciate the comparison. My first influences were gospel, folk music, and the old time soul music. When I was 19 I began listening to Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’ and old recordings of Nina Simone which affected me in profound ways. Van is uncompromising with his emotion and Nina was uncompromising with her lyrics. What has really affected my song writing for the past few years are novelists like James Baldwin and Carson McCullers. Both have a unique and poignant way of taping into the nuances of the peculiar individual. A way of writing that reflects the complexity of living life. PB: ‘After You’, one of the songs from ‘Back-Road Highways’, was featured in the moving BBC/HBO film ‘Mary and Martha’ and you even get a name check. How did that come about? They obviously approached you for permission? I am not sure if I’d agree with Hilary Swank’s character that your music is country and western though! CB: We submitted the song when we heard that the film was looking for some tunes. Before seeing the film all I knew was that it was in a driving scene and played during the credits. I fell off my chair when I heard one of the actors mention my name. One day I will write to the director to personally thank him for the kind introduction. I don’t know what they chose to do that, but I am very grateful. I thought it was hilarious that Hilary Swank’s character called it country and western. PB: Apart from writing, recording, touring and having your music picked for films, you were also teaching music at a high school. Are you still doing that? CB: Yes I am. The school has been very supportive of my music career. I teach contemporary music…which essentially is a rock band class. The kids choose songs that they want to learn and I assist them in creating their own tunes. I never thought I would be a schoolteacher because I don’t have a degree or anything. But in this particular case that doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is getting young artist excited about creating. PB: It seems like a busy life you lead. Does writing come easy to you? Do you have periods where you just feel inspired and it flows or do you have to make time to write? CB: Writing comes in all different ways. Sometimes regardless as to how much time I invest in writing nothing happens….the well feels dry. And I panic a bit. But the periods or moments when I have sense of being in tune with whatever that ‘thing’ is that an artist has to be in tune with in order to write. And when that happens I try to hang on and get out as much as I can. PB: For those who haven’t yet heard your previous albums is ‘Back-Road Highways’ representative of your earlier work or is it a new direction for you? CB: My early work is the road map to 'Back-Road Highways'. This record marks the moment of being completely grounded in who I am as an artist. PB: What are your plans for the rest of the year? Do you have any new songs written yet for the follow-up to ‘Back-Road Highways’ or plans to record? CB: I am touring parts of America and then have a European tour in the fall. Intermittently I am working on demos for the next record and teaching workshops at a summer youth program. There will come a time when I may not be fortunate enough to be this busy, so I just try to eat healthy, sleep well, and keep on going. PB: Thank you.

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