I was told that Chastity Brown would be waiting in the bustling lobby of the hotel hosting the Americana Music Conference. Her publicist gave exceedingly simple instructions for finding her: “Look for the Afro.”
Sure enough, she was the only person in the place whose head was crowned with the hairstyle. And her music presented just as striking a contrast alongside the bread-and- butter of Americana, the wealth of folk-pop singer-songwriters, alt-country outfits, roots rockers and string bands playing showcases that week.
Brown comes at singing and songwriting from a rootsy, neo-soul angle. And while that description may bring guys like Van Morrison or Ray LaMontagne to mind, she draws more deeply than them from the well of down-home gospel-blues. Plus, she was really taken with the decade-old live album that framed hip-hop ingénue Lauryn Hill as a stripped-down, soul-baring singer-songwriter. That combination of sensibilities isn’t something you hear every day, but it feels perfectly natural to her.
Brown recorded her new album Back-Road Highways in Nashville with producer Paul Buono but traveled quite an unexpected journey to reach this point. She grew up on a strict diet of Dolly Parton and sanctified gospel in a tiny town outside of Memphis. And up until now, she’s done the bulk of her songwriting, performing and recording with a coterie of bohemian artist peers in and around Minneapolis. This is the first chance the roots world has really had to hear her do her thing.
CMT Edge: I was wondering how you could’ve released four albums without me hearing about you before now. But it sounds like you’ve been working regionally in Minnesota up to this point.
Brown: Yeah, I grew up here in Tennessee, over by Dyersburg in Union City, and then started playing out in Knoxville. So that was kinda like my first stomping ground. … And then I moved to Minneapolis, like, six years ago, and I didn’t play out for the first year because it was totally freakin’ different from the South, just night and day. So I just needed to get acclimated.
But, yeah, I feel like it’s really important to be a musician in your community and in your region. I’ve done East Coast tours and stuff like that, and I dig it, but in the beginning, my main focus has been my region and the communities in that kind of central location. Plus financially it’s a win-win if you don’t drive too far to play for folks.
So it was a case of you going far from home to come to terms with the musical heritage of your native region. You moved to Minnesota to become a roots artist.
I know! It’s crazy. And I just realized that in the making of this last record, I finally accepted where I’m from. I wasn’t born in Tennessee, so while growing up here, I was always like, “I’m not from here. I’m different.” I always felt different but just didn’t really realize how the Southern culture has permeated every part of me. My father is from North Carolina, and then just growing up around country, it’s every bit of my root system, essentially. And I’m finally cool with that. So you’re spot on with that.
What was your entry point musically? There are so many different elements I hear in your music, and I am wondering if you started out covering soul and jazz material or jumped straight into writing your own stuff.
I’ve never really done cover songs until the past couple years, just for the fun of it. The only covers I ever did were gospel tunes because of growing up in the church. Living in Knoxville, some of the folks that were older than me that I really admired were indie rockers and had this edge and this “I don’t give a damn” sort of attitude. I was like, “Yeah! I’m gonna do that.”
They definitely wrote their own songs.
Totally. They write their own songs. When I first moved to Minnesota, I was like, “OK, I’m going to do the whole songwriter thing.” It wasn’t even a conscious choice, as far as the storytelling element. It just is so natural, I’ve never tried to deviate from it. It’s all about the story, and then the framework of the song, as far as instrumentation and stuff like that, comes after.
Was there anyone making original music who was an important model for you above others?
Yeah, I guess I was like 19, 20 when I started playing out in Knoxville. And at that time, David Gray was releasing his record that had “Sail Away.” I saw this video, because they did a DVD, and I was like, “He’s just standing there with his guitar, full-on belting. Wow. People are doing this.” Maybe this is the way for a lot of artists. There are the throwbacks, the old-school folks — Van Morrison and Nina Simone are probably my hugest influences. And then as far as peers in my age group, folks like David Gray. When Lauryn Hill did her Unplugged album, after doing all that stuff with the Fugees.
I’d forgotten about that album.
It offended a lot of people. She just let it all hang out in such a graceful way but in such a fierce, uncompromising way. People like David Gray, I’m like, “Wow, he’s telling a story.” And then people like Lauryn Hill refuse to compromise. So I was like, “Wow, you can be a woman, and you can tell these stories, and you can also not compromise.” It just kinda has become what I do.
Exactly. “Here’s another colored woman with a guitar.”
Are you trying to avoid having to explain all that genre stuff?
Yeah. As artists, we say all these things to describe ourselves, but essentially people will put you in whatever sort of box that they want to put you in. I know my influences. Country and soul are just huge in my world — country, soul and gospel music. Of course, race comes into play in our personal lives and stuff. But there are tons of people of all sorts of ethnicities that sing with a guitar. Generally, I’ll say things like, “Yeah, it’s Americana soul.” Quite often I do get the Tracy Chapman element.
Although you don’t sound anything like her.
I know. It’s a common thing. I’ve learned to not judge people on that because they’re just trying to find some way to associate in the way that people do.
Did you write everything solo on the new album?
I did one co-write. “House Been Burnin’” I co-wrote with Paul Buono, who did the production on the record. But other than that, the music and the lyrics, I’m pretty guarded on that space and not really allowing folks to enter until I feel like I can pass off a song. I wait until I can discuss it and have edited it as much as I can. And then will let the atmospheric elements of others’ ideas come into play. But in the birth of a song and before I share it to anyone else, I have to know that it’s at that place.
The mainstream R&B of the moment sounds really futuristic and electronic, but neo-soul can be really down to earth. It’s almost surprising that there aren’t more people in roots music doing it.
Yep. I think the same thing: “What’s the real umbrella of Americana? What’s the real umbrella of roots music?” It branches out a lot further than I think maybe sometimes people are comfortable with acknowledging, and it steps on toes.
Did I read that you started out as a sax player?
Yeah. I still play.
Was that before singing became a serious thing?
Yeah, because I started saxophone when I was 12.
Junior high band?
Yeah, and then I was in marching band and then played at church. But actually, before I started gigging around Knoxville, I was playing sax in this reggae band, in this horn section. I kinda put it down for a bit when I moved to Minneapolis because I had sat in on this jazz gig, and I was like, “I can barely keep up with those guys.” But now I just play it on my own stuff and will probably let it come to the surface a little more on the next record. But just subtleties. No showboating solos or anything like that.
Back when you were in the high school marching band, did you also get into jazz or R&B sax playing?
Not quite yet. I was still kinda sheltered as far as music listening. My mom pretty much only let us listen to throwback soul, Dolly Parton, a little bit of other country music and gospel. So 85 percent of my childhood was gospel music.
Contemporary gospel or of Mahalia Jackson’s generation?
All of it. Because my sister, she’s a preacher’s wife, Church of God in Christ type church. So that’s that type of gospel. Then the five-part harmony country gospel.
I’m the baby of the family. So my sister was already playing piano, my brother was playing saxophone, and I just kinda followed suit after my brother wanting to play the sax. It invokes a totally different side of me. It’s like not the singer-songwriter side. It’s a whole different mindset. Vocally, it does help. If I play saxophone for 30 minutes, then singing is just a lot easier because of the amount of lung capacity you have to use.