Where Soul Meets Country
Folksy blues singer/songwriter Chastity Brown talks about her latest album, Back-roads Highways
Her music has been dubbed gospel, calypso, country-western, soul, blues, jazz, and “R&Bluegrass.” Her influences range from Dolly Parton to James Baldwin. Chastity Brown is that rare breed of musician whose music sounds both familiar and foreign in a way that not only draws you in, but makes you want to burrow inside a song and stay there as long as you can.
The 29-year-old Tennessee native currently calls Minneapolis home, and we couldn’t be more stoked to have her here. I snagged an hour of Chastity’s time between the release of her newest album, Back-Roads Highway, in March, and her non-stop tour plans to talk about Minneapolis, part-time jobs, and how she finally made it big.
First off, tell me a little bit about yourself. Do you come from a musical family?
My father was a musician. My mother, though, can’t even clap on beat. My brother and sister both play instruments, which is actually the reason I started playing: because they were doing it.
You’re the baby of the family, then?
I’m the youngest of five. My two oldest sisters live in New Hampshire now; my mom, bother, and sister live in Union City, Tennessee, which is where I grew up.
How many instruments can you play?
My first instrument was saxophone. Now I can play a little piano, and guitar and banjo. I’m an all-around geek.
I’m right there with you. So when did you move up here?
Almost seven years ago now. And I didn’t know anybody.
A friend of mine was going to go to grad school at the U, and I came with her. She’s country like me, and we decided to live in Excelsior of all places, thinking we’d be close to the city but still in the country. She ended up hating it and moving to Austin (Texax). I moved into the city and started playing at coffee shops and whatever bar would let me play.
What’s the scene like for artists here, from an outsider’s perspective?
Right now, Minneapolis is a hot spot. Half of Bon Iver’s band is from Minneapolis, Poliça—it’s the primetime to be a musician here. The Guardian gave a huge shout-out to Minneapolis recently, saying it’s “a thriving scene of creative folks.” And it is. Just because I’m a musician, I’ve gotten opportunities that I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else. Such as, I’m teaching at Watershed High School—and I don’t have a degree.
What? You teach?
Yeah! It’s essentially rock band, but it’s called Music Ensemble.
Like School of Rock!
It’s totally like that! I’m like, “Guys, I’m not a teacher, I’m a musician. So here’s how we’re gonna roll.” The kids love it.
How on Earth did you wind up there?
One of the teachers would come to the Turtle Bread I used to work at. One day, she asked me why I worked there and I told her I did it to support myself as a musician. Then she asked if I wanted to teach. I said, “Sure… what does that mean?” (Laughs)
What an awesome opportunity for those kids.
Yeah, and they’re badass. I wish I’d had this opportunity when I was a kid. I mean, I took all the music classes, but they were classical. For voice I sang Latin. And now I sing soul music. It’s so different! But they keep me on my toes for sure. Their emotions are all over the place.
You teach, you put out a new album, you do it all! How long did you work on Back-Road Highways?
A year, which is the longest I’ve worked on any creative project before. Any record I’ve ever made solo or with my band I’ve done in less than five days. The budget’s always been out of pocket until this one.
How’d you end up on your label (C & D Music Network)?
In the fall of 2010, I went on tour by myself and ended up meeting this guy at one of my shows—typical suit guy. He said he liked my stuff, and in my head I was like, Yeah, whatever. But then I looked him up, and found out he’s been in the music industry for 35 years and works at BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), a huge music rights agency in New York. So I went to his office—in the World Trade Center…!— and he asked if I wanted to do a project. Then he hooked me up with a producer in Nashville, introduced me to this woman who was starting a label, and through a whirlwind of events, I got signed. Which is not a typical story. The whole time, I kept thinking, “Is this shit really happening?” After playing for 10 years, here I am. This wasn’t an overnight thing—it’s the result of a lot of hard work and luck.
What’s this album like compared to your other stuff, since you’ve had so long to work on it?
With every project you do, you try to go one step above. This is five steps above. For hardcore fans who are used to hearing me super barebones with just an acoustic guitar, they might be kinda surprised. Some of the studio musicians who played on my record have played with musicians Mavis Staples and Garth Brooks. I’d never worked with studio musicians before! I had no idea.
What were they like?
Those guys play 40 hours a week. It’s insane. They’re just brilliant. Blair (Masters), the organ player for Garth Brooks, didn’t even hear my tracks beforehand. We just went to his studio, he uploaded the first song, listened to it, wrote the charts, listened to it one more time, played it, and that was it. I was trying to be cool, but I turned to Paul, the producer, and was like, “What the f*** just happened?” It makes you feel good to know these big dogs want to play with you. It makes me feel like maybe I have enough skill after all.
Do you have a dream collaboration? Someone you’re dying to work with?
I actually have this little side goal to be someone’s backup singer. I’m always in control and having to be on top of things as the bandleader, so my ideal thing would be to back up a rapper or some great dude singer; Ryan Adams or something.
Do you have a favorite a venue in town?
The Cedar. When you go as an audience member, it sounds like you’re listening to a record. It’s the best sound in town. And they guys who work there are so awesome. Plus, the greenroom is HUGE; there are like 300 records and turntables in there. You can have a dance party after the show—which we do.
Do you have any pre/post-show rituals?
Before, I usually try to drink tons of hot water and remind myself of all the things that keep me calm. I’m a pretty nervous person, but I’m also a pretty chill person, which basically means I can just accept the fact that I’m always anxious. (Laughs)
You’re teaming up with Jeremy Messersmith in May for the “Muse for Music” concert at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Have you played with him before?
We’ve opened for him twice. I like him so much. At first, when he asked us to open for him, I wasn’t sure—he’s so pop, and we’re just, well, not. But we really connected.
What’s the “Muse” concert all about?
The premise is to have songwriters sing songs that they like but aren’t their own—songs that have interesting back-stories for how they were created and that inspire us. Jeremy sent us a list including everything from Bruce Springsteen to Ella Fitzgerald. Each of us will choose two to play, then explain the research we did and why we chose it.
Do you have a muse?
For some reason, novelists seem to influence me a lot. James Baldwin is my favorite writer. I love the way he describes his characters—they embody the fullest amount of human contradiction. He’s such a great storyteller. I read this article on him from the 1960s, and in it he says how he tries to write the way Miles and Charles play music. And I was like, “YES!” because I try to sing the way he writes.
Besides him, (jazz singer/songwriter) Nina Simone, David Gray, folk/country singers like Emmy Lou Harris and Dolly Parton—and a bunch of soul music.
How would you describe your music? And is it weird hearing other people try to describe what you do?
It used to be, but now it’s just whatever. Since there are several different styles that can surface in my music, I’ve been calling it “Americana Soul.” Dolly Parton is just as important to me as Mavis Staples in my psyche of influences.
It’s got a good ring to it.
Yeah. But I think inevitably folks will attach whatever they want to it. And I just let them. Why not?
Chastity joins Jeremy Messersmith, P.O.S., and other special guests in “Muse for Music” at the Fitzgerald Theater Saturday, May 19, at 8 p.m. fitzgeraldtheater.org
Listen to and download Back-Road Highways at chastitybrownmusic.com