Attempting to succinctly categorize local songstress Chasity Brown’s boldly style-blurring tunes invariably challenges any music critic, and is likely to leave them either tongue-tied or spouting off invented-on-the-spot subgenre nonsense. (“It’s sort of R&Bluegrass music, kind of an alt-soultry thing going on.”) The simple truth is that pigeonholing Brown’s wide-ranging and joyously eclectic tunes is a fool’s errand, and it sort of misses the point. Recorded in her native Tennessee, Back-Road Highways, Brown’s fourth album, manages to confidently marry the sounds that made both Memphis and Nashville landmark music cities. Even on Brown’s glossiest countrypolitan tunes, her voice aches with raw emotion, while her forays into gospel and blues possess a surprisingly accessible melodic sensibility. The end result is the best of both worlds. Brown took time out prior to her CD-release show on March 24 at the Cedar Cultural Center to talk with The A.V. Club about recording with Nashville session pros, the role of spirituality in her music, and finding her niche in the local scene as a non-native.
The A.V. Club: While your music has always shown hints of your Tennessee upbringing, this record is by far the most overtly Southern in sound. How did recording in Nashville inform the sound of the album?
Chastity Brown: It’s taken seven years of living in Minnesota, but I’ve finally managed to accept my Southern roots. I grew up loving Dolly Parton every bit as much as Mavis Staples; those two different aesthetics are both ingrained in me. I had never played to go back to Tennessee to record but, when I was out in tour supporting High Noon Teeth, I ended up linking up with a label based in Nashville, so it just made sense. It really was a great place to record. I would go and record for a couple of hours and then just go outside and look at a field to decompress for a bit, and then head right back in.
AVC: Some impressive Nashville session men play on this album. Was it intimidating recording with perfect strangers who had toured and recorded with the likes of Garth Brooks and Mavis Staples in the past?
CB: It helped that I was in the studio working with [producer] Paul [Buono] for a good four months before any of those people came in. He really got to know me personally and what I was about, to understand what sort of accompaniment would support the songs. It was very strange for me, because pretty much all of my prior recording experience was with close, personal friends who I already performed with live. I had no way of anticipating how these people we brought in would react to the music. I remember sitting there when [organist and pianist] Blair Masters first came in, and he listened to the song and charted it out right in front of me, then listened one more time and said, “Let’s roll.” He took two passes at the song and my mind was instantly blown. I was trying to keep my cool in front of him, but inside I was freaking out thinking, “Holy shit, how did he know exactly what the song needed?” It was the same with all the other session guys. They’re either on the road or in the studio all the time, just total professionals. They would get the gist of a song and then just throw down. It definitely raised the bar for me personally. I had never seen such economic musicianship in action and it made me become much more disciplined.
AVC: That’s evident in the way you sing on this album. There’s a certain restraint in the way you sing on the record that makes the more explosive moments hit that much harder.
CB: I’m glad that’s evident. Right after I released High Noon Teeth, so about a year and a half ago, I started reframing how I thought about my voice. I went back to thinking of it purely as an instrument and spent a lot of time just sitting at the piano and working on my vocal range and really homing in on the exact notes that I wanted to hit in any particular song. On a song like “Slow Time,” I wouldn’t term it restraint—that’s just how the song should be sung, with control. Even when I go hear something like vocal jazz I don’t want to listen to someone just ripping it the whole time. If you’re going to have some sort of technically impressive showboating or extremely emotive singing, that’s only going to work for the listener if there’s a calmness and steadiness that comes before it.
AVC: Your early musical life up in to your late teen years revolved entirely around the church. While the music you make today is hardly “Christian contemporary,” is it fair to say there’s still a strong sense of spirituality running through it?
CB: What I learned from singing in the church was to sing my heart out and literally sing like what you feel. I don’t want to get into any sort of religious discussion because I’m not looking to offend anyone, but I am still a spiritual person even though I don’t consider myself affiliated with any particular religion. There’s a beauty to being alive that I can’t quite name, but I think the root aspect of it is often there in the songs. With a song like [Back-Road Highways album closer] “If You Let Me,” I can think of literally hundreds of gospel songs I heard like that growing up with the same sort of chord progression. So that influence is certainly still there musically. I like exploring the fine, tangled line between the gospel and the blues.
AVC: While Twin Citizens often like to toot our own horn for having a wide-ranging and open-minded local music community, we’re not always as welcoming as we’d like to think, particularly to female artists and people of color. Do you feel you’ve found your niche in the local scene?
CB: It takes a good while to make friends in Minnesota, but the friendships I have made—most of them being with other artists and musicians—are the most enriching relationships I’ve ever had. There are so many musicians in town I have so much respect for—bands like No Bird Sing, artists like Aby Wolf—and none of us are doing the same thing. I’m well aware that what I do is not so common here, it might be a little more so down South. The cool thing about how race plays into that, though, is that because I sort of exist in both worlds [as a bi-racial woman], it feels like all kinds of people are comfortable coming to our shows. We draw a really beautifully diverse demographic, from white to black to Hmong, gay or straight, everyone feels welcome. It feels like a cool opportunity I have playing music here because of that. I have to watch myself if I’m talking about racial politics, especially in an interview. If we were talking candidly as friends I would probably say more. I’m aware of the racial dynamics in Minnesota, but I feel like anything negative I could say about racial issues here would be true of most other places as well. The important thing for me is that I feel like within this city I’ve found a group of people that don’t really concern themselves with anything other than education, fostering community, and sharing art.