Based in the hotbed of international music that is Minnesota, it’s no surprise if you haven’t heard of Chastity Brown yet – but that’s the way she likes it. The soulful-voiced, roots-inflected singer-songwriter has developed her career organically, and her album Back Road Highways has just been released this year. Acoustic caught up with Chastity prior to her UK tour…
You’ve been recording since 2007, yet this is your first official UK release, and your first UK tour. Why have you been depriving us so long?
Well, I really didn’t know that I would be so warmly welcomed. Last year I was invited to do an artist residency in Germany, which sparked a series of invitations; I didn’t do it intentionally, but I didn’t know if I’d be welcome or not. I didn’t want to go over there without any sort of connection with the grassroots over there. I think it helps when you’re going on a tour, especially outside the US, to really know the people I want to work with, and to have played a couple of shows. I started in Germany, and then the Green Note at Camden Town gave me the opportunity to open there, and things started to grow.
I’ve read so many times that your music is uncategorisable, and that to try is to miss the point, so I’ve decided not to try. In lieu of that, who do you think is the natural audience for your music?
Well, I guess early on when I started playing out, I did a series of shows at a really cool club in Minneapolis, and at one of the shows, some really tough-looking bikers came in, stayed for the whole show, and came for the next couple of weeks that I was playing there. I learned very quickly that I can’t be selective with the audience and that the nature of the art appeals to certain people, and sure, maybe it rules out people who are generally angry and destructive, but I can’t choose the audience, all I can do is share the songs.
Your sound is firmly rooted in the past, and in the UK we might be tempted to think that to be a more natural fit in Minnesota than here. What’s the reality of being a musician in Minnesota, or is your sound more to do with your Tennessee roots?
Minnesota has been very supportive of my music to a wide extent; the support of a local radio station got me picked up by NPR [National Public Radio], because of a local entity that has national connections. They voted me as one of the top folk musicians last year, and I feel a lot of support. It’s distinctly different from my southern roots, because in Tennessee there are a lot more threads of storytelling and blues music, whereas in Minnesota there’s a lot more hip-hop and punk locally. That said, it’s a great artistic community with a lot going on. A friend of mine moved up here seven years ago for a brief stint, and I was invited to come along with her. At that point I was living in Knoxville and still felt very nomadic, coming and going and taking off, so I just came up here not knowing anything about the region or the culture, but being very fascinated by Midwestern culture. America is so large that every state is very distinctly different and culturally their own thing, and it’s been a very fascinating journey to live here.
Your voice is redolent of Nina Simone amongst others, and your music is full of blues, gospel and soul; where does that sound come from for you? How does a woman of 31 write so comfortably in genres whose glory times passed before she was born?
I wish I could answer that. I guess, in part, a lot of the first influences for me when I got out of my religious phase were folks like Nina Simone and Van Morrison, and I guess I respond very much to emotive release, through lyric, melody and voice. I’ve never tried to be one thing or another, I’ve just tried to be myself, both in music and in life, so the fact that different songs fall in different genres is fine, I’m not at war with that part of myself any more. It’s a massive complement to me, but I can’t answer the question in a meaningful way.
You’ve referred before to admiring “uncompromising” songwriters. What are you uncompromising about, and what impact do you hope for from your songs?
Well, I think it’s very easy to try to figure out what the modern day mould is for songs within pop culture, and maybe sometimes a song happens to fit that mould but some of Van Morrison’s songs were eight minutes long, and others were three minutes and 20 seconds. For me, it’s about following the creative impulse of a song, not to push it into any particular form. It’s also context; Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ took so much audacity; it’s different for our times now, but I hope I’m that brave in my work. I do still hear that protest; the difference is that it’s not in conjunction with a mass movement. There is still quite a lot of music that’s protesting the entities that are ruining the environment, and critiquing capitalist structures. The difference is that there aren’t 100,000 people standing behind them now.
I think it’s hard to not be a part of the mainstream in some sort of context, because music is an industry, but there’s a new surge in independent music, meaning that you can work and not sell yourself short. Whatever genre my music is described as, I grew up poor and working class, and a lot of the sentiments in my songs are based off that sort of landscape; Woodie Guthrie described it as playing music for the proletariat, not saying that boisterously, but just that’s what folk music is. America is an interesting place; I am glad that I was born here, I love that I’m an American, because though there are plenty of things that I disagree with, I do have the freedom to say so. I have the freedom to be a musician, and to grow a garden and sit in it.
You play guitar, banjo, sing and write songs; are any of those things more important to you than others?
I use them all as tools; at least half of the time I’m playing acoustic guitar, but each of the instruments evokes a different style of songwriting. Songwriting is like the first line of importance for me. If I don’t know what the story is, it doesn’t matter how great the melody is, or the groove.
I read one article in a British broadsheet paper that described “crazy hair” as being a key component of your music. Don’t you find the focus on appearance for women a giant pain in the backside?
Yeah, I always wonder at people’s fascination with my hair, and it is quite upsetting that it seems to somehow sometimes outshine what I want to get across about my music, and in that context, it does upset me. Sometimes I can tell that the interviewer is trying in some way to complement me, but it still comes out wrong. The main thing is that the majority of the article is about the music; if they don’t talk about my hair, they talk about my face or the colour of my skin.
I also read that you said it takes a long time to make friends in Minnesota. Why is that?
Well, going back to culture, Minnesota and South and North Dakota was settled by Germans and Norwegians, and in the beginning of the settlement here, especially further west, it can be a harsh landscape to deal with. You have snow on the ground six months out of the year you’re bundled up against the cold, and maybe that breeds a bit of stoicism and distance. Down South winter is short, there are front porches everywhere, people are outside a lot, and it’s a bit more of a tactile way of interacting. I think it’s as simple as that; the history of the place is connected to why folks are the way they are.
Finally, tell us a little about your hopes from your tour and album.
You know, I try to just keep them very realistic, and what’s realistic for me is for folks to come out to the shows, to have a good time, to really connect with folks and share music with them. In terms of success, that would be the biggest; that people walk out of a show having enjoyed themselves and having connected in some sort of way that they would want to come back again, or take some music with them. That’s really about all that I want out of this tour; it’s a good month and a half of singing altogether, every day will be different and I’m so excited about it. It’s only my second time of coming to the UK, and I kind of don’t want to box myself in with expectations, because I really want it to be a wonder to me.
That sense of adventure and openness to experience tells you a lot about Chastity Brown, and what makes her music so alluring. Back Road Highways is out now.