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By Emily Weiss
A rocker with gospel grounding and a politically minded artist who largely writes about matters of the heart, Chasity Brown has a musical background of seemingly incongruous ingredients that make for a compelling melodic mélange on her soon-to-be-released third album, High Noon Teeth. It finds Brown and her bandmates confidently jumping between buttery-smooth full-band R&B ("Push You Away"), slow-burning rock ("Strong Enough"), and jaunty piano-driven pop ("From My Old")—and that's just the first three tracks. It's an opening salvo that sets high expectations that the rest of High Noon Teeth largely lives up to.
Brown took time out prior to her CD release to talk with City Pages about her biracial background, expanding the scope of her lyrics, and the "emotional improv" at the core of her music.
City Pages: You grew up musically in the church with virtually no exposure to secular pop music until your later teenage years. Does that grounding in gospel music shape the way you make music now?
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High Noon Teeth
Chastity Brown: Growing up on gospel music, particularly the kind of gospel music I grew up on, was basically church services with two hours of music, maybe a 15-minute sermon, and then more music. There was a structure to the songs but the performances were all emotional improv. That's still the biggest element in my music now. I can't escape from playing exactly how I feel in the moment, even if I try. As a band we almost never play the songs the same way twice, although we've been working on that in rehearsals [laughs]. For me that's what soul music is, it comes from the gut. Luckily the guys in the band trust me that I'm not just going to lead us into utter chaos [laughs].
CP: Were there any growing pains making the transition from solo acoustic singer-songwriter to full-fledged bandleader?
Brown: The other guys in the band are such good musicians that I don't have to tell them what to do. They've got the rhythm section on lockdown. We worked together live for three years before making this record, so it was definitely a comfortable thing. Traditionally I've handled all the composition and they've reacted to what I brought to the table, but that's already starting to evolve. The other day in rehearsal Michael [Johnson] started playing a new drumbeat for me and it just triggered an entire song out of me that I could never have envisioned otherwise. We're definitely headed in a more band-oriented direction with all aspects of the music, and I'm excited about that.
CP: Your prior album, Sankofa, was almost entirely made up of personal confessionals, while High Noon Teeth incorporates more narrative storytelling and poetic metaphor. Why the shift in tone?
Brown: Some of the songs on Sankofa I hope to never sing again because they're just so personal. That whole album was a reckoning of sorts that I felt like I had to go through to get to where I am now with my music. I was definitely writing much more imaginative songs this time around, rather than just about my personal experiences, and that was new for me. I talked about metaphors in songwriting a lot with Alexei [Casselle of Roma di Luna] and Joe [Horton, a.k.a. Eric Blair of No Bird Sing] while I was writing the album because that was all new terrain for me, and they both write songs just swarming with beautiful images. I don't feel the need to be as blatant as I used to. This record was really all about pushing outside of my normal comfort zone and trying to take things to the next level creatively. Hopefully fans that have followed me for a while will appreciate that things are changing.
CP: One holdover from Sankofa is the presence of a song about your childhood, growing up biracial in small-town Tennessee (on Sankofa it was called "Bluegrassy Tune"; it's present on High Noon Teeth in a new arrangement titled "Bound to Happen"). It's an unflinchingly intense narrative ("Well my daddy was a black man and my mom blond hair, blue eyed/You know people would stare at us children/Like we were some suspicious kind"). What led you to feature it again this time around?
Brown: I decided to record that song the very last day I was in the studio for Sankofa when it was still super new. As I was playing it with the band, it rearranged itself and fine-tuned itself so I wanted to present it again. It's an important song to me. At least once a week probably I still encounter some stupid racial situation. People ask me all the time if my hair is real, and I was at a show where a woman actually grabbed my hair and jerked it out of nowhere. It caught me so off guard and I remember going home and crying and being so angry. I felt conflicted, part of me wanted to educate her and part of me wanted to smack her and say, "How dare you touch me!" So the song is sort of my way of reaching out and taking the educational route and saying this is who I am and what my experiences have been. Depictions of mixed-race people are very popular in the media now and it's a little strange for me because I've always looked this way. Growing up I was constantly made fun of for my hair; apparently now it's a cool look.
CHASTITY BROWN and her band play an all-ages CD-release show with Roma di Luna and No Bird Sing on SATURDAY, JUNE 12, at THE CEDAR; 612.338.2674