Chastity Brown melting Minneapolis with her powerful soul-jazz combo

Emerging soul singer Chastity Brown
Tony Nelson

It's an unusually warm Tuesday night in south Minneapolis, and Chastity Brown is seated in a quaint bistro, poring over the pages of a beat-up notebook and sipping from a glass of red wine. Her face is scrubbed clean and bears the kind of beauty that would only be marred by makeup; her mass of free-flowing black hair is struggling to be contained by an overworked, thinly stretched knit cap.

There is an ease to her demeanor that is reflected in the warmth of the venue she chose for our meeting as well as in the slow-burning, sparse jazz and soul songs on her latest album, Sankofa. In both her conversation and her songs, she takes her time to make her points and projects with a voice that is at once gracious and forthright.

Born in New Hampshire and raised in Tennessee ("I'm a Southern Yankee, I guess"), Brown says she landed in Minnesota three years ago almost by accident. "I came up here on a whim. It was really hard at first. There's this whole stoic-ness to Minnesotans—can't get past the outer layer. Culturally, it's so different from the South."

Though she had been performing for a few years in Knoxville, Tennessee, Brown says it took her a while to feel out the music community and figure out how she might fit in. "I felt like hip hop and punk were on the forefront of the Minneapolis scene, what represents Minneapolis," she explains. "So it took me a year to break through that and start finding groups like Roma di Luna or Brianna Lane."

Before long she found herself among a blossoming group of musical peers who share her love of lyrics and melodies. "Now I love this place. There's so much talent in this city, it's amazing." She takes a moment to contemplate. "But with all the talent, there's also this weirdness of competition. It's not a spoken competition, but it's like, who's gonna get the gig, how many people were there...I don't know. Maybe every town is cliquey. Now in my third year here, I'm totally aware of the cliques with bands. But I don't want to be in any sort of clique.

"I want to be around folks that I think are badass. Period. It's like, if you're badass, I'm there."

Brown's honesty is refreshing but not surprising; her album is laced with unapologetically personal lyrics. Even the title, Sankofa, speaks to the confessional nature of the album. "Sankofa is a Ghanaian word," she explains. "It means 'learning from your past to move forward.'"

"Demond Keith Reed" pays tribute to a four-year-old boy who was murdered in Minneapolis last year, with Brown lamenting, "I wonder, did you know/How precious you are" over the percussive strums of an acoustic guitar. "House on a Hill" delves into the depths of Brown's downfalls and past pains (a "dealing-with-the-demons type song," she says), spanning an epic nine minutes and layering her powerful vocal melodies on top of a cyclical, almost hypnotic guitar part.

In fact, many of the songs on Brown's disc are much longer than the average three-and-a-half-minute pop track, another testament to her penchant for setting her own pace and writing songs on her own terms and with her own voice. "I really work at being a musician," she says, in a moment of quiet seriousness. "I really work at it. The technique, the guitar playing, the saxophone, the vocals. Trying different things or odd things. I like having that purity, I guess. For me, I think that's the only art that I dig—is people that would do it whether anyone was watching or not." 

CHASTITY BROWN will play a CD-release show with Jelloslave on FRIDAY, MARCH 6, at the 331 CLUB; 612.331.1746

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