Chastity Brown releases Back-Road Highways
Chastity Brown is a difficult musician to pin down. She belongs to no genre, because what she does is beyond folk, blues, soul, or any hyphenated combination of those categories. Her poetic lyrics seep into your bones. They're rich as the Tennessee soil where she was raised, and as immediate as southern gospel.
The Minneapolis-based artist is on the cusp of releasing her fourth studio album, Back-Road Highways. Although she isn't new to this whole music industry thing, a normally relaxed Brown begins this interview by admitting her anxiety ahead of the upcoming CD-release show at the Cedar Cultural Center on Saturday.
"I've been more stressed than ever," says Brown, coffee in hand, in a voice scratchy from rehearsals. "Musically, we've been drilling it. It would be the equivalent of writing for five or six hours a day.... And we've been drilling for four or five months, trying to hone in on our craft, make things tight."
This new album is her first with her new label, Creative and Dreams Music Network, and the first time she has worked with an executive producer; it ushers in a new take on performing.
"One of the pieces of feedback that I got early on was a hard pill to swallow, which was when [executive producer] Fred Cannon was like, 'Once the spirit hits you, you lose control, and I would never tell you to not let the spirit hit you, but you gotta learn how to control that so that when you are full of emotion, you don't scream your lyrics instead of singing them,'" recounts Brown. "And right away I was like, 'Fuck that,' and I hung up on him right away. But then I thought about it, and I knew he was right. That's a concrete concept I've never thought of, and that one nugget was such a pivotal change."
That same level of unabashed authenticity is expected at the Cedar show. Brown's revamped her lineup with Heiruspecs pianist DeVon Gray and bassist Jef Sundquist (Hildur Victoria). The night's special guests: the Hummingbirds, Aby Wolf, and the New Primatives' Stan and Chico.
"We're pulling out all the stops," she says. "It's like the whole operation has gotten a facelift."
The same day of the Cedar show, copies of Back-Road Highways will be distributed to 4,000 radio stations across Europe and South Africa. Brown says she's feeling less panicked at this point, and sounds more like a humble industry pro again.
"A number like 4,000 isn't even in my vocabulary," she says. "I'll consider it a big deal if even 40 of those stations play [the album]. The point is that there's more going on outside of Minneapolis...but it's contingent on what people think of the record."
And there are plenty of entry points. The album's opening track, "House Been Burnin'," is a sultry, deep, red southern torch of a song, where Brown flaunts her blues influence. "If You Let Me" incorporates a slow-burning electric organ for a heady gospel sound, and "Solely" starts like an echoey prayer.
But if there can be only one standout track, it's "Leroy." Brown's smooth vocals gently encourage a man, with whom anyone can relate, to continue on: "If I cannot cross the ocean/And I cannot climb the mountain/And I cannot hold the shapeless in my hand/But I can try to lift it up/Oh now Leroy, I need you to get up/I need you to get ready/We're leaving in the morn/Oh now Leroy, I need you to trust me/'Cause where we're heading/I've never seen before." Over the course of that five-minute track, her dark, honeyed voice will break your heart into a million pieces and sew it back up like a precious patchwork quilt.
"Leroy is just a character," Brown explains. "Before recording the song, I only had the chorus.... Both verses are completely improv and off the cuff. I sang the whole song just once, which is exactly how you hear it on the record. When the song was over, Paul [Buono, the producer] and I looked at each other and were like, 'What the fuck just happened?' It was magical. We didn't record anything more that night. In that moment, nothing could have surpassed that."
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