Ani DiFranco-approved Folk Singer/songwriter Chastity Brown Comes to Greensboro
The singer and songwriter Chastity Brown was raised playing music in a Pentecostal church in western Tennessee. But she didn’t stay focused on the church for too long. She got kicked out of seminary school in Baltimore when she was 19 or so and ended up for a time, back in Tennessee, on the other side of the state in Knoxville, playing music and going to school.
Brown, who’s 35 years old now and has been making records for the last 10 years, eventually headed north, making her home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She’s been out on tour several times opening for Ani DiFranco over the past couple years, and joining DiFranco as a sort of floating member of the folk-singer’s band for parts of the set.
She had just returned a few weeks ago from dates in Europe with DiFranco and on July 22 at 8 p.m., Brown will play Greensboro’s intimate Backyard Stage.
Her most recent record, “Silhouette Of Sirens,” came out in May on Red House Records. The album, which is her fifth studio effort, showcases Brown’s singing, which can move from sultry rasp to soulful falsetto. Her songs tackle heartache, struggle, longing and endurance. Fans of artists as diverse as Amos Lee, Al Green, Melissa Etheridge and Prince will find plenty to like about Brown’s style, which blends pop hooks, mellow funk, folk storytelling and flashes of gospel zeal.
The record is a full-band affair, but she’s been doing some shows as a duo with guitars and vocals, aided by gadgets. Some of the material on the recent record, her first since 2012’s “Back-Road Highways,” has a brooding, atmospheric quality that still possesses a powerful forward motion, a vaguely retro late-’80s vibe, part Don Henley, part War On Drugs, like on the driving and excellent, “Wake Up.”
Brown, who plays mostly guitar and piano, (but who can also play some banjo and saxophone,) said her songs need to be able to stand up in the stripped-down setting. She said that she and her songwriting partner Robert Mulrennan sometimes evaluate a song based on how strong it is without elaborate accompaniment.
“If a song cannot be sung with just an acoustic guitar and a voice, it’s not a strong song,” she said. “It all begins with an acoustic environment.”
Her early musical experience in the church may have given Brown the skill and power to propel a song with force of spirit.
“When you’re singing gospel, you literally sing from your gut,” she said. “It’s an environment where people are singing out of their emotional experience, as full throttle. That’s how I sing now. It almost seems sometimes like something has taken hold of me.”
Brown taps into the emotional experience in her writing, but it’s a fraught exercise. Brown said she’s come to realize that she was capable of becoming detached from her emotions — and not necessarily in a good way — due to traumatic childhood experiences and an abusive stepfather. Trying to probe and explore those feelings as part of writing her most recent material wasn’t something she particularly enjoyed.
“I hope that I do not write another album like this because it was painful,” Brown said.
The line between creative candor and a gut-spilling therapy session is one that might be hard to navigate as a songwriter. Artists reveal their inner torment, but they have to learn how to know when the results are going to be meaningful to others. Brown likes to quote author James Baldwin—an idol of hers— who said, “I tell you my pain so that I might relieve you of yours.”
In Brown’s case that meant churning out a lot of material that never made the cut.
“That’s part of the reason why I think I took so long to write this album,” Brown said. “I wrote shit-tons of songs, and a lot of them were songs that were never meant to leave my living room.”
If the emotional excavation of songwriting can involve touching on tender nerves, the musical and melodic aspect of it can be more effortless. Brown describes her ongoing songwriting collaboration with Mulrennan as one of the coolest, most organic musical experiences she’s ever had.
“He can just play a couple chords over and over again, and it evokes a story and a melody, and it falls out of my mouth,” she said.
Keeping that creative pipeline open is part of what Brown sees as her job.
“The goal is to always write as much as possible, because you just never know, and because it’s fun,” she said.
Musicians often have to contend with having their work flattened by a verbal or visual shorthand, whether it’s the genre tag — is it folk, or is it soul, or is it indie-rock? — or by the kind of aura projected in a promo photo — are they playful or are they solemn? But Brown probably faces an even more relentless set of assumptions based on how she might appear to some.
As a biracial woman who’s been in a long-standing relationship with another woman; as someone who plays both electric guitar, banjo, saxophone and piano; and as someone who’s both a northerner and a southerner, there’s a tendency for people to want to make her music about those kinds of boundary-blurring elements. She remarks that people seem to want to talk about her hair a lot.
Brown was raised by the white side of her family and she said she didn’t fully get immersed in black culture until she was a teenager and her sister married into an all-black family. But she’s been energetic about writing her music from and for the marginalized perspective, as she sees it, speaking out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter at her shows, and happily serving as a kind of role model for what she calls the “little-mixed girls” who identify with her because of her family history.
On the one hand, Brown is well aware that representations of black and brown women in popular culture — on magazine covers, in politics and on T.V. — are often narrow, and in need of counterbalancing correctives.
“Little girls of color really don’t get to see strong women that look like them,” she said. “We’re just not represented in a mass societal way.”
At the same time, Brown doesn’t want her role as an artist to be focused on educating white audiences about the experience of being black or brown in America.
“I don’t always feel like talking about the experience of being a brown person, just because I would prefer sometimes for the music to speak for itself or speak on my behalf,” Brown said.
Her travels around the world, her observational perspective and her focus on a kind of radical empathy — all of it’s taught Brown that certain aspects of human experience are universal.
“If you’re poor anywhere in the world, it’s a struggle. If you’ve fallen in love and that love dissipated, it hurts,” Brown said. “Suffering is the same in every language, and so is joy.”
See Chastity Brown at Backyard Stage in Greensboro on Saturday, July 22 at 8 p.m., $20. For information visit backyardstage.com
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.