Chastity Brown has been making the rounds in the Twin Cities over the past nine years, playing every local venue, trying to balance the hustle with making music she can stand behind. She’s five albums deep, and yet it feels a bit like she’s just getting started. Coming off a big national tour supporting Ani DiFranco, she’s releasing her latest, Silhouette of Sirens. Over three years in the making, it’s an album she recorded almost to completion, only to scrap it and start over, leaving her Kickstarter supporters wondering if they had been scammed. I was fortunate enough to get Chastity on the phone to discuss this among other things, like how a Tennessee girl ends up in Minnesota and why it’s important to her to be upfront with her audience about current social issues, even if it makes them uncomfortable.
When did you start writing these songs?
I began writing…oh my goodness, a good three years ago. Then I started recording them and got to a point two years ago where I thought I was nearing completion of the album. And then I realized one day that I didn’t like anything that was happening and cancelled it all and scrapped everything and had to begin again. So yeah, so these songs have been worked on for a good three years.
What was the reason for the overhaul? Other than, just not really feeling it?
There were a couple reasons, mainly how I perform live, has always been distinctly different than how I appear on my albums and that was beginning to happen again on the first wave of the recording process and I didn’t realize it until 6 months in…the thing you like about albums sometimes is that it’s this emotional rollercoaster and for me sometimes, can be even stronger when you get the sense that people are creating it in the room together, so that’s what I needed to happen and that why I said scrap it all and just begin again and get all the guys in the same room at the same time.
It sounds like you went through a lot of personal growth making this album, can you elaborate on that?
Oh, it’s funny cause, uh.. I talk about this with my other artist friends and my other friends who are writers, journalists… as you are. Often times your life reflects your work and your work reflects your life in these ways that are not always obvious to us. And that’s what happened with several of these songs. I had my own relationship to it as the writer and the author but what I was realizing on a subconscious level I was filtering through some of my own emotional experiences in that landscape but I was separating the two. Maybe very Gemini, maybe just what it means to be a human. You just compartmentalize. So yeah I just was going through a lot privately but still writing.
Just the emotional process, I was going through some really difficult shit and that’s what this album allowed me to — I don’t know how to explain it. It was a physical manifestation of the various emotions that I was going through. It made me acutely sensitive to other people’s shit, to other people’s struggles. That is the hope of humanity, that you would be able to recognize your own struggles, and therefore hopefully be able to recognize other people’s, and have a sense of humanity between the two and that’s what I think happened.
I know you’re originally from Tennessee, what brought you to Minnesota?
I came up here with a friend of mine that was going to grad school at the U [of M] and her parents lived here and her father – I was really good friends with her family. Her father was like, “I’ll pay to have your stuff moved if you wanna move to Minnesota.” And I have such a nomadic heart that I was just like “Cool”. and I didn’t know anything about Minnesota. And I say this often when I’m doing Midwestern shows, I had never heard the term “Norwegian”. I had no idea that was a cultural identity in America; I was like, “a Nor-what?” You know so, I think this place is really fascinating. It’s so different from the South. So that’s how I came up, I just followed a friend and now it’s 12 years later and I’m still here.
What do you like best about living here?
Oh God, there’s so much. We have really good restaurants in Minneapolis. The music scene here, the art scene in general here is just, on fire. There are so many new bands and reconfigurations of established artists and their new projects, I’m just really blown away by the artistry here. It feels like I found my tribe in that sort of way. You know in music business terms it’s like a fly-over city but, yeah there’s that and you can bike everywhere. If you can make it through the winter, in the spring you can experience a joy that you didn’t even know existed.
The first 40 degree day!
That shit is so real!
It truly is.
It definitely is, it’s just a really supportive art scene. And none of us do the same thing. And that I feel like, is really awesome.
What do you think the role of artists is in the current political climate? Do you think it’s important for artists to take a stand and put their stake in the ground? And if so, why?
That’s a really good question because some artists whose music I admire, I’ve been watching to see what they will say about the current climate and the fear that a lot of Americans, immigrants are feeling, particularly people of color at the moment. I actually just did an interview last night and I was on MPR with Kerri Miller and we were talking about activism and I didn’t intentionally, I was invited as an activist and I had apprehension about going on air as an activist. And then I realized that in the last two years I’ve been more vocal about things than ever because I’m at a point where I can’t not say something especially when it comes, for me in particular, when it comes to Black Lives Matter. It is imperative to not just entertain people. The beauty of art in my opinion is we can all let our views to coalesce, our artwork in a way that we feel like we’re still sharing our art but not pigeonholing our art to be like activist anarchist, so I try to talk about things organically in shows.
I have a privilege to be on stage, no matter how big the audience, I feel like it’s a true privilege to have a microphone and when you’re the loudest person in the room, why not address some very, important social issues. At the same time I do also love going to a show, there’s a certain amount of grace with that. I think that comedians — I really take cues from certain comedians, like Chris Rock, you’re laughing you’re laughing and then bam, he hits you with a real truth, but he doesn’t leave you there for too long. I think that that’s a really powerful technique as an entertainer to do that pop moment. Here is a slap in the face with reality but let’s still have a good time. So yeah I do think it’s important for artists to use their privilege with being the loudest and most visible thing in the room at times. Why not?
Are you concerned about saying too much? Are you afraid if you do say too much that you may be alienating some of your fans and does it matter?
That used to matter but it doesn’t matter anymore, in particular within the context of what I usually say which is talking about valuing human life. What that means sometimes is that will make people uncomfortable in the room, particularly us liberal folk are very touch sensitive. The pattern is you get embarrassed for not knowing something and then you get defensive for being embarrassed and I try with my shows, to literally tell people, I know you’re uncomfortable right now but we can sit together and be uncomfortable.
That’s a perfect thing to say.
But again as we started this question, touring with Ani so much, we toured with her for almost 8 months last year. And seeing first hand someone who’s been doing this for 25 years whose sole platform is the social issues that she’s most concerned with. Her whole — since she busted out the scene at age 18/19. It’s incredible to see someone stand in their own integrity. It made me want to stand in MY own integrity and if people aren’t down with that, that’s cool. Fine, go find something you’re down with. But try not to allow yourself to be a totally desensitized human being. But I can’t do that for people. But yeah touring with Ani, I was like “Crap, I’m not going to be afraid anymore to say what matters.” It’s just inexcusable I think.
If you could choose how people see you, as a woman, as an artist, how do you want to be known, how do you?
Depending on how I answer that people could say I have a huge ego. I would want people to see me first as an artist and to try to listen to the music and see if they’re moved by it, other than any other personal story about myself. My music is my trumpet. I hope that they get a sense of honesty. I feel like the power of the people I love, the artists I love you get the sense that they’re fully themselves and there’s something so enticing about that.
You want people to see you as being authentic and true to yourself.
Yeah and I want them to hear beautiful music. I want people to see an artist who is also a woman, who is also bi-racial. But first and foremost, I want them to hear a soulful voice that feels honest.
You’ve been working with Robert Mulrennan for a long time, what’s special about that partnership? What makes it work so well?
We started jamming almost 8 years ago and during that whole time we would write songs together. Bobby’s also an incredible guitarist so he would play in my band but then on the side we would just write all these songs together. And so the nature of our process is that, over these 8 years, we’ve had time to develop this type of intuitive rapport…
I have had so many writing sessions and jams throughout my life being a musician. And I have never responded to someone else’s playing so immediately, so immediately as I did to Robert’s. What happens is sometimes he’ll just send me something that he’s created so he’ll create this instrumental demo and see if I wanna write to it. It’s almost like a rapper, like rappers have these dudes that make beats for them. He’ll send me something and it’s as though it’s a song that I needed to write. And as I’m listening to this instrumental, I’ll see this whole story. And then I just try to sing it or pen it down quick enough to get it out.
The song “Wake Up” that’s a lead single, Bobby and I had a writing session and often times at our writing sessions we’ll get super distracted with [something] new, we won’t finish songs. Which also a part of the songs that appear on this album that we wrote together, we were finally like, after 8 years we need to fuckin finish some of these songs. But we were working on a song and we were walking into the studio and Bobby was like, I have this new idea and I was like, I don’t wanna hear it. I just wanna finish what we were working on yesterday. I do not wanna hear this new idea. And he was like, just let me play this for you, and he started playing it and literally what you hear on the album, on Wake Up, is exactly what I sang the first time I heard it. He started playing it, I started singing it and he turned on a mic and pressed record and it’s just one take. It’s just insane.
You signed with Red House at the end of last year, how has it been being on their label? What can you tell us about how that relationship transpired?
Red House is very patient. When I was still making this album a couple years ago, they were pursuing me which was quite flattering and it took me a year to decide. I wasn’t finished with the album and I didn’t know what I wanted. I sat down and finally made a list of the things I wanted and they were the type of label that could fulfill that. The previous label that I worked with was really dysfunctional and really manipulative as you can see in the music business. That’s a common story. That’s another reason why I was really hesitant. Red House, they have their shit together. They’re so professional; I’m not used to it. They’re a great crew and it feels good to have folks that believe in what you do and don’t try to — as an artist we’re all sensitive about people augmenting our work and augmenting how we want to be seen in the world as artists. Red House is just really supportive and respectful of my artistic vision and that is invaluable. In this business that is freakin invaluable.
What have been your biggest challenges trying to sustain your living as an artist? Or challenges just trying to get your art in people’s hands regardless of the monetary piece?
That’s the other component of why this has taken so long to release this album. It’ll be two years in July that we actually finished the album and then we went on tour in Europe and came back and I hit the ground running. There was a good solid year of, and I’m not even joking, any manager that would take a phone call or respond to an email or any booking agent, any potential lead for someone who would want to lock arms with me. It’s been a long hard process. It has not been easy at freakin’ all but at the same time, because of all of those humbling, very humbling moments, I feel more than ever that I can articulate what matters for me and that I can stand up for myself.
When I turned 33 I was like, I’m not gonna fuck around, this is my Jesus Christ slash Buddha year where big shit happens and I just decided to be more ambitious than I ever have but I didn’t realize the emotional toll that would take. People aren’t really honest with what that takes out of a person to really drive and try to get meetings, trying to get this. I had to step back and do some self-healing and do some therapy and a consistent workout schedule a consistent time where I break away from my computer and all internet related things. I had to set up some healthy boundaries to be ambitious and still be sane. It still is shocking to me to realize that I still do have what i actually worked for, as far as a team goes.
It must be so validating.
I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve been hustling at such a high volume for so long, I get worried over nothing now. Cause there’s nothing for me to truly worry about, I get worried over nothing now. It feels good not to be alone in this thing with sharing my music with the world. This is an international release, it’s not just MN. It’s really fuckin awesome that people would want to step out in front of me and wanna share this. It’s a lot of fuckin work.
Sarah Osterbauer is a die-hard music lover. When she does her budget each month, food comes after concert tickets. Find her on twitter @SarahOwrites.