Chastity Brown’s robustly-rooted songs have an irresistible audible nearness, and a striking candor I imagine many musicians aspire to but rarely achieve. Whether she is backed by drums, harmonica, or saxophone her voice pours over her guitar with a deep honesty inspired by harsh truths she has lived through and studied throughout her young life. Chastity turns truths into beautiful stories we must believe in and listen to carefully; stories of her past echo the solid, happy groove, tinged with tiny bits of sadness, and land a firm grip upon what’s important in life.
I meet Chastity at a south Minneapolis pub on a busy Saturday evening to discuss exactly where she is now with her music, and how she has evolved into the musician she is today, a singer who is one of Minneapolis’ most promising young artists. Chastity moved to Minneapolis five years ago at the age of 22, but she hails from Tennessee, where her stepfather worked at the Goodyear tire plant in Union City, two hours north of Memphis. According to Wikipedia, Union City has a population of about 10,000 and is famous for two things: the Goodyear plant, and having been the location of a minor Civil War battle in 1864. But Chastity doesn’t mention anything about the Civil War battle when she meets Paper Darts Magazine’s co-founder Jamie Millard and I to chat and discuss her upcoming album.
“I left Tennessee because I needed to experience a new region. I absolutely love the place and found the decision quite difficult. My musician friends there are pretty freakin’ gifted writers. This filtered its way through my system and remained a foundation, the root, for where I am now.”
Before answering a question, Chastity’s face bends into a deeply pensive expression that worries the inexperienced professional conversationalist inside of me, but culminates in a thoughtful and friendly answer. When I ask if she prefers playing live shows to recording albums, she explains that to play live requires a kind of repetitive energy that “is where it’s at with this type of music. It’s all about roots, rhythm, story. Something that will offend you, something that will make you cry, whatever. That is kind of where we are right now,” she says, and I get the feeling that that’s where Chastity and her band plan to stay.
Jenna Beyer: You mentioned that you’re getting more critical of your music, and that your newest work has more layers than ever before. Do you feel like the new album is not a plateau or a peak, but perhaps a summit on your musical path?
Chastity Brown: Yeah. My last album, Sankofa, was really dark. But my creative process wanted me to be really honest first. It was really about me. There were other stories, it wasn’t all “me me me” [she strums a fake guitar]. But there were some key elements—like race, being a mixed woman, sexual abuse. I completely laid that out and I never want to sing that again, but it was all me. This [new] album is a broader scope and you have these experiences that trigger this one thought and it becomes another piece. I definitely feel like I have grown and I hope that translates.
JB: Do you feel that artists have inherent talents or gifts, or do you believe an artist must simply grow and develop through hard work?
CB: I think that each needs the other because early on you recognize that you have talent or you desire to play. You know you want to write or to play even if you don’t know how. I feel like it’s in my blood and it is so a part of me…it developed into an obsession. “How can I get better? What do I need to know to get better? Who will teach me?”
And it has to do with identity. That is how I became myself. I feel a lot, and I can’t cut that off, and this was my only way to filter through things. I went to this play a few months ago and I saw this 11-year-old kid sing “His Eyes on a Sparrow” [a Gospel classic made famous by various soul singers] and I was just blown away. You know that feeling—that child can sing. So I feel that at some point in my early teens I had a realization that I can do this or I have a connection in this way.
JB: It seems that artists have several moments when it becomes clear to them that their art can move an audience. When was your moment?
CB: I think I have been slow to learn that. I would replace the word ‘move’ with ‘connect.’ I just started playing at friend’s houses, at parties and stuff. Folks would want to talk about what I sang, how it made them feel. I realized that by me singing what I feel is honest to me…something magical happens when you open a space with honesty and no bull-shit.
JB: Next, I ask her about the position of the soul singer in the Amy Winehouse age. Chastity worries for a moment about sounding offensive and then responds at our urging.
CB: “Soul singer” has become this broad term, because back in the day it was like a black people’s way of singing. And there are all sorts of people I’m listening to right now who are white and have this soul voice, and I’m buying their albums and stuff. But you go into any church in the South and you can find a black woman who has a soulful voice. But someone like Amy Winehouse sells out because she belts it out.
Back in the days of Nina Simone, they were singing in response and they were really freaking active with what was going on. So now they are like icons. But soul singers today just do that “ooh” and “ahh.” Seventy-eight percent of blues has always been about relationships and sex and that has always been kind of this common theme and when you have these soul singers today, that theme becomes natural. But someone like Mary J. Blige is the soul singer of our generation because she taps into the emotions of sexuality, getting over drug addiction, et cetera. And the fucking honesty, it is deep. Whereas the media’s market is on R&B relationship stuff.
JB: I inquire further about the “selling out” aspect, and ask her if the desire to not go commercial is still a part of the music, or if it has been separated.
CB: Well, that was a way to get respect as a black person, just barely. [Back then] if you made it as a black person you might get a little more clout. You might be able to do what you love. But now, all the music I love now and the folks that I dig, that whole scenario can never be replayed because of media and technology.
JB: It seems kind of backwards. They didn’t have as much money, but they weren’t selling out as much. It is different to be broke now, maybe because more people are selling out now.
CB: Yeah. Capitalism, woooo! [all laugh] Ultimately, if I could make a living playing music that would be my goal—do it on a grassroots level and make connections. Tom Waits plays all over the world, but do you know who his wife is, what he wears, what he eats? No. So maybe you can still put your album out there without selling out. There are just so many musicians out there. I apply to play at festivals and there are thousands of others applying too, like, “listen to me.”
Bob Marley, for example. Everyone listens to his music and smokes pot, but he stopped a fucking war in his country. But who actually knows that? When you mention Bob Marley everyone is like “oh yeah, that Rastafarian.” That is what commercialism does and I don’t want to be a part of that.
JB: Next I ask Chastity if she’s a ruthless editor of her recordings, or if she gets attached easily.
CB: Both. I get pretty defensive when someone wants to make a change because I’m like, “well, you weren’t fucking listening, because that’s what I wanted to do.” Last year I was at a completely different place, like I felt that if I didn’t record an album all my different songs would be lost. Now we want to capture again where we are. But the process is just grueling because, ultimately, I am the leader of the band and I am trying to drag the band through my thought process. I want there to be a hand-clap. I’m not sure where it will be, but I know it will be there. I am learning to be less defensive and thus Adam (the bassist) can have the freedom to suggest the perfect placement for such ideas.
JB: How are you preparing for your upcoming album?
CB: Rehearsal after rehearsal after rehearsal. Listening to Sam Cooke, The Be Good Tanyas, Ray LaMontagne, Nina Simone, Buddy Guy. I like the feeling of being in the same room as the musicians. And that is what we are trying to accomplish.
JB: What visual artists and musicians have excited you recently?
CB: Anne Meyer, a woman in St. Cloud. Saw some of her work for the first time this week and was in complete awe. Brilliant visual artist.
No Bird Sing, a local hip-group in Minneapolis. And Toshi Reagon. She takes hold of any genre of music and does what she wants with it.
JB: Wrapping up, I ask Chastity to describe her position on contemporary feminism, and the role of feminism in our current day and age.
CB: Well, now there are several different groups asking for the same thing. Now we can all band together and ask for the same thing and call out the bullshit. It isn’t just women. It’s minorities, low-income families, they can all tap into the same thing. I just see it as something so much more broad that we need to connect to as humans and tap into that.
For more information visit The Cedar Cultural Center.
Visit Chastity Brown's Myspace.
Interview by Jenna Beyer