Discovering Chastity Brown
Chastity Brown is trying to avoid having to explain all that genre stuff. She knows it can amount to little beyond here’s another colored woman with a guitar. This is always the problem with that genre stuff. It can provide an illuminating description, and it also can keep us from listening. Chastity Brown wants to remind us, there is more to this human experience than just one thing. The only way to hear her message is to listen.
I first heard Chastity Brown after I had just finished reading If Beale Street Could Talk. She was playing with her band at the Clown Lounge in mid-July and I had been thinking about the part in Beale Street where Sharon goes on an impossible errand to some hip nightclub in Cuba. The band on stage is singing “My Lord and I.”
That song is Birmingham, her father and her mother, the kitchens, and the mines. She may never, in fact, ever have particularly liked that particular song, but she knows about it, it is part of her. She slowly realizes that this is the song, which, to different words if words indeed there are, the young people on the bandstand are belting, or bolting out. And they know nothing at all about the song they are singing: which causes Sharon to wonder if they know anything about themselves at all.
Sharon should have come to the Clown Lounge. Chastity Brown sounds like she knows about the songs she is singing. She also sounds like she knows about herself. There’s a beauty to being alive that I can’t quite name, but I think the root aspect of it is often there in the songs. She sounds like she knows the things she knows about herself because she is singing the songs she is singing.
Chastity Brown’s most recent album, Back-Road Highways, is a reverent celebration of life’s elusive beauty. On the first track, “House Been Burnin“, Brown introduces us to a broken-voiced singer: Oh just listen to him now/As he’s breakin all his chains! We celebrate with him, but beauty lies in the work still ahead: Don’t be scared, love/Just do what you got ’cause/You gotta do what you gotta do. When Brown describes her own impossible errand, on “Solely“, beauty lies in not rushing the work: Had a day to get there/So I took my sweet time. She stretches across a full album the kind of hopeful solemnity that Roberta Flack conjures in ”Go Up Moses,” and her arrangements are similarly patient. On ”Leroy” or “Could’ve Been a Sunday” or “If You Let Me” there are moments when it sounds like the guitar riffs from Flack’s song have been drawn over an Indigo Girls arrangement of Cat Power’s ”Good Woman.”
Punctuating this mood is “After You.” This is the sound of joy in progress. It is the kind of song that pulls reticent revelers out of the shade at the Red Stag Block Party so they can dance in the sun. It is the celebration that underscores every quieter celebration on Back-Road Highways. It proves every point Linus ever made about banjos. It is simply one of the most goddamned exuberant songs I have ever heard.
The refrain sounds like a lovingly specific nod to Chastity Brown’s musical influences: And I was aaa-fter yo-uuu! Asked how she was preparing for her 2010 album, High Noon Teeth, she responded, Listening to Sam Cooke, The Be Good Tanyas, Ray LaMontagne, Nina Simone, Buddy Guy. Asked in September about her most important models, she replied:
Van Morrison and Nina Simone are probably my hugest influences. And then as far as peers in my age group, folks like David Gray. When Lauryn Hill did her Unplugged album, after doing all that stuff with the Fugees … It offended a lot of people. She just let it all hang out in such a graceful way but in such a fierce, uncompromising way. People like David Gray, I’m like, “Wow, he’s telling a story.” And then people like Lauryn Hill refuse to compromise. So I was like, “Wow, you can be a woman, and you can tell these stories, and you can also not compromise.” It just kinda has become what I do.
She makes it sound inevitable, but Chastity Brown has worked painstakingly to tell these stories. On her first album, Do The Best You Can, she insisted, I shall not forget my name. As if to make certain, she arranged her second album, Sankofa, around acoustic autobiographical exorcisms. It was really all about me…[T]here 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. Lauryn Hill speaking before “Adam Lives in Theory” could be Chastity Brown speaking before “House on a Hill.” I know that a lot of the content is very heavy, you know, but fantasy is what people want but reality is what people need.
When the album came out, Brown explained that “Sankofa” means learning from your past to move forward. The word is often associated with a proverb: it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten. Matthew Houck unwittingly gave the musical definition in his answer to a question about the songs on his Willie Nelson tribute album. They were my earliest musical memories, though some of them I heard later on.
Chastity Brown’s songwriting is rooted in these kinds of personal truths; the kind that have been long-obscured yet remain central to a person’s identity. That night at the Clown Lounge Chastity Brown closed with “Summertime” from Porgy & Bess. She and her band burned through a smoldering cover and she speculated, I wonder what Gershwin would say if he heard this. He’d probably be like, what? I had never liked that particular song. I had never felt like I knew about that particular song. And that particular song had certainly never felt like it was a part of me. That changed when I heard Chastity Brown’s cover. ”Summertime” suddenly sounded like something I was learning about my own past – like one of my earliest musical memories, only I was hearing it later on. It sounded like discovering something I had forgotten.
Songwriting is how I became myself, Chastity Brown says. Something magical happens when you open a space with honesty and no bull-shit. Her music becomes a space for discovering there is more to this human experience than just one thing.