Chastity Brown - one gig and she was hooked on performing

Chastity Brown could hardly wait to get out of Union City, Tennessee. The epitome of small town America - despite its name, it has a population around the ten thousand mark – in the 1990s, when Brown was a teenager there, Union City had the sort of mind set that made it difficult for this daughter of a black musician and a full-blooded Irishwoman to feel at home.

And yet this deeply religious environment nurtured the very aspect of Brown’s personality that is gaining her increasing recognition with every new collection of songs. She released her fourth album, Back-Road Highways, last year and it backed up assertions that this singer-songwriter has picked up the batons of Leadbelly, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack and Bonnie Raitt. With a voice of an old soul, she also puts this writer in mind of her fellow small town escapee, the marvellous Ruthie Foster, and that’s not a thought to be thrown around lightly.
Brown played saxophone and drums in the local gospel church from the age of twelve but it was being part of a congregation that could sing in five-part harmonies for – easily – two hours before any preaching got done that made her aware of just good singing made her feel.

“Sometimes there wouldn’t be any sermon and we’d just sing,” she says, “and it always felt powerful to be part of that experience. Of course, I was religious then. I broke away from that later but it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve come to realise how natural harmony is to me, and I have the church to thank for that.”

Brown left Union City for seminary school in Baltimore, Maryland at the age of eighteen, leaving her mother, piano-playing older sister and saxophone-playing brother behind (her father had died when she was seven). Seminary school didn’t work out. She was expelled at the end of her first term and moved back home for a few months before taking off for Knoxville, seven hours drive to the east of Union City but still in Tennessee and close to the Appalachian mountains.

By this time she had been playing guitar for a couple of years and writing songs, none of which, she says, she would dream of letting anyone hear now. In Knoxville she sang at intimate venues such as living room and front porch parties until at one of those events she met and jammed with a band who were playing in a bar in town the following night and invited her along. Towards the end of their first set, their singer announced that they had a very dear friend that they wanted to introduce.

“This was news to me,” says Brown. “Nobody had mentioned anything about me singing with them on an actual gig and I was scared to death. But it was also exciting, an intense, mysterious experience, and I was hooked immediately.”
The naïve songs of the twenty-year-old Brown were jettisoned as she developed a storytelling style very much in keeping with the culture of the Southern States where she felt surrounded by a tradition of turning personal experiences into third person narratives. Four years later, in 2006, she moved to Minneapolis and the following year she self-financed and released her first album, Do the Best You Can, which immediately began to cause interest locally before word began to spread further afield.

“My songs are not always about me,” she says. “Not any more, although to begin with my writing was a reflection of me becoming a young adult and getting over my first break-up. Even when something personal that’s happened to me triggers the idea, nowadays I can use that experience to develop a story that’s more universal and while arrangements and strong melodies are important, telling a story is the corner stone of my songwriting.”

On her imminent first visit to Glasgow she’ll be accompanied by pianist Devon Gray, with whom, she says, she can work up quite a groove that she hopes the audience will connect to along with the stories.

“I love singing for other people,” she says. “Much as I love making records, that can be a laborious process and my truest joy is going out on a gig. If they could develop a drug that gave people the same buzz as performing live gives me, it would be way more popular than tobacco.”

From The Herald, September 19, 2013.

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