Chastity Brown has been working steadily on a new album for some time now, having taken a reprieve from the world of music labels and the various corporate concerns therein, choosing instead to revisit her indie roots. (Although she put out several early releases on her own, it was the 2012 album Back Road Highways, released on the Creative & Dreams Music Network, that really broadened her place on the map.) Two years after the release of Back Road Highways, Brown announced that she was planning another release on her own. Although some aspects of the new project would evoke her more homespun origins, it would also be the most ambitious endeavor of her career. For that, she would need funding, which she got via a successful Kickstarter campaign.
“The main difference for me,” she says, contrasting Kickstarter and label backing, “is that, with a label, the focus is on the success of a business transaction, which can feel a bit removed from the heart of things, the music.”
“However,” she adds, “with Kickstarter backing, the focus is a shared experience of the artistic process; it removes the veil. Folks know how much it cost, the hundreds of hours recording, and the emotional ups and downs. It’s quite humbling to ask fans for financial support like that... and I was freakin' blown away by the response!”
She's had a lot of time to let that indie aspect to her recent work sink back in, to immerse herself in it. But, in a way, that might seem to run counter to general expectations surrounding independent artists: Although she's taken a step away from the big business end of things, her audience and renown still continued to grow.
“The difference was night and day”
Brown first broke into the mainstream, after years of hard work and seemingly endless nights spent playing for any small coffee shop crowd who would have her, when the single “After You” hit heavy rotation on Twin Cities radio station 89.3 the Current. From there, her name slowly spread to households everywhere. She had some followup success with the songs “Solely” and “Leroy” as well, and soon she was noticing that things had changed.
“Man... the difference was night and day. After those songs started getting play, I would look out at an audience and realize that it was more than just my friends coming to shows, that these were actually crowds of folks I had never met.”
“That goes the same for the warm welcome I have received in parts of Europe,” she notes. Going into her third European tour, Brown noticed her momentum was still picking up, and her audiences were growing as robustly across the pond as they were back home. The time she spent in Europe was a time spent building even more connections, like the one that landed her performing on BBC2 as a musical guest on Jools Holland's program, Later.
“When we (Devon Gray and I) played on Jools Holland last September, things just blew up for me,” she says, attesting to what Douglas Adams called “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” More succinctly, that's the way in which each new big step builds upon the last and sets the next one up.
At the outset of that tour, Brown told me for an interview on some other blog about the thrill, the disbelief and the overwhelming whirlwindiness, that comes with the realization that countless strangers have grown to love and believe in your music:
"It's still a wild idea to me that I would be invited to play in all of these countries," she said while prepping for the trip. "So I guess its just the show-after-show and city-after-village that I am looking forward to, playing and singing for folks that showed up, and being ever so grateful that they did."
She now attributes her success to the interplay between her own willingness to keep to “the steady grind of playing anytime/anywhere that I’m welcome,” and the attention of institutions like the Current and Jools Holland, “who have an international audience and want to bolster the creations and the career of touring artists.”
She attributes her recent success to “the steady grind of playing anytime/anywhere that I’m welcome,” and the attention of institutions (like the Current and BBC) “who have an international audience and want to bolster the creations and the career of touring artists.”
“It took a bit of restraint to keep my cool”
“It was my first time playing a proper festival tour,” she recounts, “and [my first time] singing for audiences that size.” And while that European tour may have made for some memorable performances, the memories didn't stop there. “The final images of the tour are of driving across the rolling green of Scotland’s highlands,” she says, “to the most northeastern point, to the Isle of Wales. The scenery was akin to a Lord of the Rings movie….crazy beautiful.”
And lest one get the idea that iconic festivals and breathtaking scenery are all there is to it, the experience is shaped as much now as it ever was by the people who show up. “After one of the shows, Billy Bragg came back to where I was hiding out,” she recalls, “and we spent much of the evening engaged in a convo about soul music and the nuances of the civil rights movement. I have respected his fierceness for a long time, so it took a bit of restraint to keep my cool and keep chatting.”
“For now, I’m just enjoying the ride”
Meeting and befriending people on the road is rarely a bad thing. I mean, sure, there are going to be those weird times when someone mistakes you for their BFF because they happen to have bought some album you made once, but such encounters make for a small drop in an otherwise brimming bucket of wonderful people who'll have your back when you need to shake that weirdo off. And, aside from the isolated weirdo, some of the friendships one forges can themselves be a nudge toward the next proverbial big step. Just such a nudge came from a friend Brown made in England.
“I have become friends with a guy in London named Ian Blackby,” she says. “He reps for Ani DiFranco's label, Righteous Babe, in the UK.” Blackby sent some of Brown's new music to DiFranco, then months passed without a word. Then, out of the blue, Brown opened her inbox and found an invitation. “Her agent sent me an email asking if I’d like to go on tour with her,” says Brown. “I emailed Ian thanking him and he said, 'Well... they never even got back to me. They went straight to you instead!'”
DiFranco and Brown are working their way across the Midwest now. They're hitting Chicago on Wednesday, Milwaukee on Friday, and then Madison on Saturday before heading back to Minneapolis to play First Ave’s Mainroom on Sunday. “Although I have been a huge fan for a long time this experience has been my first time meeting her,” she says, noting that she's entering into the arrangements without any expectations. “I would love to sing with her or vice versa, be besties, etc... For now I’m just enjoying the ride, getting to open the shows night after night, and then hearing how in a matter of moments after walking on stage, Ani immediately captivates the room with her glow.”
Life goes on off the road, though, and Brown's got a lot lined up to keep her busy after the tour winds down. For years, she's contributed to charitable projects and events through her music, and she has no plans to stop. “Project for Pride in Living is doing great work empowering low-income families and individuals to become more self-reliant,” she says. “In addition, the Alan Page Education Foundation really has my heart. They provide funding and support of young people of color for college. ...The past four years my band and I have rocked out at their fundraising gala,” says Brown. “I truly admire Alan and Diane — they are just super rad!”
There's also the matter of a promised new album, and it's a release to which she's really looking forward. “The album took a year longer than I thought it would, but I am pleased to say that’s its finally f’ing finished! I will be announcing more info in the coming months about the release date.”
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Find more about Chastity Brown’s music and upcoming performances via her website: www.chastitybrownmusic.com. Brown is currently touring with Ani DiFranco and will perform at First Avenue in Minneapolis on Sunday, April 10, 2016 at 7 pm.
Author Rob Callahan is a regular contributor to Mn Artists and host of the American Underground podcast. His past work in journalism has garnered a Marconi award, Associated Press awards, and recognition from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; and his novels, short stories, and works of satire boast a robust global fanbase.