Record of the Week: Chastity Brown’s ‘Sing To the Walls’

We’ve probably never been more primed to look and listen for messages in music, some indication of where a performer stands and who they stand with, what causes they want to draw attention to and what controversies they’re keen to comment on. Parsing of lyrics has become an intense, communal internet activity, and so has auditing liner note credits, and we expect artists to spell out their viewpoints in interviews.

Over many years of performing, first in Tennessee, then in her current home of Minneapolis and listening rooms all over the world, Chastity Brown has observed and experienced these dynamics. For a while, she was willing to perform the labor of educating her audiences on the threats to survival and thriving in Black and queer communities that she’s part of. But that’s exhausting work. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and her own nephew’s beating by police, the grief, rage and helplessness, the times she hosed down her fence to keep it from burning in her city’s uprising, she chose to make a whole different kind of statement on her latest album, Sing To the Walls.

The weight of what Brown has witnessed is present in these 10 songs, to be sure, but what she devotes the greatest energy and imagination to is the act of savoring. She unfurls a glorious reminiscence about the summer that a flirtation heated up, backed by the Minnesota Orchestra’s cursive string lines, her own performance alternating between swagger and serenade (“Like the Sun”). Over the slippery insistence of a four-on-the-floor groove, she summons the intoxicating pleasure of getting behind the wheel in unencumbered youth (“Beak Seat”).

When white indifference toward the devaluing of Black lives stokes her simmering rage, she avoids eruptive expression in favor of pointing us toward her capacious depths of emotion with lines sung through clenched teeth, and toward what she would rather put on display: regal self-love (“Golden”). “I’ve got joy even when I’m a target,” she exults. “If you think that’s political, don’t get me started/You know I’m golden, and I flaunt it.” She slyly repeats herself for good measure, “You know it’s true,” stretching out the last word with a multi-note, R&B run.

Throughout the album, Brown’s singing conceals as much as it reveals. She unspools her words in unhurried, unruffled fashion, curls her syllables into mysterious shapes, suggests that she knows far more than she’s letting on, and that she finds that a satisfying position to be in. There’s grit to her voice and rhythmic flexibility to her phrasing, which spreads and contracts in response to drum patterns beneath it. Some of those parts are supple and hand-played, others crisp and programmed and all are the result of her teaming with two drummers, Brady Blade and Greg Schutte, as her co-producers, a choice that not just any singer-songwriter would make. Brown knew that that would give her a lot more to play with. 

On the Record: A Q&A with Chastity Brown

Jewly Hight: You are so rooted in Minneapolis at this point in time that people may not be aware that you grew up in small-town western Tennessee, started playing out in East Tennessee. At this point, what aspects of your artistry, your sensibilities, your worldview do you trace back to those earlier Tennessee days?

Chastity Brown: That’s an interesting question, because my identity is Southern, but at the same time, I do feel at home here in Minneapolis.

I remember while I was like asking friends of mine to listen to what I was working on, they were like, “Oh yeah, this is blues.” And I was like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Please don’t say that. I don’t want to be referenced to the blues at all.” And then these two dear friends of mine were like, “You’re a queer, Black woman. It’s so close to the blues I didn’t even realize it. But I’d run away from the terminology, because I thought it was reductive. I thought it was basically just blue-eyed folks now and then, some of the elders, you know?

JH: That is true, in a very real way.

CB: Right. And so what is it for the daughter of a blues musician to experience very much my own reclamation of the term.

So to answer your question, I’m even more conscious of my roots and am hoping that the elders and my father, I just was like, “I want you all to know I’ve listened and I’ve tried to do something new, but I’m also taking control over the genre.” I can’t believe how ashamed I felt to be connected to such a rich tradition.

So now it’s the concept of, “What does any bloom look like from a root system of a plant?” They’re all different. I feel connected to my many peers, my many Southern, Black peers. And then I also feel like I’m doing my interpretation of what has been our imprint.

JH: The way that you sing, especially your phrasing, your enunciation is so distinct, part of of your unique, artistic fingerprint. You’ve been singing for quite a while now. When you reflect back at this point, how would you say that you developed your vocal style?

CB: About four years ago was when the producer I was working with was like, “What is that? What are these words that you’re singing?” It was like really basic English words. And he was like, “Can you please shape the vowel differently?”

I was raised in the South with a Boston, Irish mother, so there’s certain things that my mother says. It’s this combination. I wasn’t born in Tennessee. My entire Irish side of my family is in New Hampshire. I lived there ’til I was six, then moved to Tennessee. And so for me, I think similarly, when it comes to my music, people have always been like “blurred genres.” I am a mixed raced individual who experiences a life of duality. And my music sounds like that; I’m half Irish, half Black.

I’m giggling because it’s taken me so long to realize that the definition that I’ve given people over time was a definition that they couldn’t process, but that didn’t make it any less defining for me. I am a combination of my upbringing and I appreciate your recognizing these points in more like the perspective of creation.

When I’m singing, I do get obsessed with how notes are connecting and I try to be conscious of when I growl, because that can be exhausting on my vocal cords. So I don’t growl as much. But I let other musical moments, i.e. my piano playing, my guitar playing my drummer, the rest of the band, I let them do those moments for me. So there’s a way in which I think about how can I spread out the emotion that I’m trying to convey.

JH: I’m sure it’s a combination of speaking to lived experience, and also creative interpretation. I mean, it’s like you’re using language and placing emphasis and I can sense you doing that, you know, that aspect of communication and expression. When you sing that, there’s so much more to it than just a note and a lyric.

CB: I obsess over Shakespeare’s power and authority with language and creating new words. And I get so curious, like we have the Urban Dictionary. But within the genre definitions of music, I’m very curious about the opportunity to create new definitions and as a way to shine a brighter light on individuality and queerness. It’s like queer folk, we literally make up how we want to live, because it’s not represented in society naturally. Then maybe it’s quite possible that that would morph itself into the way I shape my words. Like, why not be creative? I do think in the terms of soul blues, in terms of talking to my peers who play other versions of soul, it’s time for, like, some new definitions.

JH: When I saw you perform in Nashville recently, it wasn’t only the material from Sing to the Walls that was new. There was also something about the spirit of your performance that was that was new, deliberately different, the way that you were lightning things in your own performance and maybe getting a different kind of pleasure from it. I would love to hear about why that was important and appealing for you to embrace where you are in your career and in your life. And as a long time resident of Minneapolis, as a Black woman who was bearing witness to and grieving George Floyd’s murder and so many others like it in your city, the significance of of choosing pleasure at this juncture in your performing life.

CB: There’s a lot of different things that come to mind with what you’re asking. My private life has input on what I write about. One of the things that I wanted to specify with my publicist, especially the ones that I’ve worked with for a long time, is that there was a continuous flow of sorrow with which I lived my life. Even on my last record, I was making space for sorrow in every possible narrative. And then I started going to therapy the last like four and a half, five years. I didn’t know joy was like a thing, but sometimes it will waft in and I’ll be like, “Oh, my God. I think I’m experiencing joy.”

I read the most amazing interview from [Donny Hathaway] from the seventies. He was just like, “I want an audience to be amazed by my band. I want my audience to have a profound musical experience. And I never thought about concerts in that way. I was like, “I’m going to share some stories. It’s going to be meaningful. There’ll be some music with it.” And now I’m like, “As a dedication to my craft, I want to put on a concert. And furthermore, I want to have some fun.”

My anger has been exceedingly high and especially since the uprising here, which we were out here watering our fences. You know, the city was on fire, and rightly so. It changed me. And after the paranoia with which we live as Black people, it became imperative for me to try to do as Zora Neale Hurston did, which is write about the love.

I have fallen in love, and that has been in midst of all this terror. I feel seen. I just thought folks that were like, “Yeah, I want to be with someone forever,” I’m like, “That is such B. S.” I don’t say things like that, but I do think in terms of, “Wow,I want to be around you. I want to shape our lives.” The possibility of my own death is always around. And my radical act is just living.

I was out [on tour] with Ani [DiFranco] for a while, and I love how she performs. I love the way she weaves in what she wants to say, what matters to her. And part of me was like, “Oh, I should do that.” And I did that for a while, kind of educational moments in my shows and things. And then I was like, “This is like 80% talking. I’m done with that. You want an educational setting? Go someplace else. Because we’re about to play some music. We’re about to explore.”

The other point to that question is also Tennessee, because of how I have changed and grown. I’m aware of my own becoming. I’m aware of my own Black gorgeousness in ways that growing up in Tennessee, I didn’t experience being acknowledged. And so all these years of touring, I’ve always felt kind of triggered to go back to Tennessee and kind of prepared to be like, “Here’s all the bullshit.” I’m ready to start swinging and.

The show the other night in Nashville was just me letting all that go, because I’m trying to sort out this B.S.. I got some songs to sing. There are times to participate in that, and that won’t be on my stage anymore. And that feels great. I’m having a blast.

JH: That’s how it translates in a live setting when you’re in front of human beings performing. But I think another really striking choice that you made that you spoke about during that show was that a song that you wrote right after George Floyd was killed was a lullaby, summoning sweetness for a newborn.

CB: I used to be a landscape gardener. For eight years that was my full-time job and working on such large estates where I was in a rose bed for 8 hours. I have always been like, “F roses. Never again. Never in my yard.” And so when that first line literally just came out, as I was playing the chords and I said, “There’s no way I’m going to write a song with the word ‘rose’ in it.” Like how cliche, first of all. And secondly, I know I don’t like roses. And then the next day, I came into the studio and I was like, “Okay, if this is for sure, the first line, I would only exist next to a rose if it was marking a spot of significance.” That’s why it’s like where the wild things grow. And then with my niece, I was like, “This would be a great way to get some queer education right out of the womb.”

JH: How does leaning into Groove working with drummers, including the great Brady Blade, as co-producers, play into you making your music feel the way that you want it to now?

CB: With Brady, it was like happenstance. I admire him so much. And after I met him on the Cayamo cruise, I asked him if we could keep in touch. We would just be talking and I just would ask him questions about the music business. We were just becoming buds. And then I was like, “I think I’m ready to make a record. Do you have any recommendations for producers?” And he was like, “I do, but I’d also put my hat in the ring.” And I was like, “Holy crap, a drummer is going to help me produce.” Any time I feel like a song is starting to catch some momentum with clarity, I want to put a beat to it, even if I just like put a kick drum there at the tempo.

When Brady was producing, I was like, “This is such a cool way to have the second point when you’re going from A to B.” If I’m A and B is the second point of drums, and then for the information to roll out from that perspective, I found it to be really interesting. So when I came home a couple of months later, that’s when the pandemic began as far as we knew it. And then half the record didn’t make any sense. So I went to my drummer here and was like, “I think I’m on to something.” I realized really specifically, “I want to take this to a drummer,” but even more so, because with the sessions, with Brady, from playing with the [Minnesota] orchestra, I have only finally realized that I’m a composer. So the second half of the record, I was creating all sorts of parts and could take advantage of my drummer here. He’s also an engineer and he’s also a producer. So it continued to be exciting.