Chastity Brown Leans Into The New on “Sing To The Walls”
Chastity Brown is releasing Sing To The Walls via Red House Records on June 17, 2022, and is already out on the road performing with Valerie June before embarking on her own headlining tour. The story of Sing To The Walls is not straightforward, but it is very much about growth and transformation for Chastity Brown. That growth took in a five year period in which Brown wrote hundreds of songs, thought she had an album ready for release, then faced such a profound period of national change that creating new music became necessary. With that new music came new sounds that have invited Brown’s Americana roots into uncharted territory, but it’s not a field that she feels she’s left by any means.
I spoke with Chastity Brown about this venture into new sounds, about the search for mood that drove it, who inspires her, who helped shape this album, and why, overall, Sing To The Walls is a love album.
Americana Highways: To me, new music being released feels like a real symbol of determination right now. Does it feel that way to you, having created this new album?
Chastity Brown: I certainly feel that. I thought, before the pandemic, that I would be coming out with a record. I’m so glad I didn’t because about half of those songs didn’t fit when the world changed and then continued to change, with the uprising. America has shown its ass. It baffles me that people still don’t see that life has changed. But queers, immigrants, and Black folk have. My record, to me, is like an anchor, and I hope it serves as that for others.
AH: Did you have to make a choice not to release songs that you otherwise might have?
CB: Oh, yes. It happens that way sometimes with records, that you end up kicking a few off, but I recorded 12 songs in Stockholm, Sweden and was thinking, “Here’s an album!” Once the pandemic hit, I felt like, “What is this about? Who cares?” Some people might say, “Oh my goodness, it’s been five years,” but I’ve been writing the whole time. I think that’s an observation back to me on my fortune and the ways in which I’ve been privileged to be touring. I’ve been grateful for that.
AH: It’s interesting, because even though those other songs haven’t been released, they’ve still been part of your development as a songwriter, so what we’re hearing with the new collection might be impacted by that.
CB: Absolutely. Audibly, what’s really stood out to me is the sonic palette of my transition. I do feel connected and a part of Americana. I specifically feel like I can take ownership of what that definition means to me, and I’ve taken ownership of it by pressing against the sonic boundaries. For instance, with electronics, or with a kick-drum. My label said, “Oh my god, you have a kick-drum!” I said, “I’m still a singer-songwriter.” I was surprised by that. My father was a black blues and jazz musician, and I’m half-Irish, so you can’t take away where I grew up. My music is going to be Americana because that’s what’s in my blood, so I’m just pressing back against definitions that seem quite loose but are still based in tradition. Just because one person connects with certain definitions, the next generation is always different from the elders and creates new ways of defining what we connect to.
AH: There’s a pretty widespread mixing together and blending of genres across the board. It seems like a very natural thing that’s happening.
CB: I feel excited by that because I feel a part of that.
AH: Was there a conscious opening up to different sounds for you?
CB: I think there are some peers of mine that I’ve just fallen in love with. I feel so inspired. I was messing with things in my studio, but saying, “Oh, that’s not for ‘my sound.’ This is just a creation that I’m having fun with.” I also play a lot of piano for this new record, and I’ve always written on piano, but then would play it on guitar live. So there are sonic things I was always leaning towards, but there are SZA, Leon Bridges, Janelle Monáe, and Beyoncé, of course, because she’s the queen of everything. They just blow my mind by being vibey, thoughtful, and specific. I realized that I felt akin to that even though that was nothing like what I do. I feel like I’m doing my own kind of Soul and it feels like me. I was encouraged by my love for them to just lean into what felt new to me.
AH: How easy or difficult was it to find a way to express those new sounds? Did you have to learn new ways of doing things?
CB: In part, the pandemic made me have to become independent when recording. Part of my growth came out of necessity because it wasn’t really safe to go into the studio, and I didn’t really want to do Zoom sessions. I found myself producing as well as trying to set up my space in as a conducive environment. I’m used to going to fancy studios with vocal mics, so I put some money into a vocal mic. That all allowed me to create some textures.
It’s astonishing in some ways, when you think of daily work practice, because I’ve written hundreds of songs over the past five years, and ten of them made it onto the album. Some of them are one minute, and some of them are 27 minutes. I just allowed myself to be whatever “wild” means to me, in my writing, but also in terms of clocking the hours. Also, shit’s been so fucked up that I’m trying to feel good. I’m trying to feel sexy, I’m trying to feel joyful. I don’t really go to folk music for that, so that was my vibe, making space for that. I’m a slow grower and I think it took me a long time to grow into what feels like newness for me.
AH: I can definitely see how each of these songs creates a specific mood, and explores it, and maintains it.
CB: The word “mood” made me think of another inspiration, actually. When Solange’s album A Seat at the Table came out, I was on tour with Ani DiFranco. It was the first time since I was about 16 years old laying on a bed, and staring at the ceiling, and listening to a whole record. I was like, “Holy shit, Solange!” You can create a vibe for a whole record. You can keep the mood alive and get in the zone.
AH: Is that quality something that helped you to choose which songs should go on the album?
CB: Yes, totally. The other thing that was unique about the editing process is that the record as it stands is something like the 8th draft of assembling songs. I’d never gotten feedback from a writer before, like I did on this one. I always get feedback from my songwriter friends, or other musicians, but one of the elders in my life is Louise Erdrich. She’s an Ojibwa and native author. I brought the record to her to hear feedback from a storyteller’s perspective, and that was so different.
All my musician friends were into the string part, or bassline, and that was really helpful from that perspective, but I wondered about the stories. The rhythm is very clearly my jam and is a bedrock to sing to, but it doesn’t matter if the melody is good if the story made no sense. Louise gave me feedback, song to song, on how she thought they connected. She noticed that there was no third person, so I stepped back and thought about it and decided why. Her work is magical and surreal, with biting humor. I’m always fascinated by the fact that what an author does in 300 pages is something that we try to capture in a song, or at least in a moment. How do you call attention to a moment, and how do you release that moment? Great authors do that.
Louise’s advice really grounded me and my main objective was that these are love songs to different things, sometimes to a lover, sometimes to myself, sometimes just saying, “Wow, love!” When Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, she wrote a love story that didn’t center around oppression. Even though the main characters in the novel are going off to the workhouse, she ain’t talking about that shit, and that’s what I tried to do with this record. I have been mourning with my people, and yet, I also demand that my queer love, the queer love that I get to experience in my life, is amazing. That storytelling perspective was really important to ground myself and know the value of what I’m sharing. As a songwriter, that’s our duty, to try to write songs that are present with the “now,” so people will know what it felt like.
AH: Do you think there’s an emotional arc among the songs, or is each song more its own story?
CB: It was more about how the distinctive parts make a whole.
AH: I that there’s a lot of positivity on the album, but you don’t leave out harder subjects, which gives the album a sense of fullness.
CB: That feels true to life. The things that were terrible just happened on what was otherwise just a regular day. That’s why “Golden” appears when it does.
AH: That song especially has those qualities, but also “Curiosity,” where you can sense it’s dealing with or reflecting on harder places. “Golden” was released early on, right?
CB: I released it last June 2021. At that point, I got off of social media and haven’t really been on since, except for a little bit. I have a lovely team that helps me post updates and things like that. I found social media, at that time especially, to be so triggering, taking in everyone’s sorrow. It just got to be too much. “Golden” also has a revised version on the record, mostly just using real instruments. At the time I created “Golden,” I was living in a pretty small house with a makeshift studio in my garage, and I just spent eight hours making it. That’s one of the songs that was 27 minutes long! I went off on it, and then it became what it is.
AH: I wanted to ask about social media, since I noticed you had posted about not being online as much. Do you have thoughts about how social media affects us as individuals?
CB: I find it quite interesting because I’m partnered with someone whose skillset is creating community on online platforms. She’s partnered with me, and I’m like, “The internet? What?” She tells me about people creating community online. For me, when I wasn’t on the road, and was just at home, I didn’t feel connected to social media. It feels more connected to me as a performing artist. As I get back on the road, it will feel more like I can share things that are personal to me, and have value and meaning, but are not part of my personal life. Oftentimes, I geek out about nature, and am fascinated by all the cities that I get to see in the world, and can post about that.
The feedback I’ve gotten from people about not being on social media has been twofold. The first is from actual longtime friends who say, “It would be great to see you on social media because we care about you.” But more often than not, people say to me, “Oh, good for you. I could never do that!” I find it odd that, as a performing artist, it’s called a necessary tool, but from humanity, I’m hearing that this is something people need space away from. I’m curious about that, and I have a formula that works for me now and feels authentic.
AH: I imagine that the flipside of this is how you engage as a live performer, where you can share directly with people in a natural way.
CB: What people will get from me is that my conviction for a live performance is one hundred percent. When I’m in person, I am completely present. I am not distracted, I am there, I am going to fucking put on a show and sing my heart out. What I hope is that it can be a solid connection that can be sustained as an offset to not being on the internet. But I’ve also been off the road for two years! So I’m like, “What’s a stage?” But I have tons of stuff coming up.
My band and I are just wrapping up a project before we head out on the road. I’m going to be joining Valerie June on tour, and then I’m back home for a day or two, and then I go to the UK. Then I come back home for maybe a day, and then I begin my own headlining tour. I’m excited, and I’m not going to lie, I’m nervous. I know that I know how to do this thing, but there’s no way to prepare for this, in a way, because we’ve never been through a pandemic.
Thank you for speaking with us, Chastity. Find more about Chastity Brown here: https://www.redhouserecords.com/artists/chastity-brown/