Pieta Brown, Born of Songwriting Royalty, Carries on Tradition
“Performing has been a long journey for me,” Pieta Brown says. “I’ve had to learn a lot of things and break down shyness walls. But as far as songwriting, I feel very open and free.”
Pieta Brown was in her 20s when she got serious about a career in music. She admits she was extremely nervous the first time she played a couple of her songs for her father, the esteemed folk singer-songwriter Greg Brown.
“It was a pivotal moment,” she says, calling from her home in Iowa City. “We sat down and our legs were knee to knee. I was really scared and shaking. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a lot of sensitivity for my dad’s artistry. I sang him my songs and he cried. Then he said, ‘It’s a blessing and a curse.’ That was all that was spoken.”
Pieta, 44, has since experienced both sides of her father’s assessment of a life in music. She’s an independent artist who’s had to learn to navigate the ups and downs of the ever-shifting music business. Across a handful of releases since her 2002 self-titled debut, Brown has established herself as a singer with a delicate approach and a songsmith with a singular literary bent.
Her new album “Postcards” (Lustre Records) is a long-distance collaboration with a slew of people including Mason Jennings, Carrie Rodriguez, Mark Knopfler and David Lindley. For the project, Brown sent each solo song to a different collaborator, who then contributed additional instrumentation to the track.
The idea for “Postcards” came about through happy accident. Brown had agreed to supply a song for a project to benefit a local youth organization. The group arranged recording time for her at a local studio housed in a garage just across the tracks from her home. She was smitten with the sound of the room and thought it would be a great place to make a whole album.
The engineer informed her he was getting ready to demolish the building. Given that time was of the essence, Brown quickly went into the studio with a passel of songs she’d written on the road and recorded simple vocal and guitar tracks by herself. It was a first for the singer-songwriter.
“I had never recorded solo before,” she says. “I’d always recorded live in one room, with no isolation, with a lot of musicians. With these tracks, I really enjoyed the experience of doing this very inner thing. I was able to climb inside each song in a different way.”
She had a list of people she wanted to work with to flesh out her solo tracks, but they all lived in different cities. To overcome the obstacle of distance, she sent the individual songs out to the various artists and gave them free rein to expand and build upon her foundational recordings.
“I decided to let it be an open, free-form collaboration and just see what came back,” she says. “I love experimentation. I love to be surprised and every song did that.”
“In the Light” — her collaboration with the veteran indie rock band Calexico — is a pulsing piece of atmospheric roots music driven by muted banjo, fiddle and percussion. Brown wrote the song while on tour. The inspiration came when she opened a book in her Santa Monica hotel room and found a postcard of Allen Ginsberg. The image of the legendary Beat Generation poet served as a catalyst for the album.
“Allen Ginsberg has always been such a major influence on me,” she says. “I found his writing when I was a teenager. He was the perfect voice at the perfect time.”
A moment of spiritual serendipity came after the recording of the song.
“I went out for lunch and got in my car,” Brown recalls. “It was really sunny so I pulled the sun visor down. A different postcard of Allen Ginsberg that was tucked in the visor fell into my lap. It was startling. I had zero memory of it. I thought, ‘This is good. I’m on some kind of right track.’ It was quite a moment for me in my tiny universe.”
Ginsberg wasn’t the only iconic spirit to hover over the making of “Postcards.” The idea for the haunting folk tune “Rosine” came to Brown one night in a dream about Bill Monroe, the late, legendary father of bluegrass.
“That dream was really vivid,” she says. “I was standing on the side of a mountain alongside a road. Horse-drawn carriages were going by. I felt out of my element. Then I had a feeling someone was standing too close to me. I looked over my shoulder and it was Bill Monroe. I had been reading about him, that he was from Rosine, Kentucky. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s Bill Monroe — now I know where I am!’ Then he said two things. The first was, ‘There is a sadness.’ The second was, ‘I’m going back to Rosine.’ I stumbled awake that morning and that little song came out.”
Brown gravitated toward writing as a child, when she’d compose poems and little piano tunes. Finding the confidence to take her music to the stage was another matter entirely.
“Performing has been a long journey for me,” she says. “I’ve had to learn a lot of things and break down shyness walls. But as far as songwriting, I feel very open and free.”
Her parents split when she was very young. Brown lived most of the time with her single mother who was working and putting herself through school. They moved around a lot during Brown’s peripatetic childhood. When she’d visit her father, she was informed by his bohemian world.
“It was very artistic, open and poor,” she says with a laugh. “It was a lifestyle. When I was around my dad, there were always artists and a lot of music. He’s been a major influence. He’s managed to maneuver through the world as an independent artist and maintain his own very private relationship with his artistry. I’ve observed that up close.”
She’s also been inspired by her stepmother Iris DeMent, the acclaimed Americana singer-songwriter who married Greg Brown in 2002.
“I’m a huge fan,” Brown says about DeMent. “I’ve gotten more from her than I can put words around. She’s extremely encouraging to me as a songwriter. I’ve been touched by her as an artist and by the person that she is.”