Pieta Brown, Born of Songwriting Royalty, Carries on Tradition

Chrissie Dickinson
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

“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


Label: Lustre
US Release Date: 2017-03-10
UK Release Date: 2017-03-10

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.”

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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