When singer/songwriter Chastity Brown let her hair down, she rediscovered the lion inside her.
Chastity Brown is one of the most exciting talents to hit the local music scene in the past year. The 25-year-old Knoxville, Tenn.-by-way-of-Claremont, N.H.-transplant has a voice and vibe that suggest an old blues woman or earth mama hell-bent on steering clear of the neo-soul ghetto that would seek to cage her. Her debut album, "Do the Best You Can" (self-released last week), is both intense and meandering -- a slow-burn nonevent that, like her live sets, creeps up on the listener long after the last note hits the ether.
But enough of all that. Let's talk about her hair.
"I used to straighten it and curl it; I have some really funny pictures," she said. "I looked way different. Kind of preppy. But a few years ago I just started letting it go. I stopped trying to fit into whatever it was I was trying to fit into. In the 1900s, black women didn't want to have nappy hair; they wanted hair like a white woman, so they could appear to be civilized and modest and womanly.
"I have a lot of older black women in my life, and some of them have dreads, and some of them still straighten their hair. To each their own, but for me, I feel much freer. I felt like I was trying to tame myself by straightening my hair, and that's not me at all. I'm very chill and mild-mannered, but deep inside I'm a fireball. Or a lion."
Make no mistake, Brown is no slacker or casual musician. She's simply in the flow of her life and her music, and her Southern roots dictate a pace that's more in line with her muse than career ambitions.
"Knoxville's a small college town, and a hub of kick-ass music," she said. "Tara, my girlfriend, was saying that although my friends and I play all kinds of music, you can tell that we grew up on bluegrass. There's just hints of it -- the storytelling and stuff like that. There's this beautiful grittiness.
"I try to go back to Knoxville every four to six months, because I'm really close to my friends and the musicians there. They're my heart. A lot of my friends have college degrees and are super-intelligent, but they live a little gritty. And they don't mind. Kind of simple. That really influences me. That's when I let my hair down, literally -- this deep group of friends allowed me to dive into myself."
And vice-versa, undoubtedly. To be sure, just talking to Chastity Brown can calm the quickest pulse -- even if you're part of her sometimes hyper adopted hometown. ("People are busy here," she deadpans.) But for those who appreciate songwriter-fueled jazz and a sense of organic greatness in the making, she is nothing short of a massage therapist for the ears and soul. A chill-out lioness for the ages. A free spirit who inspires others to follow suit.
Check her out tonight at the Acadia Café on the corner of Franklin and Nicollet in Minneapolis (8 p.m., $5, all ages, 612-874-8702).
The Healing Game
You can excuse Brenda Weiler if she's somewhat reluctant to take to the 400 Bar stage Saturday night. The 29-year-old local folk star has spent the past five years in Portland, Ore., but recently moved back to her hometown of Fargo, N.D., to be closer to her family -- in large part because of the suicide of her sister Jennifer on Oct. 6, 2005.
Brenda's new CD, "End the Rain," is dedicated to her sister, and several of her new songs address the anguish of loss.
"I'll play those songs now for the release [party at the 400], but after that I don't know," she said. "It was hard just practicing them the other day. I went through five or six of them and broke down crying. Tapping into it is so hard, but I don't want to fake it, either. Autopilot sucks. The whole album is a mixed thing for me, because obviously I wish it never existed. I kind of hate that it's here, but at the same time, what else ... ?"
Here is the point in the story where the silver lining appears, but it's not there yet. Weiler and her family have had glimpses of happiness, but it's easy to tell from the soft cant of her voice over the line from Fargo that she is shattered.
"I couldn't listen to music for about a year," she said. "Outside of writing my own music, I found no comfort in it, and I didn't learn that much from it. I got really into yoga and reading about that and its philosophy. It actually helped me a lot -- just the idea of where pain comes from, and that you can't avoid suffering in your life.
"But you can help yourself be in less pain by the action you take, or how you react to something that happens to you. It strengthened my belief in God for one thing, and that was something incredibly profound. I know she's OK now. I know she's not in pain anymore, and I know in my heart and soul that I'll see her again, which I didn't have before without God. But that was a really long process, because I was very angry at God for a long time."
At first, Weiler was bothered when people told her "God has a plan." But these days, she is slowly coming to grips with what they meant. The sad fact is that, had her sister not taken her life, the songs on "End the Rain" -- including such heartstoppers as "What Are We Gonna Do?" and "Wish for the Sun" -- would not exist. Nor would they be acting as a balm for others.
"Initially, I was strongly anti-recording of it, but my husband and my parents encouraged me, saying they could help somebody," she said. "And I've had survivors e-mail me since they've heard it, and they say they connect with it. Writing the album was really important for me to do, but I don't really care what people say about it, or what happens, or how many it sells. It puts everything in perspective."