Chastity Brown’s new album would have been out two years ago, but fortunately those damn artistic instincts of hers got in the way.
“I had to just start over,” recalled the smoky-voiced Minneapolis folkie, whose creative demands heretofore have helped make her one of the Twin Cities’ most respected singer/songwriters. Two years ago, though, she was rocked by self-doubt.
“It was a really clear decision to make, but it also really [messed] me up,” she said of her abrupt choice to throw out several months’ worth of meticulously crafted recordings.
Like some of the relationships and personal struggles she sings about in her latest batch of songs, the hard choice to call it off and soldier down a new path paid off in the grander scheme of things.
Brown’s new album, “Silhouette of Sirens” — the one she rerecorded after shelving the first version — has opened doors for her. It helped her land ongoing opening dates with one of her (and many other people’s) all-time favorite folk artists, Ani DiFranco, for whom Brown also now works as a backup singer on tour. It earned her a new record deal, too, with St. Paul’s reputable roots music label Red House Records.
“Silhouette of Sirens” also benefited from the upheaval and anxiety brought on by the ditched sessions. Two of its best and most dramatic songs — “Whisper” and the stunning closing track, “Lost” — were written in the tumultuous interim and reflect the uncertainty.
“I really did feel lost, as in I didn’t know where to go from there,” said Brown, who will tout the new record at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Friday with a full band and string section in tow, part of Minnesota Public Radio’s 50th anniversary event series.
Talking between drags on clove cigarettes outside Red Stag Supperclub in northeast Minneapolis two weeks ago, the 34-year-old tunesmith lamented the long process behind the record but sounded more than content with the final results. Helping boost her confidence, “Silhouette of Sirens” debuted that morning alongside a rave review in NPR Music’s streaming series First Listen.
“A work of brooding soul eloquence, alt-rock wiriness, atmospheric pop sweetening and folk-inflected naturalness,” NPR Music writer Jewly Hight wrote.
“Naturalness” is exactly what the original recordings lacked. The tracks were initially recorded piecemeal, with the musicians playing their parts individually in different studios — a common way for albums to be made in the modern digital age.
It felt unnatural for Brown, though, despite the fact that she and her longtime guitarist/co-producer/co-writer Robert Mulrennan had enlisted a cast of MVP Twin Cities sidemen, including bassist Jim Anton, drummer Greg Schutte and keyboardists Tommy Barbarella and DeVon Gray, the latter of whom also plays in Brown’s band and arranges her string parts.
“It all sounded so perfect it didn’t reflect what happens with us live,” Brown explained. “I sing the way I do live in large part because of the incredible musicians with me. It’s like some wind-beneath-my-wings” strength.
The value of vulnerability
Delaying the new album threatened to stall her recording career after a decade of gradual but consistent ascent. Her fourth record, 2012’s “Back-Road Highways,” especially put her on the map overseas and in broader Americana music circles. CMT singled out her performance of that album’s gospelized gem “After You” as one of 10 highlights from the Americana Music Festival in 2012.
Despite losing all their hard work, Brown’s chief collaborator said he wasn’t surprised or disappointed when she put the kibosh on the recordings for the would-be follow-up record.
“I’ve known Chastity for 10 years, so I knew she always follows her North Star and stays true to herself and her instincts,” said Mulrennan, who “loved” the original sessions but likes the final album even better. They eventually reassembled the musicians and played the songs like they would live at the Terrarium studio.
“She just had to step back and find the heart of the songs again,” Mulrennan explained. “There’s a vulnerability when she sings live that’s crucial to her sound, and we had lost that.”
Mulrennan and Brown had written several of the new songs during “jam sessions” on their respective porches, which they had been doing for fun and/or as warmup techniques for years. They finally decided to integrate them into their writing. That resulted in some of the most up-tempo and rocking tunes in Brown’s discography so far, including the new single “Wake Up” and the just-drive-on anthem “Colorado.”
The vulnerability that Mulrennan mentioned as missing was clearly found on “Lost,” a showstopping acoustic gusher that crescendos into the dramatic refrain: “Considered the cost/I don’t wanna be lost from you.”
‘Real and imagined’ heartbreak
“Lost” is one of several new songs that sound built around broken relationships and personal calamity. In truth, Brown has been in a steady relationship with her partner, Kara, for 11 years and is close with her mother and four siblings. “The heartbreak on the album is both real and imagined,” she explained. “Sometimes I try to imagine other people’s heartbreak.”
Her own pain on the album arose from traumatic childhood memories, she said. A native of Union City, Tenn., she grew up in a rural trailer park with an abusive and troubled stepfather. Her dad died when she was only 7.
“I was having some PTSD-like flashbacks, and it turned into a really dark period for me that took the carpet out from under me,” she recounted. “Anyone who experiences that kind of stuff knows you’re not in control of your mind when that happens, and it’s just really painful.”
More optimistically, she added, “But I think your mind kind of digs up that stuff when it’s ready to finally let it go.”
Brown certainly offered a bright outlook on the rest of the year, now that she’s finally getting this album out. She and her touring guitarist, Luke Enyeart, will spend much of June and July gigging in Europe, including many dates with DiFranco again.
“She makes me step up my game, because she’s such a woman and an artist of integrity,” Brown said of her new cohort.
One of the things she said she learned from DiFranco is that “being a folk singer is different from being a pop singer, because folk singers really have to earn people’s time and trust to come to a show.” She used that as final justification for the lengthy delay in getting this record done.
“It was worth my time if it’s worth their time,” Brown said simply.