In talking with queer, biracial singer-songwriter Chastity Brown as she takes a morning, bird-tweeting stroll near her Minneapolis home base, one finds that she could talk about the late African-American author James Baldwin all day.
The New Hampshire-born, Tennessee-bred Brown notes that one of her favorite Baldwin books is “Another Country,” a novel about a jazz drummer who marries a white woman. It reminds Brown of her late father, North Carolina-born jazz and soul musician Charlie Brown.
“James was able to write that complex experience of being a person of color from the South,” says Brown, 35. Baldwin’s work also helped her get closer with her father’s side of the family, a side she wasn’t familiar with since her dad died when she was 7. “James Baldwin, in so many ways, has been my educator on the black side of my family, on my black history. A lot of his characters were born and raised in the South and migrated to the North, much like my father.
“So I have gotten closer to my black side of the family, and to my older sister,” Brown says. “But it’s also through Baldwin’s work that I’ve been able to discover things about myself and my history. I’m just so lucky to have found him. He’s such an incredible author.”
Baldwin was also an influence on Brown’s latest album, “Silhouette of Sirens,” which she says includes “a more heightened sense of self and acceptance and black consciousness.” The album would’ve dropped two years ago, but Brown scrapped a lot of tracks that were supposed to be on the album. “I didn’t feel like it was set in a context in a way that I would want to share and, furthermore, it required me to be more vulnerable than I’ve ever been,” she says. “And that’s just how it came out.”
Even though she’s currently living in the home of the dearly departed Prince, who was notorious for scrapping whole albums and starting from scratch, Brown says the Purple One’s work ethic isn’t what inspired her to go back to the drawing board.
“The scrapping of the material was more about, in my mind, just trying to create the most authentic body of work that I could,” she says. “And, up until that point, there were holes in the image. There were holes in the canvas, and it took some time to sort that out. I really lost my way.”
“Sirens” is certainly different from her previous Americana-music-infused-with-soul efforts. (She disavows her 2014 release, “Long Way,” which consists of discarded tracks her previous label decided to release anyway.) While Brown says “Sirens” has music that combines her Southern-fried roots with the rock sound she picked up while living in Minneapolis, the music is also stark, intimate and simmering with pain and loss. As someone who lost a father at a young age (and later grew up with an abusive stepfather), Brown had enough experience to convey pain and loss on her album.
“I think that if anyone is a person who has experienced a great deal of pain and trauma in their childhood, you are just sensitive in your adulthood and that sensitivity plays out in so many different ways,” she says. “But, for me, I feel like it’s played out in a way that I feel acutely sensitive to other people suffering. And so, I’m a storyteller, and I try to write those stories whether they’re my own or someone else’s, with a sense of, I guess, respect, you know.”
Now that “Sirens” is finally out, Brown is feeling positive and optimistic. She’s been doing dates on her own (like the one she’ll be doing in Durham Sunday night), but she’s been touring with Ani DiFranco, a fellow queer singer-songwriter who is an influence to Brown. She will continue in following the footsteps of DiFranco and other artists like her – female crusaders who fight the good fight through their music.
“There’s a certain responsibility, I think, that folk musicians have that other artists don’t,” she says. “And Nina Simone said it as well – it’s our responsibility to try to tell the story of our times. And we each, in our own way, tell the story.”
Considering all the radical, revolutionary minds she looks up to, Chastity Brown will keep on telling stories through her music – and telling them well.
Who: Chastity Brown
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Pinhook, 117 W. Main St., Durham
Details: 984-244-7243 or thepinhook.com