Chastity Brown knows heartbreak. You can hear it in her intense moan, in her pleas for a compassionate ear, and throughout Silhouette of Sirens, her most intimate, cohesive album yet.
Brown doesn’t always write from first-person experience, but her life history informs her unique blend of country, soul, and blues. Her father, a jazz and soul musician from North Carolina, died from pancreatic cancer when she was only seven years old. Her memories of him are few and fragmented: watching The Price is Right and eating SpaghettiOs or hearing him sing Fats Domino songs with his band in New Hampshire, where she grew up.
“There are certain aspects of my father that are a mystery,” Brown says. “Although he was this incredible musician, he was by no means a good husband.”
Brown won’t share that part of the story on the record, but it meant she didn’t attend her father’s funeral and didn’t visit his grave until adulthood. She only reconnected with his side of the family six years ago.
Still, the loss is imprinted on her. “Some wounds just don’t heal,” she says. “Losing him at such an early age will always hurt. It just always fuckin’ will. Because of that, I feel more sensitive observing or creating other people’s stories.”
Brown claims the East Coast “wasn’t the primary influence of my childhood.” After her mother remarried, the family moved to Union City, Tennessee, a place that “completely informed” her soon-to-emerge musical style. She found kindred spirits in the catalogs of the Staple Singers, the Shirelles, the Mississippi Mass Choir, and Dolly Parton.
At 18, Brown was attending seminary school with plans to be a praise and worship leader. It was there that she met her first love—a female classmate. “Obviously, Evangelical Christians are not into same-sex relationships, but that’s what happened,” she says. When the relationship was discovered, both girls were kicked out of seminary. “My heart was broken two-fold.”
Brown was called “evil” and “the devil,” but her mother resisted the insistence of the devout that Brown needed therapy and shouldn’t be around children. In the wake of the breakup and her loss of faith, Brown suffered insomnia and panic attacks. She’d sit on the porch, strum her guitar, and sing to herself. “That’s kind of where it all started,” she says of her musicianship. “Little Miss Broken Heart.”
Around 2005, Brown was playing music and living in Knoxville when a friend relocated to Minnesota for graduate school. Brown, 22 years old at the time, decided to tag along. “I had never been up here before. I have a nomad’s heart, so it was a perfect scenario,” she says. The pair settled in Excelsior, assuming it was a small town close to the city. “No beef with Excelsior, but neither of us fit in there,” Brown says. “The 318 Café was the one solace.”
Brown continued making music, releasing Do the Best You Can in 2007 and Sankofa in 2009. By 2010, her songs were played regularly on the Current and she shared bills with young local darlings like Roma di Luna and Jeremy Messersmith. 2012’s Back-Road Highways got even more attention, but Brown was unhappy with her label, Creative and Dreams Music Network, which she calls “a joke. It was not a functioning label at all.” For Silhouette of Sirens, Brown raised her standards. She wanted a label that would keep her album intact, release it internationally, support a tour, and allow her creative freedom on future endeavors. She found that with the locals at Red House Records.
While the new album was informed by relationships—familial, platonic, and romantic—it also responds to the world outside: Black Lives Matter, public murders, and the marginalization of people of color all influenced Brown’s songwriting. “I finally, in the last two years, accessed a part of my identity that I wasn’t very vocal about,” she says. “It has given me this community. If I see a young brother on the street, I feel connected to him. We feel connected to each other because of the climate.”
Brown’s mother is of Irish heritage and from a big Boston family. “She’s never going to understand what it’s like for her children to be brown,” the singer-songwriter says. “Even though I’m half-white, it’s still not my identity. Since the one-drop rule back in slavery, if you’re slightly mixed, then you’re just not white, you’re black. Or any other type of race in America.”
Extensive touring with Ani DiFranco further pushed Brown to voice her feelings about injustice. “Ani has this way of standing in her own integrity,” she says. “It made me want to do the same, but not jump on her bandwagon with her social issues and concerns. It made me want to articulate my anger and my concern with how black and brown people are treated.”
The expanded social consciousness is evident on “Lies,” a track inspired by images of people in the streets following Detroit’s financial collapse. “Their retirement was completely gone because the city was bankrupt,” Brown says. “I got to thinking about when you put your trust in something that you later realize you shouldn’t. And you’re fucking pissed off.”
Silhouette of Sirens isn’t all agony and anger, however. The sultry “Whisper” references dancing in the dark and encourages the listener to get closer, to “whisper in my ear all that you need.” “It gives a sense of reprieve,” Brown says. “Everybody needs some sexy time. We can cry all we want and be like, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ and then it’s like, ‘Okay. I need to be loved up. Right. Now.’”
Silhouette of Sirens is at once raw and sonically expansive, intentionally so. Brown scrapped a first version because recording vocals and instrumentation separately made the album sound too polished. “It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t what you get at a live show,” she explains. “I’m a live performer. There are certain things that I do vocally live that are really difficult to conjure up in the studio. I needed to be in an environment where my band was playing and I was singing, even if I ended up going back over and correcting vocal parts, the bulk of it was all live recorded. I needed that type of energy.”
Brown “draws people in as soon as she starts singing,” says longtime friend and fellow musician Alexei Moon Casselle. “There really is no separation between the person she is onstage from the person she is on her front porch. Many performers strive for that level of authenticity but Chastity Brown simply is who she is, comfortable in her skin, and constantly in a state of becoming.”
As for the state of her heart and soul now, Brown is in a better place. She’s close with her mother and has been with her partner for 11 years. She’s not affiliated with a religion but finds spirituality in human connection and in nature. “I don’t ascribe to any of the teaching that I was raised with,” she says, “except that loving people makes sense.”
Where: Fitzgerald Theater
When: 8 p.m. Fri. June 2
Tickets: $15-$40; more info here