Saturday, January 28, 2012

Pieta Brown bringing honest sound to Old Town School of Folk Music


For singer-songwriter Pieta Brown, her latest album, "Mercury," is truly a dream project.

Inspired by a dream she had, Brown recorded the album in a one room studio out in the country in Tennessee with an all-star cast of session players, including Bo Ramsey, Chad Cromwell, Glenn Worf and engineer Mark Polack.

Brown,, the daughter of noted folk musician Greg Brown, will perform Feb. 2 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 2544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, as part of the Acoustic Cafe Tour with Carrie Rodriguez and Kelly Joe Phelps.

The show starts at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $22, available at

I had the chance to interview Brown about the album.

Q - Of course, you are kicking off the Acoustic Cafe Tour in your native state of Iowa. What's it like for you to be on a tour such as this one? 

I'm about to find out! I look forward to seeing where the music goes.

Q - Do you enjoy the collaboration with other musicians? 

Always. Collaboration is really where the music happens.

Q - The tour follows your two shows with Iris DeMent. She has had some kind words for you, calling you the "best poet I've heard in a long damn time." Has she been an influence on you, especially after marrying your dad in 2002?

Absolutely. I really got to know her music all the way because of the closeness. She is a beautiful songwriter and one of the best singers I've ever heard live.

She has really supported me and encouraged me, which is an honor for me.

Q - Speaking of influences, I understand that you listened to Dire Straits' album "Brother in Arms" a lot when you were growing up. Did you ever imagine that you would one day tour with Mark Knopfler and that you would develop such a close musical relationship with him?

No, I didn't ever imagine I would tour with Mark Knopfler. But the intensity of the charge I got from listening to that music when I was so young is undeniable.

I listened to that record many times a day for a summer when I was really young. I was obsessed with it. It's the only tape cassette I've ever worn out from listening.

The power of music is stunning! I'm constantly in awe. I love it!

Something Bo said to me once that really stuck is, "If you really listen, the music never lies."

Q - I understand that you had Mark Knopfler listen to the demos for "Mercury." What kind of advice did he give you and did you follow it? 

He gave me immediate responses to the songs, which from an artist like Mark, is really something to pay attention to. He also encouraged me to reach out to Glenn Worf, which I did.

Q - Did the recording session for "Mercury" live up to your dream?

It went beyond, because it was real. It was a magical session. We had a lot of fun, and those guys came and got behind the songs all the way. They gave 100 percent, and then some.

Q - What has working with musicians like Bo Ramsey taught you?

Too much to put into a sentence or two. But one thing I can point to is that I've learned that the main thing is to stay open.

Music doesn't have these daily boundaries like so many of us seem to have. Once the music starts, it doesn't matter how old you are, what color you are, who your dad is, who your mamma is, where you came from, or if you are a man or a woman.

It all goes away instantly for me. And for all of the amazing musicians I've had the chance to play with and work with, that seems to be the case.

Q - Of course, the music business continues to change. Is it easier being a musician these days or harder? 

According to my teachers and friends, it's harder, maybe harder now than it was for them, but maybe not harder than it's ever been?

It's hard, but so many things are. I'm not one to follow after something because it's easy. And when it really gets down to it, the business is secondary for me. I'm chasing the songs and music

Q - You have a degree in linguistics from the University of Iowa. Do you think studying linguistics has helped in your music? 

Not directly in any way. I really was not all the way engaged in it, other than trying to do my best.

Having a degree does give me a feeling that I could go back to school to study something else to get a job to pay my bills if I need to.

My mom really encouraged me to finish school (I dropped out at least five times and was filling up notebooks and hiding out playing piano).

And I'm thankful that I did. In an interview I read with Aretha Franklin several years ago, the advice that she to young musicians was, "Get a degree!"

The quickest way for me to get a degree, then, based on the handful of classes I had taken, was to get a degree in linguistics. I'm still not sure why?!

So I chose linguistics cause it was a fast way to get a degree and it seemed completely unknown, and it was connected to language.

The head of the linguistics department asked me more than once, "Are you sure you shouldn't be getting a degree in art or something along those lines?" I was a foreigner in a strange land there.

Q - How has your dad influenced your music? Was it a given that you would become a musician given your background?

I'm often asked this question in interviews. If I had a funny blanket answer, I'd give it to you. It's a question that seems almost impossible to answer. There are so many layers to it.

Both of my parents and the way my life worked out has everything to do with all of it. Why am I a songwriter and musician and my sisters are not?

Why was I born with a fever for the music and the writing? Why did that become my way of dealing with the world?

All I know is I love the music and it goes back in my family, so your guess is as good as mine, I reckon.

My dad has influenced me as an artist without a doubt. He has followed his muse, and his dedication to that has given me a lot of strength to do the same.

But I also spent a lot of my childhood living with my mom. My mom loves poems and music and has encouraged my writing since I was 5, when I used to wake up before school to write in my notebook.

My mom is also a seriously hard worker! She was a single mom and often worked 80 hours a week. And so her drive and dedication have provided a real role model for me.

Q - Your music dips into so many different genres. How would you describe your music?

I just call it music. Prairie stomp? Clearly it falls easily into the Americana category.

I've been heavily influenced by singers and songs from many genres. My deepest roots go deep into rural Iowa and American music.

All my favorites and teachers are artists that sound like themselves, rather than any kind or style.

Q - Do you have any dream projects or dream collaborations? 

I have many collaboration ideas. A couple at the top of the list including making an album of instrumentals and I would like to record a song with The Deep Dark Woods.