Chastity Brown and the ‘gorgeous roar’ of ‘Sing to the Walls’

The Minneapolis singer and songwriter opens for Valerie June at the Athenaeum Theatre on Saturday, May 14

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Chastity Brown

About four or five years back, musician Chastity Brown entered into a period of deep self-reflection sparked by the end of a 10-year relationship.

“We both wanted to split up, and fortunately for us it was as friendly as can be, but either way my life was going to be totally different,” said Brown, who opens for Valerie June at the Athenaeum Theatre on Saturday, May 14. “Also, that was this time in my life where I just felt like … I couldn’t function in society the way other people could. And one of the things I started to realize was that it was a total lie. So, as I started to learn about myself, and about my own brain development, my patterns, having faced trauma and violence as a child, that’s where compassion crept in. … And then that started influencing my music. One thing I’ve said before is that I don’t serve sadness the way I used to, where it was like, oh, sadness, let me get you a seat. Let me find you a blanket. Let me pour you some wine. After the shit I’ve been through, I just can’t now. There’s enough of it. I don’t have to make extra room for darkness.”

This revitalized mindset is on display throughout Brown’s forthcoming album, Sing to the Walls (out June 17 via Red House Records), reflected in everything from the song titles (“Hope,” “Like the Sun,” “Wonderment”) to the singer’s warm, confident delivery, further buoyed by a luxurious musical backdrop that draws upon everything from soul to Americana and the blues. But while the songs are more hopeful, they’re far from simplistic, reflecting the complexities of Brown’s lived experience.

Witness “Golden,” which the musician penned while living amid the George Floyd protests of 2020, an uprising that originated in her South Minneapolis neighborhood. “I’ve got joy even when I’m a target,” she sings pointedly.

“Sometimes I think to myself, ‘I’m too sexy to be this angry,’” Brown said, and laughed. “I want to go to the beach. I don’t want to be looking over my shoulder all the damn time. So, ‘Golden’ gets at the anger. But ‘Golden’ also has this swag to it, like a gorgeous roar.”

In many ways, Brown is still processing the events of May 2020, a time when navigating her neighborhood started to feel akin to living in a war zone, with armed police in riot gear on constant patrol. “So there was this militarized presence by your Dairy Queen, by your coffee shop,” said Brown, who would water down her fence each day to protect the property from the threat of fire. “There was just true terror … but it also feels like something special and something transformative came out of that, even if there are still tons of questions, and tons of hurdles to overcome.”

Brown’s approach on Sing to the Walls was further impacted by the ongoing pandemic, which allowed her to take more time in the writing process, something that proved more challenging in prior years, when the musician lived long stretches on the road. Early on, she established a routine, retreating to her writing room in the morning, pausing for lunch, and then resuming work through the late afternoon. “It was really just being like, I can create something, and it might not leave this room, but at least I’m waxing the muscle,” said Brown, who wrote more than 100 songs for the album, which she gradually whittled down to 10. “When the pandemic dropped, it was like, what else am I going to do except for write? And I will say that now I definitely want to make more time for writing in my life, in ways I didn’t before. I want to bring the things I’ve learned about myself into this new way of living.”

Brown said the pandemic also introduced a stillness that enabled her to more carefully weigh larger questions of identity. “It was asking, who am I in this moment of change?” she said.

These answers arrive throughout Sing to the Walls, both in Brown’s words, which reflect a growing resolve, and in the music itself, aspects of which can be traced through her bloodlines to her bluesman father. “Two friends also pointed out to me that being a Black, queer songwriter connected me to artists like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and other Black, queer blueswomen, and it was a wonderful thing to have pointed out,” Brown said. “There was a time I was like, I’m my father’s daughter. And now I’m just like, I think my father would be interested if his daughter did something different, like, OK, what’s your take on this thing we taught you? So, that was my real attempt with this record. It starts with that roots music … and then blooms from there.”