Writer Of The Week: Pieta Brown

pieta brown
Pieta Brown is no stranger to superstar collaborations. She’s toured with Mark Knopfler and shared the stage with John Prine, Brandi Carlisle, JJ Cale, Emmylou Harris and Amos Lee, just to name a few. The daughter of folk singer Greg Brown is set to release her 6th studio album, Paradise Outlaw, (recorded over four days at Justin Vernon’s Wisconsin studio – the Bon Iver frontman contributes vocals on a few songs) this September. She spoke with American Songwriter about why she enjoys duets, “letting songs in,” blending poetry into folk songs and more.

How would you describe Paradise Outlaw?

Expansive? Full of love.

How would you compare it to your last album?

Less honk…more tonk! More experimental than my last album. I made this album with players that I have played with live quite a bit. Although the recording session was the first time I had all the players together as a collective. So there were some strong unspoken connections going on. The sound of the album has a lot to do with that room, the players and the engineer, BJ Burton.

On my last album, Mercury, I was challenging myself to pay more attention to the “craft” of songwriting than I have in the past. On this new album that was the last thing on my mind. I was thinking a lot about bending forms. I was thinking a lot about poetry, folk songs, freedom, and exploration.

Why did you include a cover of Mark Knopfler’s “Before Gas And TV?”

I have been a fan of Mark Knopfler’s music and songs since I was a girl. I used to roller-skate around our apartment complex in Birmingham, Alabama blasting Dire Straits on my headphones. When I did the North American “Get Lucky Tour” with Mark and his band in 2010 I got a copy of Get Lucky and fell in love with that song. There are a lot of songs as a songwriter and a singer that I love that I would never try to “cover” or record…but this one really let me in. The melody line is strong, but open and it has that vibrant yet ancient thing. Also, I grew up without a television. And I grew up around a lot of musicians and artists living on the fringe…passing around their guitars…and when I sing this song I feel all that.

How’d you end up co-writing with Amos Lee?

I wrote the melody and the first 3 verses of the song Do You Know in my head, staring out the window, riding shotgun heading out east on I-80 to open a string of shows for Amos. When we were out on the road, I told Amos that I had started this song that I thought he might need to finish. But we never got there. About a year later I was getting ready to go into the studio and I was still thinking about trying to record that song, and I randomly got a really sweet message from Amos one day. I replied and told him right away that I was getting ready to go into the studio and I asked him would he want to hear this song I still couldn’t finish and try recording it as a duet with me and he said yes. I sent him a rough sketch/demo of the song and the next day he sent me back that last verse. And Do You Know got a heartbeat. And was recorded shortly after.

What’s Justin Vernon like to work with?

Fun. Musical. Sweet. Experimental. A pleasure.

What’s one thing you learned about songwriting from your father?

How about three things that I learned indirectly about songwriting from my father? To listen very closely. To make sure to include having fun in writing songs. Songs are meant to be shared.

How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?

Very often. All kinds of stuff. I work on my own songs. I learn other people’s songs. I play a lot of slide guitar at home.

How did you learn how to play guitar?

I taught myself…or the guitars taught me. I grew up around a lot of music and guitars. So once I finally picked up a guitar, it was a bit like breathing. Felt very natural, though I knew absolutely nothing about the technical side of it. I just listened…and followed what sounded right to me. I first tuned the guitar to what sounded good to my ear, which I found out later was an open D minor tuning. Eventually I got a chord chart and learned some chords in standard tuning. And I’ve been experimenting ever since.

Who are your songwriting heroes?

I have so many. Some that come to mind right away are Loretta Lynn. Sonny Boy Williamson. Willie Dixon. Elizabeth Cotten. Tom Petty. Van Morrison. Neil Young. Billie Holiday. Bob Dylan. Chrissie Hynde. George Harrison. John Prine. My dad. Jimi Hendrix. Tom Waits. Lucinda Williams. Mark Knopfler. Iris Dement. JJ Cale.

What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.

The first song I remember writing was when I was three. Certain family members still sing it…it has its own little melody and stars a man that goes up the stairs and down the stairs and plays tricks on other people in his house and ends up in the bathtub.

What’s the last song you wrote or started?

I just wrote a song the other day called “In The Rain.”

What’s the best song you ever wrote?

I wouldn’t trust my judgement – and that’s not a title…but maybe it will be someday?

How do you go about writing songs?

I hang around with my instruments.

What is your approach to writing lyrics?

I don’t have one beyond the “open” thing…staying as open as I can..and making space to be alone when I feel that song thing coming on…writing songs, or letting songs in as I like to call it, is such a natural part of my response to the world that I rarely think about it.

What sort of things inspire you to write?

I consider anything fair game. As I mentioned it’s really a response to this world we’re living in for me…a life-line, so to speak…a vice.

What’s a song on Paradise Outlaw you’re particularly proud of and why?

I’m particularly proud of the song “Do You Know” (the duet with Amos Lee). I’ve always enjoyed duets because they have an inherent fun factor, whatever the subject…and Do You Know is my first official duet composition. So I feel proud of that. And honestly I’m very proud of every song that made it on Paradise Outlaw.

Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?

I write in my notebook a lot…rambles and poems and letters mostly.

If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?

John Prine? Ringo Starr? That sounds fun!

What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?

So many perfect songs. “You Are My Sunshine” comes to mind. Anyone can sing it and people can sing it together. And any song that makes people feel like dancing is a contender in my book.

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