Interview: Pieta Brown on ‘Postcards,’ pen pals and Flat Black

Photo by Kwaku Alston

MCF: Pieta Brown, w/ Dickie, the Feralings

The Mill — Friday, April 7 at 8 p.m., $15-18

Pieta Brown

CSPS Hall — Friday, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m., $17-21

The songs for Pieta Brown’s latest album, Postcards, were written while she was on a solo tour. The isolation and distance and the challenge to stay connected inspired the songs. When it came time to assemble them into an album she compiled a list of her dream collaborators and sent them “musical postcards.” The credits for the album read like a who’s who of American folk, and those familiar with her career will see some notable musicians she’s worked with or toured with including Calexico, Mark Knopfler, Carrie Rodriguez and the Pines.

Brown was interviewed via phone for Little Village before the album’s March 10 release to talk about Postcards, an upcoming film she’s starring in and her record label Lustre Records. In conjunction with her Mission Creek show at The Mill on 4/7 and National Poetry Month in April Brown is partnering with RSVP to create some postcards with photos she took. Stop in to RSVP or come out to the Mission Creek show to pen your own bit of poetry to one, or quote a favorite line. From these, RSVP will create a window display and Brown will create a new song.

The last time I talked to you was at CSPS before you went to Europe to be in a film. How did that go?

It went great, actually. It was quite a journey in a lot of different ways. Because I did a full-feature film in a foreign country. Some of it was in a foreign language. I was the lead role. [laughs] So, it was quite a project—really cool. I expanded myself I guess.

What’s the title of the film?

There’s actually not a title, yet. It’s interesting you mention it because I just heard from the director today. She said that they got their first rough draft of the edit of how the film will be. She’s kept the title to herself; I guess she’s not exactly certain. So, I don’t know what the title will be yet. I think they’re trying to have the film come out in the fall and feature it at a film festival in Switzerland called Locarno — it’s a big one, kind of like Cannes or something. I think that is where the film will first land, if everything goes well.

Is there any of the plot you can share, or is it all under wraps at this point?

Well you know, I can tell you it’s about a singer — a woman singer — and it kind of veers more towards drama than say a comedy. It was really neat: I got to collaborate on the music for the film as well. It was really quite an experience.

So the film has original music in it?

Yeah; it’s not solely my music in it. I got to collaborate with some other musicians that play the characters of the band for the singer, this woman. There’s a lot more to the story than that part of the story. So, yeah, it’s cool.

Is there English language in it, or is it subtitled?

It will be subtitled, because it is predominantly French. The character I play was an American who had been living in Switzerland and France for some time so she goes in between both languages.

Did you come away being able to speak any French?

Yeah. I studied a little bit of French here and there, so it was cool to revisit that. It was never something I kept up with, or was something I was super passionate about. But, maybe because languages are sort of like music, languages were always something I liked: the sounds and the feelings of any language, really — not just French. Because I had studied it a little bit, it came to me pretty easily for the parts I had to do. And, you know, I had to invest some time to work on it for sure. At the same time the character was supposed to have an accent. I wasn’t trying to become a Francophone or anything. [laughs] I think it has sunken into my little psyche a little bit more and some of it will remain this time.

When you reflect on the experience, do you think this will inform your work going forward?

I think musically definitely, because I was working with other players really for the first time. The character was a singer — she wasn’t a musician and she didn’t really play an instrument and she wasn’t a songwriter. So, some of the work I had to do on the music was singing with other players. I’ve never really done that before. I’ve certainly added parts on other people’s songs, but for me it’s always been with the songs out front and everything else in the back seat, including singing and everything else.

I had to work hard on several different things and it wasn’t me at all. It didn’t feel like me — I got to climb into a different viewpoint. It gave me some good ideas and different ways to try singing that is maybe different than anything I’ve done before. It opened up some new wavelengths and it was fun, so there was a kind of lightheartedness to it, too, which is always good. New collaborations that I never would have found or would have come across otherwise.

Speaking of collaborations, your new record, Postcards, came out on March 10 and features collaborations. I’ve been following your career long enough that I recognize some of the artists you have collaborated with in the past — like Calexico. If these are postcards, then Calexico are your penpals, I think. Mason Jennings, who I’m familiar with — had you worked with him before? I know he works with the Pines.

Just a little on the fringe. I had opened some shows for Mason, then he invited me to sing on his last album on a couple of tracks. Mason was someone that I felt very comfortable reaching out to. This was a distant collaboration; I’d never sat in a room and played music with him before. Calexico have really been mentors and have been really supportive. I’ve co-written with Joey [Burns] and things like that. It’s been a collaborative relationship that’s existed really since I started playing. I really look up to Joey. He was really encouraging when I started.

How did this project come together for you? Did you have the songs already, or did you write them specifically for the project?

This is a kind of local spin on it: For a little over a year I did a ton of work, doing shows with Iris [DeMent], and I was doing those shows solo, which was really good for me. I was also spending a lot of time alone when I was on the road. So, there was that kind of element to it — those songs came from that place — of being in a hotel room by myself and observing a lot of different things from that place.

But, at some point when I was home someone reached out to me to contribute a track to the songs for kids [For Kids & By Kids] — I think it was Kembrew [McLeod] who put together that album … The name of the song I contributed was a lullabye called “To The Moon.” They reached out to me kind of last-minute; they were raising money for the Girls Rock! Iowa City.

They said that they were offering little recording sessions — paying for the recording, mastering and all of that. I said that I would do it, and it was down to their last little session, like on the last day and they were going to be mastering it that night. I had been traveling a lot, like I said, and I went into the studio and it was Flat Black — Luke Tweedy’s studio — which at that time was to the side of the railroad tracks which was across the tracks from my garage studio. I didn’t even know that it existed honestly — I had heard a little bit of something about it here and there … but I had never been there and had never crossed paths with Luke.

So I went to the studio and said, “Cool! This is a little recording studio like across the train tracks! This is great!” I enjoyed the session. I had all of these songs and I didn’t have hardly any money and I was trying to figure out how I was going to make my next album. So I started asking Luke, “What do you charge?” and “How does this all work?” and he said, “Actually, I’m starting to tear this whole studio down in a couple of months.” So, I just caught a little spark and I said, “Okay, well maybe this is crazy and I’m sure you’re slammed, but maybe I could come in here for a few different afternoons,” and I’ve got these songs I’m kinda wanting to record and I just kind of flashed on, “Wow, maybe if I recorded these solo or some of these are recorded duo with Bo [Ramsey] and sent them out as collaborations, you know maybe that could be an interesting project.”

It just came together really seamlessly and it just happened. I started reaching out to some people — kind of wishful thinking people I would want to record with. You know I was really touched and honestly really inspired and kind of encouraged by getting the energy and the super-willingness right back at a time when I was struggling to figure out how to even afford to move forward and make another album. So, it was cool timing. And, it was really neat to do it here and I had never really recorded like that either. Which is to say that all of my other recordings have been recorded in a few days in a row with a live band, with everybody playing together. Maybe rehearse the songs one at a time or maybe have a day of rehearsal and then go in and cut the songs. Very experimental and not a lot of room for getting it exactly right so to speak. [laughs] One thing that was cool was just singing by myself with my guitar — I just have never really recorded that way except for a track here or there.

The album really sounds like it was recorded as a session together with your collaborators. How did you accomplish that considering the disconnected approach to recording?

A lot of that was just working with musicians that I know are open to that — and following my instinct for each song. I wouldn’t have sent certain songs to certain people — that was where the producing — in quotation marks — came in for me. Just really thinking about who I could imagine collaborating or playing. “Okay well, if I could have anybody come in and play on this song, who would I hire to do that?” and then I would reach out to them. There were some people who couldn’t do it or some postcards that didn’t happen. Then there were some that happened so surprisingly easily — like David Lindley for instance.

That was one where — I mean I don’t really know David; I’ve opened a couple of shows for him — but I’m just a HUGE fan, just a major David Lindley fan. I was thinking about who I could have play on that song [“Take Me Home,” track 8]. Well, if I could pick anyone, I would pick David Lindley. I thought, “Well, I guess I’m just going to try reaching out to him.” So, I got an email address and I wrote to him. He wrote me back a really sweet email saying, “Well, why don’t you call me and we’ll talk about it and you can tell me a little bit more about what you’re doing and what you’re thinking and your timeframe.” I called him up on the phone, and he said “Okay, send me the track.” He wrote me back and said, “I love this, I’ll do it.” It was just that easy.

It was meant to be; you just put it out there and it happened, I guess.

Yeah, it’s just that besides loving songs and songwriting, I’m a huge music fanatic and fan, and so it is just a good reminder of what an open art form music is.

One of the very fun challenges was thinking about how I could make it sound like my album, you know? I think for better or worse sometimes. [laughs] Sometimes I wish I could escape it, but for better or worse, it just kinda sounds like me, whatever else is going on. But, one of the factors in the sound was working with the mixing engineer. Mixing is such a big part of how a record sounds.

I worked with the engineer BJ Burton, who I’m a huge fan of, and I think he is an amazing artist. That was also part of the Postcards project: working with him and sending him these pieces as postcards, too: “Here BJ: mix this.” And I had some feedback and I did make some changes so there was an open collaboration with BJ. I didn’t go to the mix as I often do. And I said to him, “Somehow I need to make this sound like one big place where all these little pieces are floating around.” He got what I was after, which was cool.

Yeah; he did a great job on Paradise Outlaw.

Yes. He recorded and mixed that. That is another thing I’ll never forget. Working with him I really really learned a lot and became a huge fan of his aesthetic and his talent. It’s really huge, I think.

You have your new label Lustre Records; will that be your primary focus, or what are you thinking there?

Yeah. I’ve been intrigued by the idea of running a label for a while, and I almost did it when I was releasing Paradise Outlaw, but at that time Red House Records had an option and they decided to take it and that went that way. I think for an independent artist especially it just really makes sense. I think we could talk for a day just about the music business thing. It’s been fun; I’ve learned a lot.

I was thinking about doing it super underground. I came up with the name when I put out the little EP of outtakes from Paradise Outlaw [Drifters, from 2016]. But that was a tour-only thing to sell at my shows. I’m working with a distributor and doing the things that a label tries to do. I like learning about it. I think I will keep it going for whatever other projects I try to do for sure. Ideally, my vision would be to include some other artists on it as well. So, we’ll see.

When Michael Roeder moved back to Iowa in the late ’90s, he was looking forward to being back in the heart of the eastern Iowa folk music scene; he’s had the pleasure of watching Pieta’s career progress ever since. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 218.

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