Carrying a legacy12/10/2014
Iowa may be best known for corn and Slipknot, but make no mistake, Pieta Brown is one of our greatest exports.
The 41-year-old Iowa City native spent much of her formative years living in Alabama, but her ties to the state are indelible. Her 2002 self-titled debut came out on Dave Zollo’s legendary Trailer Records, her father is hardscrabble Americana icon Greg Brown, and she married long-time collaborator and beloved Iowa son, Bo Ramsey.
But Brown’s place in fans’ hearts was earned, not handed to her. She’s gloriously genuine on stage and has an easy, natural songwriting style that manages to take themes most everyone can identify with and turn them into something that feels intensely personal and unique.
“Obviously, I’m not writing pop singles, but I love the idea of the song standing on its own,” Brown said in a phone interview. “Each song is really its own little universe. Sometimes it sticks around for a while, (but) ultimately, for me, it’s clearly about that moment. I don’t think I’ve ever played a song the same way twice. I don’t think I could do it if I tried.”
Brown’s father naturally had an influence on her tastes and musical style, but it would be folly to discount the things Brown learned from growing up with her mother and the effect it had in shaping who she is as a performer and a person today.
“My dad wasn’t successful when I was a kid,” Brown explained. “He really was just a struggling artist. Nobody knew who Greg Brown was. So by the time he started to make it, I was living in Alabama with my mom. Nobody had heard of Greg Brown in Birmingham, Alabama, when I was a kid.
“Growing up with my mom, who was a single mom and worked hard, really influenced me a lot. She was a hard worker, and her independence and strength has influenced me in a lot of ways.”
Brown’s mother worked long hours to support them both, leaving Brown with time to develop her imagination and storytelling abilities. The pair also moved from apartment to apartment as leases expired, giving Brown a semi-nomadic experience that prepared her for the rigors of the sometimes lonely life that is gigging on the road. When looking at Brown’s life and talent and trying to pinpoint what makes her such a singular performer and person, it is that combination of passion for music from her father and strength of character from her mother that does the trick.
Those two spheres of influence have perhaps never been on better simultaneous display than in her most recent album, “Paradise Outlaw.” The album is Brown’s trademark, stripped-down sound, but is some of her most creative output to date. Each song lives within its own universe, but they also work together, linking ideas the way loved ones hold hands.
“I like the whole idea of the concept of an album,” Brown said. “These days you hear people in the industry who say albums aren’t selling, but I think a lot of people still find them relevant. There’s something fun about a group of songs that for some reason go together.”
Her father and her husband join her at various points on the album, but this is clearly Brown’s journey. And for as long as she’s willing to let us tag along, it’s a journey worth taking with her. CV