Pieta Brown

Pieta Brown, The Outlaw From Iowa

Dan Ouellette

By Dan Ouellette

on 10.29.14 in Features

On August 26, Pieta Brown previewed her upcoming self-produced, sixth album, Paradise Outlaw, at the intimate confines of Rockwood 3 in New York’s Lower East Side. The Americana singer-songwriter’s set of folk/alt-country/pop tunes was marked by an instrumental simplicity and a mysterious lyrical depth. She sang in a quiet, almost fragile voice that was expressive, soulful and knowing.

‘My songs aren’t about political activism, but about artistic activism. We’re all feeling that freedom is a big deal. None of us have the perfect definition for it. What I’m trying to do with my music is have a conversation about it.’

She has released five albums and three EPS, including 2009′s Shimmer, which was produced by Don Was who guested on acoustic bass at her Rockwood show. In the wake of her 2010 album One and All and 2011′s Mercury, she has toured as opening act for such artists as Mark Knopfler, John Prine, Amos Lee, JJ Cale, Mavis Staples and Calexico, as well as played dates at Bonnaroo and Mountain Stage.

Paradise Outlaw showcases her Sawdust Collective band, which features guitarist Bo Ramsey, the album’s co-producer and her husband of eight years. Guests include her father, renowned folk/alt-country troubadour Greg Brown. She chose to record the album — partly inspired by the freedom-seeking, anti-hierarchical, outcast poetry from the Beat Movement — at Justin Vernon’s April Base studio in rural Wisconsin.

After several years of “rambling” from Chile (where she moved after becoming fascinated by Pablo Neruda’s poetry) to New York (where she did temp jobs and waited tables while working on songs on a piano in her apartment), Brown settled back into Iowa where she was born. She’s based in Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa and its renowned creative writing program. It’s not corn-field Iowa, but it certainly is off the beaten track for cultivating popular music — which works just fine for her, thank you.

The title of the new album is inspired by John Tytell’s book, Paradise Outlaws: Remembering the Beats. What’s the story behind that?

I picked it up in a used bookstore, and it had photos of some of my favorite writers and poets taken by Tytell’s wife Mellon. And I thought, someday I’m going to do something with that title. When I was a teen, I read books that my dad had. Allen Ginsberg was a big one for me. Also Robert Creeley, Henry Miller. They expanded my world. I thought, “This makes sense. High school doesn’t make sense but this does.” There was freedom in the words. It wasn’t formal poetry. And it wasn’t about their intellect or admiring the incredible beauty of their every word. It was written so that you felt like you knew the person, and they were saying normal things that I was feeling.

And the idea of being outlaws?

The Beats were outlaws. That resonated with me. Growing up without a TV and not watching one even now, I feel like an outsider from modern America who wants to connect with people on a human level. I think artists, songwriters, writers have ideals that end up not being our reality, but that inspires and drives us to keep chasing those ideals nonetheless.

On your tour to Australia in 2012 for your Mercury album, you took a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl with you. What did you find that was special in the book?

I was looking for something small to read, so I pulled Howl off the bookshelf. I had read it some 10 years earlier. Inside was a stash of old writings, including two songs I had written before I ever made a record. I used both of them on the new album: “Painter’s Hand” and “Rise My Only Rose.” The night I discovered them, I met Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] who was also touring and he invited me to check out his studio in Wisconsin. I liked that idea. His home was in the Midwest and he didn’t feel like he needed to go to New York or L.A. So that, combined with the Beats influence and the new songs were the seeds of Paradise Outlaw.

Why did you cover Mark Knopfler’s “Before Gas and TV” on the new album?

‘It’s good on a personal level to sing a song you didn’t write. You can connect into it more closely than if you had written it.’

I was obsessed with Dire Straits when I was young. I used to roller skate with that music in my headphones. Mark was going on a North America tour, and we shared the same booking agent, Mike Kappus at Rosebud, who recommended me to be the opener. Mark liked what I was doing. So we went on the road and a friendship developed. Seeing him and his band perform live every night affected me — the beauty, the technique and the freedom all at once. Afterwards, one day I was just messing around on my banjo and started playing “Before Gas and TV” from [2009's] Get Lucky, and for better or worse, my version of the song found its way onto my album.

The song sounds like a page out of your own story — the isolation, the roots, the family jams.

I connected with the lyrics. I love singing it. It’s good on a personal level to sing a song you didn’t write. You can connect into it more closely than if you had written it.

And yet your own songs have such a personal touch, like “Heading Home.” What’s that about?

It’s a portrait of Bo’s dad, who recently passed away at 99 a few days short of his 100th birthday. He was an awesome human. It’s a free ramble about him. So I sing, “Dancing like a little boy and an old man/Side by side, hand in hand.” He was a guitar player and also worked at an ammunitions plant.

Do I detect a socio-political feel in your lyrics?

There’s an element of paradise outlaw throughout the album, ranging from the Beat poets influence to songs like “Letter in Hand” about a letter that arrives from Washington. You can’t turn on the news today or read the Internet or look on the streets and not be thinking about war. My songs aren’t about political activism, but about artistic activism. We’re all feeling that freedom is a big deal. None of us have the perfect definition for it. It’s always shifting. So what I’m trying to do with my music is have a conversation about it.

Why did you include the instrumental “Little Swainson”?

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been intrigued by raptors, eagles, hawks. I frequently visit a raptor center outside of town where they rehabilitate injured owls, hawks, falcons. I was particularly drawn to a Swainson hawk. I went to a lecture about the Swainson hawks — how most of them had been killed in the last decade. They migrate to South America in the winter and feed off a type of grasshopper. One year the grasshoppers were so plentiful that they were destroying the crops, so the farmers used poison. If they had waited a few days, the hawks would have taken care of the problem, but most of the hawks died from ingesting the poison in the grasshoppers. So I wrote this song to the hawk I was so attracted to at the center.

Why didn’t you write lyrics?

Words wouldn’t have even come close to telling that story. I think instrumentals might be a higher art form than songs with words.

Your dad plays guitar on the Knopfler tune. What was that like?

My dad is a great artist and a beautiful songwriter. I admire him as an artist. All the way. He’s part of me.

‘When I first started writing songs, I would send [my dad] a tape to see if they were good enough to play before other people. The first time I sang to him, he cried.’

Did he encourage you as a singer/songwriter?

He always showed me his guitars, which were the most mysterious, magical things. That sparked me to learn how to play the guitar. When I first started writing songs, I would send him a tape to see if they were good enough to play before other people. When I got up the nerve to play in front of him, he was extremely encouraging. The first time I sang to him, he cried, which he doesn’t do very often. He said, “It’s a blessing and a curse.” Well, as an artist, somehow that spoke to me.

So, what’s the curse?

My dad struggled in terms of making a living. Like many artists, he wasn’t super successful in having a family life‚ you know, a traditional family setup. I grew up being in and out of that complicated situation. So, maybe what he meant was that it’s hard and you may have to give things up. Not as hard as doing Midtown temp work, but that it’s a difficult way to go through the world if you choose that artistic path.