Session 163: Pieta Brown<- Back
July 21, 2017
It was in hotel rooms across the country that Pieta Brown wrote most of the songs on her gorgeous new album, 'Postcards.' Like any touring musician, she was on the road to survive, balancing the rewards of performing music for a living with the challenges of trying to stay connected to loved ones and other artists while in motion. So, when she was finally stationed at home, she decided to send out some postcards. These weren't just any postcards, though, these were musical postcards, the stripped-down, acoustic shells of new songs she'd written while traveling, and she sent them to folks like Mark Knopfler, Calexico, Mason Jennings, David Lindley, Carrie Rodriguez, Caitlin Canty, and The Pines among others. Her instructions to each were simple: write back.
“These Postcards are about connecting and openness, explains Pieta. But, one of the sparks for this project was talking to so many musicians who are dealing with the way the music business has been shape-shifting lately. From people with very successful careers to more underground indie artists just trying to pay the bills, everyone seems to be dealing with this sense of 'How do we do this?' and looking for their own answers. I was hoping through the music and collaborations to keep the conversation going."
What Pieta created is more than a conversation, though. It's a striking collection of portraits sometimes sweet and tender, sometimes eerie and haunting of characters facing loneliness and longing and loss with a stoic sense of dignity. Her airy vocals, with just a hint of a drawl from a childhood split between Alabama and Iowa, float above rich, earthy texture, fluidly merging grit and grace in what is undoubtedly her finest work to date.
Hailed as a "self-styled poetess, folk goddess and country waif" by the BBC, Pieta Brown first came to international attention with her 2002 self-titled debut. Pieta has since been recognized by NPR for her "moody, ethereal" songwriting, applauded by The Boston Globe for her "mercurial voice and has continued to gain wide-spread critical attention for both her singing and songwriting with each release. Wall Street Journal, American Songwriter, and Amazon have all included her albums in year-end, ‘best-of’ picks. And along the way she has shared stages with everyone from Emmylou Harris and JJ Cale to Neko Case and Richard Thompson, in addition to performing at major festivals like Bonnaroo and Mountain Jam. But maybe even more importantly, to a fiercely independent artist like Pieta, she has received praise and support from many of her fellow artists and mentors - Justin Vernon, Iris Dement, Mark Knopfler, Amos Lee, producer Don Was, and film-maker Wim Wenders to name a few.
‘Postcards’ follows 2014's 'Paradise Outlaw,' which was recorded at Bon Iver's April Base studio with help from Justin Vernon (who recently described ‘Paradise Outlaw’ as probably my favorite record ever made at our studio), Amos Lee, and Pieta’s father, Grammy-nominated folk-singer, Greg Brown. But where 'Paradise Outlaw' celebrated the sound of a group of a musicians recording live in a room together, 'Postcards' explores the role of distance and isolation in collaboration. Pieta recorded the basic guitar and vocals for the album, some with frequent collaborator Bo Ramsey (Lucinda Williams, Charlie Parr) in the mix, at a small garage studio near her home before mailing out each track to friends to complete and send back.
"I found out about a garage studio that was only a mile down the railroad tracks from my garage rehearsal space, says Pieta. "I went in one afternoon to just try recording a couple of my songs stripped down, and then the engineer told me he was going to tear down the studio and that it would only be open for a couple more months. So I dug in and recorded 8 mores songs over a few afternoons and then I figured I'd do what I always do when I feel like I don't know what to do, which is reach out to my friends."
The first friends were Arizona desert-noir rockers Calexico, pals who were happy to participate in the project. Pieta sent them the delicate, beautiful album opener "In The Light," a song she wrote in a Santa Monica hotel room. The band recorded drums and vibraphone at Albert Hall in Manchester, England, while on tour, and later sent bass and vocals to flesh it out further. On "Rosine," a song that came to Pieta in a dream about Bill Monroe, Bon Iver's Mike Lewis added breathy woodwinds, while Mason Jennings layered drums and bass and backing vocals onto the infectious "How Soon."
"Collaborating with other musicians and elevating a song beyond its outlines has become one of my favorite things about making music," says Pieta. "I'm interested in what other people can bring to a song, especially musicians I admire. Music is very magnetic. And I have been so drawn to and inspired by all the collaborators inside these Postcards.
While Pieta purposely included minimal instructions with each musical postcard, she made careful production decisions in who she chose to share each track with. It was Mark Knopfler's distinct guitar she could imagine fleshing out "Street Tracker," for instance, so she sent him the song which he completed in London, but it was David Lindley's slide playing that she wished she could hear on "Take Me Home (Soldier's Prayer), and Pieta found herself pleasantly surprised when he took her up on her invitation to play on the song. Carrie Rodriguez contributed fiddle to the clawhammer banjo mystique of "Stopped My Horse," while A-lister, Chad Cromwell evoked a train's rumble with his drums on "Station Blues," and pedal steel wizard Eric Heywood joined Nashville's Caitlin Canty for the dreamy "On Your Way." Former Bob Dylan band member David Mansfield, who opened Pieta's eyes to the possibility of collaborating remotely when he contributed a part to 'Paradise Outlaw' from afar, returned for "Once Again," which was inspired by a Welsh myth about an ancient sunken forest. But one of the album’s most magical moments arrives with the closing track, "All The Roads," a shimmering tune featuring the Minneapolis-based band, The Pines in a hypnotic, ghostly blend of reverberating guitar swells and stunning harmonies.
That the album flows so cohesively is a testament to the mixing work of BJ Burton at April Base, to Bo Ramsey’s understated inside guitar work, and above all, to Pieta's vision as a musician and storyteller of the highest caliber. These are songs about searching for home, about the closeness we can feel with other humans despite all the time and distance that can separate us. The players on the album span an age range of half a century, but true to Pieta's inspiration, the songs share a unified warmth and passion that comes from artists collaborating for the sake of the song and for the love of the music. The road may be long and full of nights in strange hotels with only a guitar for company, and the state of the music business may offer more questions than it does answers these days, but for Pieta Brown, it's all worthwhile if you can come home to find your mailbox full of postcards as heartfelt and as beautiful as these.