When you're a performing artist as deeply personal as Pieta Brown, trying to carve out a living by sharing your innermost thoughts with complete strangers can be a delicate balancing act. Especially when you'd rather keep those feelings to yourself.
Selling your music is one thing, but selling your soul? That shouldn't be part of the deal, no matter how many audiences you try to reach.
Brown, a captivating and mysterious Midwesterner whose intimate slices of life are as heart-achingly beautiful as she is, will begrudgingly let listeners step into her secret hiding place filled with honest-to-goodness words and music about the human condition. That's often as far as she usually wants to go, though.
It's nice when a daydreamer as gifted as Brown decides to unlock that dear diary inside her head, if only for a while. Beginning a phone interview, it's initially hard to tell whether she's shy, guarded, aloof or feeling the effects of a spring cold. Brown divulges it's the latter, then slowly warms up, exposing some of those feelings that help outsiders understand what makes her such a passionate and compassionate performer.
"I'm walking the tightrope between privacy and sharing is a way of putting it," Brown says during a thoughtful, nearly hour-long conversation from Los Angeles on an early May day between tour dates through the west with fellow singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez.
Putting Brown, left, and Rodriguez on the same bill seemed like a natural, considering they both have the same booking agency, (Rosebud), and a mutual interest in roots music, along with fathers who could play it.
Although they had never met, Brown remembers tracking down Rodriguez about three-and-a-half years ago in New York (where the Texas-born fiddler lived at the time) and inviting her to sit in during her show.
The song: "In My Mind, I Was Talkin' to Loretta." It's one of the many reflective tracks written by Brown, who recognizes Lynn, the "Coal Miner's Daughter," as an early influence because they had something in common -- childhood memories of outhouses, wood stoves and gravel roads.
Brown performs it four days later in Denver during a comfortably cool and enjoyable 10-song, 45-minute opening set. She's later assisted by Rodriguez, right, who also brings along constant touring partner Luke Jacobs for support on steel pedal and numerous other guitars.
Returning the favor a couple of times during Rodriguez's set, Brown seems relaxed, smiling throughout Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and her own "Prayer of Roses" before coming back for the encore, a rousing rendition of the traditional gospel number "I'm Going Home on the Morning Train."
They play before a small but appreciative crowd at Swallow Hill Music's Daniels Hall on Friday the 13th, a little more than a year after Brown's high-profile appearance at the Buell Theatre. Then, she and her musical and life partner, Bo Ramsey, were in the middle of a six-week tour with former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler that took them to some of the fanciest concert halls across the country and north of the border.
During a whirlwind year that also included a spot on John Prine's tour and the release of her fourth full-length album, One and All (Red House Records), Brown seemed totally emboldened by the experiences.
"When I got the call to do those shows (with Knopfler), I was excited because I had... I got hooked on this (laughs) Dire Straits tape (Brothers in Arms) when I was a girl at this kind of certain time in my life," Brown recalls. "I was like 8 or something. My parents (Iowa folk music icon Greg Brown is her father) were split up and I was going back and forth (between households) a little bit in the summertime. And somebody had that tape. ... Probably my dad. I just remember putting that tape on and there's something so... there's something in Mark's sound and his music beyond just his mastery. ... The sound is really deep and comforting but really strong and kind of exciting at the same time. And I just really connected with that. ... And I wore that tape out."
Until that tour, Brown admits that tape was her only knowledge of Knopfler. The touring opportunity "brought me back to that time. ... And then I went out and I just remember those first few nights I just, I mean I was like, 'This is a heavy cat, man. This guy is a serious artist.' And he's such a beautiful musician. He just cuts through. He really does. So that for me was, you know, I'm still high on the music from that. I really am."
The bond formed from that tour remains. Brown recently completed her next album (still unnamed, but scheduled for a fall release) that she co-produced with Ramsey, and it includes appearances by multi-instrumentalists Richard Bennett and Glenn Worf, members of Knopfler's touring band. Her latest recording is "Dirt Road Blues," one of several standouts from Red House's stable of artists who perform on the Bob Dylan tribute, A Nod to Bob 2.
The album, released May 17, just a week before Dylan's 70th birthday, has 16 tracks, serving as a 10th anniversary sequel to the label's all-time best-selling title. Like the one that celebrated Dylan turning 60, A Nod to Bob 2 includes a number of splendid interpretations of songs from America's greatest living songwriter. Among them are "Mama, Let Me Lay It On You/Baby, Let Me Follow You Down") by Hot Tuna, Jimmy LaFave's "Not Dark Yet" and Eliza Gilkyson's "Jokerman."
"I wanted to do something off Time Out of Mind, 'cause for me that was actually the first record of Bob Dylan's that kind of... reined me in, I think," Brown says, adding that she connected to his music through the blues. She met Dylan in New York City around the time of that 1997 release and recalls, "It was cool and it was very short and I thought he had a really deeply sweet essence."
Yet it's flashbacks of that worn-out Dire Straits tape from her childhood that stick with Brown. She's surprisingly open about discussing other aspects of her life. A self-proclaimed "mama's girl," Brown was raised in a broken home, mostly with her mother, Melanie, who sometimes worked 100 hours a week to make ends meet in Birmingham, Ala., and "wasn't always very happy."
In the first of a series of temporary homes, there was a piano but no television. So Brown started playing the instrument when she was 2 ("it was all my ear mostly") and turned to writing when she was 5 or 6, with only her thoughts and notebook to keep her company. That certainly got the creative juices flowing, especially without the hypnotizing effects of the boob tube.
As a result, "I'm kind of disconnected from pop culture in that way," Brown explains. "I mean, I catch pieces of it here and there, but I'm kind of living on some other wavelength (laughs), I think."
Pieta Brown, left, performed several songs with Carrie Rodriguez
during each their sets at Daniels Hall in Denver.
Brown agrees that life without TV was ultimately beneficial. "Oh, definitely. I think it's the only way that I could survive as an artist. Otherwise, I think I would be doing something else by now because it's just so... it's such a hard game.
"Because of that, I thought, well, the way you make a living doing this with your art is you go out there and work your ass off. And make fans and try to connect with people. And put your songs out there and see if they connect. So that's the way I've been doing it."
Brown also credits her dad, now married to sweet-sounding Iris DeMent, for providing that spirit of independence. Admitting that family strife and the rippling effects caused her at one time to turn away from the music business, Brown proudly says today, "Just separating out the family stuff and the personal stuff, just artist to artist, I have huge respect for him. I think he's a great artist. I really do.
"I think watching him, I learned just how to... he's really independent and that's part of me. It's nothing I had to learn, it's just... I got it directly in the blood, I guess. And now he's just done it his own way and so... you show them that you can do that. But one of the things he says to me now is, he says, 'I don't know how you younger artists can cut through anymore.' The avenues are so different. And it's so spread out."
That makes maintaining a music career all the more challenging, even if it's nine years after your first release and you're closer to 40 than 30. Brown once entertained thoughts of leaving Iowa City for better career opportunities, but settled down after a nomadic upbringing and seems perfectly content staying there with Ramsey and Memphis, their 4-year-old boy who has given her "a lot of strength 'cause there's so much joy in being a mom."
"I like the small town, under-the-radar place because it gives me a place to operate from just as an artist," she says. "The artistry comes first, that's what I'm chasing. That's what I'm so excited about. I'm just completely excited that it's alive in my life. The business is second and I don't want to move somewhere for the business. I want to move somewhere for the music."
Brown met Ramsey through his working relationship with her father, becoming enamored with the Burlington, Iowa, blues-rocker after seeing him perform with his band, the Backsliders, when she was 17.
"And I can remember leaning up against the wall in some bar having this flash of like, 'I'm gonna play music with that guy some day,'" she says. "And then thinking like, 'What the hell was that thought. That's crazy.'"
"Then when I moved back to Iowa once I really started playing shows and realizing that I was gonna really try to follow that, I felt like I needed to go home to kinda confront some demons (laughs). Once I did that, and asked Bo to work on my first record, I never in a million years would have thought that I would play shows with him and then go on to be totally in love with him and that it would all become this big thing." (Brown, right, performs with Ramsey during the Mark Knopfler tour stop in Denver in 2010.)
She describes their relationship as being "a little rocky at first" because of all the layers involved, joking about "some hillbilly activity going on there."
It's been a "murky wild ride" since their start about eight years ago, Brown says, but "the love is so strong that it's right and it worked."
They often tour together, though this time Brown says it's "just me, myself and my songs." Ramsey, a throwback guitarist who has worked with Lucinda Williams, Calexico and The Pines (which include his son, Benson Ramsey), has produced and played on a number of Greg Brown's albums, including his latest, Freak Flag, released May 10 on Yep Roc Records. That record includes the title song from Pieta's 2007 album, Remember the Sun.
"It's a huge honor," she says, thinking this might be the first tune of hers to appear on another artist's record. "It made me feel real good. That my song had legs enough that somebody else wanted to sing it."
The musical kinship between father and daughter has helped heal both of them, Pieta says, adding, "It's given me a much deeper understanding of why certain things happened. And then just the music itself. Music itself is one of the greatest healers there is. Its powers are just stunning. So that has healed so many things for me that I couldn't ever describe in words."
It was her dad who encouraged Brown to pick up a guitar when she was in her early 20s, a restless heart wondering and wandering after taking a series of "really fun and weird jobs, and some not so fun."
Picking up a 1930s May-Bell Archtop, Brown says, "I tuned it to my ear, which ended up being some kind of D-minor (laughs) -- big surprise -- and then I just started playing the guitar and I just got obsessed. I wrote some songs immediately. I just followed that instead of thinking like, 'Maybe I do want to have a career in the music business.' I mean, anybody that has a brain doesn't want to have a career in the music business (laughs)."
While juggling roles as mother/musician has its inherent obstacles ("I'm committed to both," she says), Brown's major hang-up in the age of instant access and immediate feedback might involve self-promotion and what she calls the "phony" aspects of social media.
With the industry "completely disassembled from where it was," she has a certain disdain for Facebook, Twitter or whatever is the latest online rage these days. "I've learned enough to kinda get by," Brown says. "Ideally, I need to be working with someone who has more of those skills than I do 'cause I'm really not that interested in it. In fact, I'm not interested in it all, to be quite frank."
Understanding its intent and saying, "If you're into that and that is cool for you, then right on, you know," Brown offers, "Most music fans that I know, like real music fans, they don't care what you're doing (laughs) when you're not doing your show. ... I can't get into that thing. I think it's ... I don't know ... just who I am, I guess. I'm a pretty private person and I don't want to know what ... I wouldn't want to look at ... Neil Young's Facebook page or something and see what he was doing someday or something. You know, I don't care. I want to hear his songs and his music. That's what I'm into."
Those priorities became clear early in her career, when a manager suggested Brown begin writing a daily blog. "I'm not gonna blog, man," she recalls saying. "I'm a fucking songwriter."
So even if she can't get a grip on such artificial intelligence, a fiercely determined Brown plans to carefully hold on to her artistic integrity. In an era of reckless blonde ambition, it's refreshing to see this long, cool woman proceed with caution, fully realizing her way is a slow, slow burn.
"You know, the world's weird and my way of dealing with it since I was a kid was through writing and music," she says. "I think like most people doing what I'm doing, it's the lifeline and from that place, (2010) was a great year. It's still questionable (laughs) if I can pay my bills every month, but so far I've been able to swing it."