Soulful singer-songwriter Chastity Brown turned heads with her 2017 debut Silhouette of Sirens so this follow-up, Sing to the Walls (out via Red House Records) comes with a high level of anticipation. No one could have predicted the intervening events of these past five years, given the pandemic and the social/racial protests that occurred in the summer of 2020, just mere blocks from Brown’s south Minneapolis home. Between the pandemic, the protests, and January 6th, there have been a plethora of emotions but how does one channel all these feelings into a cohesive album? Brown wrote over one hundred songs since her last album and culled down to ten for this effort that she calls a “love album, in a way I didn’t plan on.” It would likely have been easier to channel rage into a protest album but instead Brown took the high road, choosing to write about hope, connection, and optimism. Brown is the daughter of a blues musician, so perhaps this kind of channeling comes more naturally to her than most.
It’s difficult to define her sonics, as they carry elements of folk, more contemporary Americana, soul, electronics, and faint hints of the blues. Much of it is dreamy and ethereal. While most of that traces to her formative style, three different production locations play into it too. She began the album in Stockholm, Sweden with her session drummer and producer Brady Blade, leading five or more accompanying musicians, completed the core album in her home studio with her longtime drummer, Greg Schutte while Chris Bell added additional touches while mixing in Austin. Brown, a multi-instrumentalist, though, was at the helm for all of it, as lead producer on some tracks, and co-producer on all of them.
The opener and single “Wonderment,” cut in Sweden, carries blues undertones wrapped in synths and electric guitars, building to an explosive crescendo through the keyboards as Brown sings about a dream, stimulated by a psychedelic trip. Yet, in an odd way it speaks to the yearning optimism for a better future, setting the album theme with these lyrics – “And all that I wonder, but I do not know/If it will ever show, ever show/Ever show, ever show.” She directly embraces freedom riding with windows down in “Back Seat.” Among other more fully fleshed out Stockholm tracks, is “Boston,” a blissful love song that just soars over synths and gains a triumphant tone with two backing vocalists; the expansive “Curiosity” which begins with her forceful voice asking, “Who am I without those stones you threw?” and proceeds to express gratitude to a friend who helped her through a tough period; and her piano-driven “Like the Sun,” a glorious melody that compares her lover to the sun, a huge idea that she pulls off with aplomb. To say it’s radiant is a bit too cute but you get the idea. “Hope” has her again on the piano, enveloped by the usual Stockholm touches of synths, electric guitar, and drum programming as she pleas to keep the relationship intact, layering her voice to choir-like effect
“Loving the Questions” is the first of four that was done in her own studio with Brown playing synth, piano, acoustic guitar, and drum programming along with Schutte on electric guitar and Bernard Bell on bass. She makes a demonstrative statement of love through the atmospheric music with the chorus of “So hold, hold on to me.” She’s direct, speaking from the point of view of a gay Black woman, but remains steadfast in “Golden” as if biting her lip in paralysis of emotion – “I’ve got joy even when I’m a target, if you think that’s political, don’t get me started.” Her vocal is especially poignant with the refrain of “Why have I got to be angry?” juxtaposed with the idea it would go down easier if she sang softer as a Black woman. A small combo also renders the title track, as she seeks to bridge our political and racial divides – “I will sing to those walls, hope it gets through/And I will sing to your scars, they need healing too.” The final home studio track, the closing “Gertrude” adds strings, Northwood birds, and Sharon Van Etten on vocals for a stunning, dreamy ode to the beauty of simply being alive.
Brown prides herself on her unique sound and her messages, claiming that she owes a debt to female blues pioneers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. That’s an interesting concept because those two rarely embraced joy, whether forced or not, as well as Brown, does here, raising a toast to feel good among these chaotic times.