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Chastity Brown returns to Bayfront Festival Park

Chastity Brown plays as part of the Water is Life Festival on Sunday at Bayfront Festival Park. 1 / 3
Lyz Jaakola (left) is among the performers at Sunday's Water is Life Festival at Bayfront Festival Park. 2017 file/News Tribune2 / 3
The Indigo Girls headline Sunday's Water is Life Festival at Bayfront Festival Park. 3 / 3

The second time Chastity Brown played Bayfront Blues Festival, she got a standing ovation. It doesn't always happen in the acoustic tent, comparatively more chill than the main stage. But she'd played guitar, harmonica, banjo. She'd stamped her feet for emphasis. And she sang in her signature big, soulful voice. It sounded like her guts were being squeezed.

She tacked on an encore.

Brown, reminded of that performance during a recent phone interview, made an understatement: "So much has happened" since then.

That was August 2012, and she was in the early days of capturing a wider audience. Her song "After You" was getting play on The Current, and National Public Radio had called her a "promising new voice." There was a European tour, an invite from a long-running, popular television talk-show host. "After You" was included on the soundtrack for the BBC/HBO television movie "Martha and Mary" starring Hilary Swank.

Brown returns to Duluth for a show — same park, bigger stage — during the Water is Life Festival, which starts at 3 p.m. Sunday. The concert by Honor the Earth is a fund-and-awareness builder for opponents of Enbridge's Line 3. The lineup includes headliners The Indigo Girls, Sister Tree, Annie Humphrey, Lyz Jaakola, Corey Medina and more.

Tickets are available at honorearth.org, etix.com, suemclean.com and Electric Fetus.

Brown just completed a national tour with Ani DiFranco and also opened for spoken word artist Andrea Gibson. She has played Bonnaroo, Rock the Garden, the Edmonton Folk Festival.

She maintains an affinity for "After You" off "Back-Road Highways," the song that seemingly started it all. She wrote it on her banjo, she said, and it is an upbeat song in a catalogue that she said is pretty dark.

Finding her voice-voice

Brown's voice is her signature. It's powerful. It's expressive. It starts down deep, then fills and wraps. But, at age 15, it wasn't a fit for the high school choir. Her music teacher advised her to focus on the saxophone, which she had been playing for years.

Instead, Brown said, she became obsessed with singing.

"It was like you become obsessed with someone you hope to be your lover," she said. "I just thought about it constantly and had this tremendous yearning."

She credits that yearning — and all the singing — with making both the school choir and the Tennessee state choir the next year.

Still, Brown didn't have a cognitive idea of what her voice sounded like until she moved to Minnesota, she said. She had always wanted to be an indie rocker — vague lyrics, jamming out. Turns out that wasn't her forte.

With "Back-Road Highways," a 2012 release, she made peace with her sound.

"This is what my voice does, and that's what the heck it is going to do," she said.

Finding her writing voice

Brown found her other voice when she was 18. She was in seminary school and was kicked out after falling in love with a woman for the first time, she said. She pulled out her guitar and started writing.

"Holy crap," she remembered thinking. "This is a necessity. This helps me get at the things that for some reason I don't say."

Her heart is full of gratitude right now, she said. She's 22 years into making music that has blurred genres: folk, country, blues, gospel, soul.

"I'm also biracial," she said. "My music represents that or is a direct result of my heritage. It's really cool to feel — cool isn't a sufficient word — an enormous amount of gratitude that I'm pursuing what I'm passionate about and that folks (like it.)"

Brown is also into words by others, specifically those who speak a truth: She frequently mentions James Baldwin, she's currently reading Alice Walker, Mary Oliver, Pema Chodron.

She said she keeps at least one book by Octavia Butler in her car at all times.

"In case I need to give it away," she said, "or to feel like I'm moving around with her. My experience of reading Octavia blew my mind. I never read sci-fi. Her protagonists are women of color who have a tremendous amount of agency and reimagine the way we can exist, survive and sustain."

'Silhouette of Sirens'

It's been about a year since Brown released "Silhouette of Sirens," her Red House Records debut. It received mega-raves and was album of the week on The Current.

"To listen to Chastity is to lose yourself completely in the sorrow, joy, yearning and wonderment of a hopeful voice that never stops searching; a voice so enormous and evocative that it seeps down past your skin and bones and settles right down in your soul," wrote music reporter Andrea Swensson.

Brown originally planned to release the album in 2016, even popped out a single, she said, then scrapped it.

"It didn't resonate with what I wanted to share, but I didn't know yet what I wanted to share ended up being what I needed to share," she said.

The second go at the album, two years later, is one that is repeatedly credited for its authenticity. The opening track, "Drive Slow," is seemingly a song about vulnerability, taking chances, living. It starts at a summer-days speed before building to its carpe diem swell.

"My Stone" is a pained plea to a lover. A cold wind blows between them. "Don't leave me here," she sings. "On my own."

Brown thought she had distance from the songs she was writing. She had created characters, told stories. Then she listened to it.

"I'm like 'Holy crap, tell the truth honey: that's your sh-t,'" she said. "It's quite liberating. I didn't know how liberating at the time being that vulnerable would be — whether it sounds vulnerable or not, it knocked me to my knees to expose my heart."

If you go

What: Honor the Earth presents Water is Life Festival featuring the Indigo Girls, Chastity Brown, Sister Tree, Annie Humphrey, Lyz Jaakola, Corey Medina and guests

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Bayfront Festival Park

Tickets: at www.honorearth.org/lwno2018, www.suemclean.com, www.etix.com or at Electric Fetus

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