Nora Brown is just a teenager, but she has been playing banjo and guitar for over a decade. Bringing his own spin on traditional roots music, Brown will perform his show (as a duo) at Music room lounge on Saturday August 27 in support of his new record, “There’s a long time to go” which will be released the day before the concert. Seacoastonline caught up with Brown to chat about the record, his young, long-running music career and more.
Seacoastonline: Let’s go back to some roots. You’re only 16, but you’ve already been playing music for a decade. It’s incredible. How did you start? What was the experience that prompted you to pursue music as a profession?
Brown: I just turned 17 last month, but I started playing early music when I was 6 years old. I started learning it almost by accident. I ended up learning the ukulele with a local teacher, Shlomo Pestco, who was a traditional music fanatic. He largely taught early music with some blues, gospel and folk classics. He was there for the folk revival of the city and was deeply devoted to researching the history of music, especially the banjo.
During my time as a student of Shlomo, we had hootenannys – basically recitals – where all of his students performed together and shared music on stage. This was usually held at the Jalopy Theater or other local Brooklyn venues. I guess it helped me acclimatize to performing on stage. I gradually started doing solo performances in these same local venues, which led to performances on a larger scale all over the country and even outside (I just did my first international show in Czechia ). I never really decided to chase music as a profession, and that’s one thing that sets me apart from other musicians is that I never really had to take the plunge and choose music as way because there have never been any issues. Even if I never had a show, I would still have a house and food. So, I just did what I loved to do, and it’s cool that I was able to have professional experiences from that.
Seacoastonline: What got you into banjo? What do you like about the instrument? What are the challenges associated with it and, on the other hand, what does it bring you in your ongoing musical exploration?
Brown: I remember taking ukulele lessons from my teacher, we were sitting surrounded by a semi-circle of stringed instruments, many of which were banjos and different hybrid versions of the instrument. Sometimes Shlomo played banjo with me once I learned a song, so they were there. I don’t really remember what attracted me. I tried quite a few instruments, but the banjo really stuck.
Seacoastonline: What are your influences?
Brown: Some of my influences would be people whose music I learned from: Lee Sexton, George Gibson, John Haywood, Anna-Roberts Gevalt.
Seacoastonline: Do you write your own tunes or are you mostly looking for traditional Appalachian numbers? What made you interested in this type of music in the first place?
Brown: I don’t write much, although I’m open to it! Writing music is really a lifelong process for me, I think, and I don’t feel a lot of urgency to do it. I find I can be creative and express myself through traditional music by taking old tunes and shaping them with my own hands into unique versions of music. This is traditional music.
Seacoastonline: How do you choose the numbers you play? What do you look for when deciding what will be added to your personal musical canon?
Brown: A lot of traditional music is about learning and listening to music. I think learning to imitate and play another musician’s music is something that can be undervalued in other areas of music, whereas it’s absolutely essential in the tradition of yesteryear. There’s a lot to be gained by constantly learning music – it leads to the development of your own sound. I listen to a lot of old (and new) music and find songs that I enjoy and that connect me in some way. These are the songs I learn!
Seacoastonline: You have a new record coming out, “Long Time To Be Gone”, on August 26th. What were your goals for the record? What lessons did you bring to the recording sessions? Are you satisfied with the results? What did you take away from this particular experience?
Brown: My main goal for this most recent project was to capture some of the more subtle solo banjo tunes that couldn’t be recorded in my last project. It has definitely been accomplished. Most of the tracks on this disc are solo instrumental banjo tracks. I like to think of it as a sort of unreleased sample of the songs I’ve played.
Seacoastonline: The record was recorded at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn. You seem to have an affinity for creating music in interesting places. I especially dug your performance Tiny Desk in the (very) old and vast tunnel in which you settled. What does your environment add to your musical approach?
Brown: Yeah, there have definitely been unique recording environments for my latest records. In this case, you can hear the unique environment in the recording. I think having these spaces at my disposal made it an obvious choice for me to experiment with the sound I could get from these informal recording spaces. I wouldn’t say I have an affinity for it (although I certainly seem to). I think I kind of worked with what I had at my disposal at the time!
Seacoastonline: In general, why the music? Why are you looking for it? Why are you creating it?
Brown: I mean at the risk of it being kind of a cliché, it’s really nothing more than the fact that I like it. It feels good to play music and share it with others.
Seacoastonline: You come and visit us here in Portsmouth at the Music Hall Lounge. What excites you about the concert? What can people expect?
Brown: I’m very excited to perform this show with my girlfriend Stephanie Coleman. I like playing solo, but it’s always great to collaborate with another musician, especially Steph!
Seacoastonline: Do you like playing in rooms full of strangers? Is it weird at all, or do you like to draw a crowd into your performance?
Brown: There are a lot of things about music that I really enjoy – being able to share music with people and expose people to the music I play is really cool. It’s fun to be able to travel for this and meet the different people who come!