Pieta Brown – Gather round the Mill
As dedications go, it’s refreshingly short, sweet and to the point: “Thank you to the people and places I come from,” singer-songwriter Pieta Brown writes in the CD booklet of her debut album. It’s how she sums up the close-knit web of friends and family she tapped in her native Iowa City, veteran musicians who are helping to cultivate her muse.
The Mill, a cozy restaurant/bar where Pieta is found on this evening in May, might as well be considered an extension of the Brown family living room. Smiling in a photo behind the bar are Pieta with her two younger sisters, Zoe and Constie.
Their father is Greg Brown, one of the most successful folk/blues singer-songwriters of the past two decades. But where her father has carved out a fiercely independent career with a rumbling baritone and lovable rascal attitude, Pieta’s voice is more ethereal and plaintive.
The restraint within her music is born of confidence. Pieta’s self-titled debut album, released June 4 on Iowa City independent label Trailer Records, begins with a lovesick ballad called “Lullaby” and prefers such seductive and subdued dynamics throughout. Her vocals are all about nuanced inflection rather than raw power. She’s already weary of comparisons to the languid, dreamy tones of Margo Timmins and the Cowboy Junkies, but there’s certainly a similar sensibility at work. For a more pop-oriented reference, Pieta is a big fan of the latest Sade studio album.
Back when her father was about her age now, 28, and had started to perform at the Mill with his Greg Brown Band, Pieta often fell asleep in one of the booths to the sound of his music. By now she’s played about half a dozen times herself at this home base. She’s trying to organize a gig by “the Brownettes,” the three harmonizing Brown sisters who have yet to officially perform but have recorded one song together, a tribute to their grandmother, “Ella Mae.” (It’s a cover of a song their father wrote for his 1999 album One Night; the sisters’ version is slated for a Greg Brown tribute album featuring female artists, due this fall on Red House.)
Zoe bops into the Mill to join Pieta, her backpack full of notebooks — everybody in the Brown family seems to scribble in notebooks — and fresh from an encounter on the street with a passer-by who told her that she radiates the aura of a good soul. She’s 18 and deciding where to attend college.
Pieta earned a linguistics degree from the University of Iowa in 1996. “Pretty much everything I always wanted to do always had to do with writing, music and art,” she says.
Some of Pieta’s earliest memories are of the first Brown family home outside of Cosgrove (near Iowa City), which lacked running water and heat. Her parents divorced when she was 2; a few years later, Pieta moved with her mother to Birmingham, Alabama. Picture her at 5 as the deadly serious poet, clutching a notebook and scampering around the house.
When Pieta returned to Iowa City at 13, her designs on poetry were more serious than ever. But she also was taking classical piano lessons and exploring other creative outlets. Her visual artwork crops up in her own CD booklet — check out the dark, foreboding sky of her watercolor landscape — as well as in photography for two of her father’s recent albums.
Two years ago, music gained the upper hand. Her father was showing off yet another one of his guitars, a vintage 1930s MayBell, when something clicked. She picked up the guitar and started to strum and sing. She “felt some kind of crazy rush of something.”
“Well, I guess that guitar belongs to you,” she remembers her father saying as he beamed proudly with moist eyes.
Pieta holed up in the shed behind her father’s house for a couple months and knocked out her first rough batch of songs. She recorded her first homemade cassette, from which the album tracks “Lullaby” and “Fly Right” were drawn. “I just got obsessed, as I do,” she says.
Bo Ramsey strides into the Mill, his right eye hidden, as usual, behind the forward-tilting brim of his cowboy hat. His lanky frame matches the lean, spare economy he has brought to playing guitar and singing as a bandleader since the 1970s, as Greg Brown’s recurring foil and, in his most mainstream musical role to date, as producer and tour guitarist for Lucinda Williams.