Photographer: Buttface McGee
Photographer: Buttface McGee
Photographer: Buttface McGee
Thoughtful and subversive, Brown has a way of taking the familiar––for example, music as therapy––and recasting it to deliver an original, more robust understanding: Songs can carry our burdens so that while we never forget, we aren’t immobilized by the weight of our experiences.
Brown’s appreciation for the liberating power of a song has deepened over years of study, and her highly anticipated debut album Dirty Water benefits from her willingness to let things marinate. Bursting with both swagger and tenderness, the record is a triumphant collection of Brown’s risk-taking, pop-savvy, finely honed rock-and-roll. “Strong reactions are what I want from people––it’s not a lighthearted album,” she says. “I want people to listen to the music and really love it or really hate it. That’s what I want.”
Dirty Water is the first full-length project for a still-young artist, but Brown has already built a career out of provoking intense reactions in high places. Many fans first heard her complex soprano on season three of The Voice––a bow that prompted Rolling Stone to purr, “That quiet thud you heard across the nation as she strutted across the stage in her leather pants and bitch heels was 12 million jaws hitting the floor.” The show introduced her to millions, but the best singers in the world had already begun turning to Brown years ago. After attending New York City’s FAME school, she hit the road as a backing vocalist for the biggest voices in music: Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, CeeLo Green, Lenny Kravitz, Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Rowland, Gwen Stefani, and more. She spent much of 2017 singing background vocals on Adele’s world tour, before going out with the Killers to open shows with her own material.
“I have spent so much time cultivating relationships and learning different styles of music, playing with various musicians,” Brown says. “I have a better idea of who I am and what I want to say now, whereas when I was 17, I was so lost.” She spent her childhood and teens listening to and performing gospel music, which laid a gorgeous foundation but left her hungry for other sounds––and unsure of how she could fit into the music industry at all. After touring with Alica Keys, she had an epiphany. “I realized I wanted to write music for myself,” she says. “It wasn’t something I did early on––I was afraid of it because of all the things I’d heard. My dad had said, ‘If you sing music, it has to be for the Lord.’ So I thought, ‘Oh, man. I don’t really want to sing gospel music, and if I don’t, I’ll go to hell?’” She laughs softly and a little sadly. “It took me a while to figure out who I was for myself without worrying too much about what other people thought.”
Dirty Water exudes that distinct confidence only earned by choosing personal truth over people pleasing. Capable of ethereal runs and swampy grit, Brown’s voice delivers soulful messages of hope and learning to sit with hurts. “In everyday life, I feel like we don’t talk enough about the sadness people feel,” she says. The record explores pain and fleeting bliss, offering guitar-driven meditations on savoring life’s ups and downs. “Essentially, the music is about holding on to really beautiful people and moments,” Brown says. “I’m trying to soak it all in now and appreciate it all now, but I can’t help but think about how it’s going to end.”
Brown wrote or co-wrote every song on the album. Just two primary collaborators composed with her: singer-songwriters Greg Tannen and Colin Smith. Moving and full, first single “The Believers” serves as a fiery beginning. Brown’s powerhouse vocals shout a new message of hope in the face of the oppression and violence––especially against transexuals and people of color––that fuels modern headlines. “I didn’t want to be too preachy, but I wanted to say, ‘You’re not alone. There is a way out of this, and that way is community. Find people who understand and support you and are willing to stand up for you.”
Moody love song “So Right” is tinged with that self-aware melancholy Brown can’t––and doesn’t want to––shake. “There is something in the back of my mind somewhere saying, ‘This is probably not going to last forever,’” she says. “It’s going really well, but it’s probably going to end at some point.” She pauses. “But that’s life.” She penned “Glutton for Punishment”––a personal favorite––alone one day in about two hours, sitting on a rock by the water not far from the home she shares with her boyfriend in New York City. Angry and vulnerable, the song soars thanks to a surprising combination of Brown’s soul laid bare and bold vocal effects.
Goading heart-pounder “Take Your Pill” accomplishes the all-too-rare feat of mixing rock-and-roll escapism with tough questions. Brown wrote the song during a time in her life when she was going hard and fast all of the time. “I thought, ‘Okay, why are you doing this?’” she says, remembering the long nights that gave birth to the song. “‘Are you doing this to follow the crowd and hang out with a bunch of people in dark clubs because you’re really unhappy? Or do you genuinely enjoy it?’ The song started there, then branched out a bit.”
Album standout “Dirty Water” capitalizes on what Brown does best: vocals that move seamlessly between awe-inspiring roars and haunting nuances. “I was on the road with Adele, and I can’t remember which city I was in––but I remember feeling really sad,” Brown says. “I was so lonely. I thought, ‘Why am I so sad? I’m on this incredible tour with this massive artist, and they’re taking such great care of us. I get to travel the world.’ But I found myself in my room, crying on my pillow.”
That’s when the line came to her: “Pitter patter on the floor / everywhere I turn it’s raining / tell me, what’s it raining for?” The song is intimate and quiet––a stark window into the overwhelming but mysterious anguish we all have but don’t discuss. “I think a lot of people look at me and think I’m always so happy,” she says. “And I do hide sadness well. So this is my brave song, really.”
Ultimately, all of the songs on Dirty Water brim with courage––and hard-won virtuosity. “A lot of these songs started out as music for myself, my way to figure out things in my own life,” Brown says. “But I decided, if this helped me work through some stuff, I should release it. It might help other people too.”
Sarah Frost, firstname.lastname@example.org
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May 12 – New York, NY – Mercury Lounge
May 20 – Dallas, TX – Opening Bell Coffee
May 27 – San Francisco, CA – Hotel Utah
May 31 – Los Angeles, CA – Hotel Cafe
June 5 – Salt Lake City, UT – Metro
June 6 – Denver, CO – Walnut Room
June 9 – Nashville, TN – The Back Corner
June 14 – Chicago, IL – Uncommon Ground, Lakeview