Local Current Blog

Chastity Brown and the lost art of taking your time

Photo by Nate Ryan, courtesy Chastity Brown

It’s no secret we are living through preoccupied, frenzied times. Our minds are being pulled in a hundred directions at once and stretched thin like saltwater taffy, and we are living under the constant pressure that we should be doing more, producing more, clicking more, and consuming more—all while being more available to the world around us.

The other day I unfastened myself from my computer and realized that I had to physically straighten myself out after spending hours cramping my body around my keyboard like a claw. I didn’t know how many hours had passed since I’d gotten up, not to mention since I’d done other human tasks like getting some water or food or, you know, walking around. And the worst part? I had spent the last who-knows-how-long mindlessly clicking on one thing after another and falling down one of the internet’s many drainpipes of useless information in pursuit of some relaxation and something that might inspire me to write. I felt busy and stressed, but I hadn’t actually accomplished anything.

Maybe it’s because of the times we’re living in, or maybe it’s simply another product of my endless procrastination, but lately I’ve become fascinated by the life of poets and specifically the Minnesotan poet Robert Bly. Coincidentally, Bly kept a writing cottage directly across the street from where I grew up in the small town of Moose Lake. Although I wouldn’t become familiar with his work until years later, I was introduced early on to this idea that a real writer has their own cottage and is allowed the time and space to isolate themselves in order to create something truly meaningful. When I think back on it now, it practically feels like a fantasy. Is that sort of writer’s life really possible?

This passage from a 2001 profile of Bly in the Star Tribune certainly didn’t help matters.

When other writers are scrawling last-minute comments on term papers before rushing off to teach class, he lies in bed, composing verses. Image by image, line by line, in his 102-year-old farmhouse atop Minneapolis’ Lowry Hill or his house on Moose Lake in northern Minnesota, he can sometimes finish four stanzas in as many hours — although the rest of the poem may take another six months. When other readers are hunching over the morning newspaper, Bly keeps his bearings in the sweep of historic events by translating poetry from around the world.

Hours of each day set aside for sitting, contemplating, and, when the mood strikes just right, finally writing. What would that be like? Will any writer of my generation be able to shape that kind of life, and to devote so many uninterrupted hours to their craft?

It occurred to me recently that I can’t remember the last time I was bored. And I don’t mean bored as in “this project I’m doing isn’t quite as exciting as this other thing I’d rather be doing,” but as in sitting and staring and idling unoccupied for such a long period of time that the mind turns and eventually becomes restless. I do remember a few fleeting moments from when I was on vacation last year, sitting and staring out at the sea and writing in my journal and feeling those first tingles of blissful, floating aimlessness. What could we create if we had the time to feel like that every day?

These thoughts have been weighing on my mind for a while now, and I’ve been curious how other creative types approach this struggle with time and multi-tasking and expectation. So I was really excited when I was invited to interview Chastity Brown as part of last weekend’s Minnesota Music Summit, because I knew she’d have some really interesting things to say about the long-lost art of taking one’s time.

I’ve been fascinated by Chastity’s intentionally slow-paced creative process for a long time, and her most recent struggles and triumphs are especially intriguing. Last year, Brown went into the studio with her longtime collaborator Robert Mulrennan to lay down tracks for her new album. The songs had been written in collaboration with Mulrennan (a first for Brown), the backing musicians had recorded their parts, and it was time for her to record her vocals and bring it all home. But when she stepped into the booth, something just didn’t feel right.

“I got into the studio to sing on the first track, and I opened my mouth to sing, and I realized that I was a guest singer on my own f***ing album,” she says. “It was the weirdest feeling. The next morning I woke up and realized that this wasn’t the album that I thought reflected me. In that moment, I was so clear and so sure. I told everyone and I canceled everything, even though I had just spent $6,000 over the course of the year. And then the next day it was like Darkness Becomes Her. I’ve never in my adult life felt so lost from my work. And it just completely broke me up.”

For the past seven months, Brown has been on a journey of introspection and personal discovery. Books have been scoured for inspiration. TED talks have been consumed. And eventually, after spending some time away from her instruments and her songs, she slowly warmed up to her muse again.

“One of the things I took from this TED talk from Elizabeth Gilbert, who was having struggles with her work, she was just like, ‘approach the work with diligence, devotion, and respect.’ And so every time I’d sit down at the piano, [I’d think], ‘I’m not going to judge you. I’m not going to see if you can go on my freaking album.’ ‘Can you be a hit? Will people get this?’ It was literally none of that. It was like an awakening of sorts. It was like, just write. Do anything that’s weird, anything that’s wild and out of the ordinary, and who freaking cares, because I’m not going to play it for anyone.”

A few of the songs written in that period actually ended up making their way onto the new album, including a wrenching, aching, and beautiful new song about being “Lost” that she debuted during our chat at the Minnesota Music Summit, and Brown is back in the studio now tracking what will become her record. Through it all, she’s learned some powerful lessons about her own creative needs and what it means to be a successful artist in this fast-paced world.

“The idea, for me, is balance,” she reflects. “And not running away from any facet of what it means to be a musician, and what it means to be a touring musician. There’s a multiplicity to this experience right now because it’s 2015. There are certain ideals that we can romanticize about the music business and about people we loved from back in the day, but that’s not the reality. So it’s been good for me to find my own balance with the full scope of what it is to be an artist.”

Chastity expects her new album to be out this fall, but no official release date has been set—that would go against the whole idea of taking her time to get it right. And for an artist releasing work into the always-on, always-onto-the-next-thing music business grind, that’s quite an impressive feat.