Nora Brown is only a teenager, yet she’s been playing banjo and guitar for over a decade. Putting her own spin on traditional roots music, Brown will bring her show (in duo format) to the Music Hall Lounge on Saturday, Aug. 27 in support of her new record, “Long Time to be Gone,” which will be released the day before the gig. Seacoastonline caught up with Brown to discuss the record, her youthful longstanding career in music, and much more.
Seacoastonline: Let’s trace some roots. You’re only 16, but you’ve already been playing music for a decade. That’s amazing. How’d you get your start? What was the experience that set the hook for you in terms of chasing music as a profession?
Brown: I just turned 17 last month but I started playing old time music when I was 6. I came about learning it almost by accident, I ended up learning ukulele from a local teacher, Shlomo Pestco, who was a traditional music fanatic. He largely taught old time music with some blues, gospel and folky classics mixed in there. He was around for the folk revival in the city and was deeply dedicated to researching the history of the music, specifically the banjo.
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During my time as a student of Shlomo’s, we would have hootenannys – basically recitals – where all his students would perform together and share music on stage. This was usually held at the Jalopy theater or other local Brooklyn venues. I guess that this helped me get acclimated to performing on stage. I gradually began to do some solo performances at these same local venues which led to performance at a wider scope around the country and even outside of it (Just did my first international show in Czechia). I never quite decided to chase music as a profession, and this is one thing that sets me apart from other musicians is that I never really had to take that leap and choose music as my path because there were never any stakes. Even if I never got a show, I’d still have a house and food. So, I’ve kinda just done what I’ve enjoyed doing, and it’s cool that I’ve been able to have some professional experiences from that.
Seacoastonline: What led you to banjo? What do you appreciate about the instrument? What are the challenges associated with it, and, on the flipside, what does it afford you in your ongoing musical exploration?
Brown: I remember taking ukulele lessons at my teacher’s place, we’d sit surrounded by a semicircle of string instruments, many of them banjos and different hybrid versions of the instrument. Sometimes Shlomo would play the banjo with me once I had learned a song so they were around. I don’t really remember what attracted me to it. I tried a lot of instruments, but the banjo really stuck.
Seacoastonline: Who are some of your influences?
Brown: Some of my influences would be folks that I’ve learned music from: Lee Sexton, George Gibson, John Haywood, Anna-Roberts Gevalt.
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Seacoastonline: Do you write your own tunes, or do you mainly chase traditional old-timey Appalachian numbers? What got you interested in that type of music to begin with?
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 much urgency to do it. I find that I can be creative and express myself through traditional music by taking old tunes and sort of shaping them in my own hands to unique versions of the music. That’s what traditional music is all about.
Seacoastonline: How do you choose the numbers you play? What are you looking for when it comes to deciding what will get added to your personal musical cannon?
Brown: A big part of traditional music is learning and listening to music. I think that learning to imitate and play another musician’s music is something that can be undervalued in other areas of music, while it’s absolutely essential within the old-time tradition. There is a lot to be gained by consistently learning music – it leads to the development of your own sound. I listen to lots of old (and new music) and find songs that I enjoy and somehow connect to me. These are the songs that I learn!
Seacoastonline: You’ve got a new record coming out, “Long Time To Be Gone,” on Aug. 26. What were your goals for the record? What lessons did you bring into the recording sessions? Are you happy with the results? What did you earn 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 were unable to be recorded in my last project. This was definitely accomplished. Most of the tunes on this record are solo instrumental banjo tunes. I like to think that this is a sort of uncurated sample of the tunes that I’ve been playing.
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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 Tiny Desk performance in the (very) old, expansive tunnel you set up shop in. What do your surroundings add to your musical approach?
Brown: Yeah, there’s definitely been some unique recording environments for my last records. In this case, you can hear the unique surroundings in the recording. I think having these spaces available to me made it an obvious choice for me to experiment with the sound that I could get from these informal recording spaces. I wouldn’t say I have an affinity for this (although it certainly appears that way). I think I’ve kind of just worked with what I’ve had available to me at the time!
Seacoastonline: In general, why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it?
Brown: I mean at the risk of this being kind of cliche, it’s really nothing more than that I enjoy it. It feels good to play music and to share it with others.
Seacoastonline: You’re coming to visit us here in Portsmouth at the Music Hall Lounge. What excites you about the gig? What can folks expect?
Brown: I’m very excited to play this show with my pal Stephanie Coleman. I enjoy playing solo, but it’s always super fun to collaborate with another musician, especially Steph!
Seacoastonline: Do you enjoy performing to rooms full of strangers? Is it weird at all, or do you thrive off drawing a crowd in to your performance?
Brown: There are lots of aspects to performing music that I really enjoy – being able to share music with folks and expose people to the music that I play is really cool. It’s fun to be able to travel for this and meet the different people that come!
For further information visit www.norabrownmusic.com and themusichall.org