"There's a lot of love in this album," Pieta Brown says of Paradise Outlaw, her sixth album and fourth Red House release. "There's a lot of love in the songs and a lot of love in the way it was recorded, and hopefully that comes through."
The level of emotional engagement that Brown routinely brings to her work is evident throughout Paradise Outlaw. The self-produced 14-song set fully embodies the qualities that have already established the iconoclastic singer-songwriter as a fiercely individual musical force.
Recorded at Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon's April Base studio in Wisconsin, with a supporting cast that includes Vernon, Amos Lee and Brown's father, legendary troubadour Greg Brown, Paradise Outlaw boasts some of Pieta's most emotionally resonant compositions, and some of her most expressive performances, to date.
Such gently intoxicating tunes as "Do You Know," "Wondering How," "Ricochet" and "Flowers of Love" feature organically orchestrated arrangements that accentuate the insight and intimacy of Brown's lyrics, the understated craftsmanship of her tunes, and the alluring immediacy of her uniquely expressive voice.
Although the Alabama-bred, Iowa-based Brown's quietly riveting tunes and gritty, charismatic performing style resist easy categorization, they've helped her to win a fiercely loyal international fan base that extends to many of her fellow artists.
"When Pieta sings you're aware of something effortless and natural, like rain on earth," Mark Knopfler observed, while Don Was called her "a great singer-songwriter who possesses major star-power magnetism," and Iris DeMent described her as "the best poet I've heard in a long damn time."
Paradise Outlaw showcases Brown's established strengths while staking out fresh new creative territory. "On my last album Mercury, I was recording near Nashville with top-call studio musicians who I hadn't worked with before, and was exploring the idea of craft and trying to hone in on more classic forms than I had previously," she explains, adding, "Paradise Outlaw came from a radically different place. I was thinking a lot about freedom, experimentation, poetry, folk songs, bending forms and voices. I also wrote and delivered half the songs on the banjo, which was completely new for me."
The project was set into motion in mid-2012, when Brown met Justin Vernon while both were on tour in Australia. As she recalls, "The initial spark for this quest was when the songs 'Painter's Hands' and 'Rise My Only Rose'-both of which I wrote before I ever made my first album-fell out of a notebook onto the floor in a hotel room and landed next to the copy of Howl by Allen Ginsberg that I'd happened to bring out on the road. Later that night, I met Justin and he told me about his studio, and it just rolled from there. It was a fun track to follow, and one link running through it all was this spark that I caught from re-reading a lot of beat poetry, especially Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and thinking about that feverish hunt for freedom, as a human."
Recording in the comfortable environment of April Base, Pieta was joined by a colorful supporting cast that included co-producer and guitarist Bo Ramsey (also the artist's husband) and members of her touring band, as well as guest vocalists Justin Vernon and Amos Lee (who co-wrote and sings a duet vocal on "Do You Know"), as well as legendary multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, who provides pedal steel, mandolin and string arrangements on the heart-tugging instrumental "Little Swainson," and Pieta's dad Greg Brown, who adds acoustic guitar on her distinctive reading of Mark Knopfler's "Before Gas and TV. The sessions emphasized inspiration and spontaneity, capturing the soulful interaction of a group of like-minded musicians in a big, warm-sounding room.
"April Base and the players had a lot to do with the way the album sounds and feels," states Brown, who played piano, banjo and various guitars on the session. "I went to check out the studio before we recorded there, and I knew immediately it was the perfect place. I dug the room, and I loved the land there. I was also really comfortable with the engineer, B.J. Burton, who was really creative and open to different ways of doing things. There were a lot of unspoken connections going on, which to me is what a lot of great music is about.
"We recorded live, in just a few days, with everyone in one big room, and what you hear on the recording is the way the music went down as it was recorded," she continues. "Growing up around a lot of musicians and artists, I have always felt most at home among them. And that's how I made this recording-surrounded by friends in an underground midwestern goldmine."
The creative restlessness that drives Paradise Outlaw has been a constant in Pieta Brown's life. Born in Iowa, she lived in at least 17 different residences in multiple states during her youth. Her parents separated when she was two, but she grew up surrounded by artists and musicians, absorbing all manner of bohemian artistic influences. By the age of eight, she was writing poetry and instrumental music on the piano, eventually picking up the guitar and merging the two into songs.
"Songwriting feels like home to me," she asserts. "I love songs because at any given moment they can do any number of things-make me feel better, transport me for a bit, open my mind, open my heart, articulate some wild thing I'm experiencing in a way that talking about it can't. It's a lifeline for me, and luckily it's always hanging around. One lifetime won't be enough for all the realms I want to explore. I'm experimental by nature and an explorer at heart, and that's what keeps me chasing the songs."
With Paradise Outlaw documenting a compelling new chapter of her ongoing musical journey, Pieta Brown continues to seek out and conquer new creative challenges.
As Pieta puts it in the album's dedication, "In the preface to a super cool book of photographs of the Beats called Paradise Outlaws, John Tytell says it well: 'The notion of paradise may be one of our ultimate fictions, but it still motivates action in the world. While the way the Beats saw the world made them outlaws, they also shared a view of art that was unelitist, anti-hierarchical, egalitarian.' That makes a lot of sense to me. I feel like my songs come from the same beat streets and off-kilter countrysides, and the same worlds where peace, love and freedom will always be worth exploring. So to all my fellow paradise outlaws, thank you for the hopeful illusions, the grit, the grace and above all, the songs and music that carry me through."