Nora Brown is a poised and talented teenager from Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Not the usual bio from a solo banjo and unaccompanied ballad singer specializing in the music of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Her sound is amazingly authentic having gone to sit and learn from the masters of old-time music like the late Lee Sexton. Her latest EP, “Sidetrack My Engine”, released recently on Jalopy Records was recorded in her basement; not your average basement mind you. Her parents distribute cheese that they age in the century-old lagering tunnels beneath their building. This cave-like structure is the setting for the latest recording. Recorded on an ancient Ampex reel to reel with old RCA ribbon mics, the songs sound timeless. Our segment begins with the old time tune, “Wedding Dress” which she learned from one of her mentors, John Cohen, of the New Lost City Ramblers.
Our conversation touches on many subjects including her love for the mournful ballads of the South, her collaboration with Alice Gerrard, pioneering bluegrass performer, who produced her first release, “Cinnamon Tree”. We talk about the unusual sonic qualities of the cheese/beer lagering tunnel, her work with Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton who plays the bones on a few tracks.
Of course, we ask Nora to tell us about her trio of banjos and their unique styles they give her music. The release is only seven cuts because of the tunnel/analog equipment used there is another release in the works recorded in St Ann’s church, the site of the Brooklyn Folk Festival.
Nora Brown will be appearing at Northampton’s newly-reopened Parlor Room on January 30th. Tickets are on sale.
Recorded LIVE at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church – Brooklyn, NY Audio: Juan M Soria Video: Brad Wagner More sessions and interviews here: https://www.pastemagazine.com/studio
Nora Brown’s ‘Sidetrack My Engine’ was taped on analog equipment in the fermentation caves under her parents’ cheese shop.
Nora Brown is accustomed to friends and strangers not quite grasping her extracurricular activities.
“When people hear that I play the banjo, especially people in my school, will be like, ‘what?” she says. “The interest makes no sense for some people. It makes total sense that they would have the reaction, but it’s kind of hard to explain in one sitting or, if someone finds out about that and they ask a question. You’re kind of like, ‘Where do I start?’”
Well. Brown, who is 16, started with the ukulele, taking lessons with a local teacher who specialized in old time music, eventually transitioning to the instrument that captured her attention the most: the banjo. Now a junior at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, Queens, Brown is a rising star in the world of bluegrass music. Her first album, “Cinnamon Tree,” released when she was 13, debuted in the top ten on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart and at the top of this year, she appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk series.
For her next record, “Sidetrack My Engine,” released September 24, Brown utilized some home recording tools like many musicians during the pandemic. Unlike many musicians during the pandemic, though, her home is a cheese factory with 1850s fermenting tunnels beneath it: Brown’s parents own and operate Crown Finish Caves, a cheese aging facility located in the former lagering tunnels of the Nassau Brewery in Crown Heights.
Using an (extremely heavy) Ampex tape machine and vintage RCA ribbon mics, “Sidetrack My Engine,” which includes newly arranged versions of songs that Brown learned through the continued tradition of visiting elder musicians, from old records and from field recordings in archival collections, was recorded to tape in the underground caves in August 2020.
Brooklyn Magazine caught up with Brown, who performed the new songs Saturday at the Jalopy Theatre—where Red Hook gives way to the Columbia Street waterfront district— to talk about the banjo, the traditions of Appalachian music and the community she’s found in Brooklyn.
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
Tell me about the first time the sound of a banjo struck you.
I can’t pinpoint an exact time for that. But I did start playing ukulele when I was six and I started learning from this guy named Shlomo Pesco, who was an incredible musician, historian, and he lived in Brooklyn nearby-ish. He just solely taught old time music and folk songs and stuff like that, especially to kids. And so that’s what I began learning, without thinking it was something unique or special, to be learning this style of music here, you know? Where, rather, it is kind of unusual.
Want that authentic folk sound? Then record your new album in mono, live to tape in a large 19th century vaulted stone cellar, below the streets of Brooklyn. It’ll give you that raw and immediate quality of a folkloric field recording. If at the same time you can play banjo and sing, whilst arranging a well-known song into a haunting new shape then so much the better. That’s what Nora Brown has done. Oh, and she’s only fifteen – and already has a lot of appearances under her belt – including NPR Tiny Desk, Washington Square Park Folk Festival, Brooklyn Folk Festival, as well as month-long residencies at Barbès in Brooklyn NY. Got a feeling we’ll be hearing more from Nora Brown.
Her album ‘Sidetrack My Engine‘ is out on Friday 24th September.