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.
Recorded this back on February 3 in 2020 with my buddy Jackson Lynch – saved it until now to post! Happy 8th of January. This is the Frazier and Patterson version off the John Work Recordings from 1942 from Fisk University in Nashville, TN.Nora Brown
The Hobbledehoy’s favorite banjo picker, little Nora Brown
Yo yo here’s some wild goose chase—— if you wanna hear some good tunes from a lot of good people, October 23-25 is the (virtual) Brookyn Folk Fest you can watch me at 7:30pm on Saturday. go to @bklynfolkfest for more info.Nora Brown