In Session: Nora Brown

NEW YORK – Starting out at a young age – and blossoming into a gifted performer – Nora Brown is already racking up quite the impressive resume. Skilled in traditional banjo music, Brown has gotten the attention of many, and is just beginning. Releasing her latest record, Long Time To Be Gone, this past summer, Brown will be coming to the historic Caffe Lena on Feb. 19th.

I had a chance to sit down with this artist this past week. What follows is our conversation.

Photo credit: Benton Brown Low

Lucas Garrett: Hello, Nora, and thank you for taking time out of your night to sit down and talk with us.

Nora Brown: Thanks for doing this.

LG: You have done quite a lot of interesting things in not that long of a time. How did that all start to happen; how did you get started with music?

NB: I started playing old-time music – traditional music – when I was six years old. I started learning on the ukulele. I told my parents I wanted to learn the ukulele, and then a friend-of-a-friend recommended this teacher, Shlomo Pescoe. Old-time was all he taught, so I ended up learning traditional music.

From there, I was able to learn a lot of traditional instruments: banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. I’ve been playing old-time music since then, and professionally since I was 12. More so in the last couple of years, doing solo shows and stuff like that.

LG: I think it’s really interesting what you’re doing because a lot of people your age are not into the whole traditional, Appalachia-style music, but rather pop music. It’s really cool.

NB: Yeah, thanks!

LG: I heard you just had an album, Long Time To Be Gone, come out. Tell us a bit about the record.

NB: It was put out on Jalopy Records, which is the same institution as Jalopy Theater. It’s a folk-venue in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It’s a tight-knit community of musicians, and where I really started playing. Great pals there. It was recorded in St. Ann’s church; this beautiful church in Brooklyn. It’s the home of the Brooklyn Folk Festival; huge ceilings, and a very beautiful, cavernous space. It sounds really great there and we set up mics all around the church, collecting sounds in all different places.

The album is a compilation of a bunch of traditional songs I’d been playing. I released another album, recently, called Sidetrack My Engine. That was only an EP because some of the tracks got lost in the recording process; a lot of the quieter banjo tracks didn’t come through in the way I wanted them to. This album is comprised of a lot more traditional banjo music that is quieter, and more mellow.

LG: What dictated what was going to be on the record? did you spend a lot of time narrowing that down?

NB: Well, honestly, for this project, it’s a pretty uncurated collection of stuff that I’ve been enjoying playing recently. There’s a lot of value in a more curated collection of music, but I think there’s also value in creating a time capsule of what you’re interested in at that moment.

LG: You’re very talented in general, and very, very, very talented for someone your age. How many hours a day do you practice?

NB: I don’t practice every day, but when I do it’s usually when I’m learning new music. It varies.

LG: I really enjoyed your playing.

NB: Thanks, I really appreciate that, Lucas.

LG: So, you’re playing a show in my neck of the woods, not that long from now, at Caffe Lena on Feb. 19th. Let’s talk about that.

NB: Caffe Lena is a historic music venue for folk music. I’ve played there a few times in the past few years, most recently with my friend, Stephanie Coleman. She’s a fiddler. I’m honored to play there at such a historic stage. It’s going to be great; I always have a great time.

LG: Who are some of your influences?

NB: Because it’s traditional music, a lot of what I’ve learned is from people that passed away; all I have is their music. A big influence for me is Virgil Anderson. He was a banjo player from the eastern Kentucky area. He played banjo in two-finger style, and was super bluesy rhythmically. There’s Cuje and Cooney Bertram. They’re both around the area Virgil’s from, and he mentions them in his influences. It’s this unique, bluesy, old-timey banjo style. It’s not found anywhere else. It’s not like anything else from that region at all. They were both old-time musicians, but because of the record market, black musicians weren’t wanted on the label if they played old-time music, so they also played blues.

In terms of contemporary musicians, the band Anna & Elizabeth was really vital when I was starting out playing, and performing old-time music in general. They were really big influences for me. Also, I’ve learned a lot from folks in eastern Kentucky. George Gibson and John Haywood are experts in that eastern Kentucky style of banjo playing, which is mostly what I play.

LG: What advice would you have, if any, for someone your age who really wants to get into music? It’s a tough business out there, and hard to navigate.

NB: In my experience, I’ve had a lot of help to get to the point I have. I would say that you really have to love what you do. Never feel like you’re limited by other people’s expectations. You have to find the right balance. It’s so hard, because when you have something that is supposed to be enjoyed… whenever an art form is turned into a money-making business, it can get tricky. You have to find that balance between enjoying what you do and managing it in a way that can make you money. I can really speak on the old-time front, but in general, you have to find a way to balance the technical side of everything while making sure to keep it something that is fun.

I would say that playing with friends and finding a community where you live – or maybe it’s not where you live – is really essential if you want to play professionally. Have a community; have people you can rely on, whether that’s musicians or your family.

LG: Thank you again, for your time, and I wish you all the best in your career.

NB: Thank you, Lucas, I appreciate that. Where are you based out of?

LG: I’m based an hour outside of Albany. There’s not a lot up where I am, so if I want to do anything I have to go down closer to Albany.

NB: It was great talking to you.

LG: Have a great night.

NB: You too.

1 Comment
  1. Rudy says

    Some of Nora Brown’s performances have been covered in Nippertown. She has opened for Dom Flemons at Caffe Lena.

    And Steep Canyon Rangers at Music Haven..

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