At age seventeen, Nora Brown merges her youthful enthusiasm with age-old reverence. Her tastes veer towards music of Appalachian origin, best expressed through her banjo virtuosity and appreciation for music of traditional origins. That’s apparent on her upcoming third album, Long Time To Be Gone, a collection of songs that sound as if they’re of a vintage variety. Recorded in St. Anne’s Church in Brooklyn Heights, New York and having the aural advantage of the sanctuary’s cavernous environs, the sparse arrangements are underscored by Brown’s shared sentiment and devotion.
That’s no accident. She’s studied under the tutelage of some exceptional musical mentors and has pursued her passion since the age of six. Along the way, she has garnered critical acclaim, shared numerous high profile performances, won any number of competitions, and generally reaped an exceptional reputation.
Bluegrass Today recently had an opportunity to speak with Ms. Brown and ask her about the progression of her efforts thus far.
Hello Nora — Congratulations on the new album. So let’s start by going back to the beginning. When and why did you decide to make a career playing music?
This is an interesting question because I started playing and performing music so young that I never really made the decision that many musicians do, to take that step to turn their passion into their career. I played my first solo performance when I was 12, and from then on sort of rode the wave. When I was offered opportunities to play music at local venues or festivals, I would. It’s a little different now. After releasing my first album, I got a booking agent, and more actively perform.
What was it about this music that most appealed to you?
This is also related to my answer to the question about when I decided to make a career in playing music because I didn’t exactly choose to play old time music. That’s partly because of my age — I was six when I started taking music lessons. But that’s also because when I started taking ukulele lessons from a local music teacher, Shlomo Pestcoe, I was completely unaware that I was about to be learning from a dedicated old-time musician and scholar, who didn’t teach anything but traditional music.
Do you find any irony in the fact that you’re so young and yet you’re playing an old style of music?
Sure! It’s easy to perceive traditional music as stationary, which is true in a sense. A lot of the music I play is from those who have long passed away. However, traditions themselves aren’t necessarily stationary as long as someone is carrying them on. They remain present and alive. A big part of old time and traditional music is self expression.
What’s been your biggest joy and thrill thus far?
In the music realm, it’s about collaborating with other musicians. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy doing solo stuff, but it gets lonely! I really enjoy the challenge of listening to other musicians and working my playing to suit theirs. Although we’ve played music together for a while, I’ve recently been collaborating a lot with fiddler Stephanie Coleman. Stephanie’s playing is deliberate and clear. Playing banjo with her feels kind of like iceskating because of how smoothly the sound flows. We’re going to do a little tour up the East Coast to Canada later this summer in August. I’ve also really enjoyed DJing on local radio stations. I haven’t done it much, but I think it’s cool to share what I’ve been listening to, and share some of my influences with folks.
Can you share your thoughts on how your music has progressed from the first album to where you are now? What has changed? What you learned or discovered along the way?
I’m definitely still growing a lot as a musician, and I think I have a lot since my first record. I think a combination of getting older and also just the acclimation of time spent singing has helped my voice mature. I also think that I’ve developed more of my own style of playing banjo since that first record.
What’s the plan going forward?
I don’t have a solid plan! I plan to always play traditional music but I’m not sure currently if I want to pursue it as a career in my adult life. I’m currently looking at colleges, so this is definitely on my mind. I’m still figuring things out! Let’s check back on this!