Nora Brown is an old-fashioned sort. A porch-singer with a penchant for picking up traditional Appalachian music and spinning it into strands of gold, there is something oddly anachronistic about the 17-year-old banjo virtuoso; her songs as fresh and unexpected as they are easy and familiar.
Hearing Nora Brown for the first time feels strangely comforting, like a warm hug that pulls you in close and feels so reassuring it makes you want to cry. It’s that feeling of knowing that someone truly understands you and sees you for who you are. Like someone knowing all your deepest hurt and sadness and whispering to you that everything is going to be okay. Her songs are like that.
Her intricate banjo picking is capable of transporting you to a simpler time and place. There is a kind of stillness to her music that feels like breathing fresh air for the first time in a long time when you listen to it; a gentle antidote to all the blaring endless noise of the modern world. It’s like hearing those early M Ward records for the first time or Richard Dawson and William Eliot Whitmore. It’s old-time traditional but it never feels like a throwback, as she breathes new life into songs way beyond her years.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Brown’s third album Long Time To Be Gone showcases her deep instrumental prowess and the softly understated power of her voice. From Appalachian coal miners to Texas Rangers to the descendents of the enslaved, the songs draw on the lived experiences of a broad swath of Americans, keeping their stories and spirits alive with a both solemn reverence and exhilarating vitality.
Brown plays a variety of unique instruments on the record, including an 1888 Ludscomb banjo owned by her great-great-grandfather, a fretless tack head banjo built by her dad, and a historic 5-string banjo that belonged to one of her mentors, New Lost City Ramblers member John Cohen (the instrument was played by Roscoe Halcomb on his iconic High Lonesome Sound album and is now in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress).
Brown fist began learning stringed instruments at the age of six from the late Shlomo Pestcoe, who instilled a belief that music is meant to be shared. In the decade to come, she would go on to study with old-time masters like John Cohen, the late master banjo player and former coal miner Lee Sexton, and banjo player and historian George Gibson. She won numerous banjo and folk song competitions around the country and released two critically acclaimed bluegrass albums: Cinnamon Tree in 2019 and Sidetrack My Engine from last year.
“This record is a sort of second take on the ones that didn’t make the last project, becoming a compilation of some of my favourite solo banjo tunes, often instrumental", Brown explains. "I have to say the ‘sacred’ tune-to-song ratio is a tad off, but I think that’s what’s kinda cool about this collection of tracks. It feels less tailored and more like a real sample of my favourite things to play”.
Long Time To Be Gone was recorded in the historic Saint Ann’s church in Brooklyn.
“This cavernous space is the home to the Brooklyn folk festival”, she says, “which I’ve been attending and participating in almost since I started playing traditional music. In recording this project, we experimented with the sound that different locations in the church produced, mics were configured around the room. On a lot of the tracks you can hear the expanse of the space pretty clearly”.
Holler sat down with her to try and find out a bit more about what makes her tick.
What did you grow up listening to?
I grew up listening to a wide variety of stuff, a lotta soul, classic country, some 90s rap too.
What songs would you put on a mixtape if you wanted someone to really get to know you?
‘Washington’ by Jake Xerxes Fussell
‘Mahogany Dread’ by Hiss Golden Messenger
‘Drink My Rivers’ by Andy Shauf
‘Oh My God’ by Tribe Called Quest
‘Somebodies Gone’ by Brother Theotis Taylor
‘The Way it Will Be’ by Gillian Welch
‘Little Satchel’ by Fred Cockram
‘Single Girl’ by Roscoe Halcomb
‘Pass Me By’ by Sharron Jones
How would you describe your sound?
Delicate but with substance.
Where’s the most unexpected place music has taken you?
Taking this question literally, the most unexpected place music has taken me was probably Náměšť Nad Oslavou, Czech Republic this summer. I don't think I woulda gone to the Czech countryside if not for the music I do.
What inspires you?
I think that seeing and listening to music that I love is really what inspires me the most. Also inspired by beautiful places.
What’s your favourite song of yours?
This changes all the time as I learn new songs, but I think my current favorite would be the great Virgil Anderson tune ‘Jenny Put the Kettle On’. It's a pretty simple melody but a sort of challenging picking patter which I like because I can pay special attention to how I'm making the notes sound without worrying about fitting a lot of notes in.
If you could time travel back to any time when would you travel back to?
It would be cool to see Roscoe Halcomb play or maybe learn a tune from Omer Forster.
Which person from history would you most like to meet?
In the music world, maybe Virgil Anderson, but just in general, anyone! It would be cool to meet a family member a few generations back.
What would be your Spice Girls style nickname?
What advice would you give to the younger you?
I would probably tell myself to really listen carefully and absorb all I can when visiting folks like Lee Sexton. I think I absorbed a lot at 12 but definitely didn't realize how special and short my time was there.
What’s next for you?
I hope to continue playing, learning and listening to music, maybe giving more attention to some collaborations I got going on!
Long Time Be Gone is out now on Jalopy Records