“If you’re not listening to Nora Brown yet,” tweeted Jake Blount earlier this summer, “you’re wasting your life.” You do you, dear reader, but one person who certainly isn’t wasting their life is Nora Brown herself. Barely out of her mid-teens, she has already released three acclaimed albums of traditional, old-time banjo tunes, the latest of which is the astounding Long Time to be Gone (2022, Jalopy Records).
In early August, we caught up with Nora for a Zoom chat about her origins as a traditional folk musician, the recording of the new album in St Ann’s Church, Brooklyn, her banjo collection, and the ways in which you can spot the origins of a traditional tune just by listening. Oh, and she also took the time to offer suggestions for a Nora Brown-themed Spotify list. Ear-goggles on, and in you go.
The idea that old-time music is dying and there’s not enough people playing it, I really feel it’s over-dramaticised and not really trueNora Brown
I’m really interested in how you came to traditional music, Nora. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Yeah. I’m Nora Brown. I’m 17. I live in Brooklyn, New York, go to school, and I started playing old-time music when I was six, learning on the ukulele. I wanted to learn the ukulele when I was little, so I ended up taking lessons from a local old-time musician. I wouldn’t have known what that meant at that age, but also my parents didn’t know that he only taught traditional music – they weren’t really familiar with traditional music, either.
It wasn’t like you had a folk background or anything like that?
No, my parents didn’t play, so I started taking lessons from this guy. His name is Shlomo Pestcoe. I eventually progressed to some other instruments and settled on the banjo, but he played everything. So I tried mandolin out for a while, as well as the banjo ukulele because he was like, “You need a hybrid instrument”. So I played that for a long time. He actually passed away before I really started learning banjo, but I did get started on that track with him, and then I eventually just learned from some other local old-time musicians who taught me banjo when I was starting out.
What is it about the banjo that attracts you?
Yeah, I think that’s an interesting question. I couldn’t say I have a straight answer, but having experienced and tried a lot of different instrumets, I always remember the banjo coming a lot easier than everything else. A lot of those other instruments are pretty hard to play [laughs], so there’s that. Learning fiddle, that’s like a 10-year progression, at least. The banjo, I feel, tends to be one of the easier old-time instruments, but it depends on the person, honestly.
Clawhammer is a tricky style. I teach a lot of banjo, and it’s really interesting seeing people’s different experiences, learning different techniques. I’ve talked to people who are like, “Oh, I learned old-time, two-finger style first because it’s so much easier than clawhammer”, but I remember not struggling too much with it. But that doesn’t have anything to do with my liking of the banjo.
Like I said, it’s hard to put a finger on it. I could say I have a connection to it, but that sounds too cheesy and I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. I just feel like I’ve always just liked the sound and it suited me. Learning more and more about it, and learning more music, I’ve just grown to enjoy playing it more.
You’re 17 years old and you’re playing these old-time tunes. What connection do you have with them?
A lot of the content of the songs describes a very different way of life than the one that I currently lead, and also a much harder way of life. I don’t know if I can say I can connect with the perspectives that I often sing from, but I think that I can appreciate the passing on of them and know that I can play that role in sort of sharing history, and sharing maybe unsung perspectives a little bit.
So for you, it’s like being a kind of vessel for those tunes.
Yeah, sure, that’s part of it. And I think that sometimes, without really being able to understand where somebody was coming from, when you’re singing about a mining disaster you can still resonate with the emotions that you’re being told through the song. So, in that aspect, I think I can sing from the heart.
Do you find that other people of your age are becoming more interested in that kind of thing, or did you find that you’re fairly alone in that age group?
What age group are we talking? Like, my high school peers or early 20s? I’d say there are a lot of young people – older than me – but young people that are definitely playing old-time music and really keeping stuff alive. But I don’t know if there are definitely lots of people my age that are playing old-time music. I personally don’t have that many relationships with people like that, but there are people, like, a little older than me – maybe like college age – that I think are definitely into it.
The idea that old-time music is dying and there’s not enough people playing it, I really feel it’s over-dramaticised and not really true. I think there are lots of young musicians that are very excited about traditional music.
Turning to your new album, Long Time to Be Gone, you said that it was made up of various leftovers from previous projects…
Some of it, but yeah, that was part of the reason for creating it. I couldn’t record a lot of the songs I really wanted to on the last one, Sidetrack My Engine, because of the unique setup for the recording, where a lot of quieter, solo banjo songs got lost in the space. There was a lot of funky buzzing that happened, so a lot of that was not salvageable. So there’s some of that, but then there are a lot of other songs that I didn’t actually record on Sidetrack My Engine that are mostly solo banjo tunes that I never really collaborate on. So there’s a lot of instrumental material on there, there are some leftovers, and there are some new things.
How do you go about finding your tunes? Where do they come from?
Oh, all different places. Sometimes I put on a record and I hear something and I’m like, “Oh, I want to learn that”. Sometimes I hear it from a contemporary old-time musician – they sing it and I think, “that’s so awesome”. I’ve got to learn that from that person, or I’ve got to learn that from that recording. And sometimes I’ve learned it right from the source, right from somebody who has been playing traditional music all their life and it’s really part of their culture. I spent a lot of time with Lee Sexton, and I hung out with George Gibson a bit and learned some stuff from him, too, so there’s some of that on there and it’s a great mix of different sources.
You recorded Long Time to be Gone in the church where they host the Brooklyn Folk Festival, didn’t you?
Yeah, that’s where it’s hosted by Eli Smith of Jalapi Records. I’ve been playing there since I started playing traditional music. Maybe not quite that young, but we used to have recitals on one of the smaller stages of students of my teacher. And then, I think probably my first solo performance was probably at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. So, yeah, it’s a really special place. It’s really suited to music, I think. Things sound super cool in there – those high ceilings – it’s a super-beautiful space.
I’ve seen the Instagram videos of you on some kind of church throne! Were you recording in that seat?
[Laughs] Sometimes, yeah, for some songs.
So were you going around the church, finding the best place for each tune?
Yeah, we were kind of under the alcoves on the sides of the church. If I can paint a picture, you have your pews in the centre, and then on the sides there are pews, and then above it, there’s another level of pews. And so there’s some space near the front where there’s no seating, but it’s still underneath that alcove. So the sound is nice there because it’s kind of trapped. So as a player, you can just hear yourself very well. That’s a stark contrast to the big open hall where it’s not bouncing back into your ears so quickly.
The engineer for this project was Joseph “joebass” DeJarnette of Studio 808a. He had set up all these room mics around the area, and that was really cool when you’re in that main hall, because the sound doesn’t stay trapped. It’s everywhere. You can get it in different locations and it sounds different and cool. So yeah, so there was some throne activity, there was some alcove activity… lots of different activities!
It’s an amazing sound. You can almost hear the church breathe.
That’s a great observation.
Tell me a little bit about the banjos that you used on the record. You use a few, don’t you?
Yeah, I used my standard banjo, which is just my standard five-string. The neck of the banjo is made by Will Cedars, who is a great banjo maker up in Vermont. The pot is an original pot. The neck is kind of a replica of what the instrument really looked like. And then I have my fretless banjo, which is one that my dad actually made, and that’s on a couple of the tracks, which is cool. It’s a kind of replica of a Civil War tack-head banjo.
The Roscoe Banjo is on there, too. This is one that I was lent to play the Brooklyn Folk Fest in 2020, and it was cancelled due to COVID, so I ended up holding onto it for a while and I’m really happy I got to record a song on there – only one, but I’m really happy that I was able to do that. It belonged to John Cohen, and it was played by Roscoe Holcomb, which is why I call it the Roscoe Banjo.
And then there’s also my great, great (two or three, I can’t remember) grandfather’s banjo on there, too. It’s called Grandfather Banjo. They all have their own little titles [laughs]. It’s a nylon-stringed banjo, but it’s fretted, so it’s kind of in-between the fretless and my standard banjo. The reason why I like it is because you get that mellow tone of the nylon strings, but you can also kind of play whatever you want. Like, when you’re playing a fretless banjo, you could go past the fret – it’s a little sketchy when you get up there – it’s hard to find a way around – but on this, you can really play whatever you want. I’ve been playing that one a lot recently.
When I read about what you do, there’s a lot of mention of the regional styles you specialise in – East Kentucky, North Caroline, Virginia. When you find a tune, can you hear or feel that it comes from a particular area? Is there a certain sound or structure that comes with, say, a traditional Kentucky melody?
Yeah, that’s a good question. There are totally regional styles all across. Sometimes they break state lines, but they’re often contained in a certain regional title. For example, Round Peak Banjo playing – that’s kind of coming from North Carolina, a little bit of Virginia. There’s a very specific style of banjo playing that happens there, and it’s often fretless, and there’s a certain rhythmic style of playing. And they sometimes play with banjos like this – I actually have one right here [takes it from its wall hanging and starts plucking]. This is a mountain banjo, and they were played everywhere. I had this strung up with gut strings, but it’s often strung up with metal strings. A metal-string fretless has a very unique sound. When it’s gut strings on a fretted banjo, it kind of has this blunted noise because you’re not getting the sharp sound of metal on metal. When you do that without a metal string, it has a very different tone that’s characteristic of that area.
In Eastern Kentucky banjo, you’re playing a lot of that. There’s a lot of rhythmic things that you can recognise and be like, “Oh, yeah, that could have come from that area, or that particular part of that tune is from that area”. Maybe that person, whoever this recording is, spent some time in that area and they learned that there. It’s never so super-strict, and it’s not easy to tell where things are coming from, but with lot of Eastern Kentucky tunes there’s a lot of two-finger picking, and then there’s a lot of solo singing and banjo playing at the same time in that area, too, which is cool. And that’s not as rampant as in some other areas.
If somebody wanted to find out more about some of the styles that have influenced you, who would you recommend to go and listen to?
Yeah, if I was making a Spotify playlist – although some of these people might not be on Spotify [laughs] – a lot of the things I play are inspired by some of the folks that I’ve actually learned from. So, Lee Sexton and George Gibson. But also I play a lot of Virgil Anderson tunes. He’s from the Kentucky-Tennessee borderline. Then there’s Wade Ward, who’s not actually from that area. He’s from the Virginia area. I play a few of his songs. And then there’s Clyde Davenport. I play a few Clyde Davenport banjo tunes. He’s also a fiddler. But there are so many more. I’d have to really think about them.
Last question, then: have you been over here to play in the UK?
No, I was just in Europe, though. I got back a few days ago. I went to the Czech Republic. I played a festival there, and then I did a little songwriting retreat in the South of France, just outside of Toulouse at a friend’s house. I plan to go to the UK possibly next year in May or June, but it may not work out with school, so it’s very iffy. But if I don’t do it next year, then I would be there in 2024. And who knows what happens in the summer. I know that there are a lot of old-time festivals in the UK.
Read our review of Long Time to be Gone on this link, and find out more about Nora Brown on norabrownmusic.com.