Ramblin' Around

Former Tucsonan Pieta Brown seems to have strengthened her performance legs

If you want to stump Iowa City-based singer-songwriter Pieta Brown, just ask her to name all the places she's lived.

"Oh my God, that would take forever," she answers. "I don't even know how to start. I was born in Iowa--I guess I could start there."

Until she was 5 years old, Brown lived with her parents in a "little shack" in rural Iowa, where they had no running water or electricity. "(We had) a wood stove for heat and hauled water from town, had an outhouse," she recalls.

After a couple of years living in the relatively urban Iowa City, her parents split, and she followed her mother to Birmingham, Ala., where she spent her formative years. She moved back to Iowa City for high school, and upon graduating, began her years of what she calls "ramblin' around."

The list of locales she called home includes Quebec City, New York City, California, Mexico and, most notably, Tucson, where she lived for two or three years in the late '90s and early '00s.

"It wasn't like I set out to find myself or anything," she says. "I just sort of wanted to get out of the Midwest. ... And I was really interested in writing and art and music, and one thing led to another. I would go to one place, and it would lead me to another place. ... I've been writing in my notebook since I was a kid, and I think for some reason, I'm not really sure why, but it seems like a lot of writers I know tend to be restless."

She credits Tucson with first giving her an environment to delve headlong into writing and performing her songs. Prior to moving here, she had only performed once in public; while she lived here, she performed regularly in local nightspots, either solo or as part of the band Fanchon, which she formed with drummer Tasha Bundy. Asked if she found her performance legs here, she says, "Yeah, I found 'em, but they were wobbly."

In fact, it wasn't long after she moved from Tucson back to Iowa City that she began recording her first, self-titled album, which was released in 2002. She had sent a demo tape to some friends, her father--who just happens to be the acclaimed country-folk singer-songwriter Greg Brown--and Bo Ramsey, a guitarist, songwriter and producer who has worked a lengthy and impressive roster of artists, including her father and Lucinda Williams.

She had met Ramsey as a teenager, when he was playing around Iowa City with his band, Bo Ramsey and the Sliders. "He just had so much space in his playing," she says. "No matter who he was playing with, he had that voice thing with his guitar and his sounds that he made. So when I started thinking that I might actually try to make a recording, I just sent a tape of songs to Bo to try to get his take on it, 'cause he had worked with a lot of artists that I respected. And he called me whoopin' and hollerin' and was like, 'Yeah, let's make a record.'"

Ramsey ended up co-producing and playing on the album, as well as on 2005's In the Cool and her most recent release, last year's Remember the Sun--each of which is an improvement on its predecessor.

"For me, the best thing to happen was that I got comfortable in the studio," she explains. "When I made that first record, I really had played live so little, and I was still just really shy and kind of uncomfortable performing. And a lot of that got broken down. ... The way I've made records so far is to record them live (in the studio) in a few days, because budget is a concern ... so the more comfortable you are, the better chance you have, I think, of making a decent record," she laughs.

And made a decent record, she has. From the Rickie Lee Jones-influenced "Innocent Blue," with its '70s-ish, jazzy organ chords and languid-in-a-good-way vocals; to the lopey twang of "Rollin' Down the Track"; and from the driving, Lucinda Williams-esque rocker "Sonic Boom"; to the album's centerpiece, a childhood remembrance disguised as an ode to Loretta Lynn called "In My Mind I Was Talkin' to Loretta," Remember the Sun is an amalgam of country, blues, jazz, folk and rock that can likely be traced back to those "ramblin' ways" and all she encountered during those years.

As for the town where she first gained the confidence to record albums in the first place, she says, "I feel like I owe a lot of things to Tucson. I really love that place."