FSSA’s Banjo-Slinger: Nora Brown
by Freya Golden
Nora Brown with her banjo in her Crown Heights home.
If you have ever passed senior vocalist Nora Brown in the hallway, you might have complimented her bright, stitched sweaters, her floaty pants, or her occasional, charming cap. You might have taken notice of her general goofiness, left pondering the controversial sandwiches she packs for lunch (raw onion on rye bread is an unnerving favorite). Maybe you even watched Nora Brown shoot on Frank Sinatra Schools of the Arts’ (FSSA) own, unfortunate Lady Legends basketball team or indeed, scrolled mindlessly until you came across her name in The New York Times.
Or maybe, for whatever reason, amongst the madness of your school day you’ve never crossed paths with her at all. It would bear little difference.
If you had heard Nora Brown play, you would realize that while strumming her banjo, playing old-timey music, she holds herself with such self-possessed poise, such intellect and talent, that she sways completely from any perception of her that you held before.
Since 2019 Nora has released 3 albums on Brooklyn’s own Jalopy Records Label and all records have charted on the Billboard Bluegrass Charts during the first week of release.
According to her Jalopy Records profile, Nora has played numerous venues and festivals in the U.S. and Europe including the Newport Folk Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Trans-Pecos Festival of Love in Marfa Texas, and Folk Holidays in the Czech Republic. She has performed on NPR’s Tiny Desk, TED Salon, WNYC’s Dolly Parton’s America Podcast and an official showcase at the 2022 Americana Fest in Nashville.
Growing up in Crown Heights, Nora started learning traditional music when she was only six years old.
“It was by chance. I wanted to learn ukulele, and through a friend of a friend, my parents hooked me up with this teacher (Shlomo Pesco) who only taught old-time stuff. It was this great chance that happened. And I just kept playing,” she said.
It’s clear that the late Pesco had a significant influence on Nora’s devotion to music throughout her childhood.
“He was this crazy multi-instrumentalist and historian, he was a really amazing person,” she said.
Under his guidance, Nora tried various vehicles of expression, until eventually landing on the banjo at the age of ten.
Nora admits that she doesn’t remember the moment she decided to pursue playing professionally.
“I almost didn’t choose to do what I did, but you know, through a tight community (centered around Brooklyn’s Jalopy Records) I was able to have the opportunity to play at local festivals, and things like that. I never really made a choice, which sounds kind of lame, but it’s the truth,” she said.
While Nora might feel somewhat disconnected to her success at such a young age, she realizes her privilege as one of the few, and attributes a lot of her career to her dad (as well as the “tokenism of being young and playing this kind of weird music.”)
“[My dad’s] been a big part of making a lot of things happen for me. But also he just encourages me to continue even when, yeah. Sometimes we have a difficult relationship because of that. It is pressure, and a lot of people talk down to having a dad-ager or mom-ager,” Nora laughs. “But it’s really amazing to have someone who can see [my love for music] from an outside perspective, especially when I can’t.”
Nora spends a lot of her time outside of class, filling alternative venues across the country, often playing alongside fiddler Stephanie Coleman. She was recently inspired while touring through Japan. Yet, despite her musical prowess, she sometimes feels isolated amongst her friends more knowledgeable on pop culture.
“When we get into conversations about rock, and stuff, I feel like I can’t really contribute [to the discussion],”she said. Though, she is wary at “boxing” her music taste into a specific genre, she reveals that the word is too limiting in a way that suits neither her listening patterns nor her playing style.
“I don’t like genres. Genres are a capitalist scheme to get people to buy more stuff. Lots of music doesn’t fit into a certain genre,” she says.
Nora makes a point that her Spotify wrapped isn’t limited to traditional music. She actually listens to a lot of ’90s rap as well as Irish music legends Andy Irvine and Paul Brady while Citi biking around NYC.
Nora differentiates her music from the more all-encompassing ‘folk’ label that it’s often given.
“With folk you have your classics like Bob Seger and Bob Dylan, and I associate folk with the folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s. I wouldn’t say that a lot of what I play is from that time period. It’s older,” she said.
As a modern, New York City teenager, she understands why she might come under fire for playing Appalachian songs.
“The music that takes up my repertoire, the stuff that I perform and record, is music from a different culture. Sometimes being in those spaces, I receive criticism. It can even be from myself, where I’m like, why should I be sharing it? I think the way that you work around that is, I try to be as educated as I can about the music and try to understand the social context of which it was written. Every part of our identity impacts how we express our art form,” she said.
Nora will start Yale in the fall. And though she isn’t sure about the future of her music career, she prefers to keep her options open.