Pieta Brown's "The Hard Way" faced a difficult road getting on the Iowa-born singer-songwriter's upcoming seventh studio album.
"I think that was actually the last song we recorded," Brown, who recorded the Freeway album last summer with producer Sean Carey at Justin Vernon's April Base Studios in Wisconsin, tells Billboard. "I think everybody voted to leave that one off except me. For some reason I was attached to it. We mixed the first 10 songs and it felt like that was going to be the album, but I just felt attached to ['The Hard Way'] for some reason."
More specifically, she heard a certain sound for the track. That sound included legendary guitarist Mark Knopfler.
"I kept sonically envisioning, 'If I could just get Mark Knopfler on there…'," Brown recalls of the track, which features Knopfler and Billboard premieres exclusively today (Aug. 8). "Mark is a very sweet, amazing musician and has become a friend through music. So one day I just wrote him a message and asked if he would consider taking a listen to this track. I said I felt like it wasn't quite done yet, but I wasn’t sure what it needed. I said, 'I'm hearing the sound of you or something like what you do, and I can't give you specifics beyond that.' And he said, 'Yeah, of course,' and came up with a great part that made the song undeniable."
Freeway, out Sept. 6 on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records, is the follow-up to 2017's Postcards and comes in the wake of some "personal upheaval" that followed the long overseas shooting schedule for her starring role in the 2017 film Around Luisa. She entered the studio with "a bunch of songs," but Brown kept the arrangements deliberately open-ended in order to build them organically with Carey on drums, guitarist Jeremy Yivisaker (Andrew Bird, Alpha Consumer) and bassist Mike Lewis (Bon Iver, Andrew Bird).
"It was me throwing stuff against the wall," Brown says. "The main thing was to be open, and it was really fun. It was kind of a rush for me. I know [Carey] was really surprised by that approach: I don't think he'd ever done a session like that before, that open. Honestly, that's probably the most open and experimental session I've done. I've definitely gone into the studio without sending the players any demos before, but that's usually with people I've worked with before and this was a totally new situation. I really liked how we worked together and what we got out of it."
Brown currently has sporadic concert dates booked into November, including shows with Iris Dement and DiFranco. She's also hoping to be part of a show to celebrate her father and fellow artist Greg Brown's retirement from touring this summer, though nothing's been scheduled yet.
"I just keep doing my thing," the younger Brown says. "I'm really looking forward to going out and doing shows, actually. I have the right feeling and energy for it. It's what sounds good to me right now."