Embracing the Thorns: An Interview With Caroline Spence About ‘Spades & Roses’

There are a lot of songs in the world, so when a collection of them comes along that is the complete package…songs that are both beautiful and deep and poignant in their content as well as the way they are presented, well thats some stuff that hits pretty hard. The latest record from Caroline Spence is a collection of songs like that. A distinctive, airy voice that almost floats weightless above some pretty heavy narratives, creating a dynamic that is rich and seizes the listener, forcing your ear to be lent to the stories being sung.

Caroline will be spinning through Atwood’s in Cambridge, MA on tour this week. Tomorrow evening to be exact. And if you consider yourself a connoisseur of fine songwriting and beautiful arrangements, then I can’t stress enough how you should get on down to the Tavern and take in what this incredible talent has to throw down for you. I, for one, think I found my favorite voice of 2017.

RLR: I have listened to this record a lot already and I absolutely love it. You seem to scratch the surface of deep emotion. There is a subtlety to it, but it hits pretty hard at the same time. Pensive and introspective but there is a balance of leaving things open to experience and interpretation. The line “empty glasses and empty promises/ filling up my nights but in the morning I just want to forget.” hits especially hard off the title track. I think that was a sure indicator for me that I needed to listen deep, intently and listen many times over. What is it about sad songs, or perhaps a bit more honest songs is the right term, that speaks so much more than something a bit more uptempo…or maybe lacking in that substance?

CS: I really appreciate that read. I feel its pretty accurate. It wasn’t very intentional, but when I was staring at this pile of songs I had written in the last couple of years there was this voice, and this kind of tone. That kind of tone you are describing which is really introspective and deep. I think that is just where I was when I was writing these songs. Songs for me are a way for me to figure out what I am going through, its definitely an outlet. I guess this album came together out of writing from that place. As far as ‘putting it all out there’, that definitely took a little bit of, hmm it was a challenge. I kind of had to give myself a different kind of permission to really be that honest. But I think a lot of that really came from the fact that, kind of like you said, sad songs make me happy and a lot the music I admire and the songwriters I look up to do put it all out there. I wasn’t going to stop myself just because I thought it was going to be something that hits home, because songs should hit home.

RLR: I completely agree. Like I mentioned before, your voice is incredibly unique and it stands out. Sweet and airy, but man it cuts super deep in this indescribable way. I sat listening for a long time and tried to come up with some sort of comparison but fell very short. When did you start singing? Was there a point in time where you felt you really “found your voice”? You know “THIS IS IT!”

CS: I have kind of always sang. Singing was always something I did that was fun. It was like “I can sing, I can ride a bike” and I did. It really wasn’t until I moved to Nashville, which I moved here with every intention of just writing songs and didn’t really think about my voice as being unique. When I started playing out around here, I felt most of the feedback I got was “oh my god, your voice!”. I had to take a minute and really listen to myself. I guess I always saw the uniquness and the softness of my voice as something that was kind of weak, you know? I really think that its definitely a tool in my tool belt and it helps to really soften up some of the more serious songs. It definitely was something I didn’t fully understand until about 5 years ago.

RLR: That was sort of going to be one of my next questions.  I had read previously that when you first moved to Nashville you were pretty much only writing and performing came a little later. Was that a more “other side of the river”/down on Music Row situation? What triggered that change and feeling that you needed to get these songs and stories “out there”?

CS: I love songs above all else. I wanted to make a living at music and thought maybe what I wanted to do was write songs for other people but its been in that practice of trying to pursue that and write everyday that I found my own voice. That became something. Finding my own voice and establishing it became this thing that was its own pursuit. It was kind of an accidental discovery of what I really wanted to do.

RLR: I’ve read a bunch of reviews of the record and there seems to be consistent “this is real country” kind of connotation to this record. There also seems to be a thread in modern folk or americana to use that phrase. I personally feel a more folk side, intent on storytelling in listening deeply to these songs. What do you think that means? To be “real country”? In a way I feel that is more a way of being, an artistry in the right hands (or with the right voice) more than a voice with some twang, a pedal steel cry and telecaster chicken pickin’.

CS: When someone calls my music country music I am always a little surprised. Its not “not country music” but I am definitely not writing like Loretta Lynn and the structure of the songs I write is not as traditional as a country song really. But I think that what people mean when they apply it to my music is that it is that storytelling. I think that the heart of real country music is storytelling and good storytelling. Also emotional storytelling. So I think when it is applied to my music its more from the songwriting point of view than the sound. I have a lot of friends that make real country music, traditional country music and I definitely don’t think thats really my wheelhouse. I think its the songwriting.

RLR: I keep going back to and can’t ignore the themes on the record. Ones about “honesty” to yourself and conviction/ownership of your own actions. From telling the difficult story that folks don’t want to hear embedded in “You Don’t Look So Good (Cocaine)” to allowing yourself to explore something you had been reserved about previously as with “Southern Accident”. This all comes to a head in the closing track. “Goodbye Bygones” has a line that the title of the record pulls from: ‘Let it be / Don’t you know / You cannot call a spade a rose.” I feel like that is some pretty perfect closure to a record…unlike any I have really heard recently. It really follows and ends the narrative of the entire work beautifully.  It seems your track sequencing had a lot of thought put into it. How obvious was this for you…was Goodbye the obvious choice or did you specifically write/include it for that reason?

CS: You know, sequencing for me is always a big challenge because when I make records it is always about the songs first. We didn’t make these selections based on knowing we had a “track number 5 THERE”. It was like, “this is the best batch of songs. They seem to speak to each other.” Its not until all is done and we are done will full production that I have to sit down and think about the sequence. I have some trusted friends that I got input from because its sometimes hard to see the way your songs speak to each other. But I had a pretty clear idea about the kind of arc of the record. Definitely “Goodbye Bygones” was kind of the summation because that song is really about letting go. With the whole record kind of being about this, there are definitely these kind existential moments and its about discovery and the highs and the lows so we needed a track at the end to just bring that all down and just release. For the first track, “Heart of Somebody”, I feel that track really set the tone. Its a peaceful sounding song, but its a little melancholy and kind of sets the tone of where the speaker is which is wanting something. Wanting something more, knowing they are not doing their best or getting what they want but having this hunger to be better. Thats kind of where the story started.

 

RLR: I was going to say that! “Heart of Somebody” beginning the record really sets the tone in that way. Sonically the record dovetails brilliantly with the themes explored within the lyrics. Going from sitting and writing a song to these arrangements, how did that whole situation play out?

CS: A lot of times I write with guitar in hand. Most of the time that is how it happens. “Hotel Amarillo” for example, I sat down in my hotel room and started singing and had my voice recorder out and probably just kind of improv’d 70 percent of that song. Then I went back and kind of tailored it. It took me a while to get that last verse right. A lot of times things go smoothly and that can be as simple as it is. The song “Heart of Somebody” I had that first line of the chorus on this sticky note on my desk for like a month. Then I took it in to a writing session with my friend Chris Tuttle and we ended up writing that song. I just had this little nugget that I needed some help getting it out of that little phrase. “Southern Accident” took me a long time. I wrote like 3 different songs with that title. I think that the story of that song kind of sums up the process of this record, which was that I need to just let it be exactly what it was. Not be afraid to just tell the truth. Anything less than that just wasn’t going to be worth singing about. 

RLR: Talking more about specific songs, “Wishing Well” is a bit more playful, somewhat lighter than much of the record. “Buoyant” is kind of how I would describe it. It provides a nice intermission of sorts. How much of a conscious decision was it to include this song and record it that way?

CS: That is definitely kind of its role. I have loved that song and we actually tried to record it for the first record. It just didn’t end up the way I wanted it. That song, it definitely sort of felt like the oddball of the bunch. It was one of those ones that I had to find the right place for it on the record. Kind of this moment of release. You are diving into this deep hole of your own mind, then it is kind of a little reset. You know “we are still here, we are having a little bit of fun” but its still kind of a bit of a relationship song.

RLR: Who would you say are some of the artists that made an impact on your writing and/or performing over the course of your career or from when you first picked up an instrument?

CS: When I was in high school and kind of fell in love with songwriting and music the two biggest people in my life when I was 15 or 16 were Ryan Adams and Lori McKenna. At that point Lori was just a singer-songwriter from Boston and hadn’t gotten and cuts and stuff like that. They were two people who I listened to maybe more than anyone else at that age.

In the last 3 or 4 years, I love Bruce Springsteen so much. His writing has really opened up a whole new world for me. I just enjoy his music as a fan. Not even as a writer.

RLR: Expanding on that a little more, a big part of what RLR stands for and why it exists is because of this need for community. So usually when someone asks me who my favorite artists are, both as someone who writes about music and someone who writes their own music, I immediately respond with people who are my friends, contemporaries, people I’ve toured with or shared the stage next to. Who are some (perhaps) lesser known folks you have run into along the long road of touring (or from your current home) or are friends that you think are worth taking a listen to and should be heard?

CS: Absolutely. You got some time??? I would say one of my favorite people making music right now is a guy named John Moreland. I met John I guess it was 3 years ago. I got to play a few shows opening for him. I just love his music so much and I really appreciate where he writes from. He is just such a good hearted person and a smart writer. I love his music. Another person I really love right now is a girl named Becky Warren. She lives in Nashville. She just put out an incredible record called “War Surplus” that is this cool narrative between two partners. One is a veteran of the Iraq war and the other is their beloved. The songs are written from their points of view but they are also so written from Becky’s point of view too which is just kind of brilliant. She just has this cool, gruff, alto kind of voice that is just awesome. I love that. And also a girl named Lilly Hiatt. She is another friend from Nashville. Her last record, “Royal Blue”, is probably something I listen to the most. Those are three friends that I just totally am a fan of their records so much.

RLR: Cambridge has a real strong community in the folk/roots kind of a realm and Atwood’s (where your show is later this month) is one of the venues really trying to provide a place for that to thrive. It is just a really cool room that is super supportive of local and touring acts. What are some of your favorite rooms to play/have you played?

CS: I just got to play the Cactus Cafe in Austin, Texas and that is kind of an institution. Townes Van Zandt played their and thats definitely one I was hoping to play. So thats a new favorite. Also really love little listening rooms. I wouldn’t say Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta is a little listening room, but its a great listening room. The Blue Door in Oklahoma City is also a really unique listening room environment of folk loving people.


Caroline Spence is at Atwood’s Tavern on Tuesday, May 16th (thats tomorrow folks). So get your tickets in advance.

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