Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line’s Carnival fortifies deft instrumentation with sharp storytelling. CMT Edge caught up with the Nashville resident about her new collection out Tuesday (April 16), evolving as a songwriter and surviving her first South by Southwest music conference last month.
“Oh, man, it was pretty cool,” the Nashville-based Struthers says. “I’ve been to Austin before, but it was my first time during South by Southwest. The craziness of having that many bands in town is really something special. We came back the next week, and it seemed like a ghost town.”
CMT Edge: Most locals like Austin better when it’s a ghost town.
Struthers: I kind of like both, but I wouldn’t want it to be like South-by all the time. We played three short showcases — two at Threadgill’s and one at this Mexican restaurant called El Mercado. A bunch of friends were in town, and we hung out and went to see music. I expected to be pretty overwhelmed by the whole experience. Mostly, I was worried about parking the van. (laughs)
Let’s talk about the new album. Explain the title.
Every song on the album has a narrative in one way or another. I look at the whole record as a group of tiny carnival tents, like each song is a different world that you get dropped into. Also, I feel like we are a traveling carnival ourselves, riding around town to town and getting a look into the way people live in different parts of the country and then bringing that full circle to the stage.
Tell the story behind writing “The Baker’s Boy.”
I wrote that in a small town in North Carolina called Aberdeen. I was staying with a woman who puts on concerts in her community there, and her husband works for the railroad. I think something about their marriage inspired the start of the song, but then I was imagining a little girl’s interpretation of her mother’s marriage advice and how that can be misconstrued based on how old the little girl is. I like to work with unreliable narrators a lot in my songs, so you can’t always trust what’s said.
Why use an unreliable narrator?
I think it’s a really compelling way to tell a story without being totally literal. It allows the listener to look beyond the work a little bit for their own interpretation of what’s going on. It encourages interaction.
What generally draws you to storytelling?
Both my parents growing up were very literary. There were always stories in the house. The first songs were about telling stories, and I think through that were able to gain empathy for people of certain circumstances and backgrounds or life experiences, and I think that’s a very powerful thing. That happens through literature and art, for sure, but I think in contemporary music the story songs are a little less universal than they used to be. I’m trying to revitalize that a little bit.
You’ve said you want story songs to be more accessible. Explain what you mean.
One of the reasons my songs have historical context is it brings listeners from all different backgrounds to the same starting place. There are lots of story songs in contemporary music, but I don’t know that those are accessible to people who don’t identify themselves as a country music fan. I think by setting a story back in time or in a specific region or place you don’t expect, that allows a whole group of people with different experiences to come together.
How have you evolved as a songwriter since your self-titled album in 2010?
That’s a good question. I think I’m still working to hone my craft as a storyteller. I haven’t changed my goals necessarily as a songwriter, but I’ve been trying to get better at them. I think through co-writing with different friends, I’ve learned a lot and break out of my own patterns a little. Like the song “Bike Ride” on the album is one I wrote with a friend named Robby Hecht, who’s a really wonderful songwriter. We had so much fun. The writing was a really heady experience, but the lyrics are so simple, and you would never know how much we put into the back story for that song. I think trying to simplify things is something I’m working on.
Robby’s songs “Chemicals” and “A Reckoning of Us” are incredible.
Yeah, “A Reckoning of Us” is so good. I’ve only written that one song with him, but in that experience, I was pleasantly surprised with his ability to overthink things as much as I do but then not allow that to appear in the lyrics. He also has a brilliant mind for melody. I think he’s great.
What other songwriters do you draw from?
Certainly Gillian Welch and Tim O’Brien are two of my greater influences. Also, traditional songs, ones with no known authors or copyright. The traditional canon of bluegrass and folk and country music are strong influences in my writing. I also draw a lot of inspiration from literature. I used to be an English teacher, and I’ll be reading a book and catch a word or phrase that I think is really poignant and use that to inspire a song.
So, you swapped one crappy-paying profession for another?
(laughs) Yeah! That’s pretty funny. I was living in New York and teaching and working really, really hard, and I cared a lot about what I was doing and the students and wanted to be good at my job for them. I remember thinking, “Man, I’m working really, really hard, and I’m still broke. I could just move out of New York City and not be broke and do something else.” (laughs)