The path from cozy folk venues and Appalachian string band gatherings to rock clubs isn’t necessarily a smooth or direct one, as Nora Jane Struthers can attest. Her reputation as an old-time-inclined storyteller drove her band’s early bookings, but those stages weren’t built to accommodate the alternative rock bite of her revamped group, the Party Line.
“There was a super awkward six month period where we were still playing, like, the Unitarian Coffee house with our electric guitar and drum set,” the Virginia-born, New Jersey-bred Nashville transplant recalls amusedly. “We did our best to be appropriate sonically for the space, but it was hard sometimes.”
While this might seem a bit paradoxical, it was actually Struthers’ constant touring that helped ease the stylistic transition to amplification and unvarnished autobiography that’s documented on her vital, self-produced new album, Wake.
“The change was integrated in such a way that I think my fans were not blindsided by it,” she says. “So that gave me the confidence that I could push it further and people would come with me.”
CMT Edge: What was it like when you first started playing shows with an electrified component in the band?
Struthers: It just felt so easy all of a sudden, like I had been trying to create this energy in my band and in my sound for years. … It was like maybe we’d been overplaying, almost trying too hard. Then all the sudden we could just step back, and this energy was there, which allowed me as a performer to channel it in this new way.
How did it affect your vocal attack?
Being onstage with a loud band is very different from being onstage with an acoustic string band. I feel like I’m still sort of figuring it out. … I went through a period of probably over-singing, not getting enough of myself in the monitor and having to work through that.
I really enjoy being percussive vocally. … With the sustain of the electric guitar, it left some room for me to be percussive and have my attack on words and notes change and add something different to the sound.
You did a hardcore country EP between your albums Carnival and Wake that included an early rock ‘n’ roll Everly Brothers cover. Did that feel like a midway point in your transition?
When we made that recording, I’d written a number of really traditional, country-rooted songs, and I knew that I wasn’t gonna put them on my next full-length album. It was sort of an excuse to put down these things that we’d been playing live and that the fans had really been enjoying.
It’s interesting that you went from making music that predated electrified country and rock ‘n’ roll, to dipping your toe into honky tonk and early rock, and you’re now referencing rock of a much more recent vintage — the ‘90s.
Totally! You’re totally hitting on what I find really funny about my musical progression. My personal musical progression follows almost the American [musical progression], you know? I don’t know how that happened. I feel like I am a microcosm of that experience. As a folk musician, you start with what you can do by yourself and make it sound good. Then more influences come. Then you want to stretch and grow and change and push.
What you’ve done seems more significant than just a stylistic shift. Your writing was narrative-driven and tradition-informed, like Gillian Welch’s. Autobiography didn’t really figure into it. Now your writing’s personal and confessional. Those are two very different models of songwriting. What do they each offer you?
In the moment it was a surprising shift, and definitely a scary shift, to all the sudden be really writing songs about myself, my experiences. I just really had to let go of caring about other people’s opinions. Because if I was to create these things based on my experiences and my life and really place a lot of stock in what other people thought, I feel like that would be really debilitating, potentially.
Do you feel you’re occupying a more masculine musical space now?
I’ve been looking at the Americana radio report, just trying to get a feel for the landscape that I’m living in. I think there’s a good number of female artists out there. The piece of it that matters, to me anyway, is that I am the front woman, but also the bandleader — with a consistent band. I’m not just a solo artist hiring musicians for gigs. I have created a band, and they’re awesome. That seems as unique as anything else.
I think what makes ‘90s rock, or grunge, so approachable to me is that that was popular music — it was on major radio stations — and it was really bands, really people in a room creating music together. Which is what I wanted to do with this album, and what I think we did do with this album.
As a strong, independent woman, did it feel risky writing songs that make sweeping statements of devotion like “loving you is the best part of who I am”?
I used to be an English teacher and I really love it when form follows content. I think the pervasive theme [of Wake] is that being vulnerable actually is strong — strength through vulnerability.
I wanted the sound of the songs to deliver the same thing. I didn’t want it to be perfect. I wanted it to be made by real, imperfect humans — for that to be audible. That’s super scary. But I know from my experience making way shinier, way more produced, way more edited albums, that when you create something that’s perfect, as the artist, you listen to it and you still hear imperfections. And not only is it imperfect, it’s imperfect [thanks to] a machine. And there’s nothing endearing about that. … Whereas allowing the vulnerability of a human performance to come through, there’s redemption in that.