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Rewind with Caroline Herring

Caroline Herring
Caroline HerringCopyright: Tom Fahey

Singer/songwriter Caroline Herring recently released her new album, I Will Go Into The Day, an 11-track collection of songs for children and parents that celebrates imaginative play. The project is a departure from her previous disc, Camilla, which told complex stories about people experiencing and seeking to resolve difficult life journeys.

Those familiar with Herring’s work won’t be surprised that she has taken yet another turn in her musical endeavors. In 2009, she released Golden Apples of the Sun, an acoustic album featuring a combination of original material and age-old standards, on which she was accompanied only by her Collings guitar. The disc represented Herring’s transition from fronting a band to solo artist, with the emphasis on her voice and lyrics. In a 2010 interview, she discussed her change in direction and the role of singer/songwriters in the current musical climate.

You describe this album as a departure. How so?

I built my career on the alt-country sound and playing a lot in Austin. When I moved to Atlanta, I played that way for a while and then began playing increasingly solo and folk style. I could tell more stories onstage, and it made sense to record an album that would tell the story of what I do. I love Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell and the confessional female writers, and I decided to go in that direction.

What made this the right time?

Simply because of the way I perform now and putting out an album that sounds more like what I do these days.

You are such a prolific writer, yet you included some cover songs on this album. Why?

I’m not always prolific! This was going to be an album of covers only, but I couldn’t help writing. I was pleased with the result, but it’s unusual because the covers are standard songs and I changed the melodies, although I’m not the first person to do that. Judy Collins did that with “Song of the Wandering Aengus.” She took the poem and put her melody to it, and I did the same with a different melody.

Is there a fine line in terms of how far you can go versus what your audience expects from you?

Yes, you are exactly right. It is a fine line we walk that is driven by our creative impulses, and that’s the most fun of being an artist, but at same time you don’t want to sound like a crazy person or go so far that you don’t know what you’re doing. My producer worked with me and kept me honest and felt I had the originality. He suggested to me, “Why do a cover exactly same way? What’s the point?” That energized me.

You mentioned Austin and the alt-country scene. What does that term mean to you, and were there times when you felt labeled or stuck in a box?

Alt-country is a hearkening to classic country with modern things and a lot more pedal steel. It’s very characteristic of the Austin scene. It draws from bluegrass and rock, and it is now called Americana. All terms are meaningless. I come out of bluegrass, country, gospel and the country blues tradition. Those are the genres I grew up on and understand. That world is easy to move around in. For a while it was a box, but it’s good to have a box. Sometimes limitations help you hone your craft, but eventually it wasn’t me. I didn’t feel a need to express my artistic sensibilities outside of alt-country, but I was doing different things. I will never be in the Top 40 prison called “success,” so I feel freedom in doing the work.

You developed a fan base over ten years. How are they responding to this album and sound?

That’s a good question. I get a mix of responses. Some people relate to the earlier sound, with the band, and that’s OK, but at this point I don’t feel restricted, and I’ve gained a new audience with the most recent record. Some people understand that if you keep trying the same thing, that’s exactly what you’re going to do, and that sounds boring.

How did you develop your working relationship with your producer, David Goodrich?

The head of my label suggested him, as well as a couple of artist friends of mine. He is not from the alt-country world and that was very helpful. He had a desire to strip things down. We did it live. I sang takes straight through and he was right — I needed that focus and intimacy.

Did you enjoy the one-on-one recording process?

When it all comes down to you, it can be harrowing and humbling and fun. Artists have fragile egos and we fluctuate between thinking something is great and something is bad. He was solid and got us to the places we needed to go. It was an intense process. There was nobody to hide behind.

What attracted you to the guitar and when did you begin writing songs?

It was at summer camp. People were playing, my brother played in high school, my dad always played and he bought me a pawnshop guitar when I was in junior high. When I was in my mid-20s, after college, I began writing and singing. I moved to Austin and began songwriting in earnest.

Has your approach changed much over the years?

I put a lot more focus into my guitar playing. With no band, I’m singing and playing more quietly and stretching into places where there was no room before. I’m doing more fingerpicking and using my vocal range more. I really enjoy it.

Do you feel you are rediscovering songwriting and playing guitar with each album?

I hope so. I don’t know that I reach nirvana every time I play, but I love doing it and sometimes it’s like liturgy. Sometimes you play and sing out of complete focus and passion, sometimes you do it to remember why you do it, and sometimes you do have to practice, but it’s my life’s passion. I enjoy it and am fully focused, sometimes more than others, but I always know why I’m there.

Trends come and go. Will the singer/songwriter always survive?

Unless radio dies. At this time it’s miraculous that people like me can survive. I’m grateful, and until all the doors are closed, I will keep on. Society has always loved poets and music and being taken to bigger places and reflecting on their lives. That’s what I love about writing. As long as those things remain, my type of music will not go away.