The first time I heard Caroline Spence’s single ‘Sit Here And Love Me’, was in a plane – somewhere in between Amsterdam and Glasgow. When Ryan Joseph Burns picked me up from the airport, I just had to play it for him in his car. Five times in a row. I had heard her music before, but this was the first time I really connected with it and registered it was Spence. Ever since, her albums have been on high rotation. At Take Root festival in Groningen, late 2019, we met and recorded this session. Caroline Spence and her guitarist Charlie Whitten played covers of Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams, and her own ‘The Long Haul’.
Caroline Spence grew up in Charlottesville, a University town near the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains. “If you drive ten minutes in either direction, you’re in the mountains. It’s a really beautiful place to live. There’s lots of good music venues and because there’s a university, it’s a very arts-minded place. My parents love music. My dad saw every show a man of his age should have seen, and definitely encouraged me. He always drove me and my friends to go see concerts all over the state. My mom plays piano, sings beautifully and loves music, so it was always around.”
“I thought of singing like riding a bike.”
Spence is not that surprised that she ended up a musician. “My games as a kid were always related to music. I was obsessed with The Beatles and I invented a game called Beatles. The rules were simple: listen to their music and go like this.” She hold her left hand out and moves her right hand up and down, mimicking playing the guitar. “I had a little tape recorder and would be in my room, making up songs from the top of my head. Music was always fun to me – I always wanted to be surrounded by it and to be a part of it. I don’t remember it not being something I didn’t want to be involved in. It just took me a while to figure out you can do this as a job. Realizing that I could actually sing took me way longer than it should have. I thought of singing like I thought of riding a bike – it was just something I was able to do. And I’ve been told I have a nice voice all my life and I sang in choirs and played music. I just didn’t know my voice was notable until I moved to Nashville and started playing there and kept hearing over and over: ‘Oh my god, your voice, your voice!’ I was 23 when I realized that.”
“When I was fourteen or fifteen, I had my own guitar and I started writing my feelings. I had always written songs for fun, but now I started using it as an outlet. Sharing it with other people I wasn’t comfortable with, not for a while. My mom’s sister was a musician in Charlottesville and she’d heard I was writing songs. She had a show in town and asked me to open. Somehow, I’d said yes, so that was my first gig at fifteen years old. I played all original songs – about the feelings of a fifteen year old girl. I would pay good money to go back and watch that!” That first show kicked things off for Spence, who was asked back by the club’s owner a couple of times. So she started playing gigs in high school every once in a while, for pizza money.
“Lucinda Williams blew my mind.”
“The first version of ‘Passionate Kisses’ I heard was by Mary Chapin Carpenter, which was a hit in the nineties. She’s from Virginia, where I’m from. My parents knew her sister, so she’s an artist we followed when I was young. So, I heard her version and loved it when I was seven years old – totally obsessed with all of Mary Chapin Carpenter. Revisiting that music when I was older and getting into learning more about songwriters, I realized Lucinda Williams wrote it. I thought: ‘Oh, that’s someone my dad likes! Maybe I should listen to her’. And my mind was blown. In my mind, it’s almost like a double influence, because I just love both of those artists so much. Carpenter’s music is so deeply nostalgic to me that it’s almost hard to separate my love for it from the nostalgia. But to me, it’s pure, good nineties country. Good songwriting.”
“The sound of ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ by Lucinda Williams… As a seventeen year old I thought: whatever this is, that’s my favorite music. It took me a while to figure out the sound I liked was a pedal steel. I loved the sound of Whiskeytown, Patty Griffin. I was drawn to a lot of americana music. When I got to Nashville, I’d heard Guy Clark’s music, but I didn’t know who it was. Discovering his songwriting was incredibly eye-opening for me. I lived in his record catalogue for my first two years in town. ‘This is my school now.’ The simplicity of his writing, and how you could be in the song, kind of following along pretty easily with what he’s saying and there would be two lines, you know, that would come out of nowhere. That are said so simply, but cut and hit so hard. That’s power in writing, when you can do the most with the least amount of real estate. That’s why I love him as a songwriter. When people call my music country I think: ‘Do you know how many hours I listened to Bright Eyes, or Death Cab For Cutie? A lot more than George Strait, that’s for sure!’ I’ve always loved country music but I am not steeped in it, like my great friend Kelsey Waldon for instance. My relationship with country music is different, but I love it.”
Room to breathe.
In college Spence studied literature and creative writing. “Reading keeps your mind sharp and your vocabulary healthy. I’ve always been a reader. The creative writing part of my degree I’ve used constantly, because there’s so much re-reading and editing that needs to be done. I’m constantly adjusting little words, until it’s been recorded. You only have so many words that you can use, and they need to be exactly right. I learned to be a good writer by being a good editor. It takes time – you have to live with something, give it room to breathe and have fresh eyes and ears when you go back to it. You can’t rush it.”
After getting her degrees, Caroline Spence didn’t quite know what she wanted to do. “I thought about getting a masters in writing, maybe teach, I didn’t know. But I knew I wanted to live somewhere I could be a part of music – whether that was playing or seeing shows all the time. I’d already visited and it felt like a good place to start at 21 years old. A fun place to be as a young person and I’ll just figure my stuff out. I was secretly writing and figuring out if I was any good at it! I moved there with my friend Lauren from school who’s a fiddle player, so I had a buddy to get to know the city with. I met Kelsey Waldon within my first couple of months, I met Rachel Baiman – who’s another incredible singer and songwriter – we just lucked out to stumble into this community with people who’re still my friends. I feel like the stars aligned for me there.”
“I just write songs.”
In 2015 Spence released her debut ‘Somehow’. “I’m so proud of that record. It feels like a young record to me. Recently, I had to go back and type the lyrics because my label has re-pressed it. And I listened to it for the first time in five years, and thought: ‘Girl, you were going for it!’ I stand by those songs, sonically I was still exploring and hadn’t quite found my footing yet, but I think I just was going for it and giving into the fact that vulnerability is what I do. I write vulnerable stuff. ‘Somehow’ was an exploration in writing songs that were from a really real and true place and also writing songs that I thought were something you should write a song about. It was a mix of songs that were true and some less so. I think everyone has… A friend once told me: ‘If you still love your first record, you haven’t grown enough.’ Having to go back was actually nice.”
Even before she had a record out, one of her songs was recorded by another musician – Andrew Combs put ‘Heavy’ on his album ‘Worried Man’. “My friend Carl Anderson and I wrote that when we were eighteen or nineteen, and he’d become friends with Andrew. I found out and was very surprised! I knew who Andrew was, because he was like a super cool guy. I’ve always wanted to write music that other people recorded. The artist thing grew out of me performing my songs so that people could hear them and then record them themselves. The feeling of having an artist that you admire, want to incorporate your work into theirs, is incredibly flattering. It’s super satisfying.”
“I just write songs. This sound super pretentious, but I don’t know another way to say it. And I don’t know whose they are, usually. By now I know when it’s something I want to put on my record, but those songs on ‘Somehow’ weren’t meant for myself. I just wrote them and figured I had enough to make an album from them. It’s about finishing the idea. Once it’s finished, I’ll figure out what’s its home. When I’m writing with another artist for his or her record, we have a shared goal. But when I’m writing by myself, it’s more open.”
“I can only do this one way.”
As I wrote in the introduction to this interview, the first time I listened to one of Caroline Spence’s songs, knowing it was her, was ‘Sit Here And Love Me’ – the first single off her latest album ‘Mint Condition’. “I wrote that because I needed to write it. And I was afraid to record it, because I thought maybe only I needed that song. So, it means a lot to me that it speaks to other people. The more you share your story, the more it speaks to other people, because we all go through the same stuff. That’s the favorite part of my job; the constant reminder that my stories speak to others and that other people are just like me.”
“It’s also a weird part of this job, to openly share all the stuff I go through. It’s hard to give yourself permission to do that. There’s a lot of pressure to be cool, as a musician. I’ve always known that if I’m going to be an artist, it’s going to me – just like if you’d meet me at a restaurant. So, I can only do this one way, naturally. I write songs because I have a deep emotional need to process things that way. That’s the art I’m creating, so why would I not be comfortable talking about it? We all go through these feelings, and this is what I make when I was feeling this way. A lot of the music that I love, makes me wonder how they put those feelings into words. I don’t like putting attention on me, but the greater issues and things we have in common is something I think we all should talk about.”
Living what she’s been wishing for.
The lockdown of the last couple of months, has given Spence the ‘opportunity’ to spend more time at home than she was able to in the last few years. By the end of our talk, I have seen most of Spence’s house – the place where she’s been spending her time, as she continuously tries to escape the noise of the lawn mower in her garden. She tells me she’s been writing a lot: “I’ve been able to pick up the guitar at 11pm and write for hours, that’s really fun. A lot of my newer songs have been about what’s gone on in my relationship and my family these last couple of years. I’ve been constantly surrounded by those elements, so I think I’m able to write about it in a more comfortable way than in the abstract on the road. Also the simplicity of having a routine every day feels really grounding and creative to me. It’s hard to keep a routine on the road. I’m living a bit of a romantic pastoral life; I get up, feed my dog, go out and look at my flowers and vegetables. It feels really nice and that’s inspiring. I’ve been trying to write about the desire of those things while I was really busy on the road. Now that I’m home and actually living part of what I’ve been wishing for, I’ve been able to finish a couple of ideas about literally this exact thing.”
Filmed by Rachel Huneker, Demi Knight & Matthijs van der Ven.
Edited by Matthijs van der Ven.
Audio recorded & mixed by Matthijs van der Ven.
Take Root Festival
Groningen, The Netherlands
This session is dedicated to José Cutileiro.