Signature Sound: Caroline Herring
Caroline Herring has been compared to everyone from Lucinda Williams to Mozart, but ever since she came onto the scene a decade ago she has quietly—yet forcibly—carved out her own sound. The mark of a true artist, of course, is the listener’s ability to instantly recognize their trademark sound, and Herring has that in spades. There is always both a mystery and a love story—the two essentials of any good literature—in her songwriting, and then there’s that distinctive delivery: the voice that can be sweet and high, yet never syrupy, sometimes plummeting to darker tones to spread shadows in the edges of the song, all delivered with minimal instrumentation simply because the voice and the writing are enough on their own. I believe Herring is among our very best (and most underrated) contemporary songwriters because she is the quintessential storyteller.
Herring emerged on the scene with her tender 2001 debut, Twilight, and quickly followed that with Wellspring (2003), which unfolds like a lush novel. She began to get the most attention for her 2008 release Lantana, a record without one false note that includes masterpieces like “Paper Gown,” a ballad about Susan Smith, who murdered her own children and blamed the crime on an imaginary black man; “Song for Fay,” based on the Larry Brown novel Fay; and “Lay My Burden Down” which is quickly becoming a standard at late night sing-a-longs of folks who like to close the party down with a good modern hymn. 2009’s Golden Apples of the Sun was even more acclaimed, producing songs like “The Wild Rose,” another modern hymn; “The Dozens,” a brilliant look at how the civil rights movement is ongoing; “Tales of the Islander,” about the madness that may lie within every artist; and other gems. All of the songs managed to be both timely and timeless.
Lantana and Golden Apples of the Sun are among the best albums of the last decade. Caroline followed those with her EP Silver Apples of the Moon (if you haven’t heard her song “China,” included on the EP, I can’t recommend it highly enough).
Now Herring has completely switched gears, but kept her signature sound intact, with an album of music for children, The Little House Songs, a collection of songs that pay tribute to the popular 1942 children’s book The Little House, by Virginia Lee Burton.
Although it may seem like an usual choice, folk artists have long made entire records for kids, with the best among them being releases by Pete Seeger, Tom T. Hall, Shawn Colvin, and Woody Guthrie (while we’re on the subject I have to point out that it’d be worth your while to check out the new tribute album to Tom T. Hall that includes his most famous songs for kids, Songs of Fox Hollow, which includes a cover of “I Love” beautifully delivered by Patty Griffin).
I recently talked with Herring about The Little House Songs, future projects, her social activism through song, and what she’s listening to these days.
No Depression: You went from writing gritty murder ballads like “Paper Gown” (about convicted murderer Susan Smith) and treatises on race (“The Dozens”) and art (“Tale of the Islander”) to a children’s album. Tell me about making that leap.
Caroline: Last August I was working on a set of particularly difficult songs drawing from specific instances and episodes from the Civil Rights Movement in the South. I found myself internalizing everything too much, and started losing sleep because of it. Focusing on a children’s book for awhile served as a balm for me. The songs came quickly, and I had fun writing them, and they made me happy. The experience taught me to temper myself in my work, and to balance the more difficult topics with more lighthearted ones.
ND: How do you think this album fits in with your body of work?
CH: I asked no questions of this project. It came so quickly that my response was simply, “Ok, then!” I knew it needed playing with a band, which I haven’t worked with on a regular basis for awhile. Perhaps The Little House Songs moved me back towards playing with a band. It also combines most of the genres of music I’m used to playing – folk, bluegrass, country, country blues. Also, I think my work has always had somewhat of a rural focus. These new songs certainly lean that direction. Lastly, I have written several songs now based on novels, short stories and poetry. Writing about a children’s book was a natural extension, I guess.
ND: How is performing for a roomful of children different than an audience of adults?
CH: Well, it depends on the age of the children. But I know that the children are usually soaking up a lot more than most adults usually do. Children also like being included in the process. If they can sing along, or do hand signals to “House on Wheels”, they are more engaged.
ND: This record has given you the opportunity to do a duet with your daughter on “I Want to Be.” How old is she, and can you talk about how that feels, to perform on stage with her?
CH: Carrie is seven years old. On the day of our CD release, my husband and told Carrie that if she was too nervous about singing then she didn’t have to do it. She looked at us squarely and said, “No way, it is my turn!” My philosophy about my children singing on albums and publicly is this: if they want to, if it is fun for them, and not stressful, and if they are good at it, then by all means I should provide ways for them to sing and play. That’s being a good mom! However, I am not interested in forcing them to do anything, and my biggest fear is that I will turn them off from music by instilling the need to be perfect, and the fear of not being perfect. Those last points are real music-killers, and I’ll always guard against them.
ND: You’ve hinted that you see The Little House Songs as the first in a series of albums about children’s books.
CH: Yes! I’d love to complete more albums based on children’s books. However, I must remember to balance them with my adult work. The balance feels right, and one seems to need the other right now. Mostly, I’m ready to get back to those civil rights songs.
ND: Tell us about your work with the Cecil Sharp Project in England.
CH: Neil Pearson from the Shrewsbury Folk Festival/Fish Records UK invited me to join a group of musicians to write about the life and work on Cecil Sharp, particularly his stint of ballad collecting in Appalachia. I was the only American he picked, and I suppose he chose me because he knew that traditional music is the basis of everything I do. We gathered in a farmhouse in Shropshire for five days and wrote eighteen songs, then performed them live at three shows. They made a lovely live recording and that will be out this summer. Also, we’ll all be playing several festivals in the UK. I hope to bring this group to the US, as people would absolutely love the show. I’ve never been part of such a remarkable collaboration.
ND: One of the songs that you wrote during your time with the Cecil Sharp Project is “Black Mountain Lullaby” which was aired on the BBC and written about in an American newspaper. The feedback from the few people who have heard the song is amazing. Did you expect it to move people so profoundly?
CH: I am so proud of “Black Mountain Lullaby”, though I served as a mere conduit for the story. I thought that the Cecil Sharp song collection needed a contemporary focus of some sort, and when I told the group about Jeremy Davidson we all agreed that telling his story was of greatest importance, and completely in keeping with the Appalachian ballad tradition. Davidson was a three-year-old boy killed by a 1,000 pound boulder which rolled through his trailer one night about 2:30am. Trucks on the ridge above had been doing road widening so that larger trucks could come in and do ridge removal, a form of mountaintop removal. Or at least that’s how I understand it. The coal company settled financially with Jeremy’s family under the condition that they never speak publicly of Jeremy’s death again. I think those against mountaintop removal have been hesitant to mention Jeremy because they don’t want to exploit his story, or his family. Perhaps a song about him, in the form of a lullaby, is the right approach. His death was needless, I call it murder, and his story should be known far and wide as far as I’m concerned. We cannot forget Jeremy Davidson.
ND: So the Cecil Sharp recording will be out soon, but you’re working on something new, too, right?
CH: I’m going to record a new album in the fall, which should be out on Signature Sounds in Spring 2012.
ND: What are you listening to these days?
CH: Lately I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder (Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life are my favorite albums, period), Marvin Gaye, Bernice Reagon Johnson and Carla Bruni. But I would suggest my Signature Sounds label mate Eilen Jewell’s newest record Queen of the Minor Key. She and her band are stunningly good, and good people.
Caroline Herring’s latest album, The Little House Songs, is available now.
Listen to Herring’s performance on A Praire Home Companion.