SPOTLIGHT: Kelsey Waldon on Songwriting and Keeping it Close to the Earth
Photo by Laura E. Partain
Recently, I had some journalists ask me if I ever thought I was being too vulnerable, too revealing, or “too real” in my songwriting. My answer to them is always “no.” You see, I believe in order to write about the true human experience, we have to reveal it all. It’s our responsibility as writers to tell the truth, and to keep it as close to the earth as possible.
The truth means all of it. The good times and the bad times. The ugly and the beautiful. Love, lust, loss, addiction, abuse, life, and death. It’s all a part of our lives. Speaking truth can be scary at first, because you are putting yourself on display for all the world to see. You are allowing yourself to subject to people creating their own opinions about you, and to know you without really knowing you. Still though, I think it’s important to reveal a bit of yourself (if not your whole self) with each song. When I first wrote “Kentucky, 1988,” I was actually nervous about how revealing it was, but after the response to it, I realized I wasn’t alone in my story. It was so many other people’s story as well, and that’s one beautiful thing about telling the truth. We connect to each other through it. By being vulnerable, we actually become stronger.
Of course, when you speak your truth, there is always going to be a chance that someone won’t like it or won’t agree with it. That’s okay too. The thing about truth is that it can make people uncomfortable. I think that’s what true art should do. Make the uncomfortable comfortable and the comfortable uncomfortable. Art should make you feel something. Not everyone understood my song “Sunday’s Children” at first, but I had to remember exactly who I was singing for. The outpouring of love for it and people reaching out to say “That was my story and this resonated with me” made up for any of the hate on the song. Not everyone is going to understand you all the time, but as artists we have a responsibility to stay true to ourselves and wherever our inspiration leads. I believe we should speak on current politics or economic pressures if we feel led to. There isn’t much more that a listener can ask for than an artist who stays true to themselves, whether you agree with it or not.
By “keeping it close to the earth as possible,” I mean realistic. Everyday things. Most of us out there don’t know (or will never know) what it’s like to be in the 1%, but we know about the everyday struggles to get by. The minimum wage, paycheck to paycheck, overtime. Making ends meet and depending on the simple things in life that make us happy and give us peace. For songs of mine like “High in Hills,” I had this in mind. It came from a personal backstory. Back home in Kentucky, I know some folks that work so hard for so little. People have real pressures, real stress, real depression. All these things can leave a person vulnerable to addiction. The song is about empathy through addiction (particularly pills), some people think it could never happen to them, but you’re always just one step away. Be careful to judge, because before you know it, it could happen to you.
In my song “Anyhow,” I was inspired to write some of the first lines because I drove by this combine in a field that was working overtime, at night time, still harvesting. “Working the ground, pace like a dog in a pound,” — that line just came to me. It made me think of my dad and my brother-in-law, both self-employed farmers. What they do is a lot like what I do as a working artist and touring musician. When you work for yourself, you don’t work a 9-to-5, you have to get the job done no matter how long it takes. If that means working on the tractor until midnight, then that’s the way it has to be. You work until you get it done. You do it “anyhow.”
Sometimes, I wish I could write about tailgates and beach parties, but I just can’t. I can’t sugarcoat my experience. It’s simply not where I belong. It’s not my place. I am beginning to learn that it might be impossible for me to be anything other than myself, and I’m more than okay with that. At all costs, I must keep it real. I’ve got to tell the truth because it inspires others to embrace their own. It makes us better people. It’s how we’re all gonna get along in this ol’ world.
Kelsey Waldon is No Depression‘s Spotlight artist for October 2019. Read our feature story about her here, and watch a video about the story behind her song, “Kentucky, 1988,” here. Her album White Noise/White Lines was released on Oh Boy records on Oct. 4.