Violet Delancey – At the Corner of Vassar and Nashville
The days of the coal miner’s daughter are past. We passed them long ago and didn’t even notice. No more coal dust on gown or blackened fingernails. No more carrying water from the well or relieving oneself in outside structures. You can see it, the country stars looking not unlike the crowd these days and singing not of tough times but of everyday situations, ugly or not. Nashville has lost its way, no matter what Jason Isbell says. Maybe not financially, but musically.
Which has actually opened many doors for the outside-the-box artists. There is a new underground in Nashville, of which Isbell is one, who are outside the accepted norm of what corporate Nashville wants and who are making inroads and actually playing country. Of course, Nashville (and Rolling Stone) is now claiming the likes of Chris Stapleton as a “new” artist even though Americana fans picked up on him when he was fronting The SteelDrivers on a few of their albums. Mainstream media. Go figure.
As far as I can tell, the vast majority of supposed future country music stars come from all walks of life except the farm, or if they do, no one is claiming it. Don’t country artists need pasts anymore? Maybe not. I personally would love to read one story about an artist scoring their big break while flipping burgers at a McDonalds or mucking out a barn, but it seems a thing of the past.
There are paths out there out of the norm, though. One such as has been taken by one Violet Delancey. No McDonald’s for her. She, in fact, arrived in Nashville via Vassar. The college? The one portrayed in thirties and forties Hollywood movies as a haven for the spoiled little rich girls? God forbid we should take anything Hollywood has to present seriously. So who is this Delancey dame and what is the connection to Nashville and country music?
“My road to pursuing music has been a roundabout one,” she said in a recent interview, “and the start of my passion for and professional interest in it was very sudden. I haven’t been on this path for very long at this point but as soon as I started, I felt that it was something I had needed to do even before I was conscious of it.
“I was in London working on a Masters Degree in “Mysticism and Religious Experience.” My focus was on Mythology, which I had majored in during my time as an undergraduate at Vassar. Although I was passionate about my studies and the ideas that drove them, looking back I think I ended up on an academic path almost because I was putting off facing the question of what it was that I actually wanted to do with my life and what my true calling would be. I knew that I loved learning about and examining myth, that academic writing and research was something I was good at — a skill I had developed and honed during my time at Vassar– and that I wanted the adventure of living abroad. I also felt a pressure to know what it was I was going to do, and to have some plan for the future secured upon graduating as many of my peers did. However, once I was in London spending most of my time conducting solitary research in the British Library and also butting heads slightly with the more rigid aspects of the academic world, I realized that ultimately this was not where I wanted to focus my energy.
“In the middle of winter in London, the days were short and it was bitter cold outside. I knew basically no one in the entire city and felt creatively stifled by my academic work. I thought about dropping out and moving back to New York but something in me told me that I should stay, take advantage of the adventure of being abroad and see what I could discover there that could lead me to whatever might come next. I remember standing by the ocean in Los Angeles over winter break and wanting so badly to feel that I could just stay there where it was sunny and warm and I was surrounded by people I knew and loved instead of returning to the cold, dark lonesomeness of my London life, but I also knew that I had to go back, finish what I’d started, let myself feel a little lost and find out where that feeling would take me. Giving up would have been denying myself something important. In myth, times of darkness and confusion are times of transformation and discovery where the hero finds the golden item s/he brings back home at the end of the journey. I knew there was something I had to do and discover there before I could really go home, though I had no idea what it was.
“What I did know was that I needed to do something social and creative. On New Years Eve that year I remember speaking on the phone to a friend from college and confessing that I knew I was not on the right path and that I wanted to be performing and she asked what instrument was I going to learn and I said guitar. When I returned to London I immediately bought a (“Nashville Series”) guitar and started playing “Jolene.” I had always loved Dolly Parton, for a variety of reasons, but that January I became absolutely obsessed. Dolly is a true heroine and she’s also one of the finest storytellers of our time. I was not only inspired by her songs and fascinated by her image but, like so many others before me, I was motivated and uplifted by her personal story. Dolly was and is a great risk taker who seems to have an unshakable sense of faith and self-confidence. I was learning how to write by learning her songs and finding the inner strength to do something that seemed almost impossible by following her personal journey. Her attitude and her story are truly American in the best way and I think that my first brush with homesickness while I was overseas allowed me to see her as a representation of everything my current life was missing and everything I hoped to achieve when it was over. By immersing myself in Dolly’s, I discovered all the other great songwriters and performers who continue to inspire me.
“Over the course of a couple months I went from learning guitar and writing songs as a recreational and creative outlet to thinking of it as a vocation. I started performing at open mics as much as possible, where I made friends with other ex-pat musicians who taught me things and invited me to jams and threw gigs my way. It was such a sudden shift and yet it felt undeniable when it happened. I talk about having been lost and confused but looking back, I realize that I only felt that way for such a brief period of time. By late spring I was finishing my thesis on the mythic role of Cordelia in “King Lear” on the side and devoting all my energy to music and planning to move to Nashville. At the beginning, I felt that so many doors opened for me with music, and, although that road inevitably becomes more difficult and will continue to require great perseverance in the future, it at first felt so natural that there was no way I could walk away from it.
“One of my frustrations with academic work was that while I loved discovering truths that resonated through many different stories from different times and places, I felt that my ideas and my work would not be accessible to most of the world. That feeling was counter-intuitive to the nature of myth, which is pervasive and prolific and belongs to everyone. Music is one of the most ancient forms of storytelling and remains one of the most vibrant to this day. Something about the way we can connect to melodies emotionally brings their stories to life completely. They stick with us and we continue to pass them on and transform them. When I started delving into it I felt that music was not only the answer to the struggles I’d encountered in academia but also the best way to keep working with mythology in a way that would be more meaningful to me. Although my songs don’t overtly circulate around myth, all great songs relate back to the well of images and stories that resonate with us.”
Getting this? There will be a quiz. What I am really doing here is giving you time to breathe. Delancey is nothing if not intense when it comes to her music. For instance, why she included the two covers on her new album, When the Clock Strikes Midnight, Guy Clark’s “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and Gram Parsons’ “Luxury Liner.”
“Both songs have a feel and tempo that was otherwise absent from my record. Gram Parsons and Guy Clark are two of my all-time favorite writers. I strive to write like them and these are the kinds of songs I wish I had written myself. As a performer, it’s fun to have the opportunity to assume a character that isn’t your normal persona and “Luxury Liner” definitely allows that opportunity. Emmylou Harris’s Luxury Liner is also on one of my favorite records— the sound of my record is largely inspired by Emmylou’s Hot Band-era recordings— and it felt right to pay homage to that. It was also fun to figure out how to reimagine it. Brent’s bluegrass background was integral to how that happened. “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” is just a beautiful song, the pictures in that story resonate so deeply with me, and I always wanted to have the chance to cover it so I could tell the story (which is so sensitive to the female experience) from a feminine perspective.
“I think I started with more than enough songs for an entire record (twenty or so) but we threw most of them out. I think five of them made it onto the record (with some honing). I wrote other originals once I had a date to record and those needed less work. Some of the songs only required the modification of a line or two, some of them an entire verse or the hook line of the chorus. There were days where Brent and I sat in his studio for hours staring at blank pages, struggling to come up with lines that would have better flow or accomplish more narratively. Sometimes we’d get nowhere and I’d go home, sit down, and immediately come up with a new line or verse that worked. Other times things moved more smoothly and it just took tossing some ideas around before settling on something that felt right. The process wasn’t difficult but it took time, trust, and patience.
“It was definitely the tug of music that made me jump. It was a tide that I wanted to swim with as soon as I felt it, compounded by the sense of unease with my academic path, and I think both motivated me in different ways, but the discovery of music was the positive force.
“I had a couple of encounters/experiences in London that encouraged me a great deal. Soon after falling in love with her music, I went to see Emmylou Harris play with Rodney Crowell at the Hammersmith Apollo. Before the concert, I resolved that I would bring my guitar and try to find a way to have her sign it after the show. During the show, I felt insanely inspired —Emmylou being a spell-binding performer who seems to access something larger in the spiritual sense when she sings. I wanted so much to be able to do that and I promised myself that night that I would stop at nothing to be in her shoes, standing on a stage singing my heart out while holding a guitar. Having a guitar at the show was a great conversation starter and while I was aimlessly hanging around after the performance, a woman asked me why I had it. When I told her I had secretly hoped to have Emmylou sign it but was beginning to lose my resolve, she slipped me a backstage pass and sent me in that direction. Before I knew what was happening I was standing at Emmylou Harris’ dressing room door. Someone came out and I slipped in and asked if she would sign my guitar. Suddenly I was on my way back out with a newly signed guitar. On the tube ride home I couldn’t stop smiling. I remember thinking to myself that if I could make that happen then surely I could stay true to the promise I made myself earlier that night. It was a combination of luck and determination and it felt like a sign.
“Playing the east London open mic/writers night scene I met a fellow musician and friend named Allegra. She was also from California, wrote beautiful songs but played the harp. She gave me an opportunity to play a gig with her and in the process of preparing we started jamming together. Making a musical friend like that right off the bat gave me leverage. It was fun and inspiring and motivating, a taste of what it would be like to belong to a musical community, and I knew I wanted more of it.”
The question remains, why Country?
“My father played the flute and some piano. I grew up listening to and singing songs by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and the Gershwins. I also played the flute, primarily in a jazz band. I was good at music theory and enjoyed composing my own music, but it didn’t have the same grasp on me that music did once I followed my own inclinations and started writing and playing Country, even though country music was not something I was exposed to as a child.
“I chose guitar because it was a vehicle for writing, singing, and performing. It seemed like a tool that would open a lot of doors for me creatively, and it did. For now, I’m still focused on continuing to develop those skills, although eventually I’d like to learn other instruments as well. I have a mandolin that’s been waiting for me to find the time to learn, and who knows what else could follow?
“I feel comfortable and challenged in different ways, depending on band set up. When I perform solo, I know that I’m accountable only for myself and can make spur of the moment decisions. However, sometimes it’s easier to falter and second guess myself when everything in the performance rests on my shoulders. With a band, there’s obviously more coordination and communication involved, but there is also a sense that there’s someone else to catch you if you fall. There’s more energy and rather than having to generate everything yourself, you can just go with it and use it as a platform to do your thing. I definitely have more fun with a band.”
Still— Vassar? I grew up thinking it quite the elite institution.
“I know Vassar is stereotyped as an elitist place for the wealthy but I think it was recently listed as the number one provider of financial aid. Don’t quote me on that because I’m not sure of the details but it does have blind admissions and allowing low income students the opportunity to attend is a priority.
“When I was looking at colleges, I was primarily looking for schools with good drama departments. I was serious about acting at the time and even considered conservatories, but I was also academically very engaged and interested in a lot of other things. I knew I wanted to go to the east coast and also had fantasies of living on a beautiful campus with old buildings with a lot of history. As soon as I stepped foot on Vassar’s campus I fell in love. There is a lot more to Vassar than what one can glean from its depictions in popular culture. It promotes creativity and innovation. My first time on campus I felt, for the first time, surrounded by people with whom I had so much in common and yet who had exciting new ideas and perspectives. I was captivated by the history of the school from the start. When it was founded in 1861, it was the first accredited women’s college in the United States. Having grown up in LA, I longed to be somewhere that felt steeped in tradition and carried a sense of the past in the present. That feeling is hard to find on the West Coast. Vassar resonated with me in an imaginative and inspiring way. I seriously thought about becoming a Victorian Studies major (mainly because in my teens I loved Victorian literature). I worked as an intern for the campus historian during my time there, writing articles for a Vassar history about figures from Vassar’s past. It may be the most liberal and artistic of the seven sisters colleges, and the blend of history and tradition with open mindedness and innovation appealed to me. The classes are small, and the professors are idiosyncratic and interesting. I was encouraged to be creative with my academic choices (pursuing an independent interdisciplinary major) and to try as many different things as possible while I was there. Although I didn’t major in theater, I was very engaged with the student theater scene. I directed a few plays and founded a collaborative student theater group called Britomartis. Those experiences taught me how to coordinate lots of different people in a creative project and develop ideas in order to bring them to fruition–a skill set that proved helpful when it was time to put together a record and organize bands. It’s hard to say, but I probably would not have taken the leap into my musical career with the same confidence had I not had the variety of experiences I had at Vassar.
“When I was getting ready to graduate, I was looking for some way to put my major in mythology to use outside of Vassar. It seemed like the only choice was to continue studying so I looked for programs that might be flexible enough to allow me to do something interdisciplinary. I had also spent time abroad in the UK (I worked at the Wordsworth museum in the Lake District for a summer during college and also spent some time in Ireland and Oxford) and always felt called to that part of the world.”
And the music?
“Most of my country influences are the ones who are ‘everyone’s.’ I don’t feel that makes them any less valid. There is a reason they speak to and inspire so many artists. Dolly and Emmylou are definitely at the top. Willie Nelson and Guy Clark also spoke to me immediately. She’s not country, but Cher has always been my number one inspiration as a performer. I love her stage persona and her attitude. She is always having a blast when she’s performing and I think that’s the key to her success. She could do anything (and she has in fact done most everything) and it would be entertaining because it’s her presence and personality that draws people in. As a performer I always try to remember that. She affects my attitude towards music and how I approach performance.”
It is a hell of a jump, Vassar to Nashville, but attitude and drive can overcome obstacles and how you fuel that drive counts for something. Knowing the paths taken can completely change one’s attitude toward the music, too. I give you Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard as examples. The simple aura of prison. Granted, Vassar is certainly no San Quentin or Folsom, but times have changed. Haven’t they?