Caroline Herring is one of our country's best singer-songwriters. Since her debut in 2001, Herring has gained a devoted following, has been embraced by tastemakers like NPR, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, and Oxford American, and has become the only American representative for the prestigious Cecil Sharp Project, a group of musicians who are commissioned to research and create new music based on the life and collecting of the famed British songcatcher. Herring has established herself as a lyrical and inventive songwriter and a singer whose vocals never fail to move the listener with her high trills and rich vibrato. The Mississippi native, now based in Atlanta, has been compared to Lucinda Williams (Austin Chronicle), Joan Baez (Asheville Citizen-Times), and Steve Earle (Paste Magazine). Although the comparisons are nice (and hold water) the truth is that she has her own signature sound that comes to full manifestation on Camilla, her latest, and sixth, album, which will be released in July, 2012, from Signature Sounds.
In songs that deal with injustice, kindness, struggle, and compassion, we are swept along on a turbulent yet beautiful journey with characters who are mourning for a child lost to an accident caused by mountaintop removal mining or finding that a trip to President Obama’s inauguration is not as easy as it might have seemed but is certainly worth the journey. We are treated to an ode to the healing powers of trees and birds after “a hard summer in the mountains.” We see the injustices of the Civil Rights movement with stories of a pregnant woman who is badly beaten by a sheriff but keeps her dignity intact, and another woman who survives the fire-bombing of a Freedom Riders bus to encounter the compassion of a young white girl who brings her water when the adults in the community are the terrorists involved. And much, much more. Herring has given us a deeply moving album. We recently sat down to talk to her about that record and her overall thoughts on music and writing.
Still: What is the main theme of your music, if you had to narrow it down to one, consistent theme?
Caroline Herring: That's a tough question, but I suppose that the majority theme is women, often mothers, dealing with various difficulties in their lives. I don't always leave men out of the picture, though.
Still: Why do you think you are so drawn to telling the stories of people who have been treated unjustly?
CH: I am a person of privilege because I was born and raised white and middle-class. As a child and young adult, I found it difficult not to notice the disparities between myself and many others in my hometown of Canton, Mississippi. I felt very guilty about the inherent advantages I had over others in my life. Through time, however, I have gained a more complex view of the world, one where I now see that people of all races, classes and genders can experience injustice. My desire to recognize them remains, and I am proudest of my work when I can tell someone's story effectively.
Still: Many of your songs are very dark. We're thinking of "Paper Gown", about Susan Smith, who killed her own children, or "Camilla," about a pregnant woman who is beaten so badly by a sheriff that she miscarries, even though she is only trying to deliver food to someone in jail, and other songs that really tackle heavy subjects. Yet there is always some light or hope that shoots through your compositions. How much do you think about arriving at that sort of balance, or salvation, in your songs?
CH: There is no shortage of dark tales in traditional American balladry, and I take most of my cues as a writer and a musician from that musical style. My song about Susan Smith fits right in with the murder ballad tradition, though present-day songwriters don't write many murder ballads besides men killing "false" lovers or the more modern phenomenon, women killing their perpetrators. Smith's story gained amazing traction nationally, partly because she blamed a black man for the disappearance of her children, a common alibi for southern white women. She also achieved her fame because she appeared on a national morning show the day she confessed to the murders. Mostly, though, she became famous because she did the unthinkable: she mercilessly drowned her children. When I was pregnant with my first child, I read a description of Smith in one of my pregnancy books as the most evil human being imaginable. And I thought, "What happened to this woman?" After studying her life, I decided that hers was a southern gothic tale that had to be told.
As for Marion King, I found the crime against her especially sickening, and the deputy sheriff's anger particularly chilling, because she was pregnant and either holding or surrounded by her three children. I guess, at the end of the day, I write for mothers. But I would write about the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement all day long for the rest of my life if I could. They are the great American heroes.
Still: How emotionally draining is it to write a song like "Black Mountain Lullaby," which tells the story of three-year old Jeremy Davidson, who was killed in his own bed by a huge boulder that was dislodged in the middle of the night on a mountaintop removal site above his home?
CH: It's really draining. I put myself in the position of Jeremy's mother to write that song. And I have young children. Pondering their deaths, as I had to when I wrote this, was soul-wrenching. And I thought of Jeremy and his family, helpless and expendable against power and money, and it made and makes me so angry. In the end, though, one has to have some hope and dignity in order to survive. Or maybe I just hoped that they'd find some means of redemption in the midst of their horrific tragedy so that I could get through the song.
Still: Many of our readers are also writers. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? How do you go about writing a song?
CH: Some of my songs take years, and others take minutes. I honestly don't have a common method. However, I try to never let go of an idea. Sometimes that idea, that thought just needs to percolate before the time comes to write the song. Furthermore, if I can't get a line right, then I sit on it for a couple of months, and then often succeed effortlessly. I put a lot of stock in allowing my subconscious time to figure things out. I also need deadlines in order to finish a body of work.
Still: Your music is obviously influenced by many things, but it is particularly literate. Who are some of your literary influences, and how has reading those authors made you a better songwriter?
CH: My mother, a lifelong librarian, had my siblings and me reading throughout our childhoods. In college I majored in history and English. In grad school I studied Southern history and literature. I also taught high school English and history. Thus, I reach for a book long before I listen to an album. For better or for worse, this is how I operate. I love Louise Erdrich, Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston. I absolutely loved Invisible Man, and I wonder if a book like that informs my writing most of all.
Still: What about musicians? Who has influenced you the most, and why?
CH: Growing up, I often listened to my parents' Newport Folk Festival records. That's how I learned about Mississippi John Hurt! I also listened to a lot of Maria McKee and R.E.M. and Prince. In college I listened to a lot of folk musicians, like Nanci Griffith, Kate Wolf, Mary McCaslin, Peter Rowan's Dust Bowl Children, and lots and lots of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. After college I started listening to lots of Bill Monroe and Carter Family. Once I started singing with a band, I immersed myself in Emmylou Harris albums, and I do love Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn and their feminist country songs. Then came Lucinda Williams! I poured over Oxford American's first music issue CD, with Lucinda's "Pineola," and Steve Forbert's "It Sure Was Better Back Then," and Kate Campbell's "When Panthers Roamed in Arkansas." These were my people.
When I moved to Texas, I learned about conjunto, and Texas old-time fiddling, and Western Swing, and east Texas blues, and mariachi. What a beautiful world! Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett and my favorite album Joshua Judges Ruth, Tish Hinojosa and Culture Swing, and the classic Texas album Willis Alan Ramsey. For three years, I was a Texan and I didn't look back, either. I miss being in the midst of all that music so much. Musicians such as Slaid Cleaves, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Eliza Gilkyson let me into their world, and I'll always be grateful.
Now I'm back in the Deep South, in Atlanta, which is everywhere. And I'm drawing on all of my influences, and hoping to gain more.
Still: Although you are from Mississippi, you have become connected with Appalachia because of your love for murder ballads and the influence roots music of Appalachia has had on your own work. Can you talk a little bit about why you feel a connection to the region?
CH: Growing up I always heard that all American roots music came from Mississippi and the Deep South. Not true! Lots of it, and the music that matters so much to me, comes from Appalachia. I do not mean to make romance of this region, but I can't help but think constantly of all the people who lived and died singing ballads from their native countries and forming our American songbook in the process. The melting pot of Appalachia makes up our nation's cultural history, and I somehow am just figuring this out. I grew up going to camp in the mountains of Northeast Alabama, but that's as close to Appalachia as I got until just a few years ago. I particularly look forward to spending more time in Kentucky, and I'm looking for ways to get myself back to that state. House concert, anyone?
Still: Tell us about your work with the Cecil Sharp Project.
CH: Cecil Sharp was an English folk song collector who spent time in Appalachia in the early twentieth century. He collected nearly 2,000 songs with his assistant, Maud Karpeles, and England heralds him as the keeper of the English folk song and dance tradition. Early last year, the English Folk Dance and Song Society brought together eight musicians (including me) to a Shropshire farmhouse for six days to study and write about Cecil Sharp and the songs he collected. They scheduled this in coordination with The Shrewsbury (UK) Folk Festival and the publishing of Cecil Sharp's Appalachian Diaries.
We had to finish eighteen songs in five days, so there was plenty of stress! Nonetheless, I loved working with these fine musicians and writers from England, Scotland and Canada. We played a show on the sixth day, and EFDSS recorded the show and released it as a live album. We have toured some since, and I'm returning to the Shrewsbury Folk Festival in August to do a solo show and a duo show with my good friend Kathryn Roberts, an amazing UK folk singer and songwriter.
Still: How has that project changed you as a singer-songwriter?
CH: Frankly, the project reminded me that I am good at what I do. We had to crank out material quickly, and I rose to the challenge. Also, I learned how much I love to collaborate. I get lonely working by myself, but any artist says that. I found this experience absolutely energizing and inspiring. Several of the artists from this project are on my new CD, Camilla.
Still: What would you like for our readers to know about your new record, Camilla?
CH: Speaking of collaboration, my new album Camilla has a lot happening. I am thrilled that my friends Kathryn Roberts and Jackie Oates are singing and playing on it. Also, American friends Aoife O'Donovan, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Claire Holley are also singing harmonies here and there, and they sound terrific. I recorded this album in Nashville with a full band of fine musicians, including two who play with Jack White! Never fear, though - there is plenty of folk music on this record. It is much about people and places in the South that I love, and that includes Appalachia.
Still: Who are you listening to these days that you really love?
CH: I love Martha Scanlan, and just can't get enough of her distinctive voice and songwriting chops. I also think Chris Smither's new album is terrific. UK artist Kathryn Roberts and her husband, Sean Lakeman, are releasing a new album this summer, and I'm on two songs. I love it! These days I'm also listening to a lot of Van Morrison.
Still: What are you reading these days that you really love?
CH: Sadly, it's my iPhone and its various news apps that I'm reading the most. The last book I read and really loved was Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith. You may have heard of her.
Click on the photo gallery below for stunning artwork from Caroline Herring's upcoming release Camilla.