Caroline Spence has been amassing accolades and building credibility since the release of her first EP in 2013. Since then, the Virginia born songwriter has become a force among the Nashville roots scene where she takes an honest approach at crafting songs. 2017’s Spades and Roses was an introduction for some and included the evocative road song “Hotel Amarillo”. Now signed to Rounder Records (a label she shares with her hero, Emmylou Harris), Caroline’s latest, Mint Condition, is a beautiful follow-up that finds her flexing her troubadour muscles and settling in for the long haul as a songwriter. Deconstructing Divas host, Ashley Doolin, caught up with Caroline at home to discuss the new album, her writing process, and what comes next.
AD- Your Spades and Roses album from 2017 was spectacular. I fell in love with it from the first time I heard it. I didn’t think you could get any better– but you did! Tell me how Mint Condition came about.
CS- The way I make records has always been somewhat similar. I just take stock of the songs I have been writing, and I always think it’s a fun and surprising process every time. It kind of gets down to when you have chosen the songs and recorded the songs, and you have to put them in order for the album… I feel like that’s when the story of the record, it presents itself to me clearly for the first time, and this one was no different. I enjoyed learning about myself and where I had been in the last few years through this record, hearing it all together in this timeline.
I have read where you stated that people often tell you to write about what you know, but a lot of the time you write about what you DON’T know. Can you elaborate on that for me?
What that means to me is that every time I pick up a guitar, I am searching for something. I think a lot of times I have been able to say something in a song that I couldn’t say in a normal conversation, even a conversation with myself, journaling, whatever… There is just something about the space that music gives me, and writing gives me and has always allowed me to figure things out as I go along in the writing process. So I don’t pick up a guitar because I fully understand what I am feeling, I pick up a guitar because I don’t… And that will help. That’s what that meant to me.
God, I love that! So in this process, do you do any people watching? I mean, how do you gather all of this?
(Laughing) OH YEAH! I travel so much that it is like my second hobby! Yeah, I mean so much of my music is about personal relationships and people. That is just what fascinates me, the way we relate to each other, the way we relate to ourselves… I will definitely be in the airport watching a couple, writing the script in my head.
As a touring musician, what are the best and worst parts of being on the road?
The best part is just being able to connect with the audience, to speak to them at the merch table, and to be able to hear that the music is reaching them. And that exchange of energy between me and the musicians on stage and the audience is really something that keeps me going. So for that, I am always very, very thankful for touring The hardest part is just it’s hard to get into a routine. It can be hard to find time to take care of yourself and to find the things that make you feel well adjusted. So squeezing in a little bit of extra stretching in the green room after soundcheck, making sure to eat right, it’s the little things that make you feel human.
What is one thing you can’t live without while on the road?
I usually always have a book that I have been reading. A lot of times it just sits. I try to read in the van or in the green room and most of the time it happens first thing in the morning with my coffee in the hotel or wherever. That makes me feel like I am taking care of my mind a little bit, even if I only get to squeeze in a couple of pages a day.
I can only imagine the excitement that you felt– because I know I would have felt it– when you found out that Emmylou Harris would be singing harmony vocals on “Mint Condition”. How did you find out and what was your reaction?
Well, when I wrote this song, “Mint Condition”, years ago her voice was what was in my head as I was writing it. It felt like an older more mature story. She is the pinnacle of who I would ever want to record that song! So in my head, I was like, “Let’s set the bar there and try and do it.” When we were making this record, serendipitously, my producer Dan Knobler, had worked with [Emmylou]. It’s SO unlike me to ask things, but I thought if I don’t ask him because I am afraid, I would feel really silly. So I asked him if he would feel comfortable reaching out to her and seeing if she would sing on it. She said send me the song and then she said yes– and this was before I had my record deal. This was just going to be another independent release as far as I was concerned. The fact that she said yes and came in and was just so wonderful and complimentary of the song… It just will forever be one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
I am so glad you asked her!
The first time that I heard “Mint Condition”, no exaggeration… Tears. It is a beautiful song and both of your voices just mesh into the best combination ever possible!
Thank you! I think she adds so much to that song. It’s the perfect version for me, having her voice on it.
We have had the honor and the privilege of having you in our studio… You came through Macon and you played a Creek Session for us (which can be viewed on our YouTube Channel). You were wonderful. Your voice is always amazing. Your friend, Tyler Childers, also played a Creek Session for us and I know you two will be performing together later this year. Will you be performing any duets together?
We haven’t talked about it yet, but he’s going to have this whole new record coming out and I am really excited to hear more of that, especially on those nights that we are out together! It’ll be fun!
You have been writing and playing music since you were itty bitty… Did you ever think in your mind, “What if this doesn’t pan out for me?” What would you be doing now if it weren’t for your music? What road would you have taken?
It took me so long to even take this path seriously, I think that further down the road making other plans than music… I mean, after my first record came out, I was like, “Do I need to go to Grad School?” Yeah, it took me a long time to really believe that this was possible for me, so when anyone is like, “Would you want to be doing anything else?”, I’m like, “I can’t believe I am doing this!” One of the jobs I had done for a really long time before I was able to do music full time was as a Nanny, and I LOVED taking care of children. I contemplated getting my Montessori certification, my Masters in Education, all of that stuff. I was further down that road than I was believing in myself as an artist and songwriter, to be honest. I feel so lucky that this is the path that I am on.
So my own opinion, well actually it’s a lot of women’s opinions… Sports and the music industry have a lot of parallels when it comes to women and equality. Do you ever feel that a lot of radio stations fail to include women in their everyday playlist? And why do you think that is?
I am fortunate enough to be outside of the “Country Radio Sphere”. I do feel that the Americana and the Triple A stations, I’m sure, reflect on the inequality of the world, but I feel like there is not as much as a profound difference. I don’t know? I mean, I try not to dwell on it too much and when it really comes down to it, I feel that the people in my peer group, the women in my peer group are just kicking so much butt right now and putting out such great material, and I think they all have their heads on straight in what matters and what doesn’t matter. I think we all just put our heads down and do the work and hope it gets heard and if we write good enough songs that they’re going to play them. So that’s how I have gotten through those moments when it has felt like the playing field wasn’t equal.
If you could put together your dream team of all-female performers for an album, who would you want on it?
(Laughs) Oh my goodness, well, Emmylou would be amazing. So many other women that I grew up listening to, like Mary Chapin Carpenter, she is one of my all-time favorite artists in the entire world. Lucinda Williams. The women that showed me that this is a career path and a path you can be on where you’re a songwriter AND a singer AND you can have other people record your music. Lucinda and Patty Griffin were that for me.
That would be AWESOME! My co-worker, host of Honky Tonk Hell, Aaron Irons has an adorable 2-year-old daughter, Carter Wray, that adores you. She requests to listen to your song “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes” over and over to anyone that is operating the radio.
WHAT?! (Laughing) Oh my gosh! That’s amazing!
What advice would you give her if she were to pick up a guitar, want to play the drums, want to be in a band, write music– if she wanted to follow in your footsteps?
I would say do it for YOU! Do it because it makes YOU happy. I think about myself as a kid and how much music made me happy and how it was always what I was drawn to. And the more I work in the business side of it, I work fiercely to try and protect the childlike part of my life and my love for music. So I would just say just do it because you love it, and you should always chase what makes you happy– and you should always fiercely protect that happiness.
What are your goals going forward with the new album out? What are you hoping to accomplish and tuck under your belt next?
I just look forward to being able to do this all again. I really want a career, I want to keep putting out music as long as I can. I hope that with every album that I get to reach more people and play in front of more people and have more people hear the record. I feel so lucky to be doing this, I know I have a lot more songs up my sleeves, so I am just looking forward to being able to do it all again.
Would you ever consider publishing a book of your songs? Things that didn’t make it as far as you wanted them to or things you feel weren’t ready?
I’ve never really quite thought about that, but you know there are some songs I will push aside for two albums that I will pull back out and pick up– and all of a sudden that song means something new. So I think that’s just part of my journey. I try and keep up with everything I’ve written and you never know when something is going to speak to you more clearly. So those little things I have tossed aside might still have life in them. That was true with a couple of songs on this record.
I look forward to so much more out of you. I know our listeners do as well. I’m hoping to be able to catch you around here– or to get you back here in Macon! I want to thank you so much for taking the time for me today!
Thank you so much for having me and for playing me back when I was an independent artist! I just realized, and I am not even kidding, I am wearing my Creek WNEX t-shirt that you all gave me! (Laughing) So thanks, guys!