I was tapping away at my laptop when my phone started clucking. It was a Tuesday and nearing that afternoon office purgatory where it’s too early to knock off but not quite quittin’ time. But I’d already planned my getaway. And most likely a beer before five o’clock. Hey, I’m still only part-time and there’s a pandemic, so keep those judgy eyes on your own work. “Who’s calling me from Arkansas?” I swiped up and spoke, “This is Aaron…” The voice on the other end twanged cheerily, “Hey, Aaron, this Ben with Carolina Story!” Ben and Emily Roberts, Carolina Story, had released their debut full-length, Lay Your Head Down, a year and a half ago. The songs were that sweet, harmony kind o’ Americana that feels good with the windows down or with a glass o’ something red. The duo had just released the follow-up, Dandelion, in September 2020 and I had been anticipating a conversation about the project. I just hadn’t expected it at the moment! Embarrassed, I admitted to Ben that I didn’t have an interview on my calendar and that I was unprepared, to say the least. As cool as the other side of the pillow, Ben graciously said he understood. He and Emily and their two children, Wilder and Lily, were visiting family in The Natural State– could I reschedule? I assured him I was keen to do so, and an official date was set. We’d play phone tag a bit more in the coming week and by the time we sat down to finally talk, I felt like I was catching up with an old friend. Dandelion reveals a newly minted Carolina Story focused on fresh horizons and dedicated songcraft. If their previous work showcased the evolution of love, family, and the sacrifice so often required to achieve success, their latest offering realizes all the miles and years were worth it.
AI- Lay Your Head Down was the chronicle of Carolina Story up to that point, a decade of doing what artists and songwriters do as they evolve and they climb. When that album came out, if I’m not mistaken, the seeds of Dandelion had already been spread so to speak.
BR- Yeah, when the album came out, we had already begun writing, stockpiling songs for the next project. Like you said, Lay Your Head Down was an album that was the culmination of 10 years of doin’ this together. We re-recorded some older songs and a couple of new ones in there, but by the time Lay Your Head Down came out, we were already looking towards the next thing.
When you’re re-recording older songs that you’ve lived in for so long, what was it like when you finally got to the point of producing new material?
ER- Man, I think this project was just so exciting because we were ready for the new version of us to come forward.
BR- It’s a lot like painting. Instead of doin’ some touch-up work on an old painting, it was like we had a blank canvas for the first time in a while. Emily and I, before goin’ into the studio, we did so many nights where we were just throwin’ different ideas at the wall and seein’ if it would stick. It was exciting to have that fresh start.
You wanted this album to be grander in scope, more immediate. How are you feeling about it now that it’s out there in the world?
BR- A lot of that goes to our producer, Paul Moak. Even though Lay Your Head Down was full band, for more or less 10 years, Emily and I had been touring just the two of us. We were growing a little bit weary of that and wanted to make an album that was a little more epic sounding and sweeping– an album that would almost force our hand to have to bring a band out on the road to pull it off, so to speak. Paul, our producer, like I said, played a huge hand in that, adding strings and a bunch of stuff to put the cherry on top. And then lo and behold, a pandemic comes along (laughs)! And we don’t get to tour!
I wanted to bring that up too! You two have a family as well. As matter of fact, when we first attempted to connect, you guys were out, I believe hikin’ and gettin’ in tune with nature. Despite the fact that there’s a pandemic going on and you can’t go out and tour, you have all the necessary resources at your disposal to enjoy life in a completely different way.
ER- Yeah. Actually, we’ve been in Nashville for 13-some years and a year ago, moved a little west of the city, and have a few acres of land. It all was just perfect timing. We got out here right at the end of last year and just to be able to be outdoors a lot with our kids? That’s what I think keeps parents sane– when you can just put ’em outside and let ’em explore! That’s just something we’ve always loved, and that’s the silver lining through all this. We’re getting to see our kids and spend a lot more time with them than we would if we were on the road a lot.
Do you think that’s gonna make it tougher when the world opens back up?
ER-I do! I do, but I also think that I’m going to be a lot more grateful on stage and playin’ town to town. I get weary of it a little bit, but I think now it’s gonna be a more grateful perspective when we get to play out again. Then again, I will miss my kids like crazy, but we have such a great family support system. Ben’s parents live about four minutes away, and my parents will watch our kids too when we’re on the road.
BR- Yeah, I’m a bit more of a road dog than Em is. My heels have been burnin’ since all of our tour dates were canceled. I think she’s enjoyed it a little bit more bein’ home and just nesting and gettin’ this new place settled and spendin’ time with the kids. But yeah, it will be an eye-opener for us, like Emily said, when we get to go back out there. Those shows where maybe only 50 people show up or somethin’, we’ll be damn thankful for every one of ’em (laugh)!
With Lay Your Head Down, you and Emily composed, I believe, all of the songs featured on that record. Dandelion has a variety of co-writing. How has that dynamic evolved for you– the collaborative aspect of songwriting?
BR- To go back to your very first question, when we put Lay Your Head Down out, we had signed with our label and I had signed my first publishing deal, which was a big accomplishment for me, something that I’ve been trying to do in this town for years. When that came to fruition about three and a half years ago, we pretty much wrote just together or I would write a lot by myself. That opened up my eyes to the world of co-writing and it’s been a lot of fun. We still write a lot, just the two of us or just by myself, but man, there can be strength in numbers. Now, I don’t like gettin’ into some typical Music Row stuff where there’s seven people in a room– that’s too many cooks in the kitchen! But a lot of times, I’ve found that just having another person there helpin’ you flesh out an idea, they can really bring somethin’ to the table that you’re able to create somethin’ that wouldn’t have been without ’em.
ER- I would say when you write the same way for so many years and then you open yourself up to writing with more people– everyone writes songs differently– I think it’s really cool to see how different people approach writing songs. Even if you [co-write] a song one day, it can inspire another song that you go home and later write because you didn’t think, “Oh, I could’ve done that!” I feel like you can broaden your scope a little bit if you see other people’s perspectives.
BR- And I don’t think Dandelion would have seen the growth from a songwriting standpoint or sonic standpoint had we not opened up to that. Honestly, I started writing with Paul Moak, our producer, two years before we recorded the album. So just that relationship. You still do a lot of those blind co-writes, but you find your people– the people that understand you creatively. Paul was that for us and that became evident pretty early on. That’s why we ultimately decided to go with him to record the [album].
How did you get hooked up with him to go and make Dandelion?
BR- Our old publisher, a guy named Eric Hurt, had known Paul and just set up a blind co-write.
ER- Blind date!
BR- (Laughs) Yeah, a blind date! It’s like speed dating at times! Funny story, the first day, Emily and I were super excited to write with Paul just ’cause we knew his repertoire and were fans of him already before we met him. We actually showed up at the Smoakstack, at his studio, and the guys there were like, “Who are you? And what are you doing here?” We were like, “Hey! We’re here to write with Paul!” We were so excited, and Paul comes out like three or four minutes later and he’s like, “Hey guys, I’m really embarrassed, but this wasn’t on my calendar, so I’m going to have to reschedule.”
Wow, I know just how he feels (laughs)!
BR- (Laughs) Exactly, yeah! But that ends up just being a really funny story and a really funny way to kick off our relationship!
When you are co-writing or writing by yourself, are you conscious of what Emily would do vocally or what she would add to it? Or are you automatically writing songs that you want to hear her sing?
BR- I would say before I started co-writing, I didn’t put a lot of thought into that. But as we started kind of dreaming and gettin’ the vision together of this next album, we knew we wanted Emily to step more out front like she had been earlier on in our career. Lay Your Head Down, I handled most of the vocal duties. We knew that we wanted to showcase her voice and her talent, so yes. There’s a song in particular, “See You When I See You”, that was the first song we released from Dandelion. I wrote that with Paul, [but] went in there that day kinda speakin’ from her perspective. I knew what was goin’ on in her heart and in this particular relationship with a person and sat down and wrote it from her perspective and also with her voice in mind.
ER- The fact that we’re married and we spend a lot, a lot of time together, we work together, we raise children together… We’re pretty open, and I think sometimes Ben even goes in subconsciously with what’s on my mind. It comes out because we are together so much. So even if I can’t be there, I still feel like there is a part of me there.
Let’s talk about the aspect of having kids. I think that there has been a myth for many, many years that you couldn’t do both, that you couldn’t be an artist and have a family. Or that it could possibly be destructive. I think in the 21st Century, that’s shown to not be true. How have you two found the balance there?
BR- I think for years– before we even got married– we knew that we wanted a family and wanted kids. And you’re right. We fought that myth for a long time. All of our friends back home, they were havin’ babies and stuff and they were like, “When are you guys gonna have kids?” It’s like, “Well, it’s really tough tryin’ to establish yourself and havin’ to be out on the road all the time.” And then it happened!
ER- Yeah, I was nervous! I was nervous and excited all at once ’cause we had just signed our label deal. I remember being pregnant with Lily…
BR- Our second.
ER- And I was kinda nervous about telling ’em, you know? But you’re right! I feel like this industry is finally like, “You’re meant to have a family. You’re meant to have children.” And that’s what our label did say to me. They were like, “We are so excited, beyond excited for y’all!” It is hard to balance it all, but again, like I said earlier, we have such a strong support system within the family. And even when Wilder was first born, he had been to 14-some odd states before he even turned one! So we were doing it as a family unit! We still do it at times. It depends on the length of the tour, but it’s a great way for them to see a lot of things that we get to see together.
BR- And who knows what they’ll end up doing with their lives, but I think at some point we just sort of bit the bullet a little and were like, “You know? This is gonna ultimately, hopefully, inspire them– seeing their parents chase after a dream for so long and not give up.” I would like to think that would inspire them in their future endeavors, whatever they choose to do.
Ben, you’ve even said that being a father, you feel, has made you a better songwriter.
BR- Oh, absolutely, man! I don’t know when it hits you. Even when they’re born, I don’t know when it quite hits you, but I do know that for me, I just felt like my heart grew a couple of sizes– like the Grinch, you know (laughs)? It gave me more empathy.
ER- You almost get to live your life again through their eyes. I feel like it’s almost that perspective. You get to witness and it’s inspiring and it reminds you of the innocence and beauty of life when they’re first seein’ something they’ve never seen before.
BR- Yeah. And I think in our songwriting, we like to lean on that sort of nostalgia, that attempting to return to innocence and our childhoods. So having kids of your own, what better case study?
It really is! I always say that it makes me thankful for every mistake I ever made to have gotten to that point.
BR- Absolutely! For sure. It gives you more grace for not only others but for yourself.
I don’t know how many times I thumbed through the liner notes before I discovered the dandelion theme on every single space image. How did the Apollo 12 moon landing become a part of the album’s theme? And tell me more about incorporating the dandelion into it.
BR- The whole dandelion theme itself, we were talking one night, Emily just brought up the name– the dandelion. Started talkin’ about its qualities, it’s perseverance, it’s endurance to survive as a lowly weed as people think of it. You see ’em everywhere and then we were like, “Man, that’s kinda like humanity. It’s kinda like people!” It’s people that are pushed to the margins of society, that have to fight extra hard, whether that’d be minorities or people of color or whatever that is. Immigrants.
We wrote the song during the immigration crisis and once we had that vision and the theme of the album, we knew the album was going to be called Dandelion. We had plans for the album, all the artwork just to be like a dandelion growin’ in a parkin’ lot or somethin’. And we were like, “Man, that’s too on the nose.” Emily was like, “What’s the harshest environment for a plant or even a human to survive in?” We were like, “Shit! Outer space!” We were like, “That’s maybe a little off the cuff for an Americana band, but what the hell, why not?” We just took it and ran with it. NASA had released and made public domain a bunch of pictures and videos from all the Apollo missions and stuff. So we went down that rabbit trail hard! We found the perfect picture, the cover art, and that’s astronaut Alan Bean there on Apollo 12. Once we found that picture, we started researchin’ specifically Apollo 12.
That was the second moon landing. This is our second album on Black River, our label. Apollo 12? We had 12 songs on the album. They also landed November 19th, 1969, and we went into the studio November 18th, 2019– so 50 years to the day more or less! I could ramble on and on, but we really geeked out on the artwork. I could say this is the first time in our career that we really took the artworks just as serious as the music in painting a picture just as you do sonically, but with the artwork tyin’ into that. We put dandelions on the rocket going off, we put dandelion patches on astronaut’s arms… It’s sort of an alternate reality if you will, the dandelion being a symbol of hope.
I didn’t see this on your website– do you have dandelion patches?
BR- Not yet, but we are getting ’em! We’ve curtailed some of our merch inventory with the rollout of the new album just ’cause we’re not on the road and don’t want to have a bunch of inventory, but yeah. When we hit the road again, you bet your ass, there will be a dandelion patch!
What is the next chapter for Carolina Story? You’ve mentioned that you purposely made an album that you would need to have a band for, but I would think that as places begin to slowly reopen and socially distanced concerts are beginning to appear that the duo would be the safe way to get back out and perform. Do you plan to try to get out? Do you plan to do more recording? Or are you able to just wait out the pandemic and build your publishing?
ER- We’ve been doin’ a lot of livestreams during the pandemic and it’s just been the two of us for the most part. We obviously wish it could be full band, but I know if it’s safe and places are opening back up that we would love to start goin’ out and playin’ live shows for sure. But I also know we’re really excited! We’ve been workin’ on a lot of new music– and so we’re ready for another album!
BR- Yeah, we’ve already stockpiled enough material that we’re ready to get back in the studio. Who knows when that’ll be, but I would imagine it would be sooner than later, especially with not being able to tour. Why not release more music?
I feel like that’s been the predominant philosophy for a lot of people. On the other spectrum of that, there’s been a great deal of people not feeling their creativity. I’ve spoken to numerous songwriters and artists and they’re like, “Man, I just can’t do it. I gotta get away from this. I got to get far enough past it before I can even think and wrap my mind around it.”
BR- That’s only been recently for us, in the last maybe three months, that we slowly got back into writing. March, April, May of the pandemic? You know, quarantine? We were completely shocked creatively! I couldn’t write a sentence! I started to worry a little but then it slowly started to come. So that’s our plan– to get back into the studio as quick as possible.
Will you go back with Paul?
ER- I think we found someone!
BR-Yeah, we’ve found our guy! Isbell’s got Cobb, and throughout history, you see that with bands or artists finding that person that understands them creatively and personally and can take it to the next level and be an extension of their own mind.