Caroline Spence’s latest album Mint Condition is a travelogue about discovery, reckoning, and the ineffable corrosion over time of alliances and liberties. “People tell you to write about what you know but a lot of time I write about what I don’t know,” wrote Spence on her website. “For me, songs are a way to ask questions and sometimes you end up figuring out the answers.” Spence’s rise to prominence in Nashville has been hard earned. And though she will be lauded in an upcoming Rolling Stone feature on rising Americana, Spence is taking nothing for granted. Epiphone.com spoke to her on the eve of another touring run in support of Mint Condition.
Thanks for speaking with Epiphone, Caroline and congrats on the Rolling Stone feature.
It’s pretty crazy. I told my Dad. He said, “You mean Rolling Stone 'Country'?” No, Dad--the actual magazine!
Did you always want to be a recording artist?
I moved to Nashville in 2011 three weeks after I graduated college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet, but I thought I’d go to a place that sounded exciting to me. And I knew Nashville would be exciting. I thought if I wanted to do music, that would be a good place to figure out if I wanted to do that. And that’s what drew me here. I was an intern at a record label for a little bit and quietly writing songs in my bedroom to figure out if I was good at it--that sort of thing.
When you think about your early days in Nashville, do you find that your process has changed? Working along side professional Nashville songwriters can sometimes sway artists away from their natural inclinations.
I think my process is pretty similar and that’s something I’m precious about. I feel like that time spent alone on the bedroom floor singing into the abyss was important. And keeping that stream of consciousness, unfiltered way-of writing is pretty important to me even though I have so many things on my mind now. I think I’m better at editing and the craft of songwriting. At that time, Guy Clark was a new discovery to me when I moved to Nashville. Everything about what he did made the craft of songwriting so apparent that I became an avid student. I think that helped me make the shift to taking music more seriously.
And all this happened passively. I played in high school and I played at little in coffee shops in college but I never took it seriously. It was a skill I had. Oh, I can ride a bike—I can sing a song
. I didn’t really think about it in a serious career way until I realized you could make a living writing songs. And wouldn’t that be fun?
Do you find that making records comes easily to you?
The way I’ve made each one of my records is that I’ve presented a giant pile of songs to my producer and asked: What did I do? Are any of these good?
I write a lot. Not as much as I’d like to these days because I’m busier. But I’m relatively prolific in that way because I like to get it all out and figure out what it means. Sometimes when you sit with those songs for a few years, they lose their meaning or gain their meaning. When you play them in your living room, you don’t know their power. Getting that fresh set of ears and having the producer be the trusted set of ears is important. And then you go into the studio and as you listen in on the headphones, you hear this song that you heard in your head come alive. I love that feeling. That happened multiple times on this album where I thought, that’s exactly how it was in my head. For me, making records is how I got excited about being an artist. It’s so fun to bring that to life. It’s stressful. There is always a moment of tension in the studio and I feel like that’s part of the process. I love it.
I’ve actually been home for the longest amount of time in two and a half years these past few months. I have toured a lot and now I feel like I’m out of shape with touring. But it’s been really nice to be home and be reminded that there is such a good community of people here. I love being able to go to people’s shows or go to lunch with artists I know. It’s been very exciting to get on the road and play these new songs.
Do you enjoy performing all of the new songs live? Some artists find that some of their favorite songs don't translate as well to the stage.
Sometimes. It’s a process. I think because I wanted to incorporate songs from the last record, I now have a little bit of a peppier set than I have ever brought on the road. There are a few more upbeat, rock and roll type of songs.
I’m not a rocker, but I am enjoying the energy of the new songs. There have been a couple that we’ll put on the chopping block every night. A few of the slower ones might be dropped because of the energy on stage or the room we’re performing in. We are playing a mix of clubs and listening rooms.
When you’re on the road with the band, you are also the bandleader.
I try to be. This is the first full-on tour that I’ve done with a band so this is a job description that I’m growing into. Personally, I don’t love being outside of the music. I like being inside of it. So to have to direct and be really critically of it--sometimes that doesn’t translate well in my spirit. I just want to be inside the song. Can’t I just play the song and never tell you what to do
(laughs)? Fortunately, I think that’s part of how I selected the people that I play music with. They are musicians that I don’t have to direct or that are already familiar with me and my music. It’s not a whole new vocabulary. Over time, the band learns to direct themselves. I’m a little bit lax. They’ll ask me: “Did you like the drum thing…?”
And I wasn’t listening. I don't know!
I’ve been fortunate in that I made my new record with the people that made my first and second records. It feels like my band. These are people that have been with me for five or six years. I think also that a lot of my music is dictated by the quality of my voice. The sweetness that I can’t help but have in my voice sets a tone. On the ballads and more spacey stuff, it’s just a warm pillow sound. I love the juxtaposition of that with some really loud gritty guitar to shake it up a bit.
When you perform, your voice becomes a vital instrument in the band.
True. For better or for worse, this is the way that I sound. Sometimes I wish I could be grittier when I hear the song in my head. Searching for the right contrast between the grit and the way that I sound is what I’m after. There’s an emotional thing that happens with that.
Are you listening to any artists you might not have discovered if you didn’t live in Nashville?
When I moved here, I felt like I walked into a songwriting master class. I would go to a party and a guitar pull would happen and I would think, “What’s that?” I would go down rabbit holes getting to know artists. I don’t know when I would have discovered Guy Clark or delve as far into Rodney Crowell’s music if I hadn’t lived here. If I was living in Virginia or Ohio, I might not have stumbled on this music.
Did your family play instruments when you were growing up?
Yeah, my Mom is a beautiful piano player and singer and went to school and studied music in college. My Aunt went to Belmont as a recording engineer. My Dad went to every concert he could get his hands on. My Mom’s father played guitar. They got a dollar for every song they learned. They all loved music. They were all music lovers.
What Epiphone are you performing with now?
I am borrowing this Epiphone that belongs to my sweetheart and it is a Casino
and it’s been so fun. I always wanted that style of instrument--the beautiful big body. There’s a depth to it. I’m still figuring out my pedals and amp situation but even in its most stripped down form there’s such a depth to it that I’m really enjoying. I’ve been doing an encore that’s just me and the Epiphone and I love how it pairs with my voice. It gives me the grit that I want to balance out my voice. There are a few songs in the set that I used to play acoustic guitar on that I switched to playing on the Casino. It gives a swampy, gritty, beautiful sound to a couple of the songs. I’m loving it.