Caroline Spence Interview: 'Mint Condition,' Songwriting - Rolling Stone
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Caroline Spence Is Finally Writing the Kinds of Country Songs She Loves

How the singer used her “English major brain” to break through in Nashville

Caroline SpenceCaroline Spence

Caroline Spence discusses how she used her "English major brain" to crack the code of country songwriting.

Molly Matalon

After moving to Nashville from Ohio in 2011, Caroline Spence nannied, waited tables and wrote songs. It took her two years to come up with one she felt was good enough to play around town: “Whiskey Watered Down,” a gently savage kiss-off to a flaky musician. “You think you’re a big deal with that guitar in your hands,” she sings. “But you’ll never be Parsons, Earle, or Van Zandt.”

“I had been making myself a student [of those famous musicians],” the 29-year-old country singer says of her songwriting process. “The tagline of the verse is the same as the tagline of the chorus, and every time it lands, it means something different.” In the first verse, the song’s title refers the sub-par tunes of a wannabe singer-songwriter; by the second verse, it describes what it’s like to try to love such a person. Spence says, “It was the first time I wrote the type of song that I love.”

Spence first started thinking about becoming a songwriter as a teenager in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she grew up in a family of piano players and audio engineers. Loving music was simply part of the family routine. “Everyone could kind of play, so it didn’t feel super special,” she says. “It just felt like a thing I did.”

As a teenager, Spence idolized singer-songwriters like Patti Griffin and Lori McKenna, whose songs often would up getting recorded by others. When she first heard Faith Hill sing one of McKenna’s songs on the radio, she had a realization: “’I want to do that.’ I just didn’t know that was a job you could have.”

 But the singer’s plan to remain in fully the background hasn’t quite panned out. After two self-released albums, she recently signed to Rounder, which put out her third LP, Mint Condition, a gorgeous reflection on finding peace amid upheaval and confusion. “I don’t think I considered being an artist,” Spence says. “[There was just] a need for someone to be singing my songs. And [that person] was me.”

The album establishes Spence as a writer somewhere between Kathleen Edwards and Guy Clark in her deft chronicles of interpersonal complexity. She relies on the Nashville tradition of rigorous songcraft and is obsessive about songwriting on both a literary and formal level: how words work in relation to one another, how removing a word like “when” can change the entire meter of a verse, how a protagonist in one song on her album seems to respond to a narrator on another. When she was writing “Sometimes a Woman Is an Island,” Spence flicked on “English major brain” and created a line that unlocked the entire meaning of the song: “Sometimes a woman is a bell.”

Spence’s craft has even impressed Emmylou Harris, who appears on Mint Condition’s poignant title track. Spence wrote the song back in 2013 from the perspective of her grandparents, with Harris’ iconic voice in mind.

Spence has also had to grow comfortable with the inherent beauty of her own singing. “I would love to be able to rock a little bit, but there’s no denying the tenderness and softness of my voice,” she says. “I just have to be like, ‘Yeah, OK, I’ve got a sweet voice.’”

Spence’s potent, unflashy sound feels like part of a movement, also exemplified by Kelsey Waldon, Erin Rae, and Michaela Anne, fellow rising singer-songwriters who share her mission of stripping country and folk music back to its core elements. “People always ask, ‘is it hard to do this?’” says Spence. “And I mean, everything’s hard. But because it’s so hard to make a living, seeing anybody rise up always feels like a victory. That’s the greatest joy of living here.”


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