Former teacher left school behind for roots music
03/06/2014 8:28 PM
03/06/2014 8:29 PM
Teaching school in Brooklyn and touring as a musician seem like two very different worlds. But for singer-songwriter Nora Jane Struthers, her old career and her new one aren’t so different.
“The way one goes about it as a pedagogue is different than as a performer, but it’s the same idea for sure,” she says. She and her band the Party Line return to Evening Muse Saturday.
Struthers grew up singing harmony with her musician father and attending bluegrass festivals – some which she now plays. She took up guitar at 14, but she never considered music as a career. Instead, she headed to NYU to study education and became an English teacher.
“I’d always wanted to be a musician, but just like any sort of unconventional career, there’s not a set path,” she says. “How to really do it was something I didn’t understand until I started coming down South to fiddlers conventions and meeting people through those communities.” (Struthers frequented conventions in Mount Airy and Galax with her banjo- and guitar-picking father.)
“I was teaching, living in Manhattan and I realized I was working really hard. I was making decent money for someone just out of college, but I was still pretty broke. I thought, ‘Shoot, if I’m going to be working hard and still be broke, I may as well build a life to my dream,’ ” she says. “That was the beginning – to grasp this idea of leaving this life I’d built. Once it took root, fear of regret became stronger than fear of failure.”
Struthers’ career has taken off since she recorded her first solo album with acoustic music veteran Tim O’Brien and fiddler Stuart Duncan in 2010. She clocked time in the acclaimed Americana band Bearfoot and won awards at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. With her 2013 sophomore album “Carnival,” she’s attracted the attention of NPR and Americana Radio and has secured bookings at high-profile festivals like Merlefest in North Wilkesboro.
It may be physically far from the classroom, but her roots in literature shine through the well-crafted story songs on “Carnival,” which bridge bluegrass, folk and new acoustic.
“I’ve always had a great love of stories, and the power of narrative to inspire empathy is one of the things I try to utilize in my songwriting,” she says.
“Carnival” is a loose concept record told from the female perspective.
“It wasn’t conscious at first,” says Struthers, who counts Hazel Dickens and Gillian Welch as role models. “At a certain point, I gathered the body of work I’d been amassing and looked at it as a whole and realized I was writing from the female perspective. From then on, I was able to home in on the holes. I arranged the songs in chronological order by the imagined age of the narrator.”
She found while teenagers and older women were well represented, she was missing a key age group – her own.
“I didn’t have any from age 25 to 50,” says Struthers, who is pushing 30. “I was missing that whole swath of experiences. I had to write some songs that reach that age bracket.”
The heaviest of those tells the parallel stories of a slave owner’s neglected wife and his favorite slave. She was conscious of not making every song so tragic, though.
“I don’t enjoy getting a record where every song is of a similar mood or even instrumentation,” she says. “Having diversity among the feel of the songs and the subject matter is important to keep it fresh.”
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