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Origin Stories, Songwriting, And Kentucky: An Interview With Kelsey Waldon

On November 12, 2019

If you're curious about the future of songwriting, look no further than Kelsey Waldon. The Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky-bred artist crafts country music grounded in traditional arrangements and thoughtful, introspective lyricism. She also counts none other than John Prine as a fan and has collaborated with the iconic songwriter on the live stage and in the studio.

In early October, Waldon released White Noise / White Lines, her third studio album and her first as a signee to Prine's independent Oh Boy Records label. Waldon's signing to Oh Boy in July of this year made her the first new artist to join the label in 15 years. This new album, as Waldon herself admits, is her most vulnerable work to date, a feat she attributes to her desire to tell her own story as truly as possible.

White Noise / White Lines isn't strictly autobiographical, but it does give us a deeper look into who Waldon is as both an artist and a person. Standout track “Kentucky, 1988” is her take on a “Coal Miner's Daughter”-esque origin story, complete with evocative details like "sun blisters on your skin / an arrowhead in the dirt." The swampy, strutting "Sunday's Children" is a rallying cry against discrimination wrought by organized religion and opens with the powerful lyric "Sunday's children are being lied to / Has anybody told you?" And the start-to-finish album experience is made richer by Waldon's thoughtful use of found audio interludes, like family voicemails and field recordings.

Vinyl Me, Please caught up with Waldon while she was in Indianapolis getting ready to perform at LO-FI Lounge to chat White Noise / White Lines, how R&B shaped her concept of constructing an album, and how it feels to connect with fans out on the road.

VMP: The last time we spoke, you hadn't released White Noise / White Lines yet. How has it felt to share this music with listeners?

Kelsey Waldon: It's been really great. I don't know if I'm totally seeing all of the things that are happening. When I get back on October 27th, I'll have been on tour for a month. I was already on tour for a week when the record dropped. Oh Boy had to re-order another order of vinyl and we ran out of vinyl on the road, which is really nice. The reaction from people just at the merch people and at the shows... We've had some change and growth in listeners in the last few years and it's been awesome hearing people say, "I've been listening to this for the last three weeks." But it's only been a month. This album's got legs.

As far as the tour you've been on, what has your experience of incorporating the new material into your set been like?

We've been trying to incorporate some even newer stuff into the set, as well. Stuff that isn't even on records. And some of the stuff we've been playing for quite a while. But stuff like "Sunday's Children" and "My Epitaph" wasn't in the set yet, so that's gotten a lot of response. We're always greasing that wheel and making it a well-oiled machine.

Have you noticed a particular song or two that people really seem to resonate with, or is it too early to tell?

On social media and stuff I keep seeing people talk about "Kentucky, 1988," which is kind of cool. I don't know if we realized that that one would be one that stuck so hard with people. But live, "Sunday's Children" gets a lot of response... Everyone kind of has a different favorite. I love when those unexpected ones, songs that aren't even singles, become people's favorites.

You mentioned "Kentucky, 1988" earlier and that's one of my favorites. I love that you included kind of an origin story on the album. How did you write it?

I say this a lot, but I felt like I didn't have a song that was an origin story. I didn't have that song that felt like it was from the beginning. There might have been questions about who Kelsey Waldon is. Obviously, who I am comes out in all of my recordings, even before this album, but I feel like there hadn't been a definitive song. It's my "Coal Miner's Daughter," in a way. I started with that idea and got the title inspiration — 1988 was the year I was born — from this Larry Sparks song called "Tennessee 1949." I started with that and went with it. I literally wrote it in maybe 20 minutes or something. Everyone loves when that happens. It doesn't happen all the time. But every songwriter loves when that inspiration just pours out like that. But I had to keep going back and fixing it. But the meat and taters, I had it all there.

I love the way the album really does feel like we're getting to know you and getting to know the place you come from. What kind of reaction have you gotten from family or from folks from your hometown? I imagine they were excited to hear some of their own stories played back to them.

I'm not sure. Everybody from back home is super proud. Anything like that, with my family, they're super used to that at this point. If anything gets written that involves them or someone around me — I used to say you have to be careful if you know me, because I might write a song about you. I'm a songwriter and I grab inspiration from everywhere. Sometimes that involves telling other people's stories as well as my own. I think being vulnerable about it and telling the truth and being honest, that's what makes it good.

It's also really interesting the way you were able to incorporate some of the interludes and audio snippets between songs on the album. What do you think that adds to the album as a whole?

I'd wanted to do that for a long, long time. I was inspired by some of my favorite R&B records, which include a lot of interludes. And I've heard some people do it in country music. But I wanted the record to feel like an experience and I wanted the interludes I used to be impactful. You can't just have them there to have them there. They have to be there for a reason and they have to happen at the exact right time in the record. I wanted to set certain songs up and I wanted it to feel very personal.

You also mentioned "Sunday's Children" earlier, which seems to be a track that a lot of people have really connected with. What inspired you to write it?

It's funny. I don't read reviews — it's not because I'm not thankful but it really distracts me. That being said, someone clearly did not like the song "Sunday's Children," which is totally fine, although I think he kind of missed the point of the whole thing. That tune is about preaching love. The song is not an attack on religion. It's certainly not an attack on Christianity whatsoever. It can be scary sometimes when we have certain beliefs that lead us to become so self-righteous in our attitude that we are so judgmental of other people. I've grown up in the church and seen a lot of people be made to feel really terrible for who they were, particularly being gay or lesbian. That's not what I believe. I believe in equality. I really hope the song can challenge some of us to open our hearts and minds and use our third eye. I think there are imaginary lines that get set up with our beliefs and they cause us to be afraid of people who may not be just like us. Ultimately, [the song] is a message of love... The people that it's resonated with, that's meant more to me than anything. It makes me feel like I did the right thing.

Yeah, it seems like being able to start a dialogue or, better yet, open minds is the mark of a truly great song.

Yeah, most of the songs I love are either loved or hated. I feel like most of the great artists are probably loved or hated. I think any artist still has to stay true to themself. People aren't going to agree with anything. People could dislike you for any reason, so it doesn't really matter. I think you have to do what inspires you. As long as you're proud of it and you're happy that's all that matters.

It seems like you and the folks at Oh Boy are really kindred spirits. What has it opened up for you creatively to have them behind you?

My whole team is incredible. All of them have been so empowering to me, including my road team. But Oh Boy, they've given me unwavering support. They back me and believe in me no matter what happens. And that's what you want. You can't ask for anything better than that or better than people you trust, especially in the music business. They've certainly helped give this album wings and helped give me wings. They've helped elevate it. And I think that's exactly what it needed. We're just getting started together and it's exciting to think of what we'll accomplish.

Profile Picture of Brittney McKenna
Brittney McKenna

Brittney McKenna is a writer living in Nashville. She contributes regularly to many outlets, including NPR Music, Apple Music and Nashville Scene.

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