Caroline Spence

Wednesday, May 01, 2024
Doors: 6pm | Show: 8pm
$17

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The fourth album from Caroline Spence, True North opens on a track named for the late poet Mary Oliver, its lyrics embedded with an emphatic statement of intent: “I donʼt wanna put my pain on a pedestal/Wrap it up and sell it to you at the record store/I know we all feel the same; Iʼm just a little louder.” Over the course of 12 resplendent tracks, the Nashville-based artist makes good on that refusal to exalt or commodify her own experience, and instead reaches for a far more magnanimous exploration of grief, growth, and the endless complexities of human nature. The result is a body of work that affirms Spence as a truly incomparable songwriter, reinforcing her profound capacity to pack so much insight into songs that illuminate and mesmerize.

The follow-up to 2019ʼs critically acclaimed Mint Condition—hailed by Rolling Stone as a “gorgeous reflection on finding peace amid upheaval”—True North took shape from a resolutely collaborative and experimental process between Spence and producer Jordan Lehning. “For this album I wanted to have a genre-less experience—I was hearing the songs in a way that felt more colorful and cinematic than the usual treatment of live band tracking with Americana instrumentation, so I wanted to work in a way where we werenʼt trapped by that,” she says. “There was a lot of play involved, a lot of painting all over the songs and adding new layers, and I loved the freedom of not knowing what weʼd end up with.” Made during the pandemic with a skeleton crew of musicians, True North also mines inspiration from the alt-rock records that Spence first became fascinated with as a kid in Charlottesville, VA. “In 2020 I did a nostalgic deep dive and listened to a lot of Nada Surf, Aimee Mann, Oasis—all the teenage-mixtape all-stars—and that side of my influences definitely came up as we were recording,” she notes.

A glorious showcase for her warmly nuanced voice, True North emerged as Spence finally had the chance to process the loss of loved ones, with canceled tours and lockdown allowing for a rare period of prolonged contemplation. “Iʼd written these songs towards the end of the cycle of grief and then had to record them less than two months into a new cycle of it, which sometimes felt like a punch to the gut,” she says. “It was like Iʼd written a self-help book for hard times, and now I was being forced to read it myself and take my own advice at a moment when I just wanted to shut down again.” But in spite of all the pain and frustration, Spence soon arrived at a renewed perspective on the ineffable sorrow that led to True Northʼs creation. “This is an album of deep love: love for our time on this earth, love for the people that pass through your life, love for yourself exactly as you are, love for unanswered questions, love for searching and yearning and feeling,” she says. “Itʼs also an album of grief, which itself is a form of love. Thatʼs what I want to remind people—that thereʼs always room for love, in all its imperfect and impossible forms.”

In keeping with the spirit of that revelation, True Northencompasses an entire spectrum of highly specific emotional states. Graced with tremulous synth tones and tender piano work, “Clean Getaway” extols the wild and bracing catharsis of true self-acceptance. “That song came from this time when we all had to sit with ourselves and really process the moments of growth in our lives—itʼs an anthem for finally dealing with your shit,” says Spence. The heavy-hearted yet sublimely lilting “Scale These Walls” speaks to the struggle in embracing total vulnerability, while “I Know You Know Me” unfolds as a lavishly orchestrated love song of extraordinary depth (“Itʼs about processing what it feels like to really know somebody, both the good and bad—to brutally know somebody, and beautifully know somebody,” says Spence, who previously released a version of “I Know You Know Me” featuring The Nationalʼs Matt Berninger). And on True Northʼs title track, Spence presents a brightly textured but rootsy benediction inspired by her ongoing group text with fellow artists Kelsey Waldon, Erin Rae, and Michaela Anne. “That group text was my life force in getting through the last year,” says Spence. “At some point Kelsey used the phrase ʻtrue northʼ in reference to staying on your path, and I held onto that. I wrote this song just days after John Prine had passed, so I kept his beautifully simple style in my head while singing to these girls and telling them all, ʻKeep going; youʼre such a light.ʼ”

Often tapping into a stream-of-consciousness approach to songwriting, Spence sketched much of True North in the intense solitude of quarantine. A distinctly literary writer, she threaded many of the albumʼs songs with references to beloved books and poems. True North both begins and ends in tribute to Mary Oliver, with a song of her namesake starting the record and the last track referencing her poem “The Summer Day.” Additionally “I Forget the Rest'' arose from a ubiquitous misquote of Walt Whitmanʼs “Once I Passʼd Through a Populous City,” “Icarus” uses the greek myth to analogize Spenceʼs own searching, and “Thereʼs Always Room” alludes to Pema Chödrönʼs When Things Fall Apart as well. “I was reading so much last year, trying to make sense of everything that was happening, and that reading was definitely fertile ground for songs,” Spence says.

Elsewhere on True North, Spence shares a number of songs written with luminaries like longtime Sheryl Crow co-writer Jeff Trott (“Icarus”) and Lori McKenna (“The Next Good Time,” a track based on a phrase that Spenceʼs late grandmother claimed as her life motto: “Grit your teeth, get through it, and wait for the next good time”). Co-written with Matthew Koziol, “The Gift” delivers a delicate meditation on the passing of time, woven with lyrics both sweetly wistful and fantastically blunt (e.g., “Time isnʼt always what you thought/But youʼre gonna leave this place with it written on your face”). Like several songs on True North, “The Gift” centers on an emotionally raw vocal performance from Spence. “ʻThe Giftʼ brought me to tears in the vocal booth because I was really feeling how precious time was, and how much I wish I had more time for this person we had just lost,” she says. “There were no emotional breaks in performing these songs: every performance felt like having to look at myself in the mirror in a new way. I came home from the studio each day totally emotionally exhausted, but also excited and relieved.”

With its unfettered expression of pain and loss and longing and joy, True North ultimately achieves a level of openness that Spence views as a charmed responsibility—the very sense of unshakable purpose encapsulated in the albumʼs title. “Iʼm constantly realizing that my job is to get myself to that place where Iʼm able to put words to the things that sometimes feel impossible to talk about,” she says. “So even though this album is a little microcosm of my own experience, I know that other people will find themselves in these stories. For me, songwriting isnʼt about being cool or even wise, itʼs about—as Mary Oliver says—ʻpaying attention, being astonished, and telling about it.ʼ I donʼt think I have the answers whatsoever, but I do think that my job is to look for them so that you donʼt have to feel so overwhelmed by the questions.”