Great vulnerability is often part and parcel of great artistry. The songs that last decades and weave themselves into the fabric of listeners’ lives are usually the ones in which an artist lays her soul bare for the world to hear. Nora Jane Struthers’ new album Champion is built on these kinds of songs.
The 13-song collection is the follow-up to 2015’s Wake, which earned Struthers acclaim from major outlets like NPR Music, Rolling Stone Country, and “Fresh Air.” Struthers wrote and recorded the album with her longtime road band the Party Line, and the chemistry between her and the other players is palpable.
Where Wake explored themes like new love and new beginnings, Champion finds Struthers documenting the trials and tribulations of adult life; decrying the increasingly intrusive nature of technology; and plainly laying out the struggles faced by a young woman grappling with infertility.
“I’m 33 and want to start a family, but when I was 18 I was diagnosed with a condition called premature ovarian failure,” she explains. “I’ve known for a long time that I’m going to have to find other ways to have kids. A lot of the songs on the album are about my personal fertility quest.”
That quest has led Struthers and her husband — musician and songwriter Joe Overton — down many new paths: trying alternative fertility methods, exploring Eastern medicine, and finding new strength in the support system of their partnership. It also led Struthers to see the other parents in her life — friends, relatives, fans — in a new light, an eye-opening experience also reflected on Champion.
Champion is, through and through, a showcase of Struthers’ voice and preternatural gift for storytelling. Coupled with a more deeply realized sense of vulnerability, that narrative tendency makes for a collection of stories that should resonate long after the last notes of the last track end.
“My songwriting style on this album is a real marriage of the narrative style songs I was writing in my early career and then the really autobiographical style of my last album,” Struthers says. “It feels like a natural progression of artistic growth that was both hard and easy at the same time, and I think you can hear that when you listen to it.”
Miss Tess got her musical start at home in Maryland, her childhood nights ending in music. Her parents would sing her to sleep with the gentle, tender sounds of American folk songs, occasionally interrupted by their 30s swing band rehearsing in the basement. Tess studied piano as a child, and continued on as a teenager to take up the guitar and singing, and eventually began her own studies in early jazz and blues. All grown up and currently living in Nashville, Miss Tess and her band regularly steal the show at venues with something a little rowdier and more eclectic. Infused with classic country and honky-tonk, southern rhythm & blues, New Orleans jazz and swing, and sounds of swamp pop and early rock n’ roll, she is an embodiment of everything that it still home-grown in America.
On her newest release Baby, We All Know, Miss Tess continues to explore her own personal crossroads of American roots music. This full-length release features eleven finely crafted and well-sung original songs. Heightened by Tess’ prowess on her Weymann archtop guitar, she is accompanied by top-notch musicians, featuring her touring guitar player ace and co-conspirator Thomas Bryan Eaton. The songs were further enlivened with piano, organ, pedal steel, and fiddle in the studio.
Tess says “I consider this my best yet collection of original music. In writing these tunes I stepped out of myself and into many different characters, based on real life and my imagination, and pulled sounds and stories from my musical fantasy land. Baby, we all know their secrets and on goings, in a world of mischief and fun.” These songs were penned at Tess’s yearly writing retreat in New Hampshire, and at her home in Nashville. Yet time and place don’t bear much relevance here; the subjects she speaks through live in the streets of New Orleans, in the backwoods hollers of Tennessee, on a train heading to Mexico, and under the sheets.