Being a Knoxville native like Kelsea Ballerini, how well do the lyrics capture the town in her new song “Half of My Hometown”?
I live about an hour south of Knoxville, but I have spent a lot of time there, and I love it. Knoxville, as a community, is all about acceptance and love. I think Kelsea’s song is relevant to anyone’s hometown. There’s that divide between people who stay and those who leave. Her lyrics “Backroads raise us / Highways, they take us / Memories make us want to go back” are so true! That part tugs at me; I love home.
And of course, every artist wants their home community to be proud!
Did you have a concept in mind when you chose the songs for your new album “Family Wars”?
I didn’t have a specific concept in mind, at first. I just had this mix of songs I had been writing and, like a puzzle, I pulled the pieces that fit. Unfortunately, I had to leave so many songs out. It was hard to narrow it down, but I am happy with what songs made it onto the album.
Can you share the backstories to the songs on the album?
“Jonas Black” is about mass violence in America. It was born from the first verse — “I am the mother of Jonas Black.” Mom and I wrote it one night, and it just ran through our heads for weeks, but we couldn’t figure out where to go with it. Later, I met up in Nashville with our co-writer, Fish Fisher, and pitched it to him. Within a few minutes together, we developed the characters and story. It took us about three hours to finish. I threw in the falsetto and we were all like, “Well, that’s different! (LOL) It stuck!”
“There’s Got To Be More” started with a little piece of a song Mom had, and then I added to it. Later, we had a co-write with Jim Lauderdale scheduled, and he helped shape the song even more. it was our first write together. I love the influence and lyrics Jim brought to this. It’s a combination of what can happen if we make time to be together in a moment and just listen to each other.
“Family Wars” is about a troubled family that’s dealing with addiction, depression and other problems that a lot of families go through. No, the line, “Grandma’s on the dope again” isn’t about my grandma! I’m an eavesdropper. I get ideas from what I hear other people talking about. This song is a combination of stories I’ve heard in different places.
“Politicians Dance” is about political corruption, but that’s not how it began. Mom and I wrote it in a hotel in Nashville, as she was making fun of how I say some words. My accent has changed due to travel. I say words differently now, because I’m exposed to such an eclectic mix of people. It’s like I have five accents competing! For some reason, Mom said the first line of the song — “The Devil is an Englishman” (because “hand,” “man,” and “grand” are some words I pronounce oddly). I replied, “He wears bowties and hipster pants,” and we sat right down and wrote the rest of the song.
“Meanwhile in America” is about freedom in America and the problems in other parts of the world that cause so many people to want to come to this country. I wrote it with Mom, Kyle Jacobs and Vicky Mcgehee. It took us two days to finish because the message was so important and we wanted to make sure we were choosing the rights words. Kyle works with the USO and his heart is so pure and kind. It just drifted out between us. I am very proud of this song.
“Oh, Caroline” is about a young woman having a conversation with her brother’s ghost. For a long time, I had wanted to write a song as a duet with my brother, John. I told Mom about a ghost story I had in mind, so we wrote it and sent it to John, and he came back with some changes. It turned out to be a very haunting ballad. When we perform it live, we usually do it real slow, but in the studio, my producer Tony Brown suggested a faster tempo for the album, and it turned out to be perfect!
“Same Boat” is about people getting along with each other. I wrote it with Autumn McEntire. We started talking about the TV series “Game of Thrones,” which I still have not seen, but Autumn had, and how the ships and water are reflective of today’s atmosphere — how we are all in this together. Little did I know how appropriate it would be, in this time of COVID-19.
“Crimson Moon” is about personal independence, and not having to always be in a relationship, but it was inspired by a great music venue in Dahlonega, Georgia called The Crimson Moon. A fan wanted me to write about the original “little dive bar in Dahlonega” because I love it there so much. When I play there it’s like an anchor to the reason I do this music thing. I didn’t want to just write about the venue itself, but more about what I feel about it!
“Scarecrow” started out as just an idea about a scarecrow standing watch in the window of a house, but it evolved into a dark story about domestic violence and retribution. I wrote it with Fish Fisher and my Mom. We come up with the craziest ideas!
“The Ghost of Hank Williams” is about what the title says. It’s my attempt to describe how I feel like my heroes are on stage standing behind me, especially when I performed on the Grand Ole Opry. That circle is magical. I wrote this song with Mom and a dear friend of ours named Betsi McGrath.
You co-produced the album with Tony Brown. What was the best advice he gave you?
The best advice that Tony gave me is “Listen to yourself but take advice from those who understand your vision and do not compromise on what you want to hear.”
The album addresses many very difficult and intense situations. The world is close to spinning off its axis with the coronavirus pandemic. With everyone needing to respect social distance and staying home, how can people stay connected to help deal with the overwhelming emotions we are all feeling?
I think social media is so important. Taken with a grain of salt and in moderation, it provides a sounding board for all of us to get our ideas, music, art and beliefs validated or even altered sometimes. It can be a window to a very big bright world. A lot of artists have stayed connected with their fans by livestreaming. I do a weekly “Quarantine Livestream” on Facebook, almost every Thursday night.
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Rolling Stone described your songwriting as “intense Appalachian folk tunes in the Carter Family tradition” when they named you as a country artist we need to know. Which Carter Family song is your favorite to cover?
That’s hard, but I think “Worried Man Blues” is my favorite. One of the recurring lines is “I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long.”
Just like the Carters, your band is made up of family. What has been the greatest challenge performing with family?
One of the challenges for me has been seeing my mama’s growing pains. She wants to keep me sheltered! My daddy and brother are adapting to the fact that I have strong opinions and a mind of my own. My Uncle Bobby is pretty much the heckler of our crew, always ready to embarrass me or involve me in mayhem! But, really, we are like any other family. We love hard and fight harder!
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You play the ukulele. What instruments do you want to learn to play?
The ukulele is my favorite instrument, and I’m proud to work with Kala Music, which makes great ukes. I also I play a guitar and auto harp and a little mandolin. I’m also learning to play the accordion!
What inspired you to write your first co-write at age five with your mom?
I had been helping her write children’s songs, but I just felt like it was time to write a real grown-up song. At first, it was so wrong. Verses didn’t match; I had two lines in one and three in another, but Mom made it work. She encouraged me and really set the tone for me to believe I could write!
Recording two albums by age seven. Can you describe what it felt like to be in studio the first time?
I was there with all these seasoned musicians. Looking back, I know they thought, “What in the world?” But my family had this beautiful belief that whatever I wanted, I could do! I loved the sound of Daddy’s studio. It hummed with this eclectic vibe that was translated to me into some kind of audible art filling up my senses.
In the same Rolling Stone article, you said, “I write about everyday stuff that happens.” Is there a topic you’ve not yet written about but hope to soon?
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You have appeared on national television and played the Grand Ole Opry. Career highlights for many artists. What else is on your bucket list?
It’s changed since the pandemic. I used to say Red Rocks, the famous amphitheater in Colorado, was at the top of my bucket list, but now it’s any stage, anywhere, anytime! I want to get back to performing in public — that’s my goal!
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When you were selected as a recipient of The ASCAP Foundation Desmond Child Anthem Award last year, you said, “Giving the kids arts programs blooms hope for a lifetime to come.” How can these same programs help kids face all the uncertainty of the difficult days ahead dealing with the coronavirus?
Art expands our world. It feeds our souls, brightens darkness and fills a void we don’t even know we have. As a people, we need music and art and poetry!
You wrote “Ninety Miles” about the challenges your childhood friend and his family face because of his autism. What was his reaction the first time he heard the song?
He said, “Mom, that’s about me! She knows how I feel!” That was all I needed! It made me feel that I had done my job as a songwriter. Since that song came out, I have received so much feedback from people who are autistic, or have a friend or family member who is autistic. This song strikes a chord with so many people, and that is a wonderful feeling!
Being starstruck can happen when we meet people we admire. From the artists you have met to date, whose stage presence has most influenced your own?
Loretta Lynn. Not only do I admire her as a singer and songwriter, but she actually sat and talked to me, and then she talked to my mama about me. She gave me advice to stay true to myself. I loved that!
Being on the road most of the past six years (300,000 miles on your tour bus), you are now doing a weekly livestream concert. You acknowledge how difficult this time is for your independent band. How can fans help support you and the band?
Thanks for asking about that! We have a Patreon account and we have merch. You can find it all at https://www.patreon.com/EmiSunshine.
Music heals. Which songs do you listen to when you are needing comfort?
Jason Isbell, almost any song he writes! He just has this way of phrasing a line that grabs your heart and it can either comfort it or tear it apart! Buddy and Julie Miller always bring me a spiritual comfort. And lately, a lot of John Prine, He had a way of making you laugh and cry at the same time. I have always listened to him, but with this pandemic and with him passing, I think it makes the fear less and the love deeper.
What message do you want your fans to take away from your music to help them as we all adjust to a new normal in our lives?
Be kind. Put someone else above yourself.