Roberta Lea A Spirit on the Move—“I’m Telling This Story About Exactly Who I Am”

Like most great artists, music has been a part of Roberta Lea’s identity for as long as she can remember. “I believe it was always a desire,” Lea tells American Songwriter about being a professional artist. “It wasn’t necessarily a conscious awareness that I wanted to be a full-time artist. It was a subconscious experience that I kept having over and over again.” 

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Growing up in Virginia, Lea was always drawn to music, whether constantly playing the piano or writing a new tune. She crafted her first song at the age of eight. Places like church created an environment for her to express her creative talent. As a member of the church band, which would perform concerts every Saturday, songwriting became a necessity for Lea. 

“There was this big emphasis on original music,” Lea says about how performing in the church shaped her ability as a songwriter. “That was the time period when I started to clearly identify as a songwriter. Places like school, and church gave me opportunities to really foster my musical creativity. That’s where I really had a chance to have that freedom to figure out who I am.” 

Despite her passion for music, Lea didn’t have direct examples in her life of what being a full-time artist looked like, which sent her down the “beaten path,” as she calls it. Lea went to college and studied foreign language, where she was encouraged by one of her professors to pursue teaching. After graduating, she traveled the world honing her Spanish-speaking skills until one day she returned home and paid a fateful visit to her elementary school, which led to a job teaching Spanish at her local high school. All the while, music was still a part of herself that she couldn’t ignore, the aspiring singer juggling open mic nights with her full-time teaching career. 

“Music was like an itch I always had to scratch, so even as a teacher, I found myself still doing music in some capacity,” she says. “I was always curious as to what a career doing music full time could look like. You can tell that your spirit is ready to make a move, but I knew I had to wait for the right time.” 

Lea knew it was time to make that move during the COVID-19 pandemic when she started feeling “disconnected” from teaching. She quit in June 2021 after six years in the classroom to focus on music. Her life soon changed when she left a comment on a tweet by Apple Music’s Color Me Countryhost Rissi Palmer. 

“The conversation was taking place about Black representation in country music, and I commented under Rissi Palmer’s post about my fear of going to Nashville and being received reluctantly,” Lea explains. “The system can be performative, and say, ‘Y’all made enough noise, so come on, but I’m not glad you’re here.’ That’s what I was afraid of. I don’t want to subscribe to a system that’s not going to appreciate me being there.” 

Lea’s comment prompted a response from Holly G, founder of the Black Opry, an organization that works to create equity for artists of color in country and Americana music, the two sparking a friendship. It also led Lea to one of Palmer’s Color Me Country grants, which she used to record and release some of her songs. In September 2021, Lea performed her first show with the Black Opry and recorded an EP, and was named to CMT’s Next Women of Country Class of 2023. All roads led to her debut album, Too Much of a Woman, which was released in September 2023. 

“I would definitely say that [what] would define who I am as a songwriter is communicating,” Lea says. “I’m trying to communicate my honest, human experience.” She accomplishes this goal with songs that sometimes oppose one another. There’s “Small Town Boy,” which tells the story of meeting her husband in Cambodia, while “Midnight Matinee” focuses on how her intuition has helped her make crucial decisions. Then there’s the title track, which casts Lea as a fearless, confident woman who is not afraid to own her power. On the other end of the spectrum is the vulnerable ballad, “So Much More.” 

“I have this aura about me, where I can be a boss and I can hold my own, but at the same time, I can admit when I am vulnerable and when I do need your help,” Lea observes. “That is the essence of the whole album. That’s what it means to be too much of a woman—is that I can be both. I can be strong, and I can be weak, and you should respect me either way.” 

Lea’s ability to communicate the delicate details of life is part of what makes her a compelling artist and storyteller. “All the songs are truly about introducing Roberta Lea,” she proclaims. “I’m telling this story about exactly who I am.”

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