In those moments after everything seems like it has fallen apart, that’s when magic sometimes happens. In 2014, everything came undone for Sarah Jane Nelson. After 12 years of marriage, two children, and a new life in Nashville, the artist found herself filing for divorce. As she began to process her new life as a single, working mother, the words slowly pieced together for her new album I’m Not Broken, an unraveling of stories of a life upended, acceptance, and renewal.
“Eventually, I found my way to a place of confidence, balance, and inner peace,” Nelson tells American Songwriter. “The components of my healing process were songwriting, connecting to my gratitude and spirituality, hiking in nature, and also therapy—lots of therapy. Releasing this record and looking back at how far I’ve come is a truly amazing feeling.”
Written during a rough patch after the divorce, the album’s title track came as Nelson shared her song, through her tears, with co-writer Kenny Foster. “My goal with that song was to express the deep struggles I was facing but show my fight and determination to find my way to a better life,” she says. “When I first wrote the song, I couldn’t sing it without bawling. Now, after creating a new life I truly love, I sing the song and know that it’s true. I’m not broken, I’m not done.”
Visually, Nelson also wanted to illustrate the heartache of “I’m Not Broken,” in the video, which she directed with the help of cinematographer Jeremy Burchard, through dance. A former professional dancer, Nelson originally hired a dancer but decided to take it on herself, which helped her tap deeper into the vulnerableness of the song. “I was nervous to be so vulnerable for the video shoot but I’m so glad I was brave,” says Nelson. “This whole record was brave for me. It’s not about wallowing in sadness. It’s about experiencing and processing the sadness and getting out the other side.”
This year, alone, has given the song new meaning for Nelson, particularly the line The cracks just let the light come in, which resonates most with her, especially at a time of uncertainty in the country with COVID-19 and the recent protests. “Through hard times, we get the opportunity to recreate systems that have been in place for too long and are not working,” says Nelson. “Our society has faced so many ‘cracks’ in 2020, but I do hope the light can shine in and things can be better off than they were before. “
I’m Not Broken came together from different pieces. For the Louisiana native, writing happens somewhat haphazardly. When co-writing, Nelson brings in a concept she’s had for some time to the table, and the one that resonates most gets fleshed out. If she’s writing something on her own, the lyrics often flow out in one sitting. I’m Not Broken’s emotive ballad “I Only Cry at Night” was one of “solo” tracks.
“I wrote that one at night when I was feeling a rush of emotion,” says Nelson. “I realized that although I was good at being strong all day and getting things done that need to be done, I needed time to stop being strong and just curl up in my bed and cry.”
“Dragged,” a more light-hearted tale of letting go was a more “bare” writing process. The first verse and chorus were set, and then a shower epiphany moved Nelson to retell the entire second half of the story. “I got out, dried off, and grabbed my guitar,” says Nelson. “When inspiration strikes, songwriting is a clothing-optional activity.”
Other songs are a culmination of ideas stuck in her mind throughout months, and even years. Taking another upbeat turn, “Reap What You Sow” addresses her hurt and anger dealing with infidelity for many years with a humorous twist, letting Nelson say everything she ever wanted to the other woman, singing He’s a bag of dirt and honey you’re the hoe / And where I come from you’re gonna reap what you sow. “We used humor to create a fun, sassy song that was based in very real emotion,” says Nelson.
A surprising cover of The Backstreet Boys’ 1999 hit “I Want It That Way” also made its way on the album. Nelson had always wanted to do a cover and was considering a typical country heartbreaker like Dolly’s “Jolene” or Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Has No Pride,” before her friend and producer Brian Irwin suggested something a bit different. After laughing at the idea, Nelson connected to the song’s lyrics and reveals an unhurried and sultry rendition of the pop hit.
A jack of all trades, Irwin, who also co-wrote the I’m Not Broken’s moodier blues of “Gone” and duets with Nelson on the slow-crooned “Break Our Hearts,” also played all the acoustic guitar, bass, drums, mandolin, and banjo on the album.
“I am so grateful for the heart and soul he put into this project,” says Nelson. “He’s a perfectionist and doesn’t cut corners. In a world full of producers who are cranking out songs like a factory, Brian took the time to bring something unique to each song and allowed each song to really shine with his production and mix.”
While most of I’m Not Broken was difficult to write, it ultimately gave Nelson more perspective on what happened. “I just went there and bawled as I scribbled lyrics,” she says. “I don’t drink alcohol, but I guess writing is my kind of intoxication. When I get in the flow, it feels so good to let the lyrics and melodies pour out of me and onto the page, like a detox.” There was a point when Nelson—who moved to Nashville in August 2013 with her then-husband and two children and found herself filing for divorce by the end of the year—didn’t know who she was anymore.
“I remember one night, early on in the divorce, I had no kids, no plans, the house was totally spotless, and I sat down on my living room couch and didn’t know what to do with myself,” says Nelson. “In that moment, I saw my dusty guitar sitting in its stand and picked it up. I didn’t set out to write a record. I didn’t even think about that. I just needed to express myself and work through the complex emotions I was feeling.”
It’s a long way from her move to New York City at 17, making her Broadway debut in Julie Taymor’s “The Green Bird” before starring in “SWING!” “The Who’s Tommy,” “Hair,” and other shows. Nelson’s 2009 debut, A Little Bit of Everything, was a retrospective of her top show songs, a la “Cry Me a River (“SWING!”) and “I’m A Woman (“Smokey Joe’s Cafe”), and her earlier New York City days enveloped in jazz, country, musical theatre, and cabaret shows. She took a more bluesy folk turn after connecting with Michael “Hawkeye” Herman on 2011’s Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues, and suggests it was her gateway into more storytelling in her writing.
It all led to I’m Not Broken. “I’m no longer playing a character,” says Nelson. “This body of work is my heart poured onto the page.”
Essentially, Nelson hopes that her music inspires listeners, no matter how hard life gets, and she’s already working on a new album.
“It’s been a long road,” says Nelson who credits her community of Nashville songwriters, including Jimmy Borjas, Mary Bragg, and Mike Musick, in helping give her courage and heal. “It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen exactly how I imagined it,” she says, “but the great place I’m in right now was hard-fought, and so was this record.”
Recounting something her friend and songwriting mentor Amy Speace once told her about “writing in the basement,” stuck with Nelson in reflecting on I’m Not Broken. “The top floors are surface,” says Nelson. “They can be good songs, but it’s when you go down into the basement, where the skeletons are hiding, where it’s dusty and sometimes scary, that’s where you get the real stuff that is going to resonate deeply. I feel like I really went into the basement for I’m Not Broken.”
Nelson adds, “It’s not about being negative or dark, it’s about being real. True honest emotion is all I want to write about now. I’m not afraid anymore to just be me and let that be enough.”