Nora Jane Struthers

photo by Jim McGuire

Though her childhood was filled with music, Nora Jane Struthers never thought she could make a career out of it. The singer-songwriter worked in Brooklyn as a high school English teacher until a trip to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival – and specifically, one performance by Tim O’Brien – changed her mind. Since then, Struthers has released two critically-acclaimed albums and worked with bluegrass luminaries like Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan. We caught up with Struthers about French press coffee, Weeping Willows and John Lennon.

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Who are your songwriting heroes?

Willie Nelson, Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch, Hazel Dickens, Darrell Scott, Hayes Carll, Jason Isbell, Dolly Parton, Guy Clark and John Lennon.

When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?

I started writing when I was 14 and no, I don’t expect they were any good. I am not usually good at anything right off the bat – I have to work for it. Not to say I believe my songs are “good” now, but they are rooted in more diverse life experiences and perhaps benefit from a wider range of musical and literary influences. I certainly like them better than the songs I wrote 10 years ago.

What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.

I was four years old, sitting in the back of the car looking out the window. They say to write about what you know…I guess I must have just learned about my favorite kind of tree’s preferred habitat:

Where ever there’s a weeping willow, weeping willow, weeping willow
Where ever there’s a weeping willow, there’s water nearby

What’s the last song you wrote or started?

The last song I wrote is actually on our new album Wake. The song is titled “I Don’t Care,” and I wrote it partially because I wanted one more song with a call and response section, partially because my guitar player, Josh Vana, had been playing this nasty guitar lick during soundcheck and he said it was available for the taking. Lyrically, it about dismissing parental disapproval of a partner because you feel it is right.

How do you go about writing songs?

A big pot of French press coffee and a morning to myself.

What is your approach to writing lyrics?

I sing melodies and write lyrics at the same time. I like to feel how the vowels, cadence and the melody interact before settling on words.

What percentage of the songs you write are keepers?

I like this question. Maybe 40%. This is not to say that I dislike 60% – I am very focused on recording songs that I will want to perform, and having a high ratio of uptempo, interactive songs is important for me to achieve maximum transendence during a performance.

What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?

Probably 70%, even if I don’t see a real future for a song, I like to at least finish it as an exercise. The way I see it, I have to write a handful of songs I only like before I can complete one that I really love.

Do you have any standards for your songs you try to adhere by when choosing them for an album?

I rate my songs… A+, A, A-, B+, B…etc. I will never put anything lower than a B+ on an album. If I don’t have enough B+’s or higher, I am not ready to record.

What sort of things inspire you to write?

It’s evolving. Until last year, I was primarily moved by stories or pieces of stories, whether a snippet from a book I was reading or a movie I saw or a song I heard. This new album is inspired by entirely by my own life experiences, most particularly, falling in love.

What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?

The song is titled “Mistake” and I am proud of it because it is incredibly personal yet seems to really resonate with a lot of people.

What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?

Like the sky is blue, I’ll tell you true, I love you like meat loves salt
With a heart so kind your lovely mind will hear my call
And when my fears like storm clouds roll
You talk to me; you calm my soul
I’ll tell you true, like the sky is blue I love you like meat loves salt

Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?

I think for me it’s getting easier; I used to sort of try and edit while creating… now I’ve freed myself from that crippling combination. Now I let myself generate freely and then return to edit and tweak after generating. It feels great.

Are there any words you love or hate?

No. I just hate that I don’t know more words. I need some new tools.

The most annoying thing about songwriting is….

When I realize that I’ve stolen a melody from a song that already exists.

What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?

“Travelin’ On.” It’s on my album Carnival. I’ve had fans tell me the song has helped them battle disease, injury, sorrow from loss of a loved one. I know it’s been played at funerals and memorial services.

Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?

I’d really like to try my hand at prose. I think 2015 is the year to give it a shot.

If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?

Living or dead?! That’s too tough. Living: Willie Nelson. Dead: John Lennon


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