Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Nora Jane Struthers, lead singer of Nashville-based Americana/bluegrass band Bearfoot, about the group’s childhood origins, the pressures of taking over lead singer duties and their upcoming fourth album.
CP: Bearfoot formed in Alaska about 10 years ago. Under what circumstances?
NJS: It's actually a cute story that I think the original members want to get away from, which is funny. They were initially put together as a band in a bluegrass kids camp. Then, they were so good that they became the model, or the prototype, for the camp. They just kept playing music together from then on. It's kind of a sweet story.
CP: How old were they at the time?
NJS: Gosh, I guess they were 13 or 14.
CP: Sounds like very much like Alaska's version of Nickel Creek.
NJS: Totally. (Laughs.)
CP: You're the band's most recent addition, right? How did you end up in the band?
NJS: I joined up with them last September. We knew each other before then. We knew each other for a year or so. They moved down to Nashville about a year and a half ago. We were buddies. We liked picking together, and we'd have barbecues all the time and play bluegrass music for fun.
They were actually thinking of calling it quit because they didn't want to just hire sidemen, which is what they were doing to fill in some gaps when some of the original members moved back to Alaska. They didn't want to keep hiring sidemen; they wanted to have a partnership.
Angela, the fiddle player and one of the original members, called me up and said, “Hey, what would you say to you and PJ (my bass player) being in the new Bearfoot?” I said, 'Sure, that sounds like fun.”
We got together and played music. It sounded good and felt right, so we decided to go for it.
CP: You're coming up on a year with them. How have you and PJ fit gelled with the original members?
NJS: Really good. Really, really good. We're having a blast. I feel like I've grown a lot as a performer since I've been in the band. Angela and Jason have been doing it so long. They're young - they're 27 - but they've been doing it for 10 years, which is a realy interesting position to be in, I think. They still have the excitement of being musicians and excitement for being musicians and being on the road, but they're seasoned professionals.
I've learned a lot from touring with them and performing with this new group. That has helped me expand my repertoire as a performer and songwriter and singer. It's been pretty awesome, all around, I think.
CP: You were a solo singer/songwriter before joining the band. When you jumped into Bearfoot, did they expect you to start contributing material right away or did you start working your way through their back catalog?
NJS: Yeah, I started by trying to learn as much of the old material as I could, just because they have a lot of great material. (Laughs.) That was part of what helped me get sort of out of my comfort zone, which is always good when you're a performer or singer. I was singing things I hadn't written, and was therefore having to try things from a new angle.
When we started talking about recording a new studio album, they were encouraging me and the new guitar player, Todd Grebe. He's a great songwriter, so the two of us set to work to provide the band with a lot of new choices for the album. That was a lot of fun.
For some reason, I just like having a project on the horizon. It makes it easier for me to produce songs. I don't know why that is. I guess that's because I know there's a chance they won't just end up as something in my head. I went through a two-month period of prolific songwriting, which is sort of what preceded my solo album too; I moved to Nashville and started writing a song a week.
We started talking about going into the studio in the spring, so during January, February and March, I was writing and writing and writing. That was really fun.
CP: What can you tell me about the next album?
NJS: It's the fifth album for the band and the second on the Compass Records. We're done. It's in the can. We're currently flip flopping, trying to decide the sequence for the songs, which is so challenging, but we're all trying to get it right, trying to make it good. (Laughs.)
The artwork is pretty much done. We're just doing edits. I think it's going to be shipped out for manufacturing on Monday, which is exciting. It's set for an October release. We don't have an exact day yet, but it's late September, early October.
CP: What's its name?
NJS: The album is called “American Story.” We chose that title, primarily, because all the songs on the album are story songs, in one way or another. Some more easily fit into the category of story songs than others, but they're all telling stories.
We've got three songs that Todd wrote. I have five songs on it, two of which are co-writes, one with Tim O'Brien and one I wrote with Claire Lynch. It's really exciting. There's also one song we all wrote together, which is our single called “When You're Away.” That is available on our Facebook page and our web page. The new band wrote that together in the van on a trip to Ohio.
I think we tried to keep some of the essential elements of Bearfoot, which include a sort of sexy playfulness in certain tracks and also a focus on the two women in the band. Bearfoot has been, to a certain extent, about the female fronted-ness. We tried to keep that.
I think the song choices are, in a lot of ways, just more rocking. Jason Norris, our mandolin player, when we started talking about making another album, said, “I really want to make an album that is not too mellow.” I was like, “What do you mean?” He said, “I just feel like, with all the other records we've made, they've all ended up having slow songs that are really sweet sounding. They're beautiful, but I'm interested in making something that's more rocking.”
The songs we were bringing fit that anyway. I think this one rocks a little harder than the other ones.
CP: As the band passes a decade together, in some capacity, at least, what are the original members saying about reaching that milestone?
NJS: I don't know. I think, to a certain extent, for the original members anyway, it's been a whole lot of change in the last couple of years, so there hasn't been really a moment for them to sit back and reflect on how much they've accomplished. I think when we get the album out, that will feel really positive.
CP: The music Bearfoot is known for is, subject matter wise, closely tied to old-time music, and the energy of the performances is closer to bluegrass, yet the original members dropped “Bluegrass” from the band's original name (Bearfoot Bluegrass). What genre of music do you most strongly identify with now?
NJS: Now, I think we identify pretty strongly with the Americana music. You hear elements of old-time and bluegrass and Cajun music and blues and definitely folk and a little bit of rock, too, now. I think all those elements combined really make us fall into that Americana category.
CP: Having two feminine voices able to pair with a pair of male harmonies seems like it would offer you a lot of creative options, as a songwriter. Has that opened things up for you?
NJS: Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the major components in some of the new songs that I was producing. Some of the ones that didn't even make it on the album. (Laughs.)
Having that feminine bent to a song is something that you can't always pull off live, even if the song itself standing alone has that. Having female vocals really makes it easy to produce it in a live setting.
CP: When did Bearfoot originally win the title of Telluride Bluegrass Band Champions?
NJS: They won that in 2001 (about a year after they performed).
CP: From talking to the original members, does it seem like winning that level of distinction that early on increased the pressure they felt to excel?
NJS: I don't think they felt any pressure. I think that helped jumpstart them into thinking about playing music as a career. As a young person, it's hard to imagine that as a real possibility, but when you have the support of that kind of accolade, it makes it seem a lot more realistic. I think that is responsible for them taking the plunge and developing [their music] over the years.
CP: You grew up in Virginia and moved to New York, where you taught English for three years in Brooklyn. Was music always in the back of your mind during that time or did you more or less fall into it as a career?
NJS: Music was always something I wanted to do. I didn't know that you could really be a musician. I didn't know any professional musicians growing up.
It wasn't until I started going to fiddlers conventions in North Carolina and Virginia and seeing those communities and becoming part of them - meeting people who were professional musicians - that I realized it was a real possibility.
I sort of thought the only people who could do that were pop stars and rock stars. I didn't realize there was a roots-y, folkier route you could take to being a musician.
After I realized that, I've always loved traveling and playing music and performing, so once I realized it was something I could actually attempt, I figured out that, if I didn't do it, I would always wish I had, so I better do it while I'm young and unattached. (Laughs.)
CP: How old are you know?
CP: Does that make you the band's oldest member?
NJS: Oh no, I'm the youngest member of the band. We're 27, 28, 29 and 30. Those represent our ages.
CP: How does the reality of playing music professionally compare to your preconceptions of it?
NJS: You know, I didn't have too many preconceptions about what it would take or what it would be like. I moved to Nashville in December of 2008 and spent the first nine months writing songs, making a record and getting the music under my belt.
Then, I spent the year after that trying to figure out the business aspect. Piece by piece I assembled my team. I got managers, and from there, we got the album release team assembled, which meant the distribution community, radio promoter and publicist. Finally, I got a booking agent, which was a glorious moment.
I really just took it one thing at a time. I spent a lot of energy trying to figure it out. I feel like I finally understand the whole system a lot better, which is good. It's going to keep on evolving, so I guess we'll have to keep on evolving with it.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...