American Songbird: Nora Jane Struthers
I fell in love with Nora Jane Struthers in the catering room at the Winterwondergrass Music Festival in Beaver Creek, CO. I was sneaking a second plate of mac & cheese with my baby, swathed in a polar bear snowsuit, and Nora Jane swooped in and struck up a conversation. I thought I recognized her- we’d been listening to her tunes in preparation for the festival (including a couple of righteous naps on Sia's part). We ended up sitting on a couple of beer coolers and chatting, Sia bouncing on her knee, until she disappeared into the snowy night to perform her set.
I had to find out more about this woman so I tracked her down for an interview.
Nora Jane is a woman after my own heart with a love of harmony singing, storytelling and, as I read, Kurt Vonnegut (she was previously an English teacher). She's also a driven band leader who obviously loves what she does. Her current album, Wake, is a departure from the more traditional (and gorgeous) canon of her earlier records but I love how she turns up the volume on this one and crafts a handful of killer songs with her band, The Party Line. I immediately feel the exhilaration of a sea change, both with her music and her personal life. It is reminiscent of three favorites: Tom Petty, Kathleen Edwards and Patty Griffin, but of course Nora Jane is her own person, her own artist, and is steadily carving out her own niche in today’s Americana.
Check out our conversation below as she tells the Song Map about life on the road, her "band family" and, yep, love.
SM: What is your musical heritage?
NJ: My dad plays banjo and guitar and grew up in Minnesota in the 60s during the folk boom. Have you ever seen the movie “A Mighty Wind”? Many of the characters in that movie are specifically reminiscent of my dad’s best friends.
Even though I was in New Jersey, my earliest musical influences are channeled through my dad’s lens. He wrote his PhD doctoral thesis as a fictional novel based on the life of Gram Parsons. But he also loved Doc Watson, Bill Monroe & the Stanley Brothers. He really had a passion for harmony singing. My first eternal musical love is harmony singing and from there, growing up playing bluegrass, American folk traditional music, I also found a love of storytelling, which is really the root of my songwriting.
SM: I also heard you yodeling on a few tracks! I live in Bavaria, Germany and theres’s a lot of yodeling going on over there.
NJ: (Laughs) My mom tells the story of when I was two years old, we would walk to the train to meet him and I’d yodel when I saw him.
"YOU FEEL AS SURE AS THE SUN ON YOUR SKIN / THIS IS THE SAME ROAD YOU'VE ALWAYS BEEN TRAVELING."- THE SAME ROAD
I did a tour through Rainer Zellner (in Germany) called the Bluegrass Jamboree. He brings three American bands over and puts together like 19 shows in 20 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. You just get on the bus, show up to the venue and play a show every night. It's crazy & really fun.
SM: Rad and thanks for the tip! So you’ve been all over Germany.
NJ: We went everywhere, except Berlin, although I’ve been to Berlin before. We were in the south, I loved Bavaria. That was my favorite place on the tour. The culture was so warm-feeling.
SM: What’s it like being a woman band leader, independent, in the digital age?
NJ: Its a hard question to answer because it’s the only experience I’ve had so I can’t say its harder if I were a man. I can say that I get to travel around with four or five of the kindest men I’ve ever met, emotionally intelligent people. When I do run into chauvinism in life as anyone does, it’s always surprising to me because I don’t have to deal with it with any real regularity because i am around these supportive humans all the time. So it kind of gives me whiplash when I do run into it.
Overall I feel very much empowered to steer the ship and learn from our experiences & mistakes. The digital age has changed the landscape of what it means to be a musician dramatically. Previously there was would be all kinds of gatekeepers, record labels specifically. If you didn’t have a record label you couldn’t be a musician, there wasn't a wealth of middle class bands. Today, the freedom of digital media has eliminated the necessity of gatekeepers, but there’s also such a dirge of middle class bands that its hard to rise above the noise. I don’t mean that other bands aren’t good, there’s a lot of great bands. There’s so many options out there for people to choose from, it can be hard to find your tribe.
"People we meet on the road ask, "How are you doing, are your albums selling? Are you being successful?" Yeah, we’re all paying our bills and we play music and we make more every show we play and every record we put out we make more fans. we’re playing the long game. It would be great to have a big break but it’s not something anyone can plan on. WE just try to live day to day and love what we’re doing. That’s what the real reward is, anyway."
SM: Totally. I guess when I saw you at Winterwondergrass it was refreshing to hear the female voices (along with The Dustbowl Revival and Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds).
NJ: I agree and I certainly hope that I’m able to inspire women to feel like they can follow their dreams and be in control of their destinies and live rich, deeply satisfying artistic or otherwise lives. I’ve been inspired by men AND women to do that- it’s not a unique quality- but I do think it’s something to be able to see someone like you doing what they are passionate about. That in and of itself is a powerful thing, even if the passion is different.
SM: Do you have girls who come to the shows and are inspired to play music?
NJ: It's funny you ask, because we just got in the van this morning and I read an email to the whole band. It was from a 14-yr old girl named Emily who said she seen us three times in the last five months and she she’s coming to our show tonight in Charlottesville and is bringing six friends. She wrote, “I'll be the 14 yr old girl with the blazingly red hair.”
SM: You were so cute with my daughteR at the festival, do you see yourself being a mother at some point?
NJ: I think about it a lot. I take notes and talk to other women who are in my position, band leaders or artists. I was talking with Debbie Helm (Levon Helm’s daughter) about it. She has two kids and I asked her how she did it. She said, “They’re really easy when they’re young, just take them with you!”
So that’s my plan, we have kids in the band already. We like to call our band our "band family'. I’m getting married in two months, my drummer has a 14 month old little boy and another on the way. He and his wife thought about the band when planning the timing of their second child. They wanted to have the baby in October so the he can try to come out on the tours with us next year, when we release another record. It's really a wonderful group of people we have and treating it as sort of a long life together, is the way we want to think about it.
Nora Jane Struthers & the Party Line Official Site & Tour Dates
Bundles, Music & Merch
When I Wake Official Music Video
Cowgirl Yodel #3
Photos: Shorefire Ent, Todd Roeth, Instagram