Angela Autumn, the young singer-songwriter who can turn her hand to guitar, bass, and clawhammer banjo, is back in her home state of Pennsylvania, in the south bank town of Zelienople.
She grew up there playing anything from ska to rock, but now, living in Nashville, she veers towards the bluegrass side of Americana and country.
Whether recording or performing live, she likes to take the path less travelled; exhausted but happy to be back touring again, she’s been gigging around West Virginia and different parts of Tennessee for a few months, as the live scene steadily picks up. Always doing things differently, Autumn’s been accepting invitations to play community spaces and private shows, rather than following the traditional rigamarole of getting a foot into the live venue circuit.
Earnest and engaging, Autumn has no problem speaking out about the country music business – whether good and bad. Her new album, Frontiers Woman, once again saw her turn her back on convention by producing it herself - and rather than rush it out just as the pandemic interrupted everything, she held back, adding some more flourishes and three brand new songs.
Now finally able to share the record and tour on the back of it – it’s obvious it’s been worth the wait.
You’re based in Music City, so what made you decide to produce this record yourself?
I was new to Nashville; pretty green, didn’t have a lot of guidance and chose to work with friends who had professional experience, who could help guide me. I made that decision because of the constraints of having a producer. With producers you have to work within their scope. I didn’t do that, so I had a lot of freedom.
I really had to be scrappy when I got to Nashville, finding musician friends and bluegrass musicians from the eastern shore of Virginia who wanted to do this with me. I don’t know if I believe in a big studio or big labels, I don’t know if I ever will. This record was not that; it was recorded in a home studio in East Nashville.
A lot of people have now decided to live out the ultimate truth – and so many people think that is living in Nashville. I had that realisation before we got slammed with a pandemic, so it’s interesting to see that a lot of people have still moved and are pursuing their dreams. It’s cool to see, but it’s also a little scary how many folks are moving here now.
Tell me about your choice of album title, Frontiers Woman?
It’s about my travels and my position – and at my age, feeling like there’s a new frontier you have to push through, personally and professionally. I don’t feel I’ll make country music as it’s been made in the past. So that’s what I call a “frontiers woman”, because it’s the new frontier in country.
Do you mean politically?
Definitely. The body is a political space, we experience the ravages of the political system in our bodies and the set of mores in country music. This is what country music is, a lot of unsaid things fall through the cracks, so I see myself as responsible for saying certain things. You can hear that in my song, ‘Shooter’.
I think there are country music people who need to be educated. They’ve probably just seen racism their whole life and don’t even understand. I’m not really from the country music tradition, but how are Charlie Daniels or David Allan Coe the heroes? We need different heroes in country music because that’s creating dysfunction and more negative ‘non-heroes’.
Maybe we need more heroes like Emmylou Harris, making great music – and rescuing dogs?
Ha, yes! I saw her the other day in Nashville walking a few dogs.
I guess there’s also Allison Russell, who is Canadian Americana…
Oh, I’d love to connect with more women who are outspoken in the Americana genre, like Allison Russell. I’m convinced that Canadians are the ultimate and Americans are just a bunch of chumps! I hold that opinion in a real way.
Do the songs feel different now, two years after you wrote them?
They do and they don’t, because in the folk music world things remain relatively static across time. I don’t relate personally to many of those songs, but I feel that their meaning has a “folk hero framing”. I feel good about them even though I’ve not played them for many people - I played them briefly before the pandemic and I’ve written probably 30 songs since we’ve been in the mess!
So, in that sense, they do feel old, but that’s just my ownership; songs like ‘God’s Green Earth’, which holds a big meaning for our responsibility as stewards of the earth. Then there’s ‘Old Time Lovers’, which is about travelling and meeting old-time musicians in North Carolina; I’ve become friends with a lot of these old-time musicians, and they’re not that bad!
Is bluegrass really for old-timers – do your friends think you’re an oddball for playing this genre?
My bluegrass friends think I don’t play bluegrass, and my non-musical friends are quick to call anything with a hat and guitar “country”. But never in a million years – since I was about 20 years old – did I think I would be playing bluegrass or around bluegrass musicians. It’s strange, as I didn’t grow up with that at all. To me, it just came full force and has been a vehicle since.
I don’t know if I play bluegrass or folk music, truthfully. I think it might come from my ancestors. I read a Joni Mitchell biography a while back, when she said that somewhere in her ancestry she’d had a great-great-grandmother who aspired to be a musician. Of course, on the frontier she could not possibly indulge that; she had to raise a family and take care of it. I know that I have great-uncles and great-grandmothers who played banjo and fiddle – I just never met them. I’m actually working on getting the banjo from my great uncle who has passed.
Tell me how your powerful song ‘Shooter’ came to you?
I had a favourite window that I wrote at every day, north of Nashville, in a remote home, and I had this charge come over me. I was feeling a lot of different anxieties - maybe because it was January, pre-pandemic, so I think that had something to do with the feelings. The first line came out, and then I had a stream of consciousness and got everything onto a voice recording. It was soft and alluded ideas before, but I liked that the song tool this direction, because of the intensity of that moment. It feels a bit enduring.
I like that ‘Texas Blue Jeans’ sounds like it’s going to be a Friday night party track – and it’s not!
I know! I love doing this; one of my passions is misleading people and making them want to listen. I think people who enjoy the Friday-night, drinking-Bud-Light tractor songs still enjoy my music. So, working with these tropes is my way of saying okay, I play country, but this is also for me - so here’s what we are going to do. The seed of that idea was from a place of such grief and heartbreak [about her father’s death], which is why I didn’t follow through on it until probably a year later. It felt good to record it and get it out.
So are the lyrics marinating in your head all this time waiting to come out?
I don’t even remember when I wrote that, but yes they were marinating. That one I felt confident about, it wasn’t too much of a wild card when I decided to put it on Frontiers Woman.
How different do live gigs feel for you and your audience as we emerge from the pandemic?
It feels like new. It feels like a rebirth. I really feel that; it feels like people are being intentional as audience members.
Has any music fuelled you in these past 18 months?
That’s tough, I listen to so much different music. Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief is definitely one; her music is a big anchor for me. She created a 22-minute soundscape of her just improvising, then an entire album of originals that she wrote during the pandemic, called songs. I don’t know if I draw inspiration from that, but that’s one of my favourite artists.
Have there been any benefits to having to stop and maybe taking stock?
I think time itself has a different value now. With things starting to pick up again, we are all going to value the pandemic, and look back on it as a time when we could practice and learn new things and hobbies. Musicians got to enjoy themselves; creatives got to take a break and be with their families. That’s priceless. I’m always growing as a person and this time has been incredibly difficult, especially as an artist trying to kick-start their career in a new city, but the hidden blessing is that I got to be more intentional and do things in a way that I can look back on and be proud of.
Angela Autumn’s new album, Frontiers Woman, is out now via Cacti Omen.