Maine-based singer/songwriter Sara Trunzo is passionate about small town stories, especially those that help widen the perspective of country music by looking beyond the south.
Trunzo grew up in New Jersey but landed in Maine after college. There, she spent the majority of her twenties working as an activist for a food security program — an issue she still devotes her time to. During Covid, Trunzo co-founded the hunger relief organization Waldo County Bounty.
But music has always pulled at her. In 2017, she couldn't ignore the creative press to say something — to add more honest stories about the rural, working-class north to country music. She released the EP Thanks Birdie and two years later recorded the album Dirigo Attitude.
"When people ask why I continue playing music, I don’t always know the answer, or I fluctuate in and out of feeling like an artist", Trunzo said. "I really don’t want to force things, and I want to follow natural momentum. But I don’t lose the belief that songs are magic, and making something beautiful is of value just because. I’m willing to be surprised".
Now, Trunzo is preparing to release her new EP, Cabin Fever Dream, on September 24. It collects stories and scenes from Maine alongside other personal observations. Listen to 'Liberty Tool' below. Against a slow-swaying beat and rose-colored pedal steel, Trunzo summarizes her mission when she sings, "Tracing tradition, I'd like to carve something new/ Trying to find my liberty tool".
Trunzo spoke with Holler about how boredom fuels her creativity, her passion for food activism and what kinds of stories she hopes to foster in country and Americana music.
Where are you from and has that influenced the type of artist you are?
I grew up in New Jersey, but moved to Maine when I was 18. Around the time I turned 30, I sorta moved to Nashville and started traveling full time. Maine is home to me and where I have been during most of the pandemic. The landscape, community and feel of this place is inextricably tied to my voice as a writer, in part because the rugged, raw, realness of this place resonated with me even as a kid.
But also because I worked in agriculture and hunger relief fields, which had me deep in community. A particular ecosystem and its humans provide so many fascinating, rich and empathy-inducing stories…all key navigation points for a songwriter. As soon as I became a close country and Americana music listener, I became passionate about providing northern, rural perspectives in those spaces.
Speaking of influences, what were you listening to growing up?
1940s easy listening, jazz and big band were always on in my dad’s garage. My mom liked classical and sacred music, while all of my sisters and I sang in our Catholic church choir. My older sisters got me into Cat Stevens, Melanie, Neil Young, etc. and WAY into the Grateful Dead. Robert Hunter's and John Perry Barlow's songwriting definitely caught my attention. They're still heroes.
Did you ever want to do something other than music?
I did, I do, and I reckon I will! For a decade before songwriting, I ran a food bank farm that provided organic veggies to 1,200 people through a network of ten rural food pantries. I’ve continued consulting/organizing with food, agriculture and community organizations as a complement to my music work.
In spring 2020, I co-founded a hunger-relieving, farm-promoting organization in Maine called Waldo County Bounty and managed that for a while. I’m migratory and omnivorous, a brain that doesn’t like to do the same thing twice — and probably always will be.
Are you more creative when you’re happy or when you’re sad?
Neither! I’m actually most creative when I’m bored. That is, when I limit the inputs and distractions and allow myself ample space for creative ideas to land. I get more ideas for sad songs than happy ones, but that’s not always connected to how I feel in the moment.
What drives you the most?
I can get very driven about meaningfully contributing to rural communities, especially around food security and farm issues. I can get absolutely inflamed about the lack of northern, rural, honest stories in country music and I'm determined to change it. But I’m quite aware I do my best work — as a community organizer and a songwriter — when I’m following instead of leading, listening instead of talking and generally making new connections.
In general which comes first for you, the title or the song?
It can go either way and I’m not picky. I’m generally just grateful something showed up at all. Feels like a miracle every time.
Who would be your dream collaboration?
A few years ago, I had the chance to learn from and play with my all-time favorite songwriter, Darrell Scott, which was an unimaginable dream. I bow down to the simplicity and mastery of writers like Chris Stapleton and Lori McKenna. But I most want to collaborate with some up-and-coming mainstream country star who wants help bringing braver stories into that realm.
If I knew, I’d be way more relaxed! I’ve suspended fall touring for COVID, among other reasons. Right now I’m living on a sailboat in Penobscot Bay and waiting to get clear on the next steps, because living on the water through a Maine winter won’t do for me. I know that community, songs, Maine and an eventual return to Nashville will be part of it. But I’m willing to be surprised.
Trunzo's forthcoming EP Cabin Fever Dream is out on 24th September.