Interview: Kelsey Waldon On How Songwriting Helps Her Make Sense of The World


You could say that Kelsey Waldon’s life has been a whirlwind of late. For one, there’s her new album White Noise/White Lines which after several years in the making is finally out. The record which feels like a breakthrough, has been highly anticipated ever since John Prine announced onstage at the Grand Ole Opry that Waldon would be joining his Oh Boy label. During September, Waldon began promoting her new and most personal songs at AmericanaFest. During the annual industry conference, it seemed she had something to do everyday with press, radio promotion, the Oh Boy party, Thirty Tigers event and recording You Tube sessions. Perhaps most memorably, Waldon had the honor of going on in a showcase before one of her idols Tanya Tucker. “I have been singing ‘Delta Dawn’ for a long time,” said of one her heroes. “She deserves to be back in the spotlight. In our conversation we talked about White Noise/White Lines and how songwriting helps her make sense of the world around her.  When I thanked her for her music and gift of songwriting, she said hearing it never gets old. “As artists, sometimes we wonder, ‘What are we doing…why are we doing this?” Thanks for wanting to talk to me.”

AH: Congratulations on your new album White Noise/White Lines. Does it feel like it took a long time to come out?

KW: To me it doesn’t feel like that at all because we tracked at the end of 2017. I wouldn’t say we were sitting on it, but we were waiting on the right thing to happen which it did with John and Oh Boy. I guess in perspective it doesn’t feel that long and I’m just so happy it’s going to see the light of day and the songs are coming out. We’ve been patient for the right reasons.

AH: Everyone has their own approach to writing songs. What is yours? Do you carry around a notebook or write on your phone when something comes to you?

KW: Sometimes it all comes to me at one time. I might sit down after a week and all of a sudden, I spit out five songs, not realizing they were all in there all the time. I might work on a line forever. I feel like I’ve always got something going on in my head. There’s always lyrics dancing around and I’m always thinking of what would make a good line. It’s like reading the paper sometimes or listening to people’s conversations. It’s kind of being aware of the world around you and writing things to myself to make sense of the world. I like to write so I literally don’t combust. Songwriting is my therapy.

AH: In your first single “Sunday’s Children,” you sing defiantly about people who are being lied to. What inspired that?

KW: That song’s most inspired by hearing certain preachers and terrible messages about homosexuality and the sphere of people who believe in other religions and even today it seems like white supremacists are derived from their beliefs in the bible. That’s what that was really inspired by. It’s not saying at all that Christianity is a lie. I think it was much more inspired by using religion in the name of hate and in the name of God. When I was growing up, I saw so many families not understand their children simply because of who they were, perhaps because they were gay or lesbian. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding just because we put up these boundaries and these imaginary lines. To me it’s a message of love and just the fact that everyone wants happiness in the end. It’s a short life. We don’t even know how long we’re going to live. I think in the end everyone wants the same things and want to be happy. I do believe in universal truth in the sense I think truth is everywhere.  Sometimes when you’re blinded by one thing it can make people afraid of someone else. They think we’re not the same, but we are. I feel like people have either loved or hated that song but it’s like that. Not everybody is going to like everything that you do and that’s ok. I think all reactions are welcome and yeah, we sure love how it came out.

AH: There’s a sleek r & b feel and riff underlying the song. Did you have that when you began working on the song?

KW: I did hear that. It was inspired by a lot of gospel music I like to listen to…. Staples Singers, Stanley Brothers gospel. I love gospel music in general. I had the melody and I think that’s why it turned out like it did. I just came in and said, “Here’s what I want.” I wanted to do baritone and bass guitar together. We love the Meters in our band so it’s very New Orleans inspired and being country music, r & b and jazz has always been a huge part of country music. Country music used to be soulful.

AH: It made me want to get out my old Dusty Springfield records.

KW: Oh good. That’s exactly what we wanted. I always want each record to be a progression but not a progression that’s untied to me and who I am. Just know you’re going to hear me, but it might be different. I’m always trying to challenge myself in that way.

AH: You were reflecting on mortality and only being here for so long and that really comes out in “White Lines” where you say you’re only here for one moment and then you’re gone.

KW: Yeah for sure. That song was based on a little existentialism and the idea that…well it’s about a lot of things and it sort it’s the idea of letting go.  A lot of people would say let go and let God…I feel like being an artist is like being a farmer. It’s a calling. But it’s like you might not make enough money doing so–but I feel like I have to. But that’s about letting go because we are here for a moment. We’re not here that long so you can’t sweat the small stuff and dare I say get by the white noise and forget what’s right in front of your face and the beauty that can be shown in everyday life.

AH: You live about thirty minutes outside of Nashville. How far are you from home?

KW: It’s not that far. I guess from Nashville proper I’d be two, two and a half hours from where I live and two if you want to speed. It’s not that far and I’m closer to the Kentucky border where I live now in Ashland City which is great. All my family is back there. I’m the only one that left. We’re generational West Kentuckians.

AH: The song “Kentucky 1988” is about the year you were born and one where you talk about your family a lot, including your grandfather who was in a union.

KW: My granddaddy passed away two years ago but that song was central to my upbringing. He was a local 181 which is crane operating. He also owned cattle and did a couple of other things. He wasn’t much on farming. He always marched pretty much every labor day when I was growing up. There’s a lot of unions in Kentucky. He was specific to Kentucky and Southern Indiana. It was a very vulnerable and transparent story, but I felt like I had never really written my “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” I didn’t have a song specifically focused on details.

AH: You also sing about your family’s struggles and allude in one line to being in the middle.

KW: My parents were divorced when I was twelve years old. Just like the song says, my parents are amazing people, but they were kids when they had me. Sometimes I think we put a lot of pressure on our parents to be perfect. And they’re not. They’re just like you and me.

I don’t have children, but my mother was only 21 when she had me. When I was little, I thought that was so old. Then I got to 21 or 22 and I was like, ‘How did you guys do it?’ My mom was selling catfish at one time for money. My dad was self-employed with hunting lodges and farming on the side. He’s a jack of all trades and one of the most hard-working people I know. He’s self-employed. We relate a lot to each other on that because that’s what I do. I essentially run a self-employed business in a way as an artist.

There’s a lot of pressures…anything that’s talked about in that song, I’m just being real. It’s not really calling anybody out. It’s simply telling a story. I think a lot of people can relate to it because it’s real. All my favorite songwriters, all my heroes, any music that’s ever moved me is completely transparent. That’s what I try to do as a songwriter.

AH: I was listening to your first album and the song “High Heels” really struck me. Is the character in that song a composite or it is written about somebody specifically?

KW: Yeah, it’s kind of is and it isn’t. It was inspired by things that wasn’t as personal but also taking me somewhere personal. Drug problems and pill problems are certainly everywhere. That song I think is mostly about being empathetic to addiction. I think a lot of people think of it being in a place like Kentucky, but it’s been in the national news. They’ll say it’s not a disease or will say they can stop it. No. I’ve watched my own family members.  Mean you look at someone like Tom Petty. It’s that easy to be addicted to pills. Being empathetic to them but also sharing a story of why that happened to a certain region of people who are forgotten about. I think it may have started and rural people are trying to change the narrative of that (Check) It’s not all that it is. There’s beautiful people who can do whatever they want to change. It’s never too late to change.

AH: Did you grow up on a tobacco farm?

KW: I didn’t but that was one of my first jobs. When I was 12 years old, they would drop us off at whoever’s farm. There was always somebody hiring young kids that needed work. My mother’s side of the family like my great-grandfather Woodrow, he ran a tobacco company. And my brother in law still does.

AH: What was it like for you coming to Nashville?

I will say I was a little bit of a transition. Nashville was the biggest city I’d ever been to. I hadn’t seen a lot of the world until I started touring. I didn’t feel like I was straight off the farm when I moved to Nashville. But Nashville was the biggest city I’d ever been to.  I’d only been to California one time. I remember visiting the Jersey Turnpike.

I feel lucky to have been embraced not only by the Kentucky music scene but the Nashville scene. Nashville’s been very good to me. I know a lot of people can’t say the same the same thing. There’s some dark times, a lot of ups and downs and broken dreams in Nashville but I think the right people ended up gravitating towards me. I’ve been lucky to make real relationships.

AH: And you got to play with John Prine at the Grand Ole Opry.

KW: Oh man. The third time I was on there was when I was with John. I ‘ll never forget the first time because it was at the Ryman. The Opry House is amazing too. I had my debut at the Ryman—very very special. My whole family got to see it, my dad, my granddaddy and my Mom. It’s hard to describe what it feels like when you’re onstage singing. It happened so fast it’s like blurry. When I had to debut, I had to act like I wasn’t at the Ryman. Otherwise I’d freak myself out. It’s just incredible—a dream come true. I got so emotional. It was such a special night.

AH: As a woman in country music, how do you feel about where we are with radio? What do you think of The Highwomen coming out?

KW: Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever get played on country radio but the Highwomen, I feel like the tides are turning. We’re raising awareness and everybody wants an equal balance. We’re not talking about sports. We’re talking about people’s art. They’re certainly rattling the cages on that. I think it’s been proven time and time again. It’s a lie that people don’t want to hear women on country radio. They definitely do.

AH: We’re sure we’ll be hearing you soon on the radio. Thanks Kelsey.

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