Sara Jean Kelley black and white photo by Aleigh Shields
Sara Jean Kelley Challenges Us To Think Differently About The ‘Black Snake’ In Our Lives
Nashville-based artist Sara Jean Kelley recently released her EP Black Snake, the culmination of extensive soul-searching and discovery. While facing an era of significant life-changes that led directly into the pandemic, Kelley drew on her sense of struggle to discover the symbol of the black snake, a concept and a mode of communication that came to wind its way through the songs on the EP, giving the collection a very intentional feel.
A professed lover of “wild things,” as evidenced in her 2019 EP, The Wild, Kelley definitely finds the wild in other ways on this EP, in all of us, in the patterns in our lives, in the things we are most frightened of but must face, our own black snake. We spoke with Sara Jean Kelley shortly after her live show celebrating the EP’s release and just before she got started on some holiday-themed Jazz vocal performances in and around Nashville with some friends throughout December.
Americana Highways: How does live playing fit in with writing and recording Black Snake? Were you performing those live before recording?
Sara Jean Kelley: No, I released The Wild at the end of 2019, and my plan was to play that record for the year and book tours for 2020. Of course, that didn’t work out. So, instead, I wrote Black Snake during the pandemic, basically, and went and recorded the songs in August 2020, but didn’t play my first show until February this year. That was the first time playing any of the songs live, after I’d recorded the EP.
AH: Weren’t you wanting to finally play The Wild at that point, too?
SJK: Exactly! Well, I did a show at Acme Feed and Seed, and I did a really long set where I was able to do most of both records. But I guess in terms of the industry, The Wild was old news at that point.
AH: I feel like the traditional idea of the press cycle has been somewhat turned on its head. There’s a push to get back to normality there, but some changes may remain. Which is that you can still bring up music after release date through videos or live streams, etc. for new discovery.
SJK: I know that a lot of my friends feel that way. The way that it appears is that you have up until the day the music is released and after that, it’s done. But the reality is that people are continuously discovering things online. I like to use Lizzo as a model because she came out with “Good as Hell,” then released that single, then a year and a half later, made her record, but “Good as Hell” became the radio hit, and almost no one knew that it was two years old. I even have a friend who’s throwing a vinyl release party for a record that came out two years ago! Everything can have multiple lives now.
AH: I love that. When you played a lot of The Wild and a lot of Black Snake together at Acme, did anything strike you about their similarities or differences?
SJK: Oh yes. When I did The Wild, I actually recorded it nearly five or six years ago. We did all the recording, and I had it, but then I took a break from music for about three years. I wanted to release it when it would be a catalyst for something, so I released it as my re-entry into the music sphere. When I released it, it was as an Americana artist with a rock ‘n roll band, with a pop producer. So it was experimental and a little more heavily produced.
Black Snake, though, is extremely vulnerable and personal, the most vulnerable thing I’ve come out with. I wrote it, basically, in the aftermath of my divorce and facing a pandemic. Also, I was facing what my reentry into music meant to me and who I wanted to be as an artist. It holds a lot and there’s a lot to it, asking, “Who am I as a person on the other side of this when I am just forced to sit with my thoughts?” It comes from a very different place. I wrote all the song on the record by myself and the songs are on the record in chronological order of writing them. The order of the songs is very intentional, since it takes you through the grieving process.
AH: I really felt like there was a sense of development in the ordering of the songs, so thanks for clarifying that. I could see that movement. Did you have any hesitation about sharing such a personal process through the music?
SJK: I definitely have my ideas of what each song means and why, and I don’t mind sharing that, but I think that speaks to my age and my age group. I’m a millennial and I’m in my mid-30s. Myself and many people I know are in the throes of divorce, the aftermath of divorce, or various other forms of adult content. That’s all on top of the pandemic, being a woman in an in between space, and being unapologetic about your choices. More and more these are themes that are becoming relevant and communicated. Listening to Adele’s records and Kacey Musgraves’ records is very much like this. It’s very much a generation of women saying, “Okay…”
AH: It does seem like more people are making decision not to make things more packaged and commodified in the interest of keeping things more authentic and personal.
SJK: It’s very exciting. There have even been a few mainstream records in the past year that made me think, “Oh my god, I feel this!” And that’s very rare for me. Maybe the pandemic experience is causing people to be more real.
AH: When in this process did the idea of the snake become obvious to you?
SJK: I think it was as we were sitting down and thinking about the track list. I went through the breakup, and then I started talking to my producer, who also produced The Wild, Kyle Dreaden. I told him that I was ready to come back to it. I was sending him songs, and writing songs throughout the pandemic, but “Black Snake” is actually a song I wrote early in 2019.
In my relationship, there was a lot of love between us, but it just wasn’t a very healthy expression of it. So there were a lot of times when I would pick up my guitar to write a song, and I would write something that was true, and that was really scary. That was one of the reasons that I stopped writing songs, because I wasn’t ready. There were a lot of instances when I’d pick up a guitar to start writing, and then think, “Uh oh! I don’t want THAT to be out in the world.” “Black Snake” was definitely one of those songs.
AH: Did you let yourself write them in that mode, and then just keep them to yourself, or did you try to stop yourself from writing them because they were too heavy?
SJK: A little bit of both. “Black Snake” is one of the songs I wrote and finished, but then said, “Well, no one is ever going to hear that. I don’t want that to be true.” Then there were a couple that led me to say, “This is why I’m not writing songs right now.” Later, when we were working on the EP, I told Kyle about “Black Snake,” even though I wasn’t sure about it, but when he heard it, he said that it had to be on the record. Going forward, as I was writing, I knew I was kind of building the track list.
The last one I wrote was “Rains of Montana.” I wrote that because in May of 2020, I drove up to Montana for about a month, which took two full days. I thought that once I got there, I was going to go on hikes, and live my best Montana life for a month. But I woke up the next morning and it was raining, and that’s when I wrote the song. It’s like that old saying, “Where you go, there you are.” It’s even going to rain in Montana. You can’t run away from those kinds of things.
When I came back from Montana, Kyle and I knew what the songs were, and he asked what the order would be. I told him that I thought the songs should be in chronological order because it just made sense.
AH: I feel like it even develops that way in terms of sound, for instance, “I Am The Ocean” being in the middle. You start to get that intense sound build-up. It kind of creates a peak in the middle of this, and “Rains of Montana” closes out in a very outro way.
SJK: Yes, “I Am The Ocean” is kind of a call-back to The Wild because it rocks out a little bit. It has that distorted fiddle sound and actually doesn’t have a traditional structure. It really wanted to be big. When we went to the studio, we recorded in the order that the songs would be on the album. We started with “Black Snake,” and realized we’d need to find the sound of the snake. That’s when that baritone guitar came in as a through-line. It gets played in most of the songs, but it takes a different form in every song and transforms itself to fit the mood of the song. So with each song we asked, “Where is the black snake here? How do we connect each song to the last one?” It was very intentional, and we had a lot of conversations about it.
After I decided that the album would be called Black Snake, it all fell together. I started doing research on snake energy and was surprised that everyone thinks it’s this evil thing, but it’s connected to the earth, it’s transformation, it’s creativity, it’s femininity, it’s a call back to yourself. This really was the thing that was bringing me back to myself, and I hope that, in turn, it inspires other people to do the same.
AH: It’s really great to take on an image that people might have a negative surface reaction to in Western culture and go way beyond that into other ideas. There have been a lot of different ideas about snakes in various cultures across thousands of years. This gives us another chance to think about snakes in different ways.
SJK: Yes, there have been different tribal cultures who saw the snake as a connection to femininity and to the earth. The black snake is fate, and transformation. You may think at first that it looks evil, but it’s not. It’s a call, an invitation, something that’s showing up and saying, “Hey, you need to come back to me.” I find that to be a very powerful image.
AH: Things we are afraid of are easily branded as evil. Sitting with your fear sounds like what can transform it into something different.
SJK: The snake is also probably the greatest animal metaphor for change, other than the butterfly. It literally sheds its skin when it outgrows it, and it’s painful, but necessary for growth.
AH: I noticed that you have some filmmaking going on in your life and you have friends who make films. How important is it to you to have people in your life who are also in creative fields to keep you in that mode too?
SJK: A lot of times my tendency is to be by myself, but I am definitely fed very much by other creative people. I love collaboration. I love diversifying my creative outlets. I’m a musician and songwriter, but I also started taking acting classes, and through that, started writing short films. Through that I met people who wanted to make films with me.
I wrote a short film and then some people from my acting school made the film with me. We’re going to edit it soon. I do have a little bit of an ADD brain, so if I get too focused on one thing, I feel like it’s limiting me in some way. I like to expand my forms of expression. It’s fun, challenging, and interesting to me.
Find Sara Jean Kelly information here: http://www.sarajeankelley.com