In a time when everyone seems to be questioning what will happen next in the world, Ali Sperry is offering hope with her latest record. In Front of Us, available March 11, is a musical reminder that we stop to enjoy the present and not put as much stock into our fears of the future. It’s a message—and a record—we should all hear.
I recently sat down with Ali Sperry to discuss getting to the heart of matters, the Nashville experience, and her comfort with vulnerability.
AH: I read that working on In Front of Us helped to break up those day-to-day Groundhog Day feelings. So often we view music as something that helps the end user (listener), but talk to us a bit about how writing and recording music helped you in your personal life? How has writing gotten you through difficult times and how has it picked you up when you have been down?
AS: Yes, it was such a gift in that long stretch of days where we were not going anywhere to have the creative outlet of making this record and witnessing something actually change and grow from one day to the next. In a time that on other levels felt stagnant, working away on this record and getting tracks from friends and plotting the next move was something to be turned on and excited by. I think this project was the most poignantly I’ve experienced the actual recording process help me through a challenging time, but the writing part has always been therapeutic for me. For my whole life I’ve been a big journal person—writing things down really helps me to process whatever I’m going through and to get to the heart of a matter. Songwriting can feel like an elevated version of journaling. I actually find that I cry sometimes when I’m writing a song (luckily usually just when I’m writing solo, not in co-writes, thank God) and I think it’s because there’s an unburdening happening of expressing out loud something that I’ve felt deep inside. Songwriting allows me to swim around in my emotions in a way that wouldn’t be functional when just going through the business of daily life.
AH: So many of us have experienced isolation and loneliness over the course of these past two years. Can that sense of isolation choke creativity, especially for someone who lives in a city (Nashville) that surges with creative energy?
AS: Absolutely. It’s been interesting to talk to fellow musician friends about their experiences with this through the course of the pandemic. It ran the gamut—for some people it was a super fertile creative time and for others it was hard to access creativity and inspiration while feeling isolated. I experienced both of those things at different times. In the earliest days of lockdown I was hardly picking up my guitar and struggling to find the spark to practice or write. But once I realized we weren’t going anywhere for a while and was able to adjust to the new reality, there was a settling-in and things opened up. I started doing livestreams from home, and that was fun and gave me a reason to practice and learn new songs. Jamie and I started making this record and the act of getting to work on that together and getting to bring our friends in—even though it was not in-person—turned everything around. I think a lot of people in Nashville were resilient during this era and found ways to collaborate remotely and to feel connected to one another musically in a new framework.
AH: Much like actors and filmmakers are drawn to Los Angeles, musicians feel the pull towards Nashville. It is one of my favorite cities on the planet, but how has it improved you as a songwriter/artist?
AS: Oh, where to begin? Living here has taught me multitudes and continues to teach and inspire me all the time. There is so much music being made here and at such a high level, providing constant opportunities for learning and for setting my own bar higher. Getting to co-write with songwriters that I admire, going to shows and seeing what people are doing, and being in community with people that are making the music that moves me makes me always want to be upping my game. You can listen to great music anywhere in the world, but living in a town that is saturated with it is a unique experience. One example that comes to mind is at the end of last year I hosted a Christmas show—my first Nashville show since the pandemic had begun—and invited a bunch of friends to participate. We had a rehearsal before the show and after the long hiatus from making music together it felt electric to be in that room with everybody and soaking in what was happening. I was hit with that feeling I sometimes get of, “Holy shit, my friends are SO GOOD AT MUSIC.” It is a privilege to be around people that are dedicated to their craft and always improving.
AH: If someone sat down and listened to In Front of Us front to back, what would they learn about you?
AS: They would learn that I’m comfortable with vulnerability, as these songs don’t shy away from putting what’s in my heart on display. They would learn that I have fears about what goes on in the world but my hope and optimism gets me through the fears. They might learn that one of my priorities in life is to have fun, as some of the songs (like “Excuses” and “Cool Under Pressure”) take something that could feel heavy and make it fun.
AH: I am not sure what your intention was with the title of the record, but I find it powerful because for so long, so many of us couldn’t see what was in front of us in terms of our personal timelines. In fact, many may still be feeling that today, particularly with the increasing crisis in eastern Europe. What does the title mean to you, and has that meaning changed as you are now only days away from releasing the album to the masses?
AS: Yes, you nailed it. I chose it because it’s a record that was born out of a time in which it felt like we could hardly count on anything to be certain and we were all questioning what was coming next. And at the same time, the song “In Front of Us,” the title track, in a sense answers the fear of not knowing what is next by saying, “that’s all we have to trust, all the love we have in front of us.” In other words, all we can count on is what we have, right here in front of our faces. So don’t miss the good stuff that’s happening right here. We don’t have the power to control what’s coming next but this song and this record can be a reminder that we do have much to appreciate, learn from and lean into in the present moment.
AH: Going back to the idea of the listener and the artist, so often we (the listener) remember the end product—the songs themselves. But for you, this was a full journey from inception to completion. What is something that you will take from the process of making In Front of Us that you will carry with you for the rest of your life/career?
AS: I will look back on the making of this record as a time of growth—for me as a writer and artist it was a time where I was growing more confident in my ability to take what I was experiencing and make it into music. It was a time of growth in my relationship with my husband, as we had never worked quite so intimately on a musical project before. It was just the two of us in the house day after day so it required a whole lot of trust and openness and really working together. I also witnessed him growing immensely as he stepped into the role of producer and discovered his own confidence in that role. I remember we were listening to final mixes one night at home on the couch and it struck me that it felt so special to have someone who cared exactly as much as I did about how these songs turned out. I will also take away a feeling of gratitude that we were able to call on so many friends to be involved. That thread of musical connection was an antidote to all of the isolation of that period of time.
AH: What would the young Ali who first picked up a guitar think of this album if she had a chance to preview it back then? Would she be surprised by the artist she would one day become?
AS: Oh, it’s nice to think of sweet young Ali listening to this record. I think she would be very proud of it. That young version of myself already loved music in a deep way and loved to sing along to Joni Mitchell and cry and make up her own tender love songs about things she hadn’t even experienced yet. I think young Ali would like the way I’ve brought a lot of sides of myself into this record.
AH: Your husband produced the record. When you are working together like this, is it difficult to shut off the working brain even when you’re away from the process? Did you find yourselves talking through ideas at the dinner table and beyond?
AS: (Laughter) Yes, we definitely did. It was hard to shut that part off, for sure, and especially since this record was one of the only things we both had going on at that moment. But I feel like we navigated that pretty well and gave each other space whenever one of us needed a break from focusing on it and the other one was deep in it. We also had to learn each other’s workflow styles and timing. Jamie is a real night owl and gets creatively turned on late at night, whereas I totally shut down. He would gravitate to the studio at night and I would want to sneak away and go to bed. But there were a few times I rallied and stayed up past “bedtime” to work on something—like one of the Excuses vocal takes was done late at night and, even though I resisted a little at the time, I think it really did lend itself to what makes that vocal cool and laid back. For the most part, we found our flow by recording together in the afternoons, and then he would often stay up ‘til all hours tinkering away with the mixes.
AH: So often we are our own harshest critic. Where are you hardest on yourself as an artist/songwriter and how do you overcome those insecurities when they bubble to the surface?
AS: Oh yes, we sure are. As a songwriter, I find myself most critical of my lyrics—but that one actually feels like a healthy criticism, like I always want to strive for them to be the best they can so that they are really getting the job done. If a lyric isn’t sitting right with me, I’ll sometimes keep changing it up until the time I’m recording it. I also find self-criticism arise with vocals, particularly in the studio setting. When recording vocals, your voice is under such a microscope. If there’s a vocally challenging part, or a part of a song that I feel like I’m not nailing, it’s easy to get in my head and get down on myself. Once that starts to happen, the vocals just tank from there ‘cause I’m thinking too much and getting tense. I think my best tool for overcoming that is to remind myself to not belabor it, to shake it off and if I have to I can come back later and re-sing that part. Recording from home was great in that way, that we had the luxury to revisit parts whenever we wanted. But it was also strange to not have that limitation of “we only have x amount of days in this studio” because you could fall on the other side of doing something too many times in a futile attempt of getting it “perfect”. In general, I feel like the setting of working at home made me feel more relaxed and lent itself to vocal takes that felt un-self-conscious and comfortably grounded. One of my favorite ways Jamie would encourage me when I was recording vocals would be to say “just imagine you’re holding that martini”—we had this imaginary alter-ego version of me that was super laid back and always holding a martini while singing. It was weirdly helpful to imagine that.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
AS: I would! I don’t feel too much fear around what my career will look like in ten years because I know that no matter what happens, no one has the ability to stop me from writing songs and creating music—other than myself, of course. So, as long as I have that, I’m okay. Worst case scenario is I’m just doing that on my own for fun, which is not really THAT terrible. And best case scenario, I’m playing the Ryman or writing hit songs for other artists or going on an international tour. And if I could see that now, I’d probably be a little less hard on myself and fully trust that things are unfolding in just the right way.
For more information on Ali Sperry, visit www.alisperry.com.
Find new music on our playlist here: New Americana Music playlist by Americana Highways