Helene Cronin Guides Us Through Life’s Landmarks
Helene Cronin recently released her second full-length album, Landmarks, building on the considerable momentum of Old Ghosts and Lost Causes, and again collaborating with Matt King. The impact of the Covid slow-down is something that Cronin definitely experienced, as well as successfully completing cancer treatment, however, songwriting is something that Cronin remained committed to at a steady pace throughout, leaving her with a wealth of songs to choose from for this new collection.
The terrain she traversed during that time seems to galvanize the tracks on Landmarks, bring with it a sharp-eyed view and a confident spirit. If things occasionally get a little “heavy,” in her own words, they are also engaging and thought-provoking and the energy behind the vocals and the instrumentation suggests triumph rather than resignation in the face of life’s big questions. There’s also the fact that an increase in years and experience adds to the breadth of storytelling that an artist can deliver, and Cronin, often collaborating with friends, spreads the net wide with Landmarks, taking us to surprising and illuminating places through narrative, whether overt or implied. I spoke with Helene Cronin about her path as a songwriter in recent years and how she feels that has contributed to this current batch of songs.
Americana Highways: This album does feel like the next milestone for you. The perspectives and the way that the songs go after certain subjects feel like the next development. It’s a maturity step.
Helene Cronin: Thank you for observing that. I think that’s very true. I’ve had a couple of people say, “This album is very brave!” I didn’t feel like I was being brave. I do write commercial stuff, but that’s not what ended up on this record. It was a pretty heavy from the get go, and then I wrote “Yesterday’s Heavy” and “Just a Woman” with Lisa Carver, I wondered, “Can I put two more heavy songs on here?” But they had to go on there, so they kicked something off. It was a real process of building this body of work, this group of songs. Sometimes it feels accidental and sometimes it feels like it happened just the way it was supposed to.
AH: I also see that you traditionally write a lot, so I’m assuming that you probably wrote a lot of songs that you picked from for this album. The process of writing that much is also going to take you to the next step as a songwriter.
HC: It does. I had been coming to Nashville to write for almost twenty years. I was writing and being in Nashville several times a year when I could, but then in 2013, I told my husband, “If I don’t just do this and go after this with everything I have, I might as well quit pursuing Nashville.” I would never stop songwriting, but pursuing the commercial aspect didn’t have a reason if I couldn’t be whole-hearted about it. So, starting in 2013, that’s what I did, and I got a publishing deal. Then Covid happened, and all the momentum I had off my previous album, and winning New Folk at Kerrville, disappeared.
But I kept coming to Nashville and started writing 60 songs a year. When it came time to do this album, I had way more songs to choose from than I could actually use. It’s just the habit of writing, and the discipline, and finding people who are willing to dive into subjects with you that may not be the most popular.
On the last trip when I was in Nashville, I was in the room with three different people at two different times, all of whom have struggled with suicide. Being able to talk with them about that, and what got them through, and even write a song about it was so significant. I talk about the writing room as “sacred ground” and that’s kind of what I mean by that. Being able to go there.
AH: Thanks for sharing that insider view of going into subjects that might be taboo, in some way, or have a kind of pressure associated with them not to talk about them. There’s a pressure that I think songwriters have to deal with when they decided, “I’m not just going to feel these difficult feelings, I’m going to evoke them in art.”
HC: Yes, and I spent a lot of year smothering feelings. And thinking, “There’s a lot I don’t want to feel.” But I sat with things that were difficult, and sat with pain, and it made me grow up. It made me grow up as an artist, too. There’s a balance because music and art are entertainment, and we want people to be drawn in, and even dance, but that’s not what makes me sit down and write a song.
To realize, “I felt this. I need to address this experience,” is what makes me write a song, and to come out the other side and realize that there are other people who are glad that you wrote about it is a magical process. It’s almost mystical in some ways. Sometimes as you write about your own experience with your own details, it’s universal to other people. I can’t get my head around how that works!
AH: It’s a very strange paradox that’s totally true. It’s a tipping point where somewhere your own details somehow flip around and become accessible.
HC: It is! There’s a point where it can be so personal or self-indulgent that no one wants to hear it. I never want to be self-indulgent with my writing, but the more I’ve exposed myself, honestly, the better I think the songs have gotten.
AH: This is all a really good argument for why it’s important to give people a lifetime in music, rather than just support their musical endeavors at one stage of their life. Learning things from life and continuing to work as a songwriter leads to these developments. It’s definitely leads to a greater number of stories that can reach people.
HC: I love that. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I just know this is an industry that worships youth. Sometimes I feel like nobody Nashville is looking for somebody like me, but that’s not going to stop me. I believe I have more songs out there. When I was younger in this field, and was newer to Nashville, I met with one of my mentors at Berklee College of Music, and said, “How do you know when to let go of a song?” I asked because I was working my butt off on about six songs so I could impress a Nashville publisher. He just looked at me and said, “Helene, your best songs are out ahead of you. Go and get them.”
That continues to drive me. I’ve written songs that I love and if I stopped, I’d be happy with the work I’ve done. But when I go into a writing room, and think, “My best songs are out in front of me.”, that’s motivation! There are always new topics.
AH: That’s really helpful in so many fields. It’s liberating to think that way, and it’s often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
HC: It also piggy backs off that idea of having a life as a writer. I don’t have to think, “Well, in my 30s and my 40s, those were my best songs.” I feel like the older I get, the more there is to say. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, at all, but the more experience I’ve had, the more people I’ve sat with, the richer the well is that I pull from.
AH: I noticed that there was a long production period on this album, and I can tell that you’re open to change regarding your songs, because the song “Just a Woman” really had to two versions that you recorded.
HC: Lisa Carver is just a brilliant songwriter, and I barely knew her when she was in Nashville. She left to live in the mountains outside of Taos, and get away from the industry side of things. I’ve always admired her writing, and we became friends more during Covid. I had visited her once. It took me two months finally text her with the idea of writing for this record.
She said she’d love to, so I drove out there. The first night, she played me the ideas for this song, and invited me to write it with her. She easily could have written it herself. But we sat down the next morning and took it apart. It was three verses with a chorus after each one. We cut it that way two weeks later in the studio. Matt felt that something wasn’t popping and that it was too important a song not to get it right. It previously ended on a sad note, and there was nothing wrong with that as a story-song. But Matt challenged us to think of how to turn it into something triumphant. Lisa and I went back in May of last year and reworked it.
We had this line previously that we had cut where the baby wakes up and finds herself in a business suit in the 21st century. I thought, “Maybe we do that.” The symbolic part is that we are still facing those same issues, and women are still struggling. Then we wrote this whole section about women who are struggling, like women the women in Iraq and Afghanistan, who used to be able to get an education and now can’t. Those were all brand-new ideas. That’s how we got that song to address current issues. The final element of “We will not be quiet,” was something that came up in the studio. We wanted a big outro and those women just brought it. We spent another whole half-day in the studio just on that one song. That’s what that song was worth to me. I am so proud of the work on that song.
AH: It’s an incredible song. I’ve come across some great stuff out there that’s inspiring about women, but the structure is so unusual here, it’s almost operatic. Moving through these different time periods and cultural situations gives it scope.
HC: “Cinematic” is another word that someone has used, and I think that’s true.
AH: Another song, “What Do You Lean On,” also covers a lot of storytelling in a compact unit.
HC: That’s one I almost always play when I can.
AH: It’s cool from a structural perspective, but I feel like this song has about 13 different songs in it, but they are quick, little glimpses. They are each vivid enough that they are memorable. You’re listing the things from peoples’ lives that they lean on, for instance.
HC: That was a co-write with my friends, Andi Renfree, and Deidre Thornell. They came over to my house in Nashville, and Andy threw that idea out. That interested me because we all have a go-to. Whether that’s people, spirituality, God, or habits we turn to, we have that. To be able to explore that without being judgmental was interesting. Some of that is songwriting craft to fit all that into a song and keep people’s interest.
There are two lines on the barstool in the dive bar scene, then two lines on the next, then one line on one, and one line on the next. It starts to increase the pace. Then I think the chorus is where the punch comes in, to make sure that whatever you’re leaning on can hold the weight. I like songs like that because I get to be real about things. Some of our choices in life aren’t always so great but can point to a bigger idea. I think we wrote it in one session. We were all excited about it. It was a good writing day and it’s become one of my staples. It has tempo and muscle, too.
HMS: I was going to say that it felt like country rock to me, which kind of goes in with the settings that are mentioned.
HC: I think country rock is true for that one. I was actually surprised that the guitar was twangy at first, in the studio, but Matt said, “Just trust me,” and I love the twang now. Someone said I’d invented a genre called “Country Grunge.”
AH: I love that! I’m going to apply that more to other bands, too. With the song, “Half-way Back to Knoxville,” I feel like I can construct the situation but it’s open to the audience to think about. The speaker seems to have mixed feelings about their own choices, which is interesting, too.
HC: This one I wrote with a guy called Phillip Lammonds. It was our first time writing together. When I was a kid, after we moved to Texas from upstate New York, we used to take these long trips back to see my grandparents. I remember seeing Knoxville, when I was 12 years old, in the back of the car, up on a hill during the night when we drove by. It had a certain atmosphere to it. I told Phil that I would like to put something in about Knoxville, but what I love about this song is that there are little subtleties.
The speaker is saying that they left this person, and it was the wrong decision, so they are now going to leave Dallas and hightail it back. There is some urgency in that first verse, but it also has a laid-back feeling to it. This person has to do the “I’m sorries.” I don’t have a lot of romantic regret songs, so this one kind of fills that spot.
AH: The song also doesn’t say what the outcome will be. They are hoping to arrive in time to save the relationship, but who knows? It captures an uncertain moment.
Thanks very much for chatting with us, Helene! Find more information at her website right here: https://www.helenecronin.com/