|Photo by Alaina Broyles|
By Kevin Broughton
Skylar Gregg engages in a gripping cocktail of hard work, humor, and self-discovery, expressing vivid lyrical imagery and raw grit that soaks into every note of her songwriting. Her third album, Roses, is the culmination of a decade of refinement and refocus wherein she realized “Complicated isn’t always better. Sometimes a simple message can really resonate.”
Blessed with a powerful, soulful voice and a musical pedigree – her folks moved to Nashville so dad could pursue songwriting while mom studied piano at Belmont University – Gregg turned toward a musical career of her own in midstream at Middle Tennessee State. “I changed my major from music education to songwriting in the while I was in college,” she says. “That was when I figured out what I wanted to do.”
The ten songs on Roses – one for each year of the process that got them to completion – tackle heady issues from mortality to addiction to abuse, yet with an undercurrent of contentment; the album closes with the self-evidently peaceful “Everything’s Gonna Be Fine.”
Gregg is thoughtful and sincere – often pondering questions with an emphatic Oh, Man! – and has an infectious laugh as intense as her booming, brassy vocals. In Roses, she establishes herself as a top-tier songwriter on an upward trajectory. We enjoyed chatting with her about the songwriting process, Landfills – literal and metaphorical – Man-splaining, and legalization of the Devil’s lettuce.
Roses is an album of ten songs you wrote over roughly a decade. During that time you put a couple of records out. Over the ten years of writing these, was there something in the back of your mind telling you to hold them back for a while? Were you putting them into a sort of “box” for later use?
Yeah, I think that was what kind of happened. A lot of them I finished later – I’d started them a long time ago. One of them I used to play with a different band, then brought it into my own catalog. So, yeah, I did hold back; I’d think, “Yeah, I’ll tighten this one up a little down the road, when I know what it’s about and know where to put it.”
I wouldn’t call this a purely country album, though there are some straight-up country tunes on it. The PR materials mention hints of the Muscle Shoals sound; I hear a decidedly Memphis vibe at various points. Was there a particular feel or sonic theme you were going for?
You know, originally I set out to make a country album. The producer I used, I think, felt a Muscle Shoals vibe in a lot of the songs and in my voice. And then my husband – who plays bass on the record – is from Memphis. [Laughs] So you hit the nail on the head there. That’s probably the combination that you’re hearing – the influences of those two guys. And I think that gave us some edge, some life, too. Made it a little bit different, you know?
There are times when your voice reminds me of Bonnie Bramblett of Delaney and Bonnie; that big, full, blue-eyed soul sound. Who are some of the female vocalists who’ve been influential to you?
A lot of the sixties and seventies country ladies, like Tanya Tucker and Dolly Parton. I listened to a lot of that with my dad growing up. Bobbie Gentry is somebody I really love, with her soulful, country voice. I was also really influenced by soul artists – I think we all were. Aretha Franklin and Etta James, ladies with those really big voices. And I think that’s the combination you end up with. Also a little bit of gospel; I grew up singing in church.
Something told me you weren’t a stranger to church choir.
Yeah, for sure.
Collecting songs over ten years for an album implies – to me, anyway – that re-working and editing are a big part of the way you write. Can you discuss the way you approach songwriting? For instance, do you set aside a regular block of time for writing, or just grab a pen when an idea or image or phrase strikes you?
I have a block of time every morning when I get up that I dedicate to writing. I try to spend at least a few minutes with my guitar, to try to put together a chorus, for example. I don’t want to force anything, but I try to at least work those muscles in my brain. And sometimes in those moments I’ll hit on something and write it down, and work on it the next day. And sometimes those songs will come out great. But honestly, it’s those times when I’m out in the world and am moved by something, or think something’s funny or interesting…when I get home at midnight or one in the morning and sit on the couch and write those songs? Those are the ones that always end up sticking around, for me.
Let’s talk about a few specific songs on Roses. I have the advantage of your liner notes, so I’m cheating a little bit. “I Already Know…” Would you like to woman-splain that one? The floor is yours.
[Laughs] Yeah, sure. I was, I guess, just bitchin’ with some of my female musician friends about being man-splained to about cables and guitar stuff. This was at a co-write, and these are both very talented players; to hear them also be frustrated about it…they had learned to say in a nice way, “Save your breath, I already know.” They’ve toured all over the country and played hundreds and hundreds of gigs, but they still have sound men come up and say these things.
I’ve had those experiences as well, in co-writes. You get treated like, “You’re the singer. We’re gonna write this song for you and you can sing it in a minute.”
I’d like to add that I get to work with a lot of men -- and have been raised by a lot of men – who have only empowered me and only been loving to me. The song is just talking about men who may sometimes have a moment of…proving themselves, I guess, in those situations.
“Now, where do I plug this cord in?”
[Laughs] Yeah! “Does the round shape go in the round hole?” [Laughs]
“Southern Strain” is about the stigma attached to Mary Jane in our native South. Was there anything in particular that inspired this, like maybe a string of shows in Colorado? And which Southern state do you think will be the first to legalize?
[Laughs] Man! I hope it’s Tennessee! You know, I guess I just I grew up thinking that it’s no worse than alcohol. Everything in moderation, right? I’m not saying do this all the time, but it is interesting how many people – later on in life – you find out don’t have as big a problem with that stuff as you thought they did. There’s such a stigma about it, especially when I was a little kid and thought it was the Devil’s lettuce. Later I realized it’s just not that big a deal, and if somebody want to have a joint after work, we shouldn’t worry about it. Especially these days; there’s way bigger stuff to worry about. [Laughs]
“Landfill” is both metaphorical and autobiographical, it seems to me. (And what a sweet horn arrangement!) Did that song morph into something else during the writing process?
Totally. That one was really challenging to write. It’s my favorite song on the record. I love how it turned out; it’s so quirky and I love all the thoughts behind it.
I went to Middle Tennessee State University for college, and 231 is the road that goes from Murphreesboro to where my parents live in Lebanon, Tenn. And there’s this landfill on 231 that I used to drive by, and it was amazing to think about how much trash is in the ground there. It’s insane to me how we’ve figured out how to get rid of our garbage, and so much of it, you know? And I thought it would be a cool song to write, about the landfill and all those visualizations. So I pretty much wrote all the verses while I was in college, driving past it back and forth.
And then about two years ago I started going to therapy. (I don’t know if you’ve been to therapy, but I highly recommend it for everyone.) Anyway, before you go in, they vet you over the phone. And I was telling her, “There’s not really anything wrong with me. I don’t have any trauma; no big issues, I just kind of wanted to check up on my brain and make sure I’m doing okay.” And she was like, “Mm-hmm, okay.” And I got in there and there was a whole lot of stuff to dig up! And she said, “Yeah, everybody says that when I call them.” [Laughs] And through that experience I wrote the choruses, because man, what a metaphor that was for all the garbage in my own brain. And so seven or eight years later, that song got finished.
Go Blue Raiders, by the way. What did you study?
I studied songwriting.
Look at you, putting your degree to work!
Yeah! I really enjoyed my experience in the Recording Industry program there.
If you could change one thing about the music industry right now, what would it be?
You could outlaw autotune…You could deport Florida-Georgia Line…
[Laughs] Yes, yes! There’s so many things. I’m really enjoying watching the music industry, which got turned on its head when streaming came into play, then it got turned on its head again with COVID-19. Not that I’m celebrating anyone’s gigs getting canceled, obviously. I do think it’s cool the way streaming services and Spotify have given indie artists a voice. And you can really build a small, blue-collar career almost by yourself. I didn’t experience the music industry pre-streaming, but I assume that wasn’t the case then. And being able to record stuff yourself or with a very small team is awesome.
As far as what I’d change now – and I think we’re doing a really good job of lifting this up – maybe just some more female representation? More female players maybe. And we’re seeing a real push for it, and I’m excited to see who else is gonna come up.
Now, you got a heads-up on this one: If you were told you could only listen to three albums for the rest of your life, what would they be?
Ah, man, this was really challenging. [Laughs] Of course there’s all those classics like Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon and Rumors that are so hard to get rid of. But for me, my first album was a John Denver record my dad got for me called Poems, Prayers & Promises which has “Take Me Home, Country Roads” on it. And because it was my first CD and first CD player, I just listened to it so many times. And I hadn’t even thought about it until you texted me that question, but you can probably hear it in my writing.
And the second one I came up with was Bobbie Gentry’s Ode To Billy Joe. And I didn’t really discover it until I right out of high school when I did this country music revue show called “Honkytonk Angels” at an arts center in Cannon County, Tenn. I got to sing songs like “Fancy” and “I Will Always Love You,” and I sang “Ode To Billy Joe,” and thought this song is so cool! So I listened to the whole album, and it’s got all this weird percussion on it. It’s just really cool.
And the third one and more recently, I’m a huge Sturgill Simpson fan. I had tickets to his last show and was super-bummed that I couldn’t go, even though I realize this is the time we’re living in. Meta Modern Sounds In Country Music is just so great. I listen to it all the time. That album is so fun and so great.
|Photo by Zach Ward|
Lots of artists’ album release dates have been pushed back – some indefinitely – by this dang virus. How has it affected you in particular? Also what’s your best-case, yet realistic, scenario for getting this record out and doing a tour?
I’ve really focused my attention on getting the record out first. And hopefully after that we can re-asses when touring will start. It’s just so hard to tell. It’s interesting, though, watching how COVID has affected a lot of the bigger players in the game, releasing music for indie artists has been it’s been kind of a great time because it’s made a space for me and a lot of my friends. Live streaming shows has been really cool.
We were fortunate enough to have the exclusive premiere of your video in July. I’ve been on some movie sets before, so I know a little bit about all the different takes that all the set-ups require. But I’m just curious…do you lip-sync everything?
I was actually singing, because they told me before, “It looks better if you actually sing it.” So yeah, I’m sure they were tired of hearing me sing that song by the end of the day. [Laughs] I sang it like 50 times.
Maybe not 50; it was at least 25 times though. [Laughs] They’re used to it though; they do music videos all the time.
Was that your first video?
I’ve actually done a few. We actually did this one around Halloween a few years ago. It was for this song I wrote that was about a black widow – a lady who kept killing all of her husbands.
…for different reasons. So we did this video. My cousin is a special-effects makeup artist, and she came to do all the makeup for it. And it got so out of control! It was so gory! Facebook wouldn’t even let us run an ad in it. [Laughs]
Well, I have to see this thing now.
I think it’s really fun. I love the Evil Dead-type of ridiculous horror. I think it’s a lot of fun, but a lot of people don’t share that opinion! [Laughs]
[NOTE: It’s right here, and it’s glorious.]