Taking the Road Towards ‘True North’ with Caroline Spence

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When singer-songwriter Caroline Spence reaches for comfort, she reaches for the poetry of Mary Oliver. Her current favorite of the late poet’s body of work is “Morning Poem,” a devotional to new beginnings that Spence discovered in 2020. In the vein of much of Oliver’s conversational, naturalistic writing, it promises that joy and connection to the earth is available to all — “whether or not / you have dared to pray.”

“It feels like the closest thing I have to religious texts, or some sort of spiritual practice,” Spence mused on the phone recently from her car, in the midst of a road trip with her partner from Nashville to Cincinnati to visit his family. “My connection with her words.”

Mary Oliver is canonized in the opening track of Spence’s album True North, which is named after her and explores the desire to create transformative art in the midst of an imperfect existence. “I really do wanna tell you something cool,” she confesses early on, “but I’m still cleaning up my mess.” This perfectionist desire eventually gives way to a process of self-love and healing that unfurls throughout the rest of the album — as Spence quips in the lyrics, “I’m trying to get to know myself and love all of her.”

“It felt very cheeky to name a song after her,” Spence said of writing this song, explaining that she “kept trying to find a different title” but “Mary Oliver” simply stuck. “I started feeling more comfortable because the lessons I was trying to express… are also drawn from her poetry.”

Spence was immersed in the work of Mary Oliver and other beloved writers while creating True North, a literary creative process that also included Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and the music of old favorites Death Cab for Cutie, Damien Rice and Aimee Mann. It felt, she recalled, like going “back to the basics of how I started writing.”

“I was falling in love again,” she explained. “Having this quiet time with myself and my relationship with music.”

The result is an Americana-tinged album that aspires to a genreless existence, incorporating sonic influences from Patty Griffin and 2000s indie rock in equal measure. “There’s a whole other side of where my songs come from,” Spence remarked of opening these floodgates. “I haven’t always let those influences sneak in.” Notions of genre, in fact, are why she’s always balked at being labeled a country artist — “you can’t be country and listen to as much Bright Eyes as I do.”

Spence’s self-liberation from genre boundaries goes hand in hand with the lyrical focuses of True North, which uplifts the intricacies and in-betweens of love in all its forms. “I Know You Know Me,” which she first released as a duet with The National’s Matt Berninger, celebrates being seen and called back in the midst of self-destructive isolationism. “Blue Sky Rain,” meanwhile, recognizes the fleeting beauty of a short-lived connection.

Title track “True North” puts platonic love at the center of the album’s focus, a refreshing celebration of friendship that takes its name from a catchphrase of Spence’s close friend Kelsey Waldon. Waldon, Erin Rae, and Michaela Anne collectively inspired the track, a John Prine-influenced pep talk that Spence describes as a “love letter” to her friends. “I used to have a lot of songs about people I didn’t like,” she laughed. “Now I have a song for most of the people I love in my life.”

“There’s Always Room,” the closing track on True North, explores a different kind of love — the grief of loss, which she describes as “love with nowhere to go.” Spence remembers her mother imparting this wisdom during a painful grieving process that inspired the track. “This is just your love,” she explained, “bumping up against the fact that you can’t go talk to this person.”

“I figure out how I’m feeling in the process of writing,” she added. “With that one, I think it was the first time I was able to bring a little lightness into it.”

Among Spence’s favorite love songs are “Magnolia Wind” and “Stuff that Works,” two plain-spoken Guy Clark classics that uplift the beauty of the everyday. “I like those real ones,” she noted, distinguishing her favorites from “power ballad” love anthems — “the sweet, simple ones that bring real life into it. That’s always what has brought me comfort.”

This homespun comfort is, incidentally, also an undercurrent of Mary Oliver’s poetry, as well as an honesty that Spence aspires to in all kinds of relationships. “That’s what we should all strive for,” Spence concluded — “[not] this symbol of perfection in another person. Just the everyday stuff that gets us through.”

13 John Prine Lyrics That Prove He Wrote Like No One Else

John Prine could write a song like no one else. Throughout his five-decade career, the folk icon proved himself to be one of a kind.

Prine’s lyrical stories were both fantastical and simple; he wrote with a Midwest-bred honesty and humor that kept listeners on their toes. His catalog, spread over 18 albums, contains vivid stories (“Lake Marie”), insightful looks at the human condition (“Hello in There”) and sweet love songs (“Aimless Love”).

Impressively, Prine was only in his mid-20s when he wrote song of his most beloved songs, from “Sam Stone” to “Angel From Montgomery.” He earned critical and industry acclaim, even if his work was not particularly commercially successful, and his songs were covered — and made into hits — by everyone from George Strait to Miranda Lambert, among many others.

These 13 Prine lyrics — largely pulled from his songs’ choruses — are some of his very best:

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