by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
I love to rock. But I’m also a lover of those gorgeous, stretched-out songs that slow me down, with mellow guitars, unexpected harmonies and a laid-back feel. Artists that come to mind are are Tom Petty, and lately, Nashville singer-songwriter Natalie Schlabs.
I got serious Stevie Nicks vibes the first time listened to Schlab’s country-rock songs off her forthcoming album, Don’t Look Too Close. Her series of intimate videos, including one that features her tiny toddler son, are even more heartwarming.
There’s something about the way her voice rises and falls, like the crest of the wave in an ocean of slide guitars and strings, that relaxes me. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a solo drive on the highway in the summer — though because I’m a mom of sons in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, I’m rarely solo or driving for long stretches.
Lyrically, though, Natalie’s music isn’t just breezes and sunshine. The title song “Don’t Look Too Close,” for example, focuses on everyday aches and pains people tend to hide from loved ones, while “Ophelia” was written for a friend who lost her daughter.
Perhaps that’s why I appreciate this record so much, in this precise moment of time, where loss and pain are as common as love and happiness.
We recently sat down to catch up with Nashville-based Natalie, to talk about how she’s balancing work and motherhood — and coping with the international shutdown and postponed musical experiences.
Rockmommy: I love this album’s ebb and flow. Can you tell me more about how it was created? In what ways did becoming a mother inspire you?
Natalie Schlabs: Thank you so much. Writing and preparing for this album felt very different from previous projects. I wanted to write something that I would want to listen to, something sonically I would enjoy. That sounds strange, but sometimes what naturally comes out isn’t always a style I find myself gravitating to. I think that’s part of becoming an artist. I wanted to steer the sounds and structure towards a slightly more indie direction. I had some great co-writers that were instrumental in this as well (no pun intended). The preproduction for the album started soon after having my baby. My husband and I started making some demos of the songs in our basement and hashing out ideas. There were even times I was recording while my newborn was strapped to me sleeping.
I brought these demos to my friend Juan Solorzano who went on to produce my record with Zachary Dyke at Tracehorse Studio in Nashville. We wanted it to have lots of layered guitars, strong drums, and string arrangements.
Motherhood was the backdrop of the album from songwriting to recording. Many of the themes have aspects of parenthood. I will also add that it was incredibly hard for me to leave my 2-month-old and record for a whole day, but it also felt really good to remember myself as an artist as well as a new mother.
Rockmommy: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Natalie Schlabs: Like most artists, my influences are spread pretty wide. Honestly, I’ve struggled in the last few months with being excited by the prospect of listening to the newest artist or staying on the bleeding edge of music culture. It can be an unexpected challenge, but at times I find myself struggling with comparison more than simply enjoying the act of listening to music.
The reason I wanted to play guitar in the first place was to cover Lori McKenna and Patty Griffin songs. I’ve been extremely inspired by women in Americana music. When I really started listening to Bob Dylan I was challenged and spurred on to deeper lyricism. I think at their core, these songs are still focused on the narrative and storytelling structures of folk and Americana. More recently and particularly for the album’s sonic influences, I’ve really resonated with artists like Big Thief, Kevin Morby, and War on Drugs.
Rockmommy: You seem to be telling a story in “Don’t Look Too Close” about another childhood — is it yours? Can you tell us more about the track, and how comparing your childhood to motherhood changes your parenting perspective?
Natalie Schlabs: There is certainly inspiration from my childhood in many ways, but broadly it is about being a kid and having no idea who your parents really are as humans and what they are going through. As a mom now myself I realize that parents are often doing the best they can, often in the midst of difficult circumstances. My co-writers and I wanted to communicate the idea that kids will never know how much you will love them, that they likely won’t know what you were dealing with until they are older, and that you hope they don’t really see you mainly for your flaws. There is also the point of view of innocence or losing your innocence as you mature. There is a parallel between parent and child there.
Rockmommy: A lot of moms say that motherhood brings out a different kind of sound, and different songs. Would you agree with that? Why or why not?
Natalie Schlabs: I completely agree. Becoming a mother is incredibly transformative. We learn so much about ourselves and see the world again through the eyes of our children. I’ve felt much bolder in my writing and am who I am as an artist. I was listening to an interview with Sharon Van Etten recently in which she was sharing a similar sentiment. Mothering re-alters your inner and outer life in such an amazing way, you can’t help but be transformed in all your life by it.
Rockmommy: How are you managing in quarantine? Any highs and lows?
Natalie Schlabs: Part of me loves the limited options I have had. I don’t have the same ability to get hung up on if I should go somewhere or do something. Because of that, I seem to have more room in my brain for creativity. So, even though I’m desperate to be sitting closely with my friends and to be in the middle of a large group of people at a show, I hope to be able to carry some of this necessary limitation with me after the quarantine.
Rockmommy: I understand you have a young child. In what ways do you try to inspire creativity every day?
Natalie Schlabs: I can be a perfectionist, and that can lead to a lot of discouragement as I’m pursuing music as a mom without consistent childcare. One thing I’ve been practicing is lowering my expectations of what is possible. That can help me start the work without feeling too much pressure. I work when I can— while my son is napping or while my husband switches with me and takes him to the park. When I begin my work I try to start my time with 10 minutes of “Object” writing (coined by Pat Pattison). It doesn’t take long, but it can do wonders for waking up my writer’s brain.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.