There’s a song on Caroline Spence’s new record, Mint Condition, named “Long Haul,” where the Charlottesville, Virginia-raised songwriter runs through the laundry list of reasons that being an artist — and specifically being an artist on the road — isn’t always champagne and roses. More accurately, it’s never champagne and roses for most working artists, the ones in it for the long haul, bouncing from small town to small town until they start feeling like they’ve stopped at the same Speedway or Texaco or Shell 23 times. As if Agent Dale Cooper might step slowly into the light under pump six mumbling, "What year is this?," and they wouldn’t trust themselves to know the answer. “Tonight it feels like I’m running on empty,” Spence sings, “but that song’s already been sung.”
But musically, it’s joyful, with a shuffle and twang, some warm organ, and a smoky and spirited vocal performance. It revels in the ride. One of the defining characteristics of Spence’s songwriting on Mint Condition is the way she’s able to communicate and accept ambiguity. She’s a touring artist, and sometimes life on the road sucks, but what else is she going to do? She chose it. She loves it. In “Sit Here And Love Me,” she pleads, “I don’t need you to solve any problem at all, I just need you to sit here and love me.” Often, she and her characters seem to be searching for something, but one gets the feeling there needn’t be any ‘something’ at the end of the search. The fact it happened was the important part.
Still, it’s the desire for resolution — finding true love or a place where you belong or a thing you can do for a living that fulfills you — that often propels us to go on those searches in the first place. So, I’m wondering: Are there ever any moments, in the middle of a long haul, where Spence fantasizes about being someone else?
“No,” Spence says over the phone from her home in Nashville. “I think it's taken me so long to realize this is who I've always been. I feel like I'm just now being like, 'Well, of course you ended up a musician and a songwriter.' We recently stumbled upon some old home movies and there was video of me when I was three doing stuff like this. It's taken me so long to really own it, and I'm still working on owning it. I'm really glad I ended up being able to stumble upon the thing that has always made me the happiest.
“I've never been good at being anyone but myself,” Spence adds. “I would do a really shitty job at most things that I don't enjoy.”
For Spence to say she stumbled upon becoming a songwriter seems a bit modest. She’s always writing, but she writes slowly, letting songs and ideas and melodies marinate, which can sometimes take nearly a year.
“I think sometimes, giving myself the freedom to sit down with a fresh perspective,” Spence says, “you just see things you were getting stuck on, and the song opens itself back up.”
The care with which she writes is apparent. It was just as clear on 2017’s Spades & Roses, which was one of the best roots records of the year, where Spence sang of heartbreak and no-money blues on the road (“Hotel Amarillo”), a love just a touch suspicious of itself (“Slow Dancer”), and used sports to shed light on the language of sexism (“Softball”). Mint Condition builds on the singular voice that Spades & Roses presented, but there’s also a richness in the cohesion of Spence’s latest record that sets it apart. More than any of her previous albums, she wasn’t totally clear on what the story was until she pieced them together in a sequence that made it clear.
“It's a journey — it feels like self-reckoning and self-actualization of the changes that you go through and the things you have to admit about yourself and others and the choices you've made,” Spence says. “And I feel like where the album lands is with this peaceful acceptance of that confusion. I think the songs — they're not my story, but they are my story. A lot of times I write songs about the things I don't totally understand or that haven't been made clear or resolved in my life. And I think some of the more relationship songs are written in that place of not totally understanding things.”
That is, until “Til You Find One,” which Spence says answers the question that she asks on “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes?” And it’s here that Spence makes clear the most important thing to learn from all the album’s searching — from a young woman taking her chances on big city lights in “Angels or Los Angeles,” to a coast-to-coast journey desperately seeking something new on “Song About A City,” or pining for a little relief on “Long Haul.”
Fate played more than a bit part in the process of Mint Condition too. Spence wrote its title track, which closes the record, a while ago, and it was one of the first songs she ever penned where she explored writing from another person’s viewpoint. In the wake of her grandfather’s death, that viewpoint was her grandmother’s.
“My grandmother — my mee-maw — and my poppy had been together for, like, 50 years, and we lost him in 2005, and I was thinking about their love story and writing just about what I thought it might feel like to grow old with someone,” Spence says. “I was probably 23 when I wrote that song, and the filter I had in my mind of it when I sat down on my bedroom floor that night was, 'What would Emmylou Harris sing?' I think that really helped guide the melody in my brain and serve as a filter for the language. The fact she ended up adding her voice to that song, and that my grandmother got to hear it before she passed away this year, was just an unbelievable, cosmic thing in my life.
“It used to be my grandmother singing to my grandfather, and now it feels like me singing to her,” she adds. “It'll always be a really special song in my life.”
Spence knows that by nature, she’s a searcher. But as “Mint Condition” fades out, it’s hard not to feel some closure. The song’s portrayal of its subject matter — true love, too often fantastically rendered with a rosy filter — finds power in its radical and unconditional acceptance of another human being as is. Even as everything and everyone wastes away, love remains. And it seems that same message has maybe seeped its way into Spence’s consideration of her own self.
“It's less searching that I think I want to do, and more accepting of where I am and who I am and really fully growing into myself. And maybe stop running from or judging the person I actually am. When you're trying to make something of yourself in your career, I feel like you're constantly trying to change and trying to chase something. And now that I feel like I'm kinda where I want to be, I want to let myself be there, really feel it and appreciate it. That's maybe what the next step is,” Spence says. “Maybe I'll press pause on the searching for a second.”