It’s been said that the more personal a song is to an artist, the more relatable it is to those that listen to it. The beauty of country music is that it is a genre that understands that sometimes, not everything is okay, but at the same time, it embraces the fact that it’s okay to not be okay, and often serves as a “friend” of sorts to the listeners that may need one.
For Sarah Jane Nelson, music can be therapeutic, and for those that have heard her new album I’m Not Broken, it has proven itself to be that “friend” that its listeners may yearn for. The title track, which delves into falling on hard times and the resiliency it takes to make it out the other side, has struck a chord with listeners to the tune of nearly 50,000 streams since its release, adding another 40,000 with its heavy-hitting music video. As she weaves her way through the album’s 12 tracks, 11 of which she had a hand in writing, Nelson fearlessly taps into a vulnerable part of herself, and the record is much better for it.
We chatted with Nelson about her eclectic musical influences, what I’m Not Broken means to her and what she hopes listeners take away from it, what listeners can expect from the music she is currently working on and so much more!
Pro Country: Over the course of your career, you’ve pulled from many different genres and stylings. Can you talk about the influences who have shaped your sound?
Sarah Jane Nelson: I have a very diverse array of influences. As a young child, I listened to a lot of country, bluegrass and folk. The foundation of that for me was artists like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. My grandpa had a record collection that was really important to him, which made it really important to me, those records were what he listened to.
During that time, I was also hearing a lot of great country music on the radio, because it was the 90s, which I think was one of the golden ages of country music. I was really influenced by artists like Trisha Yearwood, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Reba, and even Garth Brooks. Garth has influenced me so much, not just as a songwriter, but as an entertainer. I saw one of his concerts as a teenager, and I’ll never forget him flying across the audience. He had a way of singing to an arena full of people, but at the same time, it felt like he was in your living room singing to you. That’s what I love about country music; it’s relatable, there are stories, and it’s music that hits you really hard in the gut.
The other influences you see are from the other side of my life, because when I was a kid, I was in musical theater. That was me finding myself as a person, I was in third grade when I started doing musical theater. I didn’t live in a place where we had a lot of big tours coming through, but eventually I went to New York City, and I saw Les Mis for the first time and it was amazing. The other show that was my first Broadway musical was Big River. I fell in love with Rodger Miller’s unbelievable score and the way it brought together my love of musical theater and country music.
As I got a little older and a little more mature, I got into a lot of jazz and blues. I started as an Eric Clapton fan, he recommended this box set by Robert Johnson, and I saw it at a record store in the mall, and I fell in love with it. That had a big impact on me. Discovering Ella Fitzgerald was huge for me as well.
PC: As you were digesting the music of all of those influences and finding yourself in the industry, what was it about music that was connecting with you so early on? At what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
SJN: One of the influences I didn’t mention was gospel. I grew up going to a Baptist Church. We had this thing called Race Relations Day every few months, where an all black Baptist Church from the other side of town would come to our church and we would go to theirs. When I heard their choir for the first time, I was mesmerized. Gospel music has influenced me a lot too.
As far as doing it as a career, I went to New York City when I was 17 to pursue acting and musical theater, and after a few years, I got on Broadway and toured. The shift into songwriting was an interesting one. Being a musical theater actress is an interesting job, because you get a new script or classic musical, and you bring yourself to that role. I love doing that, but once I had kids, I started doing concerts of musical theater, blues, country and jazz. They were so popular that I decided to make an album. I sold them at the next concert, and it made all the money back from the recording in just one show. Since then, I’ve been writing, and that was a big shift for me, because suddenly, I found myself having the opportunity to communicate through songs, which I had done professionally my whole adult life, but this time, it was my storytelling. Some of the songs I write aren’t exactly my story, but they definitely are written through me. For my new record I’m Not Broken, I was able to create songs that were truly from my experiences and from my heart. It was a very vulnerable shift when I started doing that, and I really took that leap with this record. It was scary for me at first, because I’ve always played a character. It’s been a really rewarding shift, and I think it made me blossom as an individual.
PC: Your newest album I’m Not Broken is your first release where you were the primary writer, writing 11 of the album’s 12 tracks. Personally, what does the album mean to you, and what has the reception meant to you?
SJN: I got divorced at the beginning of 2014, and I started writing the songs on this record that same year. The reason it took me so long is that I needed to go on a personal journey. I honestly didn’t write this particular record thinking about a market that I was going to sell it to. When the record was done, I thought it might have a real impact on people, but then it took me a couple years to get the money and get everything set up to be able to release it. Now that it’s released, it almost feels like I birthed a baby that I was pregnant with for 5 years [laughs]. It’s turned out that different songs resonate with different people in different ways. I love getting emails and reading about how the songs have affected people. I feel so proud of my little songs.
PC: “I’m Not Broken” has already earned over 40,000 streams on Spotify, and its music video has received nearly 35,000 views on YouTube. What do you think it is about “I’m Not Broken” that has allowed it to connect with listeners the way it has?
SJN: I think that people are connecting with the fact that it’s very raw and vulnerable. There are so many people that are going through a really tough time, and I had no idea that my record would come out in the middle of a global pandemic. Single moms are really suffering right now, and the media doesn’t really discuss the impact of this pandemic on these households. They’re at risk for losing their homes, their children are in school, they’re having a hard time working, some are losing their jobs, and all the responsibility falls on them. I think when single moms hear that song when they’re going through a dark phase, it makes them feel like they can somehow get through it and out the other side. When I wrote it, I was in a genuinely tough moment in my single mom life, and I was mourning the loss of the family that I had built for 12 years. My heart was broken, and I actually told that story to my co-writer, Kenny Foster, and I bawled to him. It was a long time before I could sing that song and not cry, and there’s still times I get really choked up singing it. I think the message of the song talks about being punched in the gut, but it also talks about finding your way out of it. It’s about strength.
PC: I’m Not Broken includes a cover of The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” What went into the decision to add the song to the album and record it acoustically?
SJN: I have to give credit to my producer, Brian Irwin from Monster Studios in East Nashville, on that one. I told him I wanted to do one cover on the record, and I was thinking about doing “Jolene” or “Love Has No Pride.” He said that those have been done before, that I needed to do “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. I started laughing at him because I thought he was joking. When he played the guitar, it made me realize that it’s a really emotional, sad song. Lyrically, it was so different from how I perceived it. It’s quite a shift from the original, and it was really fun to do!
PC: “Her or Me” is one of our favorite songs on I’m Not Broken. Can you talk about the inspiration behind that song?
SJN: That song was so emotional to write. It was from a life experience, and the moment I wrote it, it was such a tough moment, but writing songs is how I get through tough moments. After I wrote it, I needed to sort out the circumstances I was in and the choices that I had. That was a really from-the-heart song. I wrote it late at night at a point where I just didn’t know what to do.
PC: You’ve used the word “vulnerable” a few times to describe I’m Not Broken. What is it about yourself that allows you to be so open and vulnerable with your music?
SJN: I think the influences in my early life certainly had a huge impact on that. The thing that all my favorite country, blues, gospel and jazz influences had in common is that they got real, and they weren’t trying to hide anything. I think being an actress allowed me to go there emotionally. When I shot the “I’m Not Broken” music video, I knew I just had to go to that place. There was definitely a little bit of acting, because I’m not really in that place anymore, but it’s still a part of me. That struggle will always be a part of me, and I think the struggles that we go through allow us the opportunity to grow. I’ve grown so much through the challenges I faced, and I’m still learning and growing everyday. I think vulnerability is the key to being open enough to grow.
PC: What do you hope listeners take away from I’m Not Broken after listening all the way through?
SJN: I hope people know that they’re not alone. One of the great things about sharing challenges is that it helps people relate to one another, because we all go through dark times. The circumstances may be different, but that’s something we all share as humans. My hope would be for people to know they’re not alone, to know they’re seen and heard, and for people to realize I was willing to open up and share my struggles, and maybe they can get through as well. I hope it makes people feel inspired, hopeful and comforted.
PC: You’ve mentioned on social media that you are already working on your next album. What information can you give about where you are in the process? What can listeners expect to hear?
SJN: I’ve written most of the songs, and I’m working through the list, editing and picking the songs. This is the hardest part! I want them all to make the album, but it’s an important part of the process. I’m fine tuning them. The next step will be to get into the studio and start piecing together the scratch tracks where we will lay down the acoustic guitar and vocal and shape the arrangements. I’m hoping to release it in the spring of 2021. As far as the content of it, it feels like an extension of I’m Not Broken. It goes out of the initial shock, healing and struggle, and it goes more into building a new life through dating. It has a theme of family as well. I think it has a lot of spirituality, it’s got some humor, and it’s just about being a mom. I’m really excited!.
PC: 2020 has altered many plans of artists so far. Of the things you can control, what are your plans for the rest of the year?
SJN: I’m hoping to complete the new record before the end of the year. I’ll also be promoting a Christmas record that I released a couple years ago. There are some original songs on there, and I’m going to do a music video for one of them. The rest of the year is about getting busy, trying to make magic happen in the studio, and I hope lightning will strike twice. I think what we created with I’m Not Broken is really special, and I’m so excited to share the next songs that I’ve written. As I build this fanbase and connect with these people that are resonating with my music, I hope I can continue to build a long career that will span the rest of my life. I don’t think I could stop writing songs if I wanted to, and I hope people keep wanting to listen to them. I feel like this is just the beginning!
*Images courtesy of Sarah Jane Nelson Facebook Page*
**Find Sarah Jane’s music featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!**