Pages Navigation Menu

Inspiring Stories, Inspiring People

Caroline Herring, singer/songwriter

Caroline Herring, singer/songwriter

Meet Caroline Herring, a singer/songwriter who burst onto the Austin music scene in 2001 and has been building an impressive musical portfolio ever since. Camilla, her sixth commercial album, has won rave reviews from critics. Its songs are as hauntingly beautiful as the voice behind them. Check out Caroline’s homepage for tour dates or to purchase music, or stop by iTunes for a sampling of her work.

PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?

CH: I don’t remember! But I do remember what my dad told me: That I could be the first female governor of the state of Mississippi.


PPF: I love that–and your dad for saying it. How long did that dream last?

CH: Alas, that dream has not yet been fulfilled. But I am trying to become a better citizen. That is still a dream.


PPF: When did you start singing?

CH: When I was very young. I remember going to get pizza with a group of young girls, and we were all sitting in the back seat of the car, and one girl said, “Caroline for being such a good singer you don’t sing very well with the melody.” And I replied, “I’M SINGING HARMONY!”


PPF: You grew up in a small town in Mississippi. A lot of amazing artists and musicians have come from that state. Did your family encourage music and the arts?

CH: My parents certainly encouraged it. I played piano from a young age, thanks to them. Dad played some guitar and sang in the choir, and Mom played piano. And they had lots and lots of records that they loved playing.


PPF: I met you in graduate school. Can you tell everyone what you studied in school?

CH: I’ve always been a liberal arts girl – English, history and French in college, Southern Studies in grad school, and the beginnings of a doctorate in American Studies.


PPF: Do you remember a class, or a course, or a moment in your education that changed everything for you?  

CH: Through time, I have always been a capable and smart –but lazy—student. I most remember teachers who recognized my abilities and accepted nothing but my best work. Honestly, I remember lots of those teachers and am hugely grateful to them. More than that, though, I remember my peers. Hardworking, creative people around me make the most difference.


PPF: What was your first real job?

CH: Camp counselor for ten weeks, in tenth grade.


PPF: What is your current occupation or pastime?

CH: I am a singer/songwriter.


PPF: Were you formally trained to do what you do now? 

CH: Folksingers are not supposed to be formally trained, otherwise they are not considered “folk” or “traditional.” And I endorse that. There are many, many art forms that could never be taught in a school or institutional setting. That doesn’t mean they don’t take a lot of work. I have had a few guitar lessons through the years, and have sung in many choirs. But 14 years of piano lessons, which I don’t play now, set the basis for my musical life.


PPF: Was there a particular mentor, or a person who believed in you and gave you a chance when no one else would?

CH: I have had the good fortune of having several of these types of people in my life. First, it was Dar Williams, who championed me after I had left the Austin music scene and helped me get back in the professional music world. Then it was Jim Olsen, head of Signature Sounds recordings, who took me on his roster even though I had a new baby and an obscure name! And then it was Mary Chapin Carpenter, who has been constantly supportive and kind to me. Most recently it was Neil Pearson of the Shrewsbury Folk Festival in the UK. He and others invited me to be part of a project there that I found absolutely life-changing. And I’m sure there will be more. Now my job is to pay it forward.


PPF: What has been the lowest point in your career?

CH: The lowest point? Well, there have been many. I think it is loneliest for a musician or artist when no one believes in their work. That is why your previous question is so important and insightful. Compliments are nice, but people in the business who recognize your talent and reward it are essential.


PPF: What has been the highest point so far?

CH: Well, because this career goes in revolutions, or cycles, there have been several high points as well as low ones. I remember stepping on to the stage and winning best new artist at the Austin Music Awards. I loved being on Prairie Home Companion, loved every single minute of that. And I loved being part of the first live show of the Cecil Sharp Project in England. The experiences are the high points.


PPF: What is the most difficult thing about the music industry?

CH: I find that the most difficult thing is making a lasting mark. Everything moves so quickly. There is no memory in the music business. It is almost like the entire industry has instant amnesia. This is no place to stake one’s self-esteem.


PPF: Tell me a little bit about your new album, Camilla. It’s been received so well—the critics have a darling. I read the Paste review and got chill bumps.  Songlines magazine in the UK named it one of the top albums of 2012. Where did you record this one?

CH: Camilla is my sixth commercial release. I loved recording this album in Nashville, and I worked with a wonderful producer named Erick Jaskowiak, who put together a terrific band for me. And yes, it has received good reviews, thank you!


PPF: What inspired the name?

CH: Camilla is a song based on an incident which occurred in Camilla, Georgia, in 1962, during the Albany Civil Rights Movement. Marion King, who was six months pregnant at the time, took her young children and visited a friend’s daughter in jail in Camilla. They never even went inside the jail, but the deputy sheriff there unleashed his fury even on her and beat her unconscious while her children watched. She later miscarried. I find her story maddening, and she is one of thousands and thousands of people who suffered such horrific injustice. However, I think recognizing her as a hero is the best thing I can do. I also wrote a song about Mae Frances Moultrie, one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961.


PPF: I remember from our grad school days that you were always drawn to the people who didn’t have a voice. Your songwriting really dives headfirst into the world of social justice—and injustice. You really care about the makeup of a human being and the complications, the tensions, of both one’s heart and one’s circumstances. I have of course loved all your albums, but I think Camilla is some of your best work. Speaking of, what is essential to do just that—your best work?

CH: Time, quiet, and a good space in which to work. And maybe some chocolate.


PPF: How do you balance your career and your family?

CH: Well, that is an ongoing challenge! My son just started kindergarten, so more time has opened up for me in the day. That helps. However, time still sneaks away.


PPF: Describe your version of the perfect day.

CH: Coffee, newspaper, working in my room. Some exercise, and a sandwich while watching the Daily Show before I pick up the kids.


PPF: What (or who) most inspires you and why?

CH: Right now I am inspired by Louise Erdrich. She is such an amazing author; I have read almost everything she has written. Erdrich embraces and champions her native culture, and she has an independent bookstore, my dream. I find her amazing, and I find any artist who perseveres through life and continues their art incredibly inspiring. It’s a hard life.


PPF: What job could you never, ever, do, no matter how broke you were?

CH: Well, I think it’s best never to say never. I would make a lousy accountant.


PPF: When have you been most daring in your life?

CH: In my music, and in my travels involving music. Music and writing is survival for me.


PPF: When have you been most afraid?

CH: Ditto.
PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?

CH: I got it from Peter Rowan, when I was playing on Thacker Mountain Radio in 1997. He was our musical guest, and he told me that I could be like Iris DeMent and sing and write. No one had ever told me that before. And I followed his advice.


PPF: If you could choose it ahead of time, like we get to for wedding receptions, what do you want your last meal on earth to be?

CH: Chicken pot pie and a nice white wine, with pecan pie and Peet’s Coffee (Major Dickason’s Blend) for dessert. On pretty plates and in pretty cups, with nice tableware and ironed white linens.


PPF: What’s on your bedside table right now?

CH: I just removed about 20 news apps from my iPhone so I might start reading again. I have Wodehouse, Erdrich, and Wendell Berry, I think.


PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking “one day”?

CH: I want to be in Oaxaca, Mexico for the Day of the Dead.


PPF: First concert you ever went to?

CH: Shaun Cassidy.


PPF: Best concert you ever went to?

CH: U2 with BB King.


PPF: Song that would be the title track to the soundtrack of your life?

CH: Revolving Joni Mitchell songs.


PPF: Best meal you ever had?

CH: Home-cooked meals with friends.


PPF: What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?

CH: I guess the act of doing it makes one good at it: and I love steam-cleaning carpets. I find tremendous satisfaction in suctioning up all that dirt.


PPF: If you could interview someone and ask him/her these questions, who would it be?

CH: Carla Bruni.

* Listen to Caroline’s “Fireflies” here. Or let her voice haunt you with one of the prettiest lullabies ever.

**Photo of Caroline by Tom Fahey

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>