Enjoy the journey. — I have been lucky enough to play all over the world and achieve many of my big dreams. The best thing I learned from those experiences is that being happy is something you do along the way. There is no achievement that will finally make you content. That happens inside and for me, that happens when I put my time, energy, and priority into those who mean the most to me. Family, friends, fellow artists, my community. I am enjoying my journey and that is the key to happiness in life.
As a part of our series about Nashville’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sarah Jane Nelson.
With her newest album, “I’m Not Broken,” Sarah Jane Nelson adds her own defiantly triumphant voice to the Americana-Country field. Set in a sonic landscape that recalls the era of artists like Wynonna, Kathy Mattea and Mary Chapin Carpenter, “I’m Not Broken” is an honest breath of fresh air, a deliberate throwback to the days when a fiddle, an acoustic guitar and a rich alto voice could celebrate the fullness of a life hard-fought and hard-won.
This is a singer who fits the cliché: “she could sing the phonebook and make it sound good.” In fact, her search for her voice led her from musical theater to Shakespeare to a 2011 acoustic blues-influenced record of standards. But Nashville does a funny thing to artists, makes a singer into a songwriter and by singing their own songs, the songs bring out a truer voice, teaching the artist something maybe they had forgotten. As rich as cane syrup, Nelson’s honeyed voice is both resilient and vulnerable, gliding through the 12 songs with a gentle familiarity, as if we’ve known her all along. It’s clear this once-musical theater actress has deep roots in country music, as every note rings authentic. This is no small task and not many other singers could pull off this hat trick.
Nelson had been toying with her songs for years, writing with babies on her lap, moving from NYC to Oregon to Los Angeles and eventually to Nashville with her first husband, also an actor. But the foundation of her marriage had been crumbling for years and cracked wide open in Nashville. The 12 songs on “I’m Not Broken” are the result of this shift from singing others stories to singing her own. From the title track to the last song, “A Little Bit of Light,” Sarah Jane reveals the universal truths of characters struggling to find hope as the fantasy falls apart.
Sarah Jane Nelson is no straightforward theatrical talent, trying on a costume of a genre. These songs come from a decidedly Americana truth: a single mother hanging onto a dream through unexpected changes, a singer returning to the land and music of her childhood, a keenly observant writer telling a universal story born out of her own specifics, and a songwriting single mom of two, “I’m Not Broken” is the record Sarah Jane Nelson was born to make.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/04f01c1229334ae0216b93266f50215e
Thank you so much for joining us in this series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
I was born in Arkansas and raised in Louisiana. My family loved bluegrass and traditional country music. My dad had a potato chip company and then worked in the paper mill industry. As he got more successful in his business, we started to travel and I developed a love of musical theater. Eventually, I moved to NYC and performed on Broadway and on National and International tours. I have had quite an adventure thus far!
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
After I had kids, I stopped doing Broadway shows and focused on recording and live concerts. It was a great way to have a flexible schedule and still express myself creatively. After some financial troubles, we moved to Nashville and just after arriving, I became a single mom. It was a huge shift and songwriting was there for me as I processed the challenges I was facing. That’s how my record, “I’m Not Broken” came about. It was written during that transition.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I have had so many incredible experiences in my career. I guess the most insane was when Paul Newman asked me to sing at a benefit for his Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. I got there and the names on the marquee were: Carole King, Paul Newman, Tony Randall, Michael J. Fox, Chevy Chase, Gregory Hines, Joshua Bell, Kristin Chemoweth, and Sarah Jane Nelson. It seemed like a typo to include me in that list! That weekend was amazing. So much time just hanging out with this incredible group of people. I shared a dressing room with Carole King! It was remarkable.
Can you share with us an interesting story about living in Nashville?
I volunteer for a program called The Beat of Life and we go into the Davidson County jail and write songs with inmates. It has been a transformational program for both the inmates and the writers.
Can you share with us a few of the best parts of living in Nashville? We’d love to hear some specific examples or stories about that.
I love so much about Nashville. Besides my kids (ages 12 and 15) who keep me busy, my daily life it’s all about music and nature.
I love being a part of the amazing songwriting community in this town. I attend songwriting circles, writers rounds, and study songwriting with an amazing mentor. I write every day and it brings me incredible joy.
I also love the natural beauty of this area. Hiking at Radnor Lake is very special to me. It’s stunning. The waterfalls and caves nearby are also incredible. I enjoy fishing in the lakes and rivers, boating and canoeing, and biking as well. Get me outside and I’m a happy girl!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The biggest mistake I’ve made in my career is the fact that it took me many years to find out who I am as a writer and recording artist. I had to get out of the habit of playing a character as I did in my acting and Broadway days and truly get down to the real me. I’m Not Broken is 100% me, but with every song I write, every day of growth that passes, I discover a bit more about myself and become a more authentic artist. That’s a wonderful feeling.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mom has always been my #1 cheerleader. She believes in me so completely and has helped me through struggles and uncertainty over the years. I am very lucky that she lives in the house behind me here in East Nashville and we have a pretty amazing little setup. If you see Carla Woods commenting on one of my live Facebook or Instagram shows, that’s mama cheering me on!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m about to go into the studio to begin recording my 6th record! Although I love “I’m Not Broken”, this new set of songs is the best I have ever written. I continue to grow as a person and as a songwriter and I can’t wait to watch these stories come to life at the hands of my producer, Brian Irwin and the incredible Nashville musicians who will be playing on the record. Living in this town with so much world class musical talent around me is a huge blessing.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Be you. — Don’t try to be like everyone else. It’s tempting but don’t do it. Be UNIQUE.
2. Play your instrument every day. — I have been a professional singer since I was 17 years old and always wrote using the guitar but never thought of myself as a guitar player. I WISH I hadn’t had that limiting thought about my guitar playing all those years ago. I am finally playing every day and getting better all the time. The best time to learn to play a musical instrument is 20 years ago. The second-best time is TODAY.
3. Keep learning. — Get help. Get educated. Take singing lessons. Take guitar lessons. Take songwriting class. Always strive to grow. The best of the best are the ones who are always learning.
4. Broaden your horizons — Take a history course. Listen to NPR to learn something new every day. Read the paper. Go to a city council meeting. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Do things that expand your mind and your experience as a human being. Artists who are great are artists who have a viewpoint. Be a well-rounded person and have something to say with your art.
5. Enjoy the journey. — I have been lucky enough to play all over the world and achieve many of my big dreams. The best thing I learned from those experiences is that being happy is something you do along the way. There is no achievement that will finally make you content. That happens inside and for me, that happens when I put my time, energy, and priority into those who mean the most to me. Family, friends, fellow artists, my community. I am enjoying my journey and that is the key to happiness in life.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Take care of yourself. Work hard but always make time for self care. I don’t smoke or do drugs of any kind. I prioritize sleep, eat healthfully, exercise my body in nature, and try to surround myself with people who are uplifting and kind. These things make life worth living. The career success is just icing on the cake.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
That’s a big one! Well, I would love to inspire women to believe in their power. Women have been pushed down for centuries and we need to let our light shine. Even if you’ve been through hard times, keep faith that you will rebuild stronger than ever. I suppose the “I’m Not Broken” movement is the one I would like to inspire!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It would be the lyric of my song, “I’m Not Broken” because even now there are moments when I need to hear it.
“I’m not broken. I’m not done. I get up more than I’m knocked down. Put myself back the way I was found. I have scars. You know I’ve sinned. But they’re just souvenirs from where I’ve been the cracks just let the light come in. And I’m not broken.”
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Dolly Parton! She is so uniquely herself and doesn’t apologize for it. I love her music, her songwriting, her story, and her bravery to be 100% Dolly!
How can our readers follow you online?
I have a very active Instagram and Facebook fanbase @sarahjanenelson and my website www.SarahJaneNelson.com is where you can sign up for my email list and get 5 free songs with the stories behind them.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!