Nora Jane Struthers left a teaching career to pursue music full time.
In a vintage dress and red lipstick, singer-songwriter Nora Jane Struthers looks like she’d fit just as comfortably at the front of a one-room schoolhouse as she does leading an Americana band. And perhaps she would. The 29-year-old singer-songwriter left a career teaching English in Brooklyn to pursue music full time in 2008. These days, Struthers sings stories inspired by her favorite novels along with her band The Party Line. Their forthcoming album, Carnival, is set for release under Struthers’ own label on April 16, but you can pick up a pre-release copy at her show at Ashland Coffee & Tea on April 10 (8 p.m.; $10 in advance, $15 at the door). Each song tells its own story, with the album weaving cheerful melodies about marrying a baker’s boy and backcountry barn dances with haunting ballads of the antebellum South. If you can’t make it to Wednesday’s show, head to Charlottesville for a free performance at the Haven on Thursday, as part of the four-day Tom Tom Founders Festival. We caught up with Struthers before the show to talk about her love for American literature, her childhood in New Jersey and her early musical influences.
RM: Where did you get your inspiration for the lyrics in your latest album?
NJS: They’re all story songs, but there are pieces of my own experience in each one to varying degrees. I’ve spent the last three years traveling around the United States, and also I read a lot of American literature. I think the combination of seeing how different people in this country live and reading historically based novels makes me particularly interested in a time before the digital age.
RM: Who are your favorite authors?
NJS: I go in phases, but a couple years ago, I was reading all of Larry McMurtry’s work. He’s a classic American Western writer. He wrote Lonesome Dove and many other great Western novels that paint beautiful pictures of early pioneer life. Last year about this time, I was reading all of Amy Tan’s novels. Her novels are centered on the mother-daughter relationship between first-generation and second-generation Chinese Americans. I think reading those novels sent me in the direction of writing songs from the female perspective, which is what this entire record is.
RM: The fourth song on the album, “Listen With Your Heart,” tells the story of a father teaching his daughter how to live off the land. Did that song come from a similar experience with your dad?
NJS: A little bit. Growing up, we had a patch of woods down at the end of my block, which as a child seemed like a vast expanse of wilderness. I have no accurate idea of how big that nature area was, but we used to go there on what we would call nature walks. I wouldn’t say he taught me survival skills, but more just an appreciation of nature. I think those childhood experiences mixed with knowing people now who are essentially learning how to become homesteaders. I think that’s a fascinating movement.
RM: I read that your father is a bluegrass musician — what music did you grow up listening to around the house?
NJS: The same things that lots of children of the baby boomers listened to — The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys, The Byrds — but also my dad has a lot of traditional bluegrass and country music, so I grew up listening to The Stanley Brothers, The Louvin Brothers. … We ended up listening to a lot of music where duet singing was prominent because then we could learn the songs and sing them.
RM: Why did you decide to leave teaching and pursue a career in music?
NJS: The short answer is, I think most people are motivated by fear in some way, and I think fear of trying and failing will keep people from taking risks, but for me, I turned that on its head. I realized that I was afraid if I didn’t do this, I would have a lifelong regret. At that point it wasn’t even scary anymore because I was like, "If I don’t do this, I will always regret it, so I have to do it."
RM: Your music ranges from murder ballads to barnyard dance melodies, what’s the overall mood you’re trying to evoke with your live shows?
NJS: Overall, we want it to be a party. That’s one of the reasons why we named the band The Party Line, but I also can’t get away from trying to take people out of their own reality and into more haunting stories. You have to have some counterpoint.