Carsie Blanton (3 Albums, 20 Tracks)
Following her heart has worked out pretty well for Carsie, earning her widespread critical acclaim and a coast-to-coast fan following for her clever wordplay and indelible melodies. The remarkable new Idiot Heart represents the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter’s finest work thus far, a panoramic collection of exuberant, expansive folk-pop, crafted with uncommon spirit and ingenuity. Songs such as “Together Too Long” and “Backbone” are given breath by producer Oliver Wood’s warm, unaffected arrangements and Blanton’s remarkable vocal stylings, at turns coy and confident, sly and sensual. Idiot Heart reveals Carsie Blanton to be a preternaturally gifted storyteller whose extraordinary life experiences fuel her open, knowing lyricism, using finely etched characterizations and a deeply personal perspective to touch a truly universal chord.
“I feel like my strength as a lyricist is not poetry, it’s telling the truth,” she says. “I say the things that everybody wants to say but doesn’t usually get to.
Carsie was surrounded by music while growing up in the Shenandoah Valley town of Luray, Virginia, instilling in her a lifelong love of the classic singer/songwriter canon. The Blantons advocated the educational philosophy known as unschooling, allowing Carsie to learn through natural life experiences as opposed to the traditional school curriculum.
“I was raised in a way that made it really easy for me to feel like it’s natural to go out of the box or do something out of the ordinary,” she says. “Because of that I’ve been really comfortable living a creative life. Being a songwriter professionally was not that scary for me as a career choice. For me, it was like, well, this is just one more alternative lifestyle choice.”
Carsie took piano lessons at an early age but her true calling came to her while at summer camp. “I saw a teenage girl playing guitar and I just thought she was so awesome,” she says. “I wanted to be just like her so I picked up the guitar and started learning songs.”
It wasn’t long before she began constructing her own, having already been a prolific poet and keeper of journals. As she put pen to paper, Carsie became focused on the sheer craft of songwriting, striving to work out the pure power of music.
“I got really obsessed with trying to figure them out,” she says. “Like, why is this song so moving? What is it about the story that does it for the listener? I was definitely focused on the craft from a really young age.”
Further inspiration came from such contemporary artists as Patty Griffin, Ani DiFranco, and Joan Osborne, as well as a burgeoning interest in jazz. She began with iconic singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone but soon went down “the rabbit hole,” delving into the dazzling sounds of New Orleans via such masters as Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet.
“What’s always attracted me, to both folk music and jazz, is the soulfulness,” Carsie says. “That personal quality really moves me and that’s always been something I’ve sought out.”
At 16, Carsie packed up her songs and headed west to Eugene, Oregon where she moved into a group house comprised of other artists and musicians. Life there was lived on the extremely cheap. Blanton worked odd jobs like dog grooming, supplemented by dumpster diving and the kindness of strangers. Most importantly, her five years there served as a kind of college of musical knowledge. She started her first ever band, sang back-up in a touring funk unit, and discovered the wonderful world of swing dancing, an interest that flowed from her affection for traditional jazz.
“The things I wanted to learn weren’t available to me at home or at school so I had to go somewhere else in order to pursue my education,” she says.
In 2005, Carsie recorded and self-released her first CD, Ain’t So Green, simply to share her music at shows and open mic nights. She relocated to Philadelphia the following year and was soon drawn into the City of Brotherly Love’s thriving café community.
“The thing that’s really nice about Philly, as opposed to New York or L.A. or Nashville, is that it’s not an industry town,” she says. “People who live here are doing music for other reasons besides wanting to get famous. It’s kind of an inspiring scene to be part of.”
Carsie began gigging frequently, acquiring a manager and more importantly, a fervent fanbase. She recorded and self-released a second album, 2009’s Buoy, this time mixing classic soul and R&B into her own idiosyncratic sound. She also started opening for other like-minded artists, including The Wood Brothers, with whom she formed somewhat of a mutual admiration society. In May 2011, Carsie reached out to the band’s Oliver Wood to see if he’d be interested in producing her new record. He agreed and the two began doing pre-production via e-mail, exchanging songs and ideas through the spring. In July, they spent four days at a studio in Wood’s native Atlanta, with Wood serving as both producer and guitarist, accompanied by Carsie’s longtime bassist Joe Plowman, drummers Jano Rix (The Wood Brothers, Marc Broussard, Damien Marley) and Tyler Greenwell (Susan Tedeschi, Col. Bruce Hampton & The Codetalkers). Additional instrumentation and backing vocals were added in August, including contributions from banjo player Joe McGuinness.
“I wanted to have a band that was well-rehearsed and knew the songs and then cut everything live,” she says. “There’s that quality of collaboration. You can tell that everyone’s in the same room, you can tell that they collaborated on the songs.”
The album embodies Carsie’s playful take on a “Sixties rock record,” showcasing her myriad influences and interests, blending jazz, blues, and pop with bucolic folk rock arrangements and her own inimitable persona.
“What I told Oliver is that I wanted to make a record that was like The Band meets Elvis Costello,” she says, “but that’s still me, a girl, who’s young and has kind of a cute voice.”
The aesthetic focal point of Idiot Heart is Carsie’s longtime fascination with New Orleans, an ardor that has grown in recent years through her frequent travels to the city.
“I just fell in love with the city,” she says. “There’s a darkness about New Orleans, a little bit of a gothic, morbid feeling. But at the same time, it’s all about celebration and sensuality. That’s the quality I tried to get into these songs, the juxtaposition of death with joy and pleasure.”
That concurrence of sex and mortality inspired much of Idiot Heart with songs like “Smoke Alarm” – described by Carsie as “a feel good anthem about the fact that everyone’s going to die” – and “Little Death” abound with erotic, anatomical imagery and complex ideas.
“That connection was the spark that lit up all these songs,” Carsie says. “The concept came to me about a year ago and then I started seeing it everywhere: la petit morte, the femme fatale, ‘looks that kill,’ incubi and succubi, vampires… all these ideas imply that there is a relationship between sex and death. I think the relationship is that people feel most alive during sex, and in some deep part of our brain, it reminds us that one day we won’t be.”
Carsie has mastered her craft the old-fashioned way, by playing over a hundred shows a year both as headliner and as support to such artists as Joan Osborne, John Oates, David Wilcox, Jimmy Webb, and Loudon Wainwright III. In addition, she’s toured Europe, performed on NPR’s famed Mountain Stage, and taken part in stage productions of Anaïs Mitchell’s acclaimed Hadestown: A Folk Opera.
“Traveling all the time is a great way to take in new information,” she says. “You’re always on an adventure, meeting new people and getting the stories of their lives. It’s the best way for me to continue to get inspired about people.”
Carsie is approaching the release of Idiot Heart from the same clear-cut stance that she tackles her life and music. Having funded the project by raising $30,000 from fans, she now plans to simply bestow the record upon her audience, inviting them to use Quidplayer to pay what they like for downloads or physical CDs.
“My true calling as an artist is to share,” she says. “What I actually want to do is make beautiful music and then give it to everyone, regardless of what they give me back. My number one goal is for people to hear it, and I have to trust that I’ll be taken care of.”
Blessed with a distinctive voice – both as performer and songwriter – and an unfettered passion for making music, Carsie Blanton is truly something special, a marvelously original artist who is as forthright as she is ambitious.
“This is just the only way I know how to be,” she says. “Being honest and direct is in my blood. It’s not something I can stop doing, really.”
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