Steph MacPherson: Lessons from Nashville

Steph MacPherson, photo by Sara Hembree
Steph MacPherson, photo by Sara Hembree

Let me tell you a secret.

I once auditioned for one of those “instant star” shows. I spent several hours in a lineup, listening to strangers explain why they were the next pop sensation. I shook the hand of the host (who was no stranger to a sun bed), and allowed myself to be herded from waiting room to waiting room. But I didn’t make it past the second pre-audition. By the time I got there, I was tense enough to resemble a cardboard cut-out attempting to carry a tune, and I still remember the judges’ comments: “Pretty voice, beautiful eyes, not comfortable in own skin.”

During this adjudication, I overheard a man cry out from the next waiting room, “Do any of you actually care about music?!?!”

photo by Sara Hembree

photo by Sara Hembree

I doubt his outburst reached anyone but me, certainly not above all the “me-me-
me-me’s” and lip rolls echoing through the area. But his question resonated with me; I didn’t care about being the best singer in Canada, because, in my opinion, there was no such thing. I realized that by attending the audition, I wasn’t being honest with myself.

So I went home, wrote, recorded, toured, and showcased two albums, found myself with management and a local Indie label and some really great connections — and after a while, I kind of burned out. Trying to balance my music and my life began to take its toll. I was spending so much time working, trying to pay for everything, that I had no time to play. And what the hell is the point of being a musician if you don’t have the energy to pick up a guitar? If one more person told me to just “make the time …”

It was time for a break.One day, just as I was feeling a stirring to record again, I received a phone call from my label. Colin Linden, a Nashville-based Canadian producer/songwriter/slide player had heard my song on satellite radio, looked me up, and called to express his interest.

We started making plans. My manager applied for a grant from FACTOR (Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings) to help pay for the album, and by some miracle, we received it. We also launched an Indiegogo campaign, and reached our goal thanks to some very generous pledges. I saved and borrowed a little, too. We secured a temporary work permit for the United States, booked tickets,
and rented rooms. I was going to Nashville!

Following a 30-minute interview, and seriously questioning my B1 Visa letter for stating my wish to “recode” in Nashville (rather than “record”), the border officer finally let me pass. Once I arrived, I stayed in Sterling Court, an old brick heritage building that was erected as temporary housing after a great fire in the early 1900s. Coincidentally, it was also the first place that Colin and his wife Janice had lived in the city. The recording process went by so quickly that it feels more like a dream than a memory. John Dymond and Gary Craig (also of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) came down from Toronto to be a part of the record, and Tim Lauer laid down some gorgeous keys. We worked from 11am to 6pm through my two-week stay, and toward five o’clock Colin would suggest it was time for a “titch” of wine, which no one ever opposed. Every work day was capped off with a bottle of something delicious, and a feast of
southern food.

What struck me the most about my Nashville experience was the drive I witnessed among musicians to play and learn from each other constantly; maybe that’s just what happens when people are able to focus on what they love. I never want to stop wanting to be better, and to me that means being true to who I am, from moment to moment — but I don’t need to be “the best.” Like music, life will continue to teach and surprise you as long as you are open to it.

So how about we stop competing and just live a little? The result, a record called Stones, is my most honest and personal album to date. I look forward to sharing it with you.

 

Words by Steph MacPherson, photos by Sarah Hembree

 

originally published in analogue magazine’s April/May 2015 issue