"I really enjoy the juxtaposition of kind of a pretty, up-sounding melody with deadly sad lyrics — that's such a great combination," says acclaimed singer/songwriter Carrie Rodriguez. Listening to her new release Love and Circumstance, a beautiful and melancholic collection of renditions that includes songs written by her father and her aunt — it takes just a few moments to get her point.
After years of collaboration with other artists, Rodriguez only recently started recording her own albums and touring with her own band. Love and Circumstance, her third studio album, steps away from the craft of songwriting and focuses on presenting a consistent theme.
"There's nothing too happy on this album," the Austin, Texas, native says with a chuckle. "There are only a few glimmers of hope. It started with a song I sing in Spanish ["La Puñalada Trapera"], which was a song my great aunt recorded 50 years ago. It was part of my set when I played live. People asked me, When is that song going to be on an album?' and I thought, 'I better make one.'"
She almost added a recording of "La Puñalada Trapera" on her previous album of original music, but she felt it'd be out of place. The title translates into "the treacherous backstab."
"That song is a deadly kind of love song," says Rodriguez. "It's really dramatic. It's basically saying, 'My life is ruined and it's all your fault.' I started from that point, and there were a few other covers that I'd been singing for years, like Lucinda Williams' 'Steal Your Love' and Merle Haggard's 'I Started Loving You Again.' Then I started digging deep and thinking about which songs were most important to me."
Love and Circumstance meanders from tragedy and heartbreak to almost comical frustration and disappointment. Rodriguez and her band sway from one elegant countrified style to another — from straightforward boot stompers and slow waltzes to more misty and spacious acoustic ballads.
"They're all such great songs, so I wanted the lyrics to be a dominating force on each track," says Rodriguez. "It's a tricky balance. I was an instrumentalist first, and I also place a lot of importance on the sound of the track and the sound of the instruments and the effects that we use. But we also try to let the lyrics dominate in an appropriate way."
Love and Circumstance includes compositions from some of the finest folk, pop-rock, and country songsmiths out there. The tracks include the harmony-heavy "Big Love" by Little Village, the waltzy "Wide River to Cross" by Buddy Miller & Julie Miller, the mandolin-driven tune "Eyes on the Prize" by M. Ward, and the strummy Williams heartbreaker "Steal Your Love." The feathery "When I Heard Gyspy Davy Sing" was penned by Rodriguez's father, David. Other highlights include numbers by Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Richard Thompson, Hank Williams, and Townes Van Zandt.
"I try to be in the story of the songs and feel the emotion of the character," says Rodriguez. "Hopefully, it comes out sounding as natural as possible. I grew up playing the violin. I don't have the ability to do fancy things with my voice, so I don't even try. I just try to sound honest, especially when covering other people's songs."
There's plenty of space in the songs, with a clean and crisp separation within the instrumentation and arrangements. It allows Rodriguez to sing easily over things with clarity and expression.
"I think you can hear my Texas twang a lot more," she admits. "I don't know if that was from nerves or nervous energy, but there is definitely a difference between how I sang years ago. It was more tense a few years ago. Now, I just try to put myself inside of the songs. I don't worry about technique, and I try not to over-think things."
In addition to a few guest vocal appearances from Aoife O'Donovan (of Crooked Still) and Buddy Miller, Rodriguez was quite excited to handle the studio sessions with support from her regular backing band of drummer Eric Platz, bassist Kyle Kegerreis, and guitarist Hans Holzen.
"This was my core touring band on the record," she says. "We'd been playing for year already, so it was a real luxury."
This week's show will be an abbreviated version, with Luke Jacobs on pedal steel and Holzen on mandolin and six-string guitar. Rodriguez will switch between fiddle, tenor guitar, and electric mandolin.
"We do have a lot of electric instruments, so we'll still be able to make some ambient, lush sounds," says Rodriguez. "Part of the fun of it for me is playing with different ensembles and having to play things in a very different way. It means I need to change the arrangement or the tempo, which is fun because it keeps it fresh for me. I don't run the risk of going on auto-pilot."