Being around someone who understands you, inside and out, is the best feeling for UW-Eau Claire graduate and Nashville singer-songwriter Sarah Lou Richards. For her fourth album, aptly named “Someone Who Gets Me,” the Americana artist looked for collaborators who wouldn’t let her settle for anything less.
“I’m a heart person, I want to feel connected to people,” Richards said in a recent phone interview. “So it makes sense for my career that how I’m building it would be with people I feel connected.”
As it happens, she realized when the album was finished a majority of the people she worked with on this album were also UW-Eau Claire graduates. From its Minneapolis-based producer Adrian Suarez to local jazz musicians Jeremy Boettcher and Ben Lester, much of the crew happened to have gone to Richards’ alma mater.
The album dropped Sept. 29, and she will be performing for her Midwestern home base at 7:30 p.m. Friday in The Oxbow Hotel gallery, after stopping at the Turf Club in St. Paul the night before.
Making it personal
Though Richards craves close connections, feeling them in her career was a 180-degree switch from working on her previous full-length albums, “Woman Behind the Curtain” and “Ruby Red Shoes.”
While she enjoyed her team for both of those albums, she said it felt too mechanical. And, still young in her career, she didn’t feel comfortable speaking up about how she wanted her music to sound.
Working with Suarez, who in the past has played the drums in her band, was a completely different experience. Richards said he allowed her to throw in her own ideas about the tracks and asked for her feedback on the work he was doing.
“(Suarez) did a really good job taking my suggestions but also being firm when he felt like his direction was better, but he didn’t ever make me feel foolish,” she said. “We tried everything even if we didn’t end up using it.”
Going into “Someone Who Gets Me,” Richards wasn’t sure about many things. But she did know two songs, “Song For Peaches” and “Jaidyn’s Lullaby,” written for her niece and nephew, were “non-negotiables.”
“Previous producers said they were too specific, and would alienate a larger audience,” she said. “Which I understand objectively, but more often than not people understand that love of kids. Plus, that’s the coolest part about what I do is I get to write songs for people I love.”
Suarez agreed they should be on the album, working with her to develop a sound that was not too commercial sounding but also not cheesy.
Richards said she intentionally chose a team of people who she had worked with or knew of beforehand. She had played shows with Boettcher and Lester previously, and they had worked together before. She said that made it easier going into the studio when they could play off their past musical experiences of one another.
Songs like “Treasure” and “Right Where I Need to Be” were co-written with Adam McDonough, a songwriter whom Richards said is “musically the person in Nashville who gets me the most.”
Many of the songs on this album Richards had previously written, such as “Love Always Wins,” a track she wrote for two friends who married shortly after the Marriage Equality Act passed on July 9, 2015.
“Jaidyn’s Lullaby” even features an intro spoken by her nephew, Jaxson Norvold.
Her love song, “A New Kind of Song,” which she wrote for her now-husband, Charlie Upton, was written six months after the two started dating.
“The first time I played it for him I just stared at the floor — I had never been in love before and it was so startling and kind of embarrassing to share those feelings,” she said. “This album definitely feels really personal in that a lot of the songs come directly from my life.”
That’s not unusual for the songs written by Richards, a Midwestern country gal who wears her heart on her sleeve. But this time those songs have an edgy, fuller twist.
Turn on this album and listen to the blues-country-rock track “Plane Blue” — it’s Richards’ distinctive voice and storytelling style, amplified with Lester’s pedal steel, Suarez’ own percussion and electric guitar. If you know Richards’ music you’ll find this change of direction pleasantly surprising.
Not in Nashville
When Suarez asked her to consider letting him produce her next record, Richards didn’t need much convincing.
She had grown tired of the saturated Nashville music scene, and thought doing something closer to her home base would be a welcome change.
“There are thousands of albums coming out of Nashville constantly, but I have a lot of success playing where I’m from,” she said. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I could shine a light on the place I came from with this record instead of a place that already gets a lot of attention?’ ”
Suarez and Richards spent a lot of time sending tracks back and forth before they met in Suarez’ Minneapolis studio to start tracking the album.
Richards considered manany of the songs finished, and said it was rejuvenating to see what a fresh set of ears could do to them.
“(Suarez) made these songs that were at the end of the road for me, felt like I couldn’t do anymore with them, and then you hand them to somebody else and the possibilities are endless,” she said.
Already knowing Richards and her music style, Suarez went in with a few ideas of his own. Namely, he didn’t want this album to sound anything like her previous one.
“Her last record sounds beautiful, it sounds like a very polished, composed Nashville thing,” Suarez said. “But it also sounds like 95,000 other singer-songwriters trying to make it in Nashville. I wanted it to have a little more personality and I wanted to get inside what really made her tick but also honor my process and the way I hear the music.”
Richards was hesitant at first, but said she grew to trust Suarez quickly. And that, she thinks, made all the difference.
She credits that feeling to being a part of the producing process, something she had no prior experience with. Suarez said that gave him free range to try new ideas.
“I made a lot of decisions that don’t necessarily follow the mold of what she’s done so far,” he said. “She was totally willing to put her trust in my hands.”
When “Someone Who Gets Me” was done, both producer and artist said they felt immensely proud of what they had accomplished together. Richards called it a growing experience for both of them.
“That’s really clear with this, there’s room to grow,” she said. “There was all of this out there just waiting for this opportunity to come together.”
Each time she released a single or got a new review, Richards said she was quick to share feedback with Suarez and welcomed his enthusiastic response.
“Producers I’ve worked with in the past have done tons of records, which is good because they could do it in their sleep, but there was a little imbalance of my excitement compared to it was just another day for them,” she said.
Ten years ago, Richards moved to Nashville hoping to be a “country pop star.” She never dreamed she’d end up an alternative country rocker with an almost bluesy voice.
She thinks this is her strongest album yet, but added she would be worried if it weren’t. Still, sometimes listening to the final product, she forgets it is herself.
“It’s cool to listen and sometimes my breath will catch in my throat,” Richards said. “This work, this piece of art that is this album is stunning. It’s a lot of different pieces that went into it and I was just one of the pieces.”
She and Suarez are already collaborating on a potential project for the holidays.
Richards hopes to continue growing musically and opening doors to new projects. She’s grateful for what she learned in Music City, but added she never planned to live there forever.
“It feels like I came here to collect tools I need for a strong career,” she said. “Nobody questions in Nashville, no one thinks it is weird if you are X age and are a musician. It also might make it a little bit easier to relocate and build something where I’m one of a few instead of one of a million.”
For now, she’s focused on sharing “Someone Who Gets Me” with everybody who is willing to listen.
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