In This Episode
Rising artist, Ciara Rae shares her experience of living in Nashville as a songwriter and musician. She tells us about the ups and downs of surviving in a forever evolving industry, staying true to her music and how songwriting helped her into recovery from an eating disorder.
Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox, and welcome to With Friends Like These. If you’ve been listening to this show any time in the past year, you know, I’ve moved back to Texas. Texas is home for me. I spent most of my childhood here. My parents are from here. And my childhood had a country music soundtrack, the outlaw country of the ’70s and ’80s. It was just what everyone around me listened to. My parents took me to my first concert at five and it was a Willie Nelson concert. I think I loved country music as a kid, and I still love country music because it tells stories, and it tells stories in a way that even a kid understands. I mean, lots of kinds of music tell stories, but in country music, they’re just right there. Long Black Veil, Folsom Prison Blues, and one of my favorite songs of all time: Pancho and Lefty. Those are just out- and-out stories with like a beginning, middle and end in the song. But today we’re talking about country music in a particular context. This whole month has featured musicians exploring how music influences relationships, not the relationships of the people listening to the music or the relationships necessarily described in the music, but the relationships of the people making the music. In the last show, we talked to Cathy Valentine about her time with the Go-Go’s, their rise, their fall, their breakup, and reunion. And today we’re talking to rising artist Ciara Rae about Nashville. Not the city, really, but what people who play country music mean when they say Nashville. And they mean a lot of things, but it doesn’t necessarily have a map or boundaries. Ciara’s latest single is “Save Your Sorrys”, and we’re going to talk about that, but we’re also going to talk about what Nashville means and what she’s learned there, and how songwriting helped her into recovery from an eating disorder and how it’s still saving her. Coming right up, Ciara Rae.
Ana Marie Cox: Ciara, welcome to the show.
Ciara Rae: I’m so excited to be here. I really am. I can’t wait to talk about everything we got coming up now.
Ana Marie Cox: All right. Well, we’re going to talk about everything. And we’re going to talk about Nashville. I mentioned in the opening to this interview that we’re going to be talking about Nashville, but not the city, really, you know, not the streets and the avenues and the houses and the parks, but what Nashville stands for in the country music industry.
Ciara Rae: Mm-Hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: And I wonder if you could define that. Like when people in your business say the word Nashville, what are they talking about?
Ciara Rae: To me, the songwriting, the songwriters. That’s immediately what comes to mind. I think coming from a non-Nashville area of Fort Lauderdale and then, you know, where it was all about the performance and just going out and entertaining, to coming here. It was a super shock to my system that, oh, everyone here has a great voice but which one of you has a story, a story that’s going to rip your heart out? A story that’s going to make you stop in your tracks and reevaluate your life, or look back on your life, or whatever the case may be. And I think just like everybody who comes to Nashville, they realize they’re in for a lot, but, you know, I came there with a set of expectations and walked out with a completely different one when it comes to songwriting and the stories and the respect for that. So not to jabber too much. I’ll let you continue on to your next question, but I would say the songwriters. For sure.
Ana Marie Cox: No, no. This is you. This is, this is all about you. And my impression is there’s a few things you made me think of. One is that, yes, country music, more so than other genres right now, it’s songwriters who make or break artists, right? Like it’s not artists who make or break songwriters. It’s maybe a little bit more analogous, like in some like, I think in hip hop to a certain degree, pop music, people think about producers, you know, being like, really, key?
Ciara Rae: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: But in Nashville, it’s, it is, it’s songwriting. Like that’s, that’s what people are thinking about.
Ciara Rae: Yes. Yeah. And let’s not take away like—put it to you this way, I have heard songs, the same song sung by the writer, and I’ve heard the same song sung by the artist who made it big. And you know, there is, I see, I’ve heard of songs and seen songs that have been recorded by a million people and it was never right till it hit the right person and the right voice. So I definitely believe in that. But to what you’re saying, 100%, it starts at the song, and it wouldn’t be there without the song, without the message. That creation.
Ana Marie Cox: The other thing I was thinking about Nashville is, is I think what people mean when they say it in this industry, is kind of the industry, the culture of it, the business of country music.
Ciara Rae: Which has changed drastically over the last seven years, more than that, 10 years. But I mean, at least, I can only speak for what I’ve observed in my time, you know what I mean? Of, you know, being active and being here, but you know, I started off in a time where like, you had to be on the radio or be signed. So first of all, you had to be signed to get on the radio. There was no way around that. There was no big internet phase.
Ana Marie Cox: Wait, wait, wait. You say this word raaaaadeeeooo?
Ciara Rae: Exactly, exactly. So, you know.
Ana Marie Cox: Rahhhdio?
Ciara Rae: Yeah, exactly. That’s my point. So we started off with this phase where like, it was almost like I started off songwriting and performing and opening for people with the idea that like, I could be myself, but I had to fit in the version of myself that they wanted. Because I’ve always had, I was jazz trained. I’ve always had a bluesy, soulful voice. And but I’ve always, always, always loved the heart of country music songwriting. But I’m from Fort Lauderdale. You know what I mean? So it’s not like I grew up in what people would describe as a stereotypical or a typical country lifestyle. So I felt like for a long time, I had to fit into a mold and then, you know, the internet, now you could stream. Now the labels had to change the way they were making money or their business model. And that actually, to me, is what brought—and look, I’m not, I’m whoever. This is just me observing, right? But that’s what made the songwriter—songwriters have always been important—but it made the songwriter even more important. Where like, why do labels want to sign you unless you can also write and be a part of their making money through publishing, because they’re not making as much money for CD sales anymore? So that became the dawn of mostly artists that could write for themselves. Or could write well enough to write in a room of number one writers and create and be lucrative in that sense. There is no more the ages of, like Tim McGraw hearing a song and recording it and putting it out and it being big. That still exists, but labels hardly want to touch you unless you can write your own songs anymore, for the reasons of the internet and the change of revenue. Now I feel like because of a lot of the different cultural changes that have gone on for women and race, and we’ve all witnessed what’s been happening the last two years. And now there’s a window for women like me who aren’t a part of the good old boys club, but also are different. I am a country music songwriter, but I’m not going to sound exactly like one. And now, because radio—rahdio—is phasing out, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: Rawdio?
Ciara Rae: Yeah. you don’t need that as much to have a successful career. And it’s a double edged sword, right? Because Joe Schmo, who wrote something funny but can’t sing for his life, can now get a major hit on radio. And you know, it leaves some people who, like, really look into their craft and like, study it and do all this stuff to do really good go, Dang, what am I doing, why don’t I just dumb it down to something simple? You know, there’s that inner creative struggle. But there’s also the beauty of I don’t need to wait for a label to say you’re good enough anymore, you know? And but then again, I’m competing with millions on the internet. So it’s just, it’s changed from my point of view as an artist, for the type of artist I am, for the better. But it’s a hard, you know, it’s a lot. And I don’t even know what question you asked, but I just went on a super rampage, but that, you know, that industry changing like that has changed drastically the city of Nashville in the last ten years. I mean, people said 20 years ago it changed. 10 years, it’s changed.
Ana Marie Cox: I know every industry is competitive, but that’s another thing I think about when I hear the word Nashville. I think about just people clawing their way to the top.
Ciara Rae: Oh, please. Yeah! I mean—
Ana Marie Cox: I guess the entire, every, every arts industry is competitive. But for some reason, I have this picture in my head when it comes to Nashville because of maybe all still pretty centered on this one physical place.
Ciara Rae: Yes. For sure.
Ana Marie Cox: That it feels super competitive in a way that maybe other industries don’t have that same focus.
Ciara Rae: Yeah, but what’s weird—I don’t know if other artists can speak to this— but the kind of metamorphosis I had in myself is when I came, I felt like I had to, I had to show up, I had to be seen. I had to do this, I had to show why I was worth it. I had to—and maybe it comes with age or time or experience, but I just feel now that the more I have focused on not being competitive, and we all have space, and everyone has the opportunity, and we can all help each other. And just focusing on developing myself and my voice and my business, million more doors have opened. And so I think it’s easy to get caught up in that competitive nature. But you can choose not to. And maybe it won’t allow you as much fame, but it sure as hell will allow you more happiness in your career to not make that competitive nature the focus of your journey. If that makes sense.
Ana Marie Cox: So you knew, or thought you knew, what you were getting into when you moved there? When did you decide to move to Nashville and why? And when I say moved to I mean, not just the city, but everything that stands for.
Ciara Rae: So I say—and please ignore the dog in the background, I hope you come out here that, he will not stop.
Ana Marie Cox: I have a dog here too.
Ciara Rae: OK. He’s just very anxious right now. But anyways, I’ve been singing since the time I could talk. I always wanted to be the center of the conversation, the center of entertaining—not always the center of attention, which is something I’ve struggled with. It’s a weird thing I deal with. But I love entertaining, I love being the center. And I used to grow up, you know, putting up, making my parents line up with my grandparents and putting on little shows and singing Whitney Houston and Shania Twain like it was for my life. And I went to, I sang in the choir, the typical growing up, you know how you get into singing. And then from there I went through high school, working with a lot of really cool people in South Florida, including Betty Wright, who passed away last year, which was crazy. And if you haven’t heard of her, you should look her up. But when I got to college time, I realized that my parents were going to kill me if I didn’t go to a college. A college, anywhere. So I wanted to go, obviously to an art school. But most art schools, or departments or programs where classical, if you were going to study music. And I had studied classical briefly through courses and stuff, and I just knew I loved it, but that wasn’t me. That, I found out through a friend about this jazz program at University of Miami, and jazz and blues and country are a lot more intertwined than people sometimes realize. And I was like, Perfect, that’s awesome. So I couldn’t believe I got in. There were only five people in my major. We went and started studying. I had 19 credits my first semester. And needless to say, by the end of a year and a half, I was so—and part of it was my own issues that had cropped up, but I was so overworked that I ended up developing anorexia, and it was a horrible time. And my parents sat me down and basically said, You have to get treatment—because at that time I wasn’t helping myself. And through that, which I thought was the end of everything, like I was getting out of this school, it was like I lost it. I lost the opportunity. What am I going to do with my life? And through recovery and through having to be home, writing became—because I only sang up to this point, I hadn’t really written—songwriting, then became my outlet. It became my escape. And from that, I gathered a little band locally. We started playing, writing songs together, and that’s when we started opening up for people through lots and lots of gigs. We started opening up for Sheryl Crow and Leonard Skinner at The Hard Rock. And that was when I started to go, Oh my God, like now I get it. Like, I always sang, didn’t know exactly if I want to do anything songwriting. That’s it. And then from there, I started traveling to Nashville to record and my engineer was like, You know, you need to go to, you should be up here. And I was like, Well, I have student loans, so I cannot move, I have to live at my parents’ right now. And he said, Have you ever heard of Belmont? Never heard of it before. Applied to the songwriting program. Got in, found out I got in like a month later—
Ana Marie Cox: I haven’t heard of Belmont, so what is Belmont?
Ciara Rae: Incredible. They are alumni, like Brad Paisley, Florida Georgia Line—who played baseball there at the time.
Ana Marie Cox: Is it a school?
Ciara Rae: Yes, it’s a university in Nashville. Kind of near Vanderbilt.
Ana Marie Cox: OK. All right.
Ciara Rae: And I was like, OK, this is it, this is how I’m getting to Nashville! So I went up there and literally the rest is history. And it was just nose to the grind and, you know, making a ton of mistakes. And here I am today, still making mistakes, but learning.
Ana Marie Cox: And when was that?
Ciara Rae: I was 23 when I moved to Nashville. So I had taken, I had left school at 19, 20 and gone to their part time program, which I finished for my associates in jazz and teaching. And then I toured and did shows and then moved up here when I was 23 and got into Beaumont.
Ana Marie Cox: So how long have you been in Nashville?
Ciara Rae: Seven years. So I’m having a 30-life crisis right now.
Ana Marie Cox: I remember. I remember that.
Ciara Rae: Yeah. Fun time.
Ana Marie Cox: I’m curious if you don’t mind talking about it just a little bit, you said the songwriting was a key part of your recovery. And what were you writing about, what was the connection?
Ciara Rae: I haven’t thought about this in a long time. There’s this magical moment when you can put all the jumbled-up, nonsensical emotions in your head and put them into a story that brings comfort to other people. Like, I almost am going to tear up, like there is nothing like it in the world. And up until that point, I had experienced just really focusing on my vocals and getting a lot of praise for my vocals locally. But it never felt quite fulfilling. My parents always wondered, why don’t you really focus on singing? There just was something that didn’t click. And then when I created and put something that was nothing and made it to fruition and wrote it, that was when my brain just went, This is what I do. And I don’t know how to explain it. And that was when I finally felt fulfilled. It felt like I wasn’t searching for who I needed to be anymore. And I think part of why I developed my eating disorder was because I felt the pressure to do really, really well in a lot of these classes that were all about singing and whatever and theory and whatever, and I wasn’t sold yet. I hadn’t found that thing yet. I hadn’t really explored songwriting because I didn’t trust in myself to do it. I didn’t think I’d be good enough. And I think that that among other teenage and whatever things that were going on, that just fueled the fire for that to happen in my life. But it became the best thing ever because it created a totally different perspective for me on people and control and experiences, and then songwriting just became that way of like, completing me. I felt like my search is never over, but my search for what I needed to do in this life was over now. I knew what I needed to do now.
Ana Marie Cox: Fascinating. And I have a thought about why that might be, that there is this shift in how you thought about yourself and how you related to an audience. And that you felt, because what I perked up to was when you were focusing on singing is you were worried about being good enough. And when you shifted to songwriting, it became more about the connection with other people.
Ciara Rae: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: And I wonder, is because when you’re focusing on your singing, you are trying to do it as someone else wanted it to be.
Ciara Rae: Yes!
Ana Marie Cox: You know?
Ciara Rae: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: There is in fact, a standard that you’re supposed to be trying to reach.
Ciara Rae: Yes. You know. Yeah. Exactly.
Ana Marie Cox: And when you write your own stuff, all it is, is you.
Ciara Rae: Yeah. And there’s a certain amount of insecurity that comes with opening yourself up with writing. Like, what if they don’t hear my message? What if they just think it’s a dumb song? Like, there’s that, but that’s, everybody has that in one way shape or form. But all I know is that creating and being able to stir something in others, that took the gap of I don’t know and slivered it down, and crushing myself to very little, if that makes any sense.
Ana Marie Cox: It makes a lot of sense, and when we were chatting before we started recording, we were talking about how the culture of Nashville affects the music that comes out of it. And off the top of my head, I have to say, it rings true to me that songwriting can be self-fulfilling, right? That’s what I feel like you’re describing. Yes, there’s still concerns, but like that’s, you’re thinking about your own opinion of the song first. Right? Like, it’s not—except, we’ve just been talking about how competitive, you know, and, you know, I guess I probably wouldn’t say kill-or-be-killed, but maybe dog-eat-dog or, you know, there’s only so much room at the top, whatever—room at the top has gotten bigger because of reasons you were talking about—but it seems like it would be hard to maintain that feeling of like I am writing for my own artistic fulfillment when you’re in an environment that’s that competitive.
Ciara Rae: Yes. And that’s where, as much as there are things I hate about the internet, that’s where the dawn of that and artist’s gaining exposure online is beautiful to me. And the reason is because I learned over the last—honestly, the pandemic really put this in perspective for me, right before the pandemic, I started to gain this insight—but I thought for a long time, like anybody with stars in their eyes, that being the famous one and being the successful one was what was going to make me happy. That’s what was going to put the, that was going to prove to everybody who doubted me, that’s the final nail in the coffin. Like, I did it. And what I realized through writing with, working wtih, hanging out with, just being around people who are of that upper echelon is: that does not always equate happiness. And for some people, it can. But for a lot of people, it doesn’t. You really like, what I would say is for the 100% of people who are in that stratosphere, I would say there’s probably only 20% who really were born for it, can handle it, and can still find happiness in it. I think there’s a lot of dissatisfaction once you get to the top with what it really is. And to get back to what I was saying, the dawn of the internet, that allows me to take my realization that fame is not what’s going to make me happy and go, OK, how can I take what makes me happy, which is songwriting and getting it out to people and letting it stir something within them and inspire people and how can I take that and turn it into a business? Not because I want business, business, business, but because I want it to be my life. I want it to be what supports me living, eating, breathing. And as convoluted as the internet is, if you are smart and you’re a hustler, it’s way easier to figure out how to do it that way than it is to try to get one of five labels to pay attention to you. Which, by the way, all of them rejected Garth Brooks in the beginning. So, you know, you can’t rely on that opinion for your self-worth, and that’s what I kind of learned. So I’m creating my own self-worth, and that’s what the beauty of the way it is right now. But again, that’s a choice. I’m choosing to find the balance so that I can enjoy my craft and not go crazy. Some people can go all one way, and more power to them, because that’s what we get to watch on TV and they get to inspire us and entertain us. But, you know, I only want to get to that stratosphere if I don’t have to sacrifice all of my happiness.
Ana Marie Cox: And has that changed the kind of music that we hear?
Ciara Rae: Yeah. 1000%. Up until I released Heartbreak Mistake, which was on the Country Enough EP, which was my last release, which was just three songs, and I put out some new singles recently that are going on the new album, but that EP of all the things I’ve ever released and all my friends and family and people that have seen me at shows I’ve seen before then, was always influenced by a manager who was going to make my dreams come true and this is what I needed to do. An industry producer who this needed to happen or you weren’t going to make it, I know better than you. And there are people who know better than you. But Country Enough was the first time where I had walked away from a deal, you know, my grandmother had passed away. I was distraught over that. I lost my job that it kept me afloat in Nashville, and I was at such a low point that I was like, I want to put out what I want to put out, because I got nothing else going on. You know, I thought I’d left everything and it was all screwed up. And that was the first time that I created something that I am so proud to actually go, Hey, here’s my music. Not, will you like my music? And that was part of my shift. And I only learned that by coming here and meeting people and making a lot of mistakes. So, you know, you can’t just do it right, you got to screw it up a little bit to figure out what the right thing is for you.
Ana Marie Cox: I guess we have to hear a little bit of that song.
Ciara Rae: Yes, you do. It’s one of my favorite songs.
Ana Marie Cox: So we’re going to play out to some ads to the tune of Heartbreak Mistake.
Ana Marie Cox: Welcome back.
Ciara Rae: Here we are.
Ana Marie Cox: Ciera, what is that song about?
Ciara Rae: Oh, man, that song, so that song is about a woman’s perspective, the type of woman I am—because there’s all different types of women, I’m not speaking for all women—but that is my female perspective of a one-night stand not out of lust, but a one-night stand out of heartbreak. And I wanted to, in an age where I feel like so much of the emotion is taken out of sex—which can be great at times for some people—but I just mean, we’re in an era where I feel like that’s taken out a lot for people, I wanted to talk about the raw emotions that go through, you know, a heartbreak and trying to throw yourself into someone else, and what that feels like and that stuff. And I felt like it wasn’t something that was ever really written about much. So it was important to me to do it the right way.
Ana Marie Cox: And how is it different from how you might have written it before you had this kind of breakthrough. And before it sounds like you sort of hit a kind of bottom, right, and decided to write just whatever the fuck you wanted. Can you say how it’s a little different from what you might have written a year before that?
Ciara Rae: A year before that, I was always answering to what, it was always, Here, I wrote this, what do you think? OK, you don’t like that part, let me change it. This was me and Nolan, Neal wrote this together. It was what we wanted. We went in, and I had an idea of what I wanted, but I trusted his guidance with the production of it. I didn’t feel like he was telling me, or I had to listen. We communicated, and I trusted his guidance with this song. And then it came to be exactly what we wanted. And to his credit, it became even better than what I imagined in my head because it took, it took all the thoughts in my head, and it just made it even bigger and better. And that’s what producers should do. But he did a great job of that with this song.
Ana Marie Cox: And we don’t have to get into this, I mean, I know it’s hard to, what is it? Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. So it’s, this might be hard to talk about, but I’m curious, like specifically in the song, right, like I heard some bluesy aspects, right, I heard a real tempo change, right, I heard like a declarative kind of singing, right, like the heartbreak [sing] I’m not going to, I just can’t believe I almost started to sing that. I cannot sing. Is there stuff that is that connected like, for you? Like, that’s what I want to hear. Was there stuff that you wanted to hear in your own song?
Ciara Rae: I think because I have a really low voice, my roommates, like my roommate coaches, she’s an artist too. We both actually run our own businesses and coach and teach music. But she’s obsessed with the fact, it’s called a contralto. It’s like into the bass notes of a female voice. And I never found a producer or someone who, or a song, to be honest with you, a song and then someone to record me who could really bring across that part of my voice. And I felt like this song really called for it because it’s this sexy, you know, I’m heartbroken but I’m, you know, looking to throw myself into someone who I’m attracted to, who I feel like could bide my mind from what’s going on in my life. And so it’s the sad but sexy thing, and I felt like a lower register called for that. And like, he took what I, like, what I was singing and made it come to life on the mic. Like it made it sound like me. Whereas a lot of times artists with different type of voices have a hard time with what mic you use, how do you get the voice you hear in front of you to sound that way on the recording? Because once it goes through all the forms of compression and all that crap, it gets muddled down sometimes. And Nolan, he did the daring thing on that song with my voice.
Ana Marie Cox: How much of you is in the idea of the song? How much are you writing from experience?
Ciara Rae: There are very, there are very few songs—well, I’ll tell you. So I have been in a relationship for 10 years and we got together when we were 20. And it’s been a very hard, you know, long distance, you know, figuring it out and growing together and—I like to take, sometimes I write songs for my direct experience, but sometimes I take the pain of what I’ve dealt with and the pain of what I know others have dealt with and I kind of morph those ideas together. And you know, songwriting sometimes is acting. And it can still be you. Like, you know, when artists, they almost become their character. I put myself in the mode of, OK, I want to write this, I might not have experienced this, but I’ve experienced this. OK, how do I make sure it’s genuine to me but I still am letting that person know they’re heard, and I understand them. And it’s kind of like that little dance you do. And it it’s not in the way that some people would think are fake. I think of songwriters tell you all of it’s from personal experience, they’re lying, because we write tons of songs. But it’s almost like this dance of like being yourself, but creating something that’s so beautiful to bring comfort. So it’s like, I don’t know how to explain it, it’s like, it is you. They’re all me. Does that make sense? They’re all me in one way, shape or form. You will never know what parts of it are me and what are not. That’s for me to know. But there’s always, you know what I mean? There’s always bits and stuff in songs that are you. Always. I don’t think you can write from, I don’t think you can write a song, a good song, without a little bit of you in it somewhere. You know?
Ana Marie Cox: Are you saying that Townes Van Zandt didn’t know two men named Pancho and Lefty who were like outlaws.
Ciara Rae: I knew that was coming.
Ana Marie Cox: Are you saying?
Ciara Rae: I can’t speak to the songwriter.
Ana Marie Cox: Are you saying Johnny Cash didn’t—actually Johnny Cash did go to prison?
Ciara Rae: But so, you know, we, look, I can’t speak to the songwriter. I can’t speak to what is the character and what is you, but I can say that there is, it’s like every actor in every movie, there’s a tiny bit of you that you put in and every character, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: Right. I love hearing people talk about the mechanics of their craft. It’s fascinating to me, because that’s something I feel like, it sometimes you can see how it is across disciplines and stuff, but sometimes things are really specific to a single discipline, right? So my question for you is, what does it feel like to write a song that you know of has hit the things you want to hit? Like, how do you know?
Ciara Rae: It’s like the best, it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s like, and as somebody who has I mean, if anybody knows anything about eating disorders, they know they’re all about control, or a lot of it’s about control. And as someone who is a, has major control problems, and works on them every day, it’s the high that that you can’t touch. It’s the, it’s the high, it’s the obsession that you can’t see in front of you. It just is. And that’s what makes it even more mystical and wonderful than anything else. And you know, recently I’ve struggled a lot with just people in my life that I found out that were blood or friends that weren’t in my corner the way I thought they were. And it sucks, meaning judgment on what I’m doing with my life. And that really, really hurt. But what I, through my therapist and my friends, I learned that, you know, some heat, if you, if you’ve never tasted that high of creating something—whether or not you think it’s good or you think it’s good or you think it’s good, doesn’t matter—until you’ve tasted that high of honing that craft and working on that song and getting it the way you want, you won’t understand. I don’t, and I think that’s why people drive themselves crazy in this town doing it, because they’d rather be crazy doing it than not at all.
Ana Marie Cox: How is that related to the control piece you mentioned, with the eating disorder.
Ciara Rae: [blows raspberry] Probably tons. I’ve definitely had to reel back like my input, like I’ve learned to be a better songwriter with other songwriters because I have to lean back. You know what I mean? Collaboration helps with that. But, and I’m sure in a thousand ways it feeds my control monster, like just making something that’s yours. But I’ll tell you, it’s a way better way to feed your control monster than the ways that I was doing it before.
Ana Marie Cox: I’ve been grinning the entire time you’ve been talking about this, because as I mentioned, I’m in recovery. I’m in recovery from addiction. But when I think about what it feels like to write that sometimes it’s even just like a phrase that, you know, nails it.
Ciara Rae: Mm-Hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: Right? That’s exactly what I meant to say—sometimes it’s a paragraph, sometimes it’s a sentence, sometimes it’s the whole piece—but like, Oh yes, you just feel it. Like the phrase that I’m, one of the phrases I’m as proud of in my career as a Coach Patterson of TCU—I’m a huge college football fan—I described how he walks along the sidelines as a truculent waddle. And as soon as I wrote that, I was like, Damn! Yes! It is a truculent waddle. That is what that is!
Ciara Rae: Yup. And that little jolt, that’s it.
Ana Marie Cox: It is like getting high! That is why I thought of it, is the only thing I can compare it to is getting high. People don’t understand, because it’s not like it’s a euphor—it is a kind of euphoria, I guess—but the one of the ways it’s like getting high is, I am chasing that. All the time.
Ciara Rae: Yup, yup. And I, you know, my, so my fiancée—we’re now engaged—he is an attorney. So totally different side of the spectrum, but he is creative in a lot of great ways. Through, you know, the ups and downs of my career and our relationship, he’s learned a lot about what, he’s understood more like, you know, when your first dating, Oh, I’m dating a singer, it’s really cool? And then you figure out as you go along, how much, it’s not just you’re, you’re giving your soul out. Your chasing, you’re giving your soul out to chase that high, right?
Ana Marie Cox: That’s the bargain you make. That’s like, I mean—sorry to interrupt—but that is the bargain you make with the world, is I’m going to be able it’s—Oh, God, now that I’m thinking about it, if you put it in the metaphor of drugs, it’s really.
Ciara Rae: Yes! Yes! Absolutely!
Ana Marie Cox: But you’re saying like, I am going to lay out all this stuff that’s really precious to me to buy that high. Right? I’m going to sacrifice all this stuff to like get to that feeling again. And you can go overboard, I think, by the way. Like I think, there’s a way in which you might because—
Ciara Rae: Totally
Ana Marie Cox: We don’t have to talk about this. But like, you know, friends and family, you know, and taking care of other people like, I think you, and we see artists, like our culture’s full of stories of people who went that direction, right? And we may admire now, but, you know—
Ciara Rae: Well, that’s because you’re, they were giving to the world that—and this is the fame monster—that, you know, gave you a lot of good, but it gave you just as much bad. And that’s why I say that fame is not—that was the best thing I learned coming here, was I was able to take that fame thing and put it off the shelf of what equates my happiness, you know? And find it in the things I do in my life now. And now, granted, I got a long way to go. I got a lot of stuff to learn, and I got a lot of stuff that I’m going to make mistakes on, and I got a lot of stuff I want to do, and I’m not saying that there’s any, I don’t imagine any glass ceiling. I just go for it. But you’re 100% right that it’s, it’s that—you know what to kind of equate that, I just played a show where I opened for a big festival, and the only way you can play the festival is if you’re signed to a label, contrary to people’s beliefs Why don’t you play the actual festival? Oh, well, I’d have to be to a label, which I gave up in the past to be where I am and do that, right? So I’m doing this opening and the first half of the show was all the people from the festival. So excited to be there, love original music, love country music. And then the second half of that show was people just walking around that wanted to kind of have conversations with people nearby and didn’t care. So I would literally go from an hour and a half of like, and they love my music, they’re getting into it, they’re asking me where to download it, to an hour and a half of, OK, you’re the background of my conversation, why are you here? And that is the price I pay and risk, doing what I do.
Ciara Rae: If you don’t find healthy ways to counter the bad—which basically like I, you know, I went down to the restaurant a couple of doors down with Brandon and cried, like in the back of the restaurant eating something. And then after that, I felt good about the first half of it, but I cried about the second half of it because I just felt like an idiot sitting there doing this. And, but that’s, unless you figure out how to counteract that low, which will come with everyone. Chris Stapleton sang to a room of five people before he got on stage and everybody knew who he was, or Justin Timberlake. So you’re going to do—there’s nowhere else to go but where people inevitably went to use and try to maintain that high of the first half of my show. Does that make sense?
Ana Marie Cox: I get it completely.
Ciara Rae: And people just, they don’t get it, man. Unless you’ve been in it, you don’t get it. And that doesn’t mean that anybody who hasn’t been in it should be in it. Like, I don’t want you to learn some of the things that I’ve had to go through, but that’s kind of the loneliness of the creativity in that world. But I’ve worked really hard through my disorder and what I learned through that to develop people to call, habits around me, ways to check myself, ways to get myself in line, to not go that route. And to speak to your addiction, I’ve seen people go through recovery and I’ve seen people at their worst, and that is the reason why, like people at my shows would be like, Oh, I want to buy you shot. I do not drink if I’m emotional or anxious. I refuse, because I know my personality. I’m already feeding my obsessive monster, I don’t need another way to feed it. And it’s not easy because that drink will make me feel better on stage but I know myself well enough and I’ve been through my own form of addiction through my eating disorder that I can’t touch that. Because it’s an easy trap to fall into when you’re a creative too. So, yeah, it’s the monster, but hey, man, look, I’m a lot happier doing this than I was at a desk job. Tried it a million times. Didn’t work. Can’t do it. Can’t. So I’m stuck where I am, I’ve got to figure it out. [laughs] You know, I mean?
Ana Marie Cox: Well, I really enjoyed talking to you. And I would love, as we sort of round out our discussion, could you, what’s a, what’s a song you’ve written recently? Tell me a little bit about it, and we’ll play it out.
Ciara Rae: Oh, OK. So there is a song that I wrote recently about, so this song really means a lot to me because I wrote this song with someone a long time ago. We only wrote together once. And at the time—I’m not going to give specifics because it’s everyone’s own personal story—but we each had been touched by something in our lives, and we we wanted to write a song about a relationship that’s wrong, a relationship that could be verbally abusive, could be physically abusive, because we didn’t want to be too specific. We wanted to make sure it spoke to anybody who, because all of that is intertwined, right, whether you go through one or the other. So we wanted to speak to that. And we wrote it, went about our lives, we tried to get back together, we couldn’t because I was traveling or something. Just lost touch. And then over the pandemic, I was sitting listening to voice memos and I went, Oh my God, I can’t believe I even was a part of writing that, and I had to record it. And I recorded Save Your Sorrys with Austin Bianco, who was my producer, and Jered Minnix, who I co-wrote it with. And Sean Neff mastered it and finished it. But we did that—and I have to give credit to my friends, that’s why I say that—but we did that and I had this idea of the video in my head. I knew exactly what I wanted it to be and the story I wanted to tell with the video. And it did, and it came to life. And like Storm Light Pictures who did the video for me, they, like it was exactly was in my head. And that’s the best feeling! Because you create so many things that like somebody does something wrong, you put money into the wrong thing, whatever, all this crap that happens. But when it happens, it’s the best ever. And I just feel like this song speaks to what a lot of people were going through in 2020—always going through, but more specifically in very hard times in 2020. And that imagery just came to life. And Save Your Sorrys is about that person trying to say sorry, and at that point, is it really worth anything, when you’ve been beaten that low? And that’s what this song is about.
Ana Marie Cox: So where can people watch it? I assume—
Ciara Rae: Everywhere. Video’s on YouTube. Song’s everywhere. Just spell my name right and look it up.
Ana Marie Cox: OK. And it is c i a r a r a e.
Ciara Rae: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: OK. So thank you, Ciera, so much for coming on the show. It’s been a delight talking to you.
Ciara Rae: No. I loved talking to you. I feel like we’re going to have a nice little friendship here on out. I appreciate what you’re doing.
Ana Marie Cox: I hope so. And as we, as we leave, let’s listen to Save Your Sorrys.
[song plays: There’s a hole in the wall. Been months since you put it there, but I can still recall. We were fighting, screaming, yelling, you were telling me I was wrong. Started pushing you were crossing lines. Just can’t be undone. You can give your reasons and say how you feel but that ain’t my problem now. You can speak your mind, but it won’t change mine since you gave it all away. Maybe you should save your so-o-o-o-o-o-rys. Maybe you should save your so-o-o-o-o-o-rys.]
Ana Marie Cox: Thanks to Ciera Rae. Be sure to check out her music on your favorite streaming app, and follow her on social @cierarae. And that’s R A E and her first name is spelled C i a r a. So that’s c i e r a r a e CieraRaeMusic on Instagram and Twitter. And a quick reminder that we’ll be drawing this show to a close this month. Next week is my last episode, an interview with Rhett Miller and Murray Hammond of the Old 97’s, talking about how they’ve maintained their friendship from childhood despite, or perhaps because, they’ve been playing music together for decades. I’m excited to end this podcast on a positive note about the endurance of friendship and how we grow more gracefully into who we are when we treat each other well. This show is a product of Crooked Media. Lesley Martin is our producer. Patrick Antonetti is our audio editor. And please take care of yourselves.