by Ali Sperry

How it all began...

Was just reflecting on the birth of this record...or really, the initial seed of it. Flashback to a year ago--right around my birthday I wrote the song Highest Hill. I hadn't been writing a ton at the time and this song was one of those miracles of songwriting where an idea occurs to you and then the whole song just unveils itself easily and with little effort. I remember writing the first few bits of it--the idea for the first verse and the chorus--in my notes app during an Erin Rae show at the Basement East. It was after a conversation I had with Jamie about confidence and my desire to change old habits of being timid or shy in my approach to life, this deep urge to make a shift within myself. I finished the rest of the song in an afternoon sitting on the porch alone. It felt like I said exactly what I wanted to say with the song, which is the most satisfying thing. 

For my birthday present that year, Jamie gave me a day in the studio with Joe Pisapia. This is a big gift. Joe is a dear friend and also a most revered producer and genius musician. I had a few other songs at the time that I liked, but I knew that Highest Hill was the one that we needed to do there. Joe and Jamie and I dug in and let the song unfold. Kristin and Lauren joined us for some lady harmonies and Kristin added some signature Doc fiddle on at the end. The fully realized song had emerged and I was in love with it. 

So clearly, it couldn't stop there. That song felt symbolic. In the way it was written, what it said, how it came to life. It was the beginning of something--a new sound, a new statement, something that I needed to express. I like to think of it as the cornerstone for the rest of the house that is "Crooked Feelings". It was the first conscious step of the new journey. I love that it's the last song on the record. Full circle. 

"So I'm leaving on a journey today, taking all these memories and years, there are things I've been meaning to say, in a voice unshackled by fears..."

DAY 1 in the Studio!!!!

by Ali Sperry

Today we set sail for adventures unknown, right here from the comfort of our own home. Yes, today was the first of seven consecutive days in the studio to record the bulk of my upcoming album. We started with two tracks already completed--one was recorded last summer with Joe Pisapia and the other, Over their Bones, was recorded earlier this year at Jon Estes' home studio. Those two together felt like a fit somehow and provided the cornerstone for the direction of this new project.

So this week we are aiming to record 8 more songs. Under the loving and creative guidance of co-producers Jamie Dick and Jon Estes, at the end of day one it is safe to say we are off to a very solid start. Yes, it is true that for reasons unknown our quiet little street in "Little Hollywood" East Nashville had more construction going on today than ever before due to a burst water main, which also resulted in the water being shut off in the house/studio, but that didn't stop us from making music. We had special guests The Danberrys in with us this afternoon to add harmony vocals, guitar and tambourine. And for the first time in my recording history, I am actually playing acoustic guitar on a track!

Can't wait to share these new songs with you guys. We have lots more tricks up our sleeves and by the time this week is through, I have no doubt that we will have a record that we all feel truly proud of and enthused about.

Do the work.

by Ali Sperry

I always worked hard in school and took my work seriously. I worked hard in a "mostly A's" sense of the word. But when I look back on my approach to learning, I fear that I often looked at it as a means to an end--to get a good grade, get into a good college, be a good girl. I knew how to do that. I think I've always been a bit of a "pleaser". There was plenty of cramming for tests or staying up til God-knows-what-hour to finish a paper or reading cliff notes or various other short cuts. I just don't recall making it a priority to fully retain what I was learning so I could take it with me. Naturally the things I was fascinated by I did carry with me and the rest of it only stuck around as long as it was needed, even when it was information that could have been helpful to have at the ready later in life. This approach got a little confusing in college when I realized that getting good grades didn't matter so much anymore, other than to show my parents that I was doing well and taking school seriously, because I wasn't planning on attending grad school. But old habits die hard and I think I mostly still learned in the same way--giving lots of attention to the subjects that came easily and excited me and just getting through things that were challenging or tedious. And then you graduate college and it's a whole different thing.

Anyway, excuse the big tangent, the point that I am coming to is, somehow I feel like it's taken me until now, after 32 years of life, to learn how to have a good work ethic. And I have certainly not mastered it. I am working on it daily and I'll tell you, it doesn't come easily sometimes. Ha! But work is not supposed to be easy, Ali. To get better at something, to grow, requires change and change is uncomfortable. Hard work requires doing something even when you can think of a list of thirty other things you'd prefer to be doing. That is what discipline is to me. But the sort of magical part of it is, when I do succeed in finding the will to be disciplined, it is liberating. It miraculously goes from feeling boring/frustrating/miserable to being so deeply satisfying when you see the results of the work. And you know you made that happen.

When I set out 6 years ago to have a career as a musical artist, as dumb as this sounds, I really didn't realize how much hard work it would require. I laugh now and also want to hug my younger self and tell her how much she has to learn. I somehow had this notion that since I was born being able to sing, and had some musical taste and creativity with writing, that I pretty much had what I needed to succeed. Not so! I am still just discovering how much discipline it takes to be even decently proficient at an instrument, to work on your craft so it is strong and consistent and always improving, to grow as a writer and to express something honest and authentic in a way that people understand and resonate with, to be strategic and approach the thing that is dearest to your heart as a business so that you can make a living doing it and not get taken advantage of by people who don't have your best interests in mind, to believe in yourself with even greater conviction when you are faced with a string of rejections or when you can't tell if you're making headway, to make smart, practical decisions, all while protecting that very tender spot in your heart where music comes from so it doesn't become bruised, jaded or calculated. This is where the work lies. And there is pretty much always more to be done. I'm learning this. And working on it.

by Ali Sperry

Ha, was just looking at my blog posts from this past year and, well, I haven't been the most lucrative blogger. So, there's something to improve upon this year. Other resolutions include--more disciplined guitar practice schedule, write abundantly (solo and with friends), book lots of shows for this spring and summer, and record and release a new album! But more than all that, I resolve to nurture a voracious appetite for creativity.

When I was home over the holidays I tackled the project of going through boxes of stuff tucked away in a closet from my childhood. By "stuff" I mean piles of journals, scripts from shows, school papers and projects, so many notes passed from friends during class, birthday cards, prom corsages, and the list goes on. I'll admit I love this kind of thing because I always find it sweet, fun and sometimes very humorous to go down memory lane in this way. I had lots of good giggles overage 6-8 journal entries such as "I hope to play today" (that was the whole entry) and ones in which I described how many sleepovers I'd been having, or one where I talked about being sick but said "my mom bought this wonderful humidifier and instead of the air being cold, it's hot!". But going through all this stuff also served as a reminder of how much I have always loved to CREATE. To create songs, stories, plays, works of art. It always came so naturally to me as a kid. And more than that, I didn't give two shits about what anyone thought of what I was creating. Yes, ok, certainly it's always felt good to get the ego stroked and have positive reinforcement from parents or teachers or friends. But in the process of creating, I really didn't censor myself. I don't recall feeling much self-consciousness when I was a young girl. Just wanted to express myself in all sorts of ways.

I think I needed this reminder. I am still that same person and I still love to make life into art. And energy spent on censoring, wondering if something is "good enough" or how it will be received, is just hindering the creative flow. So here, at the top of this new year, I am very much looking forward to living with unabashed creativity and seeing where it leads!

Thoughts on writing

by Ali Sperry

I think about writing a lot so might as well write about writing. Been feeling a little stuck in the writing department lately so I'm trying to spin it and use it as an opportunity to become adept at writing when I don't feel like I have any burning need to express anything in particular in a song. I suppose waiting til inspiration comes back around is an option, but one that I'm not really willing to entertain since I am attempting to truly make a livelihood as a songwriter, and I don't want that to be dependent on "chasing the muse", as they say.

So here are a few tools that come to mind to help with this blockage: memory, imagination, and observation. Maybe I don't feel so inspired to write about something I am experiencing at this particular moment, or something I've been struggling with lately--but I have lived 32 years of emotions, experiences, struggles, reflections and I have surely not mined all of those for their full song potential. I can remember the times I was truly touched and inspired in a way that brought about the bubbling up inside that wants to come out and become something. Just remembering that bubbling makes it feel alive again. And not just memories of what I've lived so far, but imaginings of what I've yet to live and experience. Imagination is limitless. When I was little it was so easy for me to literally free-style, to just walk around recording improvised songs. I grew up as an only child until I was in my early teens, and I think in a way that helped foster my imagination. I could entertain myself endlessly by playing make believe. I would improvise lyrics like "Did you ever know the moon is the princess of the sky/Did you ever know the sun is the king of the whole world/". Ha! Good stuff, little Ali.

Observation is another big one. Not all songs have to be directly personally to be poignant and good. I read an article recently about Jason Isbell's latest record in which he was describing how he used observations and musings about other people's lives as fodder for his latest batch of songs. He was saying how he's observed many songwriters in their 30s do this more and more since they get to a point where writing about their own life experiences starts to feel limiting and old hat (I'm completely paraphrasing, but that was the idea). I like this and have found that it feels like a fun and liberating exercise to write about other people's lives and inner workings. Whether we are putting our own selves in a song or writing about someone else, it boils down to characters in a story.

Lastly, I find that the simple step of taking action is such a good tool for me. Just try. Pick up your guitar, free write, listen to music that inspires you (and by "you" I mean my advice to myself). Just shake off the waiting. Stir things up. The inspiration can come when it comes but I will keep carving out that time and space and singing those same couple words or playing that damn chord progression over and over til something emerges. And if it doesn't that's ok. But it always comes around eventually. It helps me to think about how when a baby is learning to crawl or walk, they get so frustrated. They cry and grunt and you can tell they are struggling. But instead of just giving up they keep trying, they keep deliberately taking themselves out of their comfort zone. Because they know that they are learning to do something that they absolutely were born to do. Something that is hard at first but eventually completely accessible. To grow is hard and frustrating and uncomfortable. It actually requires being uncomfortable because you are stepping into the unfamiliar where it is scary and you don't quite know how to operate yourself. But it is necessary. It is basically why we are here I think.