A Renaissance Musician

There is a kind of music that weaves a story that one wants to hear again. Helene Cronin is such a story teller, and in fact, she has coined the term a “story-singer.” Insight comes from personal experience and this Texan has life experience that on her most recent release, Landmarks, reveals her ideas and thoughts. According to her publicity, the record was produced by Matt King, who also helmed Old Ghosts & Lost Causes, it features an A-list of accompanying musicians including Kenny Vaughan (Electric guitars), Byron House (Bass), Bobby Terry (Acoustic Guitars, Banjo, Steel, Mandolin), and on drums, Jerry Roe, Paul Eckberg and Chris Powell.
In this interview Cronin talks about her new album and her love of music and story telling.

Interview 1 Cronin
JI: You have been in music for more than twenty years -- talk about your writing process and how Landmarks came about for you? What was the recording process like for you and producer Matt King?
Helene Cronin: I began writing songs in college. Since then, I've had seasons where I write a lot and seasons where I've written less, but I've never stopped songwriting. Now my output is 50 - 60 songs a year. My writing process has become more confident and much more disciplined. I trust my ideas and my instincts a lot more. I've been going back and forth to Nashville to write songs for almost 20 years. That has developed my ability to co-write. I know what I bring to the room when I'm in a writing session. I've learned how to present ideas, to remove ego from the decisions about what lines best serve the song, and to strive not for "good enough", but for excellence! While my other album projects have been weighted heavily toward solo writes, 11 of the 12 songs on Landmarks were co-writes. In the last year or so, I've been working intentionally toward writing solo again and being sure to exercise that muscle. When I write alone, I'm more inclined to allow some left of center ideas to develop. While I can and do write for the commercial country market, it keeps songwriting interesting to give myself the freedom to brainstorm on a word or phrase and bring a song to life that might be more artsy.

It was during Covid that Matt and I began to discuss recording a new album. I had too many songs to pick from! But I loaded a Dropbox file and he and I began narrowing it down from 30 to the final 12. We weren't sure we could get to all 12 songs, and still had a couple we mildly disagreed on right up until time to record! We booked 2 days in the studio with most of the same players from Old Ghosts and Lost Causes. Those guys get who I am and what I do as an artist and writer. They bring a unique sound to my projects so that every song is different, yet they all hang together as a cohesive body of work. Matt will usually start the sessions listening to a couple of songs that point us toward a certain mood or vibe. Then he lets the players play, inserting ideas and running the songs till he gets what he's looking for. There is nothing "Nashville cookie-cutter" about our sessions. Musically Matt is diversely self-educated and he hears potential and styles that go beyond what's in my head. I'm so used to playing my songs live with just guitar that it's always a revelation to hear what Matt and the players come up with! It took those full 2 days to track the songs on Landmarks. The guys all bring their A-game, their interest, their talent and their ideas to each song. We have a good time and the creativity is off the charts. Recording at Sputnik Sound with Mitch Dane at the board is always a delight. After tracking, Matt and I did the vocals at his home studio. On this album, we played around a lot more with layered background vocals. Some of the fun BGVs first came to life with "Cross That River". After we discovered and laid down those parts, it set the tone for the rest of the project. We dove in and layered the heck out of some tunes! I listen to the songs now and am proud of the work we did.

JI: Talk about how this new record has changed you as an artist?
HC: When Matt and I started planning this record, we knew we couldn't put out a sophomore project that fell short of Old Ghosts and Lost Causes. In fact, it had to raise the bar. Landmarks has been a huge confidence builder. It's even influenced the way I perform. I've always considered myself a soft-singer, a little bit folkie. We were in the middle of doing vocals on "What They Didn't Build" and Matt stopped me cold. He said something like, "There's a place you sing from that I love, but you don't do it very often. This song is gonna need it." I asked what he meant. He said, "It's when you go big and put some power into your voice. You have a womanly authority and great tone and you can't sing this song without accessing that. Will you try it?" So I went for it! Again, that bigger voice influenced the rest of the project. I've also carried it into my live shows. I think it comes out as more passionate. Landmarks also continues to establish and cement my songwriting and artist reputation. It's received great reviews, and my Nashville and Texas writer community has been very complimentary.

JI: How has the song “Just a Woman” been received and talk about the writing of it?
HC: I released "Just a Woman" as a single in January, and it's my #2 most played song on Spotify. I've had e-mail exchanges with some of the leading women in Nashville, and am trying to figure out how to make a cost-effective but high quality video, with the possibility of getting it on CMT and out to an even wider audience. The song is an anthem ultimately, and deserves to be heard, and I never use the word "deserve"!!

I had asked Lisa Carver if she would be interested in writing with me toward this album. A couple of weeks before I was due in the studio, I drove to Taos, and spent a weekend in her home working on 2 songs. "Just A Woman" was the first. Lisa had been thinking and reading about women's issues and had crafted the idea of this song with 3 stories, 3 different women at 3 different points in history. My first night there, she played it for me, but said she wasn't happy with it yet. She invited me to work on it with her. At first, I resisted because I knew she could write it by herself! But she sincerely wanted my input, so the next morning we got up and got to work. We tweaked the verses and wrote a chorus together. It took all day. We cried as we wrote it, in fact, our original worktapes have a lot of tearful background sniffling! We celebrated with dinner in Taos when we were done.

Though I already had a lot of weighty songs on this project, Matt and I put the song in the "absolutely yes" column and tracked it in June 2021. By Spring of 2022, we were having trouble getting the song to feel right; it was fighting our efforts. Matt thought that Lisa and I should take a look at it again, perhaps bring it to a place of triumph, not have it end as a sad song (which is what it used to do!) and then consider completely re-recording it. Lisa and I, via text and voice notes, trimmed the first chorus down to one line, added a line to the 3rd verse, and wrote a completely new outro that brings the song into current times, not just historical. We went back to Sputnik Sound in June of '22 and booked a half-day to work on this one song! We got our usual crew of Kenny Vaughan (electric guitars), Bobby Terry (acoustic guitar, banjo, mando, steel) and Byron House (bass) and added Chris Powell (drums), Todd Locke (keys) and Emily Nelson (cello). Then I went back to Matt's and sang the lead vocal. He quickly got it comped. We brought in Wendy Moten, Vicki Hampton, Heidi Newfield and Shelly Fairchild to be our women's choir. We developed the big outro vocals on the spot. Watching those women work together to make this song the anthem it is now, broke me down numerous times. Then watching Wendy Moten ad lib over the final chorus was a thing of wonder!!

It remains to be seen what kind of life this song will have. But I believe in it and hope that it works its way into the world in a bigger way than I could have dreamed. Sadly, we need its message now as much as ever.

Interview 2
JI: The track “Make the Devil” seems to be a questioning song to God. How did that track come about for you?
HC: Yes it is. I had the idea for it one day, thinking about human nature and how we're prone to mess up, make mistakes, do plenty of harm on our own. The thought of questioning God, "Why did you 'make' the devil? We don't need his help!" was very interesting to me as a song idea, plus I liked the ambiguity of the title. As a believer, I know it's ok to ask questions; God's not bothered by that. Davis Corley is the kind of co-writer I can bring this kind of idea to! He thinks outside the box and will tackle tough, interesting ideas with me. (He is my co-writer on "Ghost" from Old Ghosts and Lost Causes.) We talked for a while about the angles we could approach it from. We began diving into the questions, the human experience of being divided, wanting to do right, being tempted, failing. We wondered hypothetically, did God regret letting Satan into the Garden of Eden? Was there anything in the history of The Fall that He would change? Most of it is rhetorical, but it was interesting to explore the idea as an honest, thought-provoking question. When Matt King heard the song, he was adamant that it be on this album. It was the first song we tracked on the first day, setting the mood for the 2 days of sessions. It's a heavy-duty, muscular track and that serves the darker nature of the song. I love the eerie banjo and the long musical outro that let the guys jam for a while, a little unusual for an Americana project!

JI: What are you looking forward to when you perform live as you tour?
HC: There's nothing like being in a room full of people and having the attention of listeners, telling the stories behind the songs, and then singing the stories! I call myself a "story-singer" because that is probably the most common comment I get from audiences, that they are drawn to the story-telling. Performing and playing shows is where all the hard work and effort of songwriting comes full circle. Connecting with people at the level of heart and soul is what makes this worthwhile, otherwise I'd find a better-paying job! But committing yourself to being an artist requires finding lovers of your art. That is what concerts and shows do for me. I'm consistently blown away, touched really, by the love my audiences demonstrate. By the laughter, the tears, by the after-show conversations and the personal things they share with me. The emotions run deep on both sides.

JI: In the decades that you have written music and toured, what would you like to share about your music that people may not know?
HC: My music career did not come from a desire to be on stage in front of people! That used to be one of my worst fears. I was reluctant to be noticed. It wasn't the spotlight that drew me, but my love for songwriting. Penning songs gave me a reason and the courage, though shyly, to sing publicly for the first time. When the response was an emotional reaction and I saw that my words and music could move people I was hooked. It's been a slow and steady trajectory since then, until I was finally in a position to chase the songs full-time and make them my life's work. All of this grew from a passion for songwriting and has grown into a desire to connect with people, whether that be my co-writers in the sacred space of a writer's room, or an audience in a listening room, or recording an album for release to the digital world. So yes, I've been at this for decades! Some might say I'm a late bloomer, but I like to think I'm a long bloomer! There's so much music left to make. So many songs left to write!

by G.M. Burns