Photo courtesy of Carrie Zaruba
She grew up in a little rowhouse in South Baltimore, far from anything rural. She listened to classic rock legends like The Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac in her formative years. There was no mention of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard or Loretta Lynn, yet Carrie Zaruba landed right smack in the middle of the country music world herself. How did that happen? Well, it’s an interesting story.
Carrie Zaruba didn’t come from a musical family, but her parents always encouraged her to find her passion. She didn’t realize that passion would be music, because she didn’t even know she could sing until she was about 11. Often times she would sing along to her favorite songs in the basement, sometimes with her parents sitting on the steps watching her. She told me that she imagined they were thinking, “What do we do with her?” It was becoming clear that their daughter had talent and it might need some type of attention. Eventually, that talent did receive the attention it deserved, and it came in the form of a school.
Zaruba auditioned for a spot at the prestigious Baltimore School for the Arts by singing “Over the Rainbow,” and she got in. The school’s alumni includes such big names as Tupac Shakur, Jada Pinkett Smith and Christian Siriano. The curriculum was rigorous. Right from the start, Zaruba was thrust into a whole new musical world, as the high school is classically-based. “I was singing 18th century counterpoint. I was learning how to read symphonic scores and choral works. My very first day I was singing Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’ and I’d never even read music before. I started to really learn the craft of music, not just singing, but the technique which has carried me through all these years. I learned to understand how my voice worked and how to connect with an audience. I learned all that in high school,” Zaruba explained.
In addition to a comprehensive music program, the Baltimore School for the Arts also boasted a solid academic experience as well. Zaruba worked hard for that diploma and then went on to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia to continue her education. She knew for sure she didn’t want to sing classically as a career because she didn’t feel it fit with her upbringing. She wanted to do something that was more in line with the demographics of where and how she was raised. Many serious listeners of classical music tend to fall into a higher socioeconomic level. Zaruba wanted to stick with what she knew, so to speak. More of a middle-ground demographic. With that thought in mind, she was educated in jazz music in college. Staying in the Philadelphia area following graduation, she did a good deal of background vocal work until she found her true calling – songwriting and country music.
Zaruba discovered her love of songwriting via artists such as Joni Mitchell and especially, The Chicks. She said, “The Chicks were big for me. I was poring over their CD liner notes and I was like, ‘Who wrote this song?’ and it was Patty Griffin. So, I immediately gravitated toward Patty Griffin and worked myself into everything she ever did. I just became obsessed with her and her style of writing, and that’s really what drove me to want to write songs and to sing my own work. It was the way her songs made me feel and the connection she made with me that made me want to do the same thing for other people.”
Other songwriters she considers major influences are Emmylou Harris and Brandi Carlile. Brandi Carlile’s deep admiration for Joni Mitchell gives credence to Zaruba’s observation that many of these female writers are “in that same constellation.” It’s a group of highly introspective, thoughtful artists that can easily be grouped together for their ability to weave a brilliant story within a song.
Photo courtesy of Carrie Zaruba
Still calling Philadelphia home, yet navigating the Nashville music industry scene at the same time, Carrie Zaruba recently put out an album entitled, Natural Disaster. The record was produced by Kent Wells (Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire), who Zaruba met on a visit to Nashville via a mutual friend. Wells heard some of Zaruba’s demo tapes a while back and told her, “If you want to live here (Nashville), I’ll work with you.” Of course, she didn’t move to Nashville, but somehow, he still agreed to produce her album, so that should say something for her music. Speaking highly of Wells, Zaruba pointed out, “His honest approach is what helped me to understand the craft of Nashville songwriting.”
So, how does a city girl write country music and make it work? Zaruba gave her best explanation for her approach. “I grew up in the city, so I don’t know about backroads or red dirt. I’ve never even worn short shorts before. I don’t drink out of Solo cups. I don’t fall into those tropes, and not to be Seinfeld, but really, not that there’s anything wrong with those tropes or those ideals. That said, I do like to sing from my point of view and sort of marry that with the very practiced, tried-and-true structural approach that Nashville has for the structure of a song. So, he (Kent Wells) was my technical education for a song, and I beat his door down for six years to learn.”
In addition to being schooled in Nashville songwriting by Kent Wells, Zaruba busked on 2nd Avenue, played biker bars and took her songs out to her local area to get a feel for what worked and what didn’t. All of that experience taught her what she could play acoustically and what sounded better with her band. One of her main goals was to maintain her sense of identity and as she told me, “not throw my back on it.”
One key piece of that identity is her heritage. Carrie Zaruba is one-half Puerto Rican, which she feels hasn’t been an issue. “Music is the universal language. I’m a person of color and I never felt I couldn’t lay claim to that in Nashville or the country music world.” Certainly this is an era of great change in mainstream country, there’s so much acceptance. It would seem Zaruba is carving her path through the genre at just the right moment in time.
Zaruba’s latest single off the Natural Disaster album is the title track, and it’s instantly lovable. It has a melody that sinks into your mind quickly and the lyrics are expertly written. The song was co-written with Kent Wells, as were all the tracks. Zaruba said she writes all the lyrics and usually, most of the melodies. She gave me details on the writing process. “We have a really crazy chemistry as writers together and I think he would agree. So, I had this batch of mostly-finished songs, and we got together and it just happened. The first five songs on the record are all full-band and the second five are all stripped-down acoustic. I cut the vocals the day after we wrote them. I really wanted to sort of capture that energy and that chemistry we have. The thrill that I experience when I write a song with him and I sing it and it works. I drive away and I want other people to experience it. When you create art, especially when you write, there’s all these facets, and they all give you so much joy.”
She expressed an equal amount of enthusiasm for performing and recording. “Seeing those Nashville geniuses (session musicians) take your song and make it soar, it’s like sides to a diamond,” she remarked. Nashville does have the most incredible studio musicians. What they can do with any given song is pure magic. What they did with Zaruba’s single, “Natural Disaster” is no different. It’s got that special something that only the best of the best can create.
Video (audio) courtesy of Carrie Zaruba
We talked about the song and it’s cool vibe. Zaruba shared her original concept. “I was on an airplane when I wrote that, one of the first flights out in the morning, flying to Nashville. I watched the sun come up as the plane turned to take off, and I just had this vision of everything being sort of in the future and off its axis. Then I was thinking of old saloons and the old west. A sense of lawlessness, a sense of adventure.” I agreed completely, because as I listened to the song I immediately thought of the old west or Gunsmoke. A real western shootout about to go down. That’s the vibe I got. She was happy to hear that her concept came through.
The album was recorded partially at Kent Wells’ studio and partially at Dark Horse Recording in Franklin, Tennessee. Zaruba was especially impressed by Dark Horse. “It’s amazing! It’s so gorgeous there. It’s just really good for your soul and your spirit. You just have some sense of being detached from everything, you know? It’s so scenic. It’s like, some points on the Earth concentrate different energies and that’s definitely one place for me that concentrates very good energy. Very good mojo there,” she related.
As the pandemic starts to lift, Carrie Zaruba is ready to start doing some live shows. She and her band leader just discussed the topic and they’re looking at the situation in different areas now. For the moment she’s still planning some livestreams, but she also has a small show on the books for this summer in New Jersey. She’s up for something regional, even if it’s an outdoor venue that’s socially distanced. “I’m pretty adaptable,” she mentioned, “I can do acoustic, I can do full-band, I can do a trio. We’re just trying to dip our toes back in the water. Our eyes are on this summer to get things going again, just like everyone else.”
Photo courtesy of Carrie Zaruba
Never resting on her laurels, Zaruba is still writing at least every few days. She currently has about nine completed songs that she feels would make a really good next record. Each of those nine songs was self-penned and she hasn’t shared them with anyone else yet. She’d like to add a few more to the mix, but she feels the songs she has so far are special. Zaruba described that initial moment when an idea for a song comes to her and what she does with it after. “It’s like that little window in your mind that’s always open and ready to receive inspiration from everything around you. That’s kind of how I work. I don’t force it if it’s not there, but most times if I hear a word, or if I think of something, I jot it down and come back to it. If I feel good about, I tweak it and tweak it and tweak it. The last couple songs that I wrote, the chorus and the melody, the whole shabang just came right out. It was all done.”
We’d covered a lot about her career, so we had a little extra time. I pulled a random question card out of my Chat Pack box. The card read, “If you had to wear a button with a maximum of six words on it describing your outlook on life, what would your button say?” Zaruba replied, “There’s always tomorrow. I tell my kids that all the time. ‘There’s always tomorrow. Try again tomorrow.’ I think we all need to be a little kinder with ourselves.”
Finally, when Carrie Zaruba “Thinks Country” what does she think? “I think timeless. It transcends the decades. Everyone can connect, and it doesn’t matter how old you are, so there’s that sense of timelessness in country music and I’m just proud to be a part of that.”
The only way to close this out is to encourage you to listen to Carrie Zaruba’s songs. They offer all the proof anyone will ever need that good country music can come straight out of the city. One doesn’t have to live in the country to love it and one doesn’t have to live in the country to create it. Country music is more than a genre, it’s much deeper than that. It’s something that comes from within a person. It doesn’t matter if they spend their days working a farm or crunching numbers in a Manhattan high-rise. Whether you’re a fan or you’re writing songs, if your heart is in it, country music welcomes you. Welcome to country music Carrie Zaruba, and we’ll check in with you when we’re in Philly.
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Photo courtesy of Carrie Zaruba
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*Featured photo courtesy of Carrie Zaruba