For singer-songwriter Caroline Spence, there’s no debate about where to find the best ice cream on the Downtown Mall. It’s at Chaps, and it’s the banana flavor.
“It’s the only good banana ice cream in the entire world,” says Spence, who grew up in Charlottesville and used to open for touring artists like Joshua Radin and Joshua James when they visited town.
“I wasn’t great at the guitar,” she says, recalling the times she opened for her aunt, Lisa Robertson, at the old Gravity Lounge. “I used to record performances and play them back and think, ‘Man, I really need to practice the guitar.’”
Spence’s practicing is paying off. She returns to Charlottesville for a hometown show at the Southern on July 20. Joining her are fellow Virginians Brian Caputo, Love Canon’s Darrell Muller, and Sons of Bill’s Sam Wilson. Spence spent the last six years in Nashville and released two full-length albums—Somehow in 2015 and Spades & Roses this past March.
“This album [Spades & Roses] taught me a lot about how I think about my problems and my gifts,” Spence says. “Even if it’s a sad song, there’s a silver lining. Even if it’s a ray of sunlight, there’s always a gray cloud.”
Three weeks ago, Wide Open Country magazine put “Hotel Amarillo,” a Spades & Roses track, on its Best Songs of 2017, So Far list, which also includes the Zac Brown Band, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell. On that track, Spence intersperses rock-infused electric guitar riffs—she cites Bruce Springsteen as one of her influences—with heavy piano ballads and heady percussion.
Something I learned between the first record and the second record was realizing that part of my gift as a writer and a performer is my vulnerability. Caroline Spence
Spence’s talent as a vocalist and storyteller stands out on this tune—and many others. Her folk- and country-inspired sound hearkens to earlier days of Americana, yet feels current and refreshing. All at once, Spence’s voice is big and breathy, and offers elegiac lyrics that portray her as fearless, vulnerable and ultimately, human. On “Hotel Amarillo,” she sings, “Out here it’s the little things that you start to miss / That long hot shower, that slow deep kiss / Yeah, things like where you are, the date and time / Or the name of the hotel, what happened to the wine.”
“Something I learned between the first record and the second record was realizing that part of my gift as a writer and a performer is my vulnerability,” Spence says. She used to feel self-conscious about sharing her whole story as an artist from the South, a lover, daughter and friend. Now, Spence feels “awesome” about bringing honesty and vulnerability to the stage.
“That’s something that I am comfortable with, that’s the part of me from which I make my art. On this record, I really settled into that,” says Spence.
She believes that fans find themselves drawn to her music because of her ability to put it all out there while staying familiar. Spence says that’s the kind of music she loves. As a teenager “starting to fall in love with music,” she remembers obsessively listening to and feeling hypnotized by Radiohead’s “High and Dry,” along with the Ryan Adams album Cold Roses.
Her inspirations include local acts, too. When she was in high school, Spence recalls going to see Johnny Corndog and Devon Sproule, who Spence thought was “just the coolest.”
“I can relate to the feeling [fans] are having where it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s me. That person is singing my story,’” Spence says. “The more I analyze and think about myself and try to express something I feel, the more likely it is that I’m also telling someone else’s story.”
Fans have sent messages and stopped by the merch table after shows to tell stories of how her music has impacted their lives, giving them the strength to survive some of life’s dark moments.
“It means a lot to me that there could be something that I wrote in the world that really helped someone feel less alone, you know?” Spence says.
The Nashville music community also motivates and nurtures her growth as an artist. She says the music city keeps her going and feels like the right place for her to be right now. Spence nevertheless looks forward to visiting family and walking the Downtown Mall.
“Charlottesville still feels like home,” she says.