A little less than a year ago, Nashville music artist Erin McCarley stood on stage at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin,Texas, preparing to perform tracks from her debut album, Love, Save the Empty, for the first time ever in a live setting.
She’s been performing them at a whirlwind clip ever since.
“It was really an incredible response,” McCarley says. “There’s such a flood of musicians down there so you think it’s kind of impossible to pop your head out from all of that. But I started touring in August and I’ve had maybe three weeks at home since.”
The reason for the prolific touring schedule? Scattered throughout the audience that night in Austin were representatives from various music labels, drawn in from a few samples they had heard on MySpace. Falling instantly in love with what they heard, a rep from Universal invited McCarley to dinner the following evening. A week after that, they flew her to New York. Soon she had signed with Universal and was shuttling between the major markets of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles singing all of those new songs the label reps swooned for in Austin. Now, she’s trying to make sense of it all by putting her time line in order over the phone.
“The first song for the album we did together in 2006. I didn’t move to Nashville until July of ’07 … er … I’m getting confused … Where are we?”
At the moment, she’s in Boston, searching for a lunch spot before joining up with James Morrison’s tour that night for a show at the Paradise Rock Club. And soon, Thursday, Feb. 5, she’ll be taking the stage at 9:30 Club in D.C. But in 2006 McCarley sat in her San Diego loft, seriously scripting songs for the first time.
“I did this one by holing up in my apartment. I have to be totally alone,” she says.
So, she shut herself in her two-story loft with her guitar and her, self-described, “crappy little keyboard” and set to work. From 8 a.m. on she ran herself through writing exercises, unsatisfied with her day until she had made some tangible stride with her songwriting.
For McCarley, this was more than a lark. This was the next step following years of laying groundwork for a music career she knew she wanted, but did not want to rush.
“I picked up songwriting a while back, but didn’t start finishing songs and knowing what I wanted to do until about four or five years ago,” she says.
Prior to moving to San Diego, McCarley spent some time in Nashville, to where she has since returned. She wanted to meet some people in the music community and wound up doing some demo singing. But without a clear concept of where she wanted to take her songwriting, she wasn’t quite ready to jump into the waters of Music City. Instead she settled in San Diego, working with Greg Laswell and further honing her art.
That advanced planning clearly paid off on Love, Save the Empty, an effort that feels impossibly polished for a debut album.
Most noticeable in McCarley’s work is a tempo that transcends the clouds-in-the-coffee crowd of female singer-songwriters lamenting about loves lost and unrequited. Rather than flat, dismal ruminations over sullenly strummed strings, McCarley augments her incisive lyrics with a wide spectrum of surrounding sounds – mainly born from synths and a brightly picked guitar. In this way, McCarley provides a pop quality to weighty lyrics from a less-than-perfect life. Within her words, she describes topics ranging from a dearth of role models to the lack of a clear course through the world.
She describes the work as a form of therapy for her subconcious, one she’s a little embarrassed is so readily on display now.
“I look back at what I was trying to do and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe that’s out now,'” McCarley says. “I guess I was digging a little deeper into whatever that emotion was.”
The flip side of McCarley’s now-public self-scrutiny is an alarmingly honest album that’s sure to only fan the flames of her already-smoldering career, first sparked by that show in Austin almost a year ago – a fact that continues to surprise her.
“I didn’t think it was one of my better shows because it was like the first time we played those songs live,” she says. “To be honest, I’d be kind of scared to hear what it was like.”
- Erin McCarley performs with James Morrison at 9:30 Club, Thursday, Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. The show is sold out. For more on Erin McCarley, visit www.erinmccarley.com.