Letitia VanSant’s lyrics are as personal as they are political, tracing questions of power into the human heart. With sparse indie folk arrangements fortifying a distinctly intimate vocal style, her down-to-earth stage presence has been described as “vibrant and approachable.” BBC Radio says she is “a fascinating new artist,” and PopMatters called her “a consummate reflection of a rising Americana star.” Her songwriting has earned several awards, including the Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Competition, an honor shared among the likes of Robert Earl Keen, Anais Mitchell, and Caroline Spence. VanSant’s debut album Gut It to the Studs established her as an emerging talent on the Americana scene and propelled her on her first UK/European tour. Its follow-up Circadian is due out February 21, 2020.
You’ve recently been named one of Paste Magazine’s top 10 Country Artists to Watch in 2020. How does it feel to have such attention as you debut your new album, Circadian?
Just trying to keep it movin’!
American Songwriter called you a renaissance woman. What does that mean to you?
I had to google “renaissance” to try and understand! The way I can identify with that is that I’m attempting to do several different kinds of things at the same time with my songs and my platform. I want to share my journey of being an imperfect person making mistakes and trying to do better. I want to be more compassionate towards other people. I want to question structures and habits that intentionally or unintentionally oppress or exclude people at the margins. I want to integrate these ideas with what it means to be a human. I want to conduct my music career in a way that aligns with my values (although there are many ways I fall short and need to do better). I want to help facilitate joy and connection in the face of isolation and hopelessness; I want to keep myself awake to the miracle it is to be alive. This one gets a little woo-woo, but I want to be true to the higher creative power that shapes the world through creativity. And I want to make that elusive thing called “good music” that enables people to listen and opens the door towards all of these other goals.
I’ve seen that most of the songs on Circadian were written and recorded over the course of a week in the studio. How would you describe your songwriting technique? Do you feel your writing style has shifted over the course of your career? Actually I wrote the songs over the course of several years, but they were recorded in just a few days. I have shifted a lot of my energy away from trying to “make it somewhere” and instead have tried to keep my heart centered on how lucky I am to get to play music in any form, anywhere. I’ve stopped trying to “steer” the process so much, and have instead just tried to do justice to the songs that seem to want to come out of me. I admire the writing of classic country–having a simple message that can be understood easily from the song without a lot of clarification.
Your music tackles difficult subjects, such as sexual assault and toxic masculinity. What is your thought process as you to take on such challenging source material? How do you balance between writing an entertaining song and sharing a message?
I struggle with both of these things a lot, and I don’t have any easy answers! A few things I’ve come to believe is that sad songs don’t necessarily make other people feel sad, they can make people feel better. If I try to write something happy that’s not coming from a grounded place that feels true for me, I think people can see through it and it just doesn’t resonate. At the same time, I realized that I want my live sets to feel uplifting so I try to incorporate stories, jokes, interactive bits, and cover songs so that it feels like we’re all on a journey together rather than just pummeling people with sad songs. As far as approaching difficult topics, I’ve noticed that it’s hard for me to just pick an issue and write a good song about it. The songs tend to be much stronger if it’s about something that has personally touched my life. From there, the details don’t all need to be exactly factually correct, but the song does need to be “emotionally true.” I also believe that as a songwriter I need to bear in mind my position as a white, cis-gendered woman from a middle-class background. For instance, generally speaking, I don’t think it’s my place to put words into the mouth of a fictional character who is a person of color, or someone from a working-class background. Maybe there are ways it could be done, with co-writing and a lot of research and careful thought–but it’s something I’m wary of. I also am thinking “Does the message of this song align with the messages coming from the most directly impacted people? What am I doing to actually confront this issue in my real life?” Often the answer is “not enough” and sometimes I think I should put my energy into walking the walk rather than talking the talk, or amplifying the message of an artist who is from the most directly impacted community rather than my own. Then again, sometimes this has the result that I get stuck in “paralysis by analysis” and I am silent on issues that I should be talking about, which is another form of complicity. Welcome to the quagmire that is my mind!
Winning the Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Competition puts you in some very esteemed company. Who are the artists and songwriters who inspire you and why?
I’ve been to a couple of songwriting workshops led by Mary Gauthier, and it’s sort of like going to church for me. She’s adamant about the power of songs to heal, and we need to dig down deep and really find what the song is trying to say in order to unleash its power. She’s the one who uses the term “emotionally true.” I also really admire Rihannon Giddens, as a singer and songwriter, as well as the way she has used her music to educate people about the dynamics of power and racial injustice.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I am grateful for the work that PFS does! People talk about how it’s hard for artists these days, but not as many people talk about how it’s also hard for venues, for bookers, for promoters! Nearly everyone who works in the vicinity of the arts is not getting paid anywhere near what their time is worth. There is a lot of labor of love. Thank you for your work creating structures of support for artists.