Valleys are often associated with peaks in the words of a touring musician, but in the beautiful karmic mind of Nashville-based singer-songwriter Amy Stroup, they basically mean one thing: moving upward. In her supple song “Valley”, with a new lyric video that Stroup presents today (15 June) at PopMatters, she sings, “It’s a wonderful world / You show me how it is” without a hint of irony. Somehow, even the most cynical critic will put trust in it.
The “Valley” video presentation, shot sumptuously by Joe Gomez and edited by Erika Rock, backs up those wonderful words authored by the wayfaring subject who knows that part of the country all too well.
Born in Boston but raised in Abilene, Texas, about 180 miles west of Dallas, Stroup offers these views in an email interview for this article: “I wanted to capture where that place is for me, and although I’ve been lucky to have traveled many places around the world, I feel it most in the area known as West Texas. There is something about the land that is quiet, and I always feel at peace there. So going home felt right to shoot.”
As the creative mind behind the project that included this latest music video and single leading up to the 23 June release of Since Frank, her fourth solo album, Stroup takes great pleasure in her latest accomplishment. “I am so proud of the songs and the sounds captured on this record,” she says. “I truly feel like I was present throughout the whole process. I feel like my work is done, and I hope it connects to others too at the right time. After all, that’s why I make it.”
Spending time the past few years with co-writers in Los Angeles, where Secret Road, the company that represents her music in TV and film, is located, she also collaborated with others in Nashville. The album, guided elegantly by Stroup’s haunting, atmospheric vocals, was recorded there at Sound Emporium studios, with additional tracking and song-crafting with producer Chris Copelin at his Blackwatch Studios in Norman, Oklahoma. Obviously, a stylish, sophisticated work of art that features luscious strings (Eleonore Denig, Jeremy Larson), chilling cello (Cara Fox), and sweet synthesizers (Copelin), along with the basic instruments, requires special attention. So, Stroup felt that it was necessary to keep her hands on most aspects of the production.
“It’s becoming increasingly important to capture the visual life of a record not with just a one-off music video and an album cover, but a more immersive visual experience for the listener,” she states. “Visuals are something that fascinate me as much as sounds.”
Seeking a “savvy videographer” who could operate a drone, she found Gomez through a recommendation by Stroup’s photographer, Nicola Harger. Rock joined the video team after the indie intelli-pop artist tried out a couple of editors.
“[Rock] has a similar instinct as I like with movement of images to music,” adds Stroup, whose songs have found placements in popular TV shows such as This Is Us and Grey’s Anatomy, along with several national TV ads or campaigns for companies like Nike, Calvin Klein, and Lexus. “It’s subtle, but she is very good at drawing the emotion out of moving images that give life to the emotions captured in the song. One big challenge especially for me — an artist who is independent without a big label paying for it all — is that I hired and flew everyone to Texas and paid to have it edited. It all adds up quickly. … For this project that I believe in, it is a risk financially that I’m willing to make.”
The Hill Country setting of Boerne, southwest of Austin, was chosen for the video by Stroup, who asserts, “The location was most important in that I grew up in Texas and love the dry expansiveness of the land and sky as well as the warmth.”
Another primary element was her co-star named Frank, the dog and pet pal who’s stayed by her side since the summer of 2019. That’s when she picked “the chill one” out of a litter whose parents were an 80-pound chocolate brown poodle (dad) and a 35-pound English lab (mom). “Hence, Frank is a first-generation labradoodle. (The state dog of Tennessee, I think — there are so many),” contends the outdoors enthusiast who enjoys trail running, road cycling, and “hiking the great parks and trails in Nashville.” Now she has a favorite walking partner.
Not sold previously on becoming a committed pet owner, Stroup couldn’t resist giving him the name of a popular performer after finding Frank “kind of half asleep in the yard,” she recalls. “I went over to him, and he laid his head on my foot. I thought, ‘This is my dog.’ He had gorgeous blue eyes and a sweet bark, hence Frank Sinatra. He reminded me of my grandad’s energy, and he loved Sinatra, too.
“[Frank] is the best version of unconditional love that I’ve experienced so far in my life, and although no one song is solely about him, I suppose they all are. (Who else does backflips when you walk in the door?)” adds Stroup, who wrote and recorded most of the new LP’s 10 songs since Frank came into her life. Choosing the album title might have been the easiest decision of her career since a move to Nashville in 2001. That was years after she began learning how to play the piano as a second grader, which paid off as a college student who got more classical music training at Lipscomb University in Music City.
Since then, there have been numerous collaborations, starting strong in 2012 with Trent Dabbs in Sugar & the Hi-Lows (Stroup’s alter ego coming from “Amy Sugar”, her father’s pet nickname). Our first Huffington Post interview with the two Nashvillians served as a proper introduction that year to the retro-fitted rockabilly/blues crew ahead of their self-titled debut album. Praising “Stroup’s honey-drenched alto, Dabbs’ slick guitar licks from a vintage amp, and his even cooler Carl Perkins vibe,” the record hit No. 4 on my Top 10 list of 2012 submitted with other featured bloggers at No Depression.
Dubbing herself a “song farmer”, Stroup also has worked professionally with the likes of Andrew Belle in Dabbs’ Ten Out of Tenn collective (he also contributes background vocals on Since Frank), and Andrew Simple in Danger Twins after becoming co-founder of Milkglass Creative (branding and design services) with Mary Hooper in 2010. Her previous solo albums include Helen of Memphis (2018), Tunnel (2015), and The Other Side of Love Sessions (2011).
Yet after spending time on the road or in the studio with fellow musicians, there’s always one faithful friend ready to greet her, whether he’s hanging with a dependable house-sitter or Stroup’s “newly retired public school librarian mom” visiting from Texas.
Previously needing to recover from the “strange two to three-day blues that sets in” following a tour (“I’ve heard lots of musicians talk about it,” she maintains), Stroup divulges, “I’ve also heard it takes almost one day per week that you’re gone to adjust to home life. I’ve definitely experienced it. Frank brought a new feeling. For the first time in my life, I actually can’t wait to get home now. Mostly because I know he is there.
“The two or three days of blues aren’t nearly as potent. No person has ever even made me feel that yet. And I say yet, because I am open to it, but I am still not sure a person would run around in a million circles if they saw my car pulling up the driveway.”
Check out the exclusive lyric video premiere of “Valley” now, then read on to find out more about the new album and other aspects of Stroup’s career in her email Q&A with PopMatters.
Write on! Amy Stroup Responds to Our PopMatters Quiz
What inspired you to write “Valley” with Jeremy Larson? Your press release points out that “Valley” is a stream of consciousness about how love can lift us from the depths of melancholy. Please elaborate on your personal experience regarding the love and melancholy you’ve felt that led to this song.
Jeremy’s manager [Jordan Mattison, founder of Good Folk Management] reached out to me to co-write with him. His manager said, “He doesn’t co-write very much, but I think you guys could be great.” It sounded like a fun challenge. When I went to the session, Jeremy had some of the string and piano sketched out. He played a little, and I thought it was gorgeous. We spent the day finishing up sections — like where a verse or the chorus might fall. Then he sent me the track, and I wrote the melody and lyrics in one sitting, a stream of consciousness. Looking back, it’s about the people and pets that shift your perspective from the valley and gently sort of lift your chin to look up at the great big, wonderful world we all find ourselves in. I think wonderment starts with noticing small things that can lead us to gratitude — like the simplicity of spending time with people and pets you love.
Since several writers were involved, how easy (or difficult) was it for you to bring cohesion to the album?
I think the cohesiveness was in Chad Copelin, a singular producer creating the production with me, and me writing or selecting all the songs.
What led to your decision to include the Jim James song “A New Life” on the album after seeing him perform it in Nashville, and how does it fit in with the rest of the record?
When I thought about recording the song, I was at a time in my life when I was fighting for a shift in my life. Not so much like a physical move to another city, or a new job, or a new partner in life, or anything externally really, but internally. I had struggled so many years with anxiety and seasonal depression. I decided to slow down and get curious about the place I was living from with my therapist and a couple of trips to Onsite (an amazing place to do experiential therapy). I wanted so desperately to shift to a new place to live emotionally and just give myself better tools to do it.
I saw Jim James perform the song at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, and it was like seeing an emotional mirror. I was so struck by his delivery; I made a mental note that I was going to try the song back at home and perhaps figure out a version to record. Songs are medicine. “A New Life” by Jim James was healing medicine for me, and I wanted to share it with my fans, too.
Has he heard your version and given you any feedback?
I have a friend that is friends with [James’] publisher, and I hear the publisher loves the version, but no, I haven’t heard if Jim himself has heard it yet.
What song on the album do you identify with the most?
Depends on the day, but today, “Self Talk” [co-written with Stephen Wilson]. They say the longest conversation you have in life is the one you have with your inner thoughts. “Self Talk” explores the daily rituals and reminders that I do to remind myself I’m OK and my higher power is with me.
How have you managed to attain success as a licensed singer-songwriter, contributing to placements in films, TV, and commercials?
I always loved soundtracks growing up. My parents took me to see John Williams conduct the Boston Pops as a kid, and things like a 12-hour drive in the family Ford Taurus from Florence, Alabama [where they once resided] to New York to see Les Misérables. I’ve always just been so struck by the relationship between stories and music. I’ve wanted to be a part of making it since I took classical piano in second grade. I guess I’ve just paid attention all these years to it, sort of making what I like to hear or am drawn to hear in hopes others are, too. So far, it has worked, and I’m so thankful — and amazed I get to be a part of it. I’m proud of it all.
How has your experience with Milkglass Creative helped contribute to your success as an artist?
When I started Milkglass with Mary Hooper back in 2010, I knew I wanted to try and be an independent artist. I think album covers, videos, etc., should “look” how they sound. Mary is great at capturing, designing, and organizing the visual life that goes with my songs. It’s been a great partnership. (Side note, her Chris Stapleton’s Traveller cover is still one of my all-time favorite album covers she designed.)
As far as success, I always said I don’t have to be on a label, I just need to look like I am — aka have quality visuals paired with the music. I do think it has contributed uniquely to any success I’ve earned.
How does working as a solo artist compare with the experience you have had with Danger Twins and Sugar & the Hi-Lows, the duo that introduced me to you and your music? Is there a chance to bring back that project with Trent Dabbs, or are you totally committed to a solo career now?
I’m a song farmer at heart. Farmers plow and plant fields, let fields rest … then go back to them and plant crops on them again. I’d say more collaboration on the Sugar field is definitely not out of the question; that field will bear more fruit in the right time. Danger Twins just released a new album NEUF, our ninth record … a lot more crops to come.