As she's formally trained as an English teacher, it's not surprising that, as a songwriter, Nora Jane Struthers is highly concerned with telling stories.
For her second record, the brand-new Carnival, Struthers found she had a collection of stories that could also become a larger story. The carnival concept comes from the idea that each song is a brief narrative giving a peek into the life of a series of individuals, akin to a carnival sideshow. But as work on the record progressed, Struthers realized she also had a collection of songs all written from a female perspective, and while they were not all about the same woman, there was a certain life chronology that could be implied and applied.
"I had never done and not planned to do a concept record, but when we were doing the sequencing, I realized that where we placed the song could affect the meaning of the song, at least to me," Struthers told The Beat.
"For example, Mountain Child is about a girl who is dragged into prostitution to feed her family. For me, how early you put that in the sequence could make it even sadder. Of course, it wasn't necessary to arrange them in any particular order, but I guess I'm a stickler for an overarching narrative."
Struthers' own chronology starts in Virginia, where she was raised and where she learned to sing and play guitar from her father (with whom she more recently recorded an album of country duets under the name Dirt Road Sweetheart). She was educated at New York University's Steinhart School of Education and taught English at a charter school in Brooklyn for three years, while at the same time playing folk clubs and coffee houses in the city.
"Teaching was what I wanted to do," she explained.
"But I also loved music. I just never knew how to go about it as a career. I guess I'm still figuring it out."
After attending a few conferences and festivals with her father and then recording the duet album, Struthers chose to give doing music full time a go. Despite the fact that Brooklyn was an emerging acoustic music hotbed, she decided it was best to head to Nashville.
Her first record was made with studio musicians. Struthers confessed to feeling a little out of place surrounded by a slew of crackerjack players.
"I knew I could play and sing, but I realized at that time that songwriting was my greatest artistic contribution," she said.
"As I've been touring, I've grown as a performer, both as a vocalist and instrumentalist, but the songs to me are what I stand on."
Struthers eventually assembled a formal band, dubbed The Party Line, and that relationship resulted in a different experience while making Carnival.
"These guys are incredible musicians, and everybody's musical voice helped create the sound," Struthers said.
"Having the influences of each of them and making the album collaboratively, it was a brilliant combination."
The symbiotic relationship that comes with playing with friends supports the presentation of the stories as well, Struthers said.
"I like telling stories about people from different times and different backgrounds, to have (audiences) relate to people from other walks of life," she said.
"A big part of what I tried to do as a teacher was to inspire empathy. I try to do that with music as well."
Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line will play Natalie's Coal-Fired Pizza Sunday, May 5. Tickets are $10. Visit nataliescoalfiredpizza.com.