Karen Caruso discusses confessional side of songwriting

New York-based singer/songwriter Karen Caruso lassos together her country, blues, and rock influences for a potent blend of confessional lyricism, as powerfully summarized in her latest single, "Whiskey in the Bottle."

Q: Would you describe "Whiskey in the Bottle" as autobiographical?

A: Well, yes and no. You see I came up with the concept for the song after a particularly difficult break up. I had moved into a new place, all of my things were in boxes, nothing was on the walls, and I was totally heartbroken. That part was autobiographical. But I'm not really a drinker, you see, even though I write a lot of songs about drinking. For me thinking about pouring a glass of whiskey and drowning my sorrows is a lot more appealing than actually doing it, so when I wrote that part of the song I was using creative license. I would be more likely to drown my sorrows with a big chocolate cake, and who knows maybe I'll write a song about that in the future, but for this one I thought whiskey would be a better fit.

Q: What song is most personal to you and why?

A: The most personal song is called "Addict's Ransom (Remix)" from 2018. I've been directly affected by addiction both in my personal life and professional life - I'm a nurse practitioner in addition to my musical career. When I decided to write the song I knew that it was an ugly subject and that people would either connect with it, or it would make them really uncomfortable, but it is something that so many people are affected by so I felt it was relevant and needed to be written. Our society is plagued with addiction not only to drugs and alcohol, but food, cell phones, gaming, etc. Almost everyone is affected in some way either directly or indirectly. I fortunately have never had a substance abuse problem, but I was in an unhealthy and destructive relationship that no matter how hard I tried. I just couldn't seem to walk away from even though I knew it was bad for me and incredibly painful. So I wrote the song from that perspective, of addiction to a relationship. It was a very hard song to write because it is so real. To record it and make it believable I had to relive some of those feelings which was also difficult, but worth it. Even though it may never make it on mainstream radio because it's such a controversial subject, I am really proud of it.

Q: What was your introduction to music? How old were you, and how did it affect you?

A: Both of my parents loved music. Neither were musicians, but they taught me to sing when I was three. They recorded me singing "Frère Jacques" on a reel-to-reel when I was that young. Because of this I rarely stopped singing when I was a young child. I remember my grandmother commenting after one of my dazzling renditions of "La Cucaracha" during a car ride; "Do you ever stop singing?" I was four at the time. Those early days started the ball rolling and music has been a part of me ever since!

Q: Did you grow up in a musical environment?

A: I wouldn't consider my home environment necessarily musical. My parents frequently had music playing on the radio or the phonograph, but neither played an instrument. But I do have fond memories of my dad playing Loretta Lynn or Conway Twitty on the stereo and my sisters and I dancing around and singing. Although he never played, he saw my musical heart and bought me my first guitar when I was 9. Then I guess it became a musical environment because I never stopped playing. Ha ha! Also, I did grow up in Catholic church and every Sunday we went to folk mass. It was a Catholic service, but there was acoustic guitar music and the hymns were more modern and cool. I actually played guitar at folk mass from the time I could play until I went away to college.

Q: What styles of music had the greatest impact on you creatively?

A: Honestly, country music has had the greatest impact on me creatively. Most country music tells a story and makes you feel the emotions surrounding the story, and I have always been drawn to that kind of music. I'm a lyrics kind of music lover and I love some of the clever plays on words that country music has sometimes delivered. But I have always loved all styles of music and I think that each has made its mark on me creatively. I feel like I can pull on each depending on what I'm writing about and what emotions I'm trying to get across.

Q: In terms of musical style, how would you categorize yourself?

A: I have always prided myself on defying the lines of genre which I know is kind of a rebel stance, but nowadays so many artists are branching out creatively and blending styles of music instead of just writing rock songs or country songs or hip-hop. It is so fabulous and liberating! I never want to have any one of my songs sound like another one that I've written. So I know I"m not really answering the question. I guess my answer is that I refuse to categorize myself!

Q: What was the first song you ever wrote?

A: Oh lordy! My very first song was called "Melody." I was about 7 when I wrote it. There were no lyrics and I am not even sure if they are real notes. I get an A for trying, though! My first serious song that I wrote was called "Glass Half Full." It is about being in a relationship with someone that you have to share. It's actually a great song. I haven't recorded it yet, but I am hoping that at some point in time I'll be able to do so.

Q: What artists influenced you the most growing up?

A: So many! One was Stevie Nicks. With her beautifully flowing clothes, her unique voice with her signature vibrato - man, I wanted to be her so badly! I would sing her songs in the living room and imagine what it would be like to be on a stage in a stadium full of people. Linda Ronstadt was another influence. She was able to make country sound cool and her beautiful voice made you feel every word. Lastly, Billy Joel. He is an a number one songwriter. He can write about anything in any style and make it a hit. He is and always will be one of my all time favorite song writers and artists. If I could collaborate on a song with anyone, I would pick him.

Q: How have you evolved creatively?

A: I believe songwriting is something you get better and better at. I've been lucky enough to work with some great people like Carolyn Ghezzi and Jason Richmond, who produced "Whiskey in the Bottle" and "Addict's Ransom." They both are so talented and have so much experience that they are willing to share, and my time working with them as really helped me to improve some of the technical aspects of the music I'm writing. I'm also a member of The Nashville Songwriters Association International. As a member, I have had a lot of my songs reviewed by experts in the songwriting industry. This is one of the benefits of membership and they have often given me really good advice at how to improve on the lyrics or the melody of many of my works. They are very invested in helping songwriters to grow, and I have gotten so much from this process. All of these things just build upon what I already know and make every song I write just a little bit better.