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Gwen Sebastian Interview: Singer Talks New Album, Single + Wedding Plans

Gwen Sebastian
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images for ACM

Gwen Sebastian has taken an interesting path to her success. Born in Hebron, N.D., she initially pursued a nursing degree before moving to Nashville to be a singer.

Signed to Lofton Creek records in 2009, Sebastian released several singles and albums, and toured, but it is her participation in NBC’s ‘The Voice’ that brought her to wider attention. She competed as a member of Blake Shelton‘s team on the show’s second season, and has since toured with him as a backing vocalist.

Sebastian recently released a new self-titled album, her first with Flying Island Entertainment. Its first single, ‘Suitcase,’ is currently at radio, and she has been out touring and promoting the release. She will join Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley on two dates of their Locked & Reloaded Tour on Friday (Aug. 9) and Saturday (Aug 10).

Sebastian recently spoke to The Boot about her new album, her songwriting process, and why she has “more guts” in her music than she ever has before.

Your new record is really interesting; a little bit darker, more organic than people might have anticipated.

You’re not the first person that’s said that. [Laughs.] A lot of the songs are songs that I had written a while back, that I had in my back catalog. I pulled them out and decided that I wasn’t necessarily gonna be looking for just a single. I wanted to put together an album that represents me as an artist. I think you’re right, it’s got a little bit more of a swampier, grittier, darker feel to it.

But then there’s the other moments, I guess the softer side; the love songs on there, too. I just wanted to kind of make people feel everything; laugh, have a beer, that kind of thing.

There is a great mix of material. How do you choose between all of the songs that are out there, as well as your own? Do you go looking for specific songs in certain tempos to fill holes, or do you listen to everything that comes in and put the record together that way?

I absolutely listen to pretty much anything that anybody sends me. Especially in Nashville, there’s such great songwriters here, so looking for outside material is fun for me. I like hearing it all.

The thing that makes me decide what I’m going to put on an album — I don’t necessarily go toward tempo or anything like that, but it’s definitely something that I have to feel when I sing it. It has to make me feel something. It has to be real, it has to make sure it’s coming from my heart.

What made ‘Suitcase’ your choice as the first single?

There were a few songs on there that I thought I wanted to release first, and it came down to the fact that this one had a little bit of a story line to it, yet it was up-tempo, and I had written it. So it was kinda cool to have all of those elements come together and put it out there.

The song itself came about when — Nicole Witt is my co-writer on there, and we had first met, actually, that day. She had come in with a song title and some of the song written, kind of the idea going, and I loved it. And we just kinda went with it, and wanted to have one of those songs with a powerful message of, ‘Hey, I’m not gonna sit around and wait on you. I’m not gonna let you cheat on me. If this happens, I’m gonna get out, and all you get is a suitcase. You don’t get me.’

We just wanted to tell it in a way that it had a story to it, and I think we did that.

How do you plan the strategy of releasing a new record?

I’ve gotta be honest with you, I kinda leave it up to the experts. I like to leave that up to my label, Flying Island Entertainment. Because first of all, they’re wonderful people, and I’m so blessed to have wonderful people around me that know what they’re doing. And then also believe in the music itself. I leave that up to those guys. Of course I like to have my say; there’s a few on there that I would love to have released as a single, but we kind of listened to them all, and we decided that ‘Suitcase’ was the one.

You wrote an awful lot of this record. Is it different for you, singing songs you wrote as opposed to songs you found? Does it come from a more personal place?

Yes, it does. Things that I’ve written are something that either I’ve gone through, or maybe a family member or friend, or somebody that’s around me has gone through. So that is a little more personal.

One of those on the album is ‘When I’m Gone,’ and that song came about by just looking at — I was out at my farm, and my family farm has been passed from my great-grandpa down to my grandpa down to my dad. And I was looking around this beautiful land and thinking how thankful we all are that this will be staying in the family, that it will be passed down to a family member. But I don’t think you necessarily have to be a farmer to feel that. I think we all have that feeling of, what kind of a legacy are we going to leave? So that comes from a really personal place, right there.

There’s a song called ‘One Like That,’ where my parents are singing on it. They were the inspiration for that song; they’re celebrating 40 years of marriage this year and are still as much in love today as they were the day they started dating. So that comes from another personal place, and I asked them to sing on the album, and they said yes. So we worked it out, and they’re singing on that song.

This outside song — and like I said before, I want to go and find songs that feel almost as if I had written it — ‘I’m Not Who You Think I Am’ was one of those songs that I had heard, and I just went, ‘Wow!’ I had never heard a song about alcohol written that way. It’s kind of from the perspective of the whiskey, what the whiskey would say. A little darker side. I played it for Miranda Lambert, and she loved the song, so she graciously said, “I’m gonna come sing on it.” So she did, which is an amazing thing to me, for her to take time out of her busy schedule to come sing on my album is a pretty precious thing.

There’s a mix of more thoughtful songs and some attitude songs. I was surprised that a track like ‘Middle of the Road’ has a little bit of a hip-hop element to it.

It kinda does! You’re right. [Laughs.] That’s with Rebecca Lynn Howard. When we sat down to write it, it was that thought process of, ‘Let’s do something kinda funky.’ We were just thinking about how a lot of times people are ridiculed for being different, for being out of the box, for taking a stand. Just going a little bit of a separate road than you are normally told to do. That’s where that whole concept came from. That’s one of my favorites to do live.

Your bio says this album was made mostly live, That’s pretty different from the approach that has been dominating Nashville for a few years. Why that choice?

Maybe “live” isn’t quite the right way to say it, It was [tracking] it all together. I wanted to try to get my vocal with [the musicians]. I just wanted to get that band feeling. Maybe because that’s what I do, I travel with a band. And I love that approach — go back to some of the great records, that’s how they did them. That’s not to say that I didn’t go back and re-sing some stuff, and there’s obviously some overdubbed things, but it was fun that way. It just made it really organic.

Your producer and band leader, Louis Newman, is also your fiance. How does that work?

It’s been so much fun to get to do all of this with him. I realize that, if I wasn’t traveling with him, it would be so much harder. All of these musicians who don’t travel with their families, that’s tough. So we’re blessed to be able to do it together.

He’s produced every one of my records that I’ve put out, before, and this one is really special. We’re really excited about this one, going in and doing that together. He played on the album, as well. He played drums and percussion. We’re doing all of this, touring, and planning a wedding at the same time.

How do you keep personal and professional things separate when you’re working that closely together?

[Laughs.] You don’t. You just don’t. [Laughs.] We always say it’s gonna be separate, but . . . we get along, really, really good, and in order to be able to do both, we have to get along really good. Sometimes we have to separate ourselves and go to different rooms, go and let off some steam or what have you. But there is a balance.

There is definitely a balance, but first and foremost, you’re in love, and so you want to do whatever you can to keep this together, and so you’re thankful, and you don’t want to jeopardize that.

Is it harder to take criticism from him as a producer? Do you take it more to heart than you would if it came from someone else?

Not necessarily. I value his opinion so much . . . no, I don’t. I want to do the best that I can, and I know that he has my best interests at heart. And so I’m going to trust that.

There’s a song on here called ‘Farmageddon.’ That’s pretty outside the box.

I wrote that with Brady Seals, and Brady came in with that idea of Armageddon, of turning it into Farmageddon. He knew I was from a farm, and we sat down, and that one kinda came out quick. But it was also one of those songs that I had set aside and decided I wouldn’t put it on an album, because I decided it was a little too different, too out there. But now . . . I’ve just got more guts now. I care, but I can’t care about what everybody thinks. I have to do what I love to do.

That was one of those songs, I said, “Let’s do this.” I love the groove to it, and I love the kind of Led Zeppelin feel that it gets into. It’s one of my favorites on the album, and it’s very personal as well. My dad’s a really laid-back guy, really cool, doesn’t let much bother him. But I know for a fact that if anyone ever tried to come and take away the family farm, he’d put up a hell of a fight.

The other end of the spectrum on this record is ‘God Bless.’ How did that come about?

I heard that song when I went to Lisa Carver’s release party. I’ve been writing with her, and she’s one of my favorite writers in town, and now favorite artists. So I went to that, and when she sang that song, the crowd was completely silent. You could hear a pin drop. It just says everything I think about what encompasses this world right now. There’s a lot of things going on, a lot of things that we’re going through in our daily lives, and we might look right by and might not notice. But thank God for the ones that do.

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