Zoë Nutt Turns Challenges Into Triumph on Sophomore Album ‘How Does It Feel’

Photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Zoë Nutt has a reliable sense of grit that sees her through any challenge.

Raised in Knoxville, Tennessee by a musical family, Nutt spent much of her childhood analyzing lyrics, yet believed at the time that music was an “unreachable” profession. In high school, she auditioned for the female lead in the school’s musical. Instead, she was cast in a small male role. But that’s when her determination kicked in – she hired a vocal coach to teach her how to sing classical music in order to attain the leads in the musical theatre productions. “And I did,” she asserts.

Nutt later enrolled at Nashville’s Belmont University as a classical performance major and was a few classes shy of graduating when she felt compelled to apply for the university’s esteemed songwriting program. When she got the acceptance letter, she knew she had both the talent and determination to make music a full-time job. But the new adventure didn’t come without strife. Since the age of eight, Nutt has been totally deaf in her right ear. She also has severe tinnitus, impacting the way she hears specific sounds and communicates with others. “All these sounds, like someone grabbing a water bottle or closing the door, would make me not want to leave the house,” she explains. “It’s strange – you lose your hearing, but you end up being extremely sensitive to certain things at the same time.” Then, during her first semester as a songwriting major, Nutt woke up to discover she had lost a large part of her hearing overnight.

Though the experience was “shocking,” it hasn’t stopped Nutt from pursuing her passions. Though hearing loss is not fundamental to her identity, it does play a noteworthy role in her songwriting. “Although a lot of my songs aren’t about hearing loss, a lot of the themes started focusing towards positive things happening in negative situations,” she describes. “I was definitely feeling that way of having gotten this great opportunity and then basically being told by the universe ‘that’s not in the cards for you with the hearing loss.’ So I’ve always felt that up and down feeling in my songs.”

While recording her sophomore album How Does It Feel, Nutt lost her hearing for an entire month. After multiple suggestions from her doctor, Nutt decided to go through with cochlear implant surgery to help improve her hearing, spending a year recuperating from the surgery before heading back into the studio to record the 10-song album. It was finally released this year, and thoughtfully captures the singer’s stories, which range from reliving her heartbreak due to a cheating ex on “Rewind” to a young woman aiming to break the mold on the self-fulfilling prophecy, “Girl of My Dreams.” But the album closer “Like You” tells a deeply personal story, one that Nutt hasn’t lived yet. The heartbreakingly beautiful song finds Nutt foreshadowing to the day she becomes a mother, saddened to be unable to hear her newborn child, yet hopeful in knowing she’ll feel her child’s love within. “I won’t ever hear you say you love me/I’ll never know whether you can sing/But I can’t wait to watch your lips speak wonders/Cause no one will ever sound like you,” she sings, her voice floating angelically over a melody of strings and subtle steel guitar.

“I’m not one to talk about my hearing loss a ton – it’s a very personal thing. For me to put that out there, that was really hard for a moment,” she says. “I think it’s one of those songs that later on in my life, I’m going to look at differently too, because when I wrote it, I was feeling this immense fear of not being able to hear anyone and that moment of thinking of all those important things in my life that I’m not going to be able to hear.” Writing the song, though, brought healing and new meaning into her life. “Now that I’ve moved on and I’m handling my hearing loss, I’m not in that moment when I’m thinking about it that way. But later on, I think this song is going to hit me really hard in a different way.”

Describing herself as someone who’s often felt like an outsider looking in, Nutt hopes that How Does It Feel will allow her fellow outsiders to feel not only accepted, but understood. “I think that’s what we all want down to our core is to be heard and to be understood,” Nutt refelcts. “I hope people listen to songs and feel a little understood.”

Follow Zoë Nutt on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or visit her website for ongoing updates.

Rising Country Songwriter Tiera Finds a Voice through Woman-led Music Brand Songs & Daughters

Photo Credit: Kamren Kennedy

As Nashville’s female-focused record label Songs & Daughters approaches its one-year anniversary this month, or “first birthday” as president Nicolle Galyon calls it, the artist collective continues to move into the future with a new publishing arm. In partnership with Big Loud Publishing and Warner Chappell Music, the new publishing venture will enable Songs & Daughters to develop aspiring artists and songwriters, with Tiera signed as its flagship songwriter.

Co-founded by Galyon, a revered songwriter who’s penned a range of hits including Dan + Shay’s “Tequila,” “Automatic” by Miranda Lambert and “Consequences” by Camila Cabello, Songs & Daughters is a platform for female artists to flourish and hone their talents in an industry where their voices are sorely lacking on country radio. But more importantly, it’s a safe space nurturing both the art (the song) and the artist (the daughter). “I’ve always had this vision for Songs & Daughters – it is a record label, but more than that, it’s a home,” Galyon tells Audiofemme in a phone interview from her vacation home in her native Kansas. “Just building this really beautiful family where everyone can be creative and develop together.”

Nicolle Galyon (left) and Tiera (right). Photo Credit: Julia Cox

The family is growing with the addition of Tiera, a bright 22-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama with tenacity and a “DIY” spirit. With the new publishing deal, Galyon will mentor Tiera as she writes with high caliber songwriters in town, penning tracks both for herself and for other artists to record. For Galyon, Songs & Daughters is the sanctuary she wishes she had upon moving to Nashville 18 years ago, recalling the sense of community she felt working with female writers, a precious bond she hopes to establish among the up-and-coming women she’s working with through the one-of-a-kind label.

“The genesis of me even wanting to have my own label was looking back and realizing that the female artists that I really loved working with [when] I was a year or two into writing, we had built trust and mutual respect and love and a creative energy in the comfort of a writing room. That’s to me where true partnership has been formed. Creating a space for other writers to get to do that feels true for who I am and how I came into the business,” she explains. “The whole industry is a wild card, but my hope is that I can create opportunity for [Tiera], get her up at bat, get all these artists and writers, the people that I believe in, use my platform to give them an opportunity to get up at bat and swing.”

Since moving to Nashville, Tiera’s work has earned her a slot on the 2018 country music-themed competition show Real Country and in the CMT Next Women of Country class of 2020. A consistent theme among Tiera’s growing catalogue is her polished sound that matches her vibrant, soulful voice and showcases her sweet southern drawl in a way that allows the lyrics to float off her tongue. Take “Rewind,” a storming number about a couple that can’t break toxic habits, juxtaposed with the perky “Out of Sight” that follows a globe-trotting couple seeking a place to escape. Her sharp sensibilities are what drew Galyon to the singer. “It’s an easy listen, but it’s advanced writing,” Galyon describes of Tiera’s songwriting style, calling it “wonderfully digestible.” “She’s so consistent. She keeps writing new songs, but I know what I’m getting.”

Describing her style as R&B country, Tiera’s interest in country music developed in middle school when she taught herself guitar at the age of 13 and started writing songs about first crushes and heartbreaks. “It just naturally came out country,” she says of her songwriting. “I loved writing stories and I loved writing stuff about real life.” As she took songwriting more seriously as a profession, she studied the songwriters behind the tunes she was listening to, dissecting the lyrics and applying the research to her own writing, including those written by Galyon, calling the opportunity to work with her a “full circle” moment.

As a self-admitted “sucker” for writing upbeat love songs, the singer centers her songs around uplifting themes. “What I try to focus on in my life in general is on the good. I feel like there’s so much negativity in this world and I try to not focus on that all the time and focus on the positive. I think there’s so many beautiful things in this world, so I try to relay that in my music,” she observes. “I just want to make people feel good.”

 Galyon also sees this gift in her new protégé. Calling the young star “refreshing,” she notes that Tiera’s songs are often “fun” and “hopeful,” citing “Found It In You,” “Tell My Mama” and the unreleased “Fall Out Boy” as her personal favorites. “She really does know who she is and what she wants to do,” Galyon says. “She wants to be a light with her music.” But there’s an important piece of advice she hopes to instill in the young star. “Trust the experts, but always be the loudest voice that you hear,” Galyon advises. “You shouldn’t be the only voice you hear, but you should be the loudest at the end of the day. Your voice needs to be the forefront.”

Listening to her intuition isn’t likely to be much of an issue for Tiera – her song “Wake Up Call” opens with the line “I don’t take orders from nobody but myself,” after all. Tiera hopes to step into a mentoring role one day and bring other artists under her wing like Galyon has done for her. “Nicolle has paved the way for me. I really hope that I can do that for other artists,” she professes. “It’s great to be a part of the charge.”

Follow Songs & Daughters and Tiera on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Lindsay Kay Reveals A Song’s Evolution on New EP

Calling from a six-week writer’s residency in the small mountain town of Banff in Alberta, Canada, Lindsay Kay is feeling a creative high these days – while also enjoying a much-needed recharge. “This place is really fantastic. They literally cook all your food for you. You’re sort of living in a hotel, almost, so you don’t have to make your bed, even,” she says with a laugh. “It’s so wildly privileged… but it’s completely immersive. All you have to do is music. They fund you to come.”

Banff lies roughly 90 minutes away from Kay’s hometown of Calgary, and so, it feels a bit like a homecoming. She previously attended this same residency four years ago as she prepared her debut album, 2018’s For the Feminine, By the Feminine, an especially moving and timely collection centered on womanhood and the meaning of femininity. Every collaborator on the album, from producers to studio musicians, was a woman.

Now, she offers a glimpse into the great depths of her songcraft with her new EP, showcasing the same song in three different versions. “For D”/“I Had This Friend” is a study in songwriting, and each iteration is a puzzle piece to a much bigger story. “I was actually, funnily enough, at another artist residency when I first wrote this. I was in this really small town called Noyers-sur-Serein in Burgundy, a couple hours south of Paris. It was very different than here. It’s very small,” she recalls. “You’re sort of living in this tiny, medieval house. It was just me and one other woman in residence together – my dear friend [writer] Kelsey Donk. We were there for a couple of months working and writing. That was real seclusion.”

“I Had This Friend” moves from the rough cut of the original 2016 iPhone demo to something more visceral and tangible in the second demo to a finished product that marries creamy studio work with a still jagged presentation. While the final version remains unmastered, it still allows the listener to feel an emotional richness that drips from Kay’s voice and the steady heartbeat of guitar and piano.

“He worried all of the time / He’d never get any sleep / There was no time to be wasted / He had to earn his keep,” she sings. Her words paint faint, foggy images of a person who quickly, sorrowfully faded from her life. “In life, some people are there for a long time, and some people are there for a short time. This person was in my life for a shorter amount of time,” she offers with a palpable heaviness. “When I wrote this song in France, we were still dear friends and speaking pretty regularly. He was present in my life, and I felt inspired to write a song about him.”

“I cared about him very much, but I worried about him for all the reasons that I list in the song. He overworked himself. He sets too high expectations for himself. I felt I wanted to put that into words. Coming back to this song later, things had changed slightly. I was figuring out how to deal with that.”

Listen to AudioFemme’s exclusive stream of “For D” / “I Had a Friend” and get even more insight into Kay’s work below.

AF: What drew you back to the song three years later? How had things changed?

LK: I came back to the song this year. I was in Calgary visiting my family. I was thinking, “Okay, it’s time to start the process of writing new music and figuring out the next type of album that I want to make.” Sometimes, it’s a little bit easier to revisit old work as opposed to diving right into making something new. Writing songs is the hardest thing ever. [laughs] It’s so terrifying to have the blank page looking back at you. So, sometimes, it’s a softer landing to go back into the journals and the voice memos and see if there’s anything that can be mined from the past.

That’s what I was doing. I was going back and listening to a bunch of the music I wrote when I was in France and stuff I wrote that coincided with my last album that didn’t make the cut then. This song was one of those songs. It didn’t really fit in with the overarching theme of my last album, but I still felt the song had something special and sweet and nostalgic to it. I like the song.

In listening back to it, it’s interesting, of course. The first demo was in the present tense, and I thought to myself, “Do I have any sort of responsibility to keep the song the same to respect the way it was written the first time?” But it’s my song, so I can do whatever I want. There are no rules. So, I thought, “Well, we grew apart in a natural, normal way. Nothing dramatic or terrible about it, but how do I make this song true for right now?” The first thing I chose to do was put it into past tense, which took some finagling. It was interesting, because I had never done that before. I had never taken a present song and put it into the past. It was a cool thing to work on. I really enjoyed that process.

AF: How did the song feel to you then, emotionally?

LK: Honestly, I think it felt quite similar. I actually had a lot of the same feelings I had when I wrote it. It was just love and care for this person – despite the fact that I no longer speak to him very often. When I listened to the song, I was taken back to that feeling of care and concern. It made me think of our friendship fondly. I saw things slightly different, I suppose, which you can see in the lyric changes. It’s a little bit more critical view, perhaps, in the last version of the song. I had time to reflect on our relationship and our friendship. It still rang true in some way, at least.

AF: A month later, you recorded the final version. What did you want the song to evoke, musically?

LK: I wanted to record something very quickly, very messy, not too polished. I wasn’t initially planning on making an EP in this way. When I went into the studio, I just had access to studio time in Calgary. This was the song that was at the forefront of my practice and mind at the moment. I wanted to record it in the way I felt it was finished. After I had recorded the song, I was going back and listening to the different versions. Then, I had the idea, “Well, what if I put this all together with the iPhone demos and show the evolution?”

It all came together after. The song isn’t even mastered. It’s very barebones. It’s very live. I recorded everything completely live on the floor. I did the voice and guitar master take all together. It’s one good take. I quickly layered another guitar part on top and a bit of piano. That’s the whole song. It was literally a few hours in the studio. Sometimes, as artists, we get quite precious about our work, which I think is important – to want to refine and polish. It’s sometimes fun to let people into the more creative process as opposed to being really attached to perfection.

AF: Do you ever have trouble stopping yourself from tweaking and letting go of a song?

LK: Of course. For this project, it was almost an exercise in not doing that. I really actively did not do that with this. I was super lax on my technical expectations. It was almost an exercise in letting go of songs really, really fast. That was really helpful. With my last album, I had a lot of moments of wanting to continue to add more and tweak. It never really felt finished. But eventually, you have to learn to let go or have someone you trust by your side telling you when maybe it is time to let go. I had the same experience with music videos and editing them. There’s always more. There’s always something that can be added or removed or tweaked. It never is perfect. There’s an art in knowing when to let it be.

A page from Lindsay Kay’s lyric journal offers insight into how the song evolved over time.

AF: What lyric of this song sticks with you most?

LK: I’ve been trying to actively think about how to incorporate writing about intimacy and sexuality in my work that’s not draped in symbolism all the time. I was skirting around this lyric, but then, I put it in blatantly. The lyric is: “He told me that he had been having hot sex with a woman that he despised.” That lyric is just pretty clear. It’s not necessarily uber poetic or nuanced. It’s clear and to the point. That’s something I’m trying to explore more in my writing.

That lyric felt powerful to me when I wrote it, and I felt excited about having that in there. I also like the lyric: “When I’m away and missing LA, I think about the day we shared some fries, and I watched him cry.” Sometimes, it’s nice to put in weird little details. Sharing a plate of fries with someone is such a normal, friendly thing we all do.

AF: Do you have an idea where you’re headed next in your music?

LK: I’m at the very beginning of the process. I was just in Spain for the last, almost, three months. I’m going back and forth between Los Angeles and Barcelona at the moment. I was writing there quite a lot. I wrote maybe four or five new songs. Now, I’m here continuing to polish those and write more music. A full-on shape has not taken form yet. There’s no clear path as to when an album will come or what it will look like. Right now, I’m firmly in the creative writing process. I’m trying to protect that space as long as it feels good and can keep it.

Follow Kay on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

ONLY NOISE: Campfire Songs

I never went to summer camp as a child. In fact, I didn’t really believe that anyone else did, either. Summer camp, like talking dogs and successful marriages, was the stuff of movies. Camp was a tradition I never longed for, or understood, or even thought of. So I was a bit surprised last month when my sister asked me to help out at her Teen Songwriting Retreat – as a camp counselor.

A singer/songwriter, producer, performer, and music teacher by her own right, my sister has been cutting records and touring extensively since the early 2000s. Comparatively, I am far newer to the biz, and much more detached considering I merely opine when other people make music, but certainly don’t make my own. My few musical efforts have been tortured and short-lived, contributing only to a novice career in music criticism.

Music is sort of the family business, however.  Our dad, uncle, and grandfather have all played music professionally at some stage in their lives.  Our dad has worked in pro-audio, co-owned a record store, and currently owns a bistro-cum-music venue, where my sister plays a few times a year.  Because I live so far away, and cannot contribute to the family showbiz community in quite the same way, working at my sister’s retreat seemed like a nice way to finally complete the circle.

Though I had no prior experience working with teenagers in any capacity, and the thought of singing in unison around a campfire makes my blood curdle, this occasion was not to be missed. Firstly, my sister is like, the most wonderful person in the world. Secondly, my sister’s wife (who was manning the kitchen for the retreat) is like, the second most wonderful person in the world. And thirdly, they both live on big, gorgeous farm acreage in rural Washington…in grain silos. They’re pretty much a hippie dream couple torn from the pages Modern Farmer, but better.

In the weeks leading up to the retreat my sister asked if I would be down to talk to the kids about what I “look for” in new artists as a music journalist. Perhaps I could answer their questions, and maybe even inspire them with my fangirl banter. Sure. Why not? But the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if I had anything at all to offer these kids aside from my jaded New York sensibilities (“All of the music venues you love will eventually shut down.” “Never trust drummers.” Etc.) Would I only be able to contribute cynical ramblings?

As it turned out, there was a lot more I could offer them. Namely: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My task wasn’t so much to inspire young Dylans and Nilssons with tales of freelance writing, as it was to make sure they stayed alive for three days. For the camp’s duration I was kitchen assistant to the head chef (my sister’s wife), or as we called her, the “Kitchen Goddess.” The Kitchen Goddess (KG) was an expert at organizing the day and delegating tasks. This created a symbiotic relationship, as I (unlike a musician, but very much like a journalist) am great at taking direction from higher ups. The KG was like a dream editor, stepping in only when a serious rewrite was in order – like the time I over-stuffed a quesadilla, setting it up for structural failure.

Our daily routine was nothing short of divine; I can only hope that by the time I hit 70 my life will be so blissful. To start the day, the kids (ages 12-16) woke up in a yurt tucked away in the woods, roughly 200 steps from my sister’s farmhouse. From 8:30-9:30 we would enjoy the aptly but un-poetically named “Coffee, Tea, and Cocoa Hour” while watching the resident dachshund lope around the garden. Once adequately caffeinated, the KG and I would report to the kitchen for breakfast duty as the songwriters partook in any given form of exercise; some days kicked off with Tai Chi, others with freeform dance parties – anything to get the blood moving, short of Cross Fit.

As the day rolled along I’d shuffle between meal prep and long stretches of reading. I’d started the weekend with a Norman Mailer novel about a man strangling his wife to death, and finished with a historical essay on blues legend Robert Johnson, who was poisoned by a jealous husband – hardly the stuff of typical YA novels, but hey, at least one of the books was about music! Throughout the weekend I’d catch snatches of songwriting challenges the kids would participate in, the most memorable being a “Chip Bag Challenge” in which teams had to write an entire song using only the text from, you guessed it, a bag of chips. The most successful hit to surface was a severe earworm entitled, “Cheetos Crunchy.” I’m tellin’ ya, all these nascent hitmakers would have to do is send this cut to Frito Lay and they’d be set for life. The composers of “Cheetos Crunchy,” however, had far more integrity than I do.

Aside from making hits from a bag of chips, the whole goal of the retreat was to nurture the kids’ creative tendencies as they labored to write, record and perform one original song in under four days. Because of the compressed time frame, the bourgeoning writers were allowed large patches of alone time to hone what my sister called, their “song babies.” The kids would spread out all over the farm, sitting in the grass with their guitars and notebooks. My main interaction with these rehearsal periods occurred on my break time, usually spent picking blackberries or collecting eggs from the chickens.

It was one such evening in the blackberry brambles that I heard the cry of a song baby. A sixteen-year-old kid named Caleb* from Blaine, Washington was strumming his guitar aggressively, singing the roots of a well-formed ballad. It struck me that this was the closest I had ever come to witnessing raw process in terms of songwriting. Hearing a song’s formation is a bit like watching time-lapsed photography of a plant sprouting – you’re not quite sure how all of that change occurred in plain sight, and yet went unnoticed.

By the time Sunday rolled around, all eight of the kids had achieved more than most artists accomplish in a year: they’d written great songs, recorded them in a nice-ass studio, and performed in front of a crowd. Meanwhile, my crowning achievement had been finding a trick to chopping onions without weeping: sunglasses.

All jokes aside, there was more to the retreat than morning coffee, s’mores, and singing. The entire weekend was like a crash course in vulnerability – whether that meant pouring your soul into an in-progress composition and sharing it with a dozen strangers, or playing your favorite song for the group. The crazy thing was that when it came time to share music, or even just stories, the kids were the brave ones; I on the other hand, a 27-year-old college graduate, found myself worrying if a bunch of teens would think my favorite song was cool. While I squirmed in vulnerable moments, the participants of the 2017 Teen Songwriting Retreat flourished. Maybe that’s the difference between a musician and a critic.