Erin Sax is a product of the ’70s. Through her 2013-released Mercy disc, the singer-songwriter blends country, blues and rock into a uniquely vibrant concoction. Helmed by industry tastemaker and producer Clay Holley (Adele, Amy Winehouse, John Legend), the seven tracks take the listener on a wild journey, going from the rowdy opener “Ridin'” to the sinister closer “Happy,” which, by all accounts, is far from bestowing joy.
“[The story on ‘Mercy’] is no different than the story of my life right now,” she tells NashvilleGab, exclusively, “which is about showing up. It’s who you are and doing the best you can along the way.”
“That’s it–from start to finish,” she says of the album as a work of art. “All the songs are not just about my experiences, but they are about all of us. Every song is another facet of ‘we’re doing our best and isn’t it amazing.’ It’s marvelling at ourselves. Sometimes, it’s also ‘well shit, this is where I’m at.’ That’s the thread that takes you through the album.”
One of the more searing, bold entries on Mercy is a re-imagined version of Lorretta Lynn‘s “You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man.” Sax shares a recent experience, stemming from a live performance of the song, “This woman came up to me at the Bluebird and took me aside. She looked like the last person to come up to me; she was so conservative. She didn’t want anyone to know how much that song meant to her. She whispered to me, ‘is that song on this album? I need to hear that song. Oh, you don’t need to talk about it to anyone.’”
Unfortunately, the singer doesn’t get to trek to Music City as much as she’d like. “I think I’ve performed twice in the last year,” she laments. “I’m on the road a lot. It’s my favorite place because it’s like coming home. You’re not looked at like you’re an alien or anything,” she laughs.
For her, the city is unlike anything you could ever experience, describing Nashville as “the coolest, most welcoming, vibrant music community in the world.” She continues, “There’s something that feels very soft and gentle about the town. It’s rubbed off on the people, in the way they interact with each other and the way people put up their business. It really speaks to me.”
“I’m also a huge nature person. So, going to a place like Edwin Warner with my dog–that’s an amazing thing to be able to do. At the same time, [it’s great] to get business done in the same done. Usually, you have to travel six hours on a plane to have something so nice and then go back to the real world. It’s an unusual place; it really, really is,” she admits. “I’m from LA. I spent so many years in New York and have toured Europe a lot. I lived in Israel a long time, too. So, I’ve sort of been around, but it’s one place that where you show up and take a deep breath. I really dig it. I’ve met the most talented people there and also the most humble.”
Of course, Sax is no stranger to the entertainment industry, having a storied and accomplished career in documentary filmmaking. So, she knows a thing or two about the people that inhabit it, too. “People walk around a lot in the music business with their ego,” she notes, rather frankly. “People have their heart in the right place there.”
More than that, Nashville has helped shape who Sax is and the story she wants to tell. “Last year, we went to go see Bonnie Raitt at the Ryman,” she recalls. “It was such a last minute thing. She just happened to call people who were in the neighborhood, like Jon Klein, and invited them onstage. Every person whose song she had cut was sitting in the audience. You don’t find that anywhere.”
Mercy came about through plenty of late-night trips to a studio in Brooklyn. Sax shares that experience, “[The album] was made at night while I was directing a really crazy TV show about an ex-enforcer of John Gotti. He changed his life and suddenly decided to rescue animals. So, I ran around with that guy and his crew during the day. Then, at night, I’d go to Brooklyn to record.” Not-so surprisingly, music isn’t that different from film or TV. “It fed off each other. That’s why writing music and performing has always gone hand-in-hand with the characters I’ve encountered in different parts of life,” she says.
But why this album at this point in her life? “I decide to stop hiding, pretending that I was just this or just that. The truth is, I started writing and taught myself guitar at a very early age. That’s how I’ve made it through all these experiences I have. I felt like if I was going to be authentic in my life, that it was time to do it.”
“There’s lots of stereotypes about how you look and what you can or can’t do. That’s not really how minds work. Let’s be honest. We’re multifaceted people; all of us.”
The album might have been released over a year ago, but Sax hasn’t stopped discovering new things about the songs. She explains, “There’s a song called ‘I’ll Just Try’ on the record. I didn’t realize how much I cared about the song until we started to perform it. The way the song was performed on the album was it was supposed to be so meek on the verses and strong on the chorus.” However, those notions began to chance with each live showing. “The more we play it, the more I’m finding something really powerful in the verses and the chorus is becoming completely different. Now that we’re talking about it, I forgot where my head was at when I wrote that song and where my head was when I went into the studio to record it. It’s flipped over onto it’s other side, now that I’ve played it live.”
“You start spending some time wearing that dress, and all of a sudden, you’re finding different things out about it–like how it makes you feel,” she relates.
However, Sax has a different song in mind when it comes to her absolulte favorite to perform: “I’ll say that ‘Mercy’ I always love to perform. I wrote that song as a way to cope with the hard times. I literally wrote it after 9-11 and living in New York and watching everyone survive that. It’s just about: no matter where you are in your life, having the faith that you will somehow make it through. No matter where my head’s at, when I sing that song, I connect to it. The song is also very inviting, melodically. I can settle into it very easily. It carries you. When we got to layering that song, it felt very angelic.”
And when you listen to Mercy, the vast collection of influences is evident, bolstered by the fact that her first album she ever “bought” was Tom Petty’s Damn The Torpedoes (which she actually stole from a library in her younger years). She details exactly where her cool sound came from: “[It all] comes from the fact that I was born and raised in LA,” she says. “I was raised on Waylon [Jennings], Willie [Nelson], Merle [Haggard] and The Rolling Stones. It wasn’t really popular with my friends, but for me, that set me on fire. You can’t help but be influenced by the place you are from. I think that blends with the really kickass, edgier country-blues that always spoke to me. That then created this sound that I like to call this ‘1976 sound.’”
This summer, Sax’s song “Happy” will be featured in the Judd Hirsch film The Red Robin. “It’s a totally different theme than everything else. The way I perform it life is totally different, too,” she says of the track. “I was performing it like a real rock song for a couple years. When I started to record it, we just played around with it in the studio.”
On why she decided to include the song on her own album: “It felt so un-Nashville and uncool to put it on the album, but I wanted the album to be a journey. The song felt like a nice way to end it on.”
Of course, despite all this success, Sax doesn’t have any plans on slowing down. “We’re about to shoot the video for ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough,'” she says of upcoming projects. “I’ve got an EP we’re cutting in July. I’m being produced by these folks in New York, and they’re only putting four songs on it. They’re asking me to really dig into a certain area of my songwriting, a little more bluesy. We’ve got a big show coming up this summer at The Dock House in New York. Then, another big show at Rockwood in the fall.”
“One of the songs that’s coming out on the EP is about a soldier that I was really close to that went to Iraq and his mom, with whom I became really close to and involved in her life,” Sex describes. “The song very much about someone who comes home from war. They’re fine on the outside but totally not on the inside and how much everyone around them needs them to be OK–so that they can be OK. Stuff like that is really strong in my heart right now. There’s talk about doing a military tour, too, at some point.”
Originially, Sax was set to tour Europe this summer but decided against it. “I’m really feeling being home and being tied to the states and to Nashville, too.”
Don’t forget to grab a copy of Mercy on iTunes now!
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