Carly Fratianne works to rediscover her voice in this chaotic new world

Andy Downing
Carly Fratianne

In early March, when states started to shutter businesses in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Carly Fratianne found herself alone in a hotel room in Austin, Texas, having traveled to the capital city with a couple of friends to attend what would have been the South By Southwest music festival.

“The night before I left, the governor [of Texas] made the decision to shut down all of the bars and restaurants, along with all non-essential travel,” said the musician, who fronts a pair of pastAlive Bands to Watch honorees:Souther andwyd. “So I’m in a hotel 2,000 miles from my house, looking at a 20-hour drive [back to Columbus] by myself, and basically everything is on lockdown.”

Fratianne left Texas early the next morning, driving nearly 12 hours before coming to rest in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, where she stayed in a hotel near Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen, an attraction she remembered visiting as a child, having recalled the giant, orange-eyed buffalo statue stationed in the parking lot of the gift shop and eatery.

“I had stayed there before once when I was a kid … so I sort of had a full-circle moment, and I walked around a bit with this overwhelming sense that an era had come to an end in a big waynot just for the world but for me personally,” Fratianne said. “I knew that was probably going to be the last time I was road dogging it for a while, and I knew whatever was coming wasn’t going to be a quick thing, necessarily, and that there was going to have to be a lot of soul-searching and self-actualization in the months to come.”

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Fratianne’s intuition proved correct. Absent the ability to travel or play concerts, which had been a near-weekly occurrence going back years, the musician was forced to seek out new ways to both occupy time and stretch her creativity, eventually purchasing a cargo van that she has gradually converted into a mobile home complete with plumbing, a propane cook stove and electricity provided by solar panels installed on the roof. 

“It’s nothing state of the art; it’s pretty scrappy. But I’m pretty excited at the prospect of traveling in it here very soon,” said Fratianne, who plans to hit the road on her own once the weather cools, driven by a sense of exploration that has burned in her from childhood. “Traveling with a band is the way that I’ve found my adventures over the last couple of years. Everything that has been going on [since the shutdown] has given me pause and made me think about … how important that adventure is for my artistry, and what I can do to sort of maintain and foster that sense of curiosity in myself.”

As Fratianne started to grow more comfortable in solitude, she also made a gradual return to songwriting, but with a new, less-intentional approach. Instead of writing with one of her bands in mind, she’d often write with the freedom of knowing that a song might never be shared, focusing more on lyrical turns of phrase and refusing to shy from more intimate ruminations. “You know how an Icebreakers tin has the ‘to share’ side and the ‘not to share’ side?” Fratianne said. “I’ve been getting the mints out of the [‘not to share’ side].”

The resulting songs have been more stripped-down— both production-wise and lyrically — with Fratianne more consciously wrestling with this current era, whether the COVID-driven shutdown or the new civil rights movement that has surged in the wake of Minneapolis police killing an unarmed Black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly eight minutes.

“All of a sudden it feels so stupid to write a song about being in love with someone. Everything we used to write about feels trite as hell, like, dude, who gives a shit about ex-lovers when no one has a job and there are protests going on that are changing the framework of America?” said Fratianne, who will perform at least a couple of these new songs during a pair of outdoor showswith Lindsay Jordan at Natalie’s Grandview on Saturday, Sept. 5 (the concert will also be livestreamed). “It’s been interesting, because that [more immediate] kind of writing doesn’t happen often for me. I tend to be a more subconsciously motivated writer, where it takes me a long time to figure out what things are about. But I can tell, definitely, that some of the stuff coming out was right on time.”

Regardless, Fratianne said she is in no rush to release new material, intending to hold the songs for some type of solo venture farther down the line, when it again feels as though her voice won’t detract from more pressing current issues.

“It’s a loud world, and it’s hard to keep up and look around and try and, you know, chisel another piece of inspiration out of yourself when there’s just so much to look at and so much to pay attention to — things I feel need to be prioritized over making self-serving art right now,” Fratianne said. “That’s another thing I’m struggling with: What place does my voice have in this new world? And how can I be helpful and not detract from the things that need to happen to make this place better? But then also still wanting to work through my own creative expression because that’s also a need — people having songs and music and things to relate to. It’s a delicate balance, for sure, and it requires a lot of mindfulness and a lot of shutting up and listening to and looking at what’s around you. I definitely don’t plan on releasing anything for a while for that reason, as well. There’s a lot that needs to be said right now that isn’t from me.”