Circadian rhythms are the natural cycles occurring within a period of wakefulness and sleep, of light and darkness. Across the nine-song spectrum of Circadian, the newest full-length collection by singer-songwriter Letitia VanSant, her luminous voice mirrors the rich emotional quotient of her themes, breathing life into songs that balance contemplative compassion with righteous fury.
VanSant’s debut album Gut It to the Studs established her as an emerging talent on the Americana scene and propelled her onto her first UK/European tour, where she was met with enthusiasm by audiences and critics alike. PopMatters defined her as “…a consummate reflection of a rising Americana star” and BBC Radio calls her “a fascinating new artist.” Among her additional accolades she was named a winner of the Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Competition.
“My last album introduced me to the world of songwriters. I gained a greater respect for the craft, but more importantly I learned a reverence for the creative force that moves through art. I stopped trying to ‘steer’ and rather tried to do greater justice to the songs that force their way out of me.”
With a few such compositions in hand, VanSant approached Nashville-based producer Neilson Hubbard (Mary Gauthier, Caroline Spence), whose production work struck her as lush, inviting soundscapes that never lose their intimate, down-to-earth nature and rock-solid grooves.
“I fussed a lot about making my last recordings painstakingly perfect, but this time I just wanted the songs to speak for themselves. My motto for this recording process was ‘if the groove is good, you can’t go wrong.’”
This approach was a perfect fit for Hubbard, who encourages his artists to trust their first instincts. He assembled an all-star cast of session players including Will Kimbrough, Michael Rinne (Miranda Lambert), and Juan Solorzano. Hubbard sat in on drums. They holed up with engineer Dylan Alldredge at Skinny Elephant, the studio that Hubbard created out of an old garage. Harmony vocals were later added by her friends Mia Rose Lynn and long-time collaborator David McKindley-Ward.
She went in with the intention of recording a 2-song EP, but the chemistry with the musicians was so immediate that she came out at the end of the week with a 9-song album. Many of the songs were recorded live with just 2 or 3 takes. Several of the vocals were lifted from scratch tracks--a bold move, as VanSant’s voice is what often first pulls people in. “I just figured that people are going to either like my singing or they’re not, and splicing and dicing to get the perfect take would probably hurt more than it helped.”
The result is an album that feels as natural as it is compelling and beautiful. “Every song is a small, glittering jewel” said Thorben Bull of the Kieler Nachrichten during her recent European tour, “A taste that melts on the tongue like liquid caramel.”
The set kicks off with the incendiary “You Can’t Put My Fire Out.” “I am a survivor of sexual violence from years ago. It impacted my self-esteem and what I felt like I was capable of in the world. I felt a lot smaller. This song came out of reclaiming my narrative and sense of self worth,” she explains.
It’s no mistake that she follows up with “Tin Man,” a subtle character study that explores how our culture’s stoic notions of masculinity leave many men emotionally isolated, particularly as they age. She wrote it after hearing the podcast “The Lonely American Man” by NPR’s The Hidden Brain. “It rang so true that I had to pull over my car because I was crying so hard. Our culture makes it very difficult for men to be emotionally vulnerable, and that in turn makes it hard for them to connect with others. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, but I know what it is to be a person who loves one and wants to connect.””
The sadness of growing older is a thread that runs throughout the record. “Most of Our Dreams Don’t Come True” conveys the disappointment that she and many of her friends were experiencing as pregnancies became miscarriages, acting careers fizzled, and things just didn’t work out the way they’d all hoped. “My generation has gotten so much messaging to reach for the stars and keep trying at all costs. But I think that notion can be taken to a desperate, unhealthy extremes that can leave people profoundly unhappy. There’s a time to let things shift, let things go. Allowing ourselves to grieve old dreams can make space to discover new ones.”
The title track “Circadian” was inspired by an article about light pollution; how fireflies are having trouble finding mates, and migrating birds can’t find their way. “The solution is to turn out some of the lights,” she says. “The challenges of the world feel big and complicated, but I take solace in the idea that some of the answers are to make things simpler.”
“Something Real” was inspired by an experience at Kerrville Folk Festival, where many were mourning the recent death of Jimmy LaFave. “ I never met him, but hearing people sing his songs around the campfire, it was clear that his energy was still moving through the world. I had this moment when my clouds of cynicism parted, and I was overcome with awe.”
The collection concludes with the cataclysmic “Rising Tide,” based on Letitia’s father’s experience as a Vietnam veteran with cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange. “They’ve got plans for our pockets, cigarettes for our lungs/Poison for our babies and bullets for our guns.” She recorded the song several years ago with an old band called the Bonafides, and it was a hit on the local radio station 89.7 WTMD where listeners voted it among the top 10 songs of the year. Her dad has since recovered, but Hubbard’s production has given the song a second wind that is both harrowing and timely.
The ambition of these themes comes as no surprise to those who know her personally, as VanSant is deeply spiritual, and social justice has been a touchstone of her life. After spending six years at a progressive lobby group in Washington, DC, she made the jump to a career in music, but remains engaged in local activism in her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.
While political and philosophical motifs are present on Circadian, strident proclamations are not. “I’m challenged,” Letitia confirms. “I’ve written lots of songs about social justice, but I don’t end up sharing the vast majority them because they just don’t feel right for one reason or another. I don’t want to write preachy songs when I have so much to learn and improve upon as a person, and in many ways I occupy a position of privilege. What I have to share is my failures, my questions, and my journey of trying to do better.”
Circadian bears the mark of an artist who has honed her skills to sculpt brave songs of impressive accuracy, vitality, and relevance. As a songwriter, Letitia VanSant utilizes exacting imagery as she details a crawlspace under the stairs; stubborn roots of English ivy vines; boxed wine and stories over candle-lit card games. “I have a lot of respect for classic country songwriters who have a point that’s really focused,” she explains. “They dig deep down and express it with just a few words. I aspire to be understood from the song itself. It’s a miracle that we’re on this planet and alive, and can vibrate the world with music. I want to share these moments of gratitude.”
Produced by Neilson Hubbard
Recorded at Skinny Elephant Studio in Nashville, TN in November 2018
Engineered by Dylan Alldredge
Mastered by Jim DeMain at Yes Master Studios, Nashville, TN.
Letitia VanSant -vocals/guitarJuan Solorzano - electric guitar, slide guitar, melotron Will Kimbrough - electric guitar & mandolinMichael Rinne - bassNeilson Hubbard - drumsDavid McKindley-Ward - harmony vocalsMia Rose Lynn - harmony vocals