Smartists: Nora Jane Struthers

Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

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Nora Jane Struthers was waist-deep in her career as a high school English teacher and working on a graduate degree, when “the slow trickle of suspicious dissatisfaction that had been dripping in the back of my mind for years turned into a gushing realization: I was being successful in building the life I had set out to build but there was still something deep within me that was unfulfilled,” she said. Then, Nora Jane decided to be brave. In true Smart Girl-y fashion, Nora Jane “sold most of her stuff, packed her minivan and drove to Nashville” and is now a rising songbird in the country-folk world.

Nora Jane Struthers was born into a loving family in Ridgewood, NJ, a suburb of New York City. She spent a lot of time playing in the woods and singing harmony with her dad, as he played banjo or guitar. “I’ve been singing my whole life,” she said, “I picked up guitar when I was 14.”

Music came easy, but school was challenging. When she was four, Nora Jane was diagnosed with dyslexia.

“I knew I wasn’t stupid…I just had to work a lot harder than most of my classmates to understand and retain new information and processes.  My parents later recalled that my reading specialist told them I would never go to college,” she said.

Nora Jane attended NYU for undergrad, and earned a B.S. in Secondary English Education with a minor in Africana Studies. (She showed that reading specialist!)

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The cover to Nora Jane Struthers’ newest album, set to be released February 24th.

After college, Nora Jane taught English at a charter school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for three years.

“I really loved teaching, especially working with teenagers, and in my third year of teaching I had been promoted to the position of English department head. I was 23 years old.”

But still, a part of her was screaming.

“I had always wanted to be a musician but until I started connecting with traditional music communities in the south I did not see it as a viable career option.  I decided I had to make a change and take a risk while I was still young and unattached… it wasn’t long before my fear of failure was dwarfed by my fear of regret.”

The rest is history. Nora Jane has been touring non-stop for five years, and has released two, soon to be three, recording projects.  Her newest album ‘Wake’ is dropping February 24th.

“It is the best album I’ve ever made,” she said.

Nora Jane writes all of her own music, and describes her creative process as a sort of intriguing  math equation: “solitary mornings+coffee+emotions and/or intentions+luck=songs.”

Much of her work is inspired by the powerful story telling and singable melodies and holds high women’s point of view.

“My last record, ‘Carnival,’ was a collection of my original story songs, all from the female perspective.  Inspired by my heroes Gillian Welch, Hazel Dickens, and Ollabelle Reed, I wanted to bolster the canon of American folk music and try to balance the P.O.V. scale a little.”

Nora Jane isn’t singing protest songs necessarily, but she does use her music to give a voice to generations of women left voiceless, and challenge the standards women are held to in society.

“One of the themes in my new album ‘Wake’ is the de-objectification of self.  I am 31 years old and I am very grateful I made it through my teens before social media was a pervasive part of our culture.  Culture has always shaped identity and our culture has always objectified women.”

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Picture by Todd Roethe

She goes on to show how this focus comes from a personal place, too, when she tells me about her considerations of her own body and privilege.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about are the societal expectations attached to the body in which I happen to reside.  I’m 5’9, blue-eyed, naturally blonde, 150 lbs….  I think about Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill, Miranda Lambert, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears…I know these are all talented, hard working women. I respect them.  I do not know the extent to which they have called the shots in their careers, but from where I’m sitting, it feels like there are a bunch of men in suits telling them what songs to sing, how to sing them, what to wear, what to say, etc…I just really want to be a role model as a leader and a decision maker and I resent the likelihood that I will be grouped into this category of, for lack of a better metaphor, music-business-barbie-marionettes. I write my own songs. I play guitar. I am the bandleader. I run my own record label. I pull my own strings, damn it.”

Nora Jane is entirely and unequivocally herself, and wants to encourage you to do the same, “…spend time doing whatever it is that makes you feel like there are sparks bouncing around your sternum,” she says.  In other words, pull a “Struthers”, follow your heart, and never look back.

Watch this (amazing, feminist, kick-butt) music video of the song ‘Let Go’ by Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line!

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