They say you gotta suffer for your art. Singer/songwriter Violet Delancey took that notion to the extreme making her upcoming sophomore album in Athens, Ga., with producer Andy LeMaster. Though not in the way you might expect. “The second time I was there to record, I went with Andy to a boot camp at the gym he goes to, and I fell through a glass wall,” Delancey says. “We were doing wall sits on the outside of the gym, and it turns out it was made of glass. I ended up with 45 staples and 30 stitches.”
Luckily, Delancey recovered and was able to finish Columbia Road, a collection of 10 songs that showcases some brave stylistic leaps from her country-tinged 2016 debut When The Clock Strikes Midnight. Where the first record sounded like an impressive homage, the new album is strikingly original.
“With Columbia Road, I’m more at the helm creatively,” Delancey says. “On the first album, I just didn’t really feel sure of myself yet—I trusted the people I was working with. Luckily, they were great. But there wasn’t really room for experimentation because I hadn’t found myself as a writer.”
What’s impressive about how far Delancey has come is how little time it’s taken her to get there. The Los Angeles native isn’t far removed from being a student in England who’d never picked up a guitar. But the need to create set her on a different path. “About halfway through school, I realized I didn’t want to spend my life studying other people’s works,” she says. “I felt creatively unfulfilled at that point because I’d previously done a lot of writing and performing. When I was overseas, I also became obsessed with Dolly Parton and decided that I wanted to learn guitar. But I wanted to learn with the intention of writing songs. When I wrapped up my degree, it was now or never for moving to Nashville.”
When The Clock Struck Midnight was a surprisingly accomplished debut for a neophyte in the field. But Delancey still felt as if she wasn’t quite capturing her true voice. “I moved to Nashville wanting to study and understand country-music songwriting,” she explains. “So I think with the first record I made, I was really trying to write in that style with that subject matter. But that’s not really that authentic to my background.”
So Delancey found herself returning to her former major for inspiration. “Since I started writing songs as a way of freeing myself from my studies, I hadn’t really been writing about all the stuff I was interested in,” she explains of her early songs. “As I became more adept at writing, I was able to get a little deeper into different topics. When I was in school, I studied mythology, so a lot of these songs have hints of that, which wasn’t something I’d ever written before.”
Delancey also wanted a different sound this time around. “I wanted to push the boundaries a little more,” she says. Enter LeMaster, whose work with indie artists like Bright Eyes, Azure Ray and of Montreal offered a whole new palette for Delancey. Instead of the live-band tracking of her first album, she embraced LeMaster’s piece-by-piece approach to the recording process. “It felt like everyone involved [including ace guest musicians Robbie Rapp (Muuy Biien) and Jeremy Wheatley (Crooked Fingers)] had more of a say,” Delancey explains. “There was a lot more room to experiment, for them to respond creatively to each other’s parts.”
Columbia Road finds Delancey expertly channeling both ‘80s Kate Bush (the record’s atmospherics giving the songs an almost magical edge) and Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball album. “They were folk & country songs but produced in such an otherworldly way,” Delancey says of the latter. But those influences were just a jumping-off point. “This album became its own little creature,” Delancey says. “It was really fun because I don’t think anybody knew if it was going to work or not. Luckily, it did.”
As Delancey mentioned, Columbia Road includes many characters from mythology and fairy tales. Doomed Underworld-dweller Eurydice, Wendy from Peter Pan and famed princesses Rapunzel, Snow White and Cinderella all make appearances. They’re used in service of bittersweet stories set in the here and now, stories about regret for things that are lost and cannot be recovered.
Delancey’s own experiences color the narratives, which are full of vivid, painterly detail. The title track is named after a London flower market the songwriter used to frequent; in her hands, it becomes the setting for a near-miss of a love affair. The eerily beautiful “Eloise” emerged from a trip to Savannah that Delancey made just before a hurricane’s arrival, and also the limiting epitaphs of long-dead women she communed with in a cemetery there. From this, she creates a compelling ghost story, the title character getting her chance to be, in death, so much more than what her grave suggests she was while alive: “Remembered as a daughter and a wife / What a way to immortalize a life.”
By the time Columbia Road signs off with “Wendy in the Window,” a wistful reflection on clinging to youthful wonder as time tries to pry it away, it’s clear that Delancey has already matured into a singer/songwriter with a truly rarified point of view. Of the song “Edge Of Myself,” she says, “It’s about trying to find my way through life using these pieces of wisdom from things I’ve studied.”
That wisdom shines all the way through Delancey’s Columbia Road, out May 25.