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Caroline Herring: Gothic Story Songs
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Caroline Herring: Gothic Story Songs
Caroline Herring: Gothic Story Songs
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

I opened a CD that arrived at our office a couple of weeks ago, and when I put it on to listen I didn't recognize this song at all. See if you can get it.

(Soundbite of song, "True Colors")

Ms. CAROLINE HERRING (Singer): (Singing) You with the sad eyes, don't be discouraged. Oh, I realize it's hard to take courage...

KELLY: So, I didn't realize this was a big hit from my high school days - until I heard the refrain.

(Soundbite of song, "True Colors")

Ms. HERRING: (Singing) But I see your true colors shining through. I see your true colors and that's why I love you. So don't be afraid to let them show your true colors, are beautiful like a rainbow.

KELLY: That, of course, is Cyndi Lauper's classic '80s hit, "True Colors," but this time it's rendered anew by a singer from Mississippi named Caroline Herring. She spends about half her new CD taking ownership of familiar tunes like that. The other half she's filled with songs she's written herself - some personal, some gothic tales of the modern South.

Caroline Herring's new album is called "Golden Apples of the Sun," and she joins me now to talk about it from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. HERRING: Oh, it's my pleasure.

KELLY: Well, let me start with that song, "True Colors," because when we listen to it here we realized we had never really heard the words before. And was it the same for you? Had you really listened to the words before you sat down in that recording session?

Ms. HERRING: No. Not really. I mean, I suppose I had about 400 times, you know, listening to it on the radio but never in that way.

KELLY: Tell us a bit about how you arrived at this version.

Ms. HERRING: Well, I know it might seem a bit arrogant to take on songs like that and change the melodies. It was a fun, creative process for me. And I thought now I could never sing it like Cyndi Lauper did. I'm a folk singer. I don't have that range. I don't have that style. I think Cyndi Lauper's amazing and a real American original.

And so, I thought she wouldn't mind. In fact, I thought she'd like it if I changed things around. So, that's the direction that I took it and took other covers that I put on that record.

KELLY: Well, let me take you back to your roots a little bit. I learned that you sang in your church choir in Mississippi growing up.

Ms. HERRING: Yeah.

KELLY: And you grew up steeped in southern literature. I'm told your mother was a librarian and she used to prod you to read some of the southern writers she loved. Who's your favorite?

Ms. HERRING: Right now, I'm enamored of Eudora Welty because of her wonderfully funny stories. But I'm beginning to see just under the surface of all of that she tackles huge issues and issues I'm very familiar with; from being a woman in Mississippi or growing up in Mississippi to certainly issues of race and class.

And I had begun work on an album about Eudora Welty, short stories and photographs. I am still steeped in the South. I'm here in Atlanta, this bold new Southern city, and it's a great part of me, all the horrors and all the beauty and all of the great art that's been produced here.

KELLY: Caroline Herring, I want to ask about another song on this CD, inspired by art of a very different kind. And that is the work of a Mississippi artist named Walter Anderson.

(Soundbite of song, "Tales of the Islander")

Ms. HERRING: (Singing) We found a paradise and its own garden gate. Adam in a hat on a rowboat, phosphorescence in the wake. The squall has passed, and we're tied to the decay, but one day may the hurricanes come and carry us away. Carry us away...

KELLY: This song is called "Tales of the Islander."

Ms. HERRING: That's right. Walter Anderson was a Mississippi Gulf Coast artist and I grew up knowing about Walter Anderson and obtained my first Walter Anderson piece of art at age 16. So, I've always loved him and all Mississippians do. He worked in his family's pottery business by day and painted at night.

But when Walter Anderson died, his wife went into the cottage that he had always kept to himself, and in there she found thousands of pieces of artwork as well as murals on the four walls of the cottage representing sunrise, day, sunset and night. They were his cottage murals. And I based my song "Tales of the Islander" on those four walls.

KELLY: And the family had never known about them before.

Ms. HERRING: That's correct. Nobody had seen them until after he died.

KELLY: And we should note there's a bit of a sad coda to Walter Anderson's story. I know much of his work was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Ms. HERRING: That's true. A lot of it was but a lot remains and there's plenty to be seen.

(Soundbite of song, "Tales of the Islander")

Ms. HERRING: (Singing) Give me a sunset of lilac, gold and green gray skies. I'll give you spirals and zigzag lines. It's a magic hour of a halcyon day. And all of mankind stands there, barely awake.

KELLY: Well, the new record is beautiful but we would also be remiss if we let you go without at least asking you to sing live for us, and I know you brought your guitar. We wondered if you would sing for us a song from the new CD called "Abuelita" about your grandmother. Tell us about her.

Ms. HERRING: My grandmother Eleanor grew up in Texas and in Costa Rica, and she spoke fluent Spanish, of course. And after college, she decided she wanted to go to med school, and she was accepted to Tulane University, which was a big deal for anybody. But in the late '20s that was certainly a big deal for a woman, and she ended up doing some residency work in Mississippi, where she met my grandfather.

Unfortunately, for different reasons, my grandmother never did become a doctor, and they found him a job in Mississippi where they both lived out the rest of their lives and raised five girls. And my mom actually didn't even know that my grandmother spoke Spanish until long after my grandmother had died.

KELLY: Wow. She never spoke it at home at all.

Ms. HERRING: Never spoke it at home. And so I explored all of that in this song.

KELLY: All right. Well, we'd love to hear it. Let me let you get your guitar ready.

Ms. HERRING: Okay.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Ms. HERRING: Okay. This is "Abuelita."

(Soundbite of song, "Abuelita")

Ms. HERRING: (Singing) I should have known why I loved, driving through the cactus fields or wearing white leather gloves. Admiring the virgin, as she stands upon the moon. Waltzing behind a second line or harmonizing the gospel tunes. Abuelita underneath the trees of Costa Rica and her dark shored seas. They won't tell me about you, they don't want me to see. Abuelita, you're just like me.

KELLY: That's the song "Abuelita" from Caroline Herring's new album, "Golden Apples of the Sun." It's just beautiful.

Caroline Herring, thank you.

Ms. HERRING: Thank you so much.

KELLY: Looking for more music by Caroline Herring? Head to our Web site, npr.org/music. And while you're there, you can also sign up to get NPR's Song of the Day newsletter.

(Soundbite of song, "The Dozens")

Ms. HERRING: (Singing) I had a few more questions, I never knew to ask. You were feeling downhearted, the last time we parted. With a shuck of the white hair, life has changed a lot, you know. And I'm kind of scared of that, it bottoms out in seconds flat.

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