Making the transition from being known primarily as an actor into having your musical voice heard more prominently isn’t one easily made it seems. It’s not as though Music Row and Broadway are teaming with acclaimed actors lugging around gold record plaques as much as they’re littered with the grand, misguided, broken plans of so many opportunistic, dollar-counting record execs.
It stands to reason that if any recent television show could spawn some respectable music industry talent, it would be the long-running prime time drama Nashville. Australian-native Clare Bowen, who starred as poet and songstress Scarlett O’Connor, makes an elegantly stunning case for why she is an exception to the failed actor/musician rule with her impeccably produced, self-titled debut album.
On the television show, the song Bowen’s character often sung were of the uptempo, highly-polished commercial variety, but on this Josh Kaufman-produced record, colorful atmosphere, reverb-drenched mood, fragile delicacy and imaginative storytelling carry this effort to great heights. There was an all-star crew of collaborators, with luminaries including Caroline Spence and Lori McKenna lending their superlative writing talents to the project, but that doesn’t detract from the believability of Bowen’s talents.
If we’re being rigidly strict with genre definitions, its tough to place this record under the Country banner, instead of putting it under the more elastic, varied Americana label. Although there’s plenty of plugged-in electric guitar, folk-style acoustic guitar and pedal steel to please fans of both modern and traditional country, the beauty here lies in the combination of all the elements.
With its bluesy guitar riff, mixed with a roots-rock tempo and gospel vibe, album opener “Let it Rain” shows just how, similar to the voice of fellow Australian Kasey Chambers, Bowen’s angelically sweet vocals can be bold enough to cut through a powerful arrangement just as easy as it soars above lightly plucked songs like “Grace of God and You.”
Adding to the more wide-ranging Americana sonic theme, “Lijah and the Shadow” begins with a gothic bluegrass sensibility before growing into an addictive, bouncy Lumineers-style sing-along jam. The serene, sentimental “Doors and Corridors” rides a gorgeous ribbon of pedal steel as Bowen, a survivor of childhood cancer, sings about her childhood and mortality. “Lullabye” is the album’s most progressive, modern-leaning tune, with a new-age-esque pop-driven instrumental bed, while “Ave’s Song” introduces a soulful R&B sound with the successful employ of a robust organ flying along.
As effective as any of the songs with an even slightly uptempo beat work well, this album shines brightest in its softer moments. “All the Beds I’ve Made,” a gentle folk duet with her husband Brandon Robert Young, is a sweet love song that shoes the sorrow of parting any traveling actor or musician is bound to feel. The inspirational “Little by Little” indeed begins with a crawl before swelling into something more majestic, befitting its message of endurance and encouragement. The album-closing “Warrior” fits well within a similar frame and also feels highly authentic, which is likely thanks to her own lifelong struggle to overcome illness and to succeed in a hazard-riddled world designed to defeat almost all comers.
Most impressively, Clare Bowen isn’t acting like a musician, she’s living and creating as one.