Caroline Sallee Holds a Mirror Up to Her World
The Austin-by-way-of-Alabama SINGER-songwriter, known as Caroline Says, on leaving home for new terrain—and finding her voice somewhere between truth and fiction.
By Quinn Moreland
Illustration by Clare Drummond
A few years ago, Caroline Sallee visited her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama and felt like a total stranger.
All around her were people who, at least on the surface, appeared comfortable in their current lives, satisfied to stay in one place forever. But Sallee had made the choice to move away from home, and though the journey wasn’t easy, it proved fulfilling for her songwriting in surprising ways.
The experience helped inspire a song off her most recent album, No Fool Like an Old Fool, called “Sweet Home Alabama,” which Sallee tells me is “about growing up in a town you want to get out of.”
“I’m exactly where you want me/Stuck in this sad little town/We don’t talk but I know everybody’s thinking/Of all the ways to get out,” she sings over a sprightly guitar loop.
As a teen in Huntsville, Sallee had plenty of time to dream of ways to escape. Though Huntsville is technically the third-largest city in Alabama, it has the feel of a suburb, and Sallee was desperate for any taste of culture. “I remember going to Christian shows just to see live music because that’s all there was,” she says when we speak over the phone in May. But, as many kids from the suburbs will tell you, one of the secret blessings of growing up without a full cultural calendar handed to you is that you get good at figuring out how to entertain yourself. “I credit boredom as to why I picked up a guitar,” Sallee notes. “I probably wouldn’t have spent as much time teaching myself to play guitar if I had lived in a place that had stuff to do.”
Despite her adolescent enthusiasm, Sallee only began playing in bands as a film and sociology student at the University of Alabama Birmingham, (“The Yale of Alabama,” she adds, not without a hint of sarcasm). The community she found herself in as a young musician was not without its limitations: Huntsville’s largest venues, Sallee explains, predominantly catered to emo and jam bands, genres which tend to be male-dominated. Still, Sallee credits the rejection from “some shitty emo band” as the impetus to make her own music, on her own terms.
Her project, Caroline Says (so called after the tragic character from Lou Reed’s Berlin) kicked off in 2012 when Sallee enrolled in a summertime extracurricular art class. Sallee holed up at a family friend’s cabin in the Tennessee mountains, kept company by her parents’ dog, and churned out song sketches. After graduation, Sallee relocated to Yellowstone where she worked as a waitress. Though a shared dorm room and lack of gear proved unideal for music making, the independence found in inhabiting a new place fueled an enduring creative energy. “I was experiencing so many new things, and I came home and had a lot to work with,” Sallee says. “At the time I felt very brave.”
After this adventure, Sallee moved back to her parents’ house in Huntsville where she worked at a grocery store and, as she tells it, watched a ton of Jeopardy. In the same basement where she and her high school friends fooled around on Pro Tools, Sallee assembled her debut record, 2014’s 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. A majority of the record’s nine tracks were informed by Sallee’s cross-country travels, and the ensuing loneliness (“Now I’m far from home/Now I’m all alone,” concludes the intricately fingerpicked opener “Winter is Cold”). Though the nine tracks jump from jangly indie pop (“Gravy Dayz”) to ambient orchestral miniatures (“Funeral Potatoes,” “Lost Feeling”), 50,000,000 Elvis Fans never feels adrift.
Shortly after recording 50,000,000 Elvis Fans, Sallee moved to Austin, Texas, to work with AmeriCorps. In the mornings, she taught gardening and animal science to at-risk elementary school students, and in the afternoons, she worked at a tile store or babysat. At night, Sallee devoured Austin’s vibrant music scene; it was exciting to finally live in a place with a myriad of entertainment options to choose from. Looking back, Sallee considers this the busiest time of her life, but remarks with a laugh,“[I] still don’t know how to keep a plant alive that isn’t a philodendron.”
While quietly composing a follow up to 50,000,000, Sallee was faced with new obstacles. While her parents’ home afforded her relative privacy, recording in the basement of her Austin apartment building left Sallee with constant anxiety at the thought of disturbing her neighbors. Furthermore, she faced self-imposed pressure, becoming her own harshest critic. “I felt like I needed to make something better, but I didn’t have the time and tools to do it,” Sallee says. “I recorded a lot of half songs, decided they sucked, and threw them away.” Eventually, though, the album came together in the form of this year’s No Fool Like an Old Fool.
If 50,000,000 Elvis Fans was a patchwork quilt of tones and ideas, No Fool Like an Old Fool is a pale silk sheet, wrinkled from wear and time but still glossy. Sallee’s sophomore record may be quieter than its predecessor—but it’s no less assured. No Fool’s nine songs brim with stronger storytelling, which is no small feat considering Sallee’s self-professed lack of inspiration. “I have a hard time writing from my own perspective,” Sallee explains. “It’s hard for me to give up that much of myself and feel confident about it.”
During her prolonged bout of writer’s block in the Austin basement, Sallee learned to turn her love of movies into a writing tool. No Fool pulls from films like Badlands and Panic at Needle Park, and transforms these allusions into rebellious revelations. Sallee admits that “a lot of myself is still coming out in the lyrics, it can’t all be 100% fictional. But it makes it easier for me to feel good about my songs if I’m writing fiction versus giving away my diary.”
Linger, if you will, on these lines from “I Tried”: “I tried until I got it / There were nights I barely survived / And I lived the way I wanted.”
Truth or fiction, it still rings true for Sallee. ★