Steel Blossoms is the musical collaboration of Nashville residents Sara Zebley and Hayley Prosser. Originally hailing from Pittsburgh, the duo uprooted and headed to Music City to follow their dream. A brave challenge in a musical environment packed to the gills with likeminded artists, all seeking fame and recognition. They gigged in local honky tonks, dive bars and house concerts, basically anywhere that gave them the chance to perform live and develop a fan base. They recorded their debut EP, Year Number One, in 2015, followed by a full-length album, Country Enough, one year later. Jerry Salley, the multi award winning songwriter, stumbled upon the duo and was impressed to the extent that they were his first signing to Nashville’s newest Americana label, Billy Jam Records. Their self-titled album was released on the label earlier this year and has been picking up great reviews both in The States and in Europe. Lonesome Highway got the inside story from Sara and Hayley.
Your self-titled album is getting lots of love, not only at Lonesome Highway. You must be very pleased with the reviews so far?
We are overjoyed with the response to our self-titled album. We, of course, love the music but it’s so wonderful to see other people loving it as well.
The subject matter and lyrics took me by surprise on some of the tracks, not what I was expecting. They’re not all ‘happy ever after’ tales. In fact, I’d be a bit nervous living next door to either of you! Did you intentionally seek out darker material for the album?
We are safe, we swear! Most of the songs on this album are either inspired by things we have gone through or things we have seen our friends go through. Life is not always “happy ever after” tales and we felt we needed to show a deeper side of ourselves on this record. We didn’t intentionally seek out the darker material, it’s just what came from certain experiences!
You’re The Reason I Drink could be a celebration of the enjoyment of simple social engagement or the exasperation and despair of a troubled relationship. Either or both?
Both for sure! It's about that person that drives you absolutely nuts but they are family or a significant other, so you'll still keep 'em around with the help of a little alcohol!
Revenge and I Killed A Man might the consequences of that opening song! Are they chapters in the same book or should we approach all the songs as individual narratives rather than instalments in the same chronicle?
We definitely wrote each piece as its own narrative. You’re The Reason was written 4 years ago, Revenge was just something that came to us while on a writing retreat in East Tennessee with our producer and his wife. Killed A Man is what we call “our ode to our best friends ex boyfriends.” Both of our best friends came out of relationships with awful people around the same time and (trust me) if we could, we’d definitely off the guys.
Who takes the lead in the songwriting and selects the subject matter or do you simply sit down and collectively agree on topics before developing the lyrics?
Songwriting is different every time. That’s why we love it! Usually we have a subject matter in mind that we have already shared with one another. Anytime we start writing a song on our own, we’ll send what we have to the other person right away. Writing is always a collaborative and continuous effort shared between the two of us.
The writing is extremely clever, more Brandy Clark than Kacy Musgraves for me (that’s supposed to be a compliment by the way!). Were you tempted to be somewhat more sugar-coated and less daring with some of the topics and lyrics?
Thank you so much! What a compliment! This album is the most outspoken thing we’ve ever put out there and we didn’t want to sugar-coat anything. Most of our career, we’ve been seen as these cute, little girls (we are both only about 5 ft tall) and this has always been very frustrating. We’re both in our late 20’s, we’ve been through things and seen things and we felt we needed to stop “playing by the rules” and just write music that described us and fit well with where we are in our lives.
I understand the origin of your act was Hayley hooking up with Sara’s band in Pittsburgh. Were you performing your own music in that band or playing covers?
That’s true! Sara called in 2011 and asked if I would be interested in joining her band and, at the time, I wasn’t doing music at all and was itching to get back into it. We started playing almost every weekend together and were playing both cover songs and original music.
Relocating to Nashville was both brave and ambitious. Who is the risk taker and did it take a lot of soul searching for you both to make that move?
We laugh and say that Hayley is the “rebel friend” because she convinced Sara to move to Nashville, but really, Sara was the big risk taker. Sara quit her full time teaching job to move to Nashville. Telling friends and family that you’re going to quit a steady pay check with health insurance and a 401K to live out of a tip bucket and try to sing for a living is not an easy thing to do. She definitely took a bigger risk with the move but, as you can see, risks can really pay off (no pun intended).
Was there a game plan and career strategy with the relocation? Had you applied timelines and goals or simply ‘see how it goes’?
We definitely came here with a strategy. We both worked like crazy to save up enough to live for 6 months if we couldn’t find work. We joined Rick Barker’s “Music Industry Blueprint” and would work on social media strategies for hours in the morning before we would go play in the afternoon. Every January we set goals for ourselves for the year and it’s great to be able to check them off of our list.
Catching renowned Nashville songwriter Jerry Sally’s attention must have been hugely reassuring and encouraging. How did that come about?
Jerry has been the biggest blessing to us. Sometimes we pinch ourselves because we can’t even believe someone of his calibre would want to work with us. It’s just crazy. Sara is the one who reached out to Jerry after seeing him sing at the National Cornbread Festival. She just messaged him on Facebook and sent him a few songs and never expected him to get back to her. Not only did he get back to her, but he said he would love to write sometime. What started as a co-write, blossomed into this beautiful friendship. He has become so much more than just a friend to us. He’s the head A&R for our label, the one we can go to for advice, car trouble, or to write a damn good song.
Had he seen you perform live unknown to yourselves?
Actually, no! When he did come out to see us, we were so honoured.
Your album was the first release on his Billy Jam Record Label. I understand you already had the album written prior to his approach. Did Jerry recommend many changes to the material?
We wrote a lot of the songs with Jerry. He has never really been one to step on the songs we already had. If he has recommendations, he’ll voice them but he’s really given us creative freedom to write what we want and arrange it how we want. The studio time with him was great because we were able to all put our ideas together and see the songs really come to life.
It’s slick, clever, well produced, beautifully packaged and the vocals and playing are top notch. The next step is getting it out there into people’s ears and securing the rewards. How difficult is that with so much music out there?
Thank you so much! That is so kind of you to say. It’s definitely difficult to get our name out there. We are constantly traveling, constantly calling radio stations, always playing wherever will have us. It’s a grind for sure, but when we go somewhere and do a ticketed show and see the response, it’s so worth it.
You’re both living apart now having written the album when you were practically joined at the hip. What effect will that have in the follow up project or will you attempt to stick with a winning formula?
We are still very joined at the hip and we always put our friendship first. We only live about 5 minutes from each other so it’s very rare that we go two days without being together. If anything, living apart has given us more writing material! We will continue to do things as we always have and stick to “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
You’re been branded as Americana in many quarters, which can be a blessing or a curse! The album is more than worthy of crossover appeal into the Country market even though it – thankfully and to your immense credit – is NOT pop / country. Do you feel you’ll be pressurised to go down a more commercial road going forward?
Absolutely not. The reason we love our label so much is because they will let us be us and make the kind of music that speaks to us. We tried the commercial route for a bit a few years ago and just didn’t feel authentic. It felt like we were trying to be someone we weren’t and we weren’t happy with that.
Finally, I have to ask if the ‘Steel’ in your title is representative of your Pittsburgh origins or a reflection on your toughened ambitions to succeed career wise?
Oh! I love that! It’s always been meant to represent our Pittsburgh roots, but I guess it could have a double meaning now!
Interview by Declan Culliton