Lauren Shera’s DigSin debut Gold and Rust marks the distinguished national bow of a prodigious singer-songwriter who has spent half of her young life as a professional musician. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter’s album – her third, following two independently released titles – is Shera’s musical farewell to her home state of California and was recorded in Santa Cruz, California, by Andy Zenczak, who also produced Shera’s previous two releases, In My Bones (2006) and Once I Was a Bird (2010).
“Somebody once described my music as ‘California folk,’ and I feel that’s very accurate,” Shera says. “I’ve always been so inspired by the coast and the mountains and all of the beautiful places in California that I love so much. It was a conducive environment for what I write. A lot of the songs are inspired by various parts of California – living there, or scenery there, or people that I’ve met there. Making the record and finishing it, knowing that I was about to be leaving, inspired some of the songs as well.”
The 10 original compositions on Gold and Rust – ranging from spare, meditative ballads to panoramic, elegantly produced folk-rockers — reflect the pronounced influence of another singer-songwriter whose music has become virtually synonymous with California folk, as well as a diversity of other distinctive musical voices in American folk and folk-rock.
“Joni Mitchell has painted such a beautiful sonic picture of California, and not only with her song ‘California,’” Shera says. “We referenced the song ‘Woodstock’ a lot when we were recording the song ‘Coastlands.’ I break up my influences into classic musicians and more modern musicians. Joni Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and John Prine are all big ones. The more modern ones are Feist, First Aid Kit, and the Fleet Foxes, and then even folkier acts like Gillian Welch.”
Gold and Rust features “Stepheny and Aqbar,” a striking vocal duet by Shera and Matthew Hegarty, the front man for the UK’s Matthew and the Atlas, with whom she shared stages on a prominent 2011 trek. She has also performed dates in the company of such top names as Shawn Colvin, Ray LaMontagne, Nanci Griffith, Jason Mraz, Billy Bragg, and Jackie Greene.
Shera says, “The first major national tour I did was the Communion U.S. tour with Matthew & the Atlas and the David Mayfield Parade. Communion is a UK-based artist collective that was founded by Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons. He put together an inaugural U.S. tour with three acts that he chose himself, and I was lucky enough to be one of those acts.”
Raised in Monterey, California, Shera hails from a musical family; her father, formerly a professional drummer, encouraged her study of music. She has been performing and writing virtually from the time she was old enough to pick up a guitar – though she admits she didn’t like playing one at first, for she was too small to even hold one.
“When I was 12 or 13,” she explains, “I got into writing poetry, and I started entering poetry contests I was technically too young to enter and winning high school poetry contests when I was 13. That’s when I decided I wanted to try the guitar again. I pretty much began writing songs immediately.”
In her early teens, Shera became a habitué of open mic gigs, folk clubs, and coffee shop performances in Northern California; she was the subject of a profile on San Francisco’s public TV station KQED before she had even released her first record. Her debut session, an EP she recorded for her dad as a Father’s Day gift, attracted attention immediately.
“After I made that first EP, I wound up getting an offer for a record deal from a major record label,” she recalls. “But I passed on it, because I couldn’t actually comprehend everything that went into it, and I felt that I wasn’t ready for it.”
Working independently, Shera cut a semi-professional release she sold at her live dates, and followed it with the fully-formed In My Bones. The year that album was released, she was invited to perform at a star-studded tribute to Bob Dylan at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, alongside such luminaries as Patti Smith, Roseanne Cash, Ryan Adams, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
She dates the true beginning of her devotion to a professional music career to her subsequent studies at Chicago’s celebrated Old Town School of Folk Music, which spawned such talents as John Prine, Steve Goodman, and the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn.
“I was finding my voice. Everything up until Once I Was a Bird was really just experimentation, trial and error. That record was about putting my roots down and choosing what I wanted to sound like, and that was definitely thanks to the Old Town School.”
The release of Once I Was a Bird was succeeded by the Communion tour and an appearance at the enormous Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. “I was invited to play there,” Shera says. “They had a little acoustic stage. I played there solo, right before Robert Plant and Alison Krauss played right across the field on the huge stage. It was a trip.”
Seeking a change and a more centralized location for a touring base, Shera drove to Nashville the morning after the final session for Gold and Rust. “Geographically, it was just a better move,” she says, “and obviously there was tons happening in Nashville musically. My family happened to move here at the same time, so all directions pointed to Nashville. And I love it here.”
She adds, “Gold and Rust is very much my last creative chapter in California – saying goodbye to the coast, and all my friends and family there.”