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Interview: Sarah Rudy (Hello June)

26 October 2023

Photo by Rafael Barker

Sarah Rudy’s second album under the Hello June name is a reflection on the West Virginia songwriter’s last four or five years which included, as it did for the rest of us, social and political anxieties and a global pandemic that made us all look inward and examine what our place was on this spinning globe. For Rudy, death, birth, hope and despair were fuel for the lyrics on Artifacts, an album centered around the things we pick up and take with us in our lifetime.

Musically, Rudy’s sound reflects the physical locations she’s lived, primarily the ruralness of West Virginia where’s spent most of her life but includes stops in the bright lights, big cities of places such as Baltimore and Philadelphia. Comfortable under genre labeling ranging from Americana to folk to indie rock, Artifacts is a collection of songs that connect and stick, not merely throw away tracks that are easy to forget.

What follows is a portion of the nearly two-hour phone conversation Rudy and I had on a late Friday afternoon.

Every year there is an album that sticks the landing on first listen for me. One that I can listen to, walk away from for a few days, come back and think, “Oh yeah, these songs are very familiar to me.” In 2023, Artifacts is that album.

SARAH: It’s always hard putting something out into the world and then hoping that it lands right with people and having absolutely no idea if it will.

Please tell me that at some point you’ve been on the same bill as Goodbye June.

SARAH: So hilariously, I’ve made a tweet before in the past with Sun June, who I’m a fan of, Valerie June, who I’m a huge fan of, and then Goodbye June, I’ve included them, and I was like, “It would be a great bill to have Hello June open and Goodbye June close and then Sun June and Valerie June in between.” They all chimed in. Actually, Goodbye June did not, but they have interacted with me on Instagram. I’m holding out hope for a June show at some point.

In June of next year, right?

SARAH: In June, yes (laughs).

Glide Magazine said “Hello June might very well be the second coming of Lydia Loveless mixed with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit sound-wise.” While I’m not sure those comparisons are totally spot on, I get what they are saying. I read that as Hello June’s music being based in Americana with some Midwest rock foundations to it. Would you say that’s fair?

SARAH: When I read these things, it’s always interesting to hear people’s comparisons and takes on things.

For me, it always feels foreign to be compared to someone else. I think I kind of got the same thing that you got out of that, which is there’s hints of Americana throughout Hello June, but there is a little bit of the Midwest rock thing. I definitely follow that, for sure.

When people ask me what bands we sound like, I don’t even really try to get it right on the nose in terms of actual sound. Things that I think that fall in that same vein, it tends to make sense that if you like Courtney Barnett, you’re not going to hate me. We don’t sound like Metallica (laughs).

Outside of music, you do design and creative work. That’s the other half of your equation.

SARAH: Yeah, I do illustration and design part-time, and I also work for a technology company, part-time. I’m watching plates spin all the time. The Hello June project is my number one. I’d like to see it move forward. I’d like to move to the next level with it and be able to sustainably tour and things like that. But I really, really have a passion for design and illustration as well.

Is there a lot of crossover between design and illustration and making music?

SARAH: I have a few study projects that I’m working with. For example, one is a dog company that I’ve done all their branding and logo design, they’re called Paws Up. It’s a microfiber towel that you take and you wash your dog paws with it. So, you know, that is clearly very off the beaten path in terms of being related musically. But then I have other projects that I work on. I’ll regularly do posts or designs for different people in the West Virginia community and also like the national community.

I think about it in ratios and I’m constantly working on getting a better creative ratio and things that I prefer to do, because, you know, we all have to pay the bills and we’ve all taken jobs that we don’t necessarily dream about. My goal is to keep getting to a greater ratio of creativity.

How do you set aside time to focus just on music?

SARAH: I was actually doing full time technology work up until, I think it was like December or January of like this past year, and what I realized at that point was that this just feels really off balance to me because there was a lot of stuff that I was working on for Hello June and a lot of things that I wanted to achieve with my design and illustration work. I was just feeling like, man, I don’t have the time to do this, working 40 hours a week with the technology company.

So I made a huge decision at that point to move to part time because you just go through life and you’re like, is this what I want to be doing right now at this moment?

I don’t think that we need to be in our Ideal situation at all points, but if we’re not moving towards something that’s going to ultimately make us happier, we’re probably not doing the right thing.

I was very fortunate because the company that I worked for was very, very understanding. They’re very aware of the project and they want to see it succeed. And so they were absolutely fine with me going part time and that has allowed me to really allot my time in ways that make my life feel healthier. That has been a really nice step forward. And I hope to kind of just keep inching towards the ideal situation.

Did this album take a little while due to Covid and lockdowns and all the stuff that has transpired the last few years?

SARAH: It’s been a long time coming. I think it took almost three years; two years for the recording. We would go down to Nashville in the midst of a major lockdown so every time we’d go down, everybody would Covid test, and we’d mask up. It was just a huge deal to do anything. It really pushed the time out pretty far, but when you think back to that time period though, I kind of just thought we’re never going to leave our houses again. It’s weird to talk about it now like, “Oh yeah, it took three years” but, at the time, the whole world felt strange.

With the album being called Artifacts, I know there is a general theme. Do you think of the songs as chapters within the bigger narrative or is each song its own short story that doesn’t relate to the others?

SARAH: I didn’t want to leave any song out on an island by itself in terms of conceptual relevance. I wanted each one to at least have another song. For instance, “Honey I Promised” and “The Moon’‘ are related in my mind. And “California’‘ and “23” are related in my mind. The way that that happened was when I started to write these songs, I was just in a weird, sort of depressed haze, mid-COVID and being like, I’m never leaving my house and I’m fine with that. I’m oozing with mental illness as I’m saying it.

When [producer] Roger [Alan Nichols] expressed interest in working together, I was like, “Oh, here’s an outside person.” It was just a strange occurrence at that time because we’re in the middle of Covid and I’m deeply isolated. But I immediately then was like, “I need to get some songs together.”

I went to write and I just felt unable to put words down on paper. So I started to pull from old bits of things that I had written down in the past because it just seemed easier at the moment. When I started to do that, it was pretty clear to me that “23” was me reflecting on when I was 23. I’m 36 now so this is a pretty big gap in time.

It was an interesting experiment to do that. It was very difficult. I probably won’t do it again. I will really push myself to finish the song as opposed to leaving it open because that was not the easiest thing. I think that what I didn’t want to do is just have one song from one time period exist. I wanted there to be some pairings and for there to be some threads that kind of pull everything together.

Lyrically, they’re very personal songs. Does that make them hard to sing live?

SARAH: That’s a really good question. “Interstate” is very, very deeply personal. People will respond to that one when I do it live. I’ve watched people respond to it. I’ve watched people cry in front of me. It’s hard for me to watch that and not cry myself because that has happened to me at multiple points. I’ve literally choked up during the song. A lot of times, it’s a sharing of a human experience.

After doing it over and over and going, “This is hard. This is vulnerable. I don’t know that I love this,” I think what I’ve learned is that it’s worth it when someone walks up to you and is like, “I feel what you’re saying.” Just that human connection piece. I think there’s more reward than there is punishment for it.

Through my own mental health journey, I’ve had a therapist tell me to write things down, to get stuff out of my head and then, if I want, tear it up, burn it, throw it away. It feels to me like that is what you’re doing through your lyrics but rather than getting rid of those words, you’re recording them for everyone to hear.

SARAH: It’s a challenge. It’s sort of a leap of faith. When you’re writing them, you’re hyper-focused on whatever you’re thinking. I was by myself, I was isolated and vulnerable with just my thoughts. The first time I had to share it with someone was with the producer. And then to explain the meaning behind the songs, you start thinking, “Now other people are going to ask the same questions.” It’s an experience for sure. I guess I just felt like I either needed to dive in and allow myself to be vulnerable or not do it at all. What’s the point of it if you can’t share your bits of human experience with someone else? That’s kind of my logic, I guess.

Would you say that your songs are 100% autobiographical or do you take some liberties and have some different views from an outside perspective of your own life when you’re writing lyrics?

SARAH: I think, so far, I mostly write about my own experiences, not a few from the outside looking in. I read a statement from, I think, Tyler Childers about writing personal songs from an outside perspective and I thought to myself, “That’s honestly a brilliant thing” because it really does take a little bit of the pressure off.

Songwriting has the potential to be so, well, invasive sounds bad, but it’s a very vulnerable process and thing to work through. So far I would say it’s just my personal experience I write about but I do think going forward, I love the idea of expanding on the narrative and exploring an idea that’s not necessarily my exact and direct experience.

The songs “Napkin” and “Soft Love” make me think of that last stretch of a road trip, where you’re driving through a rural setting and the sun is going down, and in the near distance you can see the bright lights of a city.

SARAH: I used to very regularly drive from Philly to West Virginia and West Virginia to Philly because the tech job I was doing was that route. Inevitably there was always that beautiful either I’m leaving the city and the sun’s going down or I’m coming over the hills of West Virginia and the sky opens up. l’m sure I’ve made several pieces of art that have that look in it where I’ve got big buildings, but there’s also hills and things like that, because that’s just burned into my brain. So I don’t think you’re necessarily wrong in thinking about those songs that way. I’m sure that seeps in there somewhat.

As a kid in school, were you drawn to English? Did you love to write or read poetry? Would any of your high school teachers say, “Oh yeah, I knew Sarah was going to write songs someday”?

SARAH: I think my English teachers probably would not know who I am. I really was a science and math nerd. I really, really love science. And I truly love math as well. I remember back to fourth grade, I had this great teacher who was great with the English stuff, she entirely skipped over the math. All we did was write, and I loved it. I think there’s a piece of me that has always been drawn to making words sit well on a page and have somebody on the other end take that in.

What was it like growing up in West Virginia?

SARAH: I’ve moved around quite a bit. I grew up in Bridgeport, West Virginia, which is kind of a little suburban town. The population is pretty low, but my high school had enough people where things happened, we had opportunities. I went to West Virginia University for college. That’s in Morgantown. A lot of people are familiar with that area. And then I moved to Baltimore for a while, kind of dug into the music scene there. And that was before I was playing music and I certainly didn’t have the Hello June project going.

I had just sort of started to write songs and kind of get serious about it, at least in my own head. And then I moved back to West Virginia. And then, like I said, I spent some time in Philly where I was on a project for six years. I was going back and forth between Philly and West Virginia for about four years. Right now, I live in Albright, West Virginia, which is probably as rural as you can get, and I really like it. It’s peaceful and I live on a few acres. It was sort of my response to living in Philly because I was living right in the city.

Your cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is really interesting and unique. Did it start off as a note-for-note cover and then you decided to add your own flavor, or did you always intend on putting your own spin on it?

SARAH: I initially didn’t really want to cover it. My label brought it up. The guy who runs the label has kind of been all over the world and his argument was that everywhere he goes, the song will play, and people get really excited about it.

As somebody who grew up in West Virginia and hears that song over and over, it’s funny because I hear it over and over and every single time, no matter what I’m doing, there’s something that’ll kind of almost make me cry. It doesn’t matter how corny it’s being done. There’s just always something that hits me. I didn’t shoot the idea down 100 percent, but I was like, you know, I’m not super interested in covering it.

But when I was working with Roger, it was late one night, and I was pretty convinced that I didn’t want to do the song. I play 95% of the guitars on the record and I don’t play any guitar on that song. Roger brings this baritone guitar piece to me and I’m like, “That’s sad. That’s good.” I had verbally described to him how I would theoretically want to do that cover and he brought me that piece and I was like, “He gets it.” He was like, “Let’s just lay a rough vocal down.”

So we did two takes one night, like super late after a long day. And he just ended up keeping whatever was there because we never went back to it. I have a lot of strong feelings about the state of West Virginia and Appalachia in general. We’ve been hit hard with the drug problems, and poverty doesn’t help a lot of things. There’s just a lot here that people have had to deal with and it’s made them really strong. I think what I wanted to do was create a version of that song that reflected back, not only the sadness, but also the hopefulness and the strong nature of the people here.

I wanted it to be something that you’re able to sit in and feel. And I wanted it to be real. I’m happy with it actually. I didn’t know if I would be because I felt like that was going to be a hard thing to do, but I am happy with it.

What are the plans for playing these songs live? Are you thinking about any short-term or long-term touring options?

SARAH: I have a few shows to celebrate the album release. We’re trying to build a team, looking pretty heavily into different booking agents and trying to complete the team. So, just one foot in front of the other, build a team and be able to make another record.

I definitely have enough songs ready for another record. We’re excited to not take three years to write that one. I think we’ll probably practice with the band and rehearse those songs and get them pretty quickly up to speed and then want to get to it and produce another record and I can’t imagine that taking too long. I’m just going to try to build off of whatever happens with this record and keep my nose to the grindstone.

What is your comfort food when it comes to music, your safe space, the thing that you’re going to listen to tonight? And, after you answer that, what is something that you listen to that might surprise me?

SARAH: I’m not really into heavy stuff usually but I really, really like Baroness. I’ve seen them two or three times and, actually, when we went on tour back in 2018, we hit New York City and we had a day off. John Baizley (Baroness singer/guitarist) is a fantastic artist. He did a screen print event show and we got to go to it. He was there. Gina Gleason (Baroness guitarist) was there. It was just a really cool experience. We left with a really big screen print that we have hanging up in our living room now. It was such a serendipitous kind of like, “I can’t believe we’re here right now and we’re not busy and we can go to this.” Anyways, me and my partner are both like huge fans of Baroness.

My comfort food would probably be something more like Bon Iver or Iron and Wine or Wye Oak or Big Thief. Those are my comfort spots.

Oh yeah, there have been some Wye Oak albums I’ve really, really loved.

SARAH: I wonder if it was Civilian? That record did that to me. The record prior to that, Andy Stack produced it and they were just still kind of coming up. One of their songs got put on a TV show, like the opening piece for, and I remember finding that song and being like, “Holy shit, this is so good.” And then I actually ended up living, while in Baltimore, next to Andy Stack’s cousin. One day, when I was walking home from work, I was kind of down and depressed a little. I’m walking up my little row home steps and I look over and Andy Stack is walking up his steps and I was thinking, “What is going on?!?”

I’ve seen Jen (Wasser) do her thing a few times with Flock of Dimes. I actually got to watch her first ever Flock of Dimes show there in Baltimore. She came into my workplace at one point, I was working at Guitar Center, and she came in to buy some pedals and stuff. And I immediately was like, “Oh my God,” because that was right after that Civilian tour. They basically got back from the Civilian tour and she was, I think, just starting other projects. That record was so magical to me that just being able to talk with her and then to see her start her new project was wildly influential to me. I really don’t think I can express how influential it was. Every single song on there has a place in my head. It’s so perfect.

There’s so much music out there that it’s easy to look past something only to discover years later how great a band is and how they’ve been under your nose the whole time. Band of Horses is that band for me, last year’s Things Are Great was my favorite album of the year and the first one of theirs that I really dove into and listened to non-stop for weeks at a time.

SARAH: Oh yeah. I love them so much. The way I really loved them was watching their live performances. They are one of my favorite bands. I actually just wrote a piece about the song “Laredo” because in an interview, somebody asked me what song I thought was a perfect song? Their records were always slightly softer and the edge wasn’t there. I just repeatedly kept finding live sets that I would watch and listen to over and over because I love that bit of grit that they have.

And I also watched Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses with Sam Beam from Iron and Wine. They did a tour at some point, like back in 2013 or 2014. I got to catch that and that was really cool.

Everybody grows up listening to what they hear on the radio or what their peers or siblings or parents are listening to. What was the first artist that you discovered without those influences that you considered to be your band?

SARAH: Honestly, Third Eye Blind was that for me. I love that first record they did with “Semi-Charmed Life”. I’ve listened to that record over and over. That record’s got some magic in it. And that was one of the first records that I felt like I knew every single second of that record. Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette was the same thing. I know every single second of that record. Those records are a piece of me.

I would sit in my room, and I had a notebook that I would draw in as the lyrics were going. The lyrics were incorporated into these illustrations. You’re just creating your own space.

If I could go back to different points in my life, one would be that point where you discover something and you’re like, “Oh man, this is fire.” When I’m writing a song, if I can get to that feeling, I try to do that because it feels brand new. It feels pure. It feels like you’re a kid discovering candy again.