Arts & Culture

Folk Musician Letitia VanSant Talks New Album

Her latest work is full of personal and political undertones.

It’s been almost three years since your last record, Parts & Labor, in 2015. What have you been up to between then and now? 
Shortly after I released that album, I had some things happen with my family that made me realize I want to spend my time differently. I left my full-time job in D.C. and moved back up to Baltimore. For a while, I lived at the H&H Building with my fiancé, and then he ended up buying a house in Mayfield that needed a whole lot of work. So around that same time that I was going through a lot of change, we were literally knocking down walls and dealing with holes in the roof. That was a big part of where the inspiration for the title came from.

Did those parallels reveal themselves immediately?
I can’t actually figure out when I wrote “Gut It to the Studs.” Sometimes I write a song and a couple months later I realize the messages it has. When I first wrote it, I meant it as more of a political song, and then later realized the personal notions it had. 

You’ve had political undertones to your songs for years now. Was there a new emphasis on that for you with this new record, also named Gut It to the Studs, because of the current political climate?
I recorded this album last November, and I wrote a lot of these songs well before the election but many of the same messages are still relevant today. I believe that, for many of us, what’s going on inside has big implications for who we are as people and how we choose to operate in the world, which brings a lot to bear on what happens politically. 

For myself, I felt for a long time that I needed to get somewhere in my career—that I really wanted to have something to show for myself. I didn’t even know what ladder I wanted to climb, or who I was trying to prove something to, but that’s kind of just baked into our culture. Our sense of self-worth is tied to something external. D.C. culture has this inherent competitiveness and insecurity, so when I left, it was partly me being like, ‘Okay, screw that!’ I’m not going to base my sense of self on where I am in my career. There are lots of ways to look at life. 

Was it scary to let go and give up those ghosts?
Yes. I turned to music, and in my mind, it was this place that was free of all those things. And then I discovered that music also has competitiveness and insecurity. At its best, there’s a lot of camaraderie, mutual support, and inspiration. At its worst, there’s some of the opposite. So I learned that those feelings just follow people wherever they go. It’s an unseen hand and it’s really easy to go through your whole life without really realizing that you’re trying to prove something to somebody who doesn’t exist. For me, I didn’t want those things to be the factors driving me forward.

Is writing music cathartic for you? How do you use your art form to process emotions?
I often write songs from a purely creative standpoint, just to see what phrases and words come out and what concepts emerge. Later on, I can take a look and see it was trying to say. There are some strands of indie-folk that have a lot of abstraction, but I kind of follow the country vein in that you know exactly what that song is about. It’s clear what the point is. 

What is the point of this new album?
If I had to put it in one sentence, let’s get our priorities straight. 

Is there a seminal song on the album for you? 
I’d say the first track, “Where I’m Bound.” That originally came out of learning about an early abolitionist, John Woolman, who went around asking people to free those that they were enslaving. In his journal, there were times where he expressed real doubt, because it was difficult for him to see that things were changing, and he didn’t know if he was doing the best he could. It’s easy for us to look at the leaders of the past and think that they were very certain and surefooted, but leadership is terrifying and uncertain. That’s a big spiritual hurdle for any of us to contend with—not really knowing what the right way forward is but proceeding with faith, in spite of those things.

There’s a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth.” What’s inspired you to include this 1966 song in 2018?  
The people who were part of the civil rights movement in the ’60s and ’70s are huge inspirations for me. I so admire what those folks were doing, and specifically in Baltimore, there’s this woman named Betty Robinson who is kind of a mentor for me here. It is just as important for us to be really active in this moment in time. I wanted to bring up that the same struggles continue today.

You also have a very important song about Baltimore called “Sundown Town.” Tell us a little bit about its inspiration.
It’s about segregation in Baltimore. In 2008, I was in Detroit canvassing for the Obama campaign, and I was paired up with an older black man. One day we were canvassing in a white suburb that to me kind of typified what I grew up to feel like was a safe place. It started to get dark, and I was having trouble finding my canvassing partner, and then when I found him, he was visibly shaken. He said that when he was growing up, that neighborhood was a “sundown town.” I had never heard that term before, but it basically meant that black people were not allowed to be there after dark, and if they were, they might get picked up by police or beat up—whatever it was, it would be bad. After that, I read this book called Not in My Neighborhood and discovered that this wasn’t just small rural towns that had that policies of segregation, but also a lot of urban neighborhoods, like in Baltimore. Some of the suburbs where I grew up still had these racist housing covenants on the books. That was when I first got the idea for the song.

Then during the Baltimore Uprising, I went to some of the protests and I remember a lot of my white friends being afraid to go and using phrases like “stay safe.” But there are some people in this city who don’t ever have the luxury of feeling safe. Growing up in the suburbs, it’s really easy for white people like me to live pretty obliviously to some of the problems that low-income black communities face. If we’re only thinking about our own safety, it’s really a hindrance to the whole movement going forward. And what I hope that we move towards is really seeing that no one is safe until everyone is safe. That’s one of the big messages that I felt the Uprising was trying to tell us: If we want peace, we have to work towards justice—for everyone.

I would also add that, of course, in this conversation, the people who should be at the center of it are the people who are most directly affected by it, like artists who are people of color. But I also think it shouldn’t always be entirely up to them to raise these issues. White communities need to be talking about it, and I do have a platform that reaches, well, a lot of white people. And I don’t think it’s right for a white person to make a profit about any song about oppression, so any proceeds that I make from this song will be donated to people-of-color-led organizations that are working on these issues in Baltimore.

Why now for this nationally distributed debut?
When I left and started really looking at what it takes to be a more serious musician, this was what I decided was the next move. I’m a little old to be doing my first one, but I’m not getting any younger. I write a lot and have a lot of material I hope to release in the future.

Is your old house finished in Mayfield?
Pretty much! Old houses are never done, but we’re very happily settled in.