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Success looks different than Carsie Blanton imagined

Carsie Blanton headlines the WGLT Summer Concert June 18
Carsie Blanton
Carsie Blanton headlines the WGLT Summer Concert on June 18 in downtown Bloomington.

WGLT Summer Concert headliner Carsie Blanton said being homeschooled was excellent preparation for being an artist.

The Americana folk-rocker describes her parents as alternative-eccentrics who were part of the “unschooling” movement, which encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, as opposed to a rigid curriculum. Blanton said that academic freedom translated well to being a touring singer-songwriter.

“Because it is kind of all DIY now unless you're one of the few people on the planet who has a major label record deal,” said Blanton of the music business. “I've been an independent artist now for 15 or so years and it does kind of remind me of growing up as an 'unschooler,' like I'm kind of just making it all up as I go along.”

Blanton’s writing doesn’t flinch from problems, including but not limited to politics and social ills. But a close listen often reveals an optimism among those problems. Blanton agreed, calling it “revolutionary optimism,” an idea she picked up from a quote by legendary writer and activist James Baldwin.

“I'm going to try and say it correctly, but I'll probably be paraphrasing. He said, ‘I can't be a pessimist. Because I'm alive. I'm forced to be an optimist.’ And I think about that all the time. It's not useful, really, especially as an artist or a public person of any kind, to express pessimism. It doesn't help, and it doesn't get us anywhere. And so even in my dark moments, where I don't really feel hopeful, I feel called to offer the world some optimism, because that's what we need, we don't get to move forward without a sense of optimism. I'm a person who doesn't have a lot of faith in the current political system to present a way forward. But history is very long. So, I'm often optimistic on like the 100- or 200-years scale, if not the 10- or 20-years scale,” explained Blanton.

Similarly, some of Blanton’s videos present that same optimism. She said it's subconscious.

“I don't have kids, but I have nieces and nephews. And I really like kids. And I remember being a kid, and it's something that comes up in my writing a lot. So, I guess it's like children are a way to represent the idea that the future is going to happen, whether we're ready for it or not. So, in a way, it's like they're a physical embodiment of the need to be optimistic,” said Blanton.

And those videos, especially the ones with children, seem to intentionally be inclusive. One that stands out is the video for "American Kid."

“I'm Jewish and grew up in the South, but I'm essentially a white person. And I grew up in a really rural area. I had a lot of amazing opportunities in my childhood, like I had a pony. And we lived on the river. So that song is about having this idyllic American, quote, unquote, American childhood, and then coming of age to realize that America is a lot more complicated than that, both historically and right now. And that in our political choices, we are creating opportunities for some children and not for other children. In that video, I'm trying to show that everyone who's born in the world is a beautiful child and deserves to be treated that way. And that's really where all of my political ideas come from, that one notion that no child should be born into a situation where they don't have access to the things they need to grow up happy,” she said.

Where does that come from?

“I mean, the real question is where does the opposite come from?” she countered. “Because I think people are born with a certain kind of kindness and compassion ... or at least most of us are. There's a lot of different ways that it gets beaten out of us. I guess I'm lucky that it hasn't been beaten out of me.”

This is not to say all of Blanton’s songs are political or social commentary. “Fishin With You” is simply Blanton on acoustic guitar singing a love letter to the late John Prine, a man and inspiration she never got to meet.

“But like a lot of families … my family played his music both on the stereo and sitting around the living room on guitars. I knew all his songs as a little, little kid. So, I never met him, but he felt very much like kind of my favorite uncle,” said Blanton.

She said it was Prine who made her feel the possibility to be a songwriter, both artistically and professionally.

“He made it seem possible that you could be a person who writes kind of sweet and funny songs, and you could have a whole career and a whole life doing that. I think he represented a kind of working-class musicianship to me, and to a lot of people like he didn't have a big marketing budget and then he didn't have a flashy stage show. He was sort of a troubadour. And that's what I want to do as a songwriter too, is just write songs that connect to people and that they feel like they're speaking about their actual lives and not creating some kind of fantastic reality. And he was just so funny. I really value humor in songwriting. So, he's always been a big inspiration to me in that way,” she said.

So as a troubadour herself and as someone who admits to “making it up” over the years, how does she assess her career 15-years or so out from when she began?

It's a complicated question,” she quickly offered up after a giggle. “When I was 20, I got my first real job. I was living in Oregon at the time, I tricked the school into hiring me as a grant writer. So, I had this job working from home, trying to raise money for a school, I had the thought, you know, if I don't take a go at music, then I'll probably never do it. My idea was that I would try to be a professional musician for one year, and that if at the end of that year, I wasn't selling out 500 seat venues, then I would just quit and get a real job. And neither of those things happen. What happened instead is that I fell in love with the life of being a creative person and of touring all the time and kind of being a road dog. So, I didn't have the kind of success that I imagined but I had a different kind of success, which is the success of doing something that you love and being of service to the world. And I'm very rich in that kind of success.”

Carsie Blanton headlines the 20th anniversary WGLT Summer Concert on June 18 in downtown Bloomington. Peoria’s Latin/Mediterranean collective Tambora with frontwoman Cindy Youngren opens the show, followed by New Orleans folk-rocker Lilli Lewis.

Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.