One Song In Many Voices - The Story Of “Nothing Else Matters”
Nashville artist Phoebe Hunt has a strategy she sometimes brings to co-writing sessions. After making tea and talking about life for a while, she’ll suggest separating for 20 minutes to see what each songwriter might come up with working alone, prompted only by the conversation. Early in 2019, she was at her home letting this play out with close friend and fellow songwriter Maya de Vitry.
“That day, one of the big topics of conversation was my sadness over not being able to be around my band,” Phoebe remembered. She’d moved from New York in the prior months, while The Gatherers - a band with whom she’d formed deep bonds - stayed behind. “I still was missing the connection that I had in that time. And we were talking about that.”
After the 20 minute exercise, Maya came back with lines and an idea that struck Phoebe hard. “We were one long night, We were one sweet morning. We were all time,” it begins, with a lingering, falling melody on the word ‘all.’ Hovering in the air amid the unfinished song was the subject of grief and reconciliation with loss, not in a funereal sense, but in a “celebration of life” sense. It was about saying goodbye in a healing way.
Maya was also grieving the end of her long-time band, the Stray Birds, so she felt the stirring of a song “that we both could live inside of,” she said. “I was just listening and trying to channel Phoebe's, you know, soul and grief.” She was coaxing the idea to life with the help of an unfamiliar instrument, an octave mandolin, and she gives this wooden vessel some credit. “I would not have written this song had I been holding a guitar,” she says. “It was just the way that I was strumming. And I don't know. I just felt like it was coming out of that instrument.”
They kept going for a couple of hours, developing not a verse and chorus form but four stanzas with a similar but varied refrain and hook: “I love you; nothing else matters.” “I’m living…” “I’m singing…” “I’m weeping…” And then a repeat of the first stanza. You can hear the first iteration of “Nothing Else Matters” on their worktape from that day on a podcast that Phoebe produced in 2021. The women try different phrasing and harmonies. They swap lines around and conjure the song’s crystal couplets. And when a first pass/draft is done, they laugh, knowing they’d made something beautiful.
“Nothing Else Matters” didn’t take flight right away. It slept during the pandemic, though Phoebe found herself singing it alone just because she enjoyed it. Then in 2021, as she returned to live performance, Phoebe was offered a slot on a multi-artist show in town. She asked her friend Lindsay Lou to join her on this new song and sent her a recording. Lindsay was astonished. And with that, it crossed a bridge into a wider world.
“Phoebe told me that she and Maya had written it,” Lindsay said in an interview last week. “And I thought, Oh, for sure they were thinking about me and about everything that I'm going through and putting it into words. Because it's just so expertly said.” Lindsay herself was still processing the end of the band that had taken her from local artist in Michigan to a national roots artist - the Flatbellys, and she’d recently parted with her husband, the band’s mandolinist. These were subjects she and the other two women had spoken of in depth. It was almost as if she’d been in the writers’ room.
“I just fell in love with it. And I cried through it,” says Lindsay. “It just spoke so beautifully and gracefully to the grief that I was experiencing. And I asked if I could put it on (my) record.” The authors agreed enthusiastically.
By now, all three women have recorded very different versions of the song. It’s the title track to Phoebe Hunt’s new album, a bold and beguiling solo project recorded with only her voice and her fiddle, released in late July. “Nothing Else Matters” is the opening cut on Lindsay Lou’s new project Queen Of Time, a robust folk pop opus that just came out on Sept 29. And it’ll be on Maya de Vitry’s next full-length, due next year, though she’s already released it as a video performance on guitar and banjo with North Carolina musician Hannah Seng (below).
And those aren’t all. Bonnie Sims, of the bluegrass band Big Richard, put a version out on Tik Tok. Lauren Balthrop sang one for Instagram. And taking the song around the world, a group of women including Nicki Bluhm and Mimi Naja sang “Nothing Else Matters” in a centuries old palace in Porto, Portugal within the past two weeks.
One hallmark of Americana music is an emphasis, if not an expectation, that artists write their own material. Cover songs, while not uncommon, are usually drawn from the catalogs of legendary artists of yore. Here though is something rare, a contemporary song written by mid-career standouts of the roots music scene that’s being interpreted by others in real time, one of the highest compliments one can pay a song. The best parallel might be how Mary Gauthier’s 2005 song “Mercy Now” rippled through the culture with covers by Mike Farris, Kathy Mattea, Candi Staton and others.
Covers were once a core part of country music. In the 1950s and 60s, artists would make as many as two or three albums per year, and amid their hunt for a fresh hit, they stocked their LPs with songs that were already on the charts. “Crazy,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Cold, Cold Heart” were cut by men and women hundreds of times each, and the songs became part of the American conversation and landscape.
“If a song was good, everybody did it. And I feel like there's so much less of that now,” says Lindsay. “We all feel so precious, like we have to have so much ownership over what we do. And you know, as much as I'm a singer and a songwriter, I feel just as much a song interpreter. I really find myself totally inside of a song. And it feels like it's as much mine as anybody's when I'm singing it.”
Maya agrees. “I think it's a really good thing for the ecosystem of our music scene if we can see each other's work in that light, like with the reverence that you might have towards a Nanci Griffith song or a Townes Van Zandt song.” It dovetails with her ethos of artists mutually supporting each other in what is after all a tough profession. “I want to be a part of lifting people up who are of my generation,” she says.
Indeed on the new EP Infinite, which comes out this Friday, Maya delivers four original songs and one cover by her contemporary Chris Pureka. And in this case, it wasn’t an artist she knew but one she discovered online, where she let a completely unfamiliar song, as she says in her bio, to “leap straight into my heart.” She goes on: “It was a chance for me and the band to be a ripple, in the infinite journey of this particular song.”
For Phoebe, the transmission of a song from her to a friend to strangers “goes back to the old folk tradition,” something she discovered was part and parcel of roots music during her college years in Texas. Lindsay (or anyone), she says, “doesn’t need to ask permission…It’s a song anyone can sing.” She says she’s kept a folder of her own unrecorded “songs for the people,” meaning songs that have that universal appeal and simplicity that invites sing-alongs and jam session pickers to give it a try. She may compile those into an album one day.
Any songwriter would be gratified to write an American folk standard. Maybe Maya and Phoebe already have.