Sherrié Austin was at a crossroads.
After singing country music all her life, after leaving Australia, finding a record deal in Nashville, getting on the radio, and constantly striving to make her mark as an artist, she stopped, confused and a bit lost. She needed something more. But what? And how?
The "what" was a song with depth and meaning. When she wrote "Streets of Heaven," a heart-wrenching plea from a mother talking with God about the fate of her sick child, Austin knew she had her song. The "how" was a slightly bewildering but powerful re-examination of her career and her reasons for becoming an artist in the first place.
"I'd made two records at Arista and had been going at it for a very long time, for like four years--non-stop, working working working. I said 'yes' to everything, did everything because it's what all new artists do. When you start out, you're overwhelmed by everything and so you just kind of go at it and never have time to think about why you're doing things--are you enjoying it, are you doing what you set out to do? When Tim Dubois, the head of Arista, left the label, I asked if I could leave, too. I said, 'I just need a break. I need to get away. I'm tired.' So I did that, and spent a year or so writing."
First step - making a record on her own
"Following A Feeling was really a vanity project for me. It was all about going with my gut and trying to do things for the right reasons. I cut 'Jolene,' the Dolly Parton song, because I wanted to show where my roots were. I always felt I was a little misunderstood, that the songs I put out were very pop and perky and cutesy, and I really wanted to do something that showed my country roots. But I was still on the wheel, going through the motions, because I was thinking, 'This is what I'm supposed to do. I'm an artist, I've got to make a record.'"
Wait a minute! Country roots? Aren't you from Australia?
"If you go to Australia they still wear the fringe and the cowboy hats and boots. When I won my first Country Music Award in Tamworth, we were in a tin shed. There was actually a sign that said 'Livestock to the left, Artist entrance to the right.' You can't get more country than that."
Okay, back to that independent album
"The record did what it did. It was successful in a small way. I don't know why, but afterwards I just thought, 'I don't know what I want to do anymore.' Here I was in my eighth year in Nashville and I looked around and went, 'I don't know what I'm doing. I am completely, absolutely lost. '"
"Why did I become an artist? To be famous, to have my face on the cover of magazines? I don't care about that stuff. I wanted to do something that really says something. I started to think, 'Why am I here? Why was I given these particular gifts?' Surely it isn't just to be famous and rich and live a great life that revolves around me! I was so sick of me, me, me all the time, there must be something I can do outside of myself. I needed something bigger than myself."
Finding her way
"I started going to California a lot because my family lives there. I spent a lot of time walking on the beach. I spent time with my sister, having those sisterly conversations over coffee, just talking about life and listening to music. I was hanging out with my brother, trying to figure out what to do next. I remember driving up Coldwater Canyon to a writing appointment with Al Kasha and Paul Duncan and I was asking God, 'I don't know what I'm doing. Show me something, a sign.' "
"I went in and we started to write 'Streets of Heaven.' I walked out of that meeting and the whole second half of the chorus just fell out of the sky--I nearly had a car wreck. I went for a walk the next day and the third verse--the whole verse--came into my head, and it hit me so hard I actually started crying. "
Where is this coming from?
"I don't know why it came to me because the most famous thing I've done is a song about kissing. I'd never written a story song. I don't have a child. So why am I writing this song? Then I realized that my mother, when she was the age I am now, went through this with my younger sibling. We nearly lost my little brother. When my co-writers threw out the title, that's the first thing that popped in my head. I was in a really down period in my life thinking that I had it so hard, but how could that compare with what my mother was going through at my age when she nearly lost her child? I think a lot of things were in my heart and head, just floating around, that came out in that song."
A triumphant return
"The moment the song was finished, I said, 'I'm ready to come back, as long as this is my first single. This is the one time I'm putting my foot down.' Whether it works or not, I knew I had to do it. I just feel like this song is a gift. It came from a very special place. I asked, and I got it. And it scares the pants off me, because now I have a responsibility of getting it out. Now I feel I have to do something with this song, and I really believe it could help people. If somebody had pitched me this song five years ago, I wouldn't have gotten it. Sometimes I think if my career had gone the way my original label thought it would-- if I had huge hits and become the latest hot thing--I don't think I would have grown into the writer that I am now. I don't think I would have come to this place.Someone said, 'Adversity introduces us to who we really are.' As a writer, you have to live through a lot to have something to write about. I could never have written 'Streets of Heaven' before. Now I'm in the right place."
"I've had people come up to me and say, 'You know it's a sad song but it makes me feel really hopeful, it makes me feel good.' A friend told me it made them think of lost dreams, about things that didn't happen--but that those old dreams had to die for new ones to be born. People are getting something out of the song that I didn't even know was in it, and that's exciting."
"Streets of Heaven" opened a whole new path for Austin to take with her music. Her latest album brims over with story songs that delve into subjects beyond love and romance -("though there's some of that, too," she says). She's stopped worrying about how she's going to make her mark, and instead just goes about making it by writing and recording her songs. She's found her place and kept her sense of humor. "There are times when I feel that old stress come up, when I hear those voices saying, 'What if?' But when that happens, I just say, 'Oh, shut up.'"
--- from the official Sherrie Austin website