Country Queer

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Sean Della Croce’s Illuminating Experiences

by Denver-Rose Harmon, Staff Writer

Sean Della Croce, a supremely talented young songwriter, is about to release her debut album, Illuminations; we have the privilege of presenting the single “In Confidence” (at botttom). We talked with Della Croce about Illuminations, and she gave us some insights into her creative process and how her songwriting was shaped by her experience as a gay woman growing up in Nashville.

Loaded question this day and age, but how are you doing?

You know, I was just reading the news and scrolling Twitter, so… I’m doing okay. I’m doing well though. I really can’t complain.

Good to hear. So for new listeners, how would you want to introduce yourself?


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

My name is Sean Della Croce, I’m a singer-songwriter here in Nashville. Mostly a songwriter. That’s my, you know, identity with respect to my music pursuits.

Your songs are beautiful. I tend to read lyrics as I listen and they really read like poetry.

Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, that’s the goal.

What’s your writing process? Is it the same every time?

I probably need to come up with a better way of describing it, but I feel like it comes on like a period. Isn’t that bizarre? The writing process is like a mood. It’s something that’s, to a certain degree, out of my control, but I’m one of those people who fully believes in that mystical element of inspiration, just being something you harness. So it usually comes on in some sort of intense mood of wistfulness or sadness or infatuation as you might have picked up on from the record, like “Rebecca Henry.” Then that mood just hits a breaking point where I sit down and I start with a phrase or an image and it follows from there. Usually they all come in one episode of 45 minutes or something.

Do you feel like you ever experience writer’s block and have to just sit down and try to find inspiration?

You know, I’ve been practicing co-writing some more. Trying to spend time going from a neutral mode to a song writing mode, and that’s been really exciting and interesting, mostly learning how other people operate. But times when I’ve tried to make a song come out of nowhere, usually doesn’t go as well for me by myself. I try not to even look at it as writer’s block just, just the time when I’m not writing. It usually doesn’t get to a point where I’ve become frustrated with the block part.

I saw your beautiful cover of Taylor Swift’s “august.” Is she a writing inspiration? Who would you consider an influence on your music?

I mean, who doesn’t love Taylor Swift? She’s super interesting from a career perspective and a songwriting perspective. She’s one of those people who you can’t really imagine any other path based on how she presents herself and the work that she creates. She’s a big contemporary influence, but I have a lot of deep influences growing up in Nashville. My parents were in the music industry, so I spent a lot of time side stage at concerts, like Vince Gill or my dad used to work with Leon Redbone. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I’m completely obsessed with Brandi Carlile. That’s not even a surprise, probably. Big fan of Ben Howard, who’s got some new music coming out right now. Absorbed a lot of Green Day. I mean, really you could cross any genre and I probably would have been deeply interested in it at one point or another. But I mean, Brandy would probably be number one just in terms of style when I sit down to write. As much as I enjoy many genres, the language that’s native for me is that kind of like Tracy Chapman, acoustic guitar-lyric marriage.

I can definitely see that. So Vince Gill is featured in one of your songs (“Break in the Rain”). Have you known him for a long time?

Oh yeah. My mom has been Vince’s publicist for almost 30 years. I grew up sort of in his vicinity going to a lot of his concerts. So when I went to make this record, I thought, you know, the song that he’s on is kind of inspired by some of his work and his sound. And I just went out on a limb and sent an email and he very graciously agreed to lend his guitar to the record.

That song in particular has quite a religious quality to it. Do you get a lot of inspiration through faith?

That’s a great question. My girlfriend always tells me, “You put God in a lot of these songs,” and the way she says it kind of makes me second guess the choice, but I grew up Catholic. I went to Catholic school here in Nashville. That song in particular was written probably around 2012. Definitely in a different place than I am today with that relationship, I’m definitely a lapsed Catholic. But I grew up here in Tennessee and Christianity is an inevitable feature of our culture here and it’s a part of the music as well. The figures of speech that encompass the language are everywhere. Even the word “unholy”, it’s just such a great word to convey really quickly that something is a taboo. And as I get older I embrace that outsider piece a little bit more, even if I use the same terminology to describe it.

So in that same vein, what was your coming out experience like in Nashville? ‘Cause it’s a very red state, but Nashville is a particularly more liberal area, isn’t it?

That’s totally true. And for all of the faults of the country music community, and there are many, anywhere the arts are powerful, you’re going to have a lot of different types of people and a certain level of acceptance. And my family have always been very accepting and the Catholic schools I went to were kind of on the more liberal side. I was definitely not somebody who had this sort of fire and brimstone messaging around being gay. If anything, it just sort of didn’t exist, which is also damaging of course.

I had my first relationship when I was maybe 17 years old. Kind of a summer at the end of my high school experience. And I went to college briefly at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, where I studied music. So, classic stereotype, I was in a long distance relationship, my first big kind of love and I was super closeted throughout. But I was really lucky that I had these amazing roommates, these two girls from London who were totally awesome, creative characters. I would Skype my girlfriend and lie and say I was Skyping a boyfriend. It was so tragic.

At one point these roommates/friends/fellow students just came in my room and they were like, “What are you doing? You’re gay.” We had the best conversation and they just confronted me and they were like, “We know you’re gay. It’s so great. We have kissed girls too. We’re straight. It does not matter. Everyone can do anything.” It’s just this amazing hyper liberal mindset. And it was such a dark experience. My girlfriend and I broke up a couple months later, it was just too much and too sad, but these two girls completely changed my life by being so funny and open and loving and just telling me how it was. Of course I knew I was gay, but I had no idea how to say it and they borderline made me say it to them. After that, I moved back to Nashville and I was never in the closet again. I never lied about being gay or having a girlfriend and every friend I made only knew the authentic me. It was the hugest gift to have these two people see me and acknowledge it and absolutely not shame it or say “we don’t care that you’re gay” or “we don’t see that you’re gay.” They were like, “You’re gay and being gay is cool.”

I’m kind of floored, that’s really beautiful. So growing up in Nashville, you’ve always been around music, but how long have you been playing guitar and writing songs purposefully?

I started playing guitar probably when I was like 11 years old. My parents aren’t professional musicians, but they’re obviously huge music lovers so there were always instruments around. Around 11 or 12, my late stepfather came into my life. His name was Pete Huttlinger and he was an amazing fingerstyle guitar player. He would hate this word, but a virtuoso, a really talented guy. He really kind of ignited my love for the guitar and taught me so much. My parents got divorced when I was like 11, so it all kind of came at the same time — the puberty and the bedroom and the guitar and the divorce and the angst, all coalesced to create this really deep abiding interest and connection that I feel with songwriting.

That’s a good way to cope.

Yeah. And then “Bend It Like Beckham” came out the same year. So I was becoming a lot more aware of my gayness. It was just a perfect storm.

You went to Liverpool for a year and I know that you came back cause you liked academia and Nashville better, but I was curious for more of that story.

You know, I think it’s cool to say that I dropped out of music school. Not everyone agrees with that assessment, but the fact of the matter is I went to a music school and I can’t read music. And although I think they were excited to have a songwriter from Nashville in the program, the reality was that I found myself in sight reading classes and one particularly painful jazz improv class. It was probably the most excruciating moment of my whole life because I was forced to improvise the most damaging collection of notes probably ever performed.

I loved the people, my professors were amazing. And the fact of the matter is that my grades were just out-of-this-world-horrible and I could not read music and therefore could not proceed through music theory classes. My stepfather was beginning a phase that would ultimately become a kind of medical downturn that culminated in his death in 2016. So there were some things going on at home that made being so far away kind of unbearable. My inability to read music meant that I was grasping at straws at that point, but I learned a lot.

I’ll tell you what, it was a hard day on Facebook. When my classmates graduated from LIPA and Paul McCartney gave them all their diploma.

So my last question, before I let you go on your way, I want to know is Rebecca Henry a real name? Is this a real person?

Rebecca Henry is totally a composite name and a composite person based on two people that I loosely knew. If I knew them, I wouldn’t have written the song, but the whole point was that I, from afar, admired these two people when I was at Belmont. And then Rebecca Henry was just this name that I thought sounded nice and kind of rhymed in this cool way. But then a couple months ago I got an Instagram message from a girl named Rebecca Henry who paints. It just totally freaked me out. She’s so cool. So awesome. “Rebecca Henry” the song is about a real person and there is also a real person named Rebecca Henry in the world.

Exclusive Track: In Confidence

Sean Della Croce’s album Illuminations will be available on February 26th on all major streaming services, and can be pre-saved here.