Country singer/songwriter Risa Binder has a fondness for sugary treats as sweet as the songs on her debut album, Paper Heart. While her fondness for sweets remains strong–she stops by the local bakery of each town she goes to while she’s on tour–Risa’s music is getting fuller and stronger each day, as evidenced by her new EP Nashville (due out August 5th; her new single, “Gotta Have You” debuted on Sirius’ “The Highway” station and is currently available on iTunes.). We recently sat down with Risa to talk about the EP, her newfound fondness for Nashville, and the difficulties of balancing your artistic pursuits.
You’re based in Brooklyn, How does it feel to be a country singer in a city that doesn’t have a definable country scene?
I do go back and forth between New York and Nashville, but what comes out of me naturally is this country-pop sound. I love making this music, and I have to do what I love. When I’m on the road, people do ask me if New York loves country, and the truth is: they do! Whenever Kenny Chesney or Brad Paisley comes to Madison Square Garden, it sells out in seconds. Clearly, there’s an audience that’s excited to have a little bit of country in their ear.
What is your relationship with Nashville, given that the EP is named Nashville?
Every time I would come down here [to Nashville] to write, something magical would happen to me. Something that was meant to be, something that moved my career forward. That’s why I jump back and forth; now I spend most of my time in Nashville and come back to New York for a week to a month because my producer’s out here and I’m making a record out here. Whenever I come out here, it’s such a creative space. It’s a writer’s town. Everyone out here is an Olympic gold medalist at what they do. Whenever I come out to Nashville to write with someone, I learn so much and it helps me grow as an artist.
What does writing a song with someone else—as opposed to writing a song on your own—add to the creative process?
I think the best part about art and creating something is to work as a team, and as I said, Nashville is a writer’s town. To have Luke Wooten, my producer, believe in me…you know, he’s working with Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley. The fact that he heard some of my songs and wanted to work with me, it made me feel like it was meant to be. I felt super-confident that this direction was an exciting place to be going in. What happens here is that I’ll show up with an idea, and my melodies could be really strong, but someone I’m working with could find a way to say things much better than I could, lyrically. It’s about being open to that collaborative spirit the moment you sit down to work together. There’s something really magical about that. When you’re here in Nashville, people all around you are talking music. It’s a great environment to be in, creatively.
What did Luke Wooten bring to your sound when he produced this EP?
He has this quiet confidence about him that’s inspiring. It actually gave me confidence as a result. The five songs on this EP are very anthemic, and I had to raise my voice to match the size of the songs. My favorite part—besides singing the songs—is working out the harmonies, and he was really crucial in bringing those together. We work together really well. It was easy to work with Luke, and fitting my voice to these songs was an exciting challenge.
Do you see Nashville as an extension of what you did on Paper Heart, or is this something entirely different?
The sounds are different. On Nashville, every track has a pedal steel, which has this really sexy sound that I love. I was really excited to bring Dan Dugmore to play on these tracks. I had been singing Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine” as a cover song in my set for years, and as we’re sitting down to start playing in the studio, Dan tells me that he played the pedal steel on “Strawberry Wine!” He’s a total rock star to me. Then, I found that “Easy To Remember,” one of the songs on my EP, is written by the woman who wrote “Strawberry Wine.” It was like a sign from the universe!
As a musician, you can never compare records because they represent different points in your life that were true then and are still true even after they’ve been released. I’m still going to play songs from Paper Heart live; I’ll just add in these gorgeous new songs. Both records were completely different experiences, but they were both wonderful adventures, which is how I approach making a new record. Still, it was such a joy to bring these five songs to life.
We recently ran a story on women in country music. As a country singer, do you see a change in how women are being perceived in country music today?
It’s good that you bring that up. I’m so excited to see that the gender scale in country music is evening out. I think it’s important that everyone stays true to themselves. If you keep playing songs that are a reflection of who you are, and you keep working to get better at your craft, then you’re going to succeed whether you’re a guy or a girl. But I am excited for artists like Kacey Musgraves, my friend Maggie Rose; I’m just happy to see people who work their butts off get success. It’s a lot of hard work to make it in country, but it’s creative hard work, and I think that’s the best kind of hard work.
You’re an actress, as well as a singer.
I am! I grew up in the theater; I started acting professionally at age eight. Even then, I would always write songs, usually about a boy I had a crush on. I would sit at my piano in my house and my parents would listen, never knowing what boy I was singing about. When I moved to New York, I would audition for Broadway shows while also performing my own songs at open mic nights. I would say a prayer that I would run in the direction of whichever one of these pursuits took off first. I still love acting, and what’s funny is that this record is me singing other people’s songs, which is a kind of acting. You have to step into someone else’s shoes in order to get at what the writer meant, and you have to make it sound true.
How do you balance your pursuits of singing and acting?
That’s a good question. I need to learn how to balance them! [laughs] Here in my Nashville apartment, I painted a whole wall in chalkboard paint, and I wrote my acting goals and music goals on it. I’m a big believer in the idea that if you put something out there and believe in it, it comes to be. So, I write down my main goals for acting and music, but my main goals right now are to get this music out there and to get on the road with larger country acts.