By way of introduction, Gwen Sebastian's new album may seem a bit late. She is, after all, an artist with a couple studio projects already under her belt, possessed of a large and growing fan base earned through years of touring, and the subject of a high-profile turn on a hit national television show. Giving her latest offering the self-titled distinction may seem curious at first glance, but her writing, singing and approach to recording have converged for this project in a way that defines her as never before. Thus, Gwen Sebastian is the perfect representation of Gwen Sebastian. The 15-track collection serves as an appropriate welcome for those who've recently discovered one of The Voice's most successful contestants, even as it reveals a more fully-formed vision for her longtime fans.
Surprisingly, success on the show, touring with coach Blake Shelton, playing the Grand Ole Opry, being named one of Country Weekly's "Most Beautiful" and opening this Summer for Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley on the Locked and Reloaded tour haven't altered her course. If anything, they simply propelled her forward. "The Voice has definitely catapulted my career," she explains. "It was very validating and everything that’s happened from that point on is just at a different level. The best thing may be the sense of freedom it's given me as an artist."
Before television, the North Dakota native performed hundreds of shows as a solo artist after a childhood apprenticeship in her family's band. She released independent projects, flirted with radio success and did the heavy lifting required of aspiring artists. Admittedly, the music business grind brought her to a career crossroads just prior to her audition for NBC. "No matter what I decided at that point, I know I’d still be singing," she says. "But at any job, you always want a promotion. And that's kind of how I look at all this. Now I'm working to climb the ladder a little more."
The validation of which she speaks has, perhaps, removed some of the obstacles – real or perceived – many performers struggle with. Nowhere is this more evident than in Gwen Sebastian's songs. "Some of these were written years ago and put on the back burner – sometimes just because I didn't think they would be appropriate singles," she admits. "This time, I decided to not think about that at all. I wanted to just go in and make something that I really, really enjoyed and loved. So I went into my back catalog and pulled out some of those."
Rather than aim at external targets, Gwen turned inward and emerged with writing credits on 10 of the 14 compositions (one song appears in two versions). "I've never written that many for an album before," she says. "So it’s just a little more personal. Plus, my favorite part of the process is seeing that pen and paper idea come to life in the studio as the musicians create something greater than you even envisioned."
Working again with her producer, band leader and fiancé Louis Newman, Sebastian embraced one of her strengths as never before. "It’s a little bit different than what people have heard from me on an album before, but not necessarily from what they’ve seen if they’ve come to a concert," she explains. "There’s a little bit of a darker side to it. Beyoncé’s got Sasha Fierce, and I’m not comparing myself to her, but onstage I change a little bit. I turn into a different person up there. So, that sound is incorporated on this album."
Achieving that meant breaking a modern recording convention. "We cut the songs as a band and I sang live," she says. "Not to say there weren't some overdubs, but the vast majority of the album was recorded that way."
The approach puts a focus, appropriately, on what has always set Sebastian apart – her voice, with its unique timbre and ability to marry strength with vulnerability. "I’ve been lucky to be able to tour and play a lot of shows, and that’s definitely helped me become a better vocalist," she says. "I’m still not where I would want to be and I’m not sure if I ever will be, but I do hope I'm able to make people feel the song and what I'm feeling as I sing it."
From the first notes of the first song, Sebastian's voice pulls the listener through a journey with unexpected twists. "We hear a lot of country songs about drinking, but I've never heard one from this perspective," she says of "I'm Not Who You Think I Am." "It's the whiskey talking, and it gets pretty dark. I've been doing it live, and sometimes you want to explain it, but it turns out it's better for the audience to figure it out as they go."
The first cut is also one of two that features Miranda Lambert. "I played some of the songs for Miranda," Gwen says. "She heard that one and was like, ‘I love it.' She put her own flavor on it, kind of echoing what I'm saying. For her to even just like the music meant so much to me, but taking time out of her crazy schedule is incredible."
First single "Suitcase" is a surprisingly matter-of-fact take on the end of a marriage. "It’s not one of those throw-your-clothes-in-the-yard songs where everything goes up in flames," she explains. "It's just, take your things and get out. There's a really solid strength in the way the protagonist is handling it. One of my favorite lines is, 'I hope it hits you when you’re leaving – the screen door and guilty feeling.'"
That song, the more aggressive rejection of "Over My Dead Body" and the broken-hearted lament of "February's Fool" are balanced by the celebrated love addiction of "Fix This Fix," self-assured empowerment of "I Ain't The Middle Of The Road" and unconditional support of "Bring It To Me," which Sebastian wrote for Newman. "Somebody's Gonna Love Me" also offers an affirming message.
"We all feel that at some point in our life, unfortunately," she says. "We all try to figure out where we fit and it takes some of us a little longer. I’m comfortable with myself – if you don’t like me, that's okay. I can deal with that. But I’ve definitely been the girl in that story. I've been the wallflower and been made fun of. This is one of those songs where you just have hope that there is love out there and, if you have a little faith, it will come your way."
Sebastian wrestles with mortality on "When I'm Gone" and "Time To Go Home," and goes for full-on menace in "Farmageddon." And then there's the rocked-up ribaldry of "Annie's New Gun," which adds a version featuring Lambert.
"I’ve been playing that one live, and it definitely gets them out of their seats," she says. "We tried something a little different in the studio – country and swampy and with a bit of a hip-hop vibe. I love that it's a take on Annie Get Your Gun, and how cool is it to have one of the Pistol Annies on a song with that title?"
“One Like That” was inspired by Sebastian's parents, who sing backing vocals on the track. "They're as much in love as the day they met," she explains. "We all want a relationship like that, and I’ve always wanted my mom and dad to sing on one of my albums, but it never worked out. This time, I didn't care. We were going to make this happen no matter what. They knocked their part out in one take."
On "God Bless," she offers a nod to the "precious few" who stop to notice the struggle of those around them. For Sebastian, few are quickly becoming many, but she is mindful of those who've taken this journey with her. "It takes more than just me to be able to do this," she says. "My parents. Blake and Miranda have been so giving. My band has stuck with me for eight or nine years. I'm very lucky and thankful for everyone – fans, family, friends – who have supported me. And I'm excited to see who else is going to come along for the ride." Thankfully, with the release of Gwen Sebastian, they've all now been properly introduced.