When musician Natalie Schlabs was a kid, she and her three brothers would gather around their grandfather to hear a little music. The family relished large gatherings, and Grandpa Gerald’s guitar-strumming was a staple of the evening. He liked Johnny Cash, but had no time for The Beatles, whom he deemed too modern. In between songs, the patriarch would regale the gathered young’uns with tales about his time as a stuntman for film and television.
“He loved Spain,” Schlabs says. “He was always going on and on about the Spanish guitar.”
Grandpa Gerald never released any music, and to Schlabs’ knowledge, he never wrote any of his own songs. But it’s clear the talented patriarch had an influence on young Natalie and her brothers, all of whom were outsiders in Hereford. In a land where high school football reigns king, Schlabs and her family had few outlets for their love of guitar, painting and piano.
“I think we all felt like misfits,” Schlabs says. “We got to sing and play music in church, but that was about it. I think that’s why we liked Grandpa’s music so much, and it probably brought us a little closer, too.”
Schlabs, now 31, left Texas for Nashville seven years ago, yet Texas never left her. If you listen to her mellifluous voice and soft guitar strumming, you might feel as if you have gathered around a campfire beneath the warm West Texas sky. More important, Schlabs’ folk tunes often touch on the complex, beautiful and maddening emotions that can only be caused by one thing: family. That’s especially true of her latest album, Don’t Look Too Close, which drops Oct. 16. Schlabs started writing the record while pregnant with her son Desmond, who is now 2.
“I was thinking about how my everyday issues and idiosyncrasies can affect my child, even in the smallest ways,” she says. “In a way, I’m speaking to him. Like, ‘I don’t want you to see the things you’re going to see. I don’t want you to get hurt by all of the things that are going to hurt you.’ But sometimes it’s inevitable, and maybe that’s OK. Maybe being an artist is about sitting with people in the muck of where they are.”
Recently, Schlabs has felt conflicted. While speaking on the phone in early October, the singer-songwriter is a couple of weeks away from her album release. She's excited, of course, but also exhausted.
“I’ve been in Nashville for a while, and I feel like my career is just now starting to lift a bit,” she says. “Can I do this for the next 10 years, or should I focus on something else? I’ll always want to be putting records out, but I can’t keep paying for the career I’ve chosen. It needs to break even, or I need to make money from it.”
The artist moved to Nashville to be with her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Josh, a fellow musician who runs a website development company. At first, Schlabs was working at a coffee shop, surrounded by Belmont University kids and aspiring artists who coveted Instagram followers and YouTube hits.
“I knew there was music here, but I didn’t have the guts to pursue it,” she says. “I thought, if I don’t fully commit to it, maybe I won’t be a big failure.”
For a while, she was content to keep working in the restaurant industry, crafting songs as they came to her mid-shifts. Then she found her kinfolk.
“I met people that were seasoned, laid-back, and who weren’t trying to shake hands and get their names out there,” she says. “All of them had records, but they weren’t really talking about them.”
Schlabs had a record, too. Before she moved to Nashville, she had already produced an EP from songs she wrote before, after and during work. But she knew nothing about registering songs or any of the other ins, outs and intricacies of the music business. And even though she learned those things over time, she still doesn’t know if she is, in her words, “doing the thing,” or “preparing to do the thing.” In other words, is she an artist, or is she someone who makes music?
“How far do I go in this dream?” she wonders aloud. “Do I sort of accept that no one makes money doing this thing anymore unless they’re on the road?”
Schlabs takes on jobs here and there to pay the bills and help support her family. Before the pandemic, she and Josh rented out part of their house on AirBnb. Now, she’s writing songs for a company called Mamma Sing My Song, which produces personalized tunes for parents to gift their children. In a way, the gig has brought her world full circle. Grandpa Gerald passed away in 2010, but now Natalie is following in his footsteps, entertaining the kids (including her own) with her penchant for guitar playing. She may not host many large family gatherings, but she hopes her tales of family, love, loss and anxiety mean something to the people that mean everything.
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“I think that’ll always bring me joy,” she says, “even if I don’t make money off it.”
In that regard, Don’t Look Too Close may be her most important work yet. Many of the songs were inspired by the adversities Schlabs and her family or friends have experienced.
“See What I See” is about holding on to love even when it’s hard. “Eye of the Storm” is about learning to accept that you can’t save everyone. And Schlabs penned “Ophelia” after her friend lost a baby at full term.
“I always believe there’s hope,” she says. “That’s just the person I am. But there was nothing I could do or say to make her feel better. So I wrote a song for my friend, so she could listen to it and feel what she needs to feel. I hope it helps others, too, because I want that for everyone.”