Laney Jones is one spunky bluegrass musician. You’ve gotta love it. She’s got the chops. She’s got the tunes. She’s tearing up the bluegrass circuit with her band, The Lively Spirits. A DJ once referred to her voice as “mixture of lemon, molasses, gin and gun powder.” After listening to her songs, I totally understand that comparison.
Laney Jones and The Lively Spirits are one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes). The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.
For more information about Laney Jones and The Lively Spirits, visit their website. Check out this video of Laney and the Lively Spirits performing their song “Colorado and Washington.” Be prepared. You won’t be able to control your foot. It’s going to start tappin’ and pretty soon you may need to get up and starting moving and then before you know it. . . . you may be sashaying around the room.
- So what’s this about you growing up on an exotic animal farm in rural Florida? What on earth was that like?
- About a year before I was born, my parents got into raising swamp wallabies they got from Connecticut and the farm grew from there. We always had a weird assortment of animals at our place; goats, foxes, dogs, and kangaroos would run around the house together. I was born into the quirkiness so it was normal to me. Instead of a dog insert a kangaroo and that was my childhood! I moved to Florida from Maryland when I was 6 and grew up exploring outside in the orange groves and marshy areas surrounding my house. I think that influenced my leaning towards older, more down-to-earth sounds in music.
- When did you start making music? Did you come from a musical family?
- I actually didn’t start making music until I was 18 and going to college for International Business at a small school in Florida. I had been singing a long time because I was in plays growing up and had few piano lessons but it was never something I took seriously. But after going to college for a few months, I started toying around on a friend’s guitar. Then I wrote a song one night and that was it. My addiction for writing escalated quickly.
- And when did the banjo come into the picture?
- A friend had a banjo and let me borrow it for a night. I felt an instant connection to it and traded the mandolin I got for my birthday in for a banjo. I especially loved the sound of clawhammer banjo and completely lucked out that Mark Johnson lived only an hour away from me in Florida. He’s been an inspiration to me and wonderful mentor on the instrument.
- What’s your favorite banjo joke?
- Okay this one is a little morbid. . . . “How do you get two banjoists to play in tune? Shoot one.”
- Was it culture shock to come north to live in a busy city like Boston?
- A little bit. I live on 10 acres in Florida and to be reduced to sharing a 350 sq foot apartment was a change. Mostly because I love going outside and writing/practicing in the sun. Not as much space to do that in Boston unfortunately but at the same time it’s an amazing opportunity to be in a city like this with so many talented people and lots of great music.
- What’s it been like studying at Berklee? Are you in for the long haul or are you getting too busy with gigging to be able to stay enrolled in classes?
- I love Berklee. I’ve been there for a year now and it’s totally exceeded all the expectations I had. Not only are the faculty and students world-class but Berklee has even given me a lot of opportunities and gigs. They sent me to the Kennedy Center my first semester! I was not expecting that at all! It’s tough because I have been touring a lot this summer and would love to continue on into the Fall, but for now I am really grateful to be where I’m at.
- Last summer you were part of the Grey Fox Emerging Artists showcase. What was that like? Was that your first festival appearance?
- Pure awesome. I had played festivals in Florida and Shakori Hills in North Carolina but never something on the scale of Grey Fox. I got to meet some of my heroes like Del McCorry, and even played in a songwriter’s circle with Celia Woodsmith from Della Mae! I love music festivals as both a fan and a performer. You get to connect with the true music lovers, the people who are really dedicated to it because they love it. It was an absolute honor to be a part of Grey Fox and I can’t wait for Falcon Ridge!
- Tell us about the Lively Spirits. How is this band different than previous bands you’ve worked with in the past? How would you describe your sound?
- I actually have been using the Lively Spirits name for a few different groups of musicians and we have had kind of a revolving door lineup for the past few years. When I’m in New England we have a solid lineup that augments my banjo and harmonica sound with fiddle, guitar and bass. I really love to work with other multi-instrumentalists so we love to switch off on different twangy instruments like mandolin and dobro, as well as more surprising textures of clarinet and melodica. I would say we are a string band with a progressive twist.
- You were chosen to take a vocal master session with Alison Krauss last fall. What did that entail?
- I got to play two songs for Alison and Dr. Thomas Cleveland in front of an audience at the Kennedy Center. I was originally only supposed to play a cover but because there were only three singers instead of four in the session I got to do an original song as well. They both were super nice and reassuring. I love that I get to say “Alison Krauss likes this song” whenever I play my song “Broken Hearts.” I also got notified that my performance will be aired on PBS in a documentary about the event sometime this year!
- How did you get hooked up to play upcoming shows with Lady Antebellum, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban?
- I totally lucked out again and got a sort of sponsorship from the southern department store Belk. They held a competition called Southern Musician Showcase where they chose six artists/bands from different genres. The Lively Spirits and I got it for Bluegrass. As part of the prize for winning we get to play in the Belk Lounge at these big concerts, be in a commercial, and get some free new clothes. My band has never looked better!
I first got to hear Jesse Terry at NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance) two years ago. I was captivated by his songs and he had such a nice, easy rapport with his audience that it was impossible to ignore his presence at a conference full of hundreds of other singer-songwriters One listen wasn’t enough Two listens wasn’t enough. You get the drift. He’s a real troubadour — crisscrossing the country with his wife and dog — and making new fans and friends at every stop. It’s easy to see why Dave Dirks, the host of the #1 Acoustic podcast on iTunes, Acoustic Long Island said this: “At the core of it all, his personality — sunny naivety meets gritty wisdom — is what sets Jesse Terry apart.”
Jesse Terry is one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes). The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.
You can learn a lot more about Jesse by visiting his website. Check out this video of Jesse singing “Empty Seat on a Plane.”
- As a traveling musician, give us the real skinny about the pros and cons of life on the road.
- Wow, that’s a big question. I’d say there are many more pros than cons, but that’s coming from an eternal optimist! I like to think of the road as an adventure and we really do enjoy the journey (and if we do have an epic disaster on the road, it always makes for a great campfire story later on). If we have time to route our tour through Yellowstone we do exactly that. If we have a couple of days off I try to find a cool place to explore, instead of just finding the nearest motel next to the interstate. In June we rented a tiny little cabin in the California Redwoods on our days off. It was magic. I know I’ll remember that trip for the rest of my life. And oh yeah, playing music was a blast too!!
- Making music, adventures, meeting new and fascinating people, making great new friends, seeing the world, having no real boss, finding good hotels/motels/camp-sites, connecting with perfect strangers, camping, hiking, campfires, national parks, great shows, natural wonders, having the ability to make a lot of dough in one night, signing cds, feeling like you’re doing something positive and peaceful in this world, the feel of the open road.
- Homesickness, road food, bad motels, sketchy parking lots, subway and really all fast food, that really lame gig, that really lame gig that also pays really bad, bad coffee, powdered creamer, ugly stretches of highway that seem to last forever, depressing towns, finding the time to workout and write songs, uncomfortable beds, pet fees at motels, no steady paycheck, high gas prices and fueling up twice a day, doing laundry, car maintenance, oil changes.
- I love that story about you and your wife meeting in the South Pacific and now working together as a team. What were you both doing in the South Pacific? And how perfect is it that you’re the Jess and Jesse team?
- You know I didn’t have a ton of luck with love before I met Jess, but I must admit, our love story is straight out of a Hollywood movie script. I couldn’t have written it any better if I tried. It really is perfect working together and having our little trio out on the road (we also travel with our Border Collie mix “Jackson Browne”). I’m so lucky that Jess loves being a huge part of the family business. She also has her own full-time mobile job so she works really hard. Actually, we both work really hard but it’s generally joyful work. And we’re both extremely grateful that we can be together and make a living doing what we love. I wouldn’t be able to do this without her. We tried being apart for long stretches of time and it didn’t work for either one of us. We lived from the car and toured non-stop for a while until we could make enough dough to afford an apartment and have a home base. And wow, I’m so freakin’ grateful for our apartment now!
- I took an Australian cruise ship gig in 2010 after my Nashville publishing company closed its doors. I was finding my way in music, I hadn’t started touring yet and I had no idea on how I was going to make a living in the music business. I signed this publishing deal right out of college so I had just spent 5 years getting paid every month to write songs. It was a deceptively easy introduction to the music business:) Anyhow, it was terrifying not having a paycheck and I was a dreadful waiter. So the cruise ship gig was a huge blessing and the most amazing experience for me. My wife Jess was working as a photographer on the ship and I was part of an acoustic duo. My duo played four sets of cover songs EVERY day and night over the course of five months (actually we had two days off and I was severely sea-sick for one day, so we performed almost every day). Even though I was performing mostly cover songs, it was the perfect gig for me at the time. I really started to get comfortable in front of audiences out there and it taught me a ton about performing. I booked our first US tour from the crew Internet cafe on the ship. It was so bizarre, booking some gig in Montana or Florida while I was cruising around somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific.
- Do you have any memorable gigs in any memorable towns or do they all blur together?
- There are too many memorable gigs and memorable towns to list here. I remember almost every show but some shows inspire me for many years and become something like musical soul food to me. I recently had a concert like that in Portland, Oregon at The Alberta Rose Theatre. Oregon is one of my favorite states and Portland may be my favorite city in America, maybe because it doesn’t feel like a city. That night at The Alberta Rose was just special. Great crowd, great family in town, great sound, great co-billers. It was a milestone of sorts for me. It was the first time I was able to fill up a world-class theatre as a co-biller and not just as an opener. So that was a big night for me. My first packed show at Rockwood Music Hall, Stage Two was a big moment for me. I worked really hard for that and it felt amazing when everybody showed up! I love my NYC fans and band-mates. It’s such a sweet community.
- I love so many of the towns, concert series and venues that I get to visit and re-visit. After a little while it feels like I’m just driving around and visiting old friends. I also love to go back to a town and find that great coffee shop we discovered. It makes the town feel like another home. I try to buy a fridge magnet and a sticker for my guitar case every time we visit a memorable place. That way when I look at my fridge and my guitar case, all of those great memories, feelings and shows come rushing back to my mind. Nerdy I know, but that makes me happy:)
- How do you find time to write when you’re on the road so much? Do you compose “in your head” while in the car? Do you have to make occasional creative pit stops and pull out the guitar and get the song going so you won’t lose it?
- At the moment I’m not writing too much. Time is a real issue for me. We’ve got seventeen shows in July and I don’t have a driver, so there really isn’t ample time to write when you’re traveling and performing that much (I know that so many of my fellow artists can relate – the topic usually comes up when I’m catching up with a touring bud). There isn’t really even enough time to book shows, return emails, or update websites, but it all happens somehow:) Like I said, it’s a joyful job, or else I wouldn’t have the energy to keep it all going. I do record song ideas on my phone and write down any song ideas that come into my head. When I have a break from the road I know I’ll head home, go into la-la land and write like crazy. That’s how I’m balancing it these days. I’m a big believer in following the lead of the universe and keeping my eyes open. This is obviously a season for me to tour, meet folks and perform a ton. I have enough albums and songs where I can do that and feel good about what I’m sharing with the world. I’m sure I’ll have a season soon where I’m writing/recording a lot more and touring less.
- I have a strong feeling that I’ll have a great musical team around me soon. That will free up more time for me to write and spend more time being creative. Management and booking help will make a huge difference at some point. It seems like those things usually happen organically and when the time is right (and seem to come as a result of relentless touring, releasing albums, booking and doing everything yourself – artists are expected to wear a lot of hats these days and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing – we learn about every aspect of the business and build so many great relationships). Right now, I’m just always focused on getting better and moving forward.
- Here’s the obligatory question: which songwriters have you been inspired by the most? And which guitarists blow you away?
- So many. . . . But I’m going to narrow it down to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, The Beatles and Paul Simon. Those are the artists that I could listen to all day long on repeat. Those are the artists that have written lyrics and melodies that I could never tire of. That really is an amazing feat if you think about it. A Joni Mitchell record still sounds fresh and perfect after over forty years. James Taylor and Joni blow me away as guitar players because at the time, they played the guitar in a totally new and innovative way. The same is true with Jimi Hendrix. It’s like they were all from outer space. Who did they emulate? I love Neil Young as a guitar player because his playing is so emotional. It seems to me that Neil is much more concerned with emotion than perfection. And often that emotion makes a “perfect” record. It’s like that slightly out of tune slide guitar that Duane Allman plays at the end of “Layla.” It’s just so perfect, passionate and emotional. It sounds like that guitar is literally crying.
- Do you have any guilty musical pleasures? Do you a favorite band that no one would ever suspect?
- Hmmmmm Whitney Houston? But Whitney had one of the greatest voices of all time so that can’t count! I love listening to over-produced R&B and Pop at times . . . Luther Vandross, BeBe and CeCe Winans, Andrea Bocelli etc. That stuff is a far cry from Neil Young but it’s so well done, so well recorded and so pristine. I listen to Christmas music all year long. LOVE it. I love rocking the Hall & Oates, Toto, Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan . . . such great records and legendary players on those recordings. Amazing that it was all recorded to tape. No fixes, comping or tuning, just flawless performances and productions.
- Some of my favorite bands that I grew up with:
- Jane’s Addiction, Rage Against The Machine and 311 . . . I always listened to my singer/songwriter heroes but I also used to crank up my Jane’s Addiction in high school and mosh in the backyard with my friends. And I absolutely attended the very first Lollapalooza. I was a wild child.
- You’ve played in so many places but I’m intrigued by your gig playing before US and NATO troops in Greenland. What was that like? (I didn’t even know we had troops in Greenland!)
- Yes, we most definitely have wonderful US and NATO troops up in Greenland! Thule Air Force Base doesn’t have any planes though. We have military radar facilities all over the globe and the Thule base has one of the largest radar stations in the world. That’s why we’re still up there. It was a major base during the Cold War. The government tracks every object in the atmosphere (we track objects as small as tennis balls) and is always alert in case of a sneak missile attack.
- Performing for the troops up in Greenland was a great honor and a highlight of my career. It’s like another planet up there. We were only about 900 miles south of the North Pole and the terrain was Mars-like (or what I imagine Mars would look like). It was so beautiful, un-touched and rugged in Greenland. I was there in the summer so it never got dark. We would play the “Top Of The World Club” and emerge at 3am to a blazing sun. It was just wild. I had the chance to hike to the polar ice sheet and take a boat ride around icebergs. I visited nuclear missile silos and control rooms that have been filled with solid ice. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
- I highly recommend performing for the troops if any artist has the opportunity. Our service men and women were all so incredibly grateful and welcoming to my band and myself. Just don’t try and keep up with them in a drinking game. Please take my word on that one.
- After studying at Berklee, you entered into a publishing deal in Nashville. Non-Nashville people like myself hear these stories about musicians being put into a room with another musician and they’re expected to create . . . to mate and birth a song. Was that your experience?
- Landing a publishing deal was a dream come true in 2004 and I think of those years with such fondness. It was a special and exciting time.
- And yes, when you’re a staff songwriter on Music Row in Nashville, 99% of the time you are co-writing and often they are musical blind dates. Like a blind date, the co-writes have the potential to be really painful, really average or really great! Songwriting chemistry is a really difficult thing to predict or quantify. After a lot of musical blind dates you usually find your crew and wind up writing with your buds on most days.
- It was a bit like birthing a song on command in those writing rooms. The level of song-craft is so high that professional staff writers can churn the songs out, even when it’s not a particularly great song day. I suppose I had a love/hate relationship with the co-writing process there. In fact, I took a break from co-writing for almost four years after I left Nashville. Co-writing with so many different kinds of writers made me feel a bit like a chameleon. I really wanted to find my own voice and figure out who I was as an artist. There was a lot of pressure to write a big ole hit song, which would have been great, but I didn’t like how the pressure affected my creative process. That’s just me. It was crushing at the time, but in hindsight I’m so grateful that the publishing company closed and I lost my job/paycheck. I discovered that my true love was touring, performing and making my own records.
- I did learn a lot about craft and the importance of work down there. Painters must paint and writers must write. I loved the fact that songwriters went to work every day. Often I would wake up and not feel like writing, but if I had a co-writing appointment I would have to show up. And some of those uninspired days were the days where I wrote the best songs. Sometimes the song became the inspiration and it just took over. I’ve adopted that same practice when I’m in my writing mode now. I wake up, brew my coffee and go to work. Sometimes a lack of “inspiration” is just another word for procrastination. It’s the hardest thing to stare at a blank canvas. There is a great book about the creative process written by Steven Pressfield that I swear by, “The War Of Art.” So so good.
- Here are a few quotes from the Steven Pressfield book that I have on my fridge and try to always remember:
- “The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”
- “Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
- “This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”
- You’ve released three albums in the past five years. How would you categorize and compare them?
- At one point, when I was writing songs professionally in Nashville, one of my biggest fans/supporters (and a freakin’ Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter) told me that I had lost my musical way; essentially that I was not following my personal truth and that I was letting too much outside interference wreak havoc with my creative process. Really she was simply saying that my music was sucking because of one thing: I was not speaking my truth. I think the world has a great BS meter when it comes to music.
- That conversation has stuck with me and has become a bit of a mantra for me. I vowed to never stray again from truth and authenticity. It doesn’t mean everything I record or write will be great, but at least it will be authentic. It will have the potential to be great and filled with honest emotion.
- All three of my records are really different. They are snap-shots and I made them exactly how I wanted to at the time. And I’m really proud of that. They all have elements of Americana, Folk, Pop, Country and Rock and Roll within them. The Runner was my first record and I made it when I was so green, which was super exciting and liberating. I was going through a huge Jackson Browne/Ryan Adams phase so it has more of an Americana/Alt-Country feel to it. Lots of pedal steel and slide guitar on the record.
- My second record Empty Seat On A Plane was intentionally stripped down. I wrote every song on the record by myself and I wanted the tracks to feel more sparse and open. I think of it as a troubadour inspired record.
- My latest record Stay Here With Me is my most live record to date. I wanted it to have a really organic full band sound and be more raw than my previous efforts. I wanted folks to sing and play together as much as possible. I think we finished 90% of the record in the first four days and that felt really good. We recorded all of the harmonies together around one mic, ala CSNY. I love that vocal sound and I don’t think you can replicate it by stacking harmonies. It’s almost too flawless when you stack them.
- Categories and genres are so difficult these days huh? In the seventies James Taylor and Jackson Browne were platinum selling Pop superstars. Now they are probably categorized as Americana or Folk artists. And that’s totally cool — we’re in the same genres now!
- I think with my music and so much music, a lot of the genre classification comes down to instrumentation and production. A pedal steel on a song can instantly slide it into an Americana/Alt-Country genre. I tour so much solo acoustic but when I play with my band in NYC it changes everything instantly. I’d like to think that my music is organic, honest and timeless Americana music. That’s what I’m striving for. I think it’s wonderful that the Americana and Folk genres have opened the doors for so many artists that don’t fit into the current Top 40 world. I’ve found Folk Alliance and The Americana Music Association to be extremely open-minded with different kinds of music and genres. I love traditional folk music but you certainly will find a lot more than traditional folk music at Folk Alliance, Falcon Ridge, NERFA etc. I think that musical diversity is wonderful. And I love Folk/Americana/AAA radio too. How awesome that these DJ’s are still spinning the records that THEY want to play? I know a lot of folks are all gloom and doom about the music business but I think it’s a really exciting time to be making music and finding a unique path.
- I can’t wait to make my next records. I just want to keep growing and trying different things . . . writing different kinds of songs and digging deeper and deeper. I started making records in 2009 and started touring in late 2010. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface.
Susan Cattaneo is not only a Berklee trained musician but she teaches there as well. Her songwriting classes are highly regarded by the students. Susan helps them to blend their words to the music and vice versa — and to keep the original freshness and integrity of each song so that it’s their own song, not hers. Not an easy task.
Susan’s been playing around Boston and environs for a while, sometimes solo and sometimes with stellar players. She rocks with the best of them and also sings ballads so sweetly and lovingly that it can bring tears to the eyes of those listening. Susan is a huge cheerleader of her fellow singer-songwriters in the area and plays with a number of them including Jenee Halstead, Amy Fairchild, and Jenny Dee. Recently she took part in the For the Sake of the Song Tribute to Linda Ronstadt.
Susan has four recordings in her discography, each one better than the next. Her latest, Haunted Heart, is a remarkable recording which highlights Susan’s songcraft as well as a style and poise that isn’t as evident on her earlier albums. Highlights of this record include the Willie-Nelson inspired “Queen of the Dancehall” and the radio friendly “Lorelei” which should be Susan’s big hit if I ran the radio world.
To learn more about Susan, pay a visit to her website. Check out this great video of “Lorelei.”
Susan was gracious enough to answer these questions about her past, present, and future!
- So the story goes that you came from a singing around the dinner table with your parents and siblings in suburban New Jersey. What kind of music did you gravitate to and sing back then?
- Yeah, it was pretty funny — we were like the Von Trapp’s of Northern New Jersey! My mother loves musical theater and classic standards, so I was introduced early to the wonderful music of Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin among others. The lyric and melodic complexity of these songs really drew me in. I’m afraid I wasn’t very cool musically. I spent my summers in Arizona so I sang all those country classics around the campfire. Songs by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were some of my favorites. I gravitated towards female singers, and It was a pretty mixed bag. As a kid, I loved Karen Carpenter and Stevie Nicks and Barbra Streisand — how strange is that!
- Did you ever imagine that music would actually become part of your adult life and a full-time passion?
- It has been a delightful surprise that I have found my way into music full-time. I always loved songs and singing. And early on, I discovered that I loved writing. Combining the two was something I didn’t discover until I was in my early twenties! I’ve always been making music, but it was always this fabulous thing I did “on the side.” I was in bands in college. When I moved to NYC after college, I worked in television, writing and producing movie trailers, and I sang in this band at night. I started to write songs for the band, but I was ear-trained and always felt like I didn’t speak the musical language. When we moved to Boston, my brother-in-law was going to Berklee, and suddenly I thought, “Hmm, a contemporary music school? I want to be a musician not just a singer. So I went to Berklee on a vocal scholarship, thinking that I was a singer and that that would be my calling. Then, I discovered they had a whole department devoted to songwriting, and from my first class, I knew that that was what I wanted to do.
- Were you a big radio listener when you were younger? How did you discover the kind of music that touched your heart?
- It’s so funny that you asked this question, because I slept with the radio on growing up. It was on this oldies station, so that’s where I learned all the standards! And after school, I had it on the local pop/rock station, and I would sing along to all the music there. Because we would sing in harmony as a family, when I would listen to songs, I would always try and harmony lines to sing. I would spend hours and hours singing harmony along with my favorite singers. In high school, I discovered Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt, but it wasn’t until I was 19 that I had my musical epiphany. My boyfriend at the time gave me a mix tape of Bonnie Raitt, and I literally thought my head would explode. Here was a great singer, a strong, cool woman with a blues/rock/country sound that I loved AND she could play guitar too? It was like an out of body experience. I went out and bought all of her albums and memorized all of her songs.
- I’ve had similar experiences over the years with other artists including Emmylou Harris, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen, but I’ll always remember that first musical connection. It spoke to me in a way that clearly defined who I am as a singer/songwriter.
- You’ve pointed out that you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan. Is there something more than the Jersey connection that has made you such a fan? Do you have a favorite album of his?
- Well, certainly being married to a devout Springsteen fan has helped! I came to Springsteen a little late in my musical life. I remember singing “Hungry Heart” in high school, and during my twenties, I, like the rest of the western world, had a copy of “Born in the USA” which I played loud and with the windows rolled down as I drove around in my VW Jetta. But it wasn’t until my husband took me to my first Springsteen concert that I finally “got it.” As a performer myself, I was astounded and enthralled by the way he led his audience on a musical journey, the way he controlled the energy and focus of his shows. I think every performing artist should go to a Springsteen show to get schooled and see how to “get the job done.” My favorite Springsteen album isn’t most people’s favorite, but in 2001, I was pregnant with our second child when 911 happened. And when I heard The Rising, I couldn’t think of a better musical response to the horrors that I was seeing and the way I was feeling at that time. It just touched me in a way that made the album my all time favorite of his.
- Do you think it’s easier for people to find “their kind of music” these days? There is so much of it available, I wonder if there’s too much and some of the good stuff gets lost in the shuffle?
- Unfortunately, I’m sure that some of the good stuff is getting lost in this huge universe of music we have at our fingertips. There is just so much music available, and people’s lives are so fractured that there doesn’t seem to be time to “listen” to music the way one used to. The good thing about the current state of music though is that the lines between genres are blurring, and I think this is leading to people being exposed to and embracing lots of different kinds of music. In the past, the borders between musical genres were clearly defined, and if you listened to rock, you didn’t listen to rap or country. Now, our melting pot culture has led to a melting pot of music, and I think that’s pretty interesting.
- How do you personally define the kind of music that you write?
- First and foremost, I like to think that I’m a songwriters’ songwriter in the sense that I appreciate craft in a song and always try and put craft into my own work. Genre-wise, I don’t like to be tied to one specific category. Since my music reflects the different influences from my life, my songs have elements of country, folk, blues and rock in them. The words are key for me, and I tend to use descriptive, image-based lyrics in my songs. Oh, how I love a good metaphor! And I like to paint pictures with the words I use. I write story songs and emotion-based songs, but I find that even if my song is based around an emotion, I will try and find a visual image to support the feeling.
- How did you find yourself as a Nashville songwriter? How does that work? Do you have to sell yourself to a board of head honchos or do you get recommended by other people in the “biz?”
- Hah! No, there’s no board of head honchos who decide your fate though I love that idea and wonder who would be on the board?? To quote the Beatles, I got by in Nashville “with a little help from my friends”! When we moved to Boston, I quit my television job and went back to school to Berklee for a degree in Songwriting. After Berklee, we decided to start a family, and suddenly, that limited my ability to play out at night and also do any form of touring. Nashville was the perfect place where I could be a songwriter and still have a family. Friends I’d made at Berklee who were working down there helped me make the initial introductions to songwriters and publishers, and that’s where it all started for me. Once I met other songwriters, I started to collaborate with different people and develop a network of artists, writers and producers that I still work with today. Nashville is a big town but it has a small town feel, so there’s this wonderful sense of community that you develop as you meet and start working with different people in the industry.
- Do you end up with a lot of songs that aren’t necessarily representative of who you are as an artist and you wish them well and send them along to other artists who may have a stronger connection to them than you do?
- Sure, when you’re writing with and for other people, there are definitely times when you write a line that isn’t necessarily “your truth” but might really fit what that artist wants to say. But it still can be incredibly rewarding even if the song isn’t something you would put on your own album. No matter what — when I’m writing for someone else, I’ll always try and find some personal connection to the theme or the relationship in the song.
- Your biography talked about a traumatic event in your life when you helped resuscitate someone who was visiting your home. Your quick work helped prevent brain damage and also led to your re-evaluation of your art. Why do you think that event changed your attitude and your music so much?
- Saving someone’s life while incredibly rewarding in the long run, was incredibly difficult in the short run. The experience was graphic and horrifying to me, and I spent about six months working through some PTSD. I think being up close and personal exposure to death like that changes you. I certainly was more aware of my own mortality and that of my loved ones, and it made me really want to write something with personal meaning. It didn’t mean that everything I wrote was sad, but I certainly started to examine the dark corners of my life more closely that I had in the past. And I discovered there was a great deal of really interesting song material there!
- You’ve been teaching songwriting at Berklee College of Music for over a decade now. Do you find it fulfilling when your students “get it” and truly understand the skills that you are teaching them?
- It is one of the most wonderful experiences as a teacher when one of your students has that “aha!” moment. Teaching songwriting is difficult at times, because a song is a personal expression from that songwriter, and a great deal of what I do involves revision. That can be tricky when ego and personal expression are involved. Yes, some songs come quickly and feel like a magical process was at work in their creation. But most songs require work and revision to become all they can be. My job isn’t to judge whether a song is good or bad. My job is to show a student how different lyric and melodic tools can help or support the meaning of their song. It takes courage to revise your song. You need to be able to set your ego aside sometimes and try something new. When a student is willing to try that in their work, and they learn or master a tool, it is incredibly rewarding.
- What is your proudest moment as a Berklee instructor?
- I love seeing when a present or former student will record a song that we worked on in class. I’ve had the unique opportunity to see the song in its infancy and watch as it grew and became something wonderful. That’s pretty cool. And of course, I love following my former students on social media. Seeing them blossom into these amazing artists once they graduate and knowing that I had a tiny hand in helping them on their journey is incredibly rewarding. Here is a funny story: my husband recently went to see Parker Millsap, and he really liked the guy opening for him. He went to buy the record, and as they talked, my husband mentioned me, and it turns out the artist was a former student of mine and the title track of the record was actually written in my class. The artist’s name by the way is Joe Holt. . . .
- And what’s your most thrilling moment as an artist?
- Can I tell you my top 5?
- 5. Opening for Huey Lewis and the News at the Boston Pavilion and being on the Jumbotron was pretty awesome.
- 4. Meeting my hero, Bonnie Raitt not once, but three times and discovering that she’s as gracious and kind in real life was inspiring.
- 3. Touring in Italy, and having fans singing along to my songs
- 2. Committing to the guitar as my primary instrument, and learning all the wonderful intricacies of the instrument.
- And number one of all!
- 1. Working with great players — they provide me with the most thrilling moments on stage, and I’m so proud and honored to be collaborating with such talented people!