Person of the Week
Singer and Songwriter
You have to keep on keeping on and find that ray of sunshine… Music has always been a really good gift for me to express myself. A song is sometimes the best format…. When I get those rays, I hold them in my heart and let them shine in the dark times.
1. What led you to the mission of being a singer and songwriter?
I think I have always been a writer. I’ve been writing since I was little. I came from a very musical family and we would sing harmony around the table at night after dinner.
When I first graduated from college, I went into advertising and I was a writer and producer. I wrote and produced movie trailers and television commercials. I was always singing on the side — singing at night, singing in bars, and that kind of thing. (To see Susan’s website, click on this link.)
When we moved to Boston and my brother in law was going to the Berklee College of Music, I suddenly thought, “Oh, there is a music school for what I like to do?” So I quit my advertising job, and went to Berklee as a “grownup” and got another degree!
I had done a little bit of song writing before then, but I discovered that songwriting was this amazing marriage between writing and music. It might sound silly now, but before this, it didn’t seem like a realistic thing to combine the two and make a career out of it.
After I graduated, I started teaching songwriting at Berklee. I evolved into being a singer/songwriter because I realized I could combine those two things that I loved so much – music and word. It is a cool story!
2. What does this mission mean to you?
Music has been a really good gift for me to express myself. It means everything to me when I play music and songs – songwriting in general. It is a great outlet for my life. There are times when something happens and I think, “Oh, I’d really like to express how I feel about that.” A song is sometimes the best format — although sometimes I ask myself, “Is this something I want to develop into a song lyric or a short story?” The writing for me is a great release. I can get how I feel out on paper. This can be a healing process.
I have a new album that is coming out in January of 2014. I think, “Oh my gosh I can’t believe the songs on this album! This album has really intimate personal stories and intimate songs on it. The closet is open and all my skeletons are wandering around in these songs! That’s amazingly exciting, a little scary, but pretty wonderful.
There are times when life gets so busy that I don’t do music and at those times I might feel really disconnected. At those times, I feel really unmoored. These times will bring me back to music. I’ll sing again or do something with music and think, “Oh yes, I need to keep this in my life because this is something that fills the well back up.”
3. What was your best day as a singer and songwriter?
The most recent time was when I opened for Amy Grant. Normally I bring a band with me and I’m playing with that band. But for this opener, I was told they didn’t want me bringing any other instrumentation except me and a guitar. It’s a new thing for me to be playing the guitar. I’ve always had a little bit of insecurity about playing the guitar. I’m normally just the front woman singing the songs.
I was incredibility terrified about that. …. And it was a revolving stage! I thought, “I suffer from motion sickness and I’m going to drop my pick!” But I got up there and I just thought, “I’m just going to sing out. I’m going to do my thing! Once I got up there and once I got in front of the microphone, I just relaxed and I did this whole set. I made mistakes but I don’t think anyone knew except me and my manager who said, “OK. Oh. That was interesting!”
It was just an opener! You know you go in before the big act comes on. But when I finished, the audience “kind of” gave me an encore. They didn’t stop clapping. There was a moment when I thought, “Oh my gosh. Thank you so much!” I was just out there and it was really neat. I was so exposed, so vulnerable, and the fact that I had just put myself out there – just me — not hiding behind anybody – and it was well received – this was an amazing experience!
In this business there are so many times when you don’t get positively reinforced. You don’t get supported. There are times when it is really hard. This was a win. It was really wonderful to have this experience to know I’m still valuable. I still have something to say that people want to listen to. That was particularly rewarding.
Some people will say, “It isn’t about the attention. It isn’t about the fame.” I agree with that. I think it is about the craft. If I had wanted fame and money, I probably should have gone into a different job. A lot of it is isolated and working with your nose to the grindstone. You have to keep on keeping on and find that ray of sunshine where you say, “OK. What I have to say is what people want to hear.” That is an amazing thing. When I get those rays, I hold them in my heart and let them shine in the dark times.
4. What was your worst day as a singer and songwriter?
I can tell a funny worst day. There is a concert festival in Harvard Square and it is called “October Fest”. There are multiple stages. I really wanted to be a part of it. I was super excited to be asked to perform on one of the main stages. I hired this amazing band to play with me. I was really looking forward to it.
The day of the festival it had been raining. The weather cleared up by the time I got to the stage. There was a tent set up and in front of the stage there was a huge rain puddle – ten feet across by six feet long. Nobody could get near the stage. That was a little bit off-putting! The stage was located right next to a jumpy castle. That noise it made was loud – like aaaahhhhhhh!
No one came to the concert! There were parents who were taking their kids on the jumpy castle. The only people there for the show were my children (because I dragged them there), and my husband. That was it except there was one guy who I think was homeless.
I literally had this thought, “I feel like crumbling!” I felt like crying, but I couldn’t cry because I had a show to put on.
And so what I did – which was really awesome — was I turned around and looked at those great players that I had with me. I thought, “I’m just going to enjoy playing music with these people!” They were great and so rather than playing outwards to the no one that was there, I turned my energy backwards to the people behind me and we had a blast. It was so much fun. Nobody cared and so we said, “Oh what the heck!”
The good news about this story is that the concert promoter was walking by during my set and said, “I don’t know who you were performing for, but you were great and I want to book you for another gig!” It was one of things where I said, “OK, I’m going to lose myself in the music.” And it turned out OK. I thought, “I’m going to cry, but I can’t cry, I’ve got to hold it together.” And everything turned out fine – including another gig!
5. How did you survive your worst day?
I had do learn how to survive it. I remember when I first started out with the performer, singer/songwriter thing. There were moments when nobody would call me back or I would lose a gig and somebody would say, “I don’t really like you.” It was terrible. I would cry and would want to get into my bed for few hours and cry some more.
What happened eventually is that I became able to shorten that period. If something happens, I take it in and think, “OK, that’s really disappointing.” Then I do something.
If I find out somebody else has gotten an opportunity that I really wanted and it is difficult for me to see that success, I take it in, I don’t deny how I am feeling, and then I move on and do something – like play music or some other thing that is going to make me happy. I might take the time to listen to some really great songs. I let myself be inspired by other artists. Instead of wallowing in something negative, I really try and turn it around and say, “OK, what can I do?”
When something knocks me down, I realize I can be better – like a better guitar player. I can take up my guitar and work on my own playing. Then I can be in control. I might still be sad about the other things, but then I have to move on. That is helping me – to move on. It’s hard! This is something I had to learn.
Here is another story that was hard for me. I went in to record this latest CD. It works like this: here is my heart…. now I’ll put it to music… oh my God! So I went into the studio and thought I was singing well. Then producer brought me into the room and asked, “How do you think it was sounding?” I said, “Uh, I think it was OK. What do you think?” The answer I heard was, “Well, it’s really not what we need. I don’t know what’s going on with you. It’s not in tune. Maybe your energy is a little low today.” Hearing that I can’t sing my song in tune would normally totally freak me out! So I said, “OK. I need to breathe. I need to sing through this. I’m going to get this. I’m not going to let this make me fall apart. This is going to make me more determined.”
I went back in the studio and I must have sung that song probably eighty-five times and I’m not exaggerating. It got to the point where I didn’t even know what I was singing any more. I was just singing the music. I didn’t even pay attention to anything except, “Damn it, I’m going to get it!” And I did work through it!
What I have learned is that you are going to work through it. There is an impulse to hide and the insecurity is very strong. But I had to say, “Damn it. I’m not going to let this determine my album. I want my album to be good and I’m going to make it good! (Said with clinched teeth!)” And I did have a great finish.
I feel like that Kelly Clarkson song, “What doesn’t kill you, you makes you stronger.” It is true. You can get past the heart part of it and get to the work part of it. That is what’s worked for me.
Somebody said, “How do you quit being a songwriter?” You don’t. If you are a songwriter, you are a songwriter. The landscape of the music industry is so ever changing. There are a lot of pitfalls and lack of money. It is a difficult path to choose.
I remember at one point I thought, “I don’t feel like writing songs anymore.” I felt burned out. And then I started writing a song about being burned out! I’m a songwriter, so that’s what I do!
As far as having a career in songwriting, what has made me and what has made other people who are in this industry successful, is having a lot of different talents. I am a singer so I can do background vocals for people. I am a songwriter so I can write songs for other people. I can write songs for myself as well, so I am trying to generate revenue streams. This is the way to succeed in this industry.
For instance there are some people that are really good at Pro Tools and they can build some tracks for music. There are people who can do really good lead sheets – written music. They can be hired out to do lead sheets. It’s these little jobs that help you build a career that you are trying to put your music into.
I know that there is a top two percent tier of people who are making a lot of money and then a lot of people who are not making any money. But I’ve found that there is a huge middle ground where there is a lot of work. There is a lot of work in live performing. It means travelling a lot. It means being on the road – which is harder for those of us who have kids, and families, and obligations. But still there are opportunities to be had. People want to still hear live music. You can’t duplicate what a live broadcast feels like. Thank God. People will still go out and want to see someone perform. Thank God. You can record it, but it will never be the same as actually being there.