Following the release of her new album Second Life, which we reviewed back in October, we caught up with songwriting extraordinaire Kathy Muir to find out a little more about her creative process and the array of music she’s written and released over the past twelve months. Here’s how it went.
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Can you tell us a little about the whole Second Life concept – what does the term mean to you, and was this an ongoing, slowly developing idea for the album, or was there a certain point at which the thought appeared and it just seemed to fit?
I would say it is a mix of both.
The first album Far from Entirely was the beginning of my recording aspirations and this title seemed fitting. Far from Entirely could be a real place or it could be a state of mind for which you have yet to reach your end destination. That’s how I felt about my music. I had so much material from over the years that I’d never recorded, so the first album was the beginning of that recording journey.
Book Cover Judge was a continuation of that journey. The old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ was something I felt strongly about, especially when musicians are so often forced to try to categorize their music. The album title was a reminder to use your ears not your eyes.
Second Life cemented the essence of this journey: I felt home, I felt well in my creative skin and was finally comfortable accepting that my writing songs in various styles didn’t mean I was trying to be a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none but rather I was embracing who I was as a songwriter and expressing that identity with absolute freedom and conviction. I also felt with each new song I was writing that the title of the album was still relevant. Poignantly, the actual song Second Life was written for a young boy who was trying to make a change in his life and didn’t know how to. My song was a message to him and a hopeful support.
When you wrote and released Like Warriors, did you know that it would feature on this particular album, and did you already have the album name in place at that point?
When I wrote Like Warriors – I think it was early November last year–I knew I wanted to release it as a single in December. That was around the same time that I decided to delay the launch of the six-track EP until February or so. Knowing how quickly I write songs, by the time February came around, the EP had become my third album Second Life. Like Warriors was indeed released as a single and then re-mastered for the album (as was Born By The Water).
This video chat was shot the same day I visited the local Oxgangs library to get photos from residents and the same day we caught on camera Harry and I doing four unplugged songs. (The second time in three years we’ve been in the same room together playing.)
Did you write each of these songs for this particular project, or did you choose from a larger list of possibilities and build the collection from there? Are there songs that didn’t make the final cut, and will people be able to hear those at some point in the future?
I tend not to write songs for particular albums. Even while recording songs for the album we were in the studio recording other material. When we completed the last song for the Second Life album, we also had two other projects on the go. Even as we speak, I’m working on my fourth album, which will be called Double Take as a nod to those double A-side singles released in the ’60s and ’70s. There will be five songs with both a pop and an acoustic version. After all, most of my songs are written on acoustic guitar and I’ve always believed that a good song is one that, when stripped bare, still engages the listener.
We’re three quarters of the way through the recording process for Double Take but I’ve been writing other songs that I really wanted to record. So, Pocketful of Sand, Try Coming Round, Morning Song, You Never Knew Me, and Perfect Day, are all songs either completed or close to completion in the studio that will not be on the fourth album.
All songs make the cut. I don’t waste time and money going into the studio unless the song is going to be released. All my songs are eventually released to the public. None are held back. That’s the joy of being an independent musician. The songs are released in various states: some as part of the Rough Diamonds playlist on my website or on Soundcloud. The Rough Diamonds Sessions contain songs that are yet to be polished in the studio.
To be honest, I think my constant challenge is not if I release material but when. For example, I’d like Try Coming Round and You Never Knew Me to be part of a set containing three or four songs that feel indie, stripped-down, high in reverb, and atmospheric. I’ve just finished completing a home demo for another song called River Running that will be a great addition to this concept EP. No title yet. Answers on a postcard…
Click through to read Kathy’s blog for a more in-depth analysis of her creative process.
How much of your time is spent writing and recording music, whether for release or for personal recreation, and how much of it is spent performing and sharing it with audiences? How does the live experience compare to when you first create the song at home?
Of all the time I dedicate to music, the majority of it is definitely spent on writing, then recording, then performing. The reason for the order is that I think of myself as a songwriter first, a singer second, and a guitar player third. I never stop writing and find on most days I’m singing sound bytes onto my iPhone or writing down words in my notebook. Certain song ideas take shape really quickly and I’m then forced to open Logic Pro and put down the vocals and guitars as well as any ideas for strings, bass or drums. This was actually the case for River Running.
Do you think live music is still as important now that most music is discovered and shared digitally?
It’s a double-edged sword. We all seek a global awareness of our songs yet are not well enough known to afford to travel far and wide to perform them. So we play locally. Although Connecticut is considered small in comparison to other states, you still have musicians who will travel two hours to do a gig that may have a small audience or that does not pay. Combine that with the fact that many places are swayed more toward cover bands and you find the opportunity to play live and raise awareness of your music becomes limited. Moreover, if you want to play in places that do recognize original music, you can be asked to bring at least twenty people to attend.
However, it’s not all bad news. I do play live. I enjoy this real litmus test that gives you a sense as to whether the audience likes your material or not, and it’s so worthwhile to get feedback, engage with folks after the show or even get to talk a little in between songs about what the songs are about.
I think today’s musicians need to provide a mix of both live performance and of ensuring they are social media-present. I love writing, period. I like writing about other artists (visual artists mainly) and especially love to write about the creative process. For the latter, my website is my second home and I get excited when I get to share what I do on my site.
Which of the songs on the new project affect you the most emotionally, when performing them or listening back? Do they all have a personal connection to you, or are there some that are simply songs to tell stories or to reach out to people in a more general way – using the music to connect, the sound to evoke feeling, as opposed to purely for expression?
There are actually a good few on Second Life that I strongly relate to. I Want to Lay Down was written last summer. I would go out on my 18th story balcony and play the song while watching the sun go down and hear the kids and their families in the communal courtyard down below, squealing and having fun (the kids I mean 😉 ). The song is personal because it’s about those we love, physically or spiritually. Troubled Town relates to my life in Connecticut and my love for my home city of Edinburgh. Never Felt Like a Woman was one of the last songs from my earlier material I still felt strongly about releasing because it’s so honest. And of course, Second Life, as much as for the reasons I mentioned earlier but also because I delved much more into the arrangement of the song and wrote all the parts.
You recently released the song The Other Side as a personal response to the tragedy in Orlando earlier this year.
Despite its inherent sadness, the song comes across representing hope; the idea that violence and hatred will not bring out more violence and hatred even in the most horrific of circumstances. It’s natural to react with anger to needless and twisted events such as this, but anger doesn’t often help anything, and, to me, the song suggests that the love and happiness that bothers certain people so much will continue and perhaps be even stronger in the face of their evil.
You’re on point. While I want people to enjoy listening to my songs, they are a part of me, and things that are a part of us are often private. A painter doesn’t paint because he expects to exhibit his work or to gain financial reward. He paints because he needs to express his creativity. Therefore, I measure a song’s creative content by how much I want to sing it every night on stage. Would I really want to write about a relationship that ended, or that made me bitter? No.
I’m an optimist at heart and always want to write words that go beyond the obvious, and that offer–if not hope–some learning from which to grow. Out of challenge comes opportunity.
Was it your intention to write something about the incident, or did you just find yourself deeply saddened and in need of creating something to try to help combat the negativity? Did it make you feel any differently about the situation once you had seen your thoughts reflected in the song?
Specifically relating to The Other Side, I found myself deeply affected by the maelström of events occurring around the world and, as you perceptively pointed out, I wanted to bring a message that I think we all want to hear: we can bring about change through unison not division. ‘Walls being built’ to divide people was one of the triggers for the song but the more immediate one was that of the Orlando nightclub shooting.
Very similar to River Running, I spent weeks writing in my notebook, writing down too long a list of events that started in early 2016, laying down my thoughts and the eventual story line for the song. I actually had too much material: one of the hardest challenges songwriters face is how to tell a story or convey a message within a finite amount of time. This is when every single word matters.
I didn’t feel any differently about the situation but I felt that I had created something meaningful that I would continue to ‘talk’ about through performing it live. The Other Side is often the final song I perform at my shows. I want people to remember the last words they hear: Life is so sweet, don’t let it pass you by. Is this what you really want to leave behind? Our actions have a consequence.
Who are some of your favourite songwriters? Are there any artists or bands that you’ve discovered or worked with recently that have inspired you or that you recommend checking out?
Wow, don’t get me started. The artist I keep going back to is Joshua James. He has everything for me and when I hear one of his songs I feel I’m seeing a short film. I listen to new artists all the time on Sofar, Soundcloud and Hype Machine. Up there in my top ten right now are two composers Sebastian Plano and Ben Stanbridge and more contemporary sounds from Matt Woods, George Ogilvie, Flora Cash, Joe Mason, Beauvois and Molly Moore. Zak Abel has real talent. Right now, I can’t stop listening to Highasakite’s acoustic version of Samurai Swords.
I watch a lot of acts on Sofar, which is a brilliant idea and an extension of what The Mahogany Sessions started. For ambient style music, I always head to Soundcloud. I have a public playlist called Brotherly Love that has a heap of my favourites.
Where can people catch a live performance from you over the next few weeks?
I have shows from now until March that are mainly in Connecticut and my website lists them all. I am doing a wee show in Edinburgh when I’m home for a week in May and during that time hope to play at The Jazz Bar and The Bluebird Café. I may look into Stage It for virtual shows if fans are interested.
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A big thank you to Kathy for taking the time to talk to us with such honesty and depth. Leave your comments at the bottom and find and follow Kathy Muir on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Soundcloud to stay in touch. Her new music video Troubled Town is out December 28th.