Songwriter’s Showcase w/ Katie Powderly
Songbirds & Seagulls: What was the first original song you began performing?
Katie Powderly: Up until very recently I would have said, “Blue,” which is on this album. But a friend reminded me lately that long ago, when I was playing my first open mic, I performed a couple of original tunes I’d written. Neither of them was titled, but they were somewhat generic story songs about lost love and traveling. From time to time I entertain the notion of revisiting them and trying to make something decent out of them, but the inspiration never hits hard enough for me to actually do it.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Please tell us about your songwriting process. Does the melody come first? The lyrics? Do they come at the same time? If not, how and when do you decide to combine the two?
Katie Powderly: It varies quite a bit depending on the song. Some songs just come all at once, either in a moment of powerful inspiration or when I’m dead asleep. Carry Me, Hold me is one that came in a powerful moment of inspiration, and I actually have a video recording of me writing that tune. I’m going to write about the process of that song on my private blog in a couple of weeks.
Songbirds & Seagulls: For those of you who don’t know, Katie has a private travel blog. I have to say that I am really excited to read that entry. I love your blog. I signed up as soon as I learned you planned to do a 50 state RV tour.
Katie Powderly: Thanks! I smiled when I saw your name on the transaction sheet. I’m glad you like it.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Maybe we can share excerpts of that on Songwriter’s Showcase?
Katie Powderly: Um, I’m not sure about that. Part of what keeps my blog so special is that it is private. But maybe we can talk later. Anyway, Yet to Come came to me when I was fast asleep. I woke up and ran to my song notebook in a hurry to get it all written down fast enough before I lost the idea. That one came to me as a complete song-lyrics, melody, chord changes, everything.
Some examples of songs that took much longer than that are All the King’s Horses, Blue, and Tables, Turning. But, to be fair, those were the first songs I’d written after a ten-year hiatus after abandoning those first couple of tentative tries.
So I think it took a while for me to get comfortable writing. Those songs seemed to take so long because I was really struggling to figure out what I wanted to say. In those cases, it was most typically the lyrics to the chorus that would come to me first. The chorus of Blue actually came from a text message I sent to my friend Jill. I kind of liked it after I sent it, so I saved it in my phone. It eventually became a song, even though the song is not about her, that phrase just perfectly summed up how I felt about a certain situation in my life at that moment.
Though the rest of the song came out in one big spurt, Carry Me Hold Me started with the line from the chorus: I’m tired of being so strong, I want someone to carry me. That was actually a Facebook status update. The title of my album was a Facebook status update, too. Sometimes, those short statements are so concise that they encapsulate so much.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Do you think your songwriting improves over time in a linear fashion, or do you think some songs are just randomly better than others because of your inspiration or some other factor?
Katie Powderly: It’s definitely not linear. I think it depends on the inspiration. My favorite ones seem to be the ones that come all at once in one big spurt. It’s like there is a butterfly in the room, flitting back and forth beside me, but I’m the only one who knows it’s there. I feel that it’s my responsibility to catch it in my net (the net being a song, obviously) before it flies away.
Songbirds & Seagulls: As a huge music fan, it’s a terrifying thought that your songs might just fly away. Do any of them fly away before you can “grab” them? If so, do they ever come back or are they gone for good?
Katie Powderly: When they’re gone they’re gone. It reminds me of a quote from a David Mayfield song, “I’m gone, like those good old days.” And it makes me sick, because not one of them has come back to me. I have begged and pleaded and cried, but the Universe can be a withholding son of a gun. No dice. That’s why I always carry a pen and a notebook with me everywhere I go. I never know when the inspiration will hit and I have to be prepared. The stakes are just too high to be caught ill equipped.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What are the triggers that inspire you to write songs?
Katie Powderly: Well, that’s a real toughie, because it’s mostly pain that inspires me to write. The “what” and the “when” triggers are different. The “what” is always love. Mostly love riddled with pain. But I did write one happy love song, so I’m not ruling it out as an option. Maybe some day I’ll have more of those. The “when” trigger is almost always when I’m driving. I don’t know what it is about driving, but I’ll be damned, it’s when I want to write songs.
I do a lot of solo cross-country traveling, back and forth from the east coast to the Midwest. I used to listen to lots of music while driving, or episodes of This American Life. But the last 8 or 10 trips back and forth I’ve made have been mostly silent. And I’m talking about 16 hour-long drives! That’s a long time to sit in a quiet car. But it helps me think.
Other “when” triggers, as I mentioned before, are when I am sleeping, or in a state of near-sleep. The main thing is that I need quiet. My old roommate and I had a deal that when I would say “it’s coming” he would know to leave me alone for a while.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Do you ever get the sense about a song that tells you “this is a good one?” Have you published every song you’ve ever written, and, if not, how do you decide which ones are keepers? If one isn’t a keeper, do you ever revise it over time, or do you just scrap it?
Katie Powderly: I am one of those people whose gut instinct tells me that everything I make sucks. So, no, I can’t tell which ones are good and which ones are not. In fact, people respond really powerfully to my song called “Blue,” but I almost scrapped that one because I though the lyrics were too simplistic and the chord progression boring.
Songbirds & Seagulls: No way! That is one of my favorite songs on your album. I cannot believe you just said that. I’m so glad you changed your mind! What made you decide to keep it?
Katie Powderly: What made me decide to keep Blue on the album were the performances by the other musicians who played on that song. There was something in the chemistry those guys had that made the whole far greater than the sum of its parts. And singing with Josh Oliver is just amazing.
Songbirds & Seagulls: I agree. You know what a huge Josh Oliver fan I am. I’m so glad you sang together. Those harmonies are just hauntingly beautiful. Well, that’s a good segue to my next question, which is who are your favorite songwriters? It seems like you have a lot of friends who are very accomplished songwriters.
Katie Powderly: I do. I am so lucky to be able to honestly say that I am friends with most of my favorite songwriters of all time.
Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Band, Neil Young, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Paul Simon, Conway Twitty, A.A. Bondy, The Avett Bros, Jill Andrews, Sam Q, Josh Oliver, David Mayfield, etc etc.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What advice would you give to beginner songwriters? Do you have any tips that you’ve found helpful over time? I know there’s no formula for writing a great song, but surely you could impart some knowledge to folks who are just getting started.
Katie Powderly: Listen to your gut.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Did you have any mentors in your early career? If so, who were they and how did they help you?
Katie Powderly: I have had so many mentors. I’m really lucky, like I said, that so many of my friends are absolutely amazingly talented. Jill Andrews has been a big one. Last year while I was in Knoxville recording, she asked me to climb in the van with her while she did a little touring. It was fun. We had a lot of adventures and talked a lot during our drives. She really encouraged me to pursue something with these songs.
It reminds me of a quote from Bruce Springsteen in his keynote speech this year from SXSW, and forgive me, because I’m paraphrasing. He said something along the lines of he thought of himself as an average guy with a slightly above average gift, and thought that just maybe something would come of a career in music if he was willing to work his ass off at it.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Have you been writing any new songs recently? If so, do you have any plans to record again soon?
Katie Powderly: Yeah, I’ve been writing a lot of songs, but I’m still undecided as to how many of them are keepers. Time will tell. There is one I am really happy with, though. Right now it’s tentatively called Good, Gone.
Songbirds & Seagulls: When can we hear it?
Katie Powderly: Well, funny thing you should ask. I have been extremely protective of my ideas recently, in the wake of having a really big project stolen. For over a year I was working on starting a non-profit organization called Guitars for Girls. I had a logo made, I wrote a business plan, I drafted what I think was a brilliant mission statement, etc. I had started a FB page for it, the whole 9 yards. I researched for over a year, and about one month before I went to buy the web domain, I realized that the idea had been stolen.
That reminds me of a quote from Bruce Springsteen’s keynote speech this year at SXSW.
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