Katie Powderly: Songwriter’s Showcase
This week on Songwriter’s Showcase, we have Katie Powderly, who, in the last year, has sold all of her belongings and is moving into an RV to embark on a 50-state tour in support of her new album, Slips of the Tongue.
Slips of the Tongue was recorded primarily at Smart Studios in Madison, WI. Owned by Butch Vig of Garbage, who, notably, just produced the Foo Fighters’ Grammy-winning album, Wasting Light, Smart is best known as where Nirvana recorded parts of Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins recorded Gish.
The rest of her album was recorded in Knoxville, TN, at Elkgang Studios, which is the current project of engineer Scott Minor, who is perhaps best known as the drummer for Sparklehorse.
Ms. Powderly’s debut album was fan-funded, raising a staggering $15,738 on Kickstarter, one of the highest-yielding projects in the organization’s history.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Katie, I do want to interview you about songwriting, but I first have to ask you what we’re all thinking: what led you to sell all of your belongings to embark on a 50 state tour in an RV? I know it’s to support your new album, but it just seems so drastic. What transpired that caused you to make that decision?
Katie Powderly: A lot of people have been asking me that lately. Well, I suffered an injury in 2009 that caused me to lose my job of 10 years. I could not pay my bills, so I was forced to sell my things in an attempt to remain financially afloat. I knew I was going to lose my home, but was planning to move in with my long-distance boyfriend at the time, so there was at least some light at the end of that tunnel.
But you know what they say about the best-made plans? Well, right before I was supposed to move to his town, my boyfriend and I broke up. I won’t go into why, but it was very painful for both of us, since we had been very deeply in love.
That was the last straw. I no longer had a plan. I was in chronic pain. I was broke and soon to be homeless, and I was newly single after being with the person I felt sure I was going to marry. I felt adrift, like a hot air balloon trying to avoid power lines, but below me were only deserts and snakes or oceans and sharks, above me only storm clouds, threatening.
The only thing that brought a remaining shimmer of hope into my life was music. I had been in hobby bands before, but nothing with serious aspirations. But I had begun writing songs. At some point I thought I should probably record them before leaving Madison, since I had so many talented musician friends who would play with me on the recording. That thought triggered a series of life-altering revelations that came to me over a period of many months, one light bulb at a time.
Shortly thereafter I realized that I might be able to earn an income by selling CDs-I could sell them on the internet regardless of whether or not I was in pain, and it would be better than having no income at all. So I borrowed money from friends and family, and headed into Smart Studios with a group of musicians hand-picked by me, most of whom had not previously met one another. The chemistry was immediate and awe-inspiring.
Touring on my album originated as just an alternative to picking a new town. I knew my time in Madison was winding down, and I didn’t want to move to my now ex-boyfriend’s town right after our breakup. Traveling gave me a way out. I could see what else was out there: a new home and maybe even a new love.
But the tour has become so much more than that now. The musicians I collaborated with on my album are some of the best players in my genre in the country, and they really respected and encouraged me, which was huge. I can’t emphasize enough how their treatment of me built my confidence. I started to think of myself as an actual songwriter for the first time, because they made me feel like these songs were special and worthy of time and attention. I’m so proud of what we made together. So I feel that I owe it to all of us to really work to bring this project to its fullest potential. Hence “From Sea to Shining Sea,” which is the name of my 50-state tour.
Songbirds & Seagulls: You mentioned the musicians on your album. Tell us who appears with you on your album, Slips of the Tongue.
Katie Powderly: It’s easiest just to list them and their band names.
-Tom Pryor: Former member of the everybodyfields, currently a member of the Black Lillies.
-Nick Mader: Big Mouth Cooperative, Seven Day Weekend.
-Ben Wolf: North Country Drifters.
-Brian Knapp: Ghost Town Council.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Wow. That is quite a lineup! I do want to get into the topic of songwriting, though, so 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: Songs present themselves in multifarious ways, so my process adapts accordingly. Some songs catch me unsuspecting, emerging instantaneously, either in an onslaught of inspiration in the midst of an otherwise ordinary day, or by waking me from a dead sleep. Others feel more like pulling teeth without anesthesia, leaving in their wake blood and swollenness and the dull ache of empty sockets.
Carry Me, Hold me is one that burst confidently forth into the world within a matter of minutes, and I actually have a video of me writing it. It was inspired by the Red Stick Ramblers’ festival in Lafayette, Louisiana, called Blackpot.
If you’ve never been down there, Blackpot is something special. In the warm glow of glimmering lights and ubiquitous Cajun music, almost everyone dances incessantly. [That’s the biggest difference between Northern and Southern guys. Northern guys don’t dance! But in Louisiana, they all do. It goes without saying.] And it is magical. It doesn’t matter whether you know what you’re doing or not-as long as you’re a good sport and let the guy lead you, together, you’ll figure it out.
On the dance floor at Blackpot, swirling beneath twinkling lights, I felt so protected, as though the arms of my dance partners formed impenetrable cages around me and my vulnerable frame. There, in the throngs of people spinning and swaying simultaneously, I was transported far from my troubles, and transformed back into the person I was before my injury, before things grew so complicated. (Little did I know then the degree to which things would worsen before they began to get better!) The only problem was, the songs-and the festival, for that matter-always seemed to end too quickly. So Carry Me, Hold Me is a looong song. On purpose. I wrote it with the dancers in mind. Also, it’s a waltz, since, in my memory, the majority of the songs at Blackpot seemed to be written with a ¾ time signature.
But my muse is a mysterious little mistress. It was almost a year after Blackpot that Carry Me, Hold Me actually decided to show her flirty little face. So I didn’t write it until the following summer, when I had the benefit of hindsight. (Shorty after Blackpot I suffered a setback with my injury and spent the winter of 2009-2010 bedridden and in pain, unable to get around on my own.) Carry Me, Hold me was written from the perspective of having just endured that, and was a way for me to ask for what I needed in retrospect.
Some songs just need to simmer subliminally for a spell before they’re ready to float toward the dim surface of my consciousness, where I can capture them like fireflies in a mason jar. The chorus came to me first, which is usually the case, so I built the rest of the song around the line, “I’m tired of being so strong, I want someone to carry me.” Once I knew the main message, the song’s essence, the rest of the pieces just fell into place.
One song that was like pulling teeth was All the King’s Horses, which took me over a year to complete. It now says what I want it to say, but getting it to that point was a bloody mess.
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. When those come, it’s like a butterfly has entered the room, flitting back and forth beside me, but I’m the only one aware of its presence. 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. Like A.A. Bondy says, “Tide will bring and tide will take.” The Universe can be a generous or a withholding son of a gun, sometimes both on the same day! 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: The “what” and the “when” triggers are different. The “what” is always a real toughie, because it’s mostly pain that inspires me to write. Pain caused by love. I’m one of those people who never says the right thing in the moment, so songs are one last opportunity to I say what I should have said, even though it’s usually too late.
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 14-16 hour 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 a trance-like state washes over me when I write, as though I am channeling the words from elsewhere rather than coming up with them on my own. It takes an enormous amount of concentration, so I need quiet, and prefer privacy. I think driving and sleeping lend themselves to that state because they are somewhat meditative activities, themselves.
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 “babyish” (simplistic) and the chord progression boring.
I definitely work on things that I’m not happy with. As I said earlier, I think it took me a full year or so before I felt as though “All the King’s Horses” was finished. It just took a lot of persistence and a strong desire to get it right.
Songbirds & Seagulls: No way! Blue 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; in fact, it’s now my favorite track on the record. 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 heavenly.
Songbirds & Seagulls: I agree. You know what a huge Josh Oliver fan I am. I’m so glad you sang together. The chemistry in your harmonies is captivating. Well, that’s actually a good segue to my next question. Who are your favorite songwriters? It seems like you have a lot of friends who are very accomplished in that regard.
Katie Powderly: I do. I am so lucky to be able to honestly say that some of my favorite songwriters of all time are my friends. This list is a mixture of mostly strangers and some of my pals:
Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Band, Neil Young, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, The Avett Bros, the everybodyfields, A.A. Bondy, David Mayfield, Deer Tick, Dr. Dog, Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle, Caleb Klauder, First Aid Kit.
Songbirds & Seagulls: What are some of your favorite songs by other artists?
Katie Powderly: “Blue” and “River” by Joni Mitchell, “The Weight of Lies,” “Laundry Room,” and most other songs by the Avett Bros, “Middle Cyclone,“ by Neko Case, “New Shoes,” by Caleb Klauder, “A Slow Parade” by A.A. Bondy, “Poor Eliza,” by Chris Bathgate, “ “From,” by Dr. Dog, “Return of the Grievous Angel,” by Gram Parsons, “Jolene,” by Dolly Parton, “Giving My Sadness a Name,” by Matt Butcher, “I Love You But Goodbye” by Langhorne Slim, “Faraway Love” by David Mayfield Parade. There are too many to name.
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: Be yourself. Don’t try to imitate anyone else. Write about things that come from your own life-most fiction songs are just terrible. Unless you are Townes Van Zandt or Steve Earle I really don’t want to hear your fictitious story songs.
Use metaphor. I don’t want to hear that “your man is leaving” or “I think we’re gonna break up” or some other overly literal, banal line. Also, select strong verbs! No passive voice! Pretty much all of the things your English teachers told you in school. And read incessantly. It’ll sharpen your vocabulary. Vocabularies are just knives, they need constant sharpening. Extensive vocabs are hot.
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 adventures and talked during our drives. She really encouraged me to pursue something with these songs.
But I have so many more mentors. After my injury in 2009, I was very isolated for over a year. During that time I completely dedicated myself, with the passion of a fanatic, to the art of songwriting. I rented every documentary I could get my hands on so that I could climb into the brains of the songwriters I most respected. Also, I voraciosly read the autobiographies of as many songwriters as I could. I wanted to learn from them their techniques.
In addition, I studied and deconstructed songs. Which songs did I find chilling? What elements did they have in common? How could I use those elements to improve my own writing? That sort of thing. So, even though I’ve never met Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan, I can still use them as mentors.
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 thought 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 right before I went to buy the web domain, I realized that the idea had been stolen. I knew the idea had been stolen because none of those links existed before when I was doing my research, and they even used some of my preliminary language.
I’m glad that there are more people out there than just me who care about getting guitars in the hands of girls, but I cannot communicate how devastating it was to have my hard work stolen. The implication is that I have become very mistrustful of people, unfortunately. So I am reluctant to share with anyone my newest ideas until they are legally protected. So it may be a while. But know that I am in the midst of an intensively creative spell, the fruits of which are bountiful and ripening. You’ll be hearing a lot about my nascent projects in the future, and I am really enthusiastic about them.
Songbirds & Seagulls: Thank you for joining us, Katie. In the next couple of weeks I will have completed my review of Slips of the Tongue, so readers, please check back often.
Buy Katie Powderly’s music here: http://katiepowderly.bandcamp.com
Like Katie on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/katiepowderly
Learn more about Katie’s 50-state tour here: http://www.katiepowderly.com
© clementine cox 2012 (oh your darlin’ productions, vol. 7)
*Photo credit Mick McKiernan