How did you first start writing songs and what prompted you to do so?
For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed making up songs. I have very early memories of coming up with melodies with one finger on our piano. Eventually, a suggestion in an old Young Women’s handbook prompted me to write a little song as one of my Personal Progress goals. I wrote an eight-measure song with no words, called “Cheering Up.” A few months later, my piano teacher gave each of her students some blank manuscript paper and encouraged us each to compose for our next recital. I took a favorite scripture and put it to music. Later, I wrote a song for my brother’s missionary homecoming, and songs for missionary farewells for several friends. That’s basically how I got started.
Who inspires you musically?
That question has two parts for me. The most obvious are musical influences. I have a lot, and I continue to have new ones. My oldest influences are James Taylor, The Indigo Girls, Alison Krauss, Carole King, Beth Nielsen Chapman, all the top 40 I listened to in the eighties, plus a little bit of Michael McLean and Janice Kapp Perry. More recently it would include some more contemporary folk and alt country like Kathleen Edwards and The Weepies.
The second part of that question has less to do with famous musicians. If we’re talking about the people who inspire me, I have to mention my family. They inspire me by supporting me, and they inspire me by helping me be more than just a songwriter. They make me a well-rounded human when all the funny, breathtaking, sometimes heartbreaking, but always life-shaping things happen to all of us every day. That would include the family I grew up in, and the family I have in my home now with my husband and kids. Even though they aren’t strictly musicians, so many songs come from all of that.
How do you see music in general and your songs in particular helping build the kingdom?
This is kind of a tough question because I think a lot of songwriters get into trouble when they set out to “build the kingdom.” I see myself less as a spiritual leader and more as a fellow human with similar joys, struggles, and hopes as the people who love and relate to my music. My favorite songs to listen to aren’t usually the most religious. They are always the most real. My favorite songs make me feel like the song understands me, like I’m not alone. I don’t think I write my songs to intentionally try to change people or change the world. I try to write things that are real and hope they find the people who need them. I think in a quiet but important way that inadvertently may build the kingdom. But if I set out to do it in the first place, I think I’d end up writing songs that would be too heavy-handed and end up missing everyone somehow. That’s my take on that anyway.
The most selfish part of this answer is that I often write the songs to save me before I ever imagine I’d be able to save anyone else. The song that most comes to mind here is a song of mine called “Family Tree.” It took me years to write as I sorted out my feelings about my parents’ divorce and how the gospel played a role in getting me through everything even during the times when it all got very confusing. Not a lot of songs have been written about all of that, and I’ve found a lot of people who have been grateful for the song. So maybe that built the kingdom in its way, too.
What is your process for writing songs? How has it changed over the years?
Taking songwriting classes at BYU really transformed the process I go through as I write songs. I’ve always started with lyrics, and that has never really changed. But those classes helped me look at the world like a songwriter. I see ideas everywhere and I write them down in notebooks. Sometimes, even years later, I can go through those ideas and start on a new song.
I think the other important thing about those songwriting classes is that they taught me that writing religious music doesn’t give you a free pass to write “whatever the Spirit tells you to.” That may be a great place to start, but sooner or later, you have to get to work and edit and bring all the craft elements to it that make it a truly good song in terms of connecting with people and making it memorable.
In my teens I thought I would only write religious music. In college in those classes, we were encouraged to write topics that didn’t have such spiritual baggage so we could learn the craft of songwriting, learn how to make it marketable without dragging heavy questions of faith into it. Those concepts have proven to cross back over and be important in the message songs I have written in the LDS market. It has also opened my heart and mind to how much I adore writing music that is not religious. When I first got started as a professional singer-songwriter, I self-produced (without a record label) two albums of contemporary folk music. After that, I recorded five albums of inspirational music on my own and also with various labels, including Deseret Book. I love those projects, too. This January I have another folk/Americana project coming out, which I am very excited about. While the styles may vary a little, the songwriting concepts transfer over to both genres. They should, anyway, if I’m being honest about good songwriting.
What is it like performing a song you consider deeply personal?
When I perform a really personal song, sometimes it takes a few runs to be able to sing it without getting emotional. The songs that most come to mind this way are first, my song “She,” which is about my mother. I had a particularly difficult time singing it in front of her at a very high profile event with distinguished guests. I was just so proud of us for being there and all she did to get me there. I’ve also sung it at some funerals which was difficult. Eventually the repetition gets you through it the more you do it, but the meaning never fades. A good way to describe it is that it becomes about not just you anymore, but about all the other people who are hearing it now and loving it.
The other song I think of this way is “Walk You Through the Night,” which I wrote about my daughter. I cried every day that I worked on writing it, and the first several times singing it out loud. It remains a sacred song to me, but luckily I can get through it.
What do you do to relax and decompress?
To relax, my favorite thing to do is be at home with my family. No people in the world can make me laugh so consistently every single day. I feel so comfortable at home. It is my favorite place to be. Even when I go out to do something fun, my greatest wish is that I could be with the same people I would be with at home. I just love my family. It’s not that I don’t have any friends. I have amazing friends. I guess my family are just my very best friends of all.
Which songs of yours are your favorites and why?
I have a lot of favorites, but at the top of my list is my song “Walk You Through the Night.” It is what I want all of my children to know about my love for them—that I will always be there for them in this life and the next.
I also love “Family Tree” because it took me years to write, and I feel like I was able to get a difficult topic right, and the song has probably healed me more than anyone else.
An older song of mine that has always been a favorite is a song from my second album, Heart Made of Wind, called “Pilgrim, Go!”. I wrote it for a film that was never widely released, but the message of taking chances on your dreams is something that was very powerful to me when I wrote it, and it’s a message I continue to need and love. I also love the folky latin flavor and upbeat sound of it.
I have a few brand new songs that are favorites right now that I hope will be favorites for others, too, when the new record comes out in January. You’re probably starting to realize that asking a songwriter to list her favorite songs is kind of like asking a mom to list her favorite kids. There’s something I love about them all, because they’re mine.
What influenced your song “I Built a Pearl”?
I wrote “I Built A Pearl” by commission from the Utah Pioneer Heritage Arts foundation. I met with a long-time resident of Manti who shared stories with me. I also did research of my own in a few different books and articles and online. I was particularly excited to find Flora Washburn, who I write about in the second verse. I was anxious to include the name of a real woman who helped build the Manti Temple and I really loved her life story. It did a lot to remind me that pioneer women were not just stoic, rough women who just did what they had to do. They had big hearts. They were talented. They were amazing in so many ways we don’t always realize. Writing the song gave me a renewed love of a beautiful place I have always admired. It’s even more fun to see the Manti Temple now.
How does the gospel influence your work?
The gospel influences my work because it influences me. My whole worldview is affected by what I know about where I came from, why I am here, and where I will someday go when I die. Every day of my life is also influenced by what I know about my loving Heavenly Father and my entire human family. I think there’s hope that comes through in my music because the gospel injects it into every scenario that might come up in life. Even if I am not specifically referencing a heavy message or even mentioning familiar spiritual phrases or names, I hope that pieces of light can be felt somehow, because even in a sad song I feel like I’m writing hope into it however I can.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “Already a Butterfly.” What was your inspiration for it?
I wrote “Already a Butterfly” when a thing happened in our living room just like it says in the song. My daughter wanted to fly like a butterfly, so she strapped on sparkly wings. Then she handed my husband a superhero cape to put on her. I tried to take off the wings but she got mad, so Joe strapped the cape on over the wings. She stumbled around, unsure of the best way to fly. Eventually she backed up into us and asked us to take off the cape. In her three-year-old dialect, she said, “No cape. Alrey butterfly.” I thought about it and realized she was saying, “You don’t need a cape if you’re already a butterfly.” This was so profound to me. You don’t need to strap extra things on or pretend to be someone else in order to be amazing if you already know who you are and that it’s all just built in. Such a powerful message, especially for girls and women. I wanted her to remember for the rest of her life that she is already a butterfly, so I wrote that song.
What do you know now, that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
What I think I kind of knew but wish I knew better back in the beginning, and could always stand to remember now, is that when it comes to having any sort of dream, it is always going to be all up to you. That cuts both ways. In one way, no matter what anyone tells you that you have to try to be or pretend to be, or act like, or copy, what you really need to do is figure out exactly who you are and then be the very best possible you, especially when it comes to your art. Don’t worry so much that it isn’t exactly like the top seller on the radio or even on your label. You don’t have any reason to even be making music if it’s not going to be something that only you could do. Once the scariness of that wears off, it becomes empowering.
The other really scary thing is that when it comes to believing in your dreams, in the end, it is all up to you. Labels will come and go. Mentors come and go. Fans move on to the next big thing. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will. But if you do, pretty soon other people start believing in you too, and want to help. You’ll never be able to depend on someone else to do all the believing for you. Not your mom, not your best friend, not your husband. They can help pick you up when you fall, and when you know what you are meant to do, they can help you build it. But they can’t do any of that for you if you don’t first believe in yourself.
One other thing: I think it is important to know that you will never be the only person in the world with a dream. And there’s room in this world for a lot of dreams. Other artists like you can be your friends, not necessarily rivals. Also, the people you love and live with have dreams, too.
What projects are you excited about that you are working on now?
I’m really excited about my new record, coming out this January. The title is Homeless Songs. Here’s the short story of how it has come to be:
For the past couple of years I have been blogging as “The Stay-At-Home Songwriter” on my website. I have little kids at home, and my husband travels a lot for work, so I haven’t spent a lot of time on the road myself. Even if there were someone else who could be here to take care of my kids, for me, that just doesn’t feel right. I have good friends who do make all of that work and they spend a lot of time on the road, and I don’t mean to tell anyone else what to do. I just really like being home. I want to be the one who is there for the good stuff and the stuff that isn’t so fun when it comes to my kids. I feel like I only get one chance to be here with them at this time in their lives. I realize I am blessed to even have that choice. So all of my shows have been local, and I’ve been writing songs and recording rough demos out of my house and posting them on my blog. I started called the songs “homeless” because I didn’t know if they would ever be on any album or project. A couple of weeks ago I started recording the homeless songs with my friend Scott Wiley and our amazing musician friends at June Audio in Provo. The songs will now have a home on this new album. I really love the songs, and they’ve been a joy to record. Even though they are not religious songs, I have had a spiritual experience writing and recording them. Creatively and sonically, so far everything has turned out even better than I imagined it could. It is going to be a lot of fun to share.
Some other things I am continually a part of that I love are: 1) The Lower Lights. I love singing with this group. We just finished recording for a new record. Several of the musicians I sing with in this group are the same people who played on the recordings for my new record. I’ve worked with some of these people for a lot of years. They’re amazing musicians and wonderful people who I love. 2) I continue to write songs for the Utah Pioneer Heritage Arts foundation, which has also been a lot of fun.
Where do you see your music in ten years?
The only thing I really know is that ten years from now, I will be fifty years old. I may not be the hottest thing to look at on stage. I may not have my finger on the pulse of what the cool kids are listening to. But I’ll still be making music, and it will be real, because I love it and it’s such a huge part of who I am.
What advice can you offer aspiring singer-songwriters?
Ask yourself “Why?” and then remember your answer. Why are you making music in the first place? Is it a reason that will still be there if you’re the only one who cares? Maybe someday millions of people will care and you might get confused about what you should do. A lot of people might try to exploit you or own you. If you don’t know why you’re really making music, you’re going to get lost. On the other hand, it may take years and years for anyone to care. Maybe your music will never be widely known. Once again, if you can’t remember why you’re making music in the first place, you’ll get just as lost. Your happiness has to come from within. I’m really thankful for the joy that being a musician has brought to my life. I’ve been very blessed. ❧