Music and Friends

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The Nobody’s Girl trio consists of three hard working musicians who enjoy each others music and play country, folk and pop music when they have performed together. The Austin trio, Betty Soo, Rebecca Loebe and Grace Pettis have joined up to play good music with verve. The trios’ upcoming release Nobody’s Girl will be released this summer. In this interview artist Grace Pettis talks about the trio and their musical future in a time of vast change.

Jupiter Index: Tell us about the new release? How did you come up with the title for it?
Grace Pettis: We kicked around a lot of ideas for album titles. But in the end, it felt right to go with a self-titled record. This is our debut full-length album and it's really an introduction to our sound and story.

JI: Talk about how you three decided on the songs for the CD, and what was that process like?
GP: It's actually really difficult for us to find time to schedule co-writes. We all tour solo about half the year and have various other side projects. So we're not often in the same place at the same time, unless we're on the road together or recording. When we can block a few precious days per month in Austin, we use that time for business meetings too. So it's tough to find time to write. But we really made it a priority in 2019. Every chance we got, we carved out writing days. And luckily, we loved and finished almost every song we started. There are a couple that are still cooking in the oven. But we ended up recording almost everything we'd written last year. The next step, once we had that core batch of songs, was to decide on a few tracks from our first EP, Waterline, that we wanted to remix and include plus a couple special covers. We knew from the start we wanted to reintroduce a few tracks from Waterline, to give those songs a chance to really be heard with the rest of our debut album.

JI: The group does a cover of the iconic-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson’s “Beauty Way.” What was it that drew the band to play that song? (What made it special?)
GP: The idea to cut "Beauty Way" came to BettySoo in a dream. She texted us about it and it just felt right to all three of us immediately. "Beauty Way" is about the artist's path. It's a vocation that's complicated; it feels noble and selfish, rewarding and detrimental, all at the same time. And the journey is long. "Beauty Way" captures that complexity perfectly and intimately. It's a masterful song. We all feel very connected to it.

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JI: You have been through a lot in the music world. But no one was prepared for the pandemic. What’s next for the band? Will you do more radio or try to still perform later this year?
GP: It's really hard to say what the next few months will be like. We've cancelled all our SXSW showcases, obviously. And April is likely off the table for any touring. After that? I don't think anybody really knows. We've got an album coming out this summer. We'd like to play some release shows if we can. But we won't if there's too much risk to our audience. We don't want to be a part of the problem. I've been driving myself crazy with wondering what my job and life will look like in the next few months. Will shows go on with strictly enforced attendance caps (i.e. turning people away after the first 30 people, etc.)? Will all gatherings of more than a couple people be out of the question? Will we all be webcasting all our shows? Or maybe people will just be playing shows within a few miles of their homes, to stop the spread of the virus that way. Who knows? I don't think I'm alone among my musician friends with obsessing over these possibilities. It makes it difficult to plan for the future, which means it's difficult to book tours. Which means none of us know if we'll be employed in a year.
Maybe I'll be an Uber driver again. But the band will stay together. We live in the same town, which is a huge advantage. Whatever happens, we'll be writing songs and playing together. As to whether any of us will be able to continue making a living as working musicians? That remains to be seen.

JI: What would you like people to know about the trio and the music?
GP: We're really proud of the songs we've written together and this record we've made. We have all given Nobody's Girl our very best and I think it shows. And Nobody's Girl has grown into its own identity over the past few years. Our band shows are very different from our solo shows now, and our solo records don't sound anything like this one we're about to put out as a band. We've finally written enough songs together that we'll be able to perform an entire show of only co-written material. We think that's pretty cool. Our music is all about the power of collaboration and connection. In this current climate of division and competition, we want to send out the message that when we come together, we're stronger and better for it. We think that's a needed reminder, especially in an age of self-isolation and quarantine. We may not be able to be physically close, but the connections we have with each other are vital. We will get through this pandemic and this next election cycle too by supporting each other and by remembering what brings us together, in the face of everything that separates us.

by G.M. Burns

Alive in Music

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Queen Esther has strived in her music from the time she lived in Austin, Texas and attended the University of Texas. While there she grew in the local music scene in Austin as “a member of Ro-Tel and the Hot Tomatoes, a regional favorite specializing in girl group music that began as a gag in the infamous local comedy/theater troupe Esther’s Follies.” But it was the artful guitarist “Big Al” Gilhausen who introduced her to the legendary blues guitar icon Hubert Sumlin. Because of his influence, Queen Esther lost herself in the blues and found her way back to her country gospel roots. This, along with a childhood of free-form radio on the airwaves, augmented by a steady diet of Hee-Haw, The Lawrence Welk Show and Soul Train – and the overwhelming presence of the rural sanctified black church, filled with sacred steel – solidified her Black Americana sound,” according to her Web site. Currently, Queen Esther is working on a new album and doing some touring in the year.

G.M. Burns: I have been listening to your music and singing and your voice impresses me. What kind of practicing and training do you do to sound so good?
Queen Esther: Some people that sing pride themselves on the fact that they’ve never taken a voice lesson. And that’s fine. The thing is, everybody isn’t Barbra Streisand. I didn’t know if I was Babs, or not so I figured I’d err on the side of caution.

Training started in church at a very early age. Church is where I developed my ear and learned how to sing in a group – in harmony and as a soloist – and received my first voice lessons formally. Church is also where I sang in front of a roomful of people for the very first time. That’s where I understood that music is a spiritual conduit. Eventually, I went to a performing arts high school, refined my vocal technique and studied opera and classical music. By the time I turned 18, I’d been singing in various configurations for well over 10 years.

Practice means that I vocalize every day to make sure that I have a clear tone. I take voice lessons to make sure everything is where it’s supposed to be. I’m usually learning new songs – whether it’s something I’m writing or a standard that I’m figuring out – and I’m usually blazing away in any given direction sonically because of the things that make me curious.

G.M. Burns: When you are singing a phrase and it is developing what is going through your head in these freer, improvisational moments? Are you thinking really hard about your vocals or do you just let go?
Queen Esther: In those freer moments, I’m not thinking anything. In the best-case scenario, I’m not there at all.

G.M. Burns: Who do you like to listen to, what are the qualities you like in music?
Queen Esther: I listen to everything I can get my ears on. Usually, it starts with a song that I’ll hear in passing. I’ll read an article about it, have a conversation with someone about it, or I’ll read a biography that explains it in some way. Then I’ll go listen to several versions of it and obsess over it for awhile. I will do this with several songs at once. Or albums. Or musicians. Or a prolific songwriter’s body of work. And on and on I go, down several rabbit holes at once, bouncing back and forth, getting lost in all kinds of music.

I tend to like music that takes me someplace else, something that’s mood inducing and that tells a story from beginning to end. I think it’s important to know the sonic history of America so I’m constantly doing my homework – reading books, watching documentaries and asking questions.

G.M. Burns: Do you have future projects coming up. How do you decide what project you are going to do?
Queen Esther: I have two albums that I’m releasing in 2020 – Things Are Looking Up (Billie Holiday’s lost classics and original songs) and Gild The Black Lily(mostly original Black Americana).

There’s no straightforward regimented way that writing songs happens for me. I’m not waking up and putting the kettle on and sitting down at a piano all day and playing until something comes out of me, like Jackson Browne in the 70s in Topanga Canyon or whatever. Sometimes I can hear the whole song and I’m just a transcriber. And then there are those times when it happens in bits and pieces and I’m stitching it together as it comes to me. Or the lyrics fall out of my hands like I’m writing someone a letter. I find ways to bounce everything around until something sticks to the wall. I’m not so sure I’d be a songwriter if I didn’t have all these songs in me. Maybe I’d just sit around singing everyone else’s stuff.

G.M. Burns: You will be touring this year in the spring and summer such as at Joe’ Pub in New York City. But what do you enjoy about touring or is it a tad hard now?
Queen Esther: Developing an audience is crucial, which is why touring can have such an important place in any artist’s career. Once you’re established, touring can be a great source of income that isn’t necessarily attached to a record label. Or maybe it is, depending on the deal you sign. Nowadays, there’s a lot of ways to develop your audience and get your sound out there if you’re unsigned, like licensing to film and television or letting your single blow up on Tik Tok, the way Lil’ Nas X did with Old Town Road. He didn’t tour all over the world. He strategized with visuals and let his song catch fire globally. I love that.

I’ll definitely be playing out near and far to promote my new music wherever I can. At this point in my creative life, though, it’s starting to feel like I have so much more to say than touring will allow. In the past year or so, I’ve done a TED Talk about the erasure of African-Americans in country and bluegrass. I’ve accepted a month-long artist residency at Gettysburg National Military Park in 2020, to write and develop Blackbirding, a one person show about the 19thcentury practice and how it’s never really ended. I’ll be working on new songs while I’m there, too. As an actor, I’m really thrilled about all the on-camera work I’m getting. And I’m freelance writing and working on a book proposal.

by G.M. Burns