Sara Van Buskirk, Tough As Nails, Likes Whisky Neat

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This weekend, local singer-songwriter Sara Van Buskirk releases her debut LP, The Place Where You Are, after a few years of on-and-off tinkering. It's a riveting work, built around her muscular voice and backed by a stellar cast of Houston pickers and players. The ten-track album is relentlessly pretty and tough as nails, showcasing the songs that Buskirk has been workshopping in coffeehouses and venues like AvantGarden for a good five years now. Fittingly enough, she unfurls the LP Friday night at AG, playing the whole thing from front to back. We chatted with Buskirk this week about the making of The Place Where You Are and the elements that went making it one of Houston's most anticipated releases of 2010. We had to know about our standout track "Tennessee Whisky," so we made sure to inquire within.

Rocks Off: The production of The Place Where You Are is immensely layered but also very bare. We imagine it was hard to pin down that sound, especially after playing so long as a solo performer. How did you do it?

Sara Van Buskirk: As a solo artist, it is a very foreign concept to do a full-length record full band. I definitely wouldn't have done it so successfully if I hadn't had a great friend who happened to be an excellent producer. Taylor Lee has some great friends and contacts. So we basically started out with some scratch tracks, then you find the right musicians and then go from there. Taylor did most of the full band arrangements without me even having to be there. It's really important to find a producer with whom you are on the exact same page with, but at the same time has a little bit more insight of what the big picture is than you do. The songs were too personal for me to create percussive parts to. I would walk into the studio late and they would already be tracking drums. I would get in my box to lay down guitar and they would be like, "What's the name of this song?" Then they would cue the track in my headphones with scratch acoustic and live drums and I would say, "I have no idea! I didn't write a song that this beat would go to!" They'd play the scratch vocal and I would say, "No way! This is "Daughter of Your Bones"? I never imagined drums on this of all songs!" You want people involved who want to make the project be more than you are capable of making it yourself, while also keeping it true to it's original form. RO: The bareness isn't a bad thing at all, by the way... SVB: I would love to be a multi-instrumentalist. I would love to be that rad folksy girl with some circus act band, but I'm not right now and that's okay. The most important thing in a songwriter's career in my opinion is the songs themselves. You want them to speak to people, you want people to be able to sing along and you want them to translate well. I feel that most songwriters these days focus too much on the act instead of communication. RO: Thankfully it's not encumbered by electricity, it seems. SVB: We wanted the only guitar to be acoustic. Putting electric guitar in would just change the whole feel of the record. It would create an extra band member to find. And it would have just been too complicated. I think the fact that it's acoustic-driven is what gives it its naked quality. And I like that. I'm able to play all of these songs by themselves and they still translate well. I'm able to play them with a full band and we all have a little more fun. RO: "Tennessee Whisky" is a killer... SVB (laughs): First of all, it is "whisky." I stress that because we went through a lot of trouble to get that text right on the final mastered copy. As I'm sure you know, it can be spelled both ways, and both are technically correct. The spelling just happens to be for Makers Mark Tennessee Whisky, which is my drink of choice. Served neat. This song is one of my only songs that I wrote over a period of time instead of in one setting. Started it in early 2007 and I didn't finish it until early 2008. I wrote the first two verses easily one day because well, it was true. I was in a bad place. I drank in the morning before work. I couldn't "handle my own." Second verse was reflective of a past relationship. I left it there. I couldn't finish it. It was a very different style than I was used to playing and writing. So I would go to gigs and be like, "Hey, you guys! You wanna hear a song I wrote about whisky?" The crowd would say "Yeah!" I would say, "Well, I only have two verses so far, so tell me what you think." I would finish those two verses with everyone just getting hyped up and there would almost always be a whisky neat next to my tip jar when I was done. The bottom line is "Tennessee Whisky" pretty much sums up my single adult life. Too much booze and misguided choices. But it has that happy ending that we're all looking for. Thankfully, I actually found mine and it's not just for a song. RO: What was the road like to get to finally making this album? SVB: I've been playing around Houston since July 2005. I have had enough material for a record for a while, but there was just really no one to push me hard enough to make it happen. Also, my performances and the sets themselves have changed. Songs have be left to the side and new and better songs have been written. It took me a while to actually have quality material that is worth distributing. I may have thought all the songs I had in 2005 were worth recording, but time has showed me that I would not have been happy with them now. A big catalyst for the newer songs was meeting Val Young. She was a ridiculously rad girl with a cello in hand and a desire to create. We hooked up at a show at Dean's downtown and it was magic from then on. Having another musician to be accountable to made me write, made me practice, made me book shows, etc. I always tell her she's as much "Sara Van Buskirk" as I am. Her contribution and inspiration is invaluable. Taylor was someone we met on our wonderful journey. We became friends through his cousin at a house party and just mostly hung out. Meeting him led us to form our side project band, Finnegan, and that ultimately led to him making The Place Where You Are a reality. He's an insanely driven individual. I don't even know how many bands he has (laughs) He's in seriously great bands such as Lazlo and The Literary Greats. And he's had his hands in more projects than I can count. RO: What are the plans for rest of the year with the album? SVB: Well, I already have more than half of the next one written! I'm not going to wait for some great deal to fall into my lap. I'm going to work hard as I can on my end to get the record sold to fund the new one. If there is a demand, then I will try my best to supply. I'm not going to try and trick people into listening. I'm not going to send you mass emails all day long about how I need to be voted "best singer-songwriter" of the year in the Houston Press Music Awards or how I need to open for Lilith Fair so that I can make it big. I'm not desperate to be somewhere or something else other than what I am. I'm just going to do my thing and hope that people like what they hear, because we all reach for better lives in our everyday. And if I can be a part of that, well, I've done my job. With Gretchen Schmalz and Brandon Elam, 8 p.m. Friday, May 14, at AvantGarden, 411 Westheimer, 832-519-1429 or www.avantgardenhouston.com.

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