Everything done here is predicated on songs. Songs that make up albums and live shows, the ones we add to our mental and literal playlists. Some really special songs transcend temporary fixation and become parts of our lives, like familiar and reliable friends. For a subject so important, it feels like we devote too little space to songwriting here. So the Houston Press reached out to a trio of songwriters — Elaine Greer, Adam Bricks and Sherita Perez — to discuss their process
Greer has been performing professionally nearly ten years now. She's lived and worked in songwriter meccas Austin and Nashville, and those stints have further informed her smart indie-pop songs. Back in Houston now, she's recently played Walters and is writing a new record. Bricks has lived and worked at a music career in New York City. His straight-ahead folk music is thoughtful and influenced greatly by those age-old muses, cigarettes and beer. He's working with The Caldwell's James Essary on a new album tentatively titled Relations, which will be his follow-up to 2013's well-received City Songs. As a solo artist and with her band Fear the Poet, Perez maintains a busy music schedule. The band's folk-jazz fusion will be featured on an album due in May, while Perez has a solo record in the works on Yawp Records. She plays frequently, in songwriter-safe places like Last Concert Café and offbeat spots like 517 Bar. She and the band have a July 25 date at Fitzgerald's.
Can you recall the first song you ever wrote? Do you still perform it?
GREER: "The first song I wrote was a song on piano that I wrote when I was about 14. I had tried to write songs before that; I remember when I was really young, I'd try to piece together bits of other people's songs thinking maybe that's how a song was written. I started kinda composing my own things as a teenager. At that point, I'd only recently picked up the guitar and was still trying to navigate that instrument. The first song was called 'Hey Little Darling.' It was about family frustrations that I think are pretty characteristic of teen years! A lot of my songs around that time were characterized by some amount of teen angst. I don't perform any songs from that time anymore."
BRICKS: "The first song I ever wrote was called 'My Darling Tel Aviv.' It was written as a poem first and then later put to music. I wrote it remembering a trip I took with my little sister to Tel Aviv. I think I wrote most of it in my head while I was watching the city from a hotel balcony. I barely ever play it anymore."
PEREZ: "I've been performing since I was about five. I made up a puppet show with accompanying songs for my grandfather's birthday. The puppet was made from a brown paper bag with a turtle drawn on it. There were two songs: a song about friendship and a birthday song. I don't think I really knew what I was doing; it was just kind of instinctual. After the turtle incident, I don't remember writing another song 'til I was around 12. I had rough 'tween and teen years and was unhappy. My songs were pretty disturbing at the time. I wrote a song called 'Sold My Soul For a Counterfeit $20.' Looking back, I guess it was pretty good, but I never perform it."
When you write which comes first, the music or the lyrics?
GREER: "I would say most commonly, I start out with an initial progression or melody and go from there. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes I just sit down and write lyrics and then pair them with something later. My most common process is definitely that I'll have an initial progression, come up with a melody idea and maybe a couple potential lines, and then use those initial couple of lines of lyrics and brainstorm ideas and just kinda free write. Usually through that process I become more certain about what I'm trying to say in the song, and edit the lyrics down accordingly."
BRICKS: "One is not exclusive of the other. Sometimes you find a really pretty melody or guitar riff and then the words come. Sometimes you're walking around the house and you start singing something and then realize it's not a song that exists yet."
PEREZ: "The music and lyrics almost always come together, like a gift."
Do you have an assigned space and time set aside just for songwriting?
GREER: "I usually do not set aside time to write specifically. It's usually more of a spontaneous thing. I think the frequency really depends on a lot of external factors. When I have a lot of free time I end up writing a lot more. Sometimes I get wrapped up in other things in my life and end up not writing for a little while, but usually when I do that I start to feel like something is missing from my life! At any given point, I usually have a few different songs I'm working on. It's rare for me to finish an entire song in one sitting. I definitely feel more inspired or some days than others, so I usually try not to push too hard when I don't feel like I'm coming up with anything earth shattering. And sometimes I'll just be driving along in my car or something, and I have a song idea. It's a difficult thing to dictate or control. As far as where I write, well, it could be anywhere! I've had times in my life where I have a studio or music room to work in but usually that's not the case and I opt for my bedroom."
BRICKS: "Songs happen in all kinds of ways. I don't personally set aside time to write. I like to leave it as a free-happening thing. When it does come it's kind of like a lightning bolt or a bulb coming on. An idea that wants to resolve itself. Then, I get a pen and start writing. I'll usually have the song done within the next few minutes. I rarely go back to change songs once they're done. Instrument-wise, I write with whatever is handy or around at the time. I wrote the song 'Kristmas' from City Songs on piano and 'Day at the Park' on guitar. 'On Your Doorstep' I think I wrote without anything but singing and then the guitar came later."
PEREZ: "Yes, yes and yes, actually; all of the above. I'm an obsessive-compulsive songwriter. Want to write a song right now? Let's go. My studio or yours?"
Give us a strange songwriting tale.
GREER: "Hmm,.. I feel like a lot of my songs kinda come to me out of the blue. I have actually had dreams where I'm writing a song, but unfortunately I've never remembered it once I wake up! I did write a song once when I was traveling in Switzerland. I had brought a ukulele with me. I was in this little house on a mountain sitting out on the patio overlooking a beautiful lake and mountains and wrote a ukulele song that I still occasionally perform. I tend to feel inspired when I'm in an unfamiliar place. I think that feeling of displacement can offer perspectives that I don't really have access to on a daily basis, so I try to take advantage of that when I'm traveling."
BRICKS: "Well, I think a lot of the time songs come when you least expect. One of the songs off the new album - I won't say which - came while I was watching the series 24. It ended up being one of my favorite ones to play."
PEREZ: "I was walking on the subway platform in the Upper East Side, waiting for the downtown A train in NYC. I walked past this sign that said 'Fear the Poet, Drink the Whiskey.' I kept walking and then walked backwards, back to the sign. I stared. It was like the sign was just talking to my soul or something. As I boarded the train I kept mumbling the words over and over, 'Fear the poet, drink the whiskey!' People must have thought I was crazy! By the time I was ready to transfer to the L train, I had a new song. And now I have a band, Fear The Poet! I love my band mates Matt Ligrani, James Harrington & Brandon Robbins. They are so talented and sweet! Life can be truly epic!"
Who are your favorite songwriters? Give us some locals, too, so we can share the local songwriting love.
GREER: "Well, recently I've been listening to this new Natalie Prass record a lot. A band I used to be in played a show with her a few years back and I've been following her ever since. She just released this new album that is super-lush and pretty. There's a Nashville songwriter named Tristen who I have listened to a lot over the past few years too. I really like her writing as well as the production on her records. The new Sharon Van Etten is also pretty amazing. I guess I'm a huge advocate for female artists. As far as locals go, I really like Haley Barnes' solo stuff. She used to be in the band Buxton and now plays under the name Dollie Barnes. Adam Bricks is pretty awesome too! I just moved back to Houston, so I'm still kinda figuring out what's going on in the local scene these days."
BRICKS: "So many to choose from. It's hard! Locally, some of my favorite songwriters are Sergio Trevino of Buxton, Ancient Cat Society and Guess Genes; B.E. Godfrey — he's in NYC but still in my head — Dollie Barnes, Mary Kate Spawn of Cavern Hymnal, Benjamin Wesley Winder, Iva Dawn. The list goes on and on. Some personal favorites from NYC are Ray Brown, the Shivers, Scott Rudd, Cal Folger Day, Crazy and the Brains and Shilpa Ray."
PEREZ: "There are so many great songwriters in Houston. We are so blessed! Rhonda Roberts is a Houston favorite, a phenomenal writer with a wonderful stage presence! Local Ladies First: Kristal Cherelle, Robin Kirby, Wendy Elizabeth Jones, Lisa Lyric, Charity Ann, Sarah Golden; Local Gents: Andrew Karnavas, Justin Nava, Ken Gaines, Charles Bryant, Steve Menjivar, Robert Kuhn, Jacob Minter; The Greats: Damien Rice, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Bjork, Rickie Lee Jones.
Which venues are best for trying out new songs?
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SHOW ME HOW
PEREZ: "The venues I feel most comfortable trying new material out at are Fitzgerald's, Dean's, Notsouh's and Last Concert Cafe. The people at those venues tend to be super honest with their observations. By the time I'm done with a song, people will generally tell me if they liked it and/or clap a lot with gigantic grins, if they like a new song. That's pretty much what I look for."
BRICKS: "I like art happenings or acoustic shows to try out new material. This usually happens at Rudyard's here in Houston. I used to try them out at The Sidewalk Cafe when I lived in NYC, in front of tons of other songwriters. I don't think who you're trying the song out in front of matters. I just want to see how I feel about singing it or if I feel like singing it at all when people are around. It's always interesting to me what it adds. But obviously it's nice to hear that people like a certain song."
GREER: "Any venue really, depending how 'together' I feel the new song is. I have the tendency to try to throw new songs in whenever possible, because I get bored of the old ones. I think that attentiveness from the audience is always a good sign that maybe the song has something in it that is catchy or relatable or engaging. The Austin music scene was more band-focused, with a lot more emphasis on indie-rock and garage type stuff. When I moved to Nashville, pretty much everyone I met was a songwriter! The two places were really different insofar as what people were doing there, and I think that influenced what kind of songs I was writing in each place to an extent.
"I'm glad that I experienced living in both places, and I like to think that I blend these differing approaches in my own music. It can definitely be intimidating moving to a music city — you're surrounded by really talented people and a lot of people who are extremely driven. It can be inspiring and draining. One thing I appreciate about Houston is that music here doesn't have a certain 'sound.' A lot of the bands here just seem to have their own thing going. I feel like it's easier to be uninfluenced by what's going on around you in Houston; for me, anyways.