Pop over to the Video page to see the latest video release from third album Second Life and read the background to the song Troubled Town.
I recently met up with online music magazine Stereo Stickman. Here’s what we chatted about.
Following the release of her new album Second Life, which we reviewed back in October, we caught up with songwriting extraordinaire Kathy Muir to find out a little more about her creative process and the array of music she’s written and released over the past twelve months. Here’s how it went.
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Can you tell us a little about the whole Second Life concept – what does the term mean to you, and was this an ongoing, slowly developing idea for the album, or was there a certain point at which the thought appeared and it just seemed to fit?
I would say it is a mix of both.
The first album Far from Entirely was the beginning of my recording aspirations and this title seemed fitting. Far from Entirely could be a real place or it could be a state of mind for which you have yet to reach your end destination. That’s how I felt about my music. I had so much material from over the years that I’d never recorded, so the first album was the beginning of that recording journey.
Book Cover Judge was a continuation of that journey. The old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ was something I felt strongly about, especially when musicians are so often forced to try to categorize their music. The album title was a reminder to use your ears not your eyes.
Second Life cemented the essence of this journey: I felt home, I felt well in my creative skin and was finally comfortable accepting that my writing songs in various styles didn’t mean I was trying to be a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none but rather I was embracing who I was as a songwriter and expressing that identity with absolute freedom and conviction. I also felt with each new song I was writing that the title of the album was still relevant. Poignantly, the actual song Second Life was written for a young boy who was trying to make a change in his life and didn’t know how to. My song was a message to him and a hopeful support.
When you wrote and released Like Warriors, did you know that it would feature on this particular album, and did you already have the album name in place at that point?
When I wrote Like Warriors – I think it was early November last year–I knew I wanted to release it as a single in December. That was around the same time that I decided to delay the launch of the six-track EP until February or so. Knowing how quickly I write songs, by the time February came around, the EP had become my third album Second Life. Like Warriors was indeed released as a single and then re-mastered for the album (as was Born By The Water).
This video chat was shot the same day I visited the local Oxgangs library to get photos from residents and the same day we caught on camera Harry and I doing four unplugged songs. (The second time in three years we’ve been in the same room together playing.)
Did you write each of these songs for this particular project, or did you choose from a larger list of possibilities and build the collection from there? Are there songs that didn’t make the final cut, and will people be able to hear those at some point in the future?
I tend not to write songs for particular albums. Even while recording songs for the album we were in the studio recording other material. When we completed the last song for the Second Life album, we also had two other projects on the go. Even as we speak, I’m working on my fourth album, which will be called Double Take as a nod to those double A-side singles released in the ’60s and ’70s. There will be five songs with both a pop and an acoustic version. After all, most of my songs are written on acoustic guitar and I’ve always believed that a good song is one that, when stripped bare, still engages the listener.
We’re three quarters of the way through the recording process for Double Take but I’ve been writing other songs that I really wanted to record. So, Pocketful of Sand, Try Coming Round, Morning Song, You Never Knew Me, and Perfect Day, are all songs either completed or close to completion in the studio that will not be on the fourth album.
All songs make the cut. I don’t waste time and money going into the studio unless the song is going to be released. All my songs are eventually released to the public. None are held back. That’s the joy of being an independent musician. The songs are released in various states: some as part of the Rough Diamonds playlist on my website or on Soundcloud. The Rough Diamonds Sessions contain songs that are yet to be polished in the studio.
To be honest, I think my constant challenge is not if I release material but when. For example, I’d like Try Coming Round and You Never Knew Me to be part of a set containing three or four songs that feel indie, stripped-down, high in reverb, and atmospheric. I’ve just finished completing a home demo for another song called River Running that will be a great addition to this concept EP. No title yet. Answers on a postcard…
Click through to read Kathy’s blog for a more in-depth analysis of her creative process.
How much of your time is spent writing and recording music, whether for release or for personal recreation, and how much of it is spent performing and sharing it with audiences? How does the live experience compare to when you first create the song at home?
Of all the time I dedicate to music, the majority of it is definitely spent on writing, then recording, then performing. The reason for the order is that I think of myself as a songwriter first, a singer second, and a guitar player third. I never stop writing and find on most days I’m singing sound bytes onto my iPhone or writing down words in my notebook. Certain song ideas take shape really quickly and I’m then forced to open Logic Pro and put down the vocals and guitars as well as any ideas for strings, bass or drums. This was actually the case for River Running.
Do you think live music is still as important now that most music is discovered and shared digitally?
It’s a double-edged sword. We all seek a global awareness of our songs yet are not well enough known to afford to travel far and wide to perform them. So we play locally. Although Connecticut is considered small in comparison to other states, you still have musicians who will travel two hours to do a gig that may have a small audience or that does not pay. Combine that with the fact that many places are swayed more toward cover bands and you find the opportunity to play live and raise awareness of your music becomes limited. Moreover, if you want to play in places that do recognize original music, you can be asked to bring at least twenty people to attend.
However, it’s not all bad news. I do play live. I enjoy this real litmus test that gives you a sense as to whether the audience likes your material or not, and it’s so worthwhile to get feedback, engage with folks after the show or even get to talk a little in between songs about what the songs are about.
I think today’s musicians need to provide a mix of both live performance and of ensuring they are social media-present. I love writing, period. I like writing about other artists (visual artists mainly) and especially love to write about the creative process. For the latter, my website is my second home and I get excited when I get to share what I do on my site.
Which of the songs on the new project affect you the most emotionally, when performing them or listening back? Do they all have a personal connection to you, or are there some that are simply songs to tell stories or to reach out to people in a more general way – using the music to connect, the sound to evoke feeling, as opposed to purely for expression?
There are actually a good few on Second Life that I strongly relate to. I Want to Lay Down was written last summer. I would go out on my 18th story balcony and play the song while watching the sun go down and hear the kids and their families in the communal courtyard down below, squealing and having fun (the kids I mean ? ). The song is personal because it’s about those we love, physically or spiritually. Troubled Town relates to my life in Connecticut and my love for my home city of Edinburgh. Never Felt Like a Woman was one of the last songs from my earlier material I still felt strongly about releasing because it’s so honest. And of course, Second Life, as much as for the reasons I mentioned earlier but also because I delved much more into the arrangement of the song and wrote all the parts.
You recently released the song The Other Side as a personal response to the tragedy in Orlando earlier this year.
Despite its inherent sadness, the song comes across representing hope; the idea that violence and hatred will not bring out more violence and hatred even in the most horrific of circumstances. It’s natural to react with anger to needless and twisted events such as this, but anger doesn’t often help anything, and, to me, the song suggests that the love and happiness that bothers certain people so much will continue and perhaps be even stronger in the face of their evil.
You’re on point. While I want people to enjoy listening to my songs, they are a part of me, and things that are a part of us are often private. A painter doesn’t paint because he expects to exhibit his work or to gain financial reward. He paints because he needs to express his creativity. Therefore, I measure a song’s creative content by how much I want to sing it every night on stage. Would I really want to write about a relationship that ended, or that made me bitter? No.
I’m an optimist at heart and always want to write words that go beyond the obvious, and that offer–if not hope–some learning from which to grow. Out of challenge comes opportunity.
Was it your intention to write something about the incident, or did you just find yourself deeply saddened and in need of creating something to try to help combat the negativity? Did it make you feel any differently about the situation once you had seen your thoughts reflected in the song?
Specifically relating to The Other Side, I found myself deeply affected by the maelström of events occurring around the world and, as you perceptively pointed out, I wanted to bring a message that I think we all want to hear: we can bring about change through unison not division. ‘Walls being built’ to divide people was one of the triggers for the song but the more immediate one was that of the Orlando nightclub shooting.
Very similar to River Running, I spent weeks writing in my notebook, writing down too long a list of events that started in early 2016, laying down my thoughts and the eventual story line for the song. I actually had too much material: one of the hardest challenges songwriters face is how to tell a story or convey a message within a finite amount of time. This is when every single word matters.
I didn’t feel any differently about the situation but I felt that I had created something meaningful that I would continue to ‘talk’ about through performing it live. The Other Side is often the final song I perform at my shows. I want people to remember the last words they hear: Life is so sweet, don’t let it pass you by. Is this what you really want to leave behind? Our actions have a consequence.
Who are some of your favourite songwriters? Are there any artists or bands that you’ve discovered or worked with recently that have inspired you or that you recommend checking out?
Wow, don’t get me started. The artist I keep going back to is Joshua James. He has everything for me and when I hear one of his songs I feel I’m seeing a short film. I listen to new artists all the time on Sofar, Soundcloud and Hype Machine. Up there in my top ten right now are two composers Sebastian Plano and Ben Stanbridge and more contemporary sounds from Matt Woods, George Ogilvie, Flora Cash, Joe Mason, Beauvois and Molly Moore. Zak Abel has real talent. Right now, I can’t stop listening to Highasakite’s acoustic version of Samurai Swords.
I watch a lot of acts on Sofar, which is a brilliant idea and an extension of what The Mahogany Sessions started. For ambient style music, I always head to Soundcloud. I have a public playlist called Brotherly Love that has a heap of my favourites.
Where can people catch a live performance from you over the next few weeks?
I have shows from now until March that are mainly in Connecticut and my website lists them all. I am doing a wee show in Edinburgh when I’m home for a week in May and during that time hope to play at The Jazz Bar and The Bluebird Café. I may look into Stage It for virtual shows if fans are interested.
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A big thank you to Kathy for taking the time to talk to us with such honesty and depth. Leave your comments at the bottom and find and follow Kathy Muir on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Soundcloud to stay in touch. Her new music video Troubled Town is out December 28th.
To read the interview online or to discover more undiscovered artists, check out Stereo Stickman’s website.
Kathy Muir’s third album doesn’t find her negotiating her way through some major change in direction or style. Instead, Second Life is eleven songs of consolidation. The style she has established with her first two albums is further refined here and her singer/songwriter bonafides are burnished further by the obvious personal turn in the writing. Second Life’s production and songwriting also hints at a gradually broadening of Muir’s sound – the classification of Americana music is growing harder and harder for Muir’s releases to maintain and she seems to be subsuming a variety of styles into her sound. The lyrical content has exceptional literary value – each text is perfectly conceived and Muir expresses herself in words with the same lean vitality energizing her music.
“Lucky One” has a number of emotional stances and some underrated moments of bite. Muir’s vocal never becomes overwrought at any of these turns and she orchestrates the competing emotions with a sure hand. The song has the sort of steadily mounting tension we associate with rock tracks. This quality is present on the album’s second song as well. Muir cuts loose vocally a little more than before on “Better Man”, but it still avoids lapsing into anything melodramatic or purple. A big reason why such a moment never comes is thanks to Muir’s lyrics – few songs on Second Life embody her precise writing style better. Her warm, welcoming vocal on “Honey Child” has a practically hypnotic quality. It’s the depth of emotion that’s soothing and the guitar work complements it perfectly with a number of subtly lyrical runs. “Stop Messin’ Me Around” jumps with genuine live, musicians on the floor feel and the bluesy echoes fueling the track are a welcome shift at this point.
The violin and guitar arrangement of “Born by the Water” is deceptively simple, but it has flashes of ingenuity and one of the album’s best lyrics. Muir’s voice follows the emotional trajectory of the lyrics with an eye towards balancing her performance in perfect sympathy with the band’s playing. There’s a surprising rock and roll energy peering its way from below the acoustic musings of “Never Felt Like a Woman” and it might help make the track the album’s high point in many ways. There’s a very folky quality to “Like Warriors” that Muir makes the most of with a gloriously sweeping vocal full of feeling and the careful phrasing that brings her lyrics more to the fore. The title song concludes Second Life on quite a memorable note. Muir’s voice works exceptionally well with the song’s classical backing track despite the fact that the production clearly places a priority on her voice. It’s one of her best vocals, however, and the song’s lyrical turns are particularly affecting.
RJ Frometa, VENTS Magazine
It is refreshing to hear an album so committed to presenting fully rounded material. Kathy Muir’s third album Second Life doesn’t just succeed on a musical level, but it scores big on a lyrical level as well. Muir’s lyrics are full of plain-spoken poetry and exquisite imagery in equal measure and never aspire to any sort of pseudo-poetic incomprehensibility. The musical qualities are abundant. Melodies abound and the instrumentation is beautifully tasteful without ever missing opportunities. The production gives the music a great sonic forum to reach the listener and the urgency of its sound keeps the songwriting sounding intimate from first song to the final track. This is an improvement over her two preceding albums, but the observation is no slight on those earlier efforts. Second Life is just that damn good.
“Lucky One” has equal amounts of sarcasm and tenderness that Muir’s vocal communicates with a same balance of emotion. Her phrasing is perfect for the song while never overplaying its emotions. The arrangement is here to work in sympathy with the lyrics and singing performance. “Better Man” is the album’s first true high water mark. There’s something witheringly precise about Muir’s lyrical observations and she never flinches from the bitter realities of the situation. It is communicated with an utter lack of sentimentality. The rugged, high-stepping energy of “Stop Messin’ Me Around” cuts loose from the beginning and bristles with powerful velocity born from its live recording. Hearing Muir talk before the first notes begin is essential to the listening experience.
“I Want To Lay Down” is one of the most tender moments on Second Life and delivered without a hint of spoof or irony. Instead, Muir gives herself over entirely to the lyric and seems to be trying to capture a perfect, crystalline moment in song. She is successful. The unwavering march of “Born by the Water” has a lightly spiritual, meditative quality in its lyric and some compelling imagery to drive its points home. Muir gives the right amount of force to her vocal without ever allowing her personality to take over the performance. Another shade of that aforementioned meditative quality returns in the folk song “Like Warriors” and the lyric sparkles with enough fluency that many will likely remember it as among the album’s best. “Troubled Town” does a good job of mixing the personal with character study in a very spare track carried forward by nothing else except Muir’s voice and moody, but often very beautiful piano playing. The album’s last song is the title track and Muir makes another notable stylistic turn here. The song is relatively unadorned and, instead, relies on bringing a classical backing together with the bracing emotive qualities of her voice. The mix works extraordinarily well.
Muir shows real instincts as a storyteller ending the album on such a note. Second Life takes a spin through a variety of moods, but the track listing gives listeners a clear, if not entirely obvious, progression from the first song through the finish. This sort of unity is seldom heard in popular music these days, regardless of genre. Kathy Muir’s talent continues its blooming and burns brighter than ever here.
Montey Zike, Dahiphopplace
There are journeys and destinations alike on Kathy Muir’s third album Second Life. Some songs are certainly looks back in melancholy, but a number of tracks clearly note an improved present and point the way towards the proverbial better tomorrow. There is playfulness a plenty over the album’s eleven tracks, but it’s playfulness of a distinctly adult variety. Maturity need not be a dirty word. Muir’s songwriting will satisfy music fans of this genre because of its maturity – there’s an increasing unity in her work that seamlessly transmutes personal experience into melody and fills her voice with empathy and fire that will bends countless ears to listen.
Many of the album’s songs are reflections on relationships. This venerable subject provides a lot of grist for Muir’s mill and few of the songs are better at framing the subject than Lucky One. Much of this is due to Muir’s vocal. She is a presence in the track from first line to last and comes down hard on certain words and phrases with an unshakable confidence that makes the song all the more convincing.
The second song Better Man has much of the same design heard on the album’s opener, but Muir whips herself into a greater vocal lather than before and the music has a slightly more chaotic, stormy quality.
Simply That is an exclusively acoustic track and a pensive blues where the intensity only rises near the end. Muir tackles that rousing finish with a lot of grit and gravitas we haven’t heard until now.
Stop Messin’ Me Around features a tight band performance that, nonetheless, manages to snatch up a rambunctious attitude and never loosens their grip.
The slowly unwinding quality of I Want to Lay Down has an easy, unassuming grace that is hard to dislike. Many of these sort of songs have a lovely pastoral feel, a languid warmth patiently washing over the audience, and few songs on Second Life illustrate that better than this.
The violin plays a big role in pushing Born by the Water forward with a lot of urgency, but the steady strum on acoustic guitar does the same and gives the song a tangible percussive charge, Muir’s singing hits the vocal melody with precise phrasing that really makes the lyrics come alive.
The aforementioned pastoral qualities reemerge on the song Like Warriors. This sounds like a by-product of her Scottish heritage and rolls out of the speakers with a steady sense of inevitability. Any experienced listener will know the path this song plans to take and hearing how well Muir gets there is one of the true joys with this track.
Orchestral influences exert a powerful hold over the title song. It’s the album’s final cut and Muir goes big with a delicately wrought and deeply personal song. She plays her powerful vocals off against an exclusively classical backing and it works without fail. It’s scarcely possible to imagine a better ending for this album. Too often bands or artists reach for that big moment on their final song, but often use too much strength when they should relax. There’s something proud and intensely confident about Muir’s performance on Second Life.
Lance Wright, Indie Music Review
A quick update peeps to say that, in between shows, I’m currently working with the talented Vincent Carnevale of Petrichor Design on the post production edits of new music video Troubled Town filmed in New York. There are some stunning shots of the Empire State Building that I can’t wait for you to see!
Here’s a sneak frame taken from the video 🙂
More news to follow and keep check back on my video page for the Troubled Town video trailer.
The work on Kathy Muir’s first two albums has lead her here. Her third release Second Life is the summit of her accomplishment thus far and improves over her two fine past releases. If there’s any remaining justice in the modern music world, the merits of this effort should catapult her out of the indie scene and onto a much larger stage than she’s occupied so far. Muir’s approach is a blend of different influences and happily difficult to categorize. She’s certainly an advanced lyricist, a writer capable of exploring serious themes and narratives without ever overwriting. The same principle extends to her musical talents. The songs are crafted with an idea that they should do their job with the audience and get out with a minimum amount of fuss and not a single song falls short of that goal.
The first song assured to grab listener’s attention is “Better Man”. In some ways, the subject matter is rather familiar to anyone who listens to a lot of serious songwriters, but Muir spins it in a different direction. Much of the responsibility for that comes from her skill with characterizations – both central figures in this song emerge full-bodied from the song with the same level of significant detail one expects to find in a fine short story. “Stop Messin’ Me Around” is definitely a throwback number that does a fine job approximating a rockabilly attitude, but it is certainly much more lyrically sophisticated than the typical efforts in this vein while still remain great, raucous musical fun. She pulls everything close for the tender turn she takes with “I Want To Lay Down” and the plaintive wanting of the title is reflected in the lyrics. This is quite a beautifully wrought and patient song.
“Born by the Water” is certainly a little less sophisticated musically than what Muir has, to this point, spoiled us for, but it becomes clear soon enough that the primary focus here is lyrical rather than musical. Muir unleashes some poetic fireworks here, but they are decidedly low-key and never unnecessarily gaudy. There are a variety of interpretations and Muir’s playful vocal certainly seems to relish not entirely spelling things out for her listeners. She comes close to the blues with the immensely stylish and witheringly honest “Never Felt Like a Woman” – it will be difficult for anyone to not be impressed by the equal parts technique and sincerity required to make this song such a success. The contemplative and yet very proud “Like Warriors” harkens back to Muir’s folkie roots – it’s a nice interlude from the more frequent bouts of Sturm and Drang on the album’s second half. The closer, “Second Life”, is a title song very much from the school of making big statements. Fortunately, it highlights a forward looking vision for her life, and by extension her art, while never disavowing the experiences bringing her to where she is today. This sort of remarkable maturity and wisdom defines Second Life personally and artistically.
Aaron Ellis, Valhalla Music Blog
The real beauty in an album like Kathy Muir’s Second Life is heard in the chances it takes. It might seem like an odd thing to say for an album and artist solidly classified as Americana, but Muir doesn’t always play it safe and that’s a quality setting her some distance apart from many of her contemporaries. The depth of her songwriting talents extends beyond the merely musical – Muir’s skill level as a lyricist is extraordinarily high and each of the album’s eleven tracks is touched in some significant way by her talents in that area. She’s a judicious writer as well as musician – there are no needless musical or verbal pyrotechnics on this album and every single part is functional rather than ornamental. The single biggest influence on the album is likely its most understated – the influence of Scottish traditional music on Muir’s particular interpretation of Americana.
The knowing, skeptical air imbuing much of that type of music comes through in the opener “Lucky One”. Some of the lines turning on surprisingly caustic sentiments while others are clearly alight with regret and pain. Muir completely embodies both turns with a sure sense of confidence and her voice is perfectly tailored to the backing track. She hits an even higher mark with “Better Man” thanks to the wrenching family drama it depicts and the emotion coursing through Muir’s voice. The particular details working within the lyric help make it an even stronger experience for listeners. “Stop Messin’ Me Around” is a romping nod to Muir’s love of traditional rockabilly, but this is too stylish and technically accomplished to be considered much more than a nod. It has a high energy level, however – probably more so than any other track on Second Life.
The folky in Muir comes to the fore on the song “I Want to Lay Down”. Wags might assume the title is a reference to Muir’s need for rest, but it’s actually one of a few love songs on Second Life that are notable for their gentleness and exceptional artisanship. The feel of the song does a great job of recalling the folk song tradition and its separate sections hang together quite tightly while still breathing quite well. The plonking urgency of “Born by the Water” could have easily went in much more predictable bluesy direction, but it’s own particular take on the folk music tradition depends largely on its exceptional lyric to carry the day. A final high point on Second Life comes with the song “Never Felt Like a Woman”. Her unadorned honesty, almost painful to hear, fills the song with deep pathos that earlier numbers lack. The album’s concluding song and title cut is a grandiose, but never self-indulgent, marriage of Muir’s confessional songwriting, open-hearted vocals, and a classical backing. It ends Second Life on an intensely hopeful note and with an eye to an ever wider future. Kathy Muir is a major talent who’s star only continues to ascend through the firmament of modern life.
Scott Wigley, Bandblurb
It isn’t uncommon for a band or individual artist to hit their first peak on their third album. The first two releases allow them time and chances to refine and deepen their vision in preparation for a third release where they tie the disparate threads together into a greater whole. With the release of her third full length album, Second Life, that moment has arrived for Kathy Muir. There’s a lot of traditional instrumentation on Second Life that smacks of the Americana genre, but it isn’t the only ingredient in her mix. Some of the songwriting has strong echoes of Muir’s Scottish ancestry, but there’s a broader based folk approach on those songs that is much more individual and less focused on re-creating a specific era.
“Better Man” is the album’s first stand out. It is simply unlikely anyone else could have written this song – Muir’s specific details and powerful narrative voice are highly individual gifts that even another gifted writer couldn’t have precisely duplicated. This is the spark of the special we listen and look for in new art. Muir isn’t singing about anything startlingly new, but she sings it from a profoundly personal place within. “Simply That” gives her a great vehicle to show off her blues chops. It doesn’t rely on a bevy of genre tropes from guitar or singer alike to be successful; instead, Muir and her musical cohorts get the feeling right without ever sounding imitative once. She comes thrillingly close to outright rockabilly on the track “Stop Messin’ Me Around” but there’s an arty edge that Muir returns you’d never locate in traditional rockabilly. Her vocal sounds ready to love, live, brawl, and gives the song an added spike in energy.
“Born by the Water” isn’t blues or rockabilly flavored, but it does have the same gritty energy defining those earlier songs. The music here is much more straight forward, less obviously stylish, but the lyrics are far more developed and full of imagery that Muir largely eschews in those earlier songs. The slow development of “Never Felt like a Woman” is one of the album’s overall highpoints and a definite achievement on the album’s second half. Muir’s vocal matches consideration and passion quite well and the technique required further enhance the song’s impact. Her cultural heritage definitely touches the song “Like Warriors” and the stately, windswept tempo of the track has a touch of the epic hard for any listener to deny. Those sorts of songs, however, do nothing to prepare Muir’s audience for the sheer inventiveness of the final track. The title song makes a number of shrewd decisions ensuring its artistic success. The first is placing Muir’s deeply affecting wail near the front of the mix and giving the classical backing enough sonic density to help carry her vocal. It’s a remarkable final moment and closes Second Life on a daring note.
There are few performers working today, in any genre, with this breadth of skill. Kathy Muir recalls the epochal talents of iconic performers brought back to life for our modern world. The sophistication, deliberate simplicity, and absolute honesty guiding this collection of songs are an unforgettable listening experience.
Joshua Stryde, Indiemunity