MAKING IT OURSELVES
Singer-Songwriters connect in Greensboro’s music scene
If you don’t think that women artists face a whole different â€” and extra â€” set of hurdles, consider the fact that you almost never hear the phrases “male singer/songwriter” or “male jazz musician” or “male-fronted band.” The default assumption has for so long been that the people doing this stuff were male and that in the instances when that wasn’t the case the fact of someone’s female gender was often the first and sometimes only detail to focus on. The dynamic hasn’t always lent itself to receptiveness and opportunity.
Next summer will mark the 20-year anniversary of the first Lilith Fair. The festival, for those who weren’t around, was launched by Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan and the lineup was made up entirely of female solo artists or female-led bands. The idea was to counterbalance some of the male-centric programming of the music industry. There have probably been hundreds of festivals â€” maybe thousands â€” over the years whose lineups included only male performers and male-fronted acts, but no one was marketing them as “an all-male festival,” because the gender breakdown was simply a result of no one in charge thinking twice about it.
The huge success in 2016 of artists like Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Adele, Katy Perry, Sia, Lorde, Nicki Minaj, Demi Lovato, FKA Twigs, Rihanna and Selena Gomez might make it seem like there’s not much of a disproportionate gender representation today in the world of music. And a wave of memoirs by female rockers, like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde, has helped create a little historical perspective. But that doesn’t mean the playing field has been leveled.
On a local level, female performers seem to be finding inspiration in the sense of camaraderie, the spirit of collaboration, and the relative viability of pursuing life as an artist that they find in the area.
Talking about a music scene is often a little funny. If you’re on the inside of a regional scene it might not seem like much more than just a network of talented, hard-working, like-minded people sometimes collaborating, sometimes benefiting from the experience of each other, sometimes feeding off a collective sense of mission and drive. But from the outside it can appear like an elusive club, something with unspoken codes, selective admission practices and murky goals. It’s a little like government: If you’re inclined to view the pooled and harnessed energies and resources of the masses as something that can be used for greater good, then you’re probably for it, but if you’re temperamentally suspicious of human nature and the tendency for people to be self-serving, then you might be on the lookout for excesses like pocket-lining, nepotism, and favoritism. A music scene is a concept for people who like to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It’s not necessarily for radical libertarians or those who prize fierce individualism above all other concerns. And what do you point to when you point to a music scene? Is it geography, local culture, a sense of tradition, the price of beer, cheap rent, good clubs, regional studios, proximity to other scenes, music stores, open mics, local promoters, underground venues, house shows, coffee shops, a college town, record shops or is it just creative, eager and supportive people? Or is it the absence of some of those things that spurs people into action?
For whatever reason, there are local singer/songwriters who have found something peculiarly inspiring and supportive about being in the Triad area. It might be the particular time in their careers or it could be the community and the place. Or some combination.
Carrie Pazdziora is originally from the northeastern part of the state. Pazdziora knew she was interested in music as a kid and started writing songs when she was 15. She headed to Nashville at 18, just out of high school. She was drawn to songwriting and poetry as a teenager, but she was fully thrown into the enterprise through her involvement in praise music through her church. Pazdziora, 30, has performed music in all kinds of places â€” Atlanta, Chicago, Nashville and even in Paris. But she stopped for a while. Being involved in the music community in Greensboro and Triad area has rekindled her interest.
“I grew up in a small town on a river,” says Pazdziora. “It’s a little river town and it’s quiet â€” country and farms and things like that. It’s beautiful, but there’s not a whole lot going on there for musicians.”
In Music City, Pazdziora was a part of a kind of youth mission focused on praise music, with eight singer/songwriters collaborating on fresh material. “We had to write a new song every week,” says Pazdziora. They took the show on the road and basically performed at venues in other cities. But Pazdziora didn’t feel entirely engaged.
“I was at that time pretty entrenched in contemporary Christian praise and worship. A lot of the contemporary praise and worship music that I started singing â€” it’s uplifting, but not super deep,” says Pazdziora. But even after moving on from that particular musical setting, she’s retained a focus on the sacred in her musical tastes and in how she thinks about what she writes. “I love old spirituals and traditional songs. I love the longing and the human experience.”
Formative experiences shape us. Even if we reject some part of our upbringing, the act of rejecting and the reactionary force required to do so kind of points us in the particular direction we end up going.
“I do feel like I’m still writing sacred music in a way,” says Pazdziora. “I’ve definitely moved away from the cultural political phenomenon that is evangelical Christianity. But spirituality and the sacredness of everything is still a major part of my life. I would say that everything that I write, it doesn’t matter if it makes somebody think of a heavenly being or not, I guess I believe that everything is sacred, every creature and every being, there’s a sacredness to life. It’s not necessarily using sacred â€” quote, unquote â€” terminology, but I think that there is something sacred about the human experience and the story that everyone is experiencing.”
The inspiration to become a songwriter is a peculiar one, expressing itself in so many different ways. Some great songwriters didn’t start out with any urge to write original material; they learned other people’s songs, songs they liked and admired and enjoyed performing, and eventually had the idea that they, too, might be able to write a memorable song of their own. Or else a cash shortage compelled them to consider writing, since for years the real money to be made in the music business was in songwriting royalties.
Pazdziora – who performs under the name Carrie Paz, playing music at weddings, local wineries, clubs and youth retreats – says the process was sort of inverted for her.
“I never really felt compelled to learn other people’s songs,” she says. In itself, that shouldn’t present much of a challenge for a singer/songwriter. But Pazdziora has come to realize that, getting started without a huge back catalog of her own original material, and with audiences that sometimes want to hear something familiar, she needs to get some covers under her belt to flesh out her sets when she performs. “That’s been a challenge for me.”
The challenge has been double-edged.
Hours spent learning and practicing cover songs have eaten into the valuable hours that Pazdziora would rather be using to write original material. But the studyand-practice routine has also helped her playing: learning the finger-picking technique required to play “Julia” by the Beatles gave Pazdziora some tricks to use on her own songs.
Before coming to the Greensboro area, Pazdziora had been living in Chicago for six years. She had gone there because of a relationship, eventually getting married. Music was a part of the relationship, and when the two eventually split up, the emotional hardship of it made singing feel bound up with pain.
“After we broke up I didn’t want to perform for a while,” says Pazdziora.
Arriving back in North Carolina without any plans to pursue music, Pazdziora was quiet for a while. But like so many songwriters and singers, something drew her back to performing.
“About a year ago I just decided to go to an open mic,” she says.
That was in the spring of 2015. Since then she’s kicked into gear again, with a web site and gigs and plans to write and record more.
“I started to go to open mics in Greensboro and found a really great community of other songwriters and performers,” says Pazdziora. “I guess I wasn’t coming to Greensboro to play music, so it wasn’t really on my radar that Greensboro had a thriving music scene. I found myself entrenched in this little community.”
Pazdziora had been a part of places with thriving music scenes before. But this was different.
“In those places [like Nashville and Chicago], I kind of found myself in competition with people, and I don’t get that at all here,” she says. “That’s one of the things I love about the music scene of a smaller town like Greensboro â€” it’s extremely supportive and collaborative and I don’t feel at odds with anybody. And, because it’s a smaller town, it’s not like there are a ton of venues, but it’s not like we’re fighting over them. I guess I’ve been amazed too at the talent. It’s just teeming with creativity and talent. It’s a great place to be.”
Pazdziora’s music is mostly sensitive folk with gentle acoustic guitar, more plucked than strummed, and her pure and clear voice climbing high in places, and doubled up in dusky harmonies elsewhere. The songs tend to use imagery from nature â€” stars, ocean, sand, wind â€” to sketch out sentiments of wonder at the cosmos and our place in it, but beyond that they’re also about love and unity.
Some songwriters seem to gravitate toward the craft because they simply love entertaining people and expressing themselves.
“I’ve always loved being a performer,” says Pazdziora. “I’ve always loved being in front of people and getting the energy from people.”
But the need to be deep or philosophical isn’t always the primary concern for every songwriter. Folk and pop and rock are filled with all kinds of silly â€” borderline meaningless â€” songs that are awesome and memorable all the same. With Pazdziora, one gets the feeling that writing and singing frivolous songs isn’t second nature. She’s learning to embrace a less over-engineered approach to writing and significance.
“I used to want everything to obviously mean something. It used to burden me,” she says. “I guess I’ve lately just kind of let that go and realized more that even things that don’t seem to mean something still mean something. And I don’t have to push it. I don’t need to make a mountain out of a molehill because the molehill is significant enough. I don’t have to have this deep thought that’s beneath something that people need to dig into.”
And yet sometimes Pazdziora manages to take something that’s seemingly slight and find surprising weight to it. Take her version of the Cyndi Lauper hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” (arranged by her collaborator Justin J. Morgan). Zeroing in on one verse (“Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world/I wanna be the one to walk in the sun/Oh, girls they wanna have fun”), Pazdziora turns the song into a kind of lament removed from its fizzy dance-tune origin.
“I’d listened to the song hundreds of times, but I had never heard the words in that second verse, so I was struck by that, just how beautiful it was, how deep it was, how true it can be to the female experience â€” not being able to express yourself fully because you don’t want to attract attention from someone who’s not your significant other,” she says.
Some of this points to the other challenges that artists like Pazdziora might face. It’s probably safe to say that, depending on the church, not all communities of faith encourage women to attract attention to themselves. To get up on stage, under lights and sing into a microphone is a sure way to draw the attention, focus and critical judgment of strangers. That takes guts for anyone, but it’s particularly bold if the notion of dwelling on one’s own feelings and being stared at and listened to is somehow at odds with one’s built-in sense of propriety.
For Pazdziora, pursuing one’s goals is a way of finding one’s place in the world, another way of teasing out the interconnectedness of people, their gifts and strengths, emotion and nature.
“It’s hard to talk about woman power because it offends some people. It’s hard to know how to approach it: What does it mean to be a woman, what does it mean to be womanly? Does being strong and confident mean you’re not being a woman? I guess I would say the opposite.”
Emily Stewart’s path to writing songs and performing was atypical. It was accidental. She was in a car accident. And then she got nudged to get up on stage.
“I got hit by a tractor,” says Stewart.
“But it turned out to be a good thing.”
Forced to spend time convalescing, and out of work for five months, Stewart had to come up with something to occupy herself besides reading and TV.
“I had a guitar collecting dust,” says Stewart. This was eight or nine years ago. Stewart, 32, says she’d always loved to sing and to write, but she had never really applied herself to playing an instrument or songwriting. “I had picked up a guitar a few times and it just never really stuck.”
Stewart, who lives in Greensboro, practices reiki and wellness in Winston-Salem.
She’s come to view her embrace of music and music-making as an extension of her interest in healing energy and health. It might seem far-fetched, but there are a lot of wind-instrument players and vocalists who talk about the surprising beneficial mental and physical side-effects of learning to play music that requires strict breath control. Think of it as a kind of yogic practice with music serving to focus and unify the mind and body.
“Now in retrospect I know that a lot of what I was trying to do was to work through the injury,” says Stewart. “I had a neck injury, and I think that singing was a healing force.”
Elaborating on the point, Stewart says this: “Just like with any other art â€” you’re basically channeling energy any time you play music.”
This is a story about music and musicmaking, but it’s as much a story about how a group of singers â€” in this case, female songwriters from the south â€” were drawn to the craft, in some cases despite the challenges they perceived as inherent in that pursuit, and how their connections to community of like-minded performers has spurred them on. As much as music can be a solitary pursuit and expression of individuality, it is also often the product of a communal connection.
During that stretch of recovering from her car accident, Stewart learned some gospel and Carter Family tunes, started playing with a friend who played banjo. One day, around nine years ago, her friend sprung a surprise on her.
“He said ‘We better start writing some tunes because we have a show in two weeks,'” says Stewart. “I was very upset with him. But I’m glad he pushed me on stage.”
Stewart takes note of the fact that she needed encouragement to make the leap to performing. It wasn’t something she would have done on her own.
“The reason I ended up on stage was because of the confidence of a male performer,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t have thought I had any business setting up a show.”
Stewart, who was raised in Alabama, makes a connection to regional ideas of gender roles and the types of behavior she felt encouraged to explore.
“Especially in the deep South, catering to other people’s needs, that’s in some ways how you’re taught to be a woman,” says Stewart.
The cultural representation of the male troubadour, exposing something of his inner turmoil to an audience in a daring act of self-revelation â€” hasn’t always had an easy-to-find comparable female counterpart.
“I’ve always noticed just a natural boldness from the male performers that I’ve worked with that I haven’t always had â€” that fire and courage to get out there and a willingness to bare your soul,” says Stewart. “It can be more of an initial leap to jump on stage for some people.”
Courage might be easy to misread. Who knows how frightened someone is when they get up on stage? Being a good actor might be part of it.
But, in a more quantifiable area, Stewart offers a clear example of how the music business seems to cater to men with regard to what she calls “practical considerations.”
“When I go to the music store to buy picks – particularly metal banjo picks [which fit around the ends of the fingertip] â€” you really just have to buy picks that are designed for children,” says Stewart.
Stewart plays in a number of bands â€” including Emily Stewart & The Baby Teeth and Magpie Thief â€” and she performs as a solo artist as well. With her background in holistic health, Stewart views her singing as more than just entertainment.
“Songs are basically mantras,” she says.
“I always consider whenever I write a song that fact that I’m going to be repeating these words over and over. To me it’s important that I’m going to be saying the right thing.”
For those of us raised on the idea of the disposable and inane pop song, this notion of weighty meaning and healing power might seem like a lot to expect from a few chords, some words and a melody. But the seriousness of the whole endeavor seems to be what draws people like Pazdziora and Stewart to songwriting and singing.
For Stewart, singing is akin to giving witness or testifying. It’s solemn.
“I think that any time that we’re using our voices to acknowledge truth, I think that in itself is a healing experience,” she says. “Acknowledging bold truths is one of the big purposes of songwriting.”
It’s not all good vibes and reflections on happiness. Stewart’s songs have narratives about real life and struggle. She’s been exploring emotions that are occasionally shunned or suppressed. “Female anger is sometimes not acknowledged,” she says. And Stewart’s been working on a song about “anger welling up in the body.”
That doesn’t mean she’s turning into a rage-filled punk screamer. This is still acoustic music, nostalgia-tinged Americana, a setting where tuneful melodicism is generally prized over sonic aggression.
On the one hand, you might expect that in a relatively small city, with only so many venues and so many open mics, that the number of female singer/songwriters in the scene would be small as well. But by all accounts, those involved are regularly surprised at the range and caliber of performers in the area.
“A month or two ago I played a showcase of women songwriters, and I was amazed at how many names and faces there were that I didn’t even know about,” says Stewart. “I feel like there’s mutual support among the community of women songwriters.”
Stewart is preparing for a string of fall dates up the East Coast with her duo project. Ever since she began focusing on music, Stewart has worked to create the flexibility in her life to pursue writing and performing. Some of the credit for her inspiration has to go to the place that drew her to performing and the network of other writers, musicians, singers in the region.
“I feel like Greensboro is a really powerful community,” says Stewart.
LAURA JANE VINCENT
Laura Jane Vincent grew up around here. She left to play music. That’s why she came back, too. Vincent has logged some time in other music cities, places with lots of clubs and a steady influx of outside visitors â€” playing on the streets in Asheville, working the bars in Charleston, and performing all around Tennessee.
“The thing that brought me back here is the music scene, no doubt,” says Vincent.
Vincent and her husband and bandmate, drummer Dave Tippetts, live in Glendon, out in the country, about 50 minutes from Greensboro. Vincent went to UNCG, and so she was familiar with the musical landscape, but during years away in the early 2000s, she thought she saw something change.
“I saw a community build up around music, and I saw it happen very organically,” she says.
The mutual support of local musicians and the keenness for collaboration is something that Vincent views as part of the region’s appeal for artists.
“There’s an awesome feeling of people helping each other out,” she says. “A lot of cities have that, but I’m biased because I’m here and I see it.”
From a distance, the action in the music business often seems to be clumped together in certain big cities â€” New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Nashville, Athens, Omaha, wherever. Artists are often given the idea that music has to be pursued elsewhere.
“I think when I was young I didn’t realize that bands were from North Carolina,” says Vincent. Her debut full-length was recorded at Echo Mountain studios in Asheville in 2013.
For Vincent, who’s been performing since she was young, playing guitar and writing songs since she was a teenager, the whole singer/songwriter enterprise is one of exploring beyond boundaries and making connections.
“I really started actively trying to craft songs when I was about 15 or 16. I started playing out in public when I was that age,” says Vincent. “It was good to start that young and get humbled that early and to be able to get feedback.”
She elaborates: “You have to push past any introvert tendencies,” she says. “It really forced me to go outside my comfort zone and to network and meet people and make friends with them!” Vincent, 33, has been doing this for about half of her life now. The artistic challenges and the demand for a sort of super-human amount of out-going interpersonal energy are things that â€” if they don’t crush you â€” make you stronger.
“When you’re on stage yourself, you’re naked,” says Vincent. “That’s you, and that’s all people have to look at, and that’s all people have to listen to. You have to have like a planetary ego as a performer to be a solo artist and stand onstage.”
Vincent has new material and she’s eager to record it, possibly using the 200-year-old farmhouse where she and her husband live.
“This time, we have this beautiful space and this house with these high ceilings,” she says.
“I would love to make our next record right here at our house.”
As Vincent points out, the numbers of female performers and pop stars may have changed and increased over the past 20 years, but other aspects of the business remain pretty male-dominated. She’s eager to master the “sound and technical parts” of music-making in the same way she’s focused on songwriting and performing. “Mixing and mastering is where a lot of magic happens,” she says. Record production and sound engineering are fields that could benefit from more female experts.
“It’s just really awesome to see more ladies taking control of that side of it,” says Vincent.
“Now we gotta take it to the next level.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to find a seat at the table.”
‘MAKING IT OURSELVES’
Molly McGinn isn’t an emerging singer/ songwriter on the scene. She’s been playing in the area â€” collaborating with regional musicians, as a member of different bands, and as a solo artist â€” for more than a decade. As it happens, McGinn has recently collaborated with Anna Luisa Daigneault, a Greensboro DJ, programmer, musician, singer and engineer who performs under the name Quilla, who has also been working to address the gender divide in the world of EDM. The tune, “Wild and Kind,” is a brooding folk/electronica hybrid, bringing to mind the lonesome desert vibe of Chris Isaak, with ethereal vocal harmonies, subtle low-end churchorgan rumbling underneath the ticking pulse of the synthetic beat, and a speedier vocal counter-phrase that wraps itself around the repeating refrain at the song’s core. McGinn points to the recent production work by Merrill Garbus of Tune-yards as an example of ways the national music industry is evolving from behind the mixing board.
For McGinn, the whole Greensboro music scene, particularly the folk-ish singersongwriter end of the spectrum, is characterized by advocacy, giving people voice.
“That’s part of what you have to do whether you’re a woman or a man, is to figure out who’s not being heard and do your damnedest to make sure that they are,” says McGinn.
But she jokingly alludes to “girl code” â€” an unspoken mutual-aid ideal.
“We have that responsibility to encourage each other.”
McGinn points to Greensboro singer/ songwriter Laurelyn Dossett as a mentor and a model for how to live a life in music with a connection to people and place.
“What [Dossett] taught me is that the role that the musician plays is a responsibility to the community,” says McGinn.
“I always saw her just reaching out and reaching up.”
The food world may have embraced the idea of locavorism, but it’s a concept that local music scenes have been practicing for ages. Music made close to home has a special significance. McGinn says the area venues â€” Doodad Farm, Lucky 32, and places like Muddy Creek Music Hall and The Garage in Winston-Salem â€” also cultivate a sense of community with the kinds of shows that happen there. (As it happens, Vincent, Pazdziora and Stewart were all part of a recent “Southern Sirens” bill earlier this month at Muddy Creek Music Hall to pay tribute to female giants of country music like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and others.)
McGinn says Greensboro and the Triad area have an independent and self-sufficient spirit.
“I think Greensboro’s always been an underground punk kind of town,” says McGinn. “It’s always been pretty hard-core DIY.”
“At one point, maybe 15 years ago, all the best shows were house shows and they were happening in people’s homes,” she says. “Because there hasn’t always been a great place to play, we’ve always done a great job of making it happen on our own. We’re always having to make it ourselves.” !