We a couple of months ago we wrote about how we had the pleasure of seeing Bea Troxel open for the always wonderful Sons of an Illustrious Father. Fast forward a few months, a new album later, and to a completely different region of the US, and we can say the same. Well, sort of – she was winding down a tour with a last show in Providence, RI.
If it helps you to understand how captivating and gripping of a musician Troxel is, the only other time we’ve driven to Providence for a show was to see Future Islands. What we witnessed in Troxel was a sound that only intensified our interest in her as an artist and person. Now traveling with a backing band, her sound is much fuller, deeper, and realized.
Nowhere is this more present than her new album The Way that it Feels. Produced by John Cochran, and with instrument support from a slew of Nashville-based talent, the album is simply great. Is it the “best” folk and singer/songwriter album of the year? Well, we don’t like throwing around “best,” but it’s without a doubt a favorite of ours. From the first note on “Delta” to the last time we hear her voice on “Joyful,” you’re hold captive by the awe inspired by the work.
Bea Troxel has a lot going on right now, as you can guess. Yet she was still kind enough to take the time to talk with us. We walked through her past – a journey that took her out of Nashville and back home again, the making of her debut album, and what the future holds for an artist full of vision and determination.
...So growing up in the splendor that is Nashville, what kind of music or art scene were you drawn to with so much around you?
I didn’t realize what a privilege it was to grow up in Nashville until I moved away after college. Music was so much a part of my childhood world that it was hard to get enough outside of it to want to do it. I can remember one of my neighbors who is a producer gathering all of the kids on our street to sing in the chorus of a Guster song. Everyone seemed to play music, and so I always felt like an observer rather than a part of it all.
I’d say that in high school I was mostly drawn to the indie/folk/Americana realm of music. I went to Nickel Creek concerts in middle school and as many concerts at the Ryman Auditorium as I could. When I got into late high school I began to find more of the DIY scene in Nashville, but my interaction with that was still very much as an observer who was in awe at the lo-fi indie music that was happening.
And what got you into songwriting? You started in the 10th grade writing about bad haircuts, but did you have a desire to do so before that fateful haircut pushed you into it?
I went to a show in the ninth grade at a local church converted to DIY space, and the band was compiled of several college students who grew up near me. As they played their set I kept thinking about maybe I could write my own songs. It was really just seeing people who were close enough to who I was and where I was that pushed me to start writing songs.
Around the same time a friend in school, William, asked me if I wanted to be in a band with him. We never played a show, but we would hang out after school all the time and record songs on my great grandmother’s cassette tape. We’d go to shows in Nashville together. We’d email lyrics back and forth and add piano or banjo or guitar.
Before I started writing songs my favorite songwriter was Chris Thile, and his songs seem so unreachable in terms of how he wrote the melody and framed the lyrics with mandolin. Laura Marling became a songwriter I worked to write like. I used to take her songs and try and write new songs to her chords, because I knew I wanted her sensibilities. For a long time I would write new songs to other songs I liked until I had enough confidence to try and write my own melodies and trust that they could stand on their own.
What was the history of Bea, Rita, & Maeve? How did you all connect? Do you remember how things clicked and what led you all to decide to form a band?
Maeve and I went to a humanities nerd camp together one summer, where we played music every night under a tree on the quad with a few other friends at the camp. We called it the Hippy Tree Circle, and it was one of the first truly positive and collaborative experiences as a musician.
Maeve and I were both from Nashville, so we continued to hang out and play music together. Maeve went to school with Rita, and there happened to be a fundraiser in spring of our senior year. Maeve wrangled us all together, and we practiced once together and then played the event. People seemed to like our sound, and so we decided to play at the battle of the bands at their high school.
We won battle of the bands and afterwards a man from a small record label, New Generation Records, offered to record us. So we scraped together all of our songs, and recorded the songs in a week, played a few shows throughout the summer, and then we all went off to college. I think we were a band for only seven months, but it was a magical time.
“The River,” winner of WNYC’s Studio 360 Battle of the High School Bands, how did that song happen? What’s the story behind its creation?
The story of “The River” isn’t really that exciting. Sometimes I feel like birth of the songs is not as valuable as the life of the song, because if it cannot mean different things at different times, then the song is not able to withstand time.
But I wrote “The River” one day after climbing club. I had a big fat crush on this guy, and I really didn’t think he was that great of a guy, so I was trying to talk myself out of liking him. As silly as that is, that’s where the idea of a river being a compelling and dangerous force comes from in the song. I plopped down in the living room with the tape recorder, and I recorded that chorus.
The rest of the words came to me almost immediately, and I would say that I wrote the song in about thirty minutes. My family was cooking dinner in the kitchen, and I tried to be very quiet because I am so private about my lyrics while I am writing. That song, luckily, represents something different every time I play it, so I am not stuck on the high school climber whenever I play it.
The harmonies on that track, and your music, are unreal. How have you been able to make that such a point of strength in your music? What draws you to focus on them and make them so vital to your sound?
I think I’ve been lucky enough to work with friends who really value harmony. In Bea, Rita, & Maeve it was just a given that we would use a lot of harmonies in our music because we all loved to sing. I have always been drawn to it because I love to play around with my voice.
John, who produced and recorded the album, also really loves harmony, and I was really lucky to have Christa Cohen sing the harmonies on the record. She sang with me while I was living in Harrisburg, and she always finds the most unique and close harmonies. I owe a lot of the sound on “Joyful” to her.
I was very hesitant to use “oo’s” as texture on the record, because I wanted to avoid any tropes with female wordless “oo’s” in the background, but John thought they would add a lot, and now that I have heard them in context, I really enjoy them.
So Andrew W.K. has covered you – did you, or are you going to cover him?
I love this question! I had not thought about it, but that’s a great idea!
When I met you, you were just about to head out of Pennsylvania. What took you there, and how did the move affect your music and songwriting, if at all?
I moved to PA to work with Episcopal Service Corps where I lived in intentional community, worked for a non-profit in the area, and volunteered at the local church. That move deeply influenced my songwriting. Harrisburg has a thriving DIY music scene, and I found myself quickly meeting a lot of local bands and learning about how to book shows, self-record, and pursue music in an alternative route.
Before that time music had purely been something that happened out of coincidence. I wrote songs and played shows when people asked me to, but I did not pursue playing shows or recording any of that music on my own. I sang in a band called Weird Year, led by this incredible, inimitable Harrisburg songwriter. I learned sooo much about harmonies in that band.
After working a job that taught me a lot but emotionally drained me, I quit and started working at a local coffee shop. The day after I quit my job I immediately knew I needed to record an album, somehow move back to Nashville, and begin working on my music with more focus. Something about working an emotionally challenging job and living in a city where I really struggled with finding community pushed me to see how valuable writing and playing music is for me.
In the spring of 2017 I took guitar lessons from someone in Lancaster, PA, and I have to say that those guitar lessons were very influential for my songwriting. That’s when I wrote “Talc,” “The Way That It Feels,” and “Joyful.”
While my time in Central Pa was really challenging, I learned so much during that time, and I’m so thankful for all of the people who were are part of that growth.
And what brought you back to Nashville? Do you expect it to be a more permanent stop? How has being back in your hometown impacted you as a songwriter?
I had only three New Year’s resolutions this year, and one of them was to surround myself with people I wanted to be like. I knew Nashville was a city full of people who would push me to grow and people who would support and encourage me. I also knew it was the place to be if I wanted to record my album with people I really respected and admired.
For now the city is very right and very nurturing, but I don’t know how long I will be here. Everything right now is so transitional and new, so I don’t truly know how long I’ll be anywhere. But right now Nashville feels really great, and I’m very thankful for the ways that I have support in this city, and I don’t ever want to take that for granted. I mostly find myself watching, because Nashville is a weird place to figure out.
I’m trying to figure out how I want to be a part of the musical side of the city, so I’ve been going to shows and meeting people and slowly branching out.
Listening to the new album – wow. Some of these songs are so unreal with the rebirth they’ve been given. How was it working with old friends (and band mates) again?
Yes, John had a vision for these songs that I am immensely thankful for. When I write a song, I want it to be able to stand as a song with just the guitar and vocals, but I think that can limit the way I see my songs, which is why John was so helpful in helping arrange and build the album. All I knew was that I wanted pedal steel and harmonies and violin.
Rita has the brain of a mathematician, and her technical brain always helps make the string arrangements more interesting and unique. John and I spent the month of April recording for several hours each day, and I would say that that time was full of joy and novelty. It was immensely collaborative and full of energy, and I’m so thankful for that time. He’s an incredible producer and an amazing friend.
John’s production is just so damn good on this album. Has he produced more stuff, or is this just a hobby that he’s really into?
Right? John’s an incredible producer. He has gone in and out of producing professionally, and has been working with sound engineering since he was in high school. He really loves to produce artists that excite and challenge him, but that’s hard to always do when you are starting out as a producer. So, he has taken to doing it more as a hobby, so that he can very intentionally pick who he works with.
With the newer tracks, was it a solo writing process, or did you collaborate? Are there any that you just couldn’t wait to put together? I know it’s tough to have favorites, but…
Yes, they were all written alone. My guitar teacher helped me with a section of “Joyful,” but other than that I wrote it all alone. Co-writing is something I’d like to be able to do, but right now I am really awful at it and don’t enjoy it at all. It’s hard for me to think around other people.
I was very excited about “Whiskey and Wine” and “Talc.” Those were the two I was most excited to build up with different instruments.
Has playing live with a band shaped the change of what you’ve created so far, or has it changed how you envision your future work?
My goodness it has been quite the experience! I love playing these songs with Rita and John. It brings so much life and energy to the music. They both focus on nuance and subtlety in their playing; they want engagement from the audience and care a lot about creating dynamically rich songs. I’m unsure how it will change my future music.
I think I will have more sounds in my brain as I write, and I’ll have more of an understanding of the space within a song. I think John’s really good at creating space in songs where the audience can breathe, so I want to focus on that as I write in the future.
Were there any tracks in particular that you were most excited to rework or to perform live with support?
I loved, loved, loved working on “Talc” and “Joyful.” Those two songs were written during a very special part of my life, and they are about a really important relationship, so getting to spend a lot of time with them felt like a treasure. And because we spent so much time on “Talc,” especially, I find so much joy every time I play it live.
One vibe that I got from you, and from John and Rita during my brief chats with them in Providence, is you’re so incredibly DIY. I know that can’t be easy, but how do you make it work, and what would you recommend to anyone seeking advice on how to be more like that?
Yes! Thanks to Harrisburg, I learned all about the DIY scene. I’d say my DIY nature probably comes out of my fierce and sometimes detrimental independence. My solution to most things is that I can do it, and if I can’t do it then I might as well let it go. It was hard enough for me to ask John to produce the record, so I tried to keep my hands on everything else. Ultimately, I learned a lot about how much I need other people as I did the DIY thing.
I need other artists. I need John’s help. I need people to buy and listen to the record. Out of this album came a really neat and important group of artists who I relied heavily upon to get it done. I loved doing all of the business and technical aspects of this record. I think it was important for me to understand how everything works, so that if I do eventually work with a label or manager (high hopes!!) then I would know exactly what I needed them to do and how I wanted it done.
My advice would be for people to buy Ari Herstand’s book How to Make It in the New Music Business. It answered so many of my questions about how to get the album into the world and how to promote my music and how to book shows. I’d also say that in playing shows you meet other musicians, and really it’s the people playing music that know the most about how to make it in the scene you are in. Talking to other musicians was ultimately the most helpful thing I did.
So now that you’ve wrapped us this tour, you’re back in Nashville. What’s next? I have to say, seeing you in Providence, you all didn’t seem like three people who had gone up the east coast and back in ten days – there was a lot of excitement.
We are playing a couple of shows in Nashville in October. I’m going to continue to promote this record as best as I can, and I am also trying to write as much as I possibly can. That’s all I know for now! I would just love to plan a West Coast tour for the spring or summer, so I will probably start looking into that.
10.10.2017 / By Joey Smith