Singer/songwriter Beth Bombara has achieved profound organic chemistry through her collaborative work with such artists as nationally touring Samantha Crain, the Midnight Shivers, and, not to be ignored, local gems Cassie Morgan and the Lonely Pine, producing a synchronized body of work which a friend described as evidence of either “years of experience, or an alignment with the stars”. Now, with her first full-length album release “Wish I Were You”, (produced with husband Kit Hamon and released on vinyl, no less) Beth showcases her personal achievements as a solo artist, welding signature folk stylings with regional influence. MOTH was pleased to speak with her in advance of her November 19th Album Release Show at Off Broadway about the experiences that contributed to her introspect as an artist, and what she has in store next.
MOTH: Where have you lived previously and how did you come to find yourself settled and creating music in St. Louis?
Beth: I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I moved to St. Louis to finish school. Then I graduated college and traveled around for about a year playing music with a songwriter named Samantha Crain. After a year of sleeping on a couch and not really having my own place to live, I thought, You know what, it would be really nice to have my own space. This has been fun, but I’m ready to just settle down in one place for a while. So then I moved to St. Louis, because I had a lot of college friends that had since graduated and found jobs here. Also, my boyfriend lived here, who coincidentally is Kit [Hamon], and we ended up getting married a year ago.
“After a year of sleeping on a couch and not really having my own place to live, I thought, You know what, it would be really nice to have my own space… So then I moved to St. Louis.”
MOTH: So everything fell into place, then?
Beth: I had been dating Kit for, I don’t know, maybe a couple years, and when he told me (I was out on the road) he said, “You know, I think I’m ready for this to be more serious.” And I was like, “Okay! I’m moving to St. Louis.” At that time period in my life, I was ready for that. So yeah, I guess you could say it all kind of fell into place.
MOTH: What was the formative time in your life that directly affected the creative direction your life took, and your creative process music-wise?
Beth: It started even before high school, when I learned to play the piano, which is the first instrument that I ever played. I was in probably fourth or fifth grade, so I took piano lessons from, let’s say 5th grade to 8th grade, and decided that the guitar was way cooler. My mom had an acoustic guitar and I asked her to show me some chords, which she did. She played a little bit. She would play sometimes in the church worship band and stuff like that, but then she got really bad arthritis in her left hand, so she can’t really play anymore. But it was always something kind of fun for her to do. So I picked up the guitar and realized, Hey this is fun, and I think I’m actually kind of good at this! Just having that early musical experience and learning to play an instrument at a relatively early age, that laid a really good foundation for me to still be playing music now.
MOTH: You talk a little bit on your MySpace page about an opportunity you had to participate in an artist residency program on Martha’s Vineyard, and how that afforded you the tremendous advantage of being able to concentrate on nothing but music. Roughly four years later, what do you think you carried away from that experience that’s still reflected in your music? What’s changed?
Beth: I think in a broad sense it helped me focus and realize that I love writing music and I love playing the guitar, and that I really just wanted to keep doing it. I know other people who have had that experience, gone there and done a residency, and decided, You know what, playing songs is fun, but I’m going to do something else. So it kind of helped me focus and realize that I really do love writing songs and playing. Aside from the musical aspect it was also a really good introspective time to learn about myself and become more confident not only as a songwriter and a musician, but more confident in myself as a person.
“…Early musical experience and learning to play an instrument at a fairly early age, that laid a really good foundation for me to still be playing music now.”
MOTH: What prior experience had you had playing music at that point?
Beth: In high school I played with a couple of different bands, but I hadn’t really started playing by myself yet. The residency gave me confidence and helped me explore different genres of music that I hadn’t really played a lot of before, because when you’re there you’re playing with other musicians as well and gaining those experiences. One crazy thing that I learned about myself and songwriting while I was there, is that music is really easy for me to write, but coming up with words to go along with the music, that’s where it’s a lot harder for me. That was one thing I really wanted to try and struggle with while I was there. I found that sometimes giving yourself a deadline – it doesn’t sound very inspirational at all – but actually sometimes it helps. Songwriters shouldn’t allow too much time to edit themselves.
MOTH: What are the advantages and disadvantages of a solo artist’s songwriting process opposed to collaborating with a full band?
Beth: Most of the songwriting processes that I’ve been involved with have been solo, and there’s a couple that I’ve tried co-writing on. At first it’s a little intimidating because you wonder, What if this person doesn’t like my idea? But it’s important to find people that you’re comfortable with to be able to do that. A huge advantage of working with others is just having somebody else’s perspective that you would never think of. So I’m a big proponent of writing songs and flushing out ideas together. It just allows for more inspiration. Two heads really are better than one. I guess in my experience, the first song that I ever really co-wrote that ended up anything happening with was with Kit, and I was trying to finish writing the last song on the album that we’re getting ready to release. I had written the first half of it, and I was like, “Kit, I don’t know what to do with this song! Would you want to try helping me finish writing it?” And he was like, “Yeah, that could be cool!” So we just sat down and tried to work it out together. It’s such a different experience. In a band you kind of find out maybe one person is really good at writing music and another person is good at writing lyrics. Even playing with Cassie [Morgan], she’ll have all the lyrics written usually and then she’ll have a basic idea of the music, so then I’ll come in. I wouldn’t necessarily call it songwriting, more like song arranging. I’ll add things or say, “Maybe we shouldn’t sing the chorus again.”
“…Music is really easy for me to write, but coming up with words to go along with the music, that’s a lot harder for me… sometimes giving yourself a deadline – it doesn’t sound very inspirational at all – but actually sometimes it helps. Songwriters shouldn’t allow too much time to edit themselves.”
MOTH: Who would you say are your peers musically?
Beth: Obviously Cassie. I play with her a lot. I feel like maybe in the past year I’ve gotten to know a handful of different St. Louis musicians more and been able to guest perform with them and whatnot. Bands like The Blind Eyes, Sleepy Kitty, Union Tree Review. Also I would have to say Theodore, because my brother-in-law is in that band, J.J. Hamon, and he plays with me sometimes. He plays the lap steel. When you live in a small neighborhood, you see your neighbors all the time, in passing or randomly hanging out. You get into conversations and you start contributing to each other’s projects in one way or another, even if it’s not necessarily musically.
MOTH: You’re releasing your upcoming album on vinyl, correct?
Beth: Yep! Kind of crazy.
MOTH: With vinyl sales up and people buying record players again, there’s definitely a new interest in music on vinyl. Do you think that your decision to release an album on vinyl is sort of a commentary on that change that we’re seeing in the cultural landscape?
Beth: In a way it is. I know that there is a demand for it, and I’ve had people say to me, “Hey, you should really release an album on vinyl.” And I’m like, “Okay, but that’s really expensive and it doesn’t really make sense!” It does make sense because it’s cool and it’s a really neat musical format, but other than that… But the vinyl will come with a digital download, so that’s something I feel will make it more accessible.
MOTH: You compare your past sound to that of Beth Orton/Bon Iver and your current sound to Jenny Lewis/Muddy Waters on a road trip. How much of that evolution is relative to subject matter, if any, and how much of it is simply a result of natural progression?
Beth: I guess for me I would have to say it’s just natural progression, because I don’t really think in terms of subject matter. I just sit down and try and write whatever comes out. And I think again, in terms of musical styles, being in the area of St. Louis. I hear a blues band play, and it meshes all together. It’s not like every song I play is blues, but a couple of them are, so there’s definitely a regional influence there.
“When you live in a small neighborhood, you see your neighbors all the time, either in passing or randomly hanging out. You get into conversations and start contributing to each other’s projects in one way or another, even if it’s not necessarily musically.”
MOTH: Who would you love to collaborate with that you haven’t already had the opportunity to?
Beth: I think if I had to pick one, it would be really, really cool to collaborate with Sleepy Kitty. I think they’re great people and they’re great artists and musicians. The band Old Lights – David Beeman has definitely been around and we’ve spent a lot of time together over the past three or four months, and actually he asked me to start playing with his band, so that’s another thing that’s going to happen. I think he’s a really talented musician and songwriter and he’s going to be fun to collaborate with.
MOTH: Who on the local scene is worth checking out that might be flying under the radar right now?
Beth: That’s a great question. There’s a girl that I went to college with, her name is Rachel Bowden. She started a band called Cartwheel, and she’s got an amazing voice. That’s definitely under the radar at this point. And then another girl that I know, Caitlin Macri – she hasn’t been playing around a lot, but she’s getting into it a little bit more. She has a unique, experimental, folky sound.
MOTH: What are you listening to?
Beth: I shouldn’t say what I’ve actually been listening to, because it’s been a lot of stuff that I’ve been working on recording. More specifically, in the past month, songs for the Bert Dax Christmas Compilation. Matt [Harnish] from the band Bunnygrunt owns the label. Cassie and I are on it, and then I did a song with Kit for it, and then I recorded another band, their song, for it. Lots of local, original Christmas music. Cassie wrote an original one, and I wrote an original one, and that’s what I’ve been listening to because Kit and I are mixing it. But other than that, I always listen to Nada Surf, because they’re my favorite band. When I tell people that, they’re like, “Nada Surf? Really? That’s weird, I wouldn’t have expected you to say that!” So people laugh at me for that, but I don’t care.