Friday, July 5, 2013

Interview with Amanda Platt of The Honeycutters pt. 1

Americana (whatever that is) singer/songwriters are a dime a dozen these days. There is no shortage of acoustic guitar strummed, down on your luck lyrics, supported by pretty harmonies. To stand out in that crowd is as hard as it ever was, maybe more so these days. But that is exactly what Amanda Platt does with quiet ease.

All it takes is to hear her sing a few notes and you are immediately stuck by her voice. Pretty to be sure, but with just enough twang, grit, and depth that you might not notice the cliché free songwriting style she’s developed. As Nashville continues to churn out “country music” sung by women who would be just as likely to end up as models as singers, written by professional songwriters as interested in marketability as expression, Amanda Platt’s music reminds you that country music is alive and well.

Go buy some of their music!

BC: How did you start playing music?

AP: I really started writing songs, doing what I do now when I was 18 or 19. My dad is a musician. He’s a lawyer now but he’s still a musician. He always encouraged me to take guitar lessons and always wanted me and my brother to be musical. Guitar never caught with me for some reason. I played flute for a while when I was in middle school.

BC: So when you were in elementary/middle school you didn’t play music to speak of?

AP: No. I played flute in band class. That’s about it. I wouldn’t call it a creative outlet. It was just reading classical music.

BC: It was just another class?

AP: Yeah. I like being musical in that sense but I wasn’t expressing myself. It was more like a hobby. A technical exercise. So I never got really good at it. I never got that into it or pursued it.

BC: So when you were 19 what switched?

AP: When I was 19 I was at college in upstate New York at Skidmore in Saratoga Springs, NY. I was pretty miserable. I was a freshman and I was very sad (laughs) and I bought a banjo on a whim because I used to walk a lot. You know I didn’t really want to go to college but that’s what all my friends were doing and I had the opportunity so I thought well I should go to college. And I applied to all these college and got rejected. And Skidmore rejected me the first time but then they accepted me the 2nd time around. It was in the London Programs, which was kind of their surplus of Freshman and they sent them to London for their first semester. So like 30 some odd freshman are going to drop out and then there’ll be room for them and then they’ll go back. It’s a weird concept.

But I found out I got accepted so I thought, “Yeah I’ll go to London!” But when you come back you don’t get to live in the dorm on campus they put you in this dorm that’s like 2 miles away from campus across downtown. So I was miserable there. So I decided I’m going to walk to school. And this is Saratoga Springs in a January/ February. I’m gonna walk every damn day through downtown. There and back! So there was a guitar shop in downtown Saratoga and they had a banjo in the window. A resonator banjo and I had never seen a banjo before I don’t think. But my dad is into Bluegrass and so I had certainly heard banjo music but there wasn’t a big folk/bluegrass scene.

So it was  a very novel experience. This was before the Avett Brothers hit it big. Or Mumford and Sons. Banjo wasn’t in the forefront of my imagination. It was like here’s a weird instrument. And I had this idea, I just want to play that banjo. That will make me feel better. Kind of a random thing. I bought it for like $150. They gave me a little book with some chords in it. So I sort of started learning a bastardization of clawhammer.

BC: Did you take lessons?

AP: I did end up taking a few lesson with a lady named Trish Miller and she was very much married to old time clawhammer style. And I wanted to just write songs. And that’s when I stared writing songs. The first 20 or 30 songs I wrote were on the banjo. I remember going to my first open mic. It was at the college that I was going to. There was nobody there. It was me and 3 other people that were running the open mic. I was super nervous. I couldn’t even breath let alone remember the words to the songs, let alone play the banjo!

BC: Did you sing at all before this?

AP: I did some community theatre when I was in middle school. I was in chorus in high school. But mainly because my two best buddies were in chorus and wanted to goof around with them.

BC: When you were in chorus and theatre did you ever have vocal instruction?

AP: Very general. Actually not really. In chorus I feel like maybe he said “sing from your diaphragm” or something but there was never any one on one instruction. And I did take some jazz voice lessons my senior year of high school. I always felt like I could sing but no one had ever told me that I could sing so I also had this feeling that I was terrible and if I sang in front of people they would make fun of me.

BC: Did you always have the feeling of wanting to sing?

AP: I think I always had it. I fantasized about being on Broadway. I wanted to be in CATS!

BC: So the singing thing was always there?

AP: Yes.

BC: So with the singing, even back before you started banjo, did you ever listen to yourself sing with a recording?

AP: I don’t think so.

BC: So when you started writing songs on the banjo, was it like a dam bursting?

AP: A little bit. A little bit. The first couple of songs I wrote quickly became an escape for me. It made a lot of sense. Even though I had never written a song before I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. In high school I would write poetry and prose and so I always had words in my head. I always had phrases in my head and when I started putting them to music something clicked and that became the easiest way to express myself.

It was kind of like the dam burst. It was like OK! Here we go, this is what I’m doing now.

BC: In the beginning did you write in any particular style?

AP: No. I think I wanted to be a punk rocker. But, all of the songs I wrote early on were pretty folky and they still are. I’m not a punk rocker. I remember I had a friend who played fiddle and formed a little band and I remember taking her a new song I had written and trying to like speed it up and make it poppy. She said, “This sounds like a country song.” I was like, “NO!”

BC: There’s still time. You know Ryan Adams did his metal album.

AP: What? I had no idea.

BC: Oh yeah. So you were writing songs, you didn’t know where you fit in but you were gravitating to county?

AP: Yeah, and I was playing a banjo so people would look and think, Folk Music.

BC: At what time did something say, “I want to get deeper into this?”

AP: I think oddly enough as shy about it as I was and as little confidence that I had even after that first open mic, which was horrible, if I had seen myself I would have said, “please don’t let her do that again.” I remember leaving there with a sense of like, I had set up a challenge for myself. I thought, “No that’s not going to be the last. You’re not going to crawl under a rock and die. This is something that you can do. You can do this.”
And so I just knew it was already a feeling of being in this for something. It wasn’t just oh I wrote a song and I’ll let it drop. No this was a higher thing for me. You know over the next 2 years I met a couple of other girls who were playing music and we started performing more regularly. Caffé Lena is a great folk club in Saratoga Springs. Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan played there and they have an open mic on Thursday nights and I started being a regular at that and started to get more confident.

BC: Did you consider it a band?

AP: Yeah we had a guitar. I played banjo. Another girl played fiddle.

BC: A friend band.

AP: Yeah we all lived together. Yeah we could all kind of play something. The girls could kind of sing.

BC: During that time did you gain more confidence by playing with them?

AP: Definitely. Yeah even before that I got confidence by going to the open mic at Caffé Lena. It felt like every time I performed, even if I was shaky or the song was rough, it felt like people noticed me and people were like, "oh, you know you can turn a phrase." Or, "that’s an interesting melody there."

BC: So you got some good feedback right away?

AP: Yeah, pretty immediately. And that pushed me to keep going and I still didn’t feel like I could sing. I was like yeah I play banjo and write songs but I’m not a singer. I don’t know when it was that I started feeling like people said oh I really like your voice but somewhere in there playing with these girls, going to the open mic. That was a very formative experience for me. Confidence is everything in terms of technique, honing my craft or whatever. I’ve never studied voice, guitar, or banjo, or songwriting. I don’t really practice. The way that I practice is that I write songs and I play them in front of people. So that whole process and getting more into that, and getting positive feedback, that was really where I felt like I started actually getting to be proficient at what I was doing.

BC: Sounds like you really put yourself through performance school right away. Immediately you were performing and putting yourself out there. Seeing what worked and what didn’t work.

AP: Yeah. I had a need to. I was very shy and introverted. I’m getting a lot better about that but even if I could pretend that I was extroverted I was still very buttoned up about my emotions. I think playing my songs for people was my way of venting that a little bit. So there was a need for that. Even if it was less of a conscious thing. Regardless of getting better at performing, that was why I was doing it.

BC: Did you ever study guitar?

AP: I had 3 or 4 lessons with this beautiful man. Chris Morolla. I wonder what he is doing now. He taught my brother and all his friends and they all play music. They all took lessons with Chris and he was a pretty laid back dude. I think we stopped having lessons because he would just stop coming. I think he just forgot about the lessons. It never stuck with me. I think I didn’t want to play other peoples' songs or learn chords. There was a sense in me that I wanted to do my own stuff. But I wasn’t there yet.

But I learned how to play tangled up in blue.

BC: Well there you go. That got you going.

AP: I wish I could remember how to play it. (laughs) I like that song.

BC: There’s a lot of words. So you had a little guitar instruction.

AP: Yeah and I’m not a lead player or picker.

BC: As far as songwriting goes, what were some of the things you used to  develop your songs? Did you have a point where you thought, “I really like my songs,” but then did you write a song and say, “I really like that song!”? Did you get to a point where you thought, oh wow I am good at this?

AP: I wish I could say I knew when I wrote a good one. But I think I would have been doing it anyway. But because of positive feedback early on it was very much “Ok, this is a good song because these people at the open mic said it was a good song.” All these people responded to it.

BC: Did you ever think I want to make my living doing this?

AP: I think I wanted to but I didn’t even believe it was a possibility enough to entertain it. It was in my quietest hope of hopes, I was like maybe I could actually do this. But you can’t do this. You have to go to college and become an English teacher or something. I didn’t know what to do. I never had a plan B. It took me a while to acknowledge that this is plan A.

BC: I still don’t have a plan B.

AP: Yeah, I think those are the ones who do it. They don’t have a fall back plan.

Look for the rest of this interview in my forthcoming book on how to practice music.

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