World Cafe Nashville: Katie Herzig
Katie Herzig's trajectory probably doesn't much resemble what you'd expect a professional Nashville songwriter's career to look like, which seems to suit her just fine. She fell into what you might call commercial songwriting almost by accident, when she discovered that the sort of breathy, intimate folk pop tunes she was already writing for her own albums were an excellent fit for the soundtracks to prime-time dramas like Grey's Anatomy. Then the Colorado-bred singer-songwriter tried her hand at composing and producing from a slightly more effervescent, electronic angle for film, television and other artists' recordings.
Spreading her energy and attention between an array of projects has meant longer gaps between her own albums, but it's also equipped Herzig with new skills to put to use in chasing her own muse.
In March, Herzig released her first album in four years, Moment of Bliss, a fetching collection of crystalline melodies, airy effects, zippy synths and gently propulsive beats that feels like introspection forced out into the open air. (This summer, she'll also embark on her first tour in a long while .)
Herzig is the sort of artist who camps out in her studio at every opportunity, tinkering with sonic textures and arrangements. She's already begun sharing ethereal, alternate versions of songs from her new album, like this brand new, acoustic rendition of "Beat of Your Own."
Thankfully, she has an accessible, self-deprecating way of talking about even the geekiest and most esoteric aspects of her music-making process.
Jewly Hight: You started in choral and orchestral music, music known for meticulous composition and arrangement, before you got into songwriting and producing. What difference do you think that made to the way that you formed musical ideas?
Katie Herzig: I think it certainly informed it, spending years learning and performing these songs that are very arranged and have choral elements. I played percussion in orchestra and band for years. ... I took classical voice lessons for years and my sister was an opera singer. ... My sister studied music, and I think I saw that and the whole scene made me nervous. I had a lot of performance anxiety because it was so formal. I was in a poetry class [in college], and that's when I wrote my first song. Then I realized how much I loved just making stuff up.
After you started writing songs, you moved pretty quickly into producing.
Yes, once I had access to my own recording equipment. For years I was in a band and I didn't have access to that stuff. All my song ideas were just on a tape recorder and then we'd work with a producer in a studio. The hands-on stuff was so hard to come by that once I had access to Pro-Tools or Garage Band, I was just in heaven because I could just pile on things, put sounds with other sounds. ...Before that I was studying journalism and I was really interested in documentary [film-making], so I got pretty hands-on with the video editing. So once I got into audio editing, it was like, "Oh, this is pretty similar."
By the time you moved to Nashville, you were recording in a self-sufficient way on a laptop in your bedroom. Nashville has the opposite reputation: People come here to work in professional studios with professionals. Did you let that culture influence you or did you resist it?
I tried to fit in to a certain extent. I was co-writing with people who write songs a certain way. I feel like being set up to write with people was probably the biggest influence on my writing ... I remember writing a lot of songs I didn't love because I was too [nervous]; I wasn't able to communicate what I liked and didn't like in the process of writing it, and I slowly got better at that.
Sometimes I wonder what would my artist self be if I didn't live in Nashville, if I wasn't influenced by the song, influenced by the co-write, influenced by a certain [music] format.
Have there been moments when you've either felt out of step with the music community or plugged into it?
Like with anything in life, when you're trying to put yourself in a box that doesn't quite fit, it's easy to feel isolated. I've never been somebody who has a super showy, strong vocal [style] either.
I would say working with other artists, a small group of people, has been [where I've found kindred spirits.] And working with my producer [Cason Cooley.] And I have a kindred spirit in my girlfriend [singer, songwriter and instrumentalist] Butterfly Boucher.
Butterfly's album Flutterby was one of the first things I remember hearing that represented that kind of self-sufficient pop music-making in Nashville, where the artist handled a lot of the playing and production herself. K.S. Rhoads, who you've also worked with , was another artist that struck me that way.
He's another kindred spirit for sure. Those are people I collaborate easy and well with.
Sometimes it feels like you use your voice more like an instrument, like a synthesizer.
I think on this album, and anything I try to write recently, I find myself oftentimes singing in the higher registers that are more reminiscent of when I was a first soprano in choir, but it's in more of an airy layer instrument kind of way.
That's a way of retaining that bedroom-recording-style intimacy. Your vocals sound cocooned. They're not right out front.
Yeah, it blends into the background. ... There is an element to what I do sometimes where I capture something that I have trouble recreating or beating. So a lot of times I get stuck with the demo, like, the first time I sang it.
You were once on a pretty linear path to releasing albums and touring as a solo artist. How has writing for film and TV and producing for other artists that altered your path?
Totally altered. I would say with the [song] placement stuff, when that started, the music that I was putting out started to be this whole collection of some written for placement stuff and some written for me. ...Then some of that placement stuff started to work into my artistry. Some songs like " Hey Na Na" or " Best Day of Your Life" these songs that are more happy, were written for [film or TV].
The production stuff takes a lot of time and commitment. So that's why it took me four years to put out this album, because I have spent months and months working with other artists on different things.
With Ingrid Michaelson?
Ingrid's been the big one, and we're now working again on her next project. But also what took time with this album was I just lived a lot of life. I moved and I remodeled and I built a studio. I also, subconsciously, like making albums more than putting them out.
The tracks on your new album span sparse, singer-songwriter intimacy, sophisticated orchestration and pop hooks. How do you feel like you're applying the skills you've accumulated over the years?
I like the range. I do like pop music. There's a certain place that I haven't been able to go with pop music: straight up the middle. Starting to work with Ingrid, for example, we were trying to write pop radio songs and stuff, and that was not something I've ever tried to do. [Before that] it was more like, "Here's what I think sounds cool." Then you finish a record and you're like, "Are there any that happen to work for radio?"
The album starts with the song " Strangers" that achieves something that I have been trying to achieve: it's just a chill, feel-good song. I dream about making an album that's just chill, that is just good accompaniment, background music to a vibe. ...The end of the record is more traditional, a song that I wrote with K.S. Rhoads. That's a realsong.
Because it's got piano?
Yeah, piano [ Laughs.] And it sounds like a classic, old song.
I indulge in a lot of elements that I just can't resist on this album. Rhoads always teases me, "Oh, this is so Katie Herzig. It has 'oohs' and 'aahs' in it and a four-on-the-floor [feel] and it's in the key of C and it has triplets." Yes, I do that, and I knew I was doing it. My producer, Cason, he indulges in that stuff too. So this was an act of indulgence. It really did feel like that, just getting some of that out of my system and not punishing myself for doing things that I like.
The song " Learn to Hide " struck me as having almost a baroque pop feel. Is that the sort of thing you're getting at when you're talking about being indulgent?
Those string arias, having that orchestral thing mixed with very simple sounds. ... I always laugh at myself for "Learn to Hide," because you get to the chorus and it has this feeling of it could be this soaring, positive kind of thing. Instead it's like, "Oh, but we learn to hide."
It's not one of those pop choruses engineered for uplift.
Exactly. It could've been, but I could not help myself from singing about this. My co-writer was like, "You have a very negative subconscious, don't you?"
Was that the first time you'd been asked that?
Yeah, in a co-write. A lot of people, we have our go-to dummy lyrics when you're just writing a song. A lot of times people use these words like "never" and "always," extreme words.
This is the language of pop, after all — extremes, absolutes, sweeping emotion.
That's so true. But mine just usually goes negative.
You've claimed Peter Gabriel as one of your influences. He's a pop artist, but an enigmatic one. What have you gotten from his stuff? I don't think people talk about him enough as an influence.
Maybe we're just embarrassed to talk about somebody so mainstream as an influence. I go to him and to Coldplay and to Enya. He's a poetry-to-music kind of guy. He can write songs that don't follow a certain map. I have a couple of fans who've said, "Because Peter Gabriel doesn't put out enough [music], I found Katie Herzig." I was like, "Is that true? If so, that's amazing." I have certain songs that are a tip of the hat to him.
You've said that the broadness of some of your songs has made them good candidates for movies and TV shows, because they're open enough to interpretation that they can be adapted to on-screen storylines. On the other hand, you've talked about the real life inspiration behind particular songs that you wrote when you were processing your mom's passing or wrestling with the idea of living authentically and coming out. How do you make those kinds of decisions?
I've been open in my personal life for years, but I've just never announced it or anything. I started to feel boxed in and like I was hiding something.
For [the song] " Feel Alive," I had people submit their stories of how they related to it, because it was written for my friend who lost her mom. And people wrote stories about how they were struggling to come out to their parents. And then I released " Beat of Your Own" and it was talking about living authentically. I felt like I was still holding something back. ... I did a Valentine's Day post and the next day had to write an email to my fans. ... So, I was like, "I'm going to see this through. This is who I'm with. This is what it's about." ... That felt like the only way to be honest. It was an example of my art that was written years ago coming to a head in this moment. It was like my art and my life were so intertwined.
This was not supposed to be that album for me necessarily, but I felt like it was coming and it happened very naturally and I've had no regrets.
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