Saturday, July 27, 2013

Vanessa Lively


Singer/songwriter Vanessa Lively is quite of a jack of all trades. In addition to releasing a diverse array of CD's, she is an artist (the cover of her latest CD is one of her paintings), has done volunteer work in South America, worked as a migrant farm worker and much more. I recently talked to her about all of this and here is what she had to say.

MK - Can you give me a little background on you and your music?  

VL - I grew up in San Antonio, TX and when I was in high school, I sang backing vocals for a group called Bucketfunk. Then at 18 I joined a Greek/gypsy band called E Serenes (later called E Muzeki). I was the lead singer for that group and also played tambourine and symbols. It was so much fun participating in those two very different musical acts and I think it really is what sparked the fire inside me to eventually want to pursue my own musical career. 

Growing up, I was very interested in fine art and theatre. I studied under a mentor named Vie Dunn-Harr who taught me most of what I know in the realms of painting. It wasn't until around 2004 when I really started to shift towards music. I knew basic guitar and loved to sing, but writing songs was definitely new territory for me. But once I wrote my first few songs, I was hooked! It felt so good to have this new form of creative expression that totally had a different voice and sound from my other art forms.
I wrote most of my initial songs between 2004 and 2006. They just seemed to come pouring out and I recorded my first album while living in South America. The debut release is actually not available anymore but was such a magical experience for me. And a huge learning experience as well.

MK - How does your songwriting process usually work?
VL - I am not someone who sits down and writes a song in a disciplined manner. I keep a daily journal, and then I write songs when I feel truly moved to do so. When I look back at my journal pages, so many of the words, images and subject matter seemed to be forming for weeks and months prior to the song's creation. So on some level, I feel that I am always aware and always tuned into life - both mine and those around me. 

The songs come out when they are ready. Sometimes they seem to fall from the sky and just pour out and I feel like I am scrambling to jot down all the words, but most times I will have a chorus and verse that I am singing in my head and eventually write down on paper. Other times, I really have something on my heart that I need to express, so I will just sit with the guitar, start playing around and just see what comes out. I am an artist who enjoys playful exploration and the process of creating art. I generally don't sit down with a firm idea or outline of what I am about to do. This is the exact same approach I have to painting. I just pick up a brush, choose some colors and go to town! Then as I go along, I begin forming object, pulling certain things forward, pushing others back and towards the end, I will fine tune, polish and get it to a finished place. But certainly not too soon...since so much of what I enjoy is in the journey.
I have recently been doing a lot of co-writing. This is a totally different and unique approach because we are given a finite amount of time together and really need to sit down and write something. So with this process, my favorite way to approach it is to sit down, chat and get really comfortable with each other and start to be on the same wavelength. Then we start exploring ideas, sharing thoughts and just diving in. It is always unique and always surprising! I find it to be a really fun challenge and very gratifying.

MK - Uncovering Stones is your fourth CD.  How would you say things have progressed since the first one?
VL - My first album Let Me Rise (which was recorded in Quito, Ecuador while I was living and working as a volunteer) had most of my songs written to date on it. I recorded this in 2006 and had not even done a single public concert with my own songs at this time, and so I feel this was a true snapshot of the very beginning of my career. Many of the songs were written while I was living in Ecuador, or just before I moved there. 
Then at the end of 2007, I went to stay with close friends that I met in Quito who were from England. They were both very talented songwriters and musicians, and were a big part of the first recording so it felt very natural to go record the next album (which was titled A Chain Unbroken) in their home studio with their friends. At this point in time, I had spent the last year playing shows all over Austin and had also gone on tour to promote the first album, so I had much more experience performing my songs to people in public. I was excited about all the fun creative collaborations that happened with this record. I also had a lot of time to just record myself and my vocals and really play with it. It was a beautiful time.

MK - Your third disc "Canto Y Cantera" was recorded all in Spanish.  Can you tell me more about that disc?
VL - When it came time to start thinking about a third album, all I knew is that I wanted it to have a broader World music influence. Then shortly after, I heard about the passing of Argentine Mercedes Sosa. She was someone who I had grown to love during my time in South America. She was a mover and a shaker, unafraid to use her powerful voice to make changes in this world. I was very saddened to hear of her passing on Oct. 4, 2009. 

It was right around this time that I decided to put out a tribute album in her honor. I began researching the movement that she was a part of called "La Nueva Canción" or New Song. I discovered that so many of the songs and artists I had grown to love were a part of this same movement, which was crying out for social justice in the face of sever government oppression. I found 6 songs that each came from unique artists, places and times and I began learning my own versions of these songs. We recorded right away and had the album released by Spring of the following year (2010).

MK - Can you tell me more about the artwork for your cover and about the process of making it?

VL - Before I began recording my latest album Uncovering Stones, I started thinking of ways to help fund the record.  I really wanted to paint the front cover myself and thought maybe I could sell the artwork.  But selling one piece of art to one person really couldn't do too much to help defer the cost of recording an entire album, so after a bit of thought, I decided to create a large canvas out of many smaller canvasses, then separate them and sell each piece individually.  In the end, the canvas was built of 42 smaller one.  I stapled them together, painted the cover art (which was about 5 feet long & 5 feet wide), then divided it up into the smaller parts.  I sold almost every single canvas and helped raise a good part of the money!  There is a time-lapse video online where people can see the entire painting being created:

MK - Austin is so well-known for it's burgeoning music scene.  As an Austin musician do you feel that's more of a blessing or a curse?
VL - Oh definitely a blessing! I am surrounded by so much talent, amazing artists, venues, organizations who support musicians and a general love for live music. We have a few really awesome organizations here, such as the Austin Music Foundation and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. I am very grateful for these services and much more.
I will say though that it can be very hard to make a living here since there are so many willing to play for free. The paid gigs are few in this town and many are needing to make money with what they do. As a singer-songwriter, I am able to tour listening rooms and smaller venues and make money on the road. And I do make it work here in Austin as well, but it is not always easy.

MK - You lived in South America for awhile.  What kind of influence did that have on your songwriting?
VL - Living in South America had quite a big influence on my writing. Since I mainly write what I see and what I live, that makes anywhere and everywhere I go have a huge impact on my songs. One song called "Further to Fall" was written while I was stuck in the town I lived in because the entire country was experiences widespread striking. The title track "Let Me Rise" was written just after a volcanic eruption that covered the town in ash. The imagery was astounding and I ended up writing about women's struggle to overcome male dominance and oppression that was still very much a part of certain people's lives.

MK - I read about some songwriting workshops you did with kids that resulted in the song "Chocolate Milk, Pickles and Cheese".  Can you tell me more about those workshops and your involvement?

VL - Oh my gosh, how did you hear that? Yes, I did some songwriting workshops with kids in South Austin and decided to do the assignment myself the night before. I picked the piece of paper that read "I love chocolate milk, pickles and cheese" or something like that. I wrote this song very quickly and the kids loved it. I later made a video that I posted on YouTube acting out the song with food. It's all pretty silly! And I actually really do love chocolate milk with a grilled cheese & pickle sandwich! Around the time I wrote this song and recorded the video, I ate so many pickle, cheese & mustard sandwiches!  (Here is the video link:
MK - I was reading on your facebook about some recent co-writing sessions with various other songwriters.  Is there a plan for these songs?
VL - I have actually been thinking about releasing an entire album of co-writes. I do most of my co-writes with a wonderful program here in Austin called The House of Songs. It is an exchange program of sorts where artists from other countries come here with the purpose of writing songs with Austin artists. Since so many of my co-writes are with folks from Denmark I had wanted to make this album happen before my recent tour in Europe, but my focus turned to releasing Uncovering Stones which had been picked up by a label in The Netherlands.  I am still continuing to do a lot of these co-writing sessions and hope to put together an album soon....we'll see!

MK - It's been over a year since Uncovering Stones was released.  Do you have any plans for the next CD?
VL - Well if the co-write album doesn't come together, then I will most likely put out another album of my own songs soon. I am spending a lot of time now taking a look at my half-finished songs of the past year. I was very busy touring this past year and I am not so good at slowing down to write when I am performing so lately I have been collecting all the recordings and lyric sheets to do some fine tuning and see what happens.

MK - What are your plans for 2013?

VL - I will be heading back to Europe in the fall once again and will also have some tours around the U.S. I think it will be a year of writing, playing and having fun yet again! I am always so grateful for the life I live and just hope I can sustain it for as long as possible...I have a great city to call home, so many wonderful friends and family nearby and absolutely love all that is around me. I get to enjoy the simple pleasures when I am at home, such as gardening, yoga classes, long walks & coffee and then hit the road for new adventures and wonderful new friends along the way!

MK - Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
VL - I always like to tell people not to be afraid of living the life they want to live. We are here on this Earth to share our talents and gifts with each other and try to make the world a better place wherever we are and however we can...and it can be simple just figure out what makes you excited and what you are most passionate about and then live it!
That's all. Thank you for the interview!

Vanessa Lively
Austin, TX
Interview By Geoff Melton 

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