Heather Robb, The Spring Standards

It took only a few minutes of seeing The Spring Standards in concert before I knew that this was one creative trio.  I caught them here in DC at the Red Palace when they played with Ha Ha Tonka. It wasn't just the fact that Heather Robb, James Smith, and James Cleare all played every instrument at some point.  It wasn't the fantastic voices or the terrific songs. It was that, as I told Robb, their set was so theatrical.  It was a stage show: the way they played, the way they bantered with each other, the way they bantered with the audience. 

It was like a stage show, as it turns out, for good reason: Robb is an actor by training who still is involved in theatre in New York City.  She attended Syracuse University, where she majored in theatre. (In a true small world coincidence, we were both there in the Department of Drama at the same time: I as a professor and she as a student, though we did not know each other.) Robb claims to be somewhat of an introvert, something not readily apparent in her charismatic stage presence.

Robb's training as an actor serves her well as a songwriter, it turns out. According to her, she's able to "hop back in the emotional saddle" when she revisits emotional experiences and writes about them. If she writes a melancholy song, for instance, she doesn't need to be in a melancholy state; her sensory memory can put her there, just as a stage actor can recall a sad experience onstage in order to make her character appear sad.  

The Spring Standards' latest release is the fantastic Would Things Be Different. Read my interview with Heather Robb after the video.

I sensed a lot of creativity on stage when I saw the DC show, so I'm assuming that you have other creative outlets. Your show was very theatrical.

Guilty as charged.  I'm an actress as well.  I went to Syracuse University to study acting, and then to New York City to pursue it.  Music started as a fun creative outlet on the side so that I could be the boss of my own creativity, because it's easy as an actress to wait around for someone else to tell you you are good.  I've known the other guys in the band since high school, so when we reconnected in the city, there was an undeniable spark.    We played music together growing up and taught each other to play and write music when we were teenagers. 

A lot of the songwriters I've talked to are also visual writers.  They start the process with an image.

I'm very much a visual writer.  I've never thought about that, but you are absolutely correct.  With a lot of my songs, I can pinpoint specific settings, the exact atmosphere I'm trying to create that's frozen in my mind.  Many songs start with an image or a place.

The task as a writer is to put my listeners in that setting, to tell them a story about what happened there.  And that's a fun writing exercise for me. I'm just a vessel.  When I start my songwriting process writing about a specific topic, I often start with a place and create the mood. 

When you start that process, what's the first part of the song you create?

Usually it's a lyric.  A few times I've started with melody, but usually a lyric comes to me in a moment, and I have to write it down.  I have a million journals with one line written in them.  Some blossom into songs, and some stay as one line in a journal stuffed under my bed.  It's that mysterious line that comes to me whenever I'm inspired.  I jot it down, then revisit it later.  It's rare that I jot down a line, then write a whole song at that moment.  I usually have to let the line simmer for a while.  Then I have to figure where it belongs in a song.  Is it the heart of the song, or the opening phrase, or the last thing we hear?

Where do these lines come from?

I'm not proud of this part of my personality, but I'm a private person.  I can be social and extroverted, but I hold my emotions close to me.  However, this internal dialogue runs through my mind all the time. Sometimes those lines come from things that happen to me, other times I just sift through the corners of my brain for them. We spend a lot of time driving, and there's no more fruitful time for me than behind the wheel.  When I drive, my mind can roam to places that I normally don't have time to visit. 

And I draw a lot from my experience as an actor when it comes to sensory memory.  Sometimes you write songs to help you get through hard times, then you get through those hard times and can't write about them anymore.  But I find that nothing is off limits, nothing is ever done being talked about or explored when it comes to emotional experiences.  That's not to say that I haven't experienced writer's block, because I have, but if you are willing to constantly explore your emotional experiences in the nooks and crannies of your mind, random lines will always jump out.

I love the fact that you refer to yourself as a writer. With some of those lines that come to you, are they about things you see?  How active are you in the inspiration process?

I am very active in the process.  I can't just sit around and wait. I am the kind of person who can't sit still.  I'm always doing a million things.  I rarely let myself stop and take a breath.  And I love living that way.  But I do think I need to spend more time in those quiet moments, processing all my experiences so that I can write about them.  I journal a lot, and revisiting those things and reflecting on what I've been going through is something I need to do. 

One of the things I want to get better at is creating the space and committing the time to reflecting on my active pursuits.  When I sit down and write a song, I need to be totally undistracted.  If I don't have 100% focus, I'll be off in a million directions.

You have an introspection about yourself and your writing that has to make for a more efficient writing process.

There's a moment where you realize that it isn't a hobby, it's a career.  And you need the necessary discipline.  You have to put on the boss hat.  This is coming from a person whose mom had to implore her to play the piano every day for years.  It was hard for years to be disciplined in my pursuits, and the hard part comes when the world of discipline and the world of creativity co-exist. You never want to lose the wistful magic of being a little flaky, a little head-in-the-clouds, but you have to sprinkle in some self-awareness and discipline when you decide to make it your life.  The creative life is  hard thing, and if you don't want to be a flash in the pan, you have to create the structure in your own existence to sustain it. 

Then how often do you sit down a make a conscious decision to write.

Not nearly enough.  I'm lucky if it happens a couple of times a month.  My family has a farm in Delaware, and my dream is to turn it into a retreat, where I go a couple of weekends a month and structure intense writing sessions into my life there where I do nothing but write. When I'm not touring, I'm working two or three jobs to make ends meet, so it's really hard to find time to write.

How important is environment to you when you write?

In no way do I need a certain room or certain candle, anything like that.  I like to be in front of a piano, but that's not necessary.  But if I had to choose a place to write, it would be my parents' living room on the piano I grew up playing. 

What's your preferred emotional state when you write?

That's a really good question.  I've never really thought about that, but I need to be in a place where I want to be alone for an extended period of time.  I need to be in my own mind.  I don't really think of myself as a blue or melancholy person, but I do write sad songs, though I don't need to be in sad state to write.  I think to write about those things, you have to be a little out of the woods.  It's a state where I want to be alone, almost shielded.

How important is it for you to start and finish a song in the same emotional state?

It's really not.  I've always experienced this as a writer.  I need space from material, to be able to walk away from it.  Almost every song I've written has been done over several sittings with multiple rewrites.  But before I can walk away, I need to find the heart of the song.  Once I find it, I need to walk away and have another day's experiences. 

Sometimes I feel like I am still understanding my songs.  Sometimes a song might be the right thing to say lyrically, but I don't understand why.  And I have to give myself the space and permission to make those bold choices.  I have to let the songs grow.  Maybe my acting background allows me to hop right back into the emotional saddle where I was when I wrote the first lyric, to be right back there in the same emotional state.  But I always need to walk away for a bit.

So you start with one line?

The lyrics always come first.  Often I'll try to find the melody for that first line, then I'll find out where the line lives.  From there, it's about how the melody fits, whether it's in the verse or the chorus, for example.  I love writing in a form, writing within a rhyme scheme.  But I like to play within that form. 

And who are your literary inspirations?

Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne are my favorite songwriters, but Mary Oliver is one of my absolute favorite poets.