Boston singer-songwriter Bethel Steele has been making some mighty sweet music for a while now but she’s really coming into her own this year. Her newest CD Of Love and Whiskey has gained the attention of many. As Lizard Lounge open mic host, Tom Bianchi, says of Bethel: “She’s got a genuine feel of unpretentiousness that comes out in her songs, leaving the listener with a warm feel of honesty, soul and comfort. Her delivery is solid and her songs are from the heart.” In this interview Bethel talks about her early days as a performing musician, learning experiences in the recording studio, and her Club Passim Iguana Funded project for LGBTQ young people.
To learn more about Bethel Steele, visit her website.
Here’s a wonderfully uplifting video of Bethel singing “Sunrise.”
Tell us about your first days as a performing musician. Can you remember what it felt like the first time you set foot in front of a room full of people?
After I graduated college, I moved to a little town near Poughkeepsie, NY. My friend was the bartender at a local bar, and as soon as she found out that I had a guitar and sang every once in a while, she thought that I was qualified to play a two-hour show at the bar!! I think I was a combination of excited and nervous before, during, and after every show – thankfully, the room was filled with my friends, which made it a lot more welcoming.
Did you mostly sing cover tunes? Or did you immediately try out your own material to see how it was received?
Oh boy, did I sing covers! I think at that time I had maybe eight songs of my own, when I was first starting to play out. I’d say my show was a combination of mediocre karaoke and a handful of my own songs in a nonsensical set list. The covers were songs of ’90s/’00s pop/rock bands that we could all sing along to (Train, 4 Non Blondes, Oasis) and iconic female performers that my friends and I listened to (Ani Difranco, Melissa Ferrick, the Indigo Girls, Bonnie Raitt). As time went on and as I played more shows, I ended up picking up covers of songwriters who I liked for their song writing (Josh Ritter, Aimee Mann, Susan Werner). I started writing more myself and over the first year, I think my idea of a “show” and “set list” really changed a lot.
Do you have any advice for aspiring singer-songwriters?
Write. And then write some more. If you have one song that is good out of 10 that you write, you’re doing great. Get involved in a songwriting group or find someone that you trust and play your songs for them – basically, do whatever you can to get honest and constructive feedback. Find open mics in your community and try out your new material there. Don’t be afraid to rewrite your songs after you’ve played them out – even if you’ve played them for a year! Listen to your gut – if something feels “off” in your song – whether it’s a chord or a phrase or a full verse, don’t be afraid to rewrite it. Finally – and this is probably the hardest thing for me – there may be times where you must ditch your favorite line of a song for the betterment of the story. I can’t tell you how many times I thought that I came up with a brilliant line or phrase and ended up ditching it because it didn’t fit in the song… the good news is that is now a great nugget to use to write a new song.
You’ve got three recordings under your belt now. Have you learned new and different things with each project?
Oh my goodness, I’ve learned a lot. The first project, Beautiful Woman was more of a kitchen recording – I recorded it myself on Thanksgiving Day in 2006 – and to be perfectly honest, I had no idea what I was doing. I think the important thing that I learned from that project was that people wanted to be supportive of my budding song writing career. It was hard for me to believe that people would pay for my music and wanted to support me financially by buying a CD!
It wasn’t until I moved to Boston that I thought more about recording another project, and by that time, I knew I wanted to record in a real studio with better gear and with an engineer who knew what they were doing. In 2009, I produced Come Home with Steve Friedman at Melville Park Studio in Hyde Park, MA. I think that working alongside studio musicians and a seasoned engineer was a great experience… and I think the biggest take-home from making Come Home was that making a record costs a lot of money. (ha!) After the record was finished, I had no financial means to promote it, so that was lesson number two from that project… save some money for promotion!
With the latest record, Of Love and Whiskey, I think I went into the studio process pretty prepared for what was ahead – I actually had a budget, did some fundraising for the record via Kickstarter, and I gave up control of production to two fabulous guys: Neale Eckstein and Jagoda. I even had a plan for promotion after the record was done. The greatest thing that I learned from this project is how important it is to have a team and to allow yourself as an artist to trust that every member of your team will honor your musical intent. My team started before I even got to the studio with the folks who gave me feedback on my songs, and included all the people with whom I worked in the studio, all of the folks behind the scenes who help get the music out into the world…
I think that with every project I’ve done I’ve been able to carry over some pretty important lessons from the previous project – It’s a pretty steep learning curve if you’re out there doing this on your own, which is what most folks are doing these days. It’s been a great experience.
Of Love and Whiskey has been greeted warmly my music fans, DJs, and promoters. It definitely shows a much more mature and confident Bethel Steele. I remember seeing you sing “Whiskey” at a songwriting critique session at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival a few years ago. Did that song change a lot since you courageously shared it that day?
I’d like to think that Of Love and Whiskey is a more mature and confident album – and I’m really grateful for how it’s been received throughout the folk community and by my fans. I think I’ve grown up a lot over the last handful of years, both as an individual and as a songwriter and performer. That specific day at Falcon Ridge was a pretty big confidence booster for me – I remember it well. Usually Vance Gilbert does those workshops at Falcon Ridge, and I’ve watched him break down performances and build them back up again to make them a million times better. He’s phenomenal. But that year, Susan Werner was doing the workshop… and I LOVE Susan. I think she’s a fabulous songwriter and an incredible performer, so I was just going to that workshop to see what she had to say to people. I wasn’t even planning on participating! The thing about folk music, though, is that it rarely runs on schedule. I was one of the first people there and Susan asked me if I was going to play anything… and how do you say ‘no’ to someone you admire?! So I obviously said I’d play… and goodness was I nervous about that. Susan ended up making one suggestion, I think – I couldn’t even tell you what it was, changing a word, maybe – but I don’t think I actually changed the song at all. She was really encouraging that day, and for me that was a pretty significant turning point.
“Beautiful Boy” is one of the stand-out tracks on the CD. This song speaks about gender roles and how some people don’t necessarily “fit in” to what is expected by society. This subject is a very personal one to you and it’s beautifully done. It’s an important song and perhaps one of a kind. Do you get some interesting feedback about it?
Thank you – it is pretty personal to me, but the nice thing about that song (at least I think) is that the listener doesn’t have to have the same experience as me in the world for that song to resonate with them. I’ve had folks who have just listened to the recording and have called it a “sensuous song” – or folks who tell me that they think it’s about a child in my life – and all of those interpretations are valid. I want the listener to be able to feel connected to each of my songs in their own way, even if it’s not the same way that the person they’re sitting next to connects to it. Thankfully, I haven’t had any negative reactions to ‘Beautiful Boy’ – and I don’t always tell the story behind the song, either, which helps me have control over how emotional it feels to me during any given performance.
You are the winner of a grant by Passim’s Iguana Fund and you’re actually doing some work with LGBTQ young people — holding discussions about being genderqueer. Tell us more….and congratulations!
Yeah! I’m really excited about this project and thank you for the congratulations. Neale (one of the producers of Of Love and Whiskey) and I brainstormed a bunch of ideas for the Iguana Fund this year and this is the one that seemed to resonate the most with me. I personally think that gender is on a spectrum from hypermasculine to hyperfeminine – I live somewhere in the middle grey area, what I refer to as ‘genderqueer’. I really enjoy challenging peoples’ perceptions of gender in my everyday life – hopefully helping folks ask the tough questions about the things that we are taught to believe around what society has taught us about gender. The idea behind the project is to help youth and young adults feel like they own their body and that whatever presentation of gender they feel comfortable with is okay. A lot of LGBTQ youth are at risk of feeling like they don’t belong, like they are outcasts. A lot of them, especially transgender and gender non-conforming youth, are also at an increased risk for self-harm, hate crimes, and of being disowned by family or friends. I would like for this project to encourage youth and young adults to feel like whoever they are in their skin is not only okay, but is embraced. I’m still in the process of working out the details of exactly where and when the performances and discussions will be taking place, so stay tuned for that!!
Bethel Steele will be appearing at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on Friday, May 10 along with Zoe Lewis.
Photo of Bethel by Liz Linder; Photo on CD cover by Neale Eckstein.