Quick Q and A with Lara Herscovitch

Lara Herscovitch is one of four talented singer-songwriters participating in “Steady On: Celebrating Lilith Fair at 20.”  For those who are too young or somehow managed to miss this momentous time in music history, Lilith Fair was a groundbreaking tour that traveled the world from 1997-1999. It promoted the original music written by women and totally captured the hearts and minds of the public regardless of gender.  Celebrating the music of such well-regarded musicians as Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, and more helped to raise greater awareness of revolutionary songs that resonated with young and old alike.  The four artists who will be performing these songs (as well as songs of their own creation) are Lara Herscovitch, Sharon Goldman, Sloan Wainwright, and Amy Soucy.

Lara is the former State Troubadour of the state of Connecticut.  The Hartford Courier says her award-winning music is “pure musical poetry.” Lara’s music has that special sauce – it sticks to your soul.  As Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange proclaims: “It’s rare to come across poets able to inject such an achingly human and knowing warmth into their work …. it’s obvious that this musician-composer has hit her stride, that her star’s still rising.”  Lara’s inclusion in the Steady On tour makes perfect sense since it will include the inspiring songs that helped her on her own musical journey.

To learn more about Lara Herscovitch, visit her website.

Here’s a video of a powerful song called “Let Us Begin” by Lara.

Your circuitous path to being a singer-songwriter is a fascinating story.  Let’s focus on your love of words and melody and what captivated you very early on.  You’ve cited some of the original Lilith Fair participants like Shawn Colvin and Tracy Chapman as influences.  What was it about their music that inspired you?

 I started writing poetry and songs when I was about ten, and all through junior high and high school wrote songs about what my friends and I were going through, played them at parties, that kind of thing. All the while, for some reason, I assumed I was going to law school. Go figure! But music has always been central to how I process the world and how I make sense of how I feel. My parents played records of the folk greats like Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Smothers Brothers, and so many more, and I grew up singing along to singer-songwriter and pop music from Blondie to James Taylor, Jackson Browne to Elton John and Peter Gabriel, and so many more. That great wave of female singer-songwriters in the late 80s and early 90s totally changed how I looked at the possibilities. For the first time, I realized this was an actual career path. Now I know who to blame! [laughing] Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, the Indigo Girls, Patty Griffin, Sarah McLachlan – they all seemed to bring such strength and authenticity, such unique voices to both the personal and the social and political. Shawn Colvin’s Steady On album was the most influential of them all (and later, Patty Griffin’s Children Running Through album). I loved the poetry and production, the way it landed as so accessible while being so much more complex than met the eye (or ear). For the first time I realized my life wasn’t going to be complete until I took my music out into public – otherwise it would be a huge regret, and I promised myself I wouldn’t carry around any big “what if”s.” I did my first open mic night around 30, and I was home.

Your first songwriting forays were on piano and then you slowly shifted toward the guitar.  You’ve mentioned that you grew to realize how vital making music was to your life and during that time you were traveling for your job quite a bit, did the portable nature of the guitar help you learn to play that instrument better and become a different kind of writer than if you had stuck solely with the piano?

It’s a good question. We had a piano in my family’s home, so I played that growing up. I didn’t play it very well, just enough to carry a song. In the mid- to late-nineties I was traveling internationally, often in places where I couldn’t safely go out at night, so started bringing a guitar to keep myself company. At first it was out of necessity – I couldn’t drag a piano around the world. Eventually, I fell in love with the guitar – it captured my curiosity and always had me wanting (still) to learn more. Piano was helpful as a start because all the keys are right in front of you, so it was a good grounding in music theory and what combinations are possible. I had to work much harder to find all those combinations on a guitar, which made it an intriguing challenge. I’m also probably a better groove player and writer on guitar than I would have been on piano, I find it a more physical experience because it is worn in a way that a piano isn’t. And I can’t help but play some kind of percussion on a small wooden box!

You have done a lot of work with organizations like Save the Children and have been an education advocate all over the world.  Did your life experience in far flung places like Africa, Asia, South America, and Central America influence the way you listen to music?  And how did it impact your music making?

Profoundly. I remember how lonely I felt during my first long trip to the Philippines, and another time in Bolivia, and how immediately connected I felt when someone pulled out a guitar and we all started playing and singing. Music really is the universal language; I didn’t really know that before then. It changed how I saw the world, how much more about the world I was able to witness and connect to, and at the same time deepened my feeling of what we all have in common. It changed what and who I was listening to; all of a sudden I had a much wider, richer range of influences – I started writing in Spanish and sought out conga- and Latin-percussionist partners early on instead of a regular drum kit approach. As an aside, Ruben Blades also turned into a huge role model for me, as someone who has woven multiple careers together in such interesting ways – actor, musician, writer, advocate, politician. His album Mundo is such a masterpiece, one of my all-time top three favorites.

Much of your music is heart-centered. Again, based on the social work you’ve done abroad and here in the United States, what is the subject matter that means the most to you in terms of singing the truth of what you see and that you want to convey to those who haven’t been in your shoes?

 That’s just it – the truth. Even though some today are working hard to confuse what is the truth, put up a smoke screen to distract from efforts to undermine and unravel the social safety net and the greater global movement to create a healthier community. It’s sad and frustrating to witness, but I also hope the anger, bitterness, division, greed and selfishness we’re seeing so much of these days is also successfully waking up our individual and collective love and fire to fight for protecting and caring for each other and the environment.

Ok, I got a little off track there. Let me try and actually answer your question.

I do see being a musician – and really, doing anything in the public eye (or ear) – as an opportunity to help inspire a better world. One of the many things I love about American folk music is the longstanding tradition to raise awareness about inequity, hardship, injustice, to amplify many voices that need to be heard, through storytelling and painting pictures around our shared values of love, respect, dignity, equal opportunity, community, contribution, and so much more. I appreciate music’s ability – and the arts in general – to open hearts, to inspire us all to be our best selves. So, for sure, I love music with deeper meaning, and I’m a lyrics-first kind of listener. Also, I really enjoy a wide variety of topics, including songs that are more personal, or funny, or mysterious, and so on. I also listen to and try to write music that is poetic and leaves room for listener interpretation. One of my favorite songs to play lately is “Wonder Wheel” – it uses Coney Island imagery and metaphor, and could be about Washington D.C. just as much as it could be about a dysfunctional family situation. Having said that, I do sometimes get more clear, depending on the subject area – I have an entire concept album all about the U.S. prison industrial complex, storytelling and harder hitting songs about mass incarceration and the civil and human rights crisis of over-criminalizing communities of color, children who are heartbreakingly pushed into the system by the thousands, abusive for-profit prisons that should be shuttered forever, and so on. And on another level it’s about resilience and the human spirit, all of us bending Dr. King’s long moral arc of the universe towards justice.

That was a long answer. In short, subject matter for me ranges from personal to social to political to silly, from emotional to informative, and 27 things in-between that I can’t think of right now. My most recent recording, MISFiT, includes a song about a rural town’s police blotter, all examples taken directly from the newspaper, including a raccoon in the kitchen cabinet and kids throwing rocks at the Do Not Throw Rocks sign. And a llama that got loose but is now all right. And a turkey in a tree. Ok I’ll stop now. What’s the next question?

 Tell us about what you’ve learned from the recording experience.  You’ve got several albums to your name.  Has your style changed from one to another?  How do you like to describe your music?

 I generally describe my music as modern American folk with flavors of blues, jazz and pop. That’s not exactly a poetic label – let me know if you have any suggestions! My first album leaned more on Latin influences; the next was a little more rock-ish production with a traditional drummer. For my last four albums, I’ve really settled into my voice, within the contemporary folk / singer-songwriter field and production, where the song is the boss, and the lyrics and vocals are the most influential employees.

There’s so much I love about being in the studio. Until recently, I was always pursuing my music career alongside a full-time day job – studio time was dedicated exclusively to music – so that focused time felt sacred and was such a joy. I also really appreciate the collaborative nature of recording. Especially as a solo artist, it’s great to be part of a team that is making the decisions about structure, performance and production. Currently, I’m having a great time working with Adam Michael Rothberg in Cambridge, Mass.; for my two previous albums, I was working very closely with the late great John Jennings, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Before that with Scott Petito in Woodstock, and – like you said, several albums – with fellow Connecticut State Troubadour and dear friend Pierce Campbell. I used to think it was funny to call him a TroubaNoMore, or a TrouBefore, until I became one too. Karma.

Other things I’ve learned from the recording experience: Practicing to a metronome is always time well spent. Be prepared. Hard work can also be a total joy. Hydrate. Laugh. Trust in good, smart, caring people. Find a studio near healthy food and preferably that has a cat or two. Plus 27 other things I can’t think of right now.

What can we expect to hear from you at the Steady On: Lilith Fair at 20 show?

Well, only excellent things, of course! [laughing] Each of us in the show is covering songs of original Lilith Fair artists who we deeply admire and are connected to – for me, that will be Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin. We’ve performed one show so far, in Portland, Maine. It really was (and will be) an honor and an emotional moment and marker, to play songs that are that important to me, honoring some of my musical heroes, 20 years later, standing on important American stages. We’re also each playing an original song or two. In my case one will for sure be a new song called “Wingspan,” about taking the step and having faith that the path will appear. Just like life in the music business.

Steady On: Celebrating Lilith Fair at 20 is at the me&thee coffeehouse in Marblehead, MA on Friday, September 8 at 8:00 p.m.

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