A Q&A with Hillary Capps

Born in Vermont and now based in New York, singer/songwriter Hillary Capps comes from a very musical family as her father is part of a jazz ensemble that tours around New England and the Northeast. So it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that music has played a central role in her life; in fact, Capps started singing when she was three, performed in singing groups while in middle school and wrote songs throughout high school – and by the time she was 16, she was performing professionally with her father’s jazz ensemble. 

By the time Capps had turned 21, she had released two albums of jazz and pop standards, A Perfect Dozen (2008) and Playlist (2010) while finishing her studies at the New School. And in her senior year, she formed a band and released her first album of new, original material Maybe in the Morning EP released in 2013. 

Capps’ debut full-length The Wishing Forest was released in January, and the album reveals a young artist whose work is influenced by the likes of Sara Barellies, Adele, Fiest and others, along with jazz in a fashion that reminds me a bit of Shelly Bhushan. Naturally, Capps has a lovely voice – I’d probably enjoy hearing her sing something as banal as the phone book or a Chinese restaurant’s take out menu but there are several things about her and her work that immediately struck me as interesting. The first was that although she’s quite young – she’s in her early 20s – the debut album’s lyrics reveal both a self-assuredness and perspective that are well beyond her years. Sure, as pop songs they deal with the various permutations of love that we’re all familiar with: the joy of finding someone new; the confusion and awkwardness of unrequited love; getting rid of an ungrateful/deceitful lover and the like. And for many, if not all of us these things should be intimately familiar because we’ve all been there – or will soon be. It’s so intimately familiar that the hardest thing for any artist is to say something about the obvious and the cliched in a way that sounds and feels new or different but Capps manages to tie in being a performing artist and songwriter to capture some of the strangeness of those situations. And in some way, she’s right – there is something occasionally deceitful about being a performing artist and about songwriting in general. 

But just importantly, the musicianship between her and her backing band are incredibly tight and as self-assured as she is. And I suspect that we will be hearing more about her in the future. 

In this Q&A, I recently spoke with the very lovely and very talented Hillary Capps about her influences, her songwriting process and more in a very revealing interview. She also manages to give some great advice not just for singer/songwriters but for her fellow women artists. 

Check it out below – and you can also check out her website here: http://www.hillarycapps.com

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WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was your calling?

Hillary Capps: I started singing basically as soon as I could talk. My dad is a jazz guitarist who has a recording studio based out of his home. There are recordings of me improvising at about age 3. I started playing the guitar and writing songs at about 15. Around the same time I started learning a slew of jazz standards and performing at weddings and events with my Dad’s jazz group. It’s hard for me to pinpoint the moment that “I knew it was my calling”. I feel like I’ve always known at least on some level since I was very little that this is what I want to do.

WRH: Who are your influences? 

HC: I have many and they are ever-evolving! Some of the central ones: Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Adele, the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald

WRH: How would you describe your sound? 

HC: I write pop music with jazz influences. Sometimes certain songs lean towards folk or rock as well, for instance “New Melody”, but pop is always the umbrella. I think the songs maintain a very organic sound for pop music; catchy tunes with emphasis on musicianship and not a lot of synthesized sounds. 

WRH: Who are your listening to now?

HC: I recently went down to Austin, TX for SXSW music festival and discovered so much great music. I’ve mainly been listening to the tracks / albums of artists I saw down there. Hozier, Northcote, Lucius, Danny Malone, Lily and the Parlour Tricks. I’ve also been listening to Ingrid’s new songs and I love her new video for “Girls Chase Boys”. 

WRH: How did you meet your backing band? And when did you know that you had to collaborate with them or it wouldn’t be right?  

HC: I met them in a variety of places 🙂 I was in a rock band called Cheers To Fall during my junior year at The New School. I started dating the lead guitar player (I know, I know), and although that band ultimately wasn’t the right fit for me, Anthony and I still collaborate (he wrote/co-wrote a lot of the songs on The Wishing Forest and produced the record as well). During my senior year at college, I met Harrison Keithline my drummer and Matthew Watanabe my piano player. I could tell they were both pros from the start, and such cool dudes. We have a lot of fun. I’ve worked with a few different bass players over the last 2 years. I also work in event production and met Nick, who has been playing with us since last August, through that. I am very grateful for my band!

WRH: A number of the album’s songs deal with love and it’s various permutations – ditching an an unfaithful/ungrateful/deceitful lover; the joy in finding a new love, etc. How much of this comes from personal experience?

HC: As I mentioned before, Anthony co-wrote several of the songs with me. Some of this comes from my personal experience, some from his. In some cases, it’s not a word for word account of an experience but the music and lyrics always comes from an honest place, a place people can hopefully relate to. For instance, you might be surprised to learn that Anthony wrote “Chapter One”, but I love singing/performing the song, relate to the experience portrayed, and I think a lot of other people could as well. It’s an account of walking away from a love, but it could also relate to walking away from any sort of negative relationship whether it’s a person or a job or a place. The same goes for “New Melody.” I wrote a lot of those lyrics based on personal experience, but finding a “new melody” I think can relate to a multitude of situations. 

WRH: How does your songwriting process work – do you have fully fleshed out songs when you hit the studio? Or are ideas continually added, refined and played with until it all fits? How do you know when you have a finished song?

HC: We definitely have fully fleshed out songs when we hit the studio. At least for this past record we did. When you’re keeping to a budget there is no time to waste in the studio! We’d been writing the songs over the past year, some (like “New Melody”) had been fully fleshed out for a while, while others (“Love Love Love” for instance) were written just before recording. In all cases we had each song demoed in detail: bpm (tempo), guitar layers, vocal harmonies, etc. so that we could use those as a sort of road map (and so we didn’t forget anything in the moment!). Of course the studio is such a fun creative environment, there were certainly some elements of spontaneity that went into the songs too. I think you know a song is finished when, firstly, you have checked off every part you went in wanting to record (or at least tried to… sometimes things don’t end up working the way you initially had in mind) and then, perhaps more importantly, when you can feel the vibe of the tune and enjoy the interaction of all the musical elements before it’s even mixed and mastered. 

WRH; What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? And as a woman, is there any advice you’d give to female artists? 

HC: I would say, make musical goals and deadlines for yourself and physically write these down on paper where you can see them on a daily basis. 

Don’t be afraid to reach out to professionals in the industry or your heroes even, that you would love to work with – put in the leg work to find their contact Info and reach out because you never know… I did this and ended up getting the album mixed by Michael Brauer (John Mayer, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones) which was exciting and has been very helpful. 

Surround yourself with people who believe in you and your project. Not everyone will believe in, understand or even like what you’re doing, so just have confidence in it and find the people who can both be honest with you and support you.

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