We are very fortunate to feature the talented Elsa Rae on Listen Local. A mainstay on the Kansas City music scene until recently, Rae's music is notable for its range, originality and unpredictability. Her first album, 2011's Plays Tiny Instruments, showed that her love of ukuleles, toy pianos, kazoos and mini harmonicas was more about creative expression and good songs than mere novelty. Since then she has continued to grow as a songwriter, singer and performer, taking three years to work on songs for her (apparently tiny instrument-free) upcoming album, Girlfriends and Ghosts. Rae has been kind enough to share a mix of her new song "I Am A House" exclusively with Listen Local. Enjoy!
How long have you been a songwriter? What does a typical day look like for you?
I’ve been writing songs since I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are centered around making music: humming along to Elvis when I could not yet speak, tapping out melodies on a piano as a toddler, singing silly lyrics on our back yard swing set. In middle school, my Ma used to find lyrics crumpled up and thrown into my trash. I didn’t start writing songs so that they could be performed until five years ago, though.
My days right now are totally focused on finishing recording. I’ve been working out of this little room in the basement all summer and have logged something like two hundred plus hours experimenting and recording. I had never touched recording software before this. I didn’t even know what MIDI meant. WHAT? I know, I know. So, I spend my days learning, and when I need a mental escape from recording, I go on hikes, read, drink coffee, dance, and then it’s right back to music land!
Talk about what you’ve been up since your last solo album, 2011’s Plays Tiny Instruments. What can listeners expect from your upcoming album, Girlfriends and Ghosts?
I’ve moved around quite a bit, staying in Kansas City for the longest stint. I was in a band called Rooms Without Windows. We played a ton of shows in the KC/Lawrence area, and released two singles and an EP in 2014. For personal reasons, I left Kansas City and have since been going between Omaha, NE and my hometown of Sioux Falls, SD. I’ve been writing the songs for Girlfriends and Ghosts over the course of three years.
This album is very personal to me, a vulnerable account of past relationships and the ways in which I’ve shifted because of them. As far as sound, it’s going to be very different from Plays Tiny Instruments. You won’t hear any small friends on this one! The tracks are guitar heavy: some clean and some crunchy. It’s 1940’s Blues meets 1950’s Doo Wop meets 1980’s Brit Punk meets early 2000s Pop Rock. I’ve been so inspired by so many different styles of music, and I wanted to try my hand at merging a few of them.
Tell us about your fondness for the sound of an out-of-tune or “imperfect” piano. What do you appreciate most about this sound and how does it inspire you?
This is my favorite question.
I like anything that’s a little off in music, whether it’s the tuning or the tempo or even the musician. For me, there are no specific rules to how music should sound. I’m more interested in the feeling those sounds can give someone. An old out of tune piano, for instance, makes you feel something unexpected. Maybe you assume that the next note is going to be a full step up, and instead only makes it ¾ of the way. Now, the note is not quite major nor is it minor. In that moment, when you can’t quite mentally compartmentalize even a single note, you kind of question everything, because you’re so thrown. There’s a little jump or prick in your heart that you didn’t expect to feel. That is what I love about an instrument intentionally left out of tune. It pushes you outside of the box in which you thought you’d be able to stay.
Can you point to one time in your life where you knew you wanted to be a songwriter? Who inspired you early on to write music?
It clicked in college. With a certain amount of encouragement, I realized it could be more than just a hobby for me. Ha, uh, I’ve also got this vivid memory of a younger me sitting on a swing set rewriting the lyrics of “Hey Jude” to “Hey Food”, a satirical account about getting sad when your produce rots. Maybe in that moment little me decided she loved to write songs.
As far as early inspirations, I have three answers: ELVIS PRESLEY, PATSY CLINE, AND MY PARENTS. My Grandma was a huge fan of Elvis; she passed the love unto my mother, who passed it on to me. We used to have an “Elvis shrine” in our basement, big ceramic heads of him and velvet paintings. My mom would sing me Patsy songs when I tried to sleep. She bought me band and orchestra instruments. Put me through piano lessons with this awful Russian lady. And I wouldn’t own a single guitar if it weren’t for my dad. I owe them the world because they helped me build mine.
Describe your creative process. What tools do you use? How does collaboration figure into this process?
I write a lot of songs while walking, usually at night, always by myself. The cadence of the feet and stillness of the air usually puts a melody in my head. When one does come to me, I capture a crappy recording of it onto my phone so I don’t forget. Typically, if I don’t work on the idea directly after it happens, it becomes stockpiled. I think I have something like 125 song ideas saved in my phone right now just waiting to come to life. Some of my best songs happen through stream of consciousness. No thought, just plug in and play.
I don’t know much music theory, so it’s always seemed intimidating to collaborate with other musicians. If they were to say, “Go to an F Sharp Minor”, I would just freeze, because I have no idea where that exists on a fretboard! I probably play the damn chord all the time, but I can’t for the life of me get theory to stay in my brain. It was easier in Rooms Without Windows, because I was just singing.
I recently realized that I wasn’t doing myself any favors by staying in this fear state, though, especially since creating and producing music is everything to me! So I sucked it up and just starting jamming with people. Sometimes it crashes and burns, and that’s okay, because at least we tried! Other times, a total symbiotic dynamic happens, and that is the best outcome for which I could ever hope; that I could inspire someone as much as they inspire me. I recently met a person who is just that, and we have a new project called GORDO JI’BANG. It’s totally expanding my musical horizons and allowing me to be more creative than I ever have been before.
Who or what currently inspires you?
I am inspired by people who ask questions and aren’t afraid to express themselves truthfully, despite what others may think of them. I’ve always been cautious not to step on toes, so when I meet someone who fully speaks their mind, I find myself in a state of admiration. I am inspired by silence and by wind, as well as anything that produces a percussive beat, whether it’s windshield wipers on a car, or the sound of foot steps. I’m inspired any time I travel, which I make a point to do often. I think living somewhere, working somewhere, you get into a rhythm, which isn’t inherently bad; but, stepping outside of your normal reminds you that there are so many separate existences in the world and so many different ways to be. I learn something new about myself every time I travel. Gosh, I could talk forever about what else inspires me. I think I find a new one every day.