Kansas City, Missouri, resident Jill Westra is a remarkable singer and performer whose songs follow the deep roots of Americana and country music. Whether leading her own trio, Jill Westa & Them KC Boys, or duo harmonizing in Distant Cousins and Westrafox, Westra lets her singing take the spotlight. Her songwriting, however, is what shines on her debut ep So_Low, which she describes as "a breakup suite that runs the gamut of the bouncing back process." Enjoy our wide-ranging interview with Westra on many subjects. Buckle up!
Last year you released an EP, So_Low. How did this EP come together?
I was in a pretty low place personally at the time, going through a pretty substantial breakup among other things, and needed a roadmap out of the hole. Something to force me to come up for air. Music has always been something I've done at the behest of someone else (or a "group of someones"). I decided one day to simply do something for ME, orchestrated by me, started, driven and finished by me. So I grabbed a handful of songs I had hanging around and made the decision to just professionally record them. I sketched them out as arrangements for a trio because I wanted to keep it as simple as possible. However, I had no band. I reached out to my cousin and asked if I could "borrow" their band's drummer (Joe Guthrie) and asked about a dozen friends if they knew a good bass player who could also sing harmony. All the names I got back seemed to be too intimidating for me to approach - after only 3 years in Kansas City I still felt like the shy, new kid. Well, one weekend I was at Ollie's for the "Here's to the Roots" and the most intimidating of them all was right in front of my eyes, playing and singing like a superstar in the KC cowboy band, 3 Trails West (Leo Eilts). I knew Leo a little bit from playing out and about, but only enough to say howdy.
So this looked like a job for a couple shots of gin and a good, solid *shove* by my best friend. Dutch courage and a friendly chat later and I'd lined myself up the 3rd piece of the puzzle. "Them KC Boys" were locked and loaded. I did my research, got some good recommendations for approachable, well-respected (and patient) recording engineers and soon we were in Kelly Werts' studio cutting tracks. The way it came together couldn't have been better for my first "studio experiment". Leo and Joe let me drive the bus and were kind, supportive and forgiving, Kelly taught me a wealth of valuable information on recording and producing, and I came out the other side with not just an EP but knowledge and experience that is priceless, as well as the satisfaction of knowing I reached my goal of making something happen on my own.
What did you learn from the recording process that you’ll take to future projects?
Go in with a scratch track to reduce the amount of time putting the puzzle together in-studio. Do as much work rehearsing for the studio as you do rehearsing for live performance. Unless you're a millionaire, the name of the game is "get in and get out", so have answers to all the questions ready ("do you want to record harmony and melody vocals at the same time or separate?") and be prepared (do you really know that guitar solo or do you think you're gonna freestyle it on the day?). Send your engineer a sample of a song you like the sonic quality of, because no one's ears are the same, and you're the one footing the bill. You can't expect them to read your mind, and you don't want to waste time throwing spaghetti at the wall trying to come up with the right sound after everything is said and done.
Describe your creative process. Do songs come easy to you or are you a heavy editor of your work?
As Tom Petty once said "I'm barely prolific and incredibly lazy". That describes me perfectly. Every once and awhile I'll have a whole song - music, lyrics and all, flood my brain in one giant wave and knock it out in a couple hours. ("Man o' Mine Blues" was one of those - one night, complete song). But usually it's a matter of having a hundred "half songs" floating around in notebooks or my iPhone Notes app, for months or years upon end. If bits and pieces were songs, I'd have as many albums as the Rolling Stones. It just takes a real kick in the butt to get me to finish them. That's why I work so much better with partners. When I have someone else waiting on the line for my material, I get that spark that for some reason I just don't give myself. Not to mention, when I write alone I spend more time second-guessing myself and end up scrapping more than I keep, because I get really self-conscious about whether or not it's up to snuff. For every original song you hear me play, there's probably about 10 that I felt didn't quite cut the mustard. I feel like anyone can write a 3-verse, 2-chorus, rhyming couplet song. What I want people to hear is something that will not just sound okay, but make them stop and take notice. In general I write best on airplanes or driving long stretches of highway. For some reason being in transit gets my brain firing in a completely different dimension. In fact, in my lyrics notebook, I have each song dated and labeled with geographical locations for when/where they were written, and most of them have something like "MCI - DTW" or "I-70 West" scribbled up in the corner.
Tell us about your life as an artist during the COVID-19 lockdown and now. How has your approach to your craft changed, if at all?
In a nutshell, it's been pretty depressing. I'm not going to sugar coat it: one of my duos has for all practical purposes disbanded, which broke my heart, and I'm still kind of grieving. With no gigs to practice or prepare for, indefinitely, you have to put your time and energy into other more important facets of your life to keep them on the rails, keep the lights on and stay alive. My full band, Jill Westra and Them KC Boys, is still together, but we take the pandemic seriously and haven't been in the same room together since March. There's just too much at stake health-wise, and again, with no shows to rehearse for, we're playing it safe for the good of our family members and to do our part to lower the risk to society at large. I'm a firm believer that we, as conscious musicians, shouldn't be sending the wrong message and trying to draw people out of their houses at this point, if we ever want things to get back to normal. So gigs are no longer on the calendar for us. That bums me out, big time, because it feels like we had JUST gotten our momentum rolling. I wrangled all our busy schedules into some sort of order, ordered new merch, booked *just* the right amount of shows to have fun and stay tight - but not burn us out - at *just* the right venues for summer. I'd written a bunch of new songs and we got them right where we wanted them, and then - BOOM. Everything shot craps. It's soul destroying, really hard not to throw yourself the world's biggest pity party and cry in your beer over what feels initially like wasted time and energy, but the big picture is that canceling a bunch of gigs and eating a bunch of merch is a first world problem and I need to remain mindful of that. Luckily my neighbor and best friend Kelly Dougherty and I are in a little pop-up duo called Distant Cousins. Since we've stayed in basically a quarantine bubble together throughout this, we still get together and play a little just for fun. But we've canceled all our dates, too, so it's really less "working on stuff" for any particular reason and more just messing around on the driveway or patio as something to do while you can't go out and see friends and socialize.
I'll be honest, I'd hoped that I'd have used this time to write more music, practice my instruments more, and come up with a killer catalogue of material to hit the ground running with, whenever things go back to normal. But as I mentioned, I thrive off of group chemistry and partnership, so that desire and motivation has kind of been squelched by the gloomy weight of the lockdown blues. I'm also super busy doing the single-mom hustle, educating and entertaining my 4th grade daughter and holding down my full time job as well as trying to keep fit, healthy, well-read and maintain friendships under these strange conditions. It's a lot of time-consuming work. One bright spot in it all has been the wonderful resource that the Heartland Song Network dreamed up called "COVID Collaborations". They paired up local musicians (who may or may not know each other) to write, produce and record a song that would then be featured on local radio, the organization's website, Youtube, Soundcloud, etc. I got paired up with Kristin Hamilton, an amazing vocalist and songwriter who was in the band Under the Big Oak Tree. We have still never met, but I kinda feel like we had a baby together now, because we cranked out this really fun project together from 60 miles away. The song we wrote and recorded is called "See You on Down the Road" and it came together so easily and was such a fun labor of love that it really saved my soul during the month of May when I was really in a dark and lonely place.
When did you first start writing songs? Who were some of your earliest influences?
I've been writing in some form of another since I was a kid. My first music and lyrics effort was probably 5th or 6th grade, and then poetry and creative writing became more my bag up until I was out of college and starting to play more singer/songwriter stuff on banjo and guitar as an adult. I think that being slow on the uptake was largely due to the fact that my whole childhood was taken up with music performance, rather than playing around with original material. I played classical piano and was in orchestras and symphonies as a viola player that whole time, including the college years. So recreational playing and being creative with original material wasn't really a priority because it is time consuming and I've always had my fingers in a number of pies, including non-music ones, pastime-wise. In terms of songwriting, early influences would have been rock n' rollers that have an ability to combine energy with simplicity and thoughtfulness, without being trite, pretentious or long-winded. Tom Petty is one of those, who I've been paying close attention to and trying to emulate since I was a teenager. John Prine as well. Lyrics that stay down to earth yet are still almost "accidentally" poetic are harder to come by than you think!
As far as overall style and music goes, in the past decade or so I've gotten really inspired by the gaggle of Texas singer-songwriters that didn't smash any Billboard charts, but somehow still managed legendary status, like Robert Earl Keen, Townes VanZandt, Guy Clark, James McMurtry. And as far as performance and singing goes, I'm most influenced by the masters of 2-part (or more) harmony. The first band I ever really listened to in-depth was my parents' Beach Boys and Everly Brothers-type "oldies" stuff, and I paid very close attention to how vocal harmonies worked. Later in life that gave way to multi-vocalist bands like The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Allman Brothers. Harmony is the one thing I can't really cope without in the music that I listen to and create. If it's not there when I'm listening and humming or singing along, I'll go to whatever lengths it takes to make it so!
What new music are you currently raving about?
So my favorite bands tend to be old ones that pre-date my own life (I love classic rock, folk and classic country) which means it's very rare that I actually discover "new music" that trips my trigger. But I've gotten better at that since the dawn of streaming and satellite radio, although I still seem to always be a little slow on the uptake. So "new releases" to me, are usually more like "within the last 5-10 years"!
- She Returns from War: Mirrored Moon Dance Hall (2018) So this album may have been around for 2 years now, but I only discovered it in the past couple months. The genre is "Cosmic Americana" and the band is from Charleston, SC. Not only had I never heard of the band before, they are "indie" and under-publicized enough that it's kind of hard to find much other information on them. What I do know is that I was hooked by hearing one of my favorite contemporary female artists (Sarah Shook) play a cover of one of their songs, and I immediately knew I had to go track down the original. Just really powerful use of simple unpretentious chord progressions that command your attention and empowering lyrics that feel necessary at this point in time across the collective. Darker and more grungy than I usually go, this album has good songwriting, is eclectic and interesting and never falls into a sound-rut. It's a great album to sit alone under a night sky and enjoy consciously.
- The Sheepdogs: Changing Colours (2018). If you like 70's rock n' roll and alt-country but all your records are worn out, you'll love this Canadian band from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I was in Nova Scotia for work and was about to get out of the car to go on a hike when one of their tunes came on the local radio station and stopped me in my tracks. In Canada you're required by law to play a certain percentage of Canadian artists per hour on air, so I always discover a lot of hidden gems when I'm up there that never quite make it down here. Well, I was blown away by this band that sounded like a modern cross between the Allman Brothers and The Black Crowes or CCR and ended up sitting in the car for another 20 minutes just locked onto the radio, desperately praying to the DJ to do a recap on the last set of songs so I could figure out who it was. Lucky for me, they've been around about 10 years now so there were several albums to dig into, and they are all amazing! Bands aren't making rock albums like this anymore, so this is a real find!
- Shovels & Rope: By Blood (2019). I rarely get to look forward to new releases, since I listen to so many defunct bands and old stuff, but this was one that I literally counted down the days to. This husband and wife duo is exactly who I would want to be in a band with, if wishes came true. I love the way that they take a spartan instrument lineup and make it sound huge. Their recording and production skills are phenomenal, and their male/female harmonies are to die for. What I like the most is that they keep their high-energy pieces up in the stratosphere and their ballads will break your heart within the first seconds, so you really get to run the gamut of emotions when you listen to any S&R album. They just do everything so well. I got to see them live in Nashville at the Ryman last November on their album launch tour, and the way they filled that legendary auditorium with such an amazing noise coming out of just two people, was nothing short of spellbinding.
- Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis: Beautiful Lie (2019) - If you know your contemporary Texas singer-songwriters, you might know Bruce Robison (or maybe his brother Charlie Robison). I'm a big fan of those guys already but I'm also a sucker for a great male/female duo, and Bruce and his wife Kelly are one of the best. I remember driving across the Ontario countryside last spring, half switched off, in a daze, when "Nobody's Perfect" came on satellite radio, and I was hooked. A few months later I had it worked into my duo Westrafox's set list, which goes against our general rule of thumb of mainly focusing on originals. But it was a great fit. I love the album as a whole because the audio geek in me goes crazy over the sound quality and overall sonic fingerprint - being a 2019 album recorded to analog tape with no digital shenanigans. You don't hear that in these days of super-studio production and digital technology, and it's just PERFECT for the delivery of these 10 beautiful, 2 - 3 minute songs. Really touching vocals delivering excellent songwriting, just country enough to make you feel like you're in Texas. A perfectly placed weepy steel guitar gets me every time.
- A Load of Hooey: A Collection of New Short Humor Fiction by Bob Odenkirk. I believe they refer to this kind of writing as "bathroom literature", and that's fine with me - I am so over-extended on a daily basis that it is like moving heaven and earth to carve out time to read and focus on large literary works anymore, so this really hits the mark for my lifestyle at present. It's a collection of silly essays, short manifestos and pontifications by Bob Odenkirk (all-around funnyman and actor who played "Saul" on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul). Examples of the goofiness include selections such as "Baseball Players' Poems About Sportswriters and Sportswriting" as well as fake quotes attributed to extremely famous people, a short one-scene play entitled "Hitler Dinner Party", etc. As Odenkirk himself says about his own book: "there's nothing in here of any substance". But I can confirm there's lots of belly laughs, and don't we all need more belly laughs right now?
- The History of Lenape & Its People by Cecil Culp. So even though I grew up in mid-Missouri, my "people" are actually from Kansas. I've always been interested in ghost towns, or towns in rural America that somehow just vanished over time. One of those little towns was in Leavenworth County across the river from DeSoto in the beautiful Kaw Valley, called "Lenape", after the Native American tribe. The book describes the birth of the town in the wagon train days of the 1860s and follows real families through its development and eventual demise. It was a railroad town on the main line of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. My maternal grandfather came from Lenape, and it always struck me as kind of spooky that he could say he was from a place that just disappeared in the 1940s. What is special to me about this book is that the author includes many stories about my kinfolk (most of whom I never knew) and even my grandfather as a little boy. Obviously he's no longer living so the fact that I have this tangible link to one branch of my family tree, is pretty moving. And now that I'm living in Kansas, it's even more interesting because I know the geography around this area better and can appreciate the history and folklore a lot more.
- Life by Keith Richards (Audiobook). Since I drive hundreds of miles every year for work, I do appreciate the life hack that is the audiobook. My favorite band is the Rolling Stones and my favorite genre of literature is the rock n' roll memoir, so obviously I had to feature one such work in this list. I picked the audiobook of Keith Richards' autobiography because not only is it a fascinating memoir of a fascinating guy (I may be a bit biased, being such a fanatic) but the presentation of the audiobook itself is probably my favorite match as far as narration voice to writing goes, ever. It features Richards' himself for a short time, and then 2 new narrators take over: actor Johnny Depp (who goes above and beyond with really good "character voices") and Londoner Joe Hurley. Both capture Keith's nitty gritty spirit delivery in their own whiskey-tinged ways that are convincing and never get old, even through the many, many hours of this very long (almost 23 hours) memoir. Aside from Richards' life story, it's a thrilling compilation of stories behind the Rolling Stones' music and jarring revelations about personal relationships between band members and Richards' battle with substances that even a super fan such as myself had never heard before.
The Last Waltz DVD . My other most favorite band in the world is The Band, who had a short but very impactful run long before I was born, unfortunately, until 1976 when they disbanded at the pleasure of guitar player and main songwriter, Robbie Robertson. This Martin Scorsese-produced rock documentary is the story of that last concert that they put on in San Francisco on Thanksgiving day, 1976. They got together a troupe of legends to help with the performance, including Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, etc., a number of whom are also my favorites. The concert footage of the songs featured in the Last Waltz are amazing and intimate. While there was bad blood in the band during the recording of it, and Scorsese shows his obvious preference for Robertson over all other members, the performances alone are emotional and breathtaking. I try and watch this on Thanksgiving day every year as my own personal tradition.