It's a pleasure to welcome Kansas City-based songwriter and performer Teri Quinn to the Listen Local project. Originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Quinn's musical talent encompasses everything from the clarinet and banjo to experimental and traditional folk music. She performs widely in and around Kansas City, including a recent stint at the Folk Alliance 2015 Conference. Read more about Teri's creative process in her exclusive interview with Listen Local and listen to some of her songs.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you reside? How long have you been a musician and songwriter?
I came to Kansas City from Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2009 to study Clarinet Performance and Music Composition at the University Of Missouri Kansas City. I have been here in Kansas City going on 6 years now. I picked up the guitar and started writing tunes at 16. I put my songwriting on hold for many many years to pursue a degree in clarinet performance. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I picked my songwriting back up combining all the elements that I learned in school to approach songwriting in a whole new light.
I picked up the Banjo a little over a year ago and that has changed my life. I don’t know why but I felt the banjo calling for me. That deep old fashioned sound was intriguing to me and opened up a whole new world for songwriting.
Describe your songwriting process. Who or what inspires you? How do you break through creative blocks?
My songwriting process begins in my bed with a cup of coffee. I can’t really pinpoint where I get inspiration for the songs I write. It starts with me muddling around on the banjo. Just playing, jamming with no purpose in mind. It starts with a discovery process. What new sounds can I come up with? What chord inversions should I explore? Oh, this sounds nice! Now where do I go from there? What would compliment this nice thing I just did? The process starts with me getting to know my banjo deeper.
From there, I start to think of words. They just come after a while. I have notebooks filled and scribbled with lyrics. When it comes to what I want to write about, it depends on so many factors. What am I feeling? How does what I am playing make me feel? Did something external inspire me or is what I am writing purely internal emotion?
Sometimes I try to break through creative blocks by learning old Appalachian tunes. The cool thing about the banjo is there are so many different tunings to play with! I have books filled with old traditionals and I will go through and learn a new tuning and song. For example, I learned an old murder ballad called Pretty Polly and continued to mess around in the tuning and came up with my own tune called Ain’t Goin’ North.
On your website you describe yourself as mixing “an old fashioned sound with a modern luster.” However, you have also written experimental music for the Black House Collective. How does one style of your music inform another?
First I should give some back-story. I am a sponge and have always been involved with multiple styles of music. During college, by day I was a classical musician. At night, when I was done studying and practicing, I would fill my time discovering new indie bands. When I had a moment to spare, I would put down my clarinet and pick up my guitar (which was rare.) In high school, I was playing in youth symphonies as well as jamming in ska/punk bands. I never pigeonholed myself. I never will pigeonhole myself.
Going to school for music composition allowed me to learn the tools on how to combine all of these styles together. Whether writing a chamber work or orchestrating for an indie rock band. I am able to add classical influence into my indie rock writing and I am able to combine indie rock into my classical writing.
Which brings me to Black House Collective. When I wrote for Black House, I grabbed from all areas. It would start with a rhythmic and melodic idea inspired by whatever band I was into at the time. My compositions are very rhythmically and melodically driven.
My compositional approach is very similar to my songwriting approach. It all starts with sitting down and discovering sounds and melodies. Its fun to come up with a little ditty and wonder where it’s going to go next. When the piece is finished, its fun to look back at the little ditty I came up with and wonder, how did this little thing germinate into this completed piece?
I am now primarily a Banjo player. I’ve only been playing for a little over a year but it has taken over my life and I am grateful for it. It has been a wonderful experience learning to play and discover new sounds and write new tunes with. I mostly play traditional clawhammer style but I don’t write traditional sounding tunes. I mean, kind of. Its going to sound old fashioned because the banjo just has that sound. But my approach is not to have traditional Appalachian sounding music. I guess that’s what I mean by ‘Old fashioned sound with a modern luster.’
Tell us about some of the other projects you’re involved with.
I am in a few other bands. I have been playing clarinet and guitar in Claire and The Crowded Stage for about 3 years (maybe 4? Maybe less? I can’t remember.) It is an 7 piece indie rock group that is lead by a wonderful Kansas City based singer-songwriter Claire Adams. The musicians in this group are crazy good. We just come together to work on Claire’s tunes and brainstorm orchestration ideas to make her tunes sound…well….amazing. We don’t play many shows because all the musicians in this group are involved in a million other bands. But when we do play shows, its super fun!
I am lead singer and guitarist for another band called Rooms Without Windows. They’ve been a band for a little while but I joined as lead singer in September. We have only had a few shows with the new band line up and are working on booking more. We are a dance-pop meets dream-punk sort of band. The musicians in this band are also amazing. I am really lucky to be involved in different groups that keep me sharp and continue to up my standards in musicianship.
The cool thing about being involved in different groups as well as working on my own solo projects is I get to put on a different face in each group. I get to be someone else for a second while on stage. It’s a lot like acting. I am a performer and I love to perform!
Where do you perform?
I perform all sorts of places. Mostly at Coda Bar and grill and The Buffalo Room. I’m looking at expanding my performance venue horizons. My website is kept pretty up to date regarding upcoming shows.
Where do you record your music? What advice do you have for others who want to do the same?
The recordings you hear on my website were done by Brent Jamison. He is a great friend and a wonderful engineer. It’s hard to give advice because I’m still trying to figure this out still.
My advice is to constantly plan ahead, network, and make friends with people who have decent recording equipment in their bedrooms to make tiny EPs until you can afford to go to a studio. Studios are expensive and they deserve all the money that they charge.
Being a successful songwriter means you have to be an entrepreneur. It’s a business and you have to constantly be thinking outside the box. Its not just songwriting: it’s marketing, designing, booking, wining and dining, budgeting, etc. Everyone and their mother is a songwriter so you have to come up with ways that set you apart. I’m still trying to figure out what that means. ;)