by: Thomas D. Mooney
I spoke with folk singer-songwriter Susan Gibson for the first time last week. She was in a park in Denver, Colo. walking her dog. Much like when listening to any of her songs, she engulfs you with conversation. There’s something that puts you at ease with either. It’s a comfort that surrounds and feels worn-in. The back and forth felt as though we had spoken a hundred times before without ever feeling repetitive.
As she made her way to her vehicle, some things she said hits me in the moment. Others, they don’t make their presence really known until I’m transcribing and re-listening a few days later.
“You know how solitary writing is. It’s a pretty lonely endeavor,” she exhales. She’s talking about her time as a musician and songwriter in Amarillo. It’s something that other artists scattered across the Texas Panhandle have felt more often than not. It’s something they tried to express, but for whatever reason, Gibson’s explanation has the most clear, simple, and concise point.
I keep making mental notes along the way through our afternoon exchange. They’re mostly about how smooth, and even poetic at times, of a natural speaker she is. Which, of course, lends itself to songwriting.
Over the course of Gibson’s solo albums and her work with The Groobees, the Amarillo band she fronted in the early ’00s, there’s the one single element that’s remained true and consistent throughout: her easy-going believability that cuts straight through pretentiousness or fraudulent emotions.
It cuts to the core of the human experience. At times it’s bold and brave. At others, she’s incredibly honest with a glimpse of those insecurities, intimate details, and exposed feelings that we all encounter from time to time.
The Wimberly, Texas-based Gibson will be performing at the Chalice Abbey in Amarillo tonight (Sept 11, 7PM) and Tornado Gallery in Lubbock on Saturday night (Sept 12, 8PM). For more details both shows, click here.
New Slang: This far into your songwriting career, you’ve had the opportunity to write with so many great songwriters and musicians. Even though you’ve been doing this for some time now, has there been anyone specifically that’s been intimidating to write with? Anyone make you nervous the first time you sat down and realized you were working with them?
Susan Gibson: Well, my first “blind date” co-writer was Jim Lauderdale. He is such a prolific and respected songwriter. I was maybe twenty-eight or something and had never done that before. I was really nervous. Just zero confidence going in [Laughs]. He was such a pro though. He’s written with young and old. Established artists and beginners. He was probably the best person to start my co-writing experience off with. Every co-writing opportunity is an opportunity to learn how someone else does it.
NS: Obviously, writing with someone else is a much different experience from writing by yourself. A lot of times, if some idea of yours is really special to you, it can be difficult to let go of some of that control and let someone else explore the subject matter with you. Maybe you end up keeping it for yourself. How do you decide if a song idea is worth the risk of letting someone else in on it?
SG: I tend to have a list of ideas that I’m working on. Then I’ll have a list of “cool ideas” that aren’t too personal or ideas that I’m too attached to. They’re a little easier to give up control on those things. I tend to look at them as two different categories. Drew Kennedy, he co-writes a lot. He has a great approach to it. We just did a writing workshop together and was able to hear him talk about his approach to co-writing. It really gave me some insight. Of course, if something is super precious to you, chances are, if you have that idea, you’re going to make the time to write. If you have one of those super precious ideas that’s just sitting in your book or whatever, you kind of have to realize that you need to have someone else’s input to get going on the idea. He’s one of those guys who I’ve learned from by listening to and writing with. You can’t have this fear or worry that you’re going to ruin it approach to it. Drew also has written with so many different people that he takes the appropriate idea to the right person. I think that’s a great way to do it.
NS: Yeah. That certainly makes sense. It’s kind of learning and knowing the strengths of others. Drew is one of my favorite songwriters around right now–and really, he’s just a great guy to have a conversation with. He’s one of those kind of people who seemingly knows a little about basically everything.
SG: Oh yeah. Very much so. If I’m writing with Drew, the idea has to be pretty smart because he’s such a smart writer.
NS: I’m sure this has happened to you at least once. What idea did you have that you were just sure it was going to be something worth writing about, but for whatever reason, just slipped out of your grasp?
SG: Yeah. That’s happened before. One time, it was a co-write with Randy Scruggs, who I admire and respect so much. Again, I was really young and really inexperienced with co-writing with people. We were writing about this idea that I had brought in. We finished the song and the song just didn’t punch me in the guts like the idea did. I walked away from that co-writing session with an idea that I loved and a song that I was lukewarm about.
I got into trouble with it–whatever songwriting trouble is. I was making a record. It was Outerspace with Jack Saunders in Houston. He suggested the song and said, “You’ve written it with Randy Scruggs. You’d love to have that guy on your record.” Of course you would, but the song, I just wasn’t crazy about. So Jack worked a bridge up for it that made me love the song. That’s what it was missing. But the “rule” that I broke was that I included another songwriter on the song without checking with Randy first. I just didn’t know the edict around it. I know that know, but I had to learn it the hard way [Laughs].
It worked out fine in the end. We got it all worked out with Randy and everything. Randy was cool about it. But really, the lesson I learned was that you don’t walk out of the room knowing that you’re not satisfied with it.
NS: You keep talking about being a young songwriter and being inexperienced. Do you think writing was easier for you then though because you didn’t know any better? Or has experience made it easier to finish up songs?
SG: I wrote a lot–this is shameful–but I wrote a lot more when I wasn’t making my living at it. I know it’s all self-inflicted pressure, but when I was working at the credit union, it seems like every moment I wasn’t emptying trash cans or whatever minimum wage work I was doing, every moment was precious. I’d sit down and look at those notes that I’d made when I was listening to someone tell their sob story about not being able to pay their car loan or something. You know what I mean?
NS: Yeah. When you have other work, time becomes such a valuable commodity.
SG: Yeah. When you’re starting off as a songwriter, there’s a million different subjects that you haven’t explored yet. Then you find your patterns and the things that you gravitate towards. Now as a writer, I think, “OK, I’ve already written that. I’ve written about this.” I have some things out of my system so when I start on it, it doesn’t seem genuine. And now, my standards are higher. I can sort of see through my own BS as a writer. I’m more eager to scratch ideas before they have a chance to live. I think it does get harder. But you know, when you’re climbing a mountain, the closer you get to the top, the air is thinner, the sun is brighter. When you’re writing on something, the further you go, the harder it gets. If you’re losing weight, it’s easy to lose the first 5o pounds. It’s that last five that takes forever. I feel that any kind of creative endeavor falls into that too.
NS: When you’re working on a song, how soon will you typically bring it out and play in front of an audience?
SG: I have to test them out in front of an audience. I think that’s like the fine grade sandpaper. It lets me know the details. Like what lines I end up looking down when singing. What lines I never look anyone in the eye when singing. What is it about that line that I’ll do that. Or it’ll be something where the melody is cool, but I have to put it near the beginning of my set because my voice will be too tired to reach those notes by the end.
I am not one who has any delusions about the perfections of a performance. Last night, we played a new song and I forgot the last verse. We stopped it. I was song swapping with this guy by the name of Michael O’Conner. We stopped and talked about how funny that is. If you miss that first word of your verse, you can sit for half an hour and it’s not going to come to you. Then I got that first word out and finished the song.
To me, they’re living things. Even if I do think it’s polished and finished, if I come up with a better line later, I’m going to use it. It doesn’t matter if I’ve recorded it on an album either. It’s about the service of the song. If I come up with something a year after I’ve been playing it, I’m going to go with makes the song stronger. I agonize over the writing of them. Then there’s certain things I think just need to germinate longer. They don’t gel as quickly. The way I get through that is by playing them in front of an audience and seeing if the girl elbows the guy in the ribs on that line.
NS: So the other day, I guess it was about a month back, I got a couple of old albums from The Groobees (They are Buy One Get Eleven Free and The Groobees). Back when you guys were playing, I was still in high school. Had no idea who you were or anything, but since I’ve started this, I’ve heard the band was kind of a force up here back then. What did you guys think about your place as an up and coming band back then? What was running through y’alls mind back then?
SG: I think, we were working really hard. I don’t think we would have looked at ourselves as a force. We were part of a cool community of musicians. We started heading to Lubbock and getting a taste of that scene and meeting all these people down there who had been doing their thing for years regardless of if you had heard of them or not. I think we were always looking for new peers. It felt like we were, I wouldn’t say struggling, but certainly not far enough above water to have any perspective on where we were in the pool. The work was fun. The band was fun. It made the hard work not hard.
I think there’s some retrospect that I’d have never gotten without all this time going by. It’s been 13 years since we broke up. Now I’ll be somewhere that I’ve never played, The Groobees never played, and someone will request an old Groobees song. That is a weird feeling [Laughs]. I’d never get that without that time and distance. When it happens, I think, “Oh wow. We did cool stuff.”
Of all the musicians in that band, I don’t think anyone was educated as far as being trained musicians. We practiced a lot. We had a practice room in Amarillo. We dedicated ourselves to it, but I don’t think any of us truly knew what we were doing. I hope the others in the band have those moments. Those moments really give a perspective on how neat that band really was.
I loved our last album, Buy One Get Eleven Free. I think it was our best one and kind of was where all the pieces were falling together before they started falling apart.
NS: Yeah. It’s always that way with bands who have broken up. It seems that the last two or so end up being their best albums and then it just kind of has that breaking point. How did being isolated up in Amarillo have an effect on the music of that band?
SG: I hear this about a lot when I hear Lubbock musicians talk about being up here. You had to entertain yourself because there was nothing else to do. I think Amarillo holds that allure as well. There’s so much space. It’s human nature to put something in it. Whether it’s paint something, sculpt something, or play something. It’s something to put in that space. The isolation is kind of a double-edge sword. It gives you the freedom to do something really original because you aren’t seeing a bunch of people doing the same thing. But then you go to a music city like Nashville or Austin and you go, “Oh, this is happening. I’m not inventing the wheel here.” I think when you’re living in a place where there’s not a thousand cultural events happening every week, you have to seek it out. I think that’s something that breeds creativity in a seeker.
Who knows what we would have been like had we had a million different influences readily available everywhere all the time. You know how solitary writing is. It’s a pretty lonely endeavor. Maybe that’s why those remote area artists are so great. We’re used to lonely. Eight hours by yourself and your thoughts and trying to get clarity on things, that’s nothing new for someone who is living in Amarillo [Laughs]. Maybe that lends itself to the creativity. The environment is very conducive to make something.
NS: Yeah. Roy Orbison had this quote that’s one of my favorites: There’s a lot of ways to be lonely in West Texas. I think it makes it a special environment.
SG: Yeah. It is a special thing that we do-whether anyone is listening or not. It’s special. You’re putting yourself out there. That’s all we have to offer the world. It’s those things that make us uniquely us and the things that come out through the art.