Harriet Kaplan

INTERVIEW: Singer/Songwriter Billy Lawler

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Photo By: Sonia Nuno

Billy Lawler is an up-and-coming artist with a deep and passionate singing style that is “drawing comparisons to Sam Smith and Stevie Wonder.” The Sacramento-born singer-songwriter and pianist also has been described as “echoing the pure emotion of Donny Hathaway.”

On the eve of the releasing of his first EP, Nostalgic, original material culled from a lifetime of personal experiences so far, the soft spoken and introspective Lawler spoke to SoCalMusicToday.com to discuss the inspiration for his songs, how he become an artist, finding his niche in music through his influences, his formal musical education, making videos and his CD release party and show at Hotel Cafe on June 24and the creative plans he has to take music to the next level building upon his growing audience.

Nostalgic is a collection of songs that represent your life during your most formative years growing up into adulthood. What did you draw on in particular that you felt the need to write about the most and why?

I think the easiest topic for songwriters to gravitate towards is love. There is a song on the EP about falling in love for the first time and there’s a song about first heartbreak. Most recently, I wrote a song about breaking someone else’s heart, that is not on Nostalgic.

Over the years of writing the songs on this EP, I also gravitated towards topics like friendships, and growing apart from people who you may have been close to when you were young, but then a time comes in your life when things change and so do the friendships. I think a lot of people will relate to a lot of these topics. The feedback I got from others before I even named the EP Nostalgic was that they felt nostalgic listening to me performing, that my emotion translates to the listener.

There was actually, originally no plan to put this group of songs on an EP, though I always knew I wanted to be a songwriter and release music. I started with releasing “Casualty” (the last track on the EP) as a single in December because it was my most recent song at the time. I just wanted to record it and get it out there. Then it turned into a project where I collected these songs I wrote over the past seven years and decided to then put them on this “compilation” EP. Nostalgia was the common thread that ran through them all.

How do you write songs and compose the arrangements for the songs?

In the beginning, I’d write songs by creating tracks on my computer and then singing along until I found the right words. The music would evoke certain feelings and if something in particular had been on my mind, then I’d write about it. I like to call it “word painting.” I’ve also written songs by sitting down at the piano and everything comes all at once, or over the course of a year or so. It kind of happens differently every time!

With Nostalgic, for the arrangements, I sat down with my producer, Catharine Wood, and we hashed out what we thought would sound best. We didn’t want to overproduce the songs or do anything crazy cause we thought they stood very strongly on their own. We wanted a little support with bass, drums, and a little guitar with some organ here and there. The arrangements are very sparse, and as I perform, going forward, hopefully I will build upon that in my recordings and live performances. I’d like to slowly head in a little bit of an edgier direction for future projects. But for now, it will just be me and the piano. This is how people know me. I didn’t want the recordings to stray too far from what people experienced in a live setting.

You have performed live before?

I started performing this group of songs back in October and have played seven shows since then in LA, Sacramento, and Chicago. Prior to that, there were a couple of years I really wasn’t performing or doing much with music, but before that, I was doing West Coast Songwriters and that’s where I met Catharine. I was also doing open mics and little things here and there. Before that, I was living in Sacramento and I was performing mostly in college groups. I wasn’t doing my own music. I started to dabble in my own music just before I moved to L.A., but I didn’t really dive in yet.

How did you find piano, your other leading instrument (beside your voice)?

Piano was my first instrument as a kid. My parents had an old piano in the house. It served as just an old piece of furniture really, sitting there untouched. No one really played piano or studied music. It became my personal outlet – playing the piano.

Are you self-taught?

No I’m not self-taught. I asked for lessons.

How did you know you wanted piano lessons?

I remember loving, as most kids loved, Disney movies. There’s a lot of music in those movies and I remember having neighbors that played piano. It caught my attention. I remember wanting to recreate the songs myself. I took a lesson with a neighbor very casually. Then once my parents could tell I seriously wanted to study piano, they put me into lessons. I’ve been playing ever since.

When did you feel you first found your voice and felt you had something to say?

I felt I found my voice in college. I was always very interested in singing, and college was a good opportunity to study voice. I sang in groups in school. My voice teacher started to mentor me because he noticed potential. I began to study with him privately, so I was taking weekly voice and piano lessons. Performing in ensembles I became immersed in music and really developed my ear. I learned how to harmonize and produce the best tone I could. This was all within the context of my school music, and then I started to create my own music.

At the time I don’t think that I felt I had anything to say, but I wanted to make music, I just wasn’t ready to share it. I kept it to myself and made music in my bedroom. I used my closet as a vocal booth, and when everyone would leave the house, I would go into my “studio” and work on my songs. I wrote “Start Over” (the third track on Nostalgic) in there. That was the first song I felt proud enough of to share with anyone. I played it for a couple of friends. My mom played it for her friends. Everyone was very encouraging, trying to convince me to pursue my interest in music.  They wanted me to share more and perform.

A couple of those friends ended up passing away soon after that, and that was a huge turning point for me. Deciding to not let fear dictate what I was doing with music, I opened up more vocally and dabbled in performing my songs live. It took off from there, and I made the huge move from Sacramento to LA, where I dove into the open mic scene. I kept writing and performing and that is what has brought me here.

Do you come from a musical family? 

My dad had a huge record collection. He loved everything from The Beatles to Bob Dylan to the Eagles; the whole classic rock era. But I found music on my own just playing it. I have one aunt that sang as a hobby, but it wasn’t a career path for her. She just liked to do it. That’s the extent of musical ability in my family. I’d hear my dad’s records at a young age, but I can’t say I latched onto anything specifically that inspired me. I gravitated to R&B/soul. I got more into Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. As I got older, I tried to discover new music by listening to contemporary artists I liked, and in turn, discovered older music by the artists they were influenced by.

What drew you to Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder?

I was in high school and Alicia Keys had just come out with her first album. I remember seeing an ad in the newspaper for a concert she was doing in Sacramento. I can’t say I was a huge fan of hers right away but I knew the songs she sang and wrote, and that she played piano. I wanted to do that too, so I went to her concert. I was blown away. I fell in love with her and her music. I listened to that first record she made endlessly. I started to become interested in what influenced her. Then I found Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding.

This one concert opened my ears to this whole world of R&B/soul. Around the time her record was coming out, there were a few other people coming up that had a similar kind of throwback sound: John Legend. Even Kanye West’s first album, which is obviously rap, but his production was very kind of soulful. So I started to listen to the older artists, but I was most drawn to Donny Hathaway. His music is so passionate and his voice is the most soulful voice I have ever heard.

Do you think when listening to some of those  great artists it may have influenced you consciously on how you developed as a singer? Have you experimented with your voice?

When I was studying voice in college, we had to intricately hear and match other people’s singing. Our consonants had to sound exactly the same. We had to shape our vowels exactly the same way. In an ensemble, it almost sounded like one person singing many parts. We had to match the tone and everything had to be uniform in the group. Swell the same way on certain notes. Developing an ear for that was very helpful, and listening to Donny Hathaway, or even friends of mine that have a great sense of emotion when they sing, I felt like I can pull exactly what it is out of those voices that make me feel a certain way, and I can kind of make my own versions of those expressions and turned it into my own style.

How much input do you have in making videos? Do you enjoy making them as much as writing songs and performing?

The first one I did was for “Casualty.” The process was very fun but it was a long day. We had a full set of people. The part I don’t like as much is watching myself. We are all our own our worst critics. It still turned out great and was an exciting day seeing everything coming together the first time, visually. I had a lot of say in the video. I worked with the director, Allen Aces, on the concept. I’ve seen a lot his videos, including some he did for a friend of mine’s band, Their Wedding. He had seen my live shows and loved “Casualty.” For the video, similar to the record, the focus was the song and we didn’t want to make it into a huge production. It was simple, raw and organic. We had an old piano painted blue, and a dancer. We booked an abandoned loft Downtown. We didn’t need storyboards. I knew what the video would be like based on the location, piano and dancer, and totally trusted the director.

What are the challenges of being an independent artist and working the music industry? What has that experience been like for you?

Getting a full project on its feet. This whole thing has taken a year to put together. Making the EP and putting the show together. I’m incredibly lucky to have a manager that is my roommate. I have a little team. The biggest challenge is that people see only 10 percent of what we actually work on. But every Facebook like and every Instagram like and every comment and share is almost like currency.

Right now it’s not about sales, but support. It’s hard getting people to understand that. I can see a core group of people online that follow and share everything I do and that’s like pay day for now! You work so hard on something and you want people to support you and want to share it and enjoy it as much as you do. But it’s hard to get the word out and reach new people sometimes. Social media and the internet are great for that but it’s also very competitive and a saturated marketplace. People are discovering music everyday but you are a needle in a haystack in the bigger picture. Though, I don’t see it as a competition. I think it’s a community of a lot of people doing the same thing I’m doing. So I utilize online venues like SoundCloud where I’m trying to discover musicians doing the same thing as I am and get into touch with people who are like-minded and want and desire to work together, write together and perform together and hopefully have each other’s backs that way.

Do have a plan for playing live to support the EP?

My June 24th Hotel Cafe show is the big release show and the first opportunity for anyone to get the chance to buy it from me in person. A couple of weeks after that, I’ll be in Sacramento on July 9th at the Naked Lounge for an EP release show with Josh Lane and Aiyana Cadwell also on the bill. I have a couple of pending gigs in August and September. One is confirmed for Street Food Cinema, which will be in Manhattan Beach at the Marriott Golf Course on September 17th. They will be screening E.T., and I will be the pre-musical act/opener. Working with my manager, Katie Kerins, we were trying to think of creative ways to reach a venue that has a in-built audience of people that have never heard of me. I also recently signed with a college booking agent, so I’m also hoping to do a bit of traveling for that next year. Stay tuned!

Purchase Nostalgichttps://billylawler.bandcamp.com/album/nostalgic

Billy Lawler website: www.billylawler.com

Purchase tickets to Billy Lawler Hotel Café Performance on 6/24: https://www.hotelcafe.com/tickets/?s=events_view&id=5021

Billy Lawler Facebook: facebook.com/billylawlermusic

Billy Lawler Twitter: twitter.com/_billylawler

Billy Lawler Instagram: instagram.com/billylawler

Billy Lawler YouTube: youtube.com/billylawlermusic

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