Heather Eatman: Real Life
photo by Leslie Lyons
Singer-songwriter Heather Eatman (heathereatman.net) was born in the small East Texas town of Jacksonville; lived in Ann Arbor, MI, and Johnstown, PA; then moved to New York City. She received her education at Parsons School of Design and has since worked as a graphic artist at the New York Daily News. In 1993, she signed to John Prine's Oh Boy Records, which released her debut CD, Mascara Falls (1995). In 1999, she released her second CD, Candy & Dirt, on her own label, Impossible Records. Her most recent recording, Real (2001), came out on Eminent Records. In March 2002, she discussed her music and herself via email.
Interview by Kurt Wildermuth (June 2002)
Q. Bob Dylan once said that the closest he'd come to achieving the sound he heard in his mind was on Blonde on Blonde. "It's that thin, wild mercury sound. It's metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up." Brian Wilson once described Beach Boys' music, around the time of Pet Sounds, as "teenage symphonies to God." How would you characterize your music? What's the sound you hear in your mind?
This is incredibly difficult to put into words because what I want to capture on record should be, ideally, beyond words. But I can say that I feel like it should be a snapshot of a moment in time that can't be recaptured--completely alive and unchained. It should have this energy, immediacy, and intensity that comes together to create a little forty-five-minute world that people can travel to, to find catharsis and solace. This is what I feel about my favorite records.
Q. Which of your recordings comes closest to capturing that sound?
It seems like I get a little closer to that ideal each time I make a record. Each one has been a hugely educational experience in its own way and comes to represent a new bundle of lessons that I'll bring with me the next time I go into the studio. But, ironically, the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know and can't know. I find out that, once you have the right team assembled, it's more about letting go than it is about trying to guide and control. With Real, I was in the best position so far to be able to let go and let it happen and get it all on tape.
Q. Did you know it when you'd recorded it?
Yes. And I think the defining sign was that I was consistently surprised by how things sounded. Everything had not been planned into the ground before we went in to cut.
Q. If you traced your music back to its source or sources, what would you find?
A very strange amalgam . . . The earliest music I was exposed to came through my parents: Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, The Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, classical and religious music. My father loves Broadway, so there was also Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Jacques Brel, Cole Porter, Rogers & Hammerstein. And I think all this music affected me a great deal.
But the music I chose for myself as a teenager was in high contrast to the above: The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, and, eventually, Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones. It's also worth mentioning that, in my most intense period of teenage alienation, I felt a deep connection to the blues and listened pretty much exclusively to Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Elmore James for a year or so.
Q. Why music?
In my house growing up, nothing was considered more important than theater, music, and art. As a kid, I had a real affinity for drawing--it suited my extremely introverted personality and I was good at it. But I always felt that the finished product was too static. I wanted to create something more powerful and mercurial.
I had always loved music, but I felt I had no natural talent for it. I didn't sing for other people when I was young, because my voice was weak. And, while I used to sing with my records and daydream about being a singer, the idea of me gathering the courage to perform in public seemed laughable. My shyness was a tremendous obstacle in day-to-day life, as it was.
So, while this sounds masochistic (and probably does contain that element), I think the ultimate draw was (and is) that music has always seemed incredibly magical, powerful, sexy, and, most importantly, impossible.
Q. As a listener, I often feel that musicians--at their best, when they're lifting us out of ourselves--are sacred beings. Does it ever feel that way from the other perspective, in the studio, on stage?
Hell, I'd love to be a sacred being! But no matter how hard I try, I'm still the same old flawed individual. The music is another story, though. Music is sacred to me and I feel blessed to get to have music filtered through my unworthy self and to be able to make something transcendent out of all my mistakes and self-created problems.
Q. Have you ever "received," found more than created, a song? Where did it come from?
Many songs of mine have been "received" in some aspect, where all of a sudden I'm playing a chord progression and singing a melody that comes into my head completely formed already. Or, I have no idea what a song should be about, and then a full-blown idea shows up without warning, seemingly out of nowhere.
Sometimes, the whole song arrives like that. It's pretty rare, but when it does, it's the closest thing I know to magic. "Nothing Is Stopping You" (on Candy & Dirt) was like that. I went into a dark room with my guitar and came out twenty minutes later with the better part of a song. When I create them myself in a deliberate fashion, they can take weeks, months, even years.
Where do they come from? If I knew, I would go there with a couple of big, old, empty suitcases.
Q. I think of your three CDs as sounding like a progression from innocence to maturity, but when I listened to them in order, I was surprised by how mature you sound on Mascara Falls. Where did that wide-eyed wisdom come from?
My parents never babied me. They didn't talk down to me. They expected me to be very grown-up and responsible from an early age, and I think this has something to do with it.
I was also a pretty unhappy teenager and had lived a fairly intense life by age twenty-four, including a stint in a mental hospital (for anorexia) and seven years of living on my own in New York City. So, I had already seen a lot.
Plus, I've always had a distaste for pretense and denial, and have been anxious to seek out the truth about things in life. The truth, as you know, is a beautiful thing--but it ain't pretty.
Q. For how many years had you been honing those songs? You don't write potential classics like "Miss Liberty," "The Amelia Earhart Waltz," and "Greyhound" overnight, do you?
"Greyhound" and "Amelia" were written pretty quickly, and definitely in the year or two prior to getting signed. "Miss Liberty" was another story in that I played through the chords and thought about what the song should be about for a year before coming up with the concept and finishing the song in a single evening.
I think however good or bad those songs are owes itself mostly to the fact that I was writing a lot by that time. I didn't start writing songs at a rate of more than one or two a year until I was twenty. But when I got signed at twenty-four, I had written fifty songs.
It always surprises me to hear people praising those early songs, though, because, along the way, I really developed kind of a complex about them. In the process of selecting a producer for the first album, I met with a couple of different producers. One of them was this really snotty, bitter guy who told me that my songs were going to have to be cut up and deconstructed and used as pieces of the "real" songs that he was going to make out of them, because they were immature and broke too many of the "rules" of songwriting. I cried for two hours straight after I got off the phone with him. He was not a nice man. Needless to say, we didn't give him the job. My a&r man, Tom Lewis, said, "If he doesn't get these songs, he's the wrong guy." Thank God for him . . .
Q. And what about "Lucky You," with its perfect pop-rock hooks? Which came first, the lyrics or the guitar lick, and was that process typical for you?
"Lucky you" is a unique case. I have very mixed feelings about it, as it's the only song I've ever allowed a producer to completely transform.
It started out as a true ballad--confessions of this rich, New York, alcoholic dowager character I had dreamed up. I never intended it to be a pop song, really. But when my producer, Roger Moutenot, was showing the record company what he could do with my songs, he came up with this hook that fit snugly under everything I'd written and also completely changed the nature of the song.
I let it happen--it sounded great--but I never could connect with the song quite the right way after that. The music never matched the emotional content, as far as I was concerned. The song seems to work quite well for a lot of other people, so it may just be my problem.
Q. How do you feel about those songs now?
I don't feel as connected to them as I do to the songs I've written more recently, but I stand by them and am proud of certain things about them. I never really know where anything stands, though. It's all so subjective. When I listen to my past work, my opinions fluctuate wildly. Sometimes I idealize my past work, sometimes I feel like dismissing it all as worthless. It depends on the day. . . . And if you listen to other people's opinions, you really get confused! You get pulled in a thousand different directions.
If I were giving advice to someone who was just starting out in this business, I would say that the hardest thing about it is accepting that you will never know how good you are. As much as the focus is on selling records, that isn't an indicator. Lots of crap sells well, while there are great artists who never do anything at the box office . . . and of course the reverse is also true.
It's even harder now, in that respect, than it used to be. It used to be that there were "prestige artists" and "critical favorites," but the industry doesn't nurture that sort of thing to the same degree any more. The business no longer makes much of a pretense of being interested in art as opposed to commerce.
Q. Candy & Dirt combines story songs like those on Mascara Falls with something new: statement or message songs. But on songs like "Nothing Is Stopping You," you're singing both to yourself and to the listener, right? How did that approach come about?
My songs have always functioned first as some kind of therapeutic tool for my own psyche. Between recording Mascara Falls and writing Candy & Dirt, I experienced some hard knocks in relationships and in the music business that I was trying desperately to recover from. Songs like "Sympathy" and "Nothing is Stopping You" came out of that.
In addition, I found I was losing some interest in story songs and becoming fascinated with melody, implied stories, and economy of words. These issues became challenges I set for myself, and you hear the manifestations of that beginning on Candy & Dirt and continuing on my latest, Real.
Q. I've always imagined Kurt Cobain covering "A Kid Like You." Do you ever have other singers in mind when you write? Who'd you like to see cover one of your songs, and which one?
There are times when I've been stuck for a lyric, where I've asked myself, "What would the Stones say here?" or something like that, as a way of trying to help guide my thought process.
I write for myself, but as a song is coming out, sometimes I recognize how it would be appropriate for this person or that, and that helps me nail down where the song is going.
But I would be thrilled if any interesting, quality artist wanted to take a swing at one of my songs. It hasn't happened yet, but I still have hopes that it will. It would just be cool to hear what that person would do with it.
Q. Anybody else's song you wish you'd written? Why that one?
There are far, far too many to name here, but I'll give you a couple . . . "Without You," which Harry Nilsson did, but was written by the guys from Badfinger, Tom Evans and Pete Ham; "Wichita Lineman" by Jimmy Webb; "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen.
Why? Because I think I could be happy if I knew I had written something as beautiful and perfect. Would I really be? Probably not ... I've written some songs that have ended up above and beyond my expectations, but my attitude toward myself tends to be, "What have you done for us lately (you big loser)?"
Q. On Real, you recorded your first cover. What led to your doing Willie Dixon's "Spoonful"?
That was pretty random. I always loved the song. A friend of mine put it on a mixed tape for me when I was still in high school, and I was mesmerized by the feel, Howlin' Wolf's voice, the strength, the simplicity and ugliness of it. It's so hardboiled. . . . Anyhow, I had recently bought it for the first time on CD, since having it on that crappy cassette, and it just occurred to me to see if I could play it.
Q. And how about your first collaborations with another songwriter--what were you hoping for? What did Bruce Brody (former member of the Patti Smith Group and Lone Justice) bring to the sessions?
I wasn't hoping for much. I hadn't had very good luck with co-writing in the past, but I was humoring my new manager by allowing him to hook me up with his friend Bruce to see if we could write something. It was a total shot in the dark. I was completely surprised when we wrote something good ("Too Wild") right off the bat.
As far as what he brings to it, Bruce is a music guy. He has these wonderful melodic and chordal ideas. And he's an awesome pianist and organist. U2 calls him up and asks him to play--that's how great he is. He never contributes lyrics, but he's a wonderful editor and critic when it comes to lyrics, and that's an excellent resource to have as well.
Q. And yet another first: "The Hard Way" (I imagine that's the title) is a hidden bonus track. What's it doing there, though? Every time I hear it, I think: This could have been a hit! What's that song mean to you?
That song is the result of me and my producer, Roger, not wanting the Real sessions to be over. The last night I was in town, he was supposed to be home early. There was some reason why he had to get the kids up early in the morning--I don't remember what it was. But anyway, I started playing him this song that was half-finished, and he got all excited about recording it. So we ended up staying in the studio until 5 a.m., and that's what we managed to get done. I don't know if he got hit with the rolling pin or not when he got home, but I kind of like to imagine that he did!
Q. I envision it, the way I envision "Lucky You" and Candy & Dirt's "Black Lincoln Bomb," as having been written effortlessly, spontaneously. How wrong am I?
I don't remember a great deal about writing "Lucky You," but I know I had to work at it. "Black Lincoln Bomb" was funny, because I had the phrase, but I didn't know what it was and I kind of had to play around with it and figure out what it was supposed to be and where it could go. I ended up imagining these three crazy middle-aged women on a wacky vacation getting their car stolen. I came up with the idea for that at the Cheyenne Diner down the street from the New York Daily News, where I work.
Q. Is Cornelius P. Ziff, the narrator of "Midnight Shift," a real person?
No, he's not. I made him up. He's one of my many, many alter-egos.
Q. Your songwriting perspective has often seemed that of the outsider who comes alive in the afternoon, once junior high or high school has let out. It's fall. Lights are coming on. The carnival's in town. Does that description make sense? Is that how you'd have put it?
I like the description. Makes me sound like Bruce Springsteen or Carson McCullers. . . . I would have a hard time being objective enough to say something like that. It sounds very romantic, and my writing is so often such a struggle that I can't see through that to know how it comes across from a listener's perspective.
Q. In your latest songs, especially the love songs and lost-love songs, you seem to have moved into different territory, a different psychological place. How would you describe that place?
Well, it sucks. . . . It's very lonely. I've been grappling a lot recently with the fact that I'm in my early thirties with some major heartbreaks behind me and nobody on the horizon, and it's a difficult place to be. I take responsibility, though, because I have always and continue to prioritize my career over having any kind of a home life. People always describe my apartment as looking like I've just moved in and I'm still getting settled. There's nothing on the walls, no major pieces of furniture. Meanwhile, I've been there twelve years! When you have a full-time job and are also constantly trying to move forward in something as challenging as the music biz, there's not much left over, I guess. . . . It's sad . . . but it's grist for the mill, isn't it?
Q. From, say, "Greyhound" ("So come with me, honey / out to the highway side / And we will trade in my pistol / for a Greyhound ride and ride / that sweet, sweet Greyhound") to "On the Boulevard" ("It's easy to get lost on the boulevard / when your head's a little soft / everything else is so hard"), what's the journey been like?
It's been very hard--I've had to work ceaselessly in order to have what I have as far as a career goes. But there's a purity to what I've done, as a result. If I had been more successful and things had happened faster and more easily for me, I can imagine that I could easily have done work I wasn't proud of, just by getting swept up in the hype. But there has been no hype, and if there ever were, I would be much better prepared for it now than I was when I first got signed.
Q. What's ahead for you, as a songwriter?
Mo and bettah, I hope. I just keep on keepin' on. I never know what's going to come out next, and that's how I like it.
Q. As a performer?
I hope to be able to do more touring--I enjoy playing for new audiences and being a vagabond. I've never been to Europe and I'm told there's a great audience for this kind of music over there, so I hope to be crossing the pond one of these days soon.
Q. As a New Yorker?
I'll always love New York and everything it represents to me. Coming here by myself at age seventeen was one of the hardest, most exciting, and scary things I've ever done. Recent events only confirmed my deep connection to the city. No matter where I go, I will always consider myself a New Yorker.
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