Interview by Robin Cook
Insight is Terre Roche's new solo album, and it's a perfect title for a singer/songwriter who has shared her insights for four decades as a performer, writer, and teacher. Needless to say, Terre initially found fame with sisters Maggie and Suzzy in The Roches (prior to that, Terre and Maggie put out an album as a duo, Seductive Reasoning). The sisters' intricate harmonies, quirky songwriting, and mix of humor and wistfulness won them a cult following.
Terre Roche released her first solo album, The Sound of a Tree Falling, in 1998. She has also delved into music on a global scale. In 2008, she and her partner Gary Dial released Us an'Them, an album of sixteen national anthems. She also co-founded the band Afro-Jersey with African drummer Sidiki Conde. In more recent years, Terre Roche has taught guitar, written a memoir (Blabbermouth), and chronicled the life of a working musician/songwriter for The New York Times. All this and she's also learning to play the erhu. What is the erhu? Read the interview below and find out.
PSF: I wanted to ask you about Jay Anderson. Had you worked with him before you did this new album?
TR: Well, Jay Anderson, I've known him for about 20 years. He's a jazz bass player. And I live with a jazz paino player, Gary Dial. He and Jay have done lots of stuff together over the years and Gary's always said to me, "you should do something with Jay." He really kind of encouraged this collaboration. And it was real easy because we know each other as people and he's a great musician. We didn't really have much discussion about what to do. I had the songs and I had all the charts ready and I sent them to him. I wrote almost the whole record down in the Caribbean.
PSF: I have a question about one song on your new album called "Maxwell" because you'd written a piece for the New York Times about writing songs and whether they're commercial or not. I thought that was a very sweet song about your cat.
TR: Yes, thank you. Do you have a cat?
PSF: I don't, but I've grown up with cats.
TR: Right, yeah.
PSF: So basically, that one was written down in the Caribbean?
TR: Well, no actually- a couple of them were written here in New York, that one being one of them. And also I think the first song that I wrote was "Raining Cats and Dogs," and that was written probably, hmmm, maybe even five years ago. But that one was written down in the Caribbean. I go back and forth between the island of St. John ([in the US Virgin Islands] and Manhattan. And so some of it was written here. "Maxwell" was written here, and so was "Tinkle."
PSF: I've been reading some of the op-ed pieces you wrote for The Times about being a musician and realizing you're networking more and trying to raise money through crowdfunding. Can you tell me a little more about that process?
TR: Yes. I think it's very different now for musicians in that that is very much your job. Even artists I know who have signed with companies, the company expects the artist to do their own publicity and hire their own publicist and to be very interactive with their fans in the social media, and to do that to sort of bring along with them sales. Whereas when I was working in the business in the last century (laughs), it was very different. With the Roches, we got signed to a record deal and then it was the record company's job- you had a manager and an agent and those kinds of things were their job. My job was to make the music and do the shows.
PSF: Which do you prefer- leaving it to the label or just taking it more into your hands?
TR: Well, I think that if I was a young person now, starting out, I would probably be sort of used to doing social media. And I think a lot of the younger people are very savvy with the technical part of it. Personally, I'd have to say I'm going more in the direction of... I want to play my instrument and write my songs and perform them very simply, just me and my guitar and Jay, in the case of this record. I've been a student myself of the erhu. Do you know what that is?
PSF: I don't, no.
TR: The erhu is the Chinese instrument- you hear it a lot in the subways, actually. It's played with a bow and it kind of sits in your lap.
PSF: I think I know what you're talking about, sure.
TR: Yeah, you see a lot of older Chinese men playing it in the subway. It sort of sounds like a human voice. So I think I would say for myself, I've gone much more in the direction of wanting to... I teach music and so I have private students who come for lessons. And that's kind of what I do for a living at this point. And in terms of shows and performances, I sort of pick my shots of when to show up at things. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'm not really into the promotion part of it and Kickstarter.
Like my Kickstarter project, as you probably figured, was a failure. My Kickstarer thing was Afro Jersey, which was a band that I had with two friends of mine, where we were writing the songs in Mandingo and English. And it was great. We were playing down at the Living Room and we had a lot of fun doing the band. But the Kickstarter thing, we just didn't raise the money that we had hoped.
PSF: I noticed you talk about playing with Afro-Jersey and studying the erhu. Have you always had an interest in world music?
TR: Actually, I think I have. I haven't really thought of myself in those terms, but when I look back on my musical interests, I remember I had record called Festival Music of the Himalayas, which I used to listen to a lot. I had a cassette tape of Chinese classical music. I think I was always more interested in... well, I liked folk music. I think my tastes in music are very much folk-oriented and probably, if I had to do it over again, I might have gone into ethno-musicology rather than the performing and the singing.
PSF: What about Irish music? With the Roches, you performed "Factory Girl" and recorded songs about playing in Ireland. Did you grow up listening to that?
TR: No, actually we had an interesting upbringing. We grew up listening to AM radio in the sixties. And we were also in choirs in the Catholic school. We didn't really have a lot of exposure to music until my parents bought a guitar for Maggie for her birthday. That was maybe 1964. You know, the Beatles had come out and everybody wanted to play the guitar. And we just took to it. And Maggie immediately started writing her own songs. And we sort of taught each other how to sing harmonies and play guitar together. And we got hired to go on a tour, for which I had to leave high school. So then we were out traveling all over the country on stage in these college student unions. And so that's how I spent my spent my senior of high school, was traveling around, doing these songs which Maggie wrote and we both arranged together. But it's interesting. Our exposure to music was more from doing it than from listening to it.
PSF: You sang in choirs. Did you find that was a learning experience as far as learning how to harmonize?
TR: Yeah. Maggie always had a great ear for harmony. When she was a little girl, she used to harmonize with records. So what she would do is she would write the songs and then teach me the melodies and then she'd come up with counterpoint and harmony. And it wasn't until we met Paul Simon, who signed us to this production company that he had started for younger artists that were coming up. And he was the person who said, "Well, you have to go study music," ‘cause we had never had a music lesson.
PSF: You also sang backup for him, didn't you? What was that like?
TR: Yeah, yeah. That was on "Was a Sunny Day." That was during a time when we were signed to his production company and we were beginning to make a record called Seductive Reasoning. You heard that record?
PSF: Yeah! I have that album.
TR: Yeah, and if you look at the credits there, a lot of the same musicians are on Paul's record called There Goes Rhymin' Simon. And it was right around that time. And Maggie and I happened to be in Pittsburgh on this coffeehouse circuit that we were on, going to these colleges. And the people in Paul's offices told us that he wanted us to sing background on one his records. So we knew that he was down in Muscle Shoals, cutting some of his tracks. And we had a couple of days off, so we went down there on a bus and we showed up at the studio.
PSF: When did you start writing songs yourself?
TR: My first song was "Runs in the Family." And I was probably 22 at the time. But that was after the whole Seductive Reasoning experience. I should have sent you my memoir. I wrote a memoir that's kind of short, but it's a lot about that time period and how I got started.
PSF: I also wanted to ask you about teaching. How did you branch out into doing that?
TR: I would say, I guess I was around 39, almost 40. And I really wanted to be off the road. I didn't want to be on the road anymore. I wanted to be home. And of course, I had left high school, so I didn't have a college degree. So I went to Empire State College, where you can get a lot of credits for things. A lot of returning students go there. And I got a degree in music so that I could teach. And then I taught at the New School for ten years. Taught guitar there.
PSF: That sounds pretty cool actually!
TR: Yeah, it was interesting because at the time, the Roches were on the road and we were doing very well. There were sold out shows in theaters and things. I guess it was around that time that I met Gary, and he's a great teacher. He really encouraged me. He said, "You could probably get a music degree." And it was a real path toward getting off the road for me. The road, it's not for everyone. A lot of people like it. But for me, I wanted to stay home and have a cat.
TR: Yeah! I wanted my cat and a home life and make dinner for Gary, be like that kind of person. But I didn't want to give up music. So for me, teaching was like a really great, because I realized that I had learned all these things that I could pass on to people, whether it was performing or songwriting, guitar playing, whatever the interest was.
PSF: And you also teach these days by Skype, don't you?
TR: Well, I do sometimes, but that's not my favorite thing. I think I'm best one on one with somebody, where I play with them. It's hard to play in time with somebody on Skype.
PSF: You recorded your first solo album back in '98. What was it like to step out as a solo artist and sing on your own after years of harmonizing with your sisters?
TR: Well, that's actually a very good question. For me, that record was... I had a DAT machine, which is what everyone was using to record at home, you know? And I started to write these songs and I put them down on this machine. And I didn't really know much about how to engineer the thing. A friend of mine, David Kewman, he mixed it and mastered it for me when I was done. But what happened was I started to write these songs and then I put harmony parts on and second guitar parts and things. And when I would listen back, I realized that there were choices. I could almost hear people's advice that I had worked with- different producers and my sisters and friends. I could almost hear people say, "You have to redo that vocal. That's not in tune." Or: "The chairs squeak when you put that guitar thing down." Or, like Maxwell- a couple of times, he meowed onto the thing. And I would listen back to it and I'd realize that I like those sounds. I like the chairs squeaking and I like the way I had sung something, even though it might have been a little bit pitchy. And that was very interesting. I realized that I had spent my whole career basically collaborating and working with people. It was a very heady thing to make those choices for myself.
PSF: One thing I've noticed with your songwriting both with the Roches and separately is that there's always this sense of humor that comes through. I think that always sort of set the Roches apart from a lot of other folk artists, that sort of quirky humor. Where do you think that comes from?
TR: Our father. (laughs) He had a great sense of humor, and it was kind of a dark sense of humor. In our family, the humor, everyone had a sense of humor. And it was a kind of, I guess, a twisted sense of humor a little bit too, you know what I mean? Like, unexpected kind of stuff. And also, I think basically the sense of humor was coming out of an appreciation for the foibles, you know. As soon as you start taking yourself too seriously, you see the humorous side of that.
PSF: Another thing that I wanted to ask you about is your songwriting process. Do you feel you have to be in a certain frame of mind when you write songs? Or does it just come out of nowhere?
TR: Well, you know, I must say, I think it's a mysterious process. I've done both things. I've tried to write, especially if there's an assignment, like if you're writing a commercial or something like that, or someone wants you to write a song for a particular purpose. But I would say my best songs have been really what I consider to be channeled. And I've heard a lot of songwriters say that too. You know, I think part of the process is listening. It's like, the "Maxwell song"- I was listening, and I thought, "Gee, the only one I'm feeding is me," because I was so used to opening up a can and having the cats come running and having to make sure they didn't get into the refrigerator. And I realized, "Wow, I'm only feeding me now." And as soon as I had that thought, I realized that a song was coming through. And I just sat down and pretty much wrote the whole thing in one pass.
PSF: That sounds like a pretty neat way to write the song. It just comes out of nowhere.
PSF: I also noticed even as you're performing music, you're still a student of music. Just an ongoing process. Do you think that's true of a lot of musicians? They're learning as well as performing?
TR: I think so. You know, music is so fast. And you can sort of get stuck in a little bit of a rut. So for me, studying is the thing that kind of knocks you out of the nest. I really enjoy having a relationship with a teacher. I have a wonderful erhu teacher, Fay Yong. She's really, really great at what she does. And I appreciate the opportunity to study this from her.
PSF: How did you become interested in the erhu?
TR: I always have been. You know, the Chinese classical musical tape that I bought on the street from someone who was selling it, I don't even know what it was, because it was written in Chinese. I just thought, "Oh, this'll be interesting." And it wound up being one of those things where I listened to it over and over and loved it. And I think that's probably where I first heard the erhu. And whenever I would hear it in the subway, I would always go over and stand and listen and put a dollar in the guy's thing. And about a year ago, I was standing there listening to one of these guys in the subway, and he motioned me to come over. And he handed me this thing and so he was kind of showing me a little bit of what to do with it. And I was talking to a friend of mine later in the day and told him about that. I said, "Check out this, what's happened in the subway." And my friend said, "Buy one." And I thought, "Gee, that never occurred to me, to buy an erhu.
PSF: And where did you end up finding one?
TR: Well, I found a place online that's called "Ethan Music." It's in Singapore. And I bought the erhu and it took, like six weeks for it to come. And it had to have a special certificate because it involves a snakeskin coming from China. And there had to be some sort of legal permission to enter the country with it.
PSF: That actually sounds pretty neat.
TR: Yes! Yeah, this place was great. And they actually had lessons online that you buy to get yourself started playing the instrument.
PSF: What will be your next musical project, after this album? Would it be another solo album or another project like Afro-Jersey? Or US Anthem, the one you did with all the national anthems? Do you have anything else planned?
TR: I would say that every one of those projects, they kind of arose out of what I was doing. People have said to me, "Oh, are you going to do a project with the erhu?" I don't really know, you know. It's almost like you know when a project is coming due. Like this last one, Imprint, I just wrote all these songs. And then, I thought, "Well, I didn‘t want to do the crowdfunding thing," because I didn't feel that was a successful thing for me. So what I did was I actually sold my best guitar in order to pay for the making of imprint. And in addition to that, two people, friends of mine, gave me some money to finish the project. So that's how that was funded, you know?
PSF: What advice would you give to young musicians starting out today?
TR: I would say, "Keep your focus on practicing your music and really really pour all of yourself, 100 percent of yourself into it." And what that does is that creates this really rich music. And I have a lot of faith that that will attract people. To me, that's what attracts me. When I see somebody who's really, really 100 percent inhabiting their music, I find that very compelling. And I think it's difficult because there's a lot of distraction, you know, with having to promote yourself. You get a lot of advice, people trying to tell you to imitate other people. "You should try to sound like Adele," or something. (Laughs) But I disagree with all that. Meditation is great, go in, go inward. Go inward and find in yourself, what your voice is and what your gift is musically, what you have to say. And keep your disciplines together, keep your practice.
Also see Terre Roche's website
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