In the garden: A chat with BettySoo

BettySoo is one of those people it’s just plain-near-impossible not to fall in love with immediately.

She’s a little giggly in an endearing sort of way and brightly optimistic. She sings with a pure voice, writes songs full of emotion and oh, yeah, she’s a regular twitterer (“Oh, I’ve got to be careful about that thing!” she laughed when asked about a particular tweet involving fried pickles.)

Before the release of her latest album Heat Sin Water Skin earlier this month, we caught up with her on the phone to talk about the record, her music and her love of breakfast from her home in Austin, with the songbirds singing in the background.

On her musical background…

“I grew up with music in the house, my whole family is real musical and we grew up taking lessons and stuff. It was never to pursue as a career, just something you do as well-rounded kids – take piano lessons or something. And we sang at church but it wasn’t anything I had really persuaded. In fact I quit most of my lessons by the time I was 15 or 16 – I just never really thought that I would pursue it, I think somewhere in the back of my mind I really wanted it and I really wanted to sing but I never felt like it was something I had permission to do – you know, from myself.”

On eventually choosing music as a career…

“Part of it was, I had a woman who was a mentor to me kind of give me a kick in the seat of my pants. I knew through college and she was a few years older than me and one day I was in grad school and sitting with her one day and she pulled up two folding chairs and made them sit face-to-face, no table between us, just right there and she said, ‘Betty, everybody in your life except you knows what you want to do and I don’t know why you’re wasting your time.’ It was really harsh!

“She was really straight with me and she’s one of those people who can really look into peoples’ eyes and see what’s going on and gives a lot of wise advice and I knew she wouldn’t say it just to hurt me. I was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but I did know what she was talking about and she said, ‘I think you need to write some songs and see if that’s something you can do. I think you need to try to play out and see if it’s something you can do.’ And I was already married at the time, had a house, just normal life. I spent a couple days thinking about it before I talked to my husband. I told him what she said and he said ‘I think she’s right, everybody knows that but you.’

“I was getting my masters in counseling. I was going to be a counselor. Listen to other peoples’ problems instead of writing about mine. Make everybody listen to my life. It was one of those life changing moments.”

On learning guitar…

“I had had a real small guitar that I had bought when I was in college and I noodled on it, I didn’t really learn much more than your basic three-chords or whatever and then when I decided that I was going to do music, another friend of mine who was also a mentor, she and her husband were going to start getting their feet wet in the music business in Austin and they had a singer-songwriter that they were friends with and they decided that they would help him make a label and at the same time the wife came up to me and said, ‘Betty, we have this amount of money that we know we’re keeping for a gift and we want to use it for you, we think we’re going to buy you a guitar.’

“I mean, it’s just so bizarre and my whole career has just kind of been these small but large things that most people don’t know about or wouldn’t realize how life changing they are but there’s never been like a one huge break, it’s small miracles in a way. And they purchased a guitar that I would have never been able to afford – like a modest kind of beautiful guitar and it’s still my primary guitar. I took it home and thought ‘This was an amazing gift and I need to be able to be worthy of it.’ So I started to teach myself guitar.”

On writing songs…

“Mostly I write in the same place in my house – usually with my guitar, sometimes with a piano and the computer there open in front of me because I like to move around the words quickly, more than you can with a pen and paper. But occasionally there are songs that I’m driving in the car and the whole song comes to me, of course those happen but generally I’m pretty disciplined about the where and when and I pretty much sit down in my house with the same kind of structure and see what comes to me. And a lot of times I sit down thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to write a song about this, and it’s going to feel like this,’ and that’s not at all what I write, something totally different comes out.

“Mid to late morning, and in the afternoons. I sit down at least a few times a week to try and sometimes nothing comes but I sit down. I feel like if I don’t show up I might not know it when a song does show up.

“The first song I wrote was a song called ‘Family Man’ and it was on my first album and I don’t still play it even though I have recently started to get requests for it which is a little disconcerting. There’s a part of me that’s like ‘You know, if no one ever acknowledges that that album was out there and I think I’d be okay with that.’ Not because I’m really ashamed of it, in fact it was well received but I hope I’ve grown a lot since then and I think I have.

“The first album I put out, I wrote 12 songs and I recorded 10 of them. That’s probably not the wisest way to go about it but that’s what I did. I had 12 songs I was really excited about and thought, ‘Wow, that’s two more than I need.'”

On getting requests…

“I am starting to get more and more requests, as more people are familiar with my music. I get requests sometimes for that song and mostly I get requests from older couples for the song on my last album, ‘Secrets’ and it’s a murder ballad where the woman kills her husband and I’m always, ‘Ohh, I don’t know about that,’ because an older woman comes up to me with her husband and says, ‘I’d really like you to play ‘Secrets’ tonight.’ I’m like, ‘Ooh, ok buddy, watch yourself!'”

On growing as a writer…

“I think I’ve become more diligent about the revision process, more honest as a writer and I think I’ve just pushed myself a lot more with each song to really say ‘Does this stand up? Is it good enough?’

“With the last album and this new album I had such a large collection of songs and really was able to pare it down so much more and say ‘These 30 or 40 songs, if no one ever hears them, that’s OK, they weren’t good enough.’ And really being at peace with that where with the first album it was even hard to decide which two shouldn’t be on there.

“And with these newer albums, really being able to say, ‘I only want the best songs of mine to make it out there.’ And when you’re writing that much stuff, when you’re picking the cream of it, it’s going to be better.  Hopefully. Hopefully it’s not like pulp fiction writers where more isn’t any better. But pulp fiction has a place.”

On the music scene in Austin…

“I’ve become good friends with a woman named Charlie Faye who moved to Austin a couple years ago and she and I started collaborating on some shows together and that’s been really neat. A couple of my really close singer-songwriter friends in Austin have actually moved out of town in the past year which has been a little bit hard to lose some of your community.

“Will Sexton who plays guitar with me quite often, we’ve become real good friends and really in Austin what’s great about the musicians is that people at all levels really help each other out. Like Sara Hicks has been doing it forever and has been so helpful to me and so generous and she will write to venues that she plays at and will tell them ‘You need to hire her and if I need to come that night and bring my crowd with me, I’ll do it.’ Just unbelievable generosity.

“And artists like Jimmy LaFave, he let me open probably way more than my fair share of shows and it’s just because he is kind and he’s generous and there are so many people like that here. They’re not trying to be cutthroat, they’re not trying to cut out your merchandise sales because it could cut into theirs potentially in the future but they don’t worry about that. If they believe in you and they like your music they really do what they can to help. It’s an amazing community to be part of.”

On meeting her musical heroes…

“Actually, I would say Jimmy is one of those, I had some of his albums when I was a teenager and really loved them. Especially because I never thought I would be a musician, you never even think “I’m going to meet them one day” but now I think of him as a friend and kind of a mentor. Terri Hendrix is that way, I had her records and she’s been exactly like the others. There’s so many, gosh, Will Sexton he wrote some of the big Joe Ely songs and now I hang out with him all the time.

“It’s pretty amazing and I honestly say I don’t lose sight of being grateful for that very often, I’m pretty thankful. There was one time that Randey Foster, who I like totally adore, and I had never met him before and I had opened this show with a couple other openers, it wasn’t like it was just me and then him and when he went up on stage to headline the show, when he did the song ‘I’m In,’ that he had recorded with Abra Moore. He called me up onstage and had me sing her part! It was unbelievable! It was like a dream, I’m glad I knew the song! I could have been really screwed.”

On what’s in her suitcase…

I always take my own tea, and some either Airborne or Emer-Gen-C. I always bring, well, if I’m in the car, I always bring my own pillow.

“Sometimes when I’m in the car my husband will sneak in a stuffed animal that we pretend is our child and it’s usually stowed in a really mischievous place as if the child had crawled in there itself. It’s really a fun surprise.

“I always bring my GPS, I always bring lots of books, both paper and audio, because I really like taking in books while I’m on the road. There are certain albums that are always on my iPod that I never, ever leave home without.”

On her love of food…

“I’m a big breakfast person, I really love breakfast. But I also really love really heavy, savory, hearty food for breakfast. So if I can find restaurants that will serve, I am not even kidding you, steak at 7 o’clock in the morning I am totally up for it. Or like an Indian place that will serve you super-spicy curry in the morning, I’m there.

“In Nashville there’s that pancake place, the line there is like out the door and down the street. It’s delicious. In the northeast you’ve gotta hit Dunkin’ Doughnuts if you’re like Boston or something. And if I’m in Boston I have to go to the North End and eat some Italian food, get some of those giant golden sultana raisins in one of the Italian markets. I guess I’m kind of a creature of habit, I don’t think I realized that.

“I love to cook, I actually cook a lot. I grow a garden, which my poor husband who does not enjoy gardening nearly as much as I do has to maintain when I’m gone. I grow a lot of herbs and I grow vegetables and I like to cook with them. It’s one of the things I miss most on the road.

“I wouldn’t say I’m an expert at it but I do really like to cook Korean food, it’s my comfort food, it’s what I grew up with every day as a kid.”

On places she stops on the road…

“I usually try to hit local record stores, I like finding old vintage records. I like hitting local boutiques, which is a weakness of mine and I probably shouldn’t do that as much but it’s really fun.

“Around Texas I like to hit local boot stores, I have kind of a boot fetish.”

On the first concert she attended…

“The first concert I ever attended as a kid, rock concert, not counting symphonies and that stuff, because my parents were very good about taking us to the opera and the ballet. Gosh, what was it? I think my first concert was when I was 11, I went to see They Might Be Giants in downtown Houston, which was over an hour away from where I lived, and I had to buy my older sister a ticket or else I wouldn’t have a ride, so you can imagine I had to save up for a really long time to get the two of us tickets.

“It was a 21+ club and I was devastated when we got there because they weren’t going to let me in and my sister was only 18 or 19 so they didn’t want to let her in either. But then they did, they let us both in and it was great. I think it might have been my 12th birthday.”

On songs she’d like to cover…

“There are some songs that I do live that I haven’t ever recorded. I sing Dylan’s ‘To Serve Somebody’ and I do ‘Do Right Woman.’ I think there’s kinda like a gospel woman in me who wants to get out sometimes. Or ‘Dublin Blues’ by Guy Clark, I don’t know if I’ll ever record that because there are so many Texas artists who do that song and ‘Do Right Woman,’ like once Aretha’s done it, like who’s’ really gonna touch it?

“One song I’ve never done, another Dylan song, kind of gospel song, that I’ve never even done live but would love to do, “What Can I Do For You?” It’s just a really cool, gospel song. There’s probably some White Stripes songs that secretly I would love to do sometime but I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance.

On what’s on her iPod…

“I listen to a lot of stuff. Really, really old folk stuff, I listen to Woody Guthrie and then I also listen to the White Stripes, I’m a big Wilco fan, I listen to commercial country, rock, old hip-hop. I love when I get in a rental car that has the satellite radio. I love that station “First Wave” where they have like early new wave stuff. They’ll have like The Pretenders, or old Depeche Mode, The Sundays, I’ve loved them since I was a kid.

“I listen to a lot of different stuff. I listen to classic rock, I’ve never been a huge metal head, but I’m sure if somebody sat me down and schooled me I’d probably come around. There’s not a lot that I can’t be convinced of.”

Anything else?

I need to come up with a good answer to that question, I don’t know!

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