This essay marks our inaugural new YTAA series: ’11 questions with…’. The idea is to learn about the artist and how they create, compose and make artwork in the present moment. We have approached several bands and artists to answer some questions about their latest music, a song that they have recently worked on and how they are managing the current extraordinary challenges during the Coronavirus pandemic.
A hearty thank you to all of the artists and musicians for taking the time to answer these questions! We appreciate you answering these questions for our readers/listeners on YTAA!
A few days ago, Dr. J reached out to Dayton powerhouse singer, songwriter and guitarist Amber Hargett to answer our first ’11 Questions with…’ column. If you do not know, where have you been? No, seriously Amber Hargett released the acclaimed record ‘Paper Trail‘ at the end of March 2019. The artist’s first record included songs with emotional heft ‘Carolina Blue’, surviving the challenges of everyday life ‘Broke’, and the power of real authentic head over heels love ‘Fallin’ for You’ among several other stellar tracks.
More recently, Amber has finished a new song, Painting Pictures, that addresses several important features of the calling to create music and art. We want to extend our deep appreciation for Amber for answering these questions!
Dr. J: What can you share with us about when and how you started writing your latest released song, Painting Pictures?
Amber Hargett (AH): I spent the first five or six weeks of quarantine in a weird funk. I needed rest, anyway. But I had been struggling to find any motivation to pick up my guitar, write, or perform. One night I couldn’t sleep and started thinking of the kindred spirits I knew who were probably up, too – struggling with expressing their feelings, but determined to keep creating. I wound up staying up until 4 a.m. to finish the song.
Dr. J: You worked closely with Patrick Himes at Reel Love Recording Company here in Dayton, Ohio, what led to your recording with Patrick?
AH: Back in January, I booked studio time for a single (‘Shine On’) in March and additional dates to begin an EP in May. The pandemic led to an automatic cancellation of the March dates, but when May approached and I had new material, Patrick and I felt we could work together safely. We were both eager to get back to work.
Dr. J: Painting Pictures is a meaningful song for those involved in creative work/pursuits; did you set out to address the concerns and challenges of artists/musicians/creatives when starting to work on that song?
AH: I guess so. The very first line I wrote was, “I’m down here writing music that nobody’s gonna hear.” Because that’s exactly where I was – in a basement, at 1:00 a.m., alone, writing a tune that I was never sure would see the light of day. Every song feels that way at some point. But then I thought of Megan Fiely, my friend and amazing artist, and how she probably felt the same way sometimes about her paintings. I actually completed the third verse of the song first, with her in mind.
Dr. J: Painting Pictures also addresses other forms of work – for example service – is that a correct interpretation of some of the lyrics? In addition, if that is correct, did you intend to address many forms of work or did the song evolve in that direction over time?
AH: Yes, absolutely. My husband is a commercial construction foreman. He hasn’t missed a single day of work for the sake of his health during Ohio’s Stay At Home order. (Except for vacation days I begged him to take, just for mental health and rest.) The idea that SOME work is “essential” and other work is not was a big topic of discussion in our house. Nick called himself “an expendable essential worker”, to express his frustration with the fact he was required to work and finish building a hotel for a major chain. That really stuck in my craw, as they say. While we are very grateful for the steady income, we both struggled with the fact that Nick was expected to keep on working – at the risk of his health – for something that seemed like it could wait?
On the other hand, I felt as though artists and songwriters and such were just considered unimportant during these times. For me and my cohorts, it is unlikely unemployment will ever be granted, yet I’ve already lost a couple thousand dollars in promised gigs and in merchandise costs that I doubt I’ll recoup. I guess the main point is: everyone’s work is essential. It all matters. If you’re writing songs, building infrastructure, creating art, or serving and ministering to your own family or the community, it’s all essential.
Dr. J: How did the song come together musically for you? I began with writing lines that would fit the cadence of the last line of each verse, and then worked backwards to create a “character” for each segment of the song.
AH: Where do you often derive inspiration to make music? Oh boy. Many sources. Sometimes it’s my most passionate opinions on a sensitive subject, (like ‘Churchmouse’), personal experiences, or it’s observational, like in Painting Pictures. I also like the challenge of stepping inside someone else’s shoes and trying to present their voice through a song – but only if I have something personal to lend to it. Otherwise I think it would feel disingenuous. Listening to other people’s music is also a huge pathway to writing new music. Especially LIVE music! Experiencing someone else’s work is a constant source of inspiration. A sound, a chord change, a vocal moment, or its presentation often sparks something in my brain to take home.
Dr. J: How would you describe the music that you typically create? How has that process evolved or changed over time (especially as you think about your journey from Paper Trail to Painting Pictures)?
AH: Well, Paper Trail was really a “catching up” project, composed mostly of songs that existed for several years. I dusted them off and “hodge-podged” a record together. I liken it to making a quilt out of scrap fabric. Don’t get me wrong! I love how she turned out. But it was also my first fully-produced recording experience, so there was a learning curve.
Since then, I would say there has been more of a change in me as an artist than in the writing or creative process. I feel myself maturing and growing more comfortable calling myself a songwriter. I’ve finally begun to embrace it, and I think that shows.
Recording ‘Painting Pictures’ was such a pleasure because Patrick and I had already established a great working chemistry both in the studio and as band-mates. It was also the first time I was writing something especially relevant, so I felt more of an urgency to share it. There was a time I would have sat on the song and poked holes in it a few months before I dared record it.
Dr. J: What is next for you musically? How would you describe your thoughts at this point for your next project after Painting Pictures?
AH: The next project will be unlike what I’ve done so far. It will be an EP featuring a collection of songs that feel connected to one another, and with a sound that suggests they come from another time. My artistic vision for this work is far more specific and I can’t wait to get started. The grouping will include ‘Churchmouse’ which is by far my heaviest writing yet, but a piece I feel is incredibly important for me to take to a fully-produced form. Overall, the EP will have a darker tone, but it will still contain glimmers of hope and light. Something I intend to be true of the majority of my writing and performances.
Dr. J: What is your favorite song to perform? What makes it a current favorite in your performances?
AH: In a solo set, I think Somebody Loves You will always be my favorite song to perform. It is the first song I memorized, and I think it’s because I feel it’s message is the most important. Once in a while I can hear the crowd sing the phrase and it moves me to tears.
With the band? Probably ‘Without You’. That song is the prayer of my heart and one of the most personal from Paper Trail. Fun fact: Brian Greaney insists that song go on every set list! Ha ha!
Dr. J: What is one message you would hope that listeners find in the unique nature of your latest music?
AH: That they are loved, seen and appreciated.
Dr. J: As a musician, how are you adapting to the challenges of the Coronavirus?
AH: From a business perspective? I am forcing myself to apply my 10+ years experience in advertising and branding (in my past life) to promote myself and the new music. I eternally loathe this part of being an artist. But, the quarantine did offer me time to get an online merch store up and running, which helps out here and there.
Musically, it is harder to find inspiration. The loss of live shows is definitely taking a toll on the inspiration bank. But I have also taken some of this time to reach out to my other artist friends and encourage them to keep doing their thing. I think the community here is looking out for one another in big ways, and that encourages me! It will make our reunions that much sweeter.
Amber is playing a safe socially distancing show at The Yellow Cab Tavern tonight! Please check with Yellow Cab regarding their procedures for a fun and safe event! Then on Saturday, May 30th, Amber is joining other luminaries of the Dayton Music Scene for a virtual concert, Tip Jar: A Show of Thanks to benefit hospitality workers.
Thanks again to Amber for answering these questions! If you would like to participate in a future ’11 Questions with…’ column, please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have, a particular picture you would like used in the article, please feel free to attach that as well. All pictures and images of Amber Hargett courtesy of the artist.