After two profound records, Mystery Keeps You (2008) and House of Doors (2010), musician Amy Petty seemed to fall off the face of the earth. Aside from a very well-crafted holiday collection, there was nothing. What happened? Well, to appropriate someone else’s clever line, everything was on the right track, and then life turned left.
Petty found her family expanding, and with that, her attention shifted. Thankfully, we are witnessing a recalibration. You’ll see, if you stay tuned.
The most salient point is that Petty is going independent, and is currently in the middle of a campaign for a new record, The Darkness of Birds. You can find out more here. If you’ve never heard her music before, take a moment to check out some of her clips.
MusicTAP was thrilled to spend a moment with Amy to discuss the hiatus, the return, and what it is like being an independent artist in an era where such are stuck between “say something meaningful” and “don’t do anything more than entertain us.”
MusicTAP: You had two well-reviewed albums under your belt prior to your becoming a mom. I’m curious about how you think a third album would have arrived had that occurred close after the second.
Amy Petty: After the release of my second album, I knew I needed a break from writing and recording new music. I was feeling a bit uninspired. I was also offered the opportunity to record and tour with a classical crossover artist. Performing another style of music was a bit like a creative reset. I also did more orchestral and choral composing, transcribing and arranging in that time, exercising another musical muscle. What I didn’t anticipate was two cross-country moves and the arrival of my daughter in that time. I didn’t have a plan laid out for the way that time off would go but it certainly lasted longer than I expected it would.
I can’t imagine what would have happened with a third album had it been released sooner than now. There is a song on the new album called “The Other Way” about how we make our decisions and then spend the rest of our lives wondering how it would have turned out had we made a different choice. Maybe it would have been the greatest album of all time, maybe I would have missed out on every incredible experience I had in the last 9 years. I’m grateful that I’m naturally a contented person.
When you learned that the family was about to expand, I’d like to get a sense of your process at that moment. You stopped recording – I presumed you stopped writing – and devoted everything to this new life which was coming. Was this something you struggled with, something that just seemed logical and rational to cut off, or somewhere between the two?
“No regrets” was my mantra as I prepared for my daughter join my life. I had no idea what I wanted to do, no idea how anything in my life was going to play out. And I knew there was no way I could prepare for anything or make plans at all. I didn’t even read the “prepare for parenthood” or “here’s what babies do” books. I wanted my parenting experience (and my career as a musician) to be real and organic and instinctual and above all, I just wanted to be present. I didn’t want to miss one moment. So I put everything aside, including writing and performing, and just sat still, literally and figuratively. I thought a lot about my passions and purpose and I allowed myself to be unsure and open handed with everything I thought I knew about myself and what I was supposed to do with my life. If you love something, set it free. I knew the things that were supposed to come back to me would.
Now your daughter is four years old and things are going to change. She will be going to school, if she already isn’t in some capacity. Kind of bouncing off the previous question here: did it feel like now you could get back to music, or now you felt you had to, that it was something that you couldn’t suppress anymore?
I absolutely felt like I HAD to get back to music. It was starting to scratch at the door and I couldn’t ignore it. Ideas were coming and that creative thing was churning. I felt compelled to write and record. That was EXACTLY what I had been waiting for and hoping would happen. It was an equally terrifying and comforting thing since so much about my life had changed since I was last a working musician. But I had the realization that it was my responsibility to show my daughter what it is to live and work in your passions, to be your true and complete self. I would have been withholding something from her if I had chosen not to continue making music for myself.
I have to also assume that music wasn’t really at a hard stop for you, but more transitory. When you decided to go all in again, was it difficult to pick up that guitar and get used to the mechanics of it?
Playing guitar is such a soothing and comforting thing to me, especially the simple act of noodling around with no intention or specific goal. I never really put the guitar down for too long. But I did notice that, at the end of a long day, I wanted to pick up the instrument and play what I knew, play through an old song, actually feel like I accomplished something. It took me a long time to get back into the swing of purposeful writing. Buckling down and focusing were definitely things I had to relearn.
Have you noticed any major changes in your musical approach now from then? Perhaps, a subject that you would have tackled in one way is now drastically changed because of all the life-knowledge you have accrued in the break…or were you surprised if there weren’t dramatic differences?
Until recently, I have been a writer of my own personal experience. I wrote about the feelings I was experiencing, trying to bottle my emotions. My songs were about my reactions and observations to the things that were happening in my life.
When I was pregnant, someone told me that they couldn’t wait to hear all the new songs this baby and new phase in life would inspire. It hadn’t occurred to me that not just my life but my songwriting would dramatically change. So I eagerly awaited the lullabies and sweet words of wisdom and advice for my new little bundle. Those songs never came. Instead, I was writing about dark subjects, murder and lying and insecurity and the looming consequences of the passage of time. I’ve become more of an observer, trying to figure out the world we live in and why people behave the way they do. I’m realizing now more than ever that I don’t have any answers or advice to give or life changing wisdom to bestow on anyone. All I can do is point at something and say “check out how weird that thing is”. I think I would need a few sessions with a therapist to get to the bottom of exactly WHY that change took place.
You are going independent with “The Darkness of Birds,” your third record. What kind of shift will this mean for you?
I spent nearly my entire singer/songwriter career with my record label. They checked all the boxes; musical collaborators, financial backers, advice givers, friends. They were as invested in the music as I was. It was a team approach and everyone worked in their strength. In many ways, it was the perfect partnership for us and the only way I ever could have gotten those first albums off the ground.
I learned from that experience that I absolutely need a team of people. There are plenty of artists who are truly independent but I know that I work better when I have people around me, cheering me on, pointing me in the right direction and doing the stuff I’m not good at doing. I’ve built my team from the ground up in a new place with people who weren’t yet familiar with my work and vice versa. Getting started was a little overwhelming but I just focused on doing my thing well and hoped I would find my tribe. It’s been one leap of faith after the next but so far, I haven’t regretted one leap. I keep landing in nice, soft places.
You are also going with crowdfunding – however, even with your previous records where you had label backing, that came during notable differences with what it meant to be on a label. In a lot of ways, if I’m not completely misled, the labels and independent recording only had a few funding and contractual differences between them. For the working musician who came up through that period, I have to guess the transition is not as shocking as if the artist was used to the label completely bankrolling the project, putting up a tour, and so forth. Do you feel the experience of those first two records has helped you with going indie, or have you noticed some distinct contrasts between the two?
My record label was definitely the “new” kind, a “not-my-father’s-record-label” kind of record label. They did not own me, they didn’t front money for touring and styling and a tour bus and every excess that I think people still associate with being signed.
Going indie won’t look that much different from the outside. The reality is that I’m working about 10 times harder to get the work done and asking for help from just about everyone (hello, Kickstarter). It’s much more difficult to maintain a sustainable career in my new reality but it is not impossible.
I don’t think I would have had the courage to go it alone before I released my first albums with my record label. It was so beneficial to me to walk alongside people who had done it before and learn along the way.
At the same time, by being thoroughly independent, you have all the business concerns but also call all the shots. What do you believe this will bring to how this record will ultimately arrive?
Well, the truth is that I’d rather work with consensus than call shots. I always have tons of ideas but I do better when I have people to bounce those ideas off of. I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve always been surrounded by people who trust my instincts and follow my lead. That continues to be true with “The Darkness of Birds”. I’ve organized my life to include people who see my creative vision, help guide the process and who are brave enough to tell me when I need to be reigned in.
How is it being recorded – home studio, in-studio, a combination of both?
I’m recording this album with Andy Reed at Reed Recording Company in Bay City, Michigan. When I moved to mid Michigan, I wrongly assumed that I would have to travel a great distance to find any musicians at all, much less incredibly talented ones. It is total dumb luck that I happen to live so near Andy and that he is such a perfect musical partner for me.
Are there moments from the new batch of songs that have surprised you in other ways? Things that wound up on paper or in a musical sketch that you listened to and went, “Huh, I didn’t quite expect that?” and, if so, how so?
You know when someone describes you to you and they completely nail the essence of who you are and how weird and creepy it is that someone else seems to know you more than you know yourself? I had a few of those moments, where a song would take shape and I would just sit in awe of it, wondering where it came from. Looking at a reflection of yourself in song you wrote can be a weird experience, especially after a little time away from it.
Also, relearning basic truths about myself as a writer was kind of strange. I’ve always called myself a singer/songwriter. That’s probably the most accurate description for what I am. So when I first thought about going back into the studio, I considered a stripped down, fully acoustic album. That idea lasted about 3 minutes into the first session. I realized (again) that I always write my music in layers, that my songs aren’t complete until all those layers are present. For example, my song “Murder Ballad (The Innocent Cry)” is a complete thought in and of itself with just voice and acoustic guitar. But there are so many nuances, so much subtext that I wanted to communicate. Only a whacked-out backwards electric guitar sound could deliver the subtle emotion of someone slowly going off the deep end. Maybe a fully acoustic album is in my future but these songs deserved the full treatment and wouldn’t be complete without it.
Will this be a thoroughly “solo” project or will you be joined by collaborators (and if so, who are they)?
There are very few people involved in the actual creation of the music. Donny Brown (The Verve Pipe) played drums on one song and my friend Phil Metzler (Just Off Turner) played piano on another. Other than that, Andy and I played every instrument and co-produced the album. I am the only vocalist and sole writer.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the creation of my song “The Dreams That Are Waiting for Us”. I was sitting with my then three year old daughter before bedtime as she “read” a familiar book to me. All of the characters in the story were going to sleep; the girl, the boy, the mommies and daddies, the dogs and cats, the birds and the worms, the clouds, the stars, the sky. She pointed to the little girl and said “do you know what we’re made of, mommy? We are made of light and strings and all of the things that we can’t see.” She then pointed to the cloud hovering over the little girl’s head. “And these are the dreams that are waiting for us.” It was the most beautiful and profound thing I’d ever heard. That song was totally and completely inspired by her. 80% of the lyrics are words she actually said to me. I call it my psychedelic rock lullaby.
House of Doors came out in 2010 and not only your world, but the whole world has drastically changed. Turning on the news frequently seems like an act of mental self-harm. As an artist with a unique platform, do you feel either drawn to saying something about this modern world, or that you need to be a safe harbor from it? This is a question that many artists have needed to wrestle with lately. Those who disengage are charged with “hiding from realities on the ground,” while those who are compelled to respond to the times are frequently shouted down with calls to just entertain and strip away anything topical or remotely political. How does this new reality impact you, and as a songwriter, what do you feel your “role” is?
I am a pragmatic person, sometimes to a fault, which can be difficult for someone working as an artist. Literally, every single day, I have to talk myself through the “what’s the point of this?” question. What IS the point of music, of a song, of a concert? I’m not saving someone’s life, I’m not fixing a broken thing, I’m not even making something that’s tangible. To compound that further, I’m not writing about the current state of governmental affairs, of social change or protest. I have no words of wisdom to share about…anything. So I have to talk myself through it every day. What is the point? Is there room in today’s musical landscape for songs about weird dreams and murder and learning to love and accept the demons that live inside you? And why in the world am I writing about THAT?
Here’s where I’ve landed with it.
People are awfully sure of themselves nowadays. We are right about everything, smarter than the next guy, loud, always talking. We are not only entitled to an opinion but required to have one. And then we are supposed to stick to that opinion come hell or high water, even if it is proven wrong. I don’t understand that kind of certainty. I personally find that most of my power lies in acknowledging that I’m not really sure of anything, that everything and everyone is a strange mystery. What people are is much more interesting to me that what people “believe”. I am more interested in the stuff we aren’t talking about, the way we pretend to be what we’re not, the things that make us tick, acknowledging our unsavory side.
Thank God for the people who are writing beautiful, poignant, though-provoking songs about our changing world. We need them. They are the ones who need to be winning the song writing awards. Their songs needs to be heard because music is a catalyst for understanding and unity and change. And we need understand, unity and change.
This world is a messed up place full of messed up people. I write about that. I’ll leave it to someone wiser than myself to sort through it and call us out.