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SiS Featured Songwriter: Erin Jordan

16 Aug Posted by in Blog | Comments
SiS Featured Songwriter: Erin Jordan

“Playing a real song is like keeping a wild animal for a pet: gorgeous and terrifying, it lives in your house, but it is never really yours…” Kristen Hersh – Rat Girl.

Pacific Northwest singer/songwriter Erin Jordan, inspired by this favorite quote, has sought that “real song” through the eyes of a poet first and then tamed the words with piano and guitar. Jordan remembered, “When I was in high school the two things I really liked to do and felt I was good at were singing and writing poetry and short stories.” But even before then, Erin was drawn into her own musical world by songs of mystery. “I remember being very affected by music during my childhood. One of my first memories of really liking a song was hearing “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac in the car when I was six or seven and imagining that the song was being sung by a witch. I had no idea what Stevie Nicks really looked like! I also remember hearing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon when I was nine and having the song stuck in my head for weeks. I thought it was super creepy!”

Like many other songwriters, family influence was instrumental in her development as a writer. “My dad listened to a lot of music I still really like – Cat Stevens, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, The Doors, and a lot of classical music. I was also involved in school musicals and community theatre starting at an early age and loved show-tunes, so I would say I had a lot of positive early life experiences that helped me form the relationship I have with music today. As a result, she reflected, “I realized I really wanted to write my own songs when I was a senior in high school.”

This writing muse, however, was blocked by the lack of an instrument. “I had a strong desire to write my own songs, but my earlier stints with piano lessons and flute had not worked out so well. I really wanted to learn to play guitar. There was a guitar class at my school, but all the ‘punk rock guys’ took it, and my silly high school self was too intimidated to take it. I was very shy and really lacked self-confidence. I knew I would figure the whole ‘how to become a singer-songwriter’ thing out when I went to college.”

In what would become a self-fulling prophecy, Jordan did in fact begin her songwriting career in college as her dreams of playing guitar came to fruition. “I met a kindred spirit a week into my freshman year who helped me pick out my first guitar at the local pawn shop and taught me how to play it. Playing guitar came very naturally to me, and I soon started writing my first songs and playing them at open mics in my college town.”

Surprisingly, her new skills on guitar positively affected her previous lack of success on piano. “I majored in Music Education, and passing a piano proficiency exam was a graduation requirement. So I had to learn piano whether I liked it or not! Learning piano the second time around was much easier since I understood how chord structure worked from playing guitar and taking some music theory classes.”

Erin’s shyness and lack of self-confidence that hampered her high school experience were challenged head-on after her graduation from college. Armed with her newfound instrumental and songwriting skills, she began performing seriously in Chicago. “I played a lot of open mics – which was great for getting over stage-fright and meeting other musicians to play with. I started playing at bars and coffee shops in Chicago, solo and as part of a duo.”

Deepening her skills as a performer, she expanded into becoming an open mic host at “a dive bar called The Inner Town Pub. Having to perform an opening set every week and run the PA for everyone really helped to boost my confidence as performer and member of my music community. On the weekends, I went and played in other towns in the Midwest. I played at a lot at Border’s Books. I have since dropped almost all of those songs from my repertoire, but those early days of ‘being a musician’ were a really magical and exciting time.”

Now fully immersed in her career as a music educator, songwriter, and mother to two children, Jordan’s songwriting process has evolved from those early times of magic and mystery. “My writing pace is very slow these days because I have two young children. I try to go out to my practice space in the garage and work a few nights a week after they go to sleep, but if I don’t it is not a big deal. I never force a song or try to write when I am uninspired.”

Though Erin’s love of words is expressed in her passion for poetry, instrumentation has moved to the front stage of the writing process. “My songs generally start with music first. I write an instrumental part on guitar or piano. Sometimes lyrics come right away and sometimes I have to put the instrumental part on the back burner to simmer until I am inspired to write the lyrics that are a match for that song. I try to always carry my journal with me so that when the muse visits at an inconvenient time, I can at least write down my ideas. I also have a mental list of topics or characters I want to explore.”

Like many creatives, Jordan shares a love of creating but not so much a love for the business end of the music industry. “I am naturally an introvert, so dealing with the business end – booking shows, promoting the shows, selling merch, collecting the money, asking people to sign my email list – has always been hard for me.”

In addition, because Erin is a storyteller, finding venues that encourage listening from the audience is a struggle. “I am really into lyrics and love the storytelling aspect of songwriting. That said, not everyone wants to hear your story. Some people at the bar want to drink and talk to their friends. Some people at the coffee shop want to do whatever they are doing on their laptop. I have always found it to be challenging to keep on playing and trying to make the connection with people under all circumstances. I guess that’s why I’ve learned a lot of covers to slip in. Lure them back in with “Wild Horses”… I know I am going in the right direction when I looked out and see people who are engaged and talk to them after the show.”

Other personal challenges affect her songwriting life as well. “Right now, having a family, being a music teacher, and still writing and playing shows is definitely a balancing act, but I make it work.” And there is an upside to being a mom and a working songwriter. Jordan reflected, “I know I am doing something right when my six-year-old requests a song and then interrogates me about what the lyrics mean for 15 minutes. Kids are always honest.”

As life has changed for her personally, Jordan has also evolved as a songwriter. Initially, Erin’s songs were more personal. “I used to write more based on personal experience, but I have to say, I’ve gotten bored with myself over the years! I really like writing from the perspective of a character. Of course, there is always a piece of me in that character – a big piece of me.”

Now she is inspired by characters in history. “I love infamous characters, because there is a little piece of them in all of us. Some people I’ve written songs about have been Tonya Harding and Joan Vollmer, the wife of William S. Burroughs who died in a tragic game of William Tell. I am also inspired by mythology and novels I’ve read.”

As for her future endeavors, “For the past six years I have been working on a song cycle based on Greek Mythology. I would like to finish that and record it. I have also been working on writing a musical based on the story of Echo and Narcissus that contains some of the songs in the song cycle. I am a music teacher with Seattle Public Schools, so it would be great to workshop it at a local high school since it is such a teenage story.”

As a songwriter and as someone who works with young musicians as a career, Jordan’s advice to would be songwriters is simple and straightforward. “Write what you want to – develop your own style by doing what seems right to you. Songwriting is a great break from having to follow rules all day!”

But that process does not happen in a vacuum. Erin has found that her best resource is “going to open mics and meeting other musicians. There are plenty of people in every local music community who are great resources on performing, booking shows, touring… anything you’d want to know. There are lots of people in Songwriters in Seattle who could tell you anything you want to know!”

Whether tackling poetry, a song, a musical, or any project that comes her way, Jordan has not let the second half of her favorite quote from Rat Girl deter her from her vision. It reads, “It is an honor to stand next to this Beast, and at the same time, you know it can kill you.” Jordan has stared down that Beast, and she is still standing, fearless and prolific, drawn to the mystery, the myth, and the poetry of the human experience.

Char Seawell
Char Seawell is an award winning singer-songwriter, a novelist, and essayist from Bothell, WA. A journalism graduate from Colorado State University, she is currently working on two historical fiction novels, one based in the North Cascades and one in pre-Nazi Germany,

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