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SiS Featured Artist: Laura Berman

26 Nov Posted by in Featured Artists | Comments
SiS Featured Artist: Laura Berman
 

“Do one thing each day that scares you”Eleanor Roosevelt

For Pacific Northwest songwriter Laura Berman, this quote embodies her approach to her music and her life. While she acknowledges that there are scary things that should be avoided, many of our scary things are self-created. “Your instincts are smart and generally on-point, so listen. But sending an email about booking, or writing a bridge, or reaching out to a friend who is hurting? When you drop into it, those are not the things that are doing the ‘scaring’ – there is something underneath. Once you get okay with that scary underneath part, you live your life in a deeper sense of freedom.”

Her own journey into that freedom arose from the structure of piano and violin lessons in elementary school and orchestra, choir, music summer camps, county and state choirs, and voice lessons throughout junior and senior high school. Berman recalled, “Music always made me feel good. From an early age, I knew it must be a part of my life. Whether it was joining choir in junior high school, joining bands, or writing songs and playing out, I just put one foot in front of the other and did the next right thing that felt good to me.”

Berman began to approach songwriting with greater intent after a move to the “Big Apple”. She remembered, “I had written songs here and there but didn’t start songwriting more seriously until I lived in NYC in my twenties; I was doing quite a bit of singing in cover bands and being introduced to lots of different songwriting styles, musically and lyrically.”

Inspired by the exposure to a wide variety of styles, Berman began to follow her own muse. “One day, I sat down at my keyboard and started writing, and it just became part of who I was. I bought a cheapie acoustic guitar later on and started writing just by ear on guitar, too. I played lots of gigs in NYC and at the beginning was still very green, but I just threw myself in. It was scary, but exciting!” She faced her fears and found, “The best approach for me has been to think less, and do more.”

Berman again followed the advice of Eleanor Roosevelt and dove into her creative “scary things” as she continued her career. Berman shared, “I’d been afraid to perform on acoustic guitar because I’m a pianist. But I started bringing my guitar with me to gigs and sharing a song or two. What was the worst thing that could happen? Why would I care what anyone thinks? Sure, I played wrong notes and, sure, I didn’t have the facility on guitar yet, and yes, it was scary to be that vulnerable, but I was compelled to not let my monkey-mind negative thinking prevent me from growing.”

Opportunities to perform and grow abounded during her time living in New York City. “There were fewer Indie singer/songwriters and artists than there are out there today, so there was definitely less competition for those slots at the clubs. Gigs were pretty easy to book. Back then, there wasn’t social networking, Facebook, etc., so promotion was basically making phone calls and handing out postcards – old school! But it was always a thrill to see your name and gig listed in the Village Voice.”

As she has continued on her songwriting journey, Berman’s process is as diverse as her life experiences. “I generally have a melodic hook singing itself over and over in my mind, and then I pick up the guitar, or sit at the keyboard, and find the best chords to fit with that melodic hook. Sometimes I’ll adjust the melody if there’s a better chord choice… I can sing the whole song with a hum, or a ‘la la’. It’s fun to sing! No one would have an idea what I’m talking about because it’s just gibberish instead of lyrics. The lyrical ideas take a while because lyrics don’t always come so easily to me that way.”

However, her lyrical approach does have times when inspiration strikes and the process becomes more fluid. “Sometimes, if I have an interesting song title that pops into my head, I’ll go ahead and create a Word doc with that title and lyrics come out pretty easily. Something about being at the computer, in an ‘office’ type setting uses a different part of my brain. The writer in me loves that approach. I go ahead and print it out and it signifies to me a new songwriting start. I’ll edit the lyrics when I’m finding chords and melodies, but it feels so good to have a printout as a starting point.”

For songwriters who are starting out, Berman offers up her advice for how to become a better writer. “Listen to really well written songs! And songs that are in different genres of music, even genres you don’t gravitate towards. Listen to the Top 20 Countdowns in Pop, Folk, Country, R&B. Read stories of how good songwriters came to become really good songwriters. And be open to having those who are better than you listen to your songs and critique them. Surround yourself with those at your level or higher – that’s how we grow!”

Not just one to give advice, Berman shared how she made use of experts to help improve her writing. “The representatives at BMI were always really open to meeting with me when I’d travel to Nashville. I got some really great feedback on some of my songs when I was there and was grateful for the time they took to sit down with me. Also, whenever I find an artist I like, I listen to their music online (and buy it, important!).”

But improving as a writer is only part of the equation. Berman additionally seeks to widen her community of musical inspirations. When she encounters a new favorite artist, “I always like to read their bio, and if they have a blog, I read that too. I also like to see who they write and perform with and how they all influence and inspire each other. All of this has helped me to not feel so alone – we are all in it together.” She adds her own advice hoping to inspire other writers, “Don’t stay too attached to your songs, or what others think: write it, listen to it, let it make you smile – then let it go. You’ve got more in you to write!”

In reflecting on her own journey stepping through her fears, Berman offers additional advice for aspiring singer-songwriters. “Do that one thing you’ve waited on, one thing you’ve been delaying, something as seemingly small as writing just one line in Verse 2, or sending an email to thank someone, or sending a check to an organization that inspires you. As we practice doing this one scary thing, the fears of doing it wrong, or not seeing where it’s leading, etc. sort of lose the charge, the energy of fear.”

Berman does not consider herself a ‘prolific writer’. She explained, “It takes me a long time to finish my songs, and when I’m in the thick of finishing my songs, I forget that it’s my process and that is okay. Each artist has his/her own process and timeline.”

A part of life that impacts her process is stress. “The stress of having to make your living as a full-time musician can often have a negative effect on your mental wellness, and especially your creativity. Stress of any kind, at least for me, can stifle my creativity. It’s all about balance – creating a balanced life system that supports you. What works for another may or may not work for you. Life has to feel good!”

Her own sense of balance as a working musician has developed over time. “I’ve gone through stages of my life where I’ve been doing music full-time, touring, etc., and it’s really hard on me, being away from home for so long, and it can be taxing on my body… so I’ve created a balance for myself where I pick up side projects here and there inbetween music-making, things that have nothing to do with music. This helps clear my mind, and I can make some consistent money for a while.”

This approach allows for Berman to take the time to let the process of living life become an inspiration. “I’m inspired by people and good things happening in the world. As I’ve gotten older, it happens less and less where I think I’m supposed to be ‘doing’ music and songwriting – I’m more focused now on doing/being happy, healthy, and balanced, and not letting any one thing define me. It’s not the thing you do, it’s who you are being! Creating opportunities to stretch and grow is what brings me to life.”

As she begins recording her new record in January of 2018, Berman reflected, “It often feels daunting to know what you want to do, what you want to pursue, how you want to live and be in the world, but not know which direction to take, where to plant your first step. And the energy underneath all of that is often fear of not succeeding, fear of making a mistake or a misstep, or turning down the wrong road.”

Pushing aside all the worldly expectations and fears of writers, Berman shared about her new album, “I’m really excited about this one – writing these new songs for me, with no expectations for any further success or visibility – just for me. It feels so good.”

In the final analysis, Berman shared that becoming self-aware is an important key to personal discovery as a writer. She challenges writers to, “Be aware of why you do or don’t do the things you do. Is it a scary thing that is covering up some old patterns? Does it feel scary because you’re stretching and growing? Does it feel scary because it’s frightening and not something you’ll ever do?” But she added as an encouraging note, “Whatever and however, enjoy the process. One day you wake up and you realize it’s you that’s standing in your way. And you will breathe in deeply and feel relieved because you are free.”

Berman is standing in her own freedom now, arms open wide and, if there are scary things ahead, she is unafraid to face them head on and continue the journey.

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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