Interview: Annie Bethancourt

words by Heather Schofner and Jackson Ellis | photo courtesy of Annie Bethancourt
| Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Introducing Annie Bethancourt, winner of the 2010 Verbicide Unsigned contest Judges’ Choice award!

We’ve read that you grew up “memorizing lyrics to Paul Simon songs,” so your love of music is obviously something that has carried through your whole life. When did you begin performing?
My whole family is really musical (my parents met in a folk band that toured in the ’70s, and my brother also plays music) so there were always opportunities growing up to sing — oftentimes at school or at church — music was just always around. I didn’t really see singing as a big deal; I just assumed that, like my family, “everyone” sang four-part harmonies in the car on road trips. And I vividly remember singing my own melodramatic little songs into my tape recorder when I was in junior high. By my freshman year of college I had started playing the guitar, and wrote some of my first songs right away. My first show was on the school campus, at this little coffee shop. It was me playing every single song I could, which amounted to three of my own songs and about four covers.

You spend half of the year in Portland, Oregon and the other half teaching surfing in Costa Rica. Which living situation inspires your songwriting the most? How does splitting your time like this affect your recording and touring?

It’s funny, both inspire me in such different ways! I really love telling stories in my songs, and both places have inspired me with characters (my Costa Rican drug dealing landlord, for example, or my crazy German crackhead neighbor who I dubbed “The Wolfman.”) I also love using visual imagery in my songs and both places have contributed to that. I almost titled my last album “the city and the sea” because you could really tell the songs I had written in Portland (leaves, trees, sidewalks) and the songs I had written in Costa Rica (ocean, jungle, dirt roads). I think that in Malpais I’m definitely playing my guitar more, just because life is so simple and with fewer distractions, and I often find that I write more songs when I’m there because I’m reading a lot, too, and those themes will influence what comes out in my music. But in Portland I’m so inspired by all of the creativity around me in the form of other friends who play music or make art, or just the vibrant, crazy, patchwork quality of life here.

You performed at Lilith Fair in 2010. How does an unsigned artist find herself on such a large stage? Were there a lot of unsigned women performing on the tour, or were you the sole exception?
That experience was unreal! I won a contest through Ourstage.com, and couldn’t believe it when I found out: the emo high school self inside of my heart did, like, a thousand high kicks of unrestrained giddiness. I grew up with Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow and then all of a sudden I’m sitting next to them at a press conference, talking to reporters about the festival.

I was the only unsigned woman there, but everyone was so gracious and made me feel welcomed. It was funny, though — everyone had managers, PR people, and band mates hanging around, and I had my roommates and friends giving me thumbs up and taking pictures like it was my first day of school.

What was the best part of your experience at Lilith?

Meeting all of the other incredible female performers was so great. And performing on that stage, in front of all those people who had never heard of me, was amazing. All of the Lilith fans were so supportive and encouraging about me and my music. I think that was the best part of the experience — just how right it felt to be there. I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong, I just felt like I was in the exact right place, doing just what I was made to do: play music for people.

Are there any musicians with whom you collaborate, or are you solely a one-woman, multi-instrumentalist performer?
I’m working on a duo project with my good friend Dave Lowensohn (from Speechwriters LLC and Ramona Falls). We’ve been friends for a long time and I love his quirky style of writing, plus, our voices blend really well together. We just make a good team. I was also in a short lived electronic-folk band with my brother called La Querencia. He does a lot of stuff under his own moniker Mouse and the Billionaire and he’s working on doing some remixes of my last album, so we’ll see! I’m excited to see what he does with them.

At my shows, though, it’s usually just me, a guitar, a mic, maybe a friend on some harmonies. When I play in California sometimes I’m lucky enough to have the players from my record back me up — they are amazing.

Regarding collaborations, what’s your relationship with Dallas Kruse? How did you meet him, and how instrumental was he in the recording of your self-released album Three Hundred Suns?
Dallas Kruse is a freakin’ musical prodigy. He’s like a musical Rainman (except with larger pectorals). Seriously, he hears music in everything. I met him through my friend Barrett Johnson (who is an amazing songwriter, Dallas is recording his album right now). Barrett and I played a show in San Diego that Dallas attended, and afterward I got this email [saying], “We want to record you. Come to California for a bit?” I figured I’d give it a shot, visit my family, try out recording a few songs. I was blown away by Dallas’s talent, vision, and just his love for music in general. He is an extremely intuitive producer and was able to completely capture the essence I had wanted to project in my songs. I can’t stress enough how instrumental he was to the recording of Three Hundred Suns. I mean, the string arrangements! They’re unreal! He has a gift — he’s been asked to orchestrate arrangements for tons of Southern California bands, and I got to have him full-time on my project? I couldn’t believe it. We’d be in the studio and these professional players would just be loving playing his stuff, then talking about how they played on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Um, what?

It’s funny, because I love giving people the album; I’m always excited to see what they’ll say! And it seems like it would be vain to think that, but with what Dallas did for my songs, and all of the amazingly talented people that contributed to it, it doesn’t really feel like “mine” anymore. It feels like this wonderful collaborative project I did with a bunch of friends, because that’s what all those people became. You can’t ask for more than working with people who are so skilled at what they do, but who you also enjoy hanging out with.

We’re talking about doing a new album this summer, and I can’t wait to get back to the studio, even though I kind of hate the recording process (I definitely prefer performing). But I’m just excited to see what Dallas will come up with this time, how the songs will take shape as we work on them.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a performer?
I absolutely love performing, but I think any artist fears the disconnect between projecting the art they’re making and the way it will be received. My songs are so personal…when I share them with a receptive audience, it’s this beautiful, vibrant, “right” feeling of alignment and purpose. But then it’s hard to play shows where maybe you’re not being heard, because it’s like initiating a really heartfelt conversation with someone and having them turn their back on you. So at shows like that I usually just try and bust out my Beyonce and Britney Spears covers.

I also think a huge challenge for any performer these days is just being heard, in the professional sense, in the giant sea that is the music business. There’s so much music out there, it can be hard for people to take you seriously or give you a chance, especially when you don’t have a team of “people” making you look legit. That’s why this contest so appealed to me! I love the fact that it was you guys, music lovers, opening up opportunities to artists who have quality music but maybe limited resources.

You’ve said that you’re influenced by Elliott Smith — what’s one of your favorite songs of his, and how do you feel that song, and the rest of his work, has influenced you?

Elliott Smith…man. I’m so bummed I’ll never hear any new music from him. I remember the first CD I stole from my brother was Figure 8. I loved everything about that album. I loved how gut-wrenching everything he wrote felt — even in the simplest words — it was something deeper than just the lyrics or the accompaniment, it was how deeply connected he was to what he was singing about. It’s hard to pick one song of his, but I love “Somebody that I Used to Know” and “Everything Means Nothing to Me.”

I think Elliott influenced me because he made me realize that songs didn’t have to be these concise, palatable little nuggets of verse-chorus-bridge-chorus — that as an artist you could experiment with different sounds, but that sometimes it was still the simplest songs that touched people. I guess just that to embrace the cathartic, emotional side of song-writing wasn’t maudlin…it was okay as long as it was genuine.

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