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Lucy Billings

Most musicians have a day job, at least until they get fired. For Lucy Billings, it was working on contracts in a law office. When the ax came down, she was able to focus on music, and in 2011 released No Other Road. The album was produced by John Jennings, who has worked extensively with Mary Chapin Carpenter, and it features musicians including Jon Carroll, Robbie MacGruder and Lloyd Maines.

The songs deal with Lucy's childhood growing up in Tucson, and also the effect of the economic downturn. There's even a tragicomic song about her father, who died of a heart attack behind the wheel. As Lucy tells us, everything about that one is true. She also provides some insights as to what that girl with the guitar in the coffee shop/bookstore/bar is thinking about up there. You can hear clips from her songs or download them at this Amazon link.

Until you got laid off, you worked full time while also making music. What was it like trying to do both, and how has life changed since the job went away?

Actually, I'm employed again. I got a new job after I finished recording No Other Road. It's definitely challenging to do both. During my non-working time, I push myself pretty hard to accomplish as many music-related activities as I can. I'm constantly surrounded by "to-do" lists. It's fairly typical for me to come home from work, take a short break and then work on music projects until 2 AM or later. I'm fortunate to have lots of energy and a strong organizational streak which helps. My day jobs have been really good to me throughout the years - they have paid the bills and given me the resources to pursue music in my own way. But, I admit that it can be frustrating at times because I have so much that I still want to do and not enough time, and I'd like to have the ability to travel to more gigs.

You were a lawyer of some kind, which requires a lot of logic. What's your left/right side brain balance?

I would say that I'm more right brain with some strong left brain traits mixed in. My parents were very different in that my dad seemed to be very left brain and my mom seemed to be very right brain. They both had a strong influence on me and as a young person I thought I should emulate one or the other, but I was never able to choose. When I was younger, I think I was more like my dad, but as I got older, more of my mother's traits were expressed. My practical side got me into the legal profession. I was working in science and heard that combining a science background with law would lead to plentiful job opportunities. When I was given the chance to become a specialist in contracts, I jumped at it. While the law job requires a certain amount of logic, my strengths have always been more in the areas of writing, and people skills like counseling, training and collaborating.

Please describe some of your experiences playing out. We're all wondering what that girl up there with a guitar is thinking.

I really want to connect with the audience. I'm observing them and trying to imagine what they are thinking and feeling and what their story is. I like to make people laugh. I also think about the technical aspects. I want to give the audience the best performance I can, so it needs to sound right. And I hope that I don't forget the words to a song, but that usually happens at least once. Being a bit of a klutz, I have to make an effort not to trip on cords or knock things over. I also really like talking to members of the audience during breaks in the show.

I've had many wonderful experiences playing out. I love house concerts because they are intimate and relaxing and I have more of a chance to get to know the audience members. I've performed at numerous fund-raising concerts for a variety of organizations and I am always impressed by the generosity of people even in these difficult economic times. I'm so touched by things people tell me about my songs. There is a song on my first album, Dancing in Heaven. I wrote it in order to process the untimely death of a dear friend. I was waiting to perform at a songwriter competition several years ago. A man came over and told me that his wife's dad had passed away several weeks earlier which required that they drive from California to Utah. He said that they listened to Dancing in Heaven over and over during the drive and it gave them such comfort and that he wanted to thank me for the song. I could hardly speak and tears welled up in my eyes. I didn't win anything in the competition that night, but it didn't matter because that man had already given me a wonderful gift.

"Daddy's Last Drive" is a very compelling song. What happened to your dad?

My dad passed away from an apparent heart attack while driving in rural Indiana. The car went off the road and traveled through the countryside before stopping in a meadow. My sister, brother and I went to Indiana to take care of his personal effects. We went to the body shop to assess the damage to the car and they told us where the car was found. We went out to the location and met the man who had found my dad. He took us on a tour of the route that the car had traveled and it was amazing. The elements in the chorus of the song are all true, even the part about the Amish garden. I spoke with the young woman who was weeding her garden when the car zoomed through it. She told me she was happy that none of her plants were harmed. I was extremely thankful that no one got hurt.

Some of your songs deal with financial problems and finding yourself unemployed. How do you approach the subject without getting too depressing?

"Rear View Mirror" is fairly typical of my approach - moving through the emotions (sadness, anger, frustration) and then finding another path and taking it. Sometimes I write a song for self-encouragement. This was one of those songs. I had this vision of a desert highway with an archway going over it and in large letters, it said "The New Frontier." I was picturing a girl in an old-style convertible speeding through the archway with the dust spewing out from behind the back wheels.

What's the story behind "Blue Highway"?

The song was inspired by my brother. We've always been very close and we share a common quest for personal freedom and independence. His path has been quite unconventional, and he has been steadfast in his commitment to it, even if it meant significant internal and external struggles. I think that takes courage. When he was a kid, he had this teacher who would openly make fun of him in a way that I thought was cruel. I observed this one day at school and even though I was only eight, it really made me mad and I've never forgotten it. I guess it was bound to turn up in a song at some point. My brother and I spent lots of time roaming around the desert together and he still thrives there. The desert highways sometimes look blue to me, depending on the time of day and the lighting- hence the reference to the blue highway.

The way you sing, it's easy to understand every word in your songs. Where did that come from?

Thank you - that is nice to hear. My mom emphasized good diction when we were growing up. I was also in a children's theater program which involved performing in plays for fairly large audiences. In addition to performing in the plays, I had to memorize and recite poems for my teacher, a very formidable woman who would reprimand me if she couldn't understand what I was saying. As a lawyer, I've done lots of public speaking. All of that has probably impacted how I sing lyrics.

Is there something about the desert that fosters songwriting?

The desert was an interesting place in which to grow up. You think you see water on the highway and it turns out to be a mirage. Flash floods come out of nowhere, cactus jump on you and weird insects and strange reptiles abound. As a kid, I had lots of freedom to explore the desert expanse around our house. I spent hours digging for pottery at the nearby Indian ruins, building forts with my brother and creating imaginary worlds. I think all of that fueled my creativity. I started to write poetry when I was nine, and when I got my first guitar shortly thereafter, I started writing songs. My mom had a key role in encouraging my creativity. She bought me a puppet theater when I was a kid and would sit attentively while I performed little shows for her. I also had a couple of imaginary friends and she would play along with that by setting places at the table for them and holding the car door open when we were going somewhere.

Getting fired sucks, even if it does open opportunities. How did you deal with it each time you lost your job?

The first time, given the changes in the company where I was working, I anticipated losing my job. As a result, I had some time to figure out what I wanted to do when that happened. I was anxious to make my first album ("Open Air"), so I had set aside funds and developed a budget and a plan which would enable me to take time off in order to record the album. The economic environment was very different than the present one and I was pretty confident that when I was ready to go back to work I would find a job. Given that, I was able to completely immerse myself in making the album.

The second time, I was very focused on making my second album and even though I got laid off, the company treated me very fairly. I decided to make the most of the window of time that had opened up and I wrote to John Jennings about working with me on the album. In the back of my mind I knew that I would have to go back to work at some point. However, I was so driven to record this collection of songs and so thrilled to have the opportunity to work with John, that I pushed the job question out of my mind. I told myself that when the time came I would find a way to land on my feet.

John Jennings, who also produced Mary Chapin Carpenter and Janis Ian, produced your album. Did you just give him the keys and let him do his thing? And what is his thing?

I had studied John's work for a long time and was very impressed by his production and instrumental talents. The first time we spoke on the phone I had a strong sense that we would work really well together. So, I had a high level of trust going into the process. John is an insightful person, and I think he quickly figures out how to make the process optimal for each individual artist. He had a definite plan in mind for the album and how he wanted to approach each song, so in that sense I did let him do his thing. But I also knew that I could offer suggestions and express my views if there was something that I felt strongly about. One of John's principles is that the last track should be as strong as the first. As a result, a couple of songs that I brought to John did not end up on the album. That was okay with me because I think it made the album a stronger collection of songs. I look forward to working with him again.

What's your favorite track on the album, and why?

During the making of the album, I had different favorites from time to time. While all the songs are close to my heart, if I had to choose one it would be "Daddy's Last Drive." The event that inspired the song was an amazing and true story. It was also somewhat of a turning point in my songwriting. Given the subject matter, I felt that the song had to be written in just the right way, and I didn't know if I would be able to do that. It took a while for it to percolate in my head and eventually, the story that I wanted to convey came together in the way that I wanted it to. I was also really struck by another aspect of the story. Expressing emotion was not easy for my dad. But when I look back, I think that he understood the joy that I find in songwriting. For that reason it's so touching to me that on his last day here, he gave me this story that I was able to turn into this song.

Please describe your songwriting technique.

I'm constantly gathering song ideas. I file away concepts, phrases, one-liners in my head. I don't force the songs - I just let them percolate as long as needed. Sometimes it takes days and sometimes, years. When I practice, I spend lots of time just playing around with chord progressions, random vocalizing and developing new melodies. Once a song has percolated enough and fits a particular melody, the lyrics emerge, usually in the form of the first verse and chorus. From that point, I work on developing other verses, bridge, editing the lyrics and refining the arrangement. I usually have 3-5 songs going through this process at the same time. I'm very comfortable jumping around from song to song; I find that it stimulates the development and editing of the lyrics. I work on music first thing in the morning every day (after my coffee, of course), even if it means getting up early so I can play before I head to the office. I started doing this two years ago and I think it's helped me to be a more productive songwriter.

We interviewed Lucy on January 7, 2011. Her website is beinglucy.com.
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Comments: 1

Very nice article....great mellow, relaxing harmony needed so much in today's world. Hope you have great success. I am a member of a song writer's guild locally, will share with others.Jerry from Hernando, Ms
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