October 04, 2011

An Interview with Katie Herzig

What if the closest I get to the moment is now, sings Katie Herzig with tender, anxious optimism on Closest I Get, one of several highlights that grace her inspired new album, The Waking Sleep. The song earned the artist this year’s prestigious ASCAP Foundation Sammy Cahn Award, which recognizes the works of promising songwriters on the rise.

And she more than lives up to that promise throughout The Waking Sleep, melding digital elements like samples and drum loops with the more organic essentials of her folk/pop songcraft. “It was really kind of a natural progression,” Herzig says, noting that she's experimented a bit in this area on previous albums. It was during a period that saw her composing mostly for film and television, though, that she chanced upon a catalyst for what was yet to come.

“I was given an assignment a few years ago to write a song for Sex and the City and all I had was my laptop. So I just started building sessions in Garage Band and it turned out to be a really fun way of writing that was completely new for me,” she recalls, adding, “You’re just going to create different songs when you use different tools.

In listening to the new album it seems like your songwriting encompasses more discovery and curiosity than any fixed forms or ideas; you can hear the discovery process in these songs. What was it like writing them?

The majority of [the album] was written and recorded over a year’s time. I didn’t want to put any pressure on me and my co-producer, Cason Cooley, to meet any deadline. I wanted there to be a spirit of experimentation. Making records is probably the most fun [part] of what I do. So I wanted to just soak it up and be in that process. And that allowed for the time to find new sounds and experiment with different loops and different ways of writing.

Has having written for television and film–when the songs don’t necessarily have to be about you–affected the way you approached songwriting on this album?

Yeah. I think when given an assignment to do something for something else, you lose the kind of self-consciousness of an artist, like, “This is what I’d do as an artist;” or, “This is a song that means something to me personally.” You kind of lose a strong tie to those things. And it allowed me to really experiment and try, almost as if I were playing other roles or characters. It was so freeing and so much fun, not being so self-aware about the music I was creating. I think that did creep into how I was creating this album, except I was combining it with “me” again, things I have to say.

Some of your songs have also been featured in commercials, a medium which some songwriters resist. Granted we are in a different era than, say, the ‘80s when The Beatles railed against “Revolution” being used in a Nike ad. But did you have any misgivings over how your songs would be perceived in commercials, especially if that’s where a person was introduced to them?

There is still a little bit of that in the air, if it’s something that you’re just not quite sure about. But I think [of] how things are changing with the industry, of it becoming something that is almost like radio in a way. It’s just an opportunity for your songs to be heard and for people to hear about you. So I’ve embraced that in a sense. It’s enabled me to financially invest in making records and getting on the road... This has become the support for those things.

It helps to facilitate the other aspects of your career.

Yeah. And I’ve promised myself not to just rely on making all my money on film and TV stuff, because I don’t see that as building a career and a future as an artist. So I try to use that and invest that into creating my own records and then getting out there on the road, bringing a band, that kind of thing. It’s funny, there are certain placements that you get that you’re really proud of and others that you’re like, “Gosh, it’s okay if nobody saw that one.” [Laughs] It kind of comes with the territory.

What did it mean to you to win the Sammy Cahn Award for songwriting?

Oh, wow, that was really cool. I haven’t really won an award for music before so it was an interesting feeling. It was very flattering because there are some awesome songwriters that won that before me. Over time in writing songs, I’ve tended to simplify my approach lyrically sometimes. The song that won, “Closest I Get,” is just a simple three-verse song. So it was really fun that that was the song that won. It took time; I started writing that song at the beginning of the record. And a couple months later I wrote the second verse. Then a few months after that, when we were trying to finish recording, I wrote the third verse. It was just a long unfolding of a very special song. It was really an honor to win it.

Do you ever worry or consider, when you’re writing an album or even when you’re about to release one, that your songs won’t connect with listeners? Is that ever a songwriter’s fear?

It can be, but I do think that’s a pretty stifling way to be creating. When you have a little more of “I don’t care” in you, you’re going to create something that really isn’t just tainted with second thoughts. I don’t remember feeling that about this, because I kind of count on if I’m enjoying it, I count on other people enjoying it. And if I’m not enjoying it, there’s no motivation to work on it. Because when you make an album, you’re going to be singing these songs over and over and over again for years to come. I really count on what’s in my gut. If it’s inspiring, if it feels good to me, then I stick with it.