Talks with Terami Hirsch
A Broke Machine
To the Bone
CEV: I’m always curious when I read in a bio that an artist has been writing songs since the age of 11. Tell me about what the songs meant to you and why you spent time writing them?
TH: At 11 years old, the kinds of songs I wrote were very simple and were mostly about playing in the yard with friends. Originally I wrote because I was bored while practicing my music lessons. Over time, I began to write less about my immediate thoughts and more about my overriding ideas about my burgeoning teenage life. The best way to describe this is to say that my songs were like a diary. Similar to people who write poetry as a private pastime, I wrote poetry and put it to music. The songs were terrible and embarrassing, much like an overwrought journal, but I got into the habit of expressing myself this way.
CEV: Did you think of those early “scribbles” as songs at that point or were they simply words on paper? When was it that you started to recognize that what you were doing was writing lyrics?
TH: To me, "scribbles" are musical scribbles. From the time I first started writing, there was always simultaneous music and lyrics. What I didn't realize until later was that songwriting is something I could grow into...at first, I had no discipline, no desire to be better. Writing songs was just something I did for myself.
CEV: Did you have any formal musical training? What instrument(s) did you study? Did you feel an affinity to a certain instrument? Why?
TH: I began studying piano at the age of five. I can't say why I was drawn to play the piano because I always just knew that it was in me. When I was about three years old, I wanted to learn and my parents put me on a waiting list to study with a local teacher, who wouldn't accept students under the age of five. I still remember driving to my first piano lesson, sitting in the back seat and trying to memorize those feelings. Even then, I knew it was important.
CEV: When did you start combining your writings with the music to create your first full fledged songs?
TH: The songs I wrote when I was 11 were my first full-fledged songs. They weren't good songs, but they were whole and complete.
CEV: When you write do you write the lyrics first and then put them to music or do you have some idea as to what you’d like the music to be as you put the lyrics down on paper?
TH: Words and music happen at the same time for me. It usually begins with an energetic feeling of inspiration which is difficult to explain. From there, I stop what I'm doing and sit at the keyboard and music starts to happen in my head. It feels like I am a witness to what I'm creating, or else I'm simply transcribing something which comes from somewhere outside myself. These are my favorite writing sessions.
Sometimes, however, I will have a deadline for a project and I can't afford the luxury of waiting for that spark of inspiration. When I'm in this position, I still just sit at the keyboard and push myself forward. I take a lot of notes, jot down ideas, and doodle in my everyday life and I'll pull out the notebooks filled with this work in order to get me started on difficult creative days. In these instances, it's hard to say which comes first, the music or the lyrics. Everything gets tangled together.
CEV: It fascinates me when I listen to music to know that before the artist started to work on it the song did not exist. How is it that after all the music that has been written over the years that you are able to combine musical notes in unique configurations that are pleasing to you and the listener? Do you ever find it difficult to create something that hasn’t been done before in some way or another?
TH: There is a Garfield comic strip where Garfield is asked if he walks alternating his front right paw with his back left paw, or if he walks alternating his two fronts with his two backs, or his front right with his back right, etc. Garfield thinks about it, stumped, and answers, "...I'll never walk again."
In other words, thinking about things like that can become so overwhelming that it becomes crippling. That said, sometimes I do think about it and it amazes me that new songs are written every day. However, I never think about those things in relation to my own work.
CEV: How old were you when you recorded your first album All Girl Band? What was it that motivated you to take that leap from writing and composing music to actually recording it?
TH: Great question. I was about a year out of college when I recorded All Girl Band. At the time, I was working a desk job in the entertainment industry. As grateful as I was to have that job, and as interesting as the work was, I knew I couldn't carry on a career in that direction. It felt inauthentic.
At the same time as I was working my job, I met a musician who was trying to change careers and become a producer. He was working on a few of my songs and after work I'd go to his house and record. Unfortunately, every evening I'd arrive at his house only to hear that he replaced my piano with his own. It was discouraging because I didn't feel like the music was mine.
One day, I picked up a book about Andy Kaufman and by the time I finished reading it, I felt completely inspired to challenge my own capabilities. I felt a surge of energy to dive into something that I was afraid to do. I called in sick that Friday and spent the three day weekend recording myself. The strangest thing is that one week I was on one side of the line, and a few days later I had crossed that invisible barrier between people who dream of making a record and people who just do it. The situation wasn't ideal, but it was enough to get me started.
CEV: What did you think of the recording process of taking your songs and turning them into a CD? Was the process more difficult than you thought? Why or why not?
TH: For me, recording is a lot of fun. Although I realize my ultimate goal is to release a CD, I try not to think about the final product while I'm working. The focus is to enjoy discovering new dimensions to my songs and learning how to express myself through my work.
This isn't to say that the process can't be difficult. Like you mentioned earlier, a song (or a recording) doesn't exist until I create it. There's no blueprint, no guides, nothing except learning to trust that I'll know it when I hear it.
Some people begin producing a song with an outcome in mind, but I don't. Most times, I'm just feeling my way around in the dark. This either can be a lot of fun, or else it's frustrating. Knowing the desired outcome before beginning a production seems to be a talent, or else something that's gained after years of experience. I'm still too underdeveloped as a producer to have that kind of vision.
CEV: What do you think of the advances that have been made in what an artist can do in the comfort of their own home in regards to recording their music on home equipment? Has this made it easier for artists such as yourself to affordably put their music down on disc? What do you do at home in regards to your music and is this typical of what artists are doing these days?
TH: If it wasn't for home recording, I don't think I'd have a career. Certainly the affordability of home recording is an advantage for artists who wish to remain independent or DIY. The downside of this is that it requires the artist to have an interest in becoming their own producer and engineer. This is not always a strength in musicians.
In my case I produce nearly everything at home, with the exception of recording live drums. However, the live drums on A Broke Machine were recorded in my drummer's home studio. So, either way, everything I do happens in someone's home.
CEV: Did the next 3 albums get easier after the first one, after you understood the whole process better?
TH: It doesn't seem like album production gets easier from project to project because each collection of songs is different. There are always new challenges, whether that means the creative elements are more sophisticated, or the equipment is upgraded, or the scope of the project is bigger. Over time, my albums have become larger and larger undertakings. I'm more confident, but I haven't reached the point where I feel like anything is easier. It's always a challenge.
CEV: Where do your lyrics come from? Personal experience or social observation?
TH: I used to write from personal experiences although currently I'm less interested in this approach. In more recent songs, my inspiration comes from ideas - usually from philosophically interpreting things that I read about.
CEV: Tell me about your view of computer as another instrument in regards to creating and recording your music.
TH: The deeper I fall into making music, the more I rely on computer software to help me express the kind of music I want to make. However, it's really only a matter of replacing synths with soft synths. Since I don't have the resources to bring in musicians to help me discover all the sounds for an album, I have to create them myself from sound banks. I love this process of non-destructive recording because it provides a huge sense of freedom, albeit at the expense of the joy of working creatively with other artists.
CEV: Your latest CD called A Broke Machine was started back in 2007 and released earlier this year. Does this CD have a theme to it and if so how would you describe the threads that hold the whole thing together?
TH: The album revolves around issues of the heart. I can't say that it's about love or heartache or desire or isolation or freedom, but it's about all these things. It's about trying to place some identity on those feelings which are difficult to describe.
CEV: I like the title of the CD but what was it that made you associate the heart with a machine in the lyrics and how does that fit in with the issues of the heart that seem to permeate A Broke Machine?
TH: I do think of the heart as a machine, a very delicate, dedicated system that not only keeps us alive, but that also stands as a metaphor for what makes us compassionate beings. I realized that being broken-hearted isn't simply about losing a love relationship, but that being broken-hearted is feeling that there is something that isn't working in the way we measure how much life we have in us.
A lot of the album relates to issues of freedom being at the core of this measure. So, unless we would describe our hearts as "soaring" or "open", then it feels like we're somehow broken, heavy, empty, or dying. It's really an intangible situation that I tried to explore and that's what made it so much fun to create.
CEV: Since this CD was self produced how is it that you know that you have tweaked it about as much as you can before turning it over to Tommy Walter to mix?
TH: An album is never finished, not really. I have a friend who says albums aren't finished, they're abandoned. I think that's true. Or maybe another way to say it is that they're never finished, but as their author, you eventually surrender. Once the balance moves from making progress on a song to tweaking small things only you can hear, you're wasting time. So in my case, I would force myself to admit which side of the scale I was on and then let it go.
CEV: Did you work closely with Tommy Walter when it came to mixing the CD into its final form?
TH: I trust Tommy. I gave him the songs, he worked on them in his own time, and then we did a round or two of notes to finalize the songs. We were fairly relaxed in our schedule and we just sort of passed the songs back and forth until we were happy. It was painless.
CEV: How would you describe A Broke Machine in relation to the CDs that you have released to this point? Is this just a part of the steady progression of you as a musician or is this a leap ahead to another level? What makes you say this?
TH: I think A Broke Machine is a culmination of all the little lessons I've learned in making the earlier projects, just as the earlier projects were the lessons learned from the albums that came before them. Perhaps the cumulative effect is that A Broke Machine seems to be a leap forward, but really it's just the natural outcome of all the steps I've taken along the way.
CEV: The CD was released in April 2008. What has been the reaction to this new music from your fans and the reviewers?
TH: I've heard a wide range of responses. Some people think it's the album where I've come into my own and some people think I don't sound like myself anymore because I've spent the last three years taking voice lessons. It gives me a weird sense of happiness to know that reaction to my work is so varied, as though if everyone agreed then it would mean my music has failed to become something dimensional.
CEV: I was surprised to see that you are an introvert. Does this present problems for you in regards to performances or the inevitable publicity that goes along with being a performer in the public eye?
TH: Certainly. My perfect day involves sitting at home with a book and some music. However, I've come to look forward to the few days out of the year where I perform or spend time with an audience. Those days are very special to me and I know I'm lucky to be in a position where I can share so much of my music with people. I can't complain.
CEV: After completing a project like A Broke Machine do you take a break for awhile from music or do you just keep plugging away at your writing as usual?
TH: After completing this album, I've been working to promote it. Right now (summer 2008) I am in an overlap area between continuing to promote the album and working on the next project. This summer I'll be finishing a side project called "Story of my Ghost", which is an experimental electronic-piano project, based on bits of songs that I wrote while working on A Broke Machine. I'm also working on a b-side project to release late in the year.
CEV: Will you be going out on the road in support of A Broke Machine in the coming months? Where might your fans go to get updates on where they can see you live?
TH: In mid-June, I completed a three week national tour for A Broke Machine. I'd love to head back out for more dates, but nothing is scheduled for that yet.
CEV: Do you enjoy the interactions you have with your fans thanks to the Internet? How much has the Internet changed how you distribute and advertise your music once you are ready to sell you CD? Are you optimistic as to where this is all headed in terms of your music being downloadable and easy to trade all around the Internet?
TH: My first album was available online in 2000, so the Internet hasn't really "changed" anything for me because it was already around by the time I started releasing my music. Without it, an artist like me simply wouldn't exist. Before the Internet, an independently-funded artist would gain an audience from touring, which requires a lot of money, time, and physical effort. Now, I can gain my audience through digital exposure while I'm sitting at home, writing and recording the next project. It's wild. However, I do need to remind myself that the convenience of the Internet is no substitute for going out on tour and spending time with the people who enjoy my music. There's nothing like it.
I'm very encouraged by the convenience and affordability of digital music and perhaps the Internet is currently the best forum for introducing new music and acquiring listeners. However, for long term artist/audience relationships, I don't think we should rely on convenience and affordability alone. More and more, we reach out to the world at large to find people who will understand us. To me, making music for this purpose is more important than making music for income or for wider distribution. So, if digital sales only brings in income and fails to bring a closer community of listeners, then I think it's only fulfilled a portion of its promise. I believe that music should be "real" and valuable to the people who buy it and I'm optimistic that downloadable music is one of the powerful tools that artists can use to reach out and form lasting relationships with their audience. It will be exciting in the coming years to see how new ideas and technology expand on this power.
CEV: Any final thoughts you’d like to share with the readers of Cutting Edge Voices before we close the interview?
TH: No final thoughts, other than to thank you for such a deep interview and to thank everyone who is reading for their time and interest.
CEV: As always I'd like to thank you for your time and to wish you continued success as you pursue your music in the coming years.