The Singer and The Songwriter / by E

Catch up with jazz/folk duo The Singer and The Songwriter (Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran) and watch the video for their single, "Nights & Weekends" taken from their EP, Ballads For Trying Times.

What brought you two together?

Thu: We went to school together in San Francisco. We were in theater school and I played guitar and did open mics and was a singer-songwriter, folky, rock guy [laughs]; Rachel likes to describe me as 'fedora wearing'. We were in theater school together and we met through mutual friends, but the first time we really hung out was at open mic night at The Canvas Gallery - which is now, like, a fish restaurant - and it was this cool, multi-art, space thing, but that's where we met and started to hang out and talk. Rachel was actually scared to sing in front of people when we first met.

Rachel: We just were in school together and we were friends so we started to hang out and he would learn covers of songs that I liked to sing, so it brought me out of my shell, in terms of singing in front of other people. He learned songs I liked and I would quietly sing them and that turned into playing more together. We pursuing theater degrees, so we were doing acting when we first met.

Which musicians have you been influenced by, individually or in what you do now?

Rachel: I grew up with Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, so I wasn't turned onto women who sounded closer to me until I was in college; I didn't even know who Ella Fitzgerald was until I was in my twenties. I always thought that women singers had to have an incredible pop self and I have a different voice than that, so I never really thought my voice was a valid thing and that I could pursue it professionally because it didn't sound like what I was hearing on the radio or American Idol - that had just started - so I think Fiona Apple was actually the first person that I was like, 'oh, she sings really well and she doesn't sound like any of those other women'. That was really the first person that I really loved as an adult and I would say, now, we listen to everything. Thu and I just listened to Loretta Lynn's entire catalog, we listen to Top 40 radio in the car and know all the pop music, we just watched Lemonade last night [laughs].

Thu: I agree. We consider everything and we try to be open to being influenced by everything. We're really influenced by great hooks and great melodies, so it doesn't matter where it comes from, we just pick and choose the things that we like. In terms of my influence, I had two older sisters growing up and they both listened to '80s and '90s pop and RnB and stuff, so I actually grew up with a lot of Wham! and George Michael - not just like it was around, I really loved Wham!, still love Wham! [laughs] - and also Madonna, Boyz II Men, ABBA, and all this stuff. When I met Rachel in college, I was trying to to get my own musical identity; I listened to a lot more indie pop songwriters like Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright. What's interesting is that, I'm Vietnamese and my parents are immigrants, so I didn't get the "proper" rock education. I never got the Zeppelins and the Bob Dylans and The Beatles, I never got that because my parents didn't listen to music and my sisters just listened to pop music, so I feel unencumbered by the roots of rock and roll tradition, so it's kind of nice to just like what we like.

How would you describe your sound to someone who had never heard your music before?

Rachel: We struggle with that endlessly. Now, we're saying folk/jazz and people are a little bit confused with that and then they hear it and they're like, 'oh, yeah, folk/jazz,' but it's a little bit indie, a tiny bit old-timey sounding, and a tiny bit pop; it's a little bit hard to describe, if you have any ideas we're open to it [laughs]. Folk/jazz is what we've been sticking with now 'cause it's a little bit jazzy and whenever you get someone just being accompanied by guitar, often, it's folk, so that seems to be working right now.

Your single speaks for itself, but could you tell us more about your inspiration behind "Nights & Weekends"?

Rachel: When we're playing it onstage, we often say that it's a song about people who aren't artists who give advice to people who are artists. The song's really just about how the arts aren't really valued that much and that, to make art, you have to have this full other career to support it; there's only this top tier of people in music and theater and movies that make a living wage and everyone else has to have a day job to support themselves and you end up being relegated to do your art after you get home from work or on the weekends and that that's really frustrating and feels not fair because it feels like two jobs.

Thu: And that's the way that we operated for our entire adult careers [laughs]. The last six or seven years that we've had this band, we've always had full time jobs, so we know what it's like to only play music on nights and weekends and for free and in-between: we would have a full eight hour day of work, go home, and then have another full eight hours of whatever that is. We just recently quit our jobs to go on tour full time because we thought, it's worth that commitment, that full time energy, and it should be given that full respect and attention.

How would you sum up your EP, Ballads For Trying Times, in one sentence?

Thu: Ballads For Trying Times is about a bunch of big questions that we have as modern day adults. 

If that sounds too general or vague, I think the trying times that we are in - for many reasons but just for our personal life right now - we struggle with a bunch of things that are just choices, they're crossroads. We're at an age where all our friends are having children, buying houses, excelling in their careers, but then we have a bunch of artist friends who are at crossroads thinking should I keep doing this, is this worth it; I'm in my 30's, am I still cut out to play open mic night? That is what I mean by being an adult. It's struggling with these traditional ideas of what these benchmarks are in growing up and having a career, having an income, having a house, having a mortgage, and then what are all the alternative choices and the emotional toll that it takes to make either choice and the emotional toll it takes to watch the other lives that live pass you by.

You're heading out on tour, do you have a favorite song from this EP to perform live?

Rachel: "Impractical Art" - I think that's track 2 - that's really fun to play, because it's really slow and it has the joke right at the top, so it's sort of fun to sing it and hear the audience chuckle when they hear the joke of, 'I just want a dog'. That one's really fun just to do live and, also, we're writing new stuff too and it's always really fun to play the super new things.

What would you say is the best part about performing?

Rachel: We've only done one tour. We did it two years ago and we just did it up the coast and it was great; we did ten days and it was so fun and we got to meet a lot of people that we wouldn't usually meet or get to play for. Last time when we were on tour, we stumbled upon this - I think we were in Oregon at Cave Junction - tiny little town and we went to this pizza restaurant for dinner and it happened to be their open mic night at this pizza place, which was actually a big deal in the town, like everyone was at it. We had our guitar in the car, so we signed up to play and we sang a couple originals and then I sang "I Fall To Pieces" and "Happy Times" and everyone started singing along with that song. All these little old people were at the open mic and they started quietly singing and then really singing along and it was really moving and it was a really special moment that you wouldn't get in your own town. In LA, that probably wouldn't occur. So, just these little moments that are really unusual and spontaneous that I don't even think we're prepared for or know will happen. Just being out of our little bubble of our home.

What do you hope your listeners are able to take away from your music?

Thu: I think the hope is always that they connect with the stories that we're telling in our songs. Our songs are all generally pretty personal, they have some autobiographical qualities to them, but I think, when we write, we don't try to pour our diary out onto the page, we go through a pretty intense writing process for each song and so we try to make the stories clear and make the melodies beautiful and perform them with care and specificity. All of that work on the back-end for us, we would really like for the audience to let it wash over them and for them to be able to feel and think about things without having to work hard at it; they can just enjoy it and it can take them to a place that makes them feel whatever they want to feel and they can just have a good time.

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