(Originally posted April 4, 2013)
Featuring Chelsea McBee
I remember meeting Chelsea McBee around the time she started playing music and writing songs, and I can tell you first hand how far she has come since then. Chelsea is now a first class singer/songwriter and musician who when not traveling solo, travels around with several great bands who have helped her further develop her style over the years.
In the spring of 2009 when I was in Ophelia and our opening act missed her flight to make the beginning of our tour, Chelsea stepped in and opened for and having her along for a few shows was a great time!
Check out The Whole (S)tories following interview with Chelsea about where we talk about every from her begging to where she is today, her favorite performance memories, and more.
The Whole (S)tory (TWS): Is there a single memory that made you want to get into music and songwriting or did it come from a lot of different memories?
Chelsea McBee (CM): I know exactly what happened to make me want to play music and write songs. In my senior year at college I was driving home from work one evening and listening to Gillian Welch’s album Time the Revelator. Her song “My First Lover” came on and there is a banjo line in that song that smacked me in the face. When I got home I asked my banjo-playing friend to “teach me that”. He did, and I just never stopped.
TWS: When you first started playing music how did you learn? Did you take lessons or teach yourself?
CM: When I first started, my “banjo-playing friend” from a previous question was Ben Townsend (of The Fox Hunt and The Hackensaw Boys). He taught me my first handful of old-time tunes and encouraged me to attend the old-time jams that were going on in Shepherdstown. After doing that for a while, I started teaching myself some cover songs and then tried my hand at writing my own songs and old-time inspired tunes.
TWS: What is the first song that you wrote and said to yourself “I’m proud of this”? What was the song about? Was it inspired by a real life incident or just out of the blue?
CM: The very first song I wrote was like that. I felt surprised and proud. I had never tried to write my own song and once it started, I got really excited about this new skill I could use. It’s called “Just A Girl” and what started as coming out of the blue turned into something that was semi-real life inspired. I’d say that is true of all my songs. They start out as a melody or a line of lyrics that pops into my head and then I expand on it by dipping into real life thoughts or my interpretations of real life things.
TWS: What is the best and worst performance experience you have had? Do you have any great stories that audience members have shared with you?
CM: I have been really fortunate to have a lot of awesome show experiences. The ones that really stand out in my memory are: my first really big show at Shepherd University here in Shepherdstown. I got to perform during the Appalachian Heritage Festival the same year that Dr. Ralph Stanley performed and I will always remember that. Then my first house concert experience was at The Beach House up in PA and it was so cool to play in the comfort of someone’s home and have all these folks sitting right in front of you and really able to engage with you and the music. Of course we have those disheartening shows too, where you show up in a new place and there is no one in the audience. Like, no one. We see less and less of those each year.
The funniest story I have from an audience member was about one of my songs, “Stay the Night” which has some suggestive content. Her 6-year-old daughter was singing along with the album in the car and when that song came on, she got even louder and said it was her favorite. Her mom thought it was hilarious and I got very red in the face…
TWS: Do you have a songwriting process? What is your advice to readers who want to write songs?
CM: My process is always evolving. I write a lot of songs or partial songs while driving and singing to myself. Sometimes I just come up with lists of words that might sound good and then try to move them around to form some sort of story. My biggest piece of advice would be to listen to tons of music and figure out what it is about the songs that speak to you. Start by mimicking those favorites until you can develop your own voice and story. I used to get really frustrated by the writing process because I thought it should just come easily and flow out of my mind onto the paper and that is not the case. For every one good song I come up with, I’ve thrown out four or five.
TWS: What is it like being out on the road? How does traveling alone out there and traveling with other people differ? Which do you like the most?
CM: There is something special and romantic about packing up and hitting the open road. It’s freeing and exciting. It’s also tiresome and lonely and monotonous sometimes. My first big trip by myself was up the east coast into Maine for some shows and it was really empowering. I sang to myself in the car and was really forced to meet new people when I got to my destinations.
It’s more fun for me to have the band in the car with me. It’s nice to be able to share the driving responsibilities and to have the company! When we travel now, we spend the majority of the time talking about how we want to improve all the aspects of our performance and what else we need to do for booking and the website, etc. All winter I have been daydreaming of getting back on the road…
TWS: If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
CM: Oh geeze… I do have a few places on my list that I would love to play. They all would be milestones in my career. Performing on Mountain Stageand A Prairie Home Companion would be amazing. I had a dream a few months ago that we played at Red Rocks out in Colorado and that would be amazing too. We have such fun at all the music festivals that we attend and if we could perform at those, it would be the best of both worlds!
TWS: When it comes to songwriting, who are your inspirations? How do you take those inspirations and turn it into something of your own?
CM: I am always drawn to songs that tell stories but aren’t too literal or trite. I love the the writing styles of Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams for the storytelling properties and the moods they set. I also like the seemingly random word use that I hear in songs by The Avett Brothers and Chris Thile in The Punch Brothers (maybe I just like bands that use ‘brothers’ in their name…) I try to incorporate both of those aspects in my own writing. I like when I can take a personal experience and tweak it a little so it becomes more of a fictional take on a real life experience. I hope that my songs can resonate with lots of different listener demographics. The best songs are the ones that can stand the test of time and speak to generations.