Listen Up Denver’s Brian Turk sat down for a conversation with Megan Burtt shortly after she stepped off the stage at Dazzle last week. She had just performed an emotional piano concert that consisted almost entirely of songs inspired by the personal sketchbook entries of painter Laurie Maves (see our review here) and we are grateful to her for opening up and taking the time to talk.
Listen Up Denver!: Why did you do this tonight?
Megan Burtt: I just think it’s important for artists to push themselves creatively. Not only for their own artistry, but for their fans. That was a big part of this, I just knew it would be what it was. It was good to have a new challenge.
LUD: How did Laurie’s reaction make you feel?
MB: I was so happy. I love when people cry. I mean that’s the goal, too make people weep…a lot.
LUD: So how long ago did you start planning this night?
MB: It all started about nine or ten months ago. Laurie got in touch with me saying she had some ideas and I went over there with my guitar, not knowing what to expect. I was so honored by the gesture; I wanted to return the honor. So I decided to write a set of music on piano inspired by her stuff. It would be totally new, and because I don’t play piano very often, it will feel like something special.
LUD: It came off as something special. Everyone in the crowd felt the emotion. How were you able to translate someone else’s deep emotions into your own?
MB: It was surprising how easy it was given it was something so foreign to me. I think that it is a true testament to the power of art, the power of music, and the power of genuine emotion. I took her words and embodied them as if I had felt them before…because I had. She hadn’t heard these songs played before tonight, but she read some of the lyrics yesterday and was amazed at how relatable they were.
LUD: Emotion bleeds out of everything you do. Not just this project tonight. What has been your history of emotional expression through music?
MB: I started off on piano. I started witting little stupid songs when I was about seven. I think the first song I wrote was about my uncle who passed away. So it must have been at about seven, eight, or nine.
LUD: A pretty heavy topic for that age.
MB: Definitely. Then I started playing guitar at 15, and that catapulted everything for me. I love playing guitar! Piano is just where my roots are for me. I remember wanting to learn to play piano, and then writing little songs instead of learning Bach. I guess writing music as my expression just happened to me, right from the start.
LUD: So did you always see yourself becoming a performer?
MB: I knew I wanted to play music, but didn’t think I would go to school for it. I thought maybe I would major in Anthropology or Music Therapy so I applied to 15 colleges. I wound up getting into the Berklee College of Music but I did not have the same focus. People going to Berklee are prodigies. They had been playing amazingly since they were like four years old, so I got my ass handed to me. I wasn’t good going into Berklee. I wrote songs and I submitted my songs, so I think that’s why I got in; just because of the songwriting.
LUD: So this is when you decided to go all in. When you decided every effort was going to be towards music.
MB: Getting into Berklee was validation that this is what I can do. I needed that validation, that push, to let me know I can do this full time. It let me know this was what I was supposed to be doing.
LUD: Are you a naturally confident person?
MB: (Laughs) No, not at all. For me it isn’t about confidence or ego. In order for me to do this I had to surrender to what is supposed to be. When you think about it like that it is a type of confidence…a confidence in your life’s path.
LUD: Once you left school, you didn’t start recording or touring. What did you do?
MB: I had always loved the blues. I think it is the most pure, genuine, emotionally connected music that we have. So I moved to middle-of-nowhere Mississippi to find an old blues man to teach me his legacy. I packed my car, left, and very soon after getting to Mississippi, I got really sick…seriously ill. As a result, I had to come home to Colorado and all my plans got derailed. So while I was in the hospital I had gotten an offer to go to Vietnam to play music. I didn’t get the email until three months later. I was pretty sick, and not checking email in the hospital. So when I got home and fully rehabbed I e-mailed back, asking if the offer still stood. Nine months later I was playing piano and singing in a hotel lounge in Vietnam. It was amazing! I would do it again if I felt I didn’t have so much momentum going here. So it was kind of a whirlwind. Graduate, come home, move to Mississippi, get crazy sick, come home, rehab, move to Vietnam, come back. Then I was touring, writing for an album I started recoding later that year, 2009. Then I did this album, released it and started touring again. Ever since then I have stayed really busy doing tons of projects.
LUD: I don’t see a lot of shows listed for you all the time, yet you are in constant motion, always on a plane. What are you doing out there?
MB: I probably play 150-170 shows a year, it’s just that some events are private. Corporate events, private house shows, things like that aren’t listed on my site. They are a very important part of me making my living though. So I am playing a lot more than it looks like. I also started doing a lot of festivals, songwriting competitions, and music conferences. I spend a lot of my time networking and writing with other writers. I may go to LA for a week and only play one show. The rest of the time I am meeting with people and doing a ton of writing.
LUD: These songwriting competitions take up a lot of time and you travel a lot for them. What is the return?
MB: You know, I feel like there are two paths. This is my theory about the music business: you can either be discovered and steered in the right direction with the help of a lot of people, a team. Or there is the route that I have been following, which is based on the fact that there is a lot in this business that is really accessible. The contests, the conferences, the house concerts; being in front of promoters that listen to indie artists, and seek out indie artists. All that is really accessible and just a matter of showing up. I wanna be full time so I just figure out a way to show up…always…to something. The contests are great exposure. Folks Fest (see our review of this year’s Folks Fest here) was a dream come true. I am a Colorado girl so that contest was about obtaining one of my dreams. The Kerrville Competition was great for me. I am going to Austin tomorrow because of it, touring all of Texas in November because of it. In this route I am taking, where you show up wherever you can, contests aren’t a bad way to go. I just do everything I can.
LUD: Well it is obvious that you put a lot of effort into your craft. It is hard for any artist to put their ass on the line, day after day, and bear their most prized feelings to the world. You do such an amazing job at it!
MB: Thank you very much! That means a lot. I used to get really nervous going up on stage, but at some point you just give yourself to it 100%. At some point I realized I have to wake up every day and work towards this and I think that’s why I have had the small successes I have. I wake up every day with the thoughts of…what gig am I going to book, what gig am I playing, who am I going to meet with on this trip…but it just doesn’t feel like work because I just love it so much. If nothing else, it’s just a testament that people should do what they love, regardless.
LUD: There is rumor of a new album next year. Any info you can give us?
MB: I am working on a sort of Roots, Americana, Folky thing with [Producer / Engineer] Jamie Mefford who did Gregory Alan Isakov’s latest album. Whenever I am in town we kind of chip away at it. This will be something that is just kind of fun. I love playing with the band (Megan Burtt and the Cure for Love), that’s my dream, and tonight was amazing, but I play solo a lot and I have songs that don’t get played with the band. They are too Americana / Folky. So I wanted to get those songs down. I am inspired tonight, maybe I will do a little piano on it. The album that is coming has a plan around it. It involves a lot of people, and a big tour. It is basically going to be my story, of the last few years. Getting really sick and all that. I realized at the beginning of this year that it was really important for me to write that story. For two or three years I just stuffed it, but there is a lot of grace in peoples stories, and that’s what I kind of realized. I am so excited to make this project happen, because it’s not an album, it’s a project. An amazing project.
LUD: That’s so good to hear. I think fans will be excited for more stripped down material.
MB: I hope so.