Over the Summer, I saw Rachel Laven perform a set at a small venue in Colorado. I hadn’t heard her name before, and was just excited for an evening of live music. I had no clue that I was in store for one of the most amazing live shows I’d seen in a long while.
Hailing from Texas, Rachel’s music is a mix of bluegrass/ folk/ feminist country, a genre that she’s delightfully dubbed “TexGrass” and that she shines in all her own.
From the moment she took the stage, I was struck by Rachel’s stage presence–her ability to create deep intimacy and high energy all at the same time, her voice, AND her song-writing–which is vulnerable and generously thoughtful.
Immediately, I knew I wanted to hear more from her. She’s in the midst of a big move to the UK, releasing a new single (it’s called “Heels,” she talks about it more below and you can pre-save it here!), and working on a new album. I was thrilled when we found time to transatlantic-ly catch up and chat more about her work!
Linne: Where does your song-writing inspiration come from? And who/ what are your biggest influences?
Rachel: It’s changed over the years. When I started writing songs at 10 years old, I was heavily inspired by movies and the news. I wrote fantastical songs about cowboys and pirates as well as political songs about the war in Iraq, and its effect on me and my friends. I picked up a guitar in early 2002, one of my best friends at the time, her father was in the army and sent to the Middle East on multiple tours. It was a scary time for us and I wrote a bunch of anti-war songs calling for peace. Nowadays, I am primarily inspired by other songs, my own experience, and people.
I listen to a lot of other songwriters and love to try to write songs in their style to break my own barriers. Songwriters like Anaïs Mitchell and Terri Hendrix don’t seem to care about traditional song forms, so what if a song doesn’t have a chorus or a bridge. Songwriters like John Prine, Jason Isbell, and Guy Clark can write the most beautiful poetry in the simplest of words. Justin Farren’s songs are like long trains of thought, very rarely repeating anything and every thought is the most simply put, profound sentiment. Joey Landreth and Jaimee Harris have incredible senses of how rhythm and lyric should co-exist.
Topic wise, I’m very inspired in the women’s movement in music–with super groups like The Highwomen bringing together women at different stages in their careers and supporting one another. My writing has become very focused on women’s empowerment, whether its a song like “Heels” that’s pretty blatant about the hardships of being a woman in the music industry, or “Countin’ Pennies” which mentions a women “spittin’ in [her boss’] coffee to even the score” for being unrightfully fired, or songs about the amazing matriarchs in my family, like “Ramblin’ Soul” and “Love & Luccheses.” It’s high time for powerful female-centric songs.
During your set, you played your songs “Love & Luccheses” and “Heels,” as well as Guy Clark’s song “Stuff That Works.” I noticed that both songs use tangible objects as ways to access memory/ history and convey a narrative. Is this something you’ve thought about in your own life? It is such an interesting way to approach story-telling…
I think it’s really one of the best tools we have for accessing memory. It is so human. We take photos and we take souvenirs to preserve memories. When someone dies, one of the hardest things to do is go through all their stuff because every little thing has memories attached to it. Where they got it, when they got it, times they wore it, the smell, the texture, what it meant to them, all elements of a good story.
My grandmother gave me that pair of boots one of the last times I saw her. In fact, she gave me two pairs of boots and a ring with a giant Amethyst. I never got the story on the ring, but the Luccheses she was so proud of. They were a symbol of success to her and I think whether they had fit me or not, she wanted me to have something that meant a lot to her. It was just a hunk of icing on top that they fit me perfectly. To me, they’re a symbol of strength and persistence, they hold my grandmother’s spirit. When it came to writing a song about my grandmother’s immigration to America, the boots were a perfect symbol and access point to those memories.
When Andrew Delaney and I were writing “Heels,” we had in mind this quote about Ginger Rogers. “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, backwards and in heels.” Heels make every movement a little more difficult; this idea parallels some challenges I’ve faced as a woman in the music industry. There is power in overcoming what is intended to cripple you, and skill in delivering the outcome of that struggle with ease.
Your song-writing and your performance style are incredibly intimate and sincere. I saw that a critic wrote that you’re able to, “write love songs that aren’t sappy.” What do you think it is that allows you to strike this balance of earnestness and romance without veering into cheesiness?
There’s a very thin line I think between romance and sap. I cross it a lot at the writer’s desk, but try very hard not to let it get past there. Sometimes you can get away with a lot of cheese just in the delivery… I think of songs like “Love Me Do” by The Beatles… It’s not a great song, the lyrics are cheesy as hell, but somehow the catchy delivery of it makes it a classic. Love love me do/ You know I love you./ I’ll always be true./ so please love me do. They don’t take themselves too seriously when they perform it, it’s just a silly, happy love song. Pop artists get away with so much simple sap hidden in the bouncy melodies. Not that I’m complaining, I love a good pop song as much as anyone.
I try to stray away from cliches when writing about love, and put the work into trying to find a new perspective or means of saying “I love you.” I gotta say though, it’s way easier to write about love when you’re falling in love. I wrote almost an entire album for my husband when we were first falling in love. I’m still in love with him now, but he’s not all I think about like it is in the first few months of any relationship.
As far as earnestness onstage, maybe it’s just the willingness to be vulnerable and genuine. I feel the most successful when I’ve A. Thrown as much energy into my show and out into the audience as possible, and/or B. I’ve allowed myself to be genuinely vulnerable onstage whether that manifests in telling a difficult story, or just being silly and not afraid of making a fool of myself. When I can accomplish both, well, that’s grade-A Rachel Laven right there.
That’s a slippery slope though too. It’s difficult to do every night. I think a lot of performers are energetic, but not necessarily able to be vulnerable, the truly incredible ones, to me, present both. They’re the artists that make your heart explode from laughter, tears, and jumping up and down all in one show.
There are days when the last place I want to be is up on a stage singing my songs. When I’m feeling sick, depressed, exhausted, etc. I’m able to leave that “baggage” at the door. It’s one of the first lessons I was taught in Acting 101 and one of the biggest life lessons I can take away from my theatrical experience.
Talk to me about the experiences you’ve had as a woman in the country/ bluegrass music scene that ultimately inspired you to write “Heels.”
Look at any festival line-up or radio chart, pretty much nationwide, but especially country music festivals and radio charts in Texas. You’re likely to see 1-3 female artists in a lineup of 20+ artists, and I can tell you who those women will be, because there’s only about 5 female artists doing really well in Texas. Women are really under-represented and down-played in the Country world, and that goes all the way from Carrie Underwood & Miranda Lambert at the top of the industry to the amateurs just getting started!
When it came to writing “Heels,” Andrew & I wanted to write a song that highlights the little struggles of being a woman in the music industry. It’s the little things that add up to major consequences. The music business is hard enough without the added bullshit and disrespect you get just by having a vagina. Everything in the song is unfiltered, unexaggerated truth. I’ve had my guitar turned low and even off for entire songs until a male bandmate requested to hear more of my guitar. I’ve had checks written out to male members of MY band instead of me. I’ve heard all the pick up lines on and off stage. We’ve been expected to smile, wear makeup, do my hair, wear skirts or dresses, sing pretty, and even flirt onstage. It gets way worse as we’ve learned from the MeToo movement.
I consider myself lucky to have grown up playing music in bars before I was old enough to be considered sexy, and alongside my 6 foot 5, brother, Niko. Nobody was stupid enough to mess with me with him around. When I started playing out on my own, I clung to strong mentors I could trust: Susan Gibson, Ken Gaines, Terri Hendrix, The Flyin’ A’s, The Rosellys, Sean Sankey, and Claude “Butch” Morgan being among the first to really take me under their wing. They taught me to pay my dues, but, to not take crap from anyone, to stand up for myself, to be a good musician, not just a pretty voice, and to be me and only me onstage and off. If there’s anything I can do for them, it’s to live by their example, and I think “Heels” exemplifies a lot of what they’ve taught me and what I hope to pass on to future up and coming female artists.
How do you see yourself adapting your “TexGrass” / Americana style to your new European lifestyle and audience?
There is a big appreciation for Country and Americana music in Europe. All I have to do is learn how to slow down when I’m talking so folks can understand my accent. The “Texas” comes out more when I’m telling stories onstage. It’s a bit of a daunting task to take a music career that’s doing well in the US and drop it in the UK where I’m almost starting from scratch. I’ve toured in the UK before and have always been received well, but the accolades and accomplishments from my career in Texas don’t always translate. It’s difficult to gauge where you stand; you don’t want to undersell yourself, but you also don’t want to act too big for your britches. I’m working on that balance.
What is next for you?
“Heels” will be released as a stand alone single, and I’ll be turning my attention towards my next project, which is an acoustic EP/album (depending on how long it turns out to be), titled The Leeds Sessions. I’ll be recording some songs–old and new–with just me and my guitar while I’m living in Leeds. It might have a lead instrument here and there, but it’ll be much more stripped down than my last album. Because I’m starting fresh in the UK, I thought about turning my attention inward for a bit, writing and recording by myself.
I’ve also started a Patreon account where people can subscribe for a dollar or more to receive updates, new songs, videos, merch items, and inside looks into my creative process. You can find it here! It’s the perfect platform to keep me connected with my people back home, and to supplement my income while I’m in this creative season. I’ll be playing shows around Europe, but won’t be returning to the States for a good while.