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Heidi Muller: Interview with Michael F. Hughes

April, 2005
Heidi Muller will appear with the Ice Mountain Writers on April 8, 2005.

Q-When did you start singing?

When I was a little girl. There's an old tape of me singing "Jesus Loves Me" when I was about four years old. My mother says she taught me a piano piece when I was three and I picked it right up.

Q-Who encouraged you in music as a child, in the family, and outside the family?

There was music around me on a day-to-day basis. My dad liked to sing old songs with us like "Wabash Cannonball" and "The Preacher and the Bear". My mother played piano and my German uncle played guitar and concert zither. My mother's brother who lived in New York had been a child prodigy on violin, who later went on to play fiddle and upright bass in a square dance band on Long Island. So there was music around but I didn't want to take music lessons and I refused to perform in front of family members. When I was 11, though, on a trip to Germany with my aunt and uncle, I saw a girl play accordion and guitar. Something clicked and I decided I wanted to learn guitar. We got my mother's old guitar out of my grandparents' closet and my uncle fixed it up for me to learn on. He showed me chords and an oom-pah kind of 3-finger strum and then I taught myself. My brother showed me how to Travis pick when I was around 13 and I learned "Don't Think Twice".

Q-Do you remember when you started to think of yourself as a singer, as a performer?

One time when I was in 4th grade, I was home sick from school. My mother and I were watching TV when some women singers came on, and I said, "I want to do that." Somehow in my learning of guitar, I decided to perform. I started an all-girl rock band and we got together enough music to play for youth center dances.

Q-How did your family react to your desire to perform?

Everyone was very supportive. We had band practice at my house and our mothers drove us to gigs. My mom and my uncle helped me get an electric guitar, amp and microphone.

Q-Did you always have confidence in yourself as a singer? Where did that confidence come from?

I'm not sure, I don’t remember thinking about it. At home we played Bobby Vinton and Neil Sadaka 45's and I would sing harmony with my sister as we sang along with them. I tried to make myself sing like Joni Mitchell after I discovered her. The family never discouraged me, so perhaps I didn't have reason to hold back.

Q-How do you feel when you perform?

I feel like I have something to give, something to share, in the songs themselves. It's important to me to be centered before I get onstage. The music is my focus, the songs are the important part, the communication. I am sharing both myself and the message of the songs or the feeling of the music.

Q-What kind of a relationship are you trying to establish with your audience?

I simply aim to be myself and remove any walls that are there. I invite the audience in to be a part of the performance. As they open themselves to the messages of the songs, the lyrics sometimes hit them in a personal, emotional way. I understand that whatever I show of myself is likely to connect with their own feelings, and in my vulnerability they find a space to feel, consider issues, and perhaps heal in some small way. A concert is a safe place for the audience to feel. Sometimes it's a bit of a risk for the performer who puts themselves out there. But when the rapport is reached, it becomes safe then for the performer as well.

Q-Do you get nervous before a performance, and if so, how do you handle it?

Most of the time I don't get nervous anymore. Certain things might make me more likely to be nervous, such as bright lights in a dark hall when I can't see people's faces; not having performed for awhile; arriving after a long drive without time to recover; or doing new, untested material. Most of the time if I can get centered, there's no problem. Onstage I just push through it till I reach a level of comfort. I've learned not to believe the fear.

Q-You have written songs and arranged songs. What is your writing process?

It's all over the map, really. In the last year I've found I can write stories that are not my own to meet deadlines. That's not my favorite kind of writing, I'd rather write from personal inspiration, but it can be done. I usually have an issue rolling around in my head and I get a feeling that now would be a good time to sit down and write. There's a certain feeling where you know if you act now, you stand a good chance of getting a song. And if you pass up the chance, that moment may never come again. I normally have to be completely alone and in my own physical space in order to write. The songs usually come complete within an hour, and then I can go back later and edit them. Some songs are slower. Every once in awhile I hammer away at one for over a year. The important part is to get all the creative first thoughts down at the beginning. My melodies come with my lyrics, and the toughest part is to try and create a melody after the initial creative impulse is gone.

Q-Do you have a special place, or certain routine, for your writing?

I need a quiet, well-lit place, preferably with a view out over things that are green and scenic. I seem to need to be alone in order to write. I have no special routine. I'm moved more by inspiration than writing appointments. It might be fun to try a Nashville-style daily office routine, though. It could be useful to tame the muse to come when you call.

Q-Do you work on the music or the words first, or both at the same time?

Both come at the same time for me. Sometimes I get a standard meter going and can just flow with the words on the paper, and then work up a melody last before the feeling of the moment passes.

Q-Do you think about your audience when you start writing a song, or does that come later?

I don't think so much about the audience. To me, the important thing is to tell my own truth. I only perform in places where I trust the audience is right for my music. I try to write a song broadly enough that the audience can see themselves in it. I try not to just tell my own confessional stories and I do try to create a point or lesson to the story that makes it worth the listener's time.

Q-How do you know when to quit tinkering with a song?

I work out all my reservations till I'm satisfied with it. Most of the time I'll have the basic song in good shape with just a few nagging lyrics that don't seem right. Usually the right ones come to me over the next few days. I had a songwriting group in Seattle for about 12 years where we would bring our new material for feedback. That helped immensely in knowing what was good or what needed more work.

Q-When you become discouraged with your writing, how do you handle that?

I just put it aside. I keep all my starts in a file for later use.

Q-Are you ever afraid that you may not be able to write?

Every once in awhile. I'm not such a prolific writer that it worries me much; I'm used to dry spells. But for me the issue isn't so much whether I have something to say, it's creating the setting that evokes the song from inside of me. I haven't had my own creative space for quite some time, since I left Seattle. Thankfully I've been able to use someone else's cabin recently to get away and write. When I'm in the right space, I feel music more easily.

Q-If you look at the work that you've done, are there themes that run through your work that you keep coming back to?

I think my songs reflect a sense of place more often than not. I have quite a few songs about self-discovery, travel, and lessons learned from ordinary people. Family shows up now and then. There's a sense of the spiritual, of the positive and good, that I find myself writing about. But I do love songs about place, road songs, lots of visual imagery.

Q-You have 5 CDs of your work. What is the process of putting together a CD, and how hard is it to find a company to produce it?

Well, first of all, I have produced them myself. I make them for my audience and I'm usually anxious to get them done and out for the next concert or tour, as soon as I can. I'm no longer invested in whether a record company is interested in my work. It takes so long to make the rounds and wait for the yay or nay. As an artist, my focus is on creating my work and making it available to the public, not on pleasing some corporate entity. Being my own record label allows me to have a great deal of one-on-one contact with the people who buy the CDs, including the stores. I don't have a distributor; it would be nice to have one, but it seems they are more interested in a catalog of artists than one independent artist. I do sell through CD Baby which is an online store and a remarkably wonderful group of people to work with.
So, when I'm getting ready to make a CD and I have enough songs together, I gather them up, see what I have and what I need to fill out the collection, and go into a studio. I try to identify a theme and then see if I have a balance of styles, of moods, to make a full project. I can't go into all the nuts and bolts of recording here, but mostly I lay my own basic tracks, bring in whatever musicians I need to round things out, and line up a graphic artist to work on the cover. I set up the manufacturing by choosing whom I want to work with and try to make the pieces fall into place on time. Now that I'm working with Bob Webb, it's a real gift that he has his own recording studio. So we not only play together and work up the arrangements, we can go right in and record tracks.

Q-Do you have another CD in the works, or plans for one?

Bob and I have started working on a new CD that we hope to have out by late spring. It's new material that reflects both our backgrounds, a little bit of West Virginia and a little bit of New Jersey and the Northwest. We have several dulcimer instrumentals planned plus a couple of traditional tunes on the list. By the time we get to Romney, I think we will have most of it recorded and will play some of the new songs.

Q-You have taught dulcimer to hundreds of people over the years. How did you get into that? How did you develop your teaching style and content?

When I first performed with dulcimer in 1985, someone came up to me at a concert and asked me to teach her. I started to take on students and learned how to teach just by doing it. I ended up becoming Seattle's only dulcimer teacher. In 1988 I taught my first workshop at a folk festival in Illinois, and in 1991, I was asked to teach at a dulcimer festival in Boston when I was there to give some concerts. That launched me into the national dulcimer scene, which was developing more and more through Internet connections and through the quarterly journal Dulcimer Players News. I offered dulcimer workshops when I gave concerts in more remote areas of the West and started selling dulcimers out of my car when I traveled.
The West Coast players are very innovative and use syncopated rhythms more than their Eastern cousins. Traditional tunes would be played in new ways. Of course, this was the territory influenced by Richard Farina, and then Neal Hellman, Robert Force and Al D'Ossche. I myself was influenced more by New England players as I got started, because my old college friend Gail Rundlett and her teacher Lorraine Hammond in Boston showed me their way of using four equidistant strings. I loved the chords and fingerpicking patterns available in that style and moved forward with that. I didn't return to simpler 3-string playing till I discovered fiddle tunes at contradances. I teach 3-string dulcimer to most people because most dulcimers are set up that way, and it's an easier way to learn the instrument. I have always sung with dulcimer using chords and I greatly enjoy rhythmic strumming and noodling around on fiddle tunes. I don't see any reason for a player to limit themselves to traditional methods; there should be freedom in playing folk instruments, doing it to please yourself.

Q-What age group do you most like to work with, or does it matter?

I like to work with anyone who is fired up to learn. I love the energy of fourth and fifth graders; it's great fun to write songs with them, and young children have lots of enthusiasm for the dulcimer. I also have a number of adult students including retirees.

Q-What advice would you give to people who are interested in music and writing?

Simply to start. Why wait? There are classes offered at so many places these days; there are elderhostels, community college classes, we have Augusta Heritage in Elkins and Patty Looman in Morgantown… there are dulcimer festivals, Vandalia, FOOTMAD gatherings, Glenville. In August there will be the NewSong Festival and songwriting academy in Shepardstown. The Arts Centre in Martinsburg is another place that has events. I think the important thing is to pursue the interest and give yourself a chance at it. There's a great book to check out if you want to write, published some years ago, called "Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg. If it's playing you want to do, instruments need not be terribly expensive to get started. There are even cardboard dulcimers such as the kind Bob makes that work fine as entry level instruments. The Internet also opens up a wide world of resources.

Q-Where do you go from here? What new things will you be getting into?

I'm looking forward to teaching more private lessons in the Charleston area and performing more around the state. I'd like to work more through the WV Artists in Education program. I expect the songs I helped write with the kids at Big Ugly last year will develop into a CD project, so I would be producing that effort when the grant funds come through. Bob and I have just written a grant to do music mentoring for disadvantaged children in Charleston, so I may be teaching more one-on-one lessons in after-school programs. I recently bought a bowed psaltery that I'm learning to play. I'd like to do some more exploring around West Virginia just to see things. Other than that, there are our upcoming tours to the Pacific Northwest and festival commitments through the fall in Ohio, Indiana and Vermont.


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