Songwriting Scene: Austin (a Q&A with singer-songwriter Betty Soo)

When I put the word about that I wanted to do a Q&A about the Austin songwriting scene, one name came up from a whole bunch of different people: Betty Soo. With a beautiful powerhouse voice and soulful, moving songs, I already knew Betty was a great singer-songwriter — so I gave her a buzz and she was kind enough to let me in on the Texas scoop. Here’s what she had to say about the scene down Austin way….certainly made me want to make the trip!

Q: How would you describe the songwriting scene in Austin?
Betty: I’d have to say what is wonderful about the Austin scene is that it’s a community. It’s a lot of friendships, and they’re mostly pretty casual – but they feel safe and supportive and not overly competitive. There’s not a dog-eat-dog mentality here. We try to support each other’s shows, each other’s writing, each other’s lives. It’s hardly ever schmoozy, false, or affected – I mean, there’s some of that everywhere you go, and Austin’s not completely immune. But I’ve found it is the exception rather than the rule. There are some other towns where it’s all about relationships too – okay, actually, all of life is about relationships – but here, there is not the same kind of rule of hierarchy you can find in other places. You don’t have to worship at the altar of your heroes – they will mostly reach down and pull you up with them and befriend you. That’s pretty special.
Q: What are some of the main songwriting-friendly venues that songwriters should be aware of?
Betty: The Cactus Cafe is a great listening room. Concertgoers there want to hear new material, challenging material – they’re ready to listen, even to a whole set of ballads if that’s what you do. There’s a trust relationship there between the artist and the audience. The listeners will give their whole attention to the performer, and the performer better bring something real and good. The Saxon Pub is another favorite place of mine. Threadgill’s has a great environment too – lots of seated shows, which you might not expect for an outdoor venue. I love a little place called the Whip In, which can only seat a few dozen folks – and strangers often share booths to squeeze in – they’ve got great South Austin style Indian food. I can’t get enough of it.
There are so many great rooms, the list could be endless. Flipnotics is a classic spot. And new ones are popping up all the time. For example, there’s a new house-concert type concert series too called the Austin Acoustical Cafe that I’m gonna play at later this month for the first time. I’m anxious to see what it’s like there.
Q: Who are some of the best-known local songwriters in Austin? Both famous and up-and-coming?
Betty: Oh man, that list is endless. Will Sexton is one of my favorites. And I’m lucky because he plays guitar with me quite a bit. Graham Weber is a songwriter about my age who is just jaw-dropping. Jimmy LaFave. Bruce Robison. Gurf Morlix. Sam Baker. Jess Klein. Ethan Azarian‘s got one of the most entertaining, creative songwriter shows I’ve ever seen. Randy Weeks, Matt the Electrician, Bill Carter, Ruth Ellsworth, Stephen Doster, the list just goes on and on. The danger in compiling a big list is that in retrospect, I know my omissions will seem so egregious.
Q: How would you recommend someone get started getting involved in the
local Austin songwriting scene?
Betty: Well, I got started writing songs just a few years ago. And I did it with a lot of encouragement from the Austin Songwriters Group. It’s a great nonprofit group that helps songwriters at every level. They provide mentorships, critique sessions, meetings with publishers, networking opportunities – it’s a great organization. I’d start there. I did start there.
Q: What are the biggest challenges for songwriters getting involved in the
Austin songwriting scene?
Betty: Oh, I don’t know if the challenges are unique to locations. Although I imagine towns that don’t have as many writers as Austin would be challenging to grow as a writer in because you don’t have people to run your work past or other writers who inspire and challenge you. Here, there’s no shortage of that! I’d say there’s as much here to help you as you want to take part in. True, we don’t have the business infrastructure like Nashville — but then again, the last time I was in Nashville a couple months ago, a lot of houses on Music Row were available for rent.
Q: What has your journey been like as an Austin-based singer-songwriter?
Betty: I moved to Austin straight out of high school to attend the University of Texas. I got an English degree and worked various jobs with no intention of becoming a performing songwriter. I had never even written a song until a few years ago, after I was married with a job and a house. So it was a relatively late decision for me – especially compared to most of my friends and peers who have been performing and/or writing since they were kids. Sometimes I feel behind the curve and can get a little insecure about my writing because of that, but most of the time I try not to think about it too much.
I tour regularly, around the U.S. and now, in Europe too. I just put out a record called Heat Sin Water Skin that I feel really good about, produced by my friend Gurf Morlix. What a dream to work with him.
Q: What about open mics? Is that an important part of the scene?
Betty: I think open mics can be important for some songwriters to cut their teeth. It helps some, probably not others. In some ways, I can see how for a songwriter with not enough songs to fill a whole set, it’s a way to perform and to practice performing your original material. On the other hand, the feeling of performing at an open mic and at your own show is incredibly different – at least for me it is. I get proportionally more nervous the fewer songs I perform at any given venue. So open mics open give a hint of how it feels to perform, in my case. I think the jury is out on how important it is as part of the Austin scene. But it was an open mic at the Cactus Cafe that opened the door for me to start performing there. So you never know.