Today in Liner Notes we get to know Nashville independent artist, Laura Mustard. I found her fun, upbeat style to be infectious, with a nice shot of whimsy. She works as a speech-language pathologist during the day and often uses music therapy and songwriting in her work with special needs children. Today, Laura releases her sophomore ep, Treehouse and I asked her to tell us a little about it, about herself, her love of banjo and the videos for the tracks, “Eager” and "Nobody's Road".
AnaLee: AnaLee: Thanks for reaching out to me, Laura. It’s always a pleasure to discover new music. With a background in classical piano and percussion, I can see how you fell in love with the banjo too! I can hear how those instruments might have contributed to the shaping of your indie folk-pop sound. Tell us a little about growing up in Fairfield, Connecticut and how you found your way to singing and writing songs in Nashville and the banjo.
Laura: I grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, a suburb outside of New York City and I had a pretty happy childhood there. I read a Goosebumps book called Piano Lessons Can Be Murder and that made me really want to learn how to play piano and led to me starting piano lessons in elementary school. I started playing drums/percussion in the school band and later took lessons. So, music was always a part of my childhood growing up. As for songwriting, John Mayer is probably the most well-known musician who came out of Fairfield and his parents actually lived on the street behind mine. I didn't know them well, but a friend of mine suggested that we write a song for John Mayer and put it in his parents' mailbox as "a song from the fans". I think she just meant "write down some lyrics", but I ended up making up a piano part and lyrics and melody at the little Casio keyboard at the edge of my bed. From that day on, I was hooked! And I had this strange pride around my little song. There was this feeling of, "John Mayer doesn't get this song. This is MY song!" (because it obviously would've ended up on Continuum if I had put it in that mailbox, haha). But yeah, that's how I stumbled into songwriting.
Fast forward to playing in some bands in Western Massachusetts after college. I went on my first tour with my band Stillbridge from Massachusetts to Colorado and back, and that gave me the drive to explore more music outside of New England. I love the music scene in Western Mass, but I wanted to do more specifically with songwriting and have more opportunities with networking and writing more professionally. A friend of mine from college, Ben Bishop (who actually produced the Treehouse EP!), had a post about living in Nashville so I asked if I could stay on his couch while I explored Nashville for the first time. I spent the week playing writers' rounds and open mics and just fell in love with the city. So, I moved down here about a year after that. I am so grateful to live in a city that values and celebrates songwriting so much!
And yeah, the banjo was always just an instrument I loved the sound of. To me, it sounds really joyful. My own banjo adventure started at a meditation retreat in Nashville. On a break, there was this guy, Wilson, talking about playing banjo. On a whim, I asked if he gave lessons, and he does! I'm definitely very new to it. Wilson Harwood is actually the one who plays banjo on the Treehouse EP, but I'm still taking lessons from him (virtually right now!) and I've definitely gotten more serious with it since I started social distancing in March. It's become my pandemic hobby, I guess. I just find it really relaxing! And I agree that it's definitely a great combination of melody and rhythm that is perfect for my syncopated percussion-loving brain. Both clawhammer and bluegrass styles are wicked fun for me!
AnaLee: Treehouse is your second release and you teamed up again with producer Ben Bishop for this new collection of songs. Tell us about the theme of this record and the instruments you chose to record with, including the tin-can phone!
Laura: Yes, I am so excited for Treehouse to be out in the world today! This record talks a lot about self-acceptance. Each song approaches self-acceptance from a different angle. "Eager" is really playful and it's about laughing at yourself and your mistakes. I think I learned not to take myself so seriously through writing it. "She Must Go" is about exploring and making friends with your shame. "Teach Me How To Lie" dives into vulnerability in a moment of rejection and I think, in the end, that song shows that your vulnerability is a strength. "Treehouse" is a little bit of escapism, but sometimes it's nice to explore and have fun with your own fantasies. There's acceptance in that too. "Spin" is about how it feels when you find that acceptance from another person. And "Nobody's Road" is about when you find that for yourself. I like to say, "This record wants you to make friends with yourself", which can be really hard with all the pressure and expectations out there. And all that can sound a little heavy, but I think the process of self-acceptance can be joyful, and the EP has a really joyful sound.
For the past few years, I had been listening to more modern Bluegrass and folk music, like Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, Abigail Washburn and Rhiannon Giddens. Their music made me fall in love with those instruments. So, when Ben asked what instruments I was hearing, I went to mandolin, banjo and fiddle immediately. Though I guess "Eager" kind of lives in its own 60s pop/Motown feel and instrumentation. The glockenspiel that ends up on some songs is actually from my percussion kit when I started playing in the 5th grade school band and it was fun to play it in Ben's studio! The tin can phone was tied to the idea of a treehouse. When the song "Treehouse" was finished, I knew I wanted to make a music video featuring a treehouse, and I thought having a tin can phone in the video would compliment that treehouse imagery (you can see that video now on YouTube!). But I was talking with Ben in his home studio about the video one day, and we came up with the idea of trying to actually record a vocal part through a tin can phone. So, I was standing in Ben's backyard singing into one can and he had the string pulled tight through his kitchen and held the other can up to the mic in his studio. I love that Ben is up for trying different things and having fun with the music in the studio!
AnaLee: “Eager” is a playful look at celebrating one’s mistakes and self-acceptance. Tell us about the song and video for “Eager” and I also want to include “Nobody’s Road”, a deeply personal song and video for you. Can you talk a little about that one too?
Laura: "Eager" was written after a string of dating disappointments when I was living in Massachusetts (OKCupid was not my friend, haha). But I had been texting this fella for a week or so and then it just fizzled out. I put my phone down and laid down on my bed and just started singing, "I've made a fool of myself more times than I can count" and that started the whole song. It became very cheeky and silly and it was actually a blast to write a song that was just making fun of my own terrible dating track record for four minutes. But I do like the message that it's okay to be the "eager" one when dating. Let yourself get excited and then try to laugh about if it doesn't work out. And for the music video, I was trying to think of a fun way to perform the song that was as lighthearted as the lyrics. I was walking my dog actually when I got the idea to try to act out the lyrics while moving through my own house. But there's jumping on the bed and a typewriter and instruments and a book nook and lots of fun I find along the way, so it definitely carries that playful feeling. It was also my first time writing a treatment for a music video, so I'm really proud of it!
"Nobody's Road" is definitely more personal. I almost didn't make it a single cause I wasn't sure anyone would relate to it, but the response I've gotten has been so positive. So, to dive in for a minute, I was born with birth defects known as VATER Syndrome that impact my digestive and urinary tracts (among other things). Most doctors are pretty excited when they meet me because of my medical history. A few years ago, one doctor told me, "You should hold your head up high cause you've been through a lot", and that became the opening line of the chorus. I was never sure what to say to compliments like that, and they used to feel awkward to me. But I think through writing this song, I developed more acceptance around my own story and how my body works. I also like how the chorus relates to everyone with the idea that "Nobody's road is ever even" and we're all just doing the best we can. Sometimes "just trying" and showing up is all we can do, and that's okay too.
Since this is such a personal song, I wanted a personal music video so I created a collage of a bunch of different pictures and books and instruments and ticket stubs and anything else I could pull off of walls and shelves in my house. But I also made a point to include some of the medical equipment I used regularly because it's such a big part of my life. This music video made me realize that I want to share my medical story to bring more awareness of what it looks like. And hopefully, I'm providing comfort and a feeling of, "Hey, I do that too!" to other people living with similar issues, cause I know how easy it is to feel like you're the only one going through it. I guess I'm hoping to play a small part in normalizing bodies that work differently. I believe body positivity is so important and I'm happy to be sharing it through my music and videos!
Laura Mustard, “Eager”
Laura Mustard, “Nobody’s Road”
Ana Lee is on middays at WMOT, and is also the host of The Local Brew Hour, which airs Sundays at 7am and Mondays at 7pm on 89.5 WMOT and wmot.org.