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Seth Glier, Hungry but Humble

Don't try this at home, kids: the Young Singer/Songwriter Talks Dropping out, but Still Finding Success

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Julia Egan interviews a man on the way UP!

Singer/songwriter Seth Glier has made his way, sure and steady, from performing to his stuffed animals in a East Coast town with less than 1,000 residents to strolling the red carpet after earning a Grammy nomination for his 2011 effort, The Next Right Thing. For years after dropping out of Berklee College of Music in Boston, he acted as his own agent, booking himself for hundreds of gigs, building a fan base for his golden pipes, which have garnered him comparisons in USA Today to none other than Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. We had the chance to chat with the hungry but always humble young artist before his show at Pace University’s Schimmel Center with Matt Nakoa and folk icon, Tom Rush.

Elmore Magazine: So, I understand you’re the special guest tonight?

Seth Glier: [Laughing] That’s what I understand as well, yeah.

EM: How do you feel about it?

SG: It feels great. I mean, I’m doing the show with Tom Rush. I met Tom probably about two years ago in TX, at a folk festival called Kerrville Folk Festival, and then we reconnected a couple months later at the New Bedford Folk Festival in Massachusetts. I have just been really humbled and excited at his, just, belief and support of me, so it’s good– it’s great. This is our first show together in New York City.

EM: Wow, that’s great– exciting! When did you first start writing music?

SG: I wrote my first song on September 11, 2001, actually. I was in seventh grade, and it was the first time in my life that I remember the adults in my life did not have answers for anything that was going on. So I wrote, like, a rap, which turned into poetry, into song. I mean, it was sloppy, there was nothing formed or neat about the process, it was sort of this very cathartic spewing of words. I think that day was sort of a catalyst– of trying to find some meaning in a meaningless moment.

And that stuck with me, that part. That feeling that I’m chasing when I, even now, when I sit down and I write a song. There are times when I write a song, and I finish it, and I just go, “Ok! Cool, we’ll check that one off.” But then there’s other times where I write, and I just have a feeling that this is important, or a feeling that this is connecting a dot somewhere for me. It’s a focal point, so that feeling hasn’t changed since I was 12 years old.

EM: Is the writing process easier now?

SG: No. [Laughing] No, I always sort of think about the process as like polishing a turd…

EM: [Laughs]

SG: You’ve got a handful of ideas, and most of them aren’t gonna be that original, but you’re ironing it down, and you’re editing and like, I hate writing songs, but I love having written. It doesn’t get easier, but it’s different, for sure.

EM: So you attended Berklee College of Music for a year. What was your primary instrument, or do you have one that you like prefer playing?

SG: Well, at Berklee, my primary instrument was voice, and I was a songwriting major, which is a silly major…

EM: But it seems like you have a lot of freedom there.

SG: I don’t know… [Laughing] I don’t know what freedom is anymore…

EM: Oh man…

SG: I mean, I think it’s certainly what you make of it. I did about a year at Berklee, and I look back on it and I do wish I was the person [I am] now, then. When I went to Berklee, I was a kind of a loner. I was not as extroverted as I am now. I’m a pretty good networker now. Then, I was coming out of my small town in western Massachusetts of about 800 people, and I was… you know how it is when it’s your first place outside of your parent’s house, and everything’s so big. Even though it’s Boston, which is just tiny. But you know, the whole experience was, I learned how to write songs, because I learned how to be by myself. That’s what was really formative about that year for me.

EM: Why do you wish you were more extroverted in school?

SG: Because it’s so damn expensive… The way I look at it now is not the way I looked at it then. But the way I look at it now, is that freshman year is basically an introduction to all of your colleagues. Because now, at– I’m not even ten years out? I’m 28, so nine years out? I run into my classmates all the time, and they’re interning at management companies, they’re sound guys, they are club promoters, and I didn’t build those relationships there in the way that some of my friends did, and that I should have, because I was so in my own world.

EM: But you’re here– you made it!

SG: Yeah, sure, sure but, you know, now more than ever, we need each other. Especially in this industry, and I didn’t know that at 18. Again, it’s like, hindsight’s 20/20, but whenever someone asks me about going to Berklee or anything like that, that’s my one nugget of what I would have done a little differently.

EM: Really networking more.

SG: Yeah, just look at it as the opportunity that it is.

EM: So you spent the three years after Berklee on the road touring, booking your own shows. Can you tell me more about that? It’s interesting that you were your own agent.

SG: Oh, I could tell you what I remember about that… [Laughing] So when I dropped out, I moved back home with my parents, and I had a little bit of recording gear, because I played on a couple records when I was out at Berklee. I played on a Antje Duvekot record, and some of these folk singer/songwriters of Boston, and one of the things I would like to do is, rather than getting paid, I just would take old studio gear– I would ask to get some old studio equipment that they weren’t using anymore. So I collected a really really rough makeshift recording studio that I sort of put into my parent’s basement, and I made a record by myself with my friend Ryan, and we put that record out pretty much under the notion that the only way… if I wanted to be a performer– like performing shows and have a career doing it– the only way to do that was to just start.

So Ryan drove a lot, and I would be in the passenger seat with an iPad and a laptop and a phone, and I would call promoters, I would call friends who were musicians to see if I could open for them. I had an amazing amount of mentors along the way, like Livingston Taylor, who would always give me his stage. Folks like that, folks like Richard Shindell and David Wilcox– people that just said, “Hey if you’re in the town that I’m in, open or just come by unannounced and I’ll let ya play a song.” Those people gave me, you know, they shared their audience with me. And about three years after that, of literally living on the road doing 300-325 shows a year… [Laughing]

EM: That’s incredible!

SG: It was. It was insane, but it taught me one, how to perform– I mean, you do something 350 times, every day, you get really good at it. Or you at least get better. And then the other thing, was that I started with an audience, and that audience was small, but after those three years I could go to a city like Morgantown, West Virginia and play to 35 people that were there to see me. And from there, as I sort of anchored into my music and those people started bringing more, I felt like I finally started, after those three and a half years of non-stop playing. And then that was the catalyst. I was really lucky to get a record deal, and then shortly after that, I got an agent that took a lot of that time that I was spending booking shows.

And now, yeah, it’s amazing. What I do every day, is I just sort of wake up and I write songs. That’s great, but I also did all the other things. I didn’t always write songs all the time. I had to figure out how I was gonna find the time to write songs. So now I think it makes me decent at my job, because I know the other parts that are involved. I know what the manager needs from me. I know what the agent needs from me, because I was an agent.

EM: Yeah, I don’t know if most performers have that experience.

SG: Well, I think that we’re so inundated now, that I think a lot of musicians my age are looking at that age old question, and they’re going, “well, if I only had an agent” and/or “if I only had a record label,” and the truth is, when you have all of those things what happens is you have a record label that says, “well, we can’t really do our job until the agent gets shows,” and the agent is going, “well, we can’t really get you shows until radio gets you on the air play,” and you have all these people that are sort of passing the buck. Then it comes back down onto the artist, and that’s really the lesson that I’m still learning, is that it comes down to the songs. It always comes down to the songs, and the job for me now is to try to create art that’s gonna connect. And the rest of it, I believe, kind of falls into place. It’s still a lot of work, but it falls into place.

EM: So speaking of your music, can you tell me more about your most recent album, If I Could Change One Thing?

SG: Well, I made that album– there’s a lot of cowrites on that album– but I made that album, my gosh, about two years ago in Los Angeles with this great producer, Bill Lefler. It was the first record that I had a producer. And it was so much fun. It was so much fun to make, and now I’m currently working on a new record, which could not be further from the last one, because I am producing it myself in my apartment…

EM: It’s raw?

SG: It’s very… yeah, I have this gorgeous Steinway piano in my apartment, and some microphones, and just realized that the stuff that I’ve been really drawn to artistically is singular. It doesn’t sound like anything else, and it feels like I’m in the living room and they’re playing me this song, or they’re playing me just this expression.

EM: It’s very intimate.

SG: Yeah, like that new Bon Iver record [22, A Million] is just breathtaking to me. I don’t even know they lyrics. I don’t even know what he’s saying, and I don’t care. I don’t care, because I know what he’s– I know how I feel when I hear it. And I just love music like that… Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. So I’m really re-approaching how I’m making this next record, to try to line up with less of what’s happening on radio or anything like that. I want to make a record that I’m really, really proud of from start to finish and is just, you know, feels singular– feels like only songs that I could write. Not like, “oh, that’s a really good pop song.” I’m not interested in that.

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