Seth Glier – Interview

Carly Kutsup: What led you to pursue a career in music?

Seth Glier: Well, I was a very precocious middle child. I was the middle child of my older brother, who was born with autism and lived non-verbally, and my younger sister. Performing was the first thing that happened naturally. Maybe, psychologically, I was looking for some gratification and feedback, but I really attribute my brother to why I got into music. Once I dove into music, I just loved singing. Living with my brother and loving someone who was unable to communicate to the world outside of our family unit, we had our own language in a way. It re-instilled this sense of what songs are for and how they can be used to amplify voices that could use the amplification, like marginalized voices. So, that has become a large part of why I continue to do it, but I think why I started was I was amazed at what would happen consistently when I’d walk into like a bar. For example, I’d walk into a bar when was 13 to play and everyone was like “You’re not supposed to be here.” There was just this energy of you don’t belong here and then as soon as you started playing music, people changed. People completely turned around and I’ve continued to experience that around the world throughout half of my life so far. That never ceases to amaze me.

CK: You mentioned you have been China and that you’ve been to a lot of other places. What other places have you been with your music?

SG: That’s the greatest gift that music has given me… the ability to travel the world. For the last few years, I’ve worked as a consultant with the U.S. State Department and basically operate as a cultural ambassador. They have taken me to China, Ukraine and Mongolia where I learned throat singing. Right before COVID, I was going to be going to Mexico for five weeks.  That has all been postponed and we’ll probably pick some of that international travel up next year. I’m a big Stan Rogers fan who is kind of like the Woody Guthrie of Canada, which is a good way of describing him. I went to Nova Scotia several times, which is the birthplace of Stan Rogers, and it’s the furthest most eastern point in North America that you can get to without getting on a boat and going to an island. It’s an old fishing village that turns into a 40,000 person music festival for a weekend. All the locals are volunteers at the festival. It’s places like that where I would never in my wildest dreams have ever showed up here if it wasn’t for music. So, music has brought this richness of travel into my life, but it’s also brought this richness of friends, colleagues and fellow troubadours that it makes me feel very full.

CK: With the traveling, what is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned both personally and musically?

SG: Good question. Personally, it’s something that I’ve really only begun to learn, but the sense of when you are showing up in a room and maybe there’s some anxiety, like someone knows something that you don’t know or you don’t know anything. I’ve had this experience in the Ukraine where I was with really proficient jazz musicians and that is a weak spot for me in music, but I’m learning that you are a hundred percent prepared and ready to be in the room with whatever knowledge you start with. I think one of the things that musically that has helped kind of bring that home is collaboration because when you’re making music with another person it’s this constant disruption to your thinking pattern. It’s an exploration. You have to listen. You have to make space for them. Oftentimes you have an agreed upon form of what we’re going to play, but it expands, and it evolves. It’s the most democratic thing that I practice. I think that there’s a lot to be learned about diplomacy in music. There’s a lot to be learned about relationships playing music with another person. It’s all there.

CK: What inspired the latest album?

SG: I’m an adult child of an alcoholic so when there’s chaos around I turn on in a way that in previous years may have not been constructive, but as the coronavirus hit this country back in March, I had this kind of deeply held belief inside of myself that humanity was right around the corner to figuring it all out. Like we could realize this whole separateness and these boxes that we put each other in that it’s completely make-believe. Then I started seeing society sort of more compassionate and generous than I’d ever seen it before. I started writing this record in a way as an invitation to the new world that we need to now build now. It’s almost as if we got an x-ray over our society and we got to see where all the broken parts were and they didn’t fully heal, and now we know all of that. I felt like my job changed. What shifted in the pandemic is I went from kind of following the Woody Guthrie people before me and thinking of my job as needing to document stories and try to tell those stories to feeling like my job as a songwriter was much more focused around having to imagine a new future that was the work of artists. That was kind of my meditation practice throughout the making of it, which is trying to build a world that didn’t exist yet.

CK: What does the songwriting and producing an album process look like for you? What is your typical flow?

SG: I try to write every day. I’m like a Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages on the couch back here. Then I try to get a sound and a lyric. That happens all at once. Sometimes, the sound is like cooing out language and other times it’s the language that just sort of falls right into your lap because someone said something. Other times it’s articles that I’m reading, but for the most part the production aspect of my world has really come out of necessity. I’ve been home and I’ve kind of had to figure out how to do it myself for the most part. What I’ve found over the course of several years is that they’re constantly feeding. There is writing the song and then there is producing the song. I feel that sometimes they weave together, but for the most part I’m someone who thinks “If I need the computer to play the song, I probably need to write a better song.” The Libman’s test for me is it must work on guitar and on piano and then production is more of an augmentation of that.

CK: Would you say that being a producer makes you a better artist?

SG:  No, sometimes not. I would say that being a producer makes me a better listener. This year I’ve been producing projects for other artists, which has been really liberating because objectivity is a very difficult thing to maintain when I’m working on something that is my own over the course of several months. I think that ultimately what I’m trying to do is kind of capture a moment in time and inevitably listening back to that you’re in a different moment so it’s hard. I feel like my job predominantly is just trusting the process and continuing to remind myself of that.

CK: Other than Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Brown what other artists would you say have had a great impact on you and your music?

SG: Oh man. Well, I would add to that list of legendary notables Randy Newman, who is a big influence for me. I became aware of his artist career in college. He was the first person that gave me permission to write songs about things that weren’t happening in my own life and to kind of approach it a little bit more like a character actor would. Then in the more intimate influences of some of my mentors and peers: Livingston Taylor being the one who really pushed me and learning “The Great American Songbook”. There are also some of the great lyricists like Hoagy Carmichael and Yip Harburg… “I’d be friends with the sparrow and the boy who shoots the arrow if I only had a heart.” It’s just so good. That was a big influence. Ellis Paul was another huge influence and then most recently the singer-songwriter Susan Warner has been really kicking my ass in piano and it’s been challenging me to learn Bach and just push myself.

CK: You’ve shared the stage with James Taylor, The Verve Pipe, Edwin McCain and Ani DiFranco. What has been the most memorable experience out of all of those and who would you like to tour with in the future?

SG: Oooh. Well, I got a great t-shirt at the end of the Ani DiFranco tour. It was a black t-shirt that just said, “Dip me in chocolate and feed me to the lesbians”. So, that’s pretty memorable. I really loved sharing the stage with Chris Christopherson. That was a really magical night, and he is a hero of mine. He was so generous and kind and it was great. We were out in the middle of the ocean. We were on a cruise leaving Tortola so I no idea where we were, which is also fun. Regarding who I would love to tour with… I would love to be around John Baptiste right now. He’s the most exciting thing and so musical. I know a few folks who are working with him, and they have nothing, but amazing things to say. I think that that guy’s tethered to lightning right now and he’s an ambassador in in every sense of the word.

CK: Where would you like that tour to take you?

SG: Oh man, let’s see. The only continent I have not been to is Africa and so there’s something. One of the bucket list things for me is Alaska as I’ve never been to Alaska before. I would love to go back to China. I don’t know if the government will let me, but I would love to go back there. I met so many incredible musicians. It was just some of the warmest kindest personal exchanges I’ve had in a really long time.

CK: Other than the guitar and piano what other instruments do you play?

SG: My first instrument was trumpet, and my lips just couldn’t keep up with it. I played drums a little bit, but it’s predominantly piano and guitar. I can play some bass, but I’m certainly not a bass player.

CK: How did you come into producing your own material? Was it something that you had always wanted to do or was it the pandemic?

SG: Necessity being the mother of invention, I couldn’t afford a producer with the first record. I was in college, and I would play some session work for others. I played on a Richard Shindell record and a couple of these other folky folks out of Boston. Instead of getting paid I was like, “Hey. Can I just maybe get some gear that you’re not using?” I still have a headphone amp here that I got from a session 10 years ago. So, I did start kind of acquiring stuff in that way. Then my best friend Ryan, who was playing guitar with me at the time, and I just figured out how to make things work using YouTube videos and stuff like that. We didn’t necessarily know the rules, but we experimented. Then I got really lucky in 2001 when an album that I recorded in my parents’ basement got a Grammy nomination for engineering. That really kind of just changed everything and then I got some real gear. But that’s not to say that I don’t work with other producers. On this record I’ve collaborated with several people. Ryan Humble being one of them. Some stuff I produced myself. Alex Wong is another person I collaborated with. Bill Lefler in Los Angeles. I love their work and we respect each other and that’s why we’re wanting that collaboration. Also, it’s difficult to produce my own song sometimes, especially as you’re working on it for six months. Objectivity. I’ve always had people that I trust who are kind of right in the wings that I can sort of bounce something off of and they can either say you need to dial this back or keep going. Those are kind of the best things a producer can say

CK: What would you say is the hardest part of producing if you’re producing for somebody else?

SG: I would say the psychology aspect of it. It’s probably 75% psychology and not a lot of music. I think that we, myself included, need to grow into new territory, and that has to happen as an artist. That’s inevitable and that growing can create anxiety and fear: “What if people don’t like it?” “Do I like it?” A lot of things that don’t actually matter end up permeating the space and I think that only amplifies the longer you’re working on something. There’s that old Buddy Miller adage which is “Anyone can make a good record in three days. You can make a great one in two.” So, you’re trying to capture a moment and be prepared for that to happen. Even in myself there’s this song on this album called “Poison in the Roots”, which I wrote here not intending it to be a duet. It was a song oriented around Black Lives Matter and the racial justice movement. It naturally ended up turning into a duet with this incredible singer named Everett Bradley. He put his voice on it as well congas and some hand and body percussion, which was super cool. Then he sent it back to me and it was kind of a new song. I then put keyboards on it. By a few months in we had this thing that was like a Motown song meets Swedish pop-like club banger. It was just so bizarre. I had no reference point for that in my music up to up to that point. I was just going with what felt good. Then as we needed to try to finish it, we had to start identifying things like “What is this?” and “Does this fit?” That’s a hard lonely road.

CK: USA Today compared you to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. What is your reaction to that?

SG: I got the Billy Joel thing for a long time, and I was late to Billy Joel. I think it’s the piano playing thing. I’m a huge Springsteen fan and I just really love the character that he’s created for himself. It comes back to kind of my hero Woody Guthrie… what are songs for? Bruce is putting these social and political issues that are right now, but he’s putting them in the lives of other people that you learn about, and you learn to love and understand their complexities and dualities. I think that is one of the greatest powers of song more than any other medium. I mentioned Yip Harburg earlier before, who was the lyricist for “Wizard of Oz” and he has this line which is, “Words make you think thoughts, music makes you feel a feeling, but a song makes you feel a thought.” There is something that happens when lyrics are met with music and it’s the fastest way for me in my life to get into the emotional interior of what’s alive inside. A song takes me there faster than a painting or ballet or anything else. Not to not to undermine those things, but you could be driving, and you have to pull over. Not many forms of art make you do that.

CK: With the pandemic, as you know, concerts were put to a halt and instead everything went virtual. Musicians had to rely heavily on social media more than ever to get their music heard. How has that has impacted you as well as the music industry as a whole?

SG: So, I don’t know if it’s totally affected me in general. I’m not the biggest fan of social media, but what did happen is I ended up building out a live stream set up here. This is a little 10 by 16 garden shed that I built over the summer and then we installed a couple cameras. When I do a live stream here, my wife sits here.  We’ve got five cameras throughout the shed. She’s editing the cameras together. We’ve all learned new skills.

The biggest thing that has changed in my life with the pandemic is my Patreon page. I started Patreon about a year before the pandemic. I went to Orlando to play the Hard Rock Cafe and it was the beginning of a summer tour. I had paid a ton of money for flights and hotels throughout the summer, and I didn’t have enough money in my bank to get the rental car. This was three years ago. From the outside looking in, I looked successful, but I was in a situation where I couldn’t get to the next gig. I knew I needed to create a more sustainable model and I started the Patreon page. Then, throughout the pandemic, I’ve seen the overwhelming generosity and support of fans coming onto that platform. I personally think that it’s the ship that a lot of us musicians were building as we learned how to sail through the storm. It’s really transformed my creative life. It has allowed me to make smarter choices and better creative choices as well.

CK: Would you say it was it’s easier in some ways to reach your fans that may not otherwise be able to attend a show or concert?

SG: Yes, absolutely. A lot of the venues that I play are not handicap accessible. They have not been updated and they don’t have the resources. What I’ve been discovering is that the people who are coming into live streams are also a group of people who I may not have been able to communicate with in a live setting before. Sometimes it’s about mobility issues. Other times, it’s people who are raising kids and raising a family. They want to stay connected, but they’re not going to go out to the Hard Rock until 11 o’clock at night and stand. So, all of those things I think are real positives. The way that I look at it and talk about it is it’s a farm share model. I don’t know what vegetables I’m going to go pick up this this week, but I paid the farm $150 at the beginning of the season and that made a huge difference for them. Those five dollars makes a ginormous difference to me in my life.

CK: How does growing up in Massachusetts have an impact on your life and your music?

SG: Good question. Well, fall in New England is something I’ve talked a lot about and I’ve written a lot about. It’s the bright goldenness of the dying of things that it calms me down and anchors me. It reminds me that of just the cyclical nature of seasons.

I grew up in a town of about a thousand people and that gave me a sort of protection and installation that it was a very safe place to express myself. I got got a lot of support of family and community members who were encouraging me. It was also too small for me to stay there. Although it was a small town, I think there’s something quite formative about small towns and as much as I have done the New York, Nashville and L.A. thing, I love being in a city where I can go out to a bar and I’m not really talking shop with anyone. Instead, I’m sitting with a contractor and a mason worker. There’s something about Holyoke, which is where I live now. It used to be the paper capital of the world in the 50’s and then that dream went away. It’s just like America. There’s people who are wanting that dream to come back and they’re holding on to it, and then there’s other people that are going “No, we don’t make paper anymore. Let’s do something else.” I love being a part of that. I love being in that dialogue.

CK: I read that you are an advocate, especially in the autism community. I also watched your TEDx talk, which brought tears to my eyes. You also said that “Compassion, just like fear is contagious.” What do you say to those who are struggling to find compassion, especially those who have faced unbelievable amounts of adversity due to this virus and all that it revealed about others?

SG: I would feel your feelings. As a straight, white guy, I am really trying to not tell other people what to feel about their feelings, especially if they’re being marginalized. I think there are resources. I think music is one of those things that helps people feel less alone and it’s certainly done that for me. I’m asking myself those same questions. I am both really inspired at times by some of the added compassion that I do see in our society and then I’m also really kind of in a sense of remorse and questioning like “Have we learned anything from all of this?” or “Have we learned enough?” or “Will we learn enough soon enough?” I don’t know the answer to those questions, but the only thing that I can do is try to find a way of living my life in some sort of balance and service to others and that does alleviate something.

CK: What other causes are you compassionate about that you try to raise awareness for?

SG: I’ve been an advocate for Autism Speaks, but I’m not necessarily part of any particular organization right now. I think the closest thing that I get to in doing that work is some of the State Department trips that I do. For me, I’m really proud that I get to kind of represent maybe a different part of this country than other people might be aware of when they think of what the United States is. I take that responsibility pretty seriously and on a lot of those trips we are looking for ways of creating soft diplomacy like having a performance at a university for children with special needs as opposed to the club in town. I think a lot of it comes down to artists’ responsibility on like where are you directing your resources and what are you supporting in just continuing to go. I’m spending a lot of time examining that and trying to make you know more sound decisions there as opposed to latching my wagon to another organization right now.

CK: Do you think that schools, especially with working with the U.S. Department, would be better with pathways where kids learn a subject through their strengths or through music rather than just learning the subject straightforward?

SG: Yes. I was someone who was expelled from school for playing music in the hallway. I am a big fan on working with the individual’s strengths.

Maybe, I don’t know if this is connected to it, but I was sitting in on like a Zoom town hall meeting last week because the police department in my town is considering their new budget. They’re reducing their budget by 10%. Of course, activists on one side are saying “We need to abolish the police.” Folks on the other side are like “We actually really don’t have a problem with our police department.” So, this is not about necessarily what any ideology you’re coming with, but the conversation for over the course of three hours just kept ramping up and kept becoming noisier and noisier and pushing people more to their sides and people got more isolated. Then someone from the community stood up and said, “I’m afraid that language is broken.” I thought about that, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I think that I’m hopeful that music might be a way through, and it might be a way back to each other because whatever we’ve learned in school is no longer working in regard to our general communication with each other. I’m definitely hopeful that it’s going to be the arts that might help save us.

CK: If you were to get involved with the state department of education how would you present maybe incorporating music or other forms into other subjects?

SG: We just did this actually. I wrote a song back in March called “Till Further Notice”, which was inspired by the language. I was seeing the signs everywhere that said “Closed Until Further Notice” and then that language ended up coming into me sitting at a piano and then there is the passing of John Prine, and it just felt like this thing that was in my head and that was cerebral was right now all of a sudden on the shoreline.

With the Department of Education, really through the Bureau of Cultural Affairs and Education, we created a course curriculum to teach English as a Second Language, but through idioms of songs. I had a couple metaphors. One was “keeping the wick of hope lit until further notice” and breaking that down. We basically translated this course into 40 different languages and sent it out to educators through the State Department’s connections. I helped get it off the ground and then I ended up having a really joyful meeting where I didn’t know what to expect, but I got to see all these students who were talking about singing along with the song. Music and memory have a strong connection. It’s more things like that that really they make me optimistic. The State Department’s piloted that program with my song, but they’re now doing that with several other songs featuring several different queer and Chicana artists and doing the same kind of program.

CK: What do you hope people get out of your music as well as your advocacy for those who are more vulnerable in society?

SG: My takeaway is just that it that it kind of sticks with them. I don’t expect anyone to examine their life, but maybe it looks something like calling someone up that haven’t talked to in a little while and forgiving them. I think it’s little things. I think it’s really really small everyday acts of magic. Maybe someone’s thinking a little bit differently about where to put their resources. I think all of this stuff kind of stems from gratitude. That’s at least for me. I’m not going to try to shame anyone into doing anything that doesn’t work, but I think that when we get a sense of just how lucky we are to be here it’s quite effortless to be compassionate to others.

CK: Lastly, if someone wants to pursue music as a career what advice do you have to give them?

SG: I think one of the things that has helped me out in the last 15 years of doing this is that I really think of it as a trade’s profession, kind of like a plumber or a carpenter or any one of those kinds of things. What I mean by that is you kind of have to be a jackknife to just survive and it’s going to require so many different skills that might not be just music.  For example, there might be a pandemic and you might need to get into producing for other people or teaching voice lessons or taking voice lessons. Just remain open and remember that you what you know but there’s a lot that you don’t.

Interview by Carly Kutsup. Photos courtesy of Seth Glier.