Heather Styka may be a fairly new New Englander but you’ll be hearing more about and by her before too long. She bid adieu to Chicago and made herself comfortable up in Portland, Maine which is a real hotbed for contemporary singer-songwriter / folk / acoustic / stringband / you name it music. Heather’s last CD, Lifeboats for Atlantis, moved up the Folk-DJ charts to the #3 position when it was released. Nothing to sneeze at for sure. Her sound is original; her lyrics and song storylines are creative; and her music is inspirational.
For more information about Heather Styka, visit her website.
You’re lucky: here’s an entire set by Heather which took place at the FARM (Folk Alliance Midwest) in 2012.
Heather will be playing at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on Friday, September 20.
So what’s the transition from Chicago to Portland, Maine been like? A good move?
I’ve lived in Portland for about three months now, and I’m in love with this town. I grew up near Chicago and spent the past seven years living in the heart of it, so I was ready for a change. As a former resident of a very big city, I’ve been really surprised at how much Portland has to offer as a much smaller town. On any given day, there’s a strong chance I’ll run into friends on the street; it’s very interconnected, especially in the music and arts community. And I simply cannot get over the fact that within a fifteen minute drive I can be walking along rocky shoreline on the open ocean. A half hour drive and I can be hiking in the woods and mountains. Portland has a little of the best of everything and is a welcome change of pace — even if Chicago is still one of my favorite places on the planet. Haven’t found anywhere in Portland to get legit deep dish pizza, but I’ll be touring back to Chicago often enough to get my fix.
How would you compare the two music scenes?
Chicago’s music scene is as sprawling and densely populated as the city itself. The Chicago music scene has so many scattered pockets, though I know a lot of good folks who work hard to bridge gaps and strengthen community between separate communities, genres, and venues. Portland has an absurdly high degree of talent circling about in a much more compact community, and it’s also very incestuous. Everyone plays in each others’ bands, or has previously played together; every major show in town feels like a big ol’ reunion with all the usual suspects coming out to show support. It’s also very welcoming. When I arrived in Maine, I had a few dear musical friends — Putnam Smith, Connor Garvey, Sorcha, Randall Williams — but since moving, my musical circles just keep rippling out exponentially. People get excited about newcomers. And as far as genres go, indie rock and folky roots seem to be on the rise in Portland, so I feel right at home amongst it. I do miss being in close proximity to Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music though — there’s no institution quite like that anywhere.
I‘d love more about your creative process. Are you one who beckons the muse to help inspire or do you work on the songwriting craft like a regular office job? Can you sit yourself down and write?
I couldn’t keep the muse down if I tried! Sometimes I’ll write at will, like an office job, but the best tunes usually happen when I’m least expecting it. If I’m driving in my car, going for a walk, or feeling at all introspective, it’s likely that a song will show up, as long as I’m listening for it. I used to be very prolific, writing a song or two a week. These days I still write often, but most tunes end up on the cutting room floor before they get very far. It’s very easy for initial ideas to come to me — and very challenging to turn that idea into a tightly crafted tune that deserves to be heard. That’s where the real effort (and fun) lies.
Do you have any instances of any songs that haunted you for a while before they were actually born?
I keep plenty of notebooks of half-developed ideas for me to revisit. Some years ago, I was driving through Nebraska when I saw a woman standing in her doorway, off in the distance. There was something about her stance, her arms crossed, that felt heartbreaking and solitary like an Andrew Wyeth painting. Years later, I started singing this chorus that began, “Pray for me, Sarah, I don’t know what to do. It’s getting hard to wake up in the morning.” And eventually I decided those words were coming from that Nebraska woman in the doorway, and the story of my song “Lucy and Sarah” was born. That one hits me hard, as the narrative concerns depression and mental illness — but it’s also a very hopeful song about the power of friendship. The song was tugging on my sleeve until I wrote it. Since then, I’ve had so many people thank me for having told that story, because they felt it was also their story.
I understand that you were greatly inspired by U2 and The Joshua Tree when you were young. What was it about that album that opened up your creative spirit?
Ah! I was thirteen and had a major crush on a guy from Ireland, who introduced me to that record. I’d play “With or Without You” on repeat every night, mostly because I was hormonal and in love. But in all seriousness, I’ve always been struck by Brian Eno’s production, how these simple and atmospheric layers build up to an emotional climax. What appealed to me in that album is what speaks to me still today — lyrics that are unexpected but also straightforward, honest, vulnerable. And there’s a certain philosophical soul-seeking quality that hit close to home for me, with tunes like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Do you have one or two songs that you’ve written that you are especially proud of?
Lately I’ve written a handful that are very short and simple. It took me ten years to write something decent under three minutes, so I’m excited about those, including a new-ish song called “With the Moon”:
I’ve also been proud of my tune “Prairie Song,” which tells the story of my grandmother moving from the farm to Chicago, from the point of view of her own mother. My grandmother had told me more details about that transition shortly before she died, so it was important to me to share her story. And now that I’ve moved far from home — away from the big city, but the impulse is the same — I have a new, strong connection to that song.
What’s up next for you? Any plans for a new project?
I’m going to be touring quite a bit through the Northeast and Midwest over the next year, and I’ll be recording the next album starting in November! Lifeboats for Atlantis came out at the end of 2011 and did pretty well for me, so I’ve had ample time to write new material for the next record and to be very picky about which songs will make the cut. So that’s exciting!