TRS: You from Memphis?
TI: East Memphis
TRS: You start singing in church?
TI: Yep, sang in the choir. Never soloed, really. I used sing around the house all the time as a kid. We had to make a no singing at the table rule.
TRS: Because you couldn’t stop?
TI: Apparently. I don’t remember it that way, but I guess so if we had to make a rule about it. But, I didn’t really sing in front of people, because I would sing around the house all the time and all my brothers would be like, “Shut up! You suck!”
TRS: Did their derision impact you?
TI: I’m the baby and the only girl, so I was in la la land for a very long time. I always wanted to sing and I wrote stories that I bound together with little hair ties.
TRS: Did your mom and dad sing?
TI: Oh, no. Nobody in my family other than me and my brother who’s just older than me, Thad. He used to drum for me in my first band. No one else on my mom or my dad’s side.
TRS: Really? So, who gave you your first guitar?
TI: My first guitar was when I was seventeen. My parents bought it for me off of a friend.
TRS: You taught yourself?
TI: I had one lesson when I was seventeen. I always had this block about it, because especially in the Christian culture there’s, like, this singer/songwriter in a coffee shop stereotype and you had to be really good at guitar if you’re going to play guitar. I didn’t make myself learn. I was like, what if I’m not good enough? So, I had one lesson when I was seventeen.
TRS: So, you just knew some chords and never really bothered much more with the guitar?
TI: No, I never really even knew chords.
TRS: Then how did you begin to garner this interest in becoming a singer/songwriter?
TI: Basically, when I was seventeen, eighteen years old the first guy I ever dated was a musician. He was in a Christian band.
TRS: So, would you say your music has a Christian bent?
TI: Yeah, I think there’s definitely a very strong thread that runs through everything that I write.
TRS: Which is a very roots country music thing.
TI: Yeah, a lot of those things are engrained in me as a part of a legacy my parents have left me. It’s taken on a different form in me as an adult, but I love what they passed down to me. It was definitely more traditional than how I live my life now, but what they passed down has become the foundation and basis for how I live my life.
TRS: At what age did you decide to give singing/songwriting a real go?
TI: I was dating this guy, my first boyfriend, at seventeen, eighteen years old. He was a musician, he introduced me to Patty Griffin…
TRS: Your first boyfriend was at eighteen years old? Were you a good girl?
TI: No. Braces were an improvement for me when I was a teenager. (Gestures her face) It took a little while to get this together. But, the brace-face years are why I’m funny now. So, he introduced me to Patty Griffin and my whole life changed. I’d never heard anyone write like that, I’d never heard a songwriter write lyrics that were so honest.
TRS: Any other influences, anyone who’s been on constant play over the years?
TI: Other than Patty, Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Simon’s Graceland. All my brothers, who are all older than me, I grew up with the music they listened to, which was, like, Pink Floyd and Rage Against the Machine, and my parents were into Simon and Garfunkel and The Carpenters and stuff like that, so, it’s kind of all over the place.
TRS: Were your parents like Christian hippies or…
TI: No, they were very conservative. They met at the BSU, Baptist Student Union, at Memphis State. They got married when they were nineteen. You know, very typical ‘60s, ‘70s southern Baptists. They didn’t play cards growing up, weren’t allowed to play cards, dance, you know, like, SOUTHERN Baptists. It’s funny because I don’t remember music ever really being a huge part of their lives, except for, like, the Gaithers, which is like deep gospel music. So, most of the music I found was because of my brothers.
TRS: Was there anything in your house that was taboo, like NWA or anything similar?
TI: My parents grew up conservatively but they were a lot easier on us than their parents were on them. My two older siblings, once they got older didn’t really get with the church anymore, but my parents, no matter what happened with my brothers, cuz they were hellions, my parents were like, this is where you belong, and you always have a home with us.
TRS: What made you want to leave?
TI: Well, I grew up until I was twelve in Memphis. My dad used to work for a bank, and the bank relocated to Tampa. So, my immediate family moved to Tampa where I was from twelve, to eighteen, nineteen. Then I moved away on my own to Nashville. I lived there two years.
TRS: Were you gigging there?
TI: No. I wanted to do music, and that’s what I told people I moved there to start doing.
TRS: What were you doing instead?
TI: Freaking out about my life.
TRS: What were you freaking out about?
TI: I basically moved because when I was eighteen my oldest brother died. I couldn’t be home anymore, in our house, around his car. Everything reminded me of him.
TRS: You guys were close?
TI: We had an interesting relationship because he was the oldest. We’re eight years apart, but I had gotten old enough to finally start having a friendship relationship with him. I had a couple years where he and I got to connect a lot.
TRS: Then a Nashville freak-out for two years.
TI: I was basically running away from life, and giving a big “fuck you” to God. Because up until that point everything had been explainable, I had this constructed world around me. And when he died everything crumbled. Nothing had ever happened before then that I couldn’t explain or that someone smarter than me couldn’t give me an answer to. So, I was just like, “well, I’m out!” I kind of just ran away. I auditioned for and got accepted to Belmont in Nashville, it’s super-duper expensive. My parents don’t have money for that and, I was gonna try out for a scholarship. I went up there to check it out, and see, and… Can we off-the-record this?
TI: Everyone was douche bags!
TRS: No, we’ll keep that on the record. That’s what I’m hearing about the Nashville music scene.
TI: It was just the worst! Most people that I met who either graduated from there or was going there, it was all, “Well, who do you know?” Or, you’re someone’s daughter, or you’re someone’s niece or something. It’s just this hardcore drive to get a record deal or to get to know someone who can get you a record deal. So, I get there and I was like, this is some bullshit! I don’t want to be anything like any of these people! Why would I pay so much money just to be put into a machine and popped out on the other end looking just like these people who I think are disgusting?
TRS: This is exactly what I’ve been hearing about Nashville. I ton of “country” music gets produced from there but it’s so weak and over-produced that they should just call it pop music and not tag it with “country” at all.
TI: It’s a formula. You have to have the hook. You have to have the drum fill, and whatever it is that’s popular, like a “hey-ho” or claps, or whistles. Whatever it is that’s super popular right now people have to jump on it. Everything has to have it. People ask why I left and I say it’s because Nashville is so vanilla. It’s been so crucial for me to be in New York, because the diversity here is like creative heroin. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like trying to figure out who I was as an artist and as a person, and figure what the fuck had happened to me when I was a kid, you know, if I had stayed in Nashville.
TRS: So, what brought you to “fuck this bullshit, I’m going to New York?”
TI: I started going to this church. The youth pastor and his wife basically became my mentors, and they were planning a church in Manhattan.
TRS: Around this time you found your reconciliation with your faith?
TI: We’ll say I started back at zero. I did a redo. Let’s start back over and try to build this house again from the ground up. (gestures toward her person) It wasn’t a secret that this was a mess. My mentors were the first people who weren’t afraid of that. Especially, because in the church, if people couldn’t give you an answer, then that scared them about themselves and it fucked with their reality of what God is like. People are like that. They want it to be just so, and they want to be able to have the answers and sometimes things can get a little hard, but they can use a simple verse and everybody’s going to feel good about themselves at the end of the day. Basically, my brother killed himself. He was very into drugs, alcohol. He was bipolar, which back then, 1999, 2000, in the Christian community no one understood that.
TRS: Had he always had problems with depression?
TI: Yeah. I found out a lot of things after he died. Because I was the baby I was very sheltered from anything that was going on with him. He stayed at Memphis State when we moved, then about a year later he moved down to Tampa with us. And I just thought, man, he misses us! Or I guess he’s done with college. He had gotten very into heroin and was about to go off the deep end. He had no other choice but to leave Memphis or die. The first time he had tried to kill himself was when he was in high school.
TRS: How old was he when he died?
TI: Twenty-six. It was a long, long difficult road for him. After he died, finding out so many of these things that didn’t make sense to me, a big thing for me was why is my life so good, why do I have so many good things? Why is it so easy for me to have a good day and for him just to have a good day was impossible?
TRS: During freak-out time in Nashville was there any drinking, drugs for you?
TI: I never did drugs. I mean, I’ve smoked weed. I never did any drugs other than that because of him. I watched him decay from it, basically. I actually did not drink at all in Nashville, strangely. Everything was bottled inside. I didn’t know how to process, or even be in a space where it’s like, oh, yeah, I’m not doing well at all. I was just at a numb default. I wouldn’t even recognize myself back then. I’m very emotional, let’s talk about our emotions, let’s feel our feelings, like heart to heart, you know! And all of that goes into my songs and stuff now. Back then all I knew how to be was sarcastic and very cutting. It was just fun-times Trisha, basically. If people around me were expressing any sort of emotion, I didn’t want to be around it. It’s funny because if I see someone looking sad or upset now, I’m like, let’s talk about it! But then I was sarcastic to the point where I hurt people. Sarcasm was my defense mechanism for everything. Slowly over the course of the time that I was there, my mentors chipped away at that diligently.
TRS: They made you a mission?
TI: They’re very open people. They were very open handed with me. They never made me feel like if I didn’t change or listen to what they have to say, or reciprocate vulnerability that I would be a disappointment to them. It was just one-hundred percent selflessness on their part. I feel like whenever people do that, and really give to you and require nothing back, especially when I knew I was not an easy person to be around, you realize you just want to be a part of whatever their doing. And that’s what happened with me moving to Manhattan with them. I didn’t move here thinking I’m going to do music! Yeah, I’m gonna kill it! I’m gonna learn guitar! I was just kind of like, well, I do have this strange feeling that I’m supposed to move to New York, so, I guess I’ll go with them, and I guess I’ll see what happens.
TRS: So, music wasn’t on the docket?
TI: Only helping them start the worship at the church. For the first three years that I was here, other than for the church, I did no music at all.
TRS: You still weren’t learning guitar?
TI: No, no, no. I’ve been here for nine years. It still took me a while.
TRS: So, by most people’s reckoning you’re a New Yorker now.
TI: At ten years.
TRS: Right, but it’s a safe bet you’ll still be here next year. Do you feel like a New Yorker?
TI: I do.
TRS: One of the reasons I find the southern/country scene in Brooklyn fascinating is because I moved up here having stepped off the proverbial bus believing that in two years I’ll be a novelist, a New York writer. That was six years ago. For most of us who come here the first few years are isolating and alienating. We’re going it all alone. But, you guys, and when I say “you guys” I mean faithful, spiritual, those with a church community. You guys come up here with a support system, like you did with you mentors. Why I find that fascinating is a) you’re not trapped by the gravity of the South. You were able to escape your hometown. And hopefully you guys are bringing the best parts of the South, leaving bigotry, racism, fundamentalism behind you. B) Establishing such a community is how Chinatowns start, how Little Italys come into being. So you guys get to have a leg up, a place to stay with someone in your church network, job opportunities within and whatnot. Do you see that here, do you see a southern community in NYC?
TI: I think it took a couple years, before I started meeting new southern people. I moved here with fifteen other people that I knew, including my mentors.
TRS: Sounds like a commune.
TI: Exactly! It’s the best way to move, I’ll tell you that much! Just pack everybody’s shit in and share a truck. I didn’t realize until a couple years in and I started to meet new people that had come here alone how lonely… I mean, it was lonely for me… I cannot imagine how people survive moving here without a support system, a family unit like I had, where if you don’t have anywhere to live, there’s a couch. It’s a credit, a hundred percent, that I’m still here due to that fact. I’ve been broke so many times as a musician. I’ve had people throw a hundred bucks in my bag, or throw me a catering job, or letting me crash on their couch for a month. It’s much easier when you feel like you’re not going to fall very far.
TRS: So, there’s been less fear for you here.
TI: I’ve definitely gotten a lot ballsier in my thirties. Like I said, most of my teens and twenties were spent being afraid of everything. Example, I’ve always wanted to go sky diving. I’ve never gone sky diving, because after my brother died I was so afraid to hurt my parents. If something happened to me, it would absolutely send my parents over the edge. It was just so much fear. I used to have panic attacks. This one time I had a panic attack in Macy’s. I mean, thousand-count sheets everywhere around me! Egyptian cotton! And I’m having a panic attack! About, like, one of my other brothers, I felt like something was happening that I don’t know about, like something may have happened to them and I’m not being told about it.
TRS: Nothing was happening to support these fears, just the notion would get stuck in your head and you couldn’t unwrap your mind from it?
TI: Yeah, just this over whelming sense of dread and “what if something happens to another one of my family?” It was like living under a very thick, heavy blanket of fear for a very long time. I didn’t know how to be happy. I didn’t even know that I was still sad. I remember at one point things were going really good. I was dating this guy and he was really nice to me, and I really liked him. I had a good job, and a great apartment. Amazing friends. I remember him on this one day, and he looked so sad. I’m like, “what’s going on with you?” And he’s like, “I just don’t know why you’re so sad, and I don’t know to help you or make you happy.” It was just this light bulb epiphany moment. I am still sad. It had been ten years at that point. I didn’t know how to let that go and be happy. One of the driving forces behind me doing music was being on stage. I feel like the only place since my brother died where I am not afraid is on stage.
TRS: And, so, still there’s been no actual secular venue. It’s just been church singing. So, what was your first non-church musical outing?
TI: Probably my first band, circa 2009.
TRS: What was the name?
TI: The Ivys. It was basically just me. How this all came about was I used to work on yachts at Chelsea Piers. I used to be a stewardess for this billionaire couple running the interior of their yacht. Terrible, terrible job! Great money, terrible job. I worked ninety hours a week. I worked there for four years, and it was getting like, am I going to do music or not? I had a couple friends that I met here that were legit musicians. These guys also sang in church but they had legit bands. I noticed people would associate them with music and call each of them a “musician.” But they didn’t associate me with music. “Oh, that’s Trisha, she’s a nanny. But she sings in church, too.” Who I was to them was not a musician. That was the first thought that sparked a wildfire that has brought me here. Because I wanted that. I want when people talk about me to be like “the musician.” Not the nanny who kind of sings and does music on the side. So, basically, I thought to myself, what do they have that I don’t? What do I need, what are the steps? Which was very disciplined of me and thought out. I’m generally not like that. It’s not a part of my nature. So, basically, I just wanted it. I don’t know where it came from, but I wanted it bad enough.
TRS: So, you got together with those two musicians.
TI: I made a list. This is what they have. They have an album of songs that they wrote. So, I need songs, I need to record, I need a band, and I need to play out. Those were the main things that they had that I didn’t, which was, like, everything! I didn’t have any of those things! So, I worked my ass off for the next three months on the yachts.
TRS: Had you been learning guitar, yet?
TI: No! Still had not learned to play guitar! I worked my ass off on the yachts for three months, saved, like, sixteen thousand dollars. One of the guys I knew in Nashville, a producer, who was the first person who was ever like, “I want you to write music. Let’s try to write music together.” And I didn’t even know my ass from a hole in the ground at the time.
TRS: You were never even writing any songs, either?
TI: Nope! But that guy, Mitch Dane, I called him up, and said, I got sixteen thousand dollars. Can we make a record? I don’t really have any songs, but…
TRS: You saved sixteen thousand dollars? In New York?
TI: I lived on the yacht, as well. I had no expenses, and was working ninety hours a week.
TRS: So, you’re calling dude in Nashville saying can we do this, when there’s no guitar playing, or song writing?
TI: I had just gotten together with one of my legit musician friends, Eric James. I asked him, “Can you help me? I want to learn how to write songs. I just have pages of poetry, basically.” He helped me get started, but he had his own record deal and stuff going on. We started with three, four songs. Then, I talked to my producer friend in Nashville, and was like, this is what I have, partial songs. Is that going to work? He said, just bring ‘em up here. So, I basically took a few partial songs to Nashville and recorded a six song EP. The last song we wrote the day we recorded it. It’s actually one of my favorite songs. Still did not play guitar, still did not write songs by myself. I knew that I wanted to do music, but I had no idea what kind of music. I had no idea what I wanted to look like at all.
TRS: And these songs can be found…?
TRS: Do you like it?
TI: I think it’s a very crucial part of the evolution of me, but it’s not very me. Only the one song that I wrote on the day we recorded it, it’s called “Smoke,” I love it. It’s one of my favorite songs to this day that I’ve ever written.
TRS: Do you still play it?
TI: Sometimes. But, so, I came from Nashville with this album of songs but no band! And I’ve never played out before! So, I wrote my brother, Thad, and a bunch of my friends, I didn’t know very many musicians at the time, to learn these songs and to play with me. And some covers to fill out a set.
TRS: Who were you covering?
TI: Shit, we actually did a Guerillaz cover! That was interesting.
TRS: Now I’m picturing you with dyed hair, ratty t-shirt…
TI: Yeah, it was very like that. Zipper pants. I had a mullet-ish kind of cut.
TRS: Not country.
TI: No, not at all.
TRS: So, where is the turn? What gets you off your ass to learn guitar, and having learned guitar when did you become country?
TI: I do things a little backwards. Like recording an album before I have a band. I got The Ivys together and we started playing out, at, like, Fat Baby’s…
TRS: Fat Baby’s?
TI: Yeah, have you ever been there?
TI: It’s just a hole in the wall!
TRS: Were these open-mics or booked shows?
TI: It wasn’t open-mic. The guys that played with me, they had little bands that played out. So, they had played at some of the hole-in-the-wall dives in the Lower East Side, like Fat Baby’s. So, we played there. We ended up kind of gaining some momentum.
TRS: How did you feel on your first time playing with this band, your first live show?
TI: I loved it!
TRS: No fear?
TI: No, it was very strange. I wasn’t as comfortable, because it wasn’t MY music. I mean, those were my lyrics, they mean something to me, but I felt like I was faking it til I make it. We played out for a year. Then I became very serious about it. Other members had bands, families, or other jobs, and on my end I had decided I want to do country music. Doing the pop rock thing never felt right. I found myself going back to Patty Griffin over and over again. Remembering the first time I heard a song of hers, I want to write music that makes people feel the way her songs have made me feel. I tried to keep that notion in a box for a long time. And did not, for some reason, want to call what I really want to do country music. Because, in my mind, you’re that Nashville cookie-cutter pop if you sing country music. And I was like, fuck that shit! That’s the last thing I want to be. I didn’t know there was Americana, folk, etc. I didn’t know anything about that kind of music yet. I knew Patty Griffin. I just held onto her for so long.
TRS: At this time you weren’t seeing much country in New York?
TI: No. No one did country. Nobody had anything to do with the Americana/country music scene. Despite that, I got rid of my band. I was like, I want to do country music, and none of you play pedal steel, right? None of you play upright bass, right? So, I’m gonna let all of you go, I love you, don’t be mad at me, but I’m going country. So, I was asking around for players in Brooklyn, and I ended up meeting The Lone Bellow guys before they were the Lone Bellow Guys. I basically got my songwriting start from Brian Elmquist. I went up to him one day and said I want to learn how to play guitar and I want to learn how to write music, can we do that together? But he never taught me how to play guitar! We just got together and wrote songs, and I wrote lyrics. He came up with chord progressions and I sang stuff.
TRS: So when guitar!? I feel like you’re about to tell me you just learned yesterday!
TI: Ok! I started writing songs for real, finally. Like, songs that I still play, actually. Brian and I were playing out as a duet. I loved it, I loved it! I felt like this was it. I can be honest, I can be vulnerable. The voice of my soul is country music. Then I felt like I have to be able to do this on my own. I have to stop depending on other people. We had these great songs, and I couldn’t take these songs and play them by myself. I still needed someone else. The more I wanted to become a musician in my own right, the more I felt I can’t have my music hinging on someone else. I took some time off from Brian, and on my thirtieth birthday my brother got me a ukulele, and it was basically my gateway instrument to guitar.
TRS: Ukulele is easy, then?
TI: Yes. It’s just so small and cute! You put just one finger on the string, and, oh, it’s a chord! And it doesn’t matter what strumming pattern you use, everything just sounds right. I didn’t feel intimidated by it. The first song I ever wrote by myself was on the ukulele. It was “Talking In Your Sleep.” That was a year and a half ago.
TRS: So, you’ve only been playing guitar less than a year and a half ago!?
TI: I got the ukulele on my thirtieth birthday, so, yeah, it’s been about a year and a half.
TRS: I seriously thought you had been playing since you were little!
TI: That’s awesome! Thank you!
TRS: When I first started supposing at who you might be, seeing you around Roots Family for a year, I would have guessed you were just a couple years in Brooklyn, but had been singing and playing guitar all your life. And I saw you as less a New Yorker, because your album, Cotton Country, is so very contemporary country. Yet, you’ve been here for nigh ten years. So, in this country music vein of yours, has Brooklyn made its way into your songwriting yet?
TI: It’s more that I have the freedom to write the country songs I want to write here. I don’t feel pressure at all to write something that has to sell. I don’t feel pressure to write something that has a particular tagline about a truck. There’s no drive for conformity here. There’s very little freedom in, say, Nashville, creatively. It’s very conservative there. For me, being here, being surrounded by people who don’t think the same way that I think, or believe the same things I believe, that makes the creative process for me so rich. Because, here I’m not afraid to have a crazy thought, or write something that’s against a religious belief that I feel or hold. There’s a song on Cotton Country called “Song of the Whippoorwill” and I was almost afraid for my parents to hear it, because it’s very questioning in a lot of ways about god and what his response was to my brother’s death. In New York, I’m not afraid to do that, to be a little grittier, a little edgier. I can ask questions and write something that’s not perfectly in line with some kind of belief. And no one’s telling me things like, “you have to write a song about whiskey now.” Or you need to write a song about trucks now, you know? I can just write whatever. There’s no filter. I can just feel whatever I’m feeling, and it’s alright. I think that is a direct repercussion of having all this diversity around me, and hearing the thousands of stories that are nothing like mine. I think that it breeds honesty. You know, there’s that weird thing in the South that’s like, if you don’t believe what I believe, that’s threatening. That’s ridiculous.
TRS: Last question. I ask myself this near daily. You’ve started you music career proper just after thirty. You’re gigging, working a day job, playing for tips, and whatnot. When is enough enough?
TI: (laughs) What’s my cut off date? You might be asking the wrong girl, because I don’t believe in a plan b. I think if you have a plan b then you don’t have much faith in plan a. That’s gotten me as far as I am. The only thing that makes me happy is doing music. I feel like everyone who has done something great has had to sacrifice far more than they thought they would. I’ve done event planning, because I’m super good at it. I’m really creative and, yes, it’s a creative outlet to plan these crazy events with, like, live animals and whatever. When I was doing that, every single event I would do, I was like, “I am the shit! I have made fire!” All of this amazing shit and everyone’s like, this is amazing, and I’m killing it! Every single time I’d look over at the band I had hired. I would wish that I was them. In the midst of all my glory, I would wish that I was in the band that no one was even listening to and playing music. I feel like if you love something, let it kill you. So, I think I have a lot more couches in my future!