Austin-based musician and vocalist BettySoo is known for both solo projects and collaborative work, for example in the trio Charlie Faye and the Fayettes. But now she has joined forces, in another trio, with Rebecca Loebe and Grace Pettis. Calling their new band “Nobody’s Girl,” they’ve got an EP coming out Friday produced by Michael Ramos (Kris Kristofferson, Jon Dee Graham, John Mellencamp), and are embarking on a tour in support. I had a chance to talk with BettySoo recently about this new enterprise.
AH: Rumor has it that the three of you co-wrote two of the songs together overnight your first night working together, and a third a day later. How did that happen?
BS: None of us could have anticipated that. It’s challenging enough writing by yourself and never knowing whether you’re going to keep what you’re doing on a given day. You really never know when you’re co-writing with other people whether the chemistry is going to work. We were extraordinarily lucky, with the personalities we have and most importantly, we share same approach and the same ideas about what we think makes a great song. There was a really lucky combination of factors, and we were a really lucky grouping.
AH: You can’t assume the muse will come just when you want it to?
BS: No, never! And at the same time it wasn’t exactly magic, though, because it was definitely work. We were hammering through each line and editing together. The thing that feels so lucky is that we were so often in agreement about what was good and what wasn’t.
AH: The song “Waterline” has a lot of layers to it. There’s an austere but literal reality to a physical high mark after a damaging flood has receded. And there’s also a metaphorical component about survival after really any kind of trauma.
BS: It’s very encouraging how many people connect with and understand that song. I don’t ever expect people to connect with lyrical meaning on one listen. But a lot of people have, with this song. We have had a number of people come up after a concert, having not heard it before and tell us how much it has affected them. Rebecca had this idea of the metaphoric concept of “Waterline.” And I grew up outside Houston so I grew up with hurricanes and flash floods and there was Hurricane Harvey last year; you can see the physical waterline from that right now on people’s homes. And it makes you think about the human spirit, and the hard things that are beyond our that control happen, and the way you still have to get up in the morning and be a responsible human in the world afterward. We mined a little from my own divorce, and other difficult events that each of us have survived.
AH: “Bluebonnets” is such a Texas song. Anyone who’s lived in Texas knows that spring comes and there they are, everywhere. Why did you choose to sing that song?
BS: That song was written by our friend Raina Rose from Austin. She writes beautifully. It’s interesting because her version is quite different from our interpretation. We thought it’d be a great song for Grace to sing. And we thought the song hadn’t been mined in an Americana direction yet, and also liked it because, as you said, bluebonnets are such a Texas icon. For anyone who has spent time here in the spring, the idea of a bluebonnet immediately draws to mind that season of life here. The story of that song is in that season of life. It can be harsh, and it can be about renewal. And it can be both beautiful and challenging.
AH: “Riding Out The Storm” is another song on the EP. Is there a political layer to that song?
BS: Yes, that’s a great reading of that song. It wasn’t initially an intentional nod to politics, but of course that is percolating as we were writing. Very often I will write a song and then a year or two later, I’ll realize the full meaning of the song. Because so much of what you’re writing comes out of your subconscious, that even when you intentionally thought you were writing about topic A, later on it’s clear that you were also writing about topic B. So topic A for that song was the life of a troubadour. But topic B, the politics, was there underneath.
AH: Earlier this year, you originally called yourselves “The Sirens of South Austin,” how did you branch from that identity into “Nobody’s Girl”?
BS: We had so much fun with that idea. That name, “The Sirens of South Austin,” came about because we were trying to name a tour, and we though it’d only be a couple weeks. We thought the thing that unifies us is that we all come from the same city, and even more than that, from the same part of the city. And we thought there is something about South Austin that does really pull people, and lure people. And we liked the idea that we were trying to lure people to our shows, like the mythological Sirens might have.
But as soon as we got the record deal with Lucky Hound we realized we needed a band name. We agonized to come up with “Nobody’s Girl.” And of course there’s a nod to Bonnie Raitt’s song in there.
After that process we swore we would never make fun of anyone’s band name again. Because it’s hard! It’s hard to come up with one that represents everyone.
AH: There is a long mystical and mythological history about the power in the number of three. Is three a magic number?
BS: (laughs) I do think three is a threshold. To have two in agreement is eminently doable. But to find harmony and agreement among three, there’s more challenge involved in that. And I think other people can feel that. It takes more harnessing for three people to be on the same page. People are so often collaborating together in Austin, and, there really is something transformational that happens when you bring in a third person. There are so many dynamics that are completely different with three than with two. And if you hear something special in good three-part harmonies, that is the audio representation of that very thing.
AH: All of your songs have very specific unique rhythms rhythms. How important does this make your rhythm section?
BS: We were so lucky to have that rhythm section on the recording. Sometimes when you’re working on a song, it helps to try it with different rhythms. And when you hear it with the right one, you know immediately. And that was definitely a part of our songwriting process, so it’s also so important to have a bass player and a drummer who understand and get it too.
AH: What was it like working with producer Michael Ramos?
BS: He was great. None of had worked with him in that capacity before. He’s a total pro. He came in with a lot of ideas, he was great at directing the band. It was funny, he gave us the nickname “the tank,” because he said when the three of us were united against an idea, it was like going against a tank. We liked a lot of his ideas but once in awhile we were sure that we didn’t want to make the change he was suggesting, and when that happened we were so definite.
AH: What’s coming up this fall?
BS: [We talked just before this event. Although it has now passed, it’s so interesting we are leaving it in the interview.] I am doing this show on August 31st: “Girls Who Do Boys Who Do Girls” named after that Blur song. It’s an Austin tribute to Austin songwriters. I get 16-20 songwriters together in one venue, and each of them sings just one song. The lineup alternates male/female and everybody is singing one song by the next songwriter coming up. It’s amazing because you see all these all these polished professional musicians get so nervous because they are about to perform a song they just learned by a person who’s in the room. And it’s all really fun and magical. All the money goes to the SIMS foundation here in Austin. We have people like James McMurtry, Bonnie Whitmore, it’s a really fantastic lineup.
Betty Soo was at the Americana Fest in Nashville, although the trio couldn’t make it. Betty Soo performed with both Charlie Faye and the Fayettes, and also with Bonnie Whitmore; and at Tim Easton’s “Campfire Propaganda Day” party.
Nobody’s Girl’s EP Waterline is out 9/28 on Lucky Hound Records, and then fall tour starts for Nobody’s Girl. Check here for tour dates.