Rigby Summer Seeks And Finds Her Heart With Geography
Rigby Summer released her first full album, Geography, in the Fall of 2021, as the culmination of many years of work and soul-searching as well as taking part in various gatherings of songwriters and musicians over the years. When it came down to making an album, it was a difficult choice which songs to formally record, though the idea of tying things together through combining the concept of geographical space and the landmarks of her emotional life hung around in the back of her mind. It was only when she wrote the final song “Michigan” that the configuration proved itself and a collection of place-related and milestone-related songs took shape alongside an album cover that links them as a meaningful whole.
I spoke with Rigby Summer about her life in music so far, how she’s approaching a return to gatherings and touring, and the milestones in her life that have led to this album, including the essential role that performance has always played in her life.
Americana Highways: Is being around other musicians and taking part in songwriter groups something that refuels your tank?
Rigby Summer: It is to a certain degree and it’s something I’m trying to tap into again. I think it’s something I need to remember. I got to sit still for 15 months and took in some much-needed rest, but now there is some stress to getting back out on the road again to keep things moving. I feel like I have not been able to tap into just having fun doing music lately, even though once I’m there and doing a gig, I will always have fun. Even if I have a terrible week, the one night I’m on stage reminds me why I’m doing this.
But before the pandemic, we had a group for ten years running called Tuesday Night Music Club. On one hand, it was kind of a training ground for musicians, but it was also somewhere you went on Tuesday nights to hang out in someone’s living room and have fun making music with your friends. I haven’t had that for two years now. The normal outlets that I’ve had for just making music for fun have not existed. I’m traveling to Texas to take part in an event, though, where I can just make music and hang out. I think I need to get back to just having fun.
AH: That’s so true on a bigger level, even. We’ve had to be so serious about everything, for justifiable reasons, but it’s not normal to have to be serious for so long about everything. Good for you for getting back involved in that way.
RS: Not everyone loves being on the road. I’m one of the ones that does, though. I feel like a lot of what I do doesn’t translate until a person is in front of me.
AH: I got the sense from your music that you are a performance-first person and that’s been a driving force for you. Is that true?
RS: I love that you picked that up, because I would say that’s absolutely true. It took me a long time to own that music is what I want to do, which is part of what Geography is about. It’s been a freakin’ journey. One of my very early childhood memories was deciding that me and my best friend decided we were going to put on a “consert,” as you spell it when you’re six years old. I found the tape of this recently at my parents’ house. We made posters and charged a penny or something to get in. Our concert was us lip-syncing to a tape. It’s funny because this time around pursuing music came from the opportunity to produce a monthly songwriter round in the town where I live, Stillwater, Oklahoma. I grew really quickly and learned a lot quickly through collaboration with two other songwriters who were way further ahead in the game than me.
Just getting to play with them, and having time and space before the show to play songs, build rapport, and creating a space for people did that. Looking back on that early memory, I realized that what I wanted to do was not just make music for friends, but create something where other people could come enjoy it. Of course, I didn’t think about it back then, but the point is that it seemed very normal in my childhood imagination to do that.
AH: Where do these new songs on Geography fit into your history of songwriting?
RS: The oldest song that I wrote that I kept is “Kentucky” on the record. I still play it regularly. The person I first played it for got distracted half-way through a two-minute song and got up to check on something in the kitchen. I had never had the bravery to play my song for anyone else ever, so that one set me back. I was mortified. It serves as a reminder to me that when I meet people trying to share their work with me to do my best to handle it with kindness and graciousness because I remember what it was like to feel like I was not even in the room, let alone not at the table.
AH: By the way, I love that song, “Kentucky.” I’ve heard that there are many other songs, too, that you’ve written.
RS: Yes, I already know what I want to put on my next record. I just have to figure out the logistics of that. I’ve always loved writing and been a writer. I joke that I have adult-onset ADHD since I went from trying to write plays and novels to trying to write songs, trying to wrap it up in three minutes!
AH: To me, that is exactly what writing songs is like. I think it’s the hardest form of writing that I’ve yet looked at. I do feel like even talking about songwriting is difficult because songs are the most condensed, most intense form of writing.
RS: It’s interesting because you can go and see a film and be touched by it. Maybe you’ll even see yourself in several characters depending on how it’s presented. Or you can read a book and lose yourself in that world. But what I love about some of the best-written songs, and what I’ve tried to do in some of the things that I’ve written, is to try to write just enough that it feels like you’re getting a little window into my heart. But it’s small enough a window that people can still attach their own story to it.
For example, “Buy Me a Piano” is a song that comes from a very specific moment and conversation that I don’t even like sharing. But people who come up to me after a show to talk about that song have such wildly different stories of why the song touched them. So I know that it doesn’t even matter where that song came from for me, by my not putting too much of the exact situation into the song, it creates this situation where people can see themselves in something I’ve written. That’s really special.
AH: Plenty of songwriters don’t want to talk about the “meaning” of the song at all for this reason. It’s a definite artform, with a lot of artistry to it, and some of that seems to be about balancing between extremes and leaving a song open to the audience. Can you do something that means something to you as an artist, and yet leave it open to the associations that someone else might really need to bring?
RS: John Prine was a master of that, giving so much detail that you really feel like you are getting a window onto someone else’s life, but still keeping it universal enough. “Angel from Montgomery” is not by any means my favorite John Prine song, but there’s a reason that everyone and their dog wants to cover it. There are so many ways in which he paints such a clear portrait of the person in the song, but who hasn’t been in a relationship where they wonder how someone else can have nothing to say?
AH: How do you feel about playing original music versus covers at shows?
RS: The first time around in music, I was in my 20s, and I had a group of friends who would meet once a week to play music together. We didn’t exactly start a band, but we sat around and played covers. The covers we were learning were things most people didn’t know back then, like The Frames. We were learning weird indie music. But then I started writing, and they weren’t really interested in not playing covers. I started feeling like I was supposed to pursue music, but they all had day jobs. It seemed completely insane, since I was a realtor, but when I was 28, I had the opportunity to move out to LA, and I hung up my realtor’s license and closed down my business. I moved to LA, started working in a bakery, played open mics, and started busking on the promenade. I went somewhere else to totally reinvent myself.
Even now, when I play bar gigs, I find that even when people are really into your original music, they start requesting covers. I just talk back and say, “You’re going to get really disappointed, really fast. Let me tell you what’s on the menu. I’ve got three Merle Haggard songs because I love Merle Haggard…” But I also cover a lot of my friends, which, to me doesn’t even feel like covering since people don’t know the stuff.
But my standard cover that goes towards the end of my set is Brandi Carlile’s “The Story.” That was one of the first covers I ever learned fifteen years ago. I’d probably make better tips if I did more covers, but I’m trying to tap into the notion from corporate America that you don’t dress for the job you have, you dress for the job you want. I adopted that on my first album release run in November 2021. I played my record start-to-finish and told stories about every song, whether it was a listening room or a bar gig. I adapted it for the audiences, but I played the way I wanted to play, and people responded to it. That has been one of the most successful trips that I’ve had to date by showing up and doing what I wanted to do.
AH: I love this approach! I’ve heard various stories about how artists try to deal with this kind of pressure to play covers. But with Geography, this is such a significant amount of great material, it would be a crime if you didn’t play it. Is the song order important to you on the album or in live playing?
RS: When I played those album release shows, I played them in order. Even though they are not perfectly chronological, the last song on the record is actually the last one I had written before we started working in earnest on the record. I finished it a night or two before our first week in the studio starting to track things. As happens when you start working on a record, new ideas started filling my mind, and I kept turning up with new songs. Two of those made it onto the record because they changed the shape of the record.
I wrote “Michigan” after coming back from a trip to Michigan and we were still talking about what form the album was going to take. We had talked about doing it just as an archival approach, with me and my guitar, to push the songs out and make room for new material, but I had always had this idea of doing a geography-based record. But when I wrote “Michigan” quickly after driving home from my first Mid-West region Folk Alliance, I realized that this was going to be the geography album. The good news was I finally knew where we were going, the bad news was that it screwed up about half of what we had talked about doing.
AH: So did that realization totally change the song-selection process and how they are presented?
RS: Yes, almost universally every place-related song I’d written made it in. I also wanted all of these songs to point to very specific life-landmarks along the way for me. The third aspect of selection was that in 2017, when I had the opportunity to start making music again in a very real fashion that was beyond my wildest dreams, almost perfectly coinciding with that was the end of my marriage. So the other part of the selection process was that I did not want this in any way to be a record about divorce. Some of those songs may come along later, but for this one, I wanted place songs, and I wanted important turning points in my emotional geography, so to speak. That’s why the cover has a heart with a compass over it. That’s a very specific choice.
I also grew up loving listening to albums, including the music of the 50s, 60s, and 70s and I wanted Geography to feel like that. With the 70s, especially, we got really great albums. You can lie on the floor, light a candle, and listen to a whole Led Zeppelin album and you feel like you just watched a movie. I like having exposition, rising action, and a sense of emotions bringing you back to the beginning at the end. That makes you feel like you’ve absorbed a complete story.
Thanks for talking to us, Rigby Summer!
Find more Rigby Summer info here: https://rigbysummer.com