"Sometimes in order to set things right, you have to make a huge mess first" In conversation with Letitia Van Sant
We're big fans of Letitia VanSant's Gut It To The Studs record from February 2018, so we wanted to take the chance to speak to her about the writing and recording of that album. While we were at it was spoke to the Baltimore native about her hometown, equality in the music industry, and her new album.
Hey Leitita, So to warm you up, an easy question first, what have you been up to today?
Today I practiced guitar, cleaned my kitchen, had a conference call with a local community group, a phone call with my booking agent, lunch with my mom, and went to a weight lifting class at the local YMCA. So it’s been a pretty good day today!
And where are you right now?
I am on my front porch at my home in northeast Baltimore with my dog, Buddy.
Introduce yourself to our lovely readers, in case they don’t know you.
I am a singer-songwriter from Baltimore, Maryland. I try to write songs that ask important questions about our lives, both personally and politically.
Tell us a bit about you, what’s your first memory of playing music?
I played “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the guitar for my 3rd-grade talent show. I forgot to latch the case closed and when I walked out on stage my guitar fell out onto the floor in front of everyone. I was so embarrassed that I more or less stopped playing the guitar altogether until I picked it back up again in high school. Even then I was so shy that I pretty much didn’t play in front of anyone until I was well into my 20s!
Gut It To The Studs has been out just over a year now, what can you tell us about the album?
I wrote most of these songs while I was working for a lobby group in DC that worked on peace and social justice issues. One of the things that I took from that experience is that while we humans like to think of ourselves as very rational, in reality, most of our decisions are determined by our emotions, social connections, and underlying beliefs. With climate change, for instance, if someone’s entire social network and belief system is constructed around the idea that it doesn’t exist, they are going to second-guess any facts that you present to the contrary. I believe the arts are one window that we have into people’s emotions and beliefs. That concept was at the front of my mind when I was writing a lot of the songs on this album.
There are loads of great songs on the album, the title track is really brilliant, what can you tell us about that song?
As I mentioned above, I worked in DC for about six years. I loved the organization, but I decided at a certain point that I just wanted something different out of life. I left the job and moved back to Baltimore with my partner. Around that time we ended up buying a house that needed a whole lot of work. “Gut it to the studs” is a term used in construction for when you have to tear everything out of a house, down to the studs (the boards that hold up the walls) and start over again. What I learned is that sometimes in order to set things right you have to make a huge mess first. It’s both a personal and a political metaphor about getting your priorities straight.
And I really love the opening song, ‘Where I'm Bound’, what’s the story to that?
'Where I’m Bound' was inspired by some reading I did about John Woolman, an early abolitionist. Enslavement was such an entrenched part of the economy at the time that many people reacted to him as though he were insane. I need to find the exact quote, but at one point he said that he felt like he was walking through a thick swamp; he couldn’t see the path forward, only the very next step immediately in front of him.
We tend to think of the leaders of the past as sure-footed, confident visionaries. But in practice, leadership often means dealing with uncertainty - not knowing if you’re going to succeed, not knowing if you’re making the right decision. If we don’t like where the beaten path is headed, we have to get off of it and contend with that feeling of confusion and uncertainty, using our values to guide us. We might run into obstacles on the way, but that doesn’t mean that we’re headed in the wrong direction, it just means that we have to find a way over, around, or through them.
Which of the songs do you feel differently about a year on, if any.
I recently had the honor of watching a girl in the 7th grade do her own rendition of the song “Taking Back the Reins” for her piano recital.
I believe that people are at their best, most generous, kindest selves when they feel good about themselves, and I also believe the opposite is true. When people are doing things that are selfish, or mean, or don’t make any sense, often it’s because they feel like they have something to proves. This song is about how the battle for self-love is one we all need to take very seriously because it impacts nearly every aspect of our lives.
Watching this young girl made me remember what a difficult thing that was for me when I was in 7th grade. It’s a life-long journey!!
What’s your approach to writing (and choosing) songs to record?
I had previously recorded and performed with a full band, but due to changing circumstances that project came to an end. I wanted to capture a sound that would be similar to what I could replicate in a performance as a solo or duo act, so a number of the songs were recorded live with my friends Alex Laccquement on upright bass and David McKindley-Ward on lead guitar.
I can sometimes get stuck in my head with recording projects, so this time around I asked Alex to be the producer - he helped pick the songs, the studio, the musicians, and the arrangements.
The first batch of songs I came up with was almost all slow, sad waltzes! So I was pushed to write more. I wanted the message of the album to feel more uplifting and at least slightly more upbeat to listen to. Not sugar-coating or ignoring life’s difficulties but rather inspiring faith that we can get through them.
Can you describe the recording of the album for me, what was your process? And what was the studio like you recorded in? Did you personalise the space at all?
The process was so much about the people who were involved. I believe pretty firmly that the energy that the musicians & engineers carry comes through to the listener in some subliminal way. So I only work with musicians/engineers who I believe are really solid, thoughtful people, who carry the kind of energy that I want be around and put out into the world. I was so blessed that Alex decided to work on this with me. He put in so much time and effort making thoughtful arrangements, listening to mixes, making tweaks. Our engineer Don Godwin was the co-producer, and he likewise was so patient, so positive, so caring. I am very grateful to both of them. Tonal Park is a beautiful studio that came to feel like home over the course of the eight months or so it took to finish the project.
You’ve got a new album coming out later this year, can you give us any sneaky information about it?
Yes! This one was totally different. After having recorded Gut It To The Studs” I started to attend events, festivals, workshops, and otherwise participate more fully in the art, craft, and community of songwriting. I’ve learned so much, and am more driven to write better songs.
Now I feel committed to the idea that there is a creative higher power out there that is trying to share wisdom and healing with us through songs. The songwriter’s job is to capture it, to really dig down and find the truth of what a song is trying to say. For this album, I pretty much only included songs that felt like they were “given” to me, that forced their way out of me, rather than the ones that I feel like I needed to “write” in order to share a particular message.
I was eager to record but didn’t want to get bogged down with all of the scheduling and the angst of the process, so this time I went to Nashville to work with a producer named Neilson Hubbard and some session musicians. My philosophy for this one was “if the vibe is good, you can’t go wrong.” A lot of the songs were recorded live in two or three takes without a lot of nit-picking and the whole thing was done in about a week’s time. Neilson was a dream to work with and I’m very excited to share the final product with the world!
I’m fascinated by American towns so I wanted to ask what your hometown is like?
Oh my gosh - where to start! This is a gross oversimplification, but I’ll do my best. Baltimore is a port city on the Chesapeake Bay. After World War II there was a huge influx of white, Black, and Native American families from the South to work in factories. However, when industries moved overseas, these working-class communities were left high and dry. In addition, Black people have faced discrimination and divestment in housing, education and virtually every aspect of life. When Martin Luther King was assassinated this anger boiled over into riots, and many white families got scared and moved out to the suburbs. Nowadays the city is 63% African American, and it continues to be very segregated.
In the US most people think of crime and blight when they think of Baltimore. The most common narratives tend to blame black communities for these issues, instead of pointing the finger at the real culprits of white supremacy and capitalism.
While the suffering caused by these problems can’t be understated, they have fostered rich, thriving ecosystems of activists and artists at the grassroots level taking advantage of both the physical and mental space that the former industries left vacant. People have moved into old warehouses and turned them into studios, galleries, and gathering spaces. Some people say that this contributes to gentrification, others say that it helps us experiment with alternative ways of life. Unlike cities like New York, LA, Nashville, or DC where there is cut-throat competition to get ahead coupled with high living costs, there is more room for people to breath and grow in Baltimore. It’s a small community and you run into the same people everywhere. Baltimoreans are authentic if nothing else, and they can smell a phony from a mile away.
One of the primary endeavors of my life has been figuring out what it means to have been born into a position of white privilege in this landscape. My views on this continue to evolve, but right now I seek to support efforts that are led by the communities who are directly impacted by racial and economic injustice, and I seek to challenge white supremacy within myself and within my community.
Great answer Letitia! So what else is coming up for you in 2019?
I’m getting married and I’m going on my first tour to the UK and Europe in September!!
Obviously there’s a lot of talk about equality in general at the moment, what’s your experience of being treated differently as a woman in your industry?
I’d say that I’ve suffered from internalized sexism, feelings of unworthiness, and imposter syndrome more than outright discrimination.
For instance, because I didn’t grow up seeing many women who were virtuosic guitar players I never really was inspired to develop my chops for lead guitar. In informal jams, it’s very common for women to get passed over for solos. Because I’m rarely asked, I don’t feel the same pressure that men do to cultivate my ability to perform.
One time I played a show with Larkin Grimm, and was helping her do her sound check. A well-intentioned guy came up to me and said he was a professional sound engineer and offered to help. I was about to oblige, when Larkin said “Letitia’s got it- thank you.” Afterwards she told me “Never let a man take your tools!” The fact that he came up to offer very subtly and subconsciously made me feel like I was unworthy of the task. These microaggressions towards women get compounded over the years.
In our culture men tend to more naturally think themselves worthy of the spotlight, whereas women tend to think “why would anyone want to hear from little old me?” I’ve had to do many years of changing my thought patterns through affirmations and even a little therapy in order to overcome my feelings of unworthiness.
I also have struggled a lot with body image. The stereotypical female singer-songwriter who gets attention, gets celebrated, is young, tall and thin and beautiful. The fact that I don’t exactly fall into that category has made me question whether I should play music at all.
Our culture also tends to render women more and more invisible as they age. All but the very top eschelon of performers tend to drop off the radar as they reach their 40s and 50s and the market finds younger women upon which to lavish their attention. In addition, it’s difficult to thread the needle of having children while living life as a touring artist. Some heterosexual men get away with it because their wives stay at home with the kids, but some female musicians throw in the towel when they have children. It makes it difficult to envision a career that progresses over the course of decades.
Have you felt a change at all over the last couple of years?
I’d say women have taken the reins of the Americana world in a big way over the past few years, but the genre still has enormous blind spots when it comes to including people of color and transgender individuals. This is a critique that I also level at myself - I often struggle with questions of how to move forward my own career while simultaneously supporting artists of color and transgender artists in pursuing theirs.
I often see “women’s nights” of songwriters that only have white cis women on the bill. The response is often “well I just don’t know very many people of color who play this kind of music.” Our concepts of genre were racialized from the very beginning, and they continue to silo our perspectives. I think we need to open up, to be more attached to finding good music with integrity than sticking exactly within the confines a genre.
What i do think is changing is that at least some circles are noticing that representation matters, particularly in children’s storybooks. Children need to read stories with heroes who look like them, so that they develop their own sense of power and agency and possibility. This has changed so much since I was a kid and I think it’s going to make a difference in how the next generation of womxn carries itself in the world.
Who inspires you?
Rihannon Giddens has navigated the landscape of an industry and a genre dominated by white men (and women) with such grace, intellect, and courage. It must be very difficult, but she has inspired and educated thousands of people.
If you could recommend one artist to hear this week, who would it be?
The two best shows I saw all year were Amythyst Kiah and Brandi Carlile. Both are incredibly powerful vocalists, songwriters, and performers.
What’s the question we should have asked you today but haven’t?
Two things that I believe are foundational to me as both an artist and as a person are a) my family and b) my connection to Quakerism.
I give thanks every day for having such a wonderful family. My mom was a psychiatrist, my dad was a teacher. They are both very kind, generous people and I know that my life would be completely different without their support.
I started attending Quaker meeting when I was in high school, and attended on and off through college. While the community is in the process of confronting the workings of white privilege in its midst, I am also grateful for how it fostered in me a spirit of deep questioning and reflection as well as a strong interest in equity.
Finally, how do you take your coffee?
No sugar but plenty of cream!
To find out more about Letitia you can visit her website. She's also available across social media.