Recently Roughstock’s Matt Bjorke had the chance to sit down and discuss music with Lilly Ray recording artist Becky Schlegel. Over the course of the conversation Becky discussed how she got started in the music business, the computer and the internet and the inspiration behind some of her songs. Oh, and she also told a funny story about Garrison Keillor and how, despite being a traditional-sounding artist, some of her current favorites are mainstream artists.
Matt Bjorke: Thank you for sitting down and talking with us today.
Becky Schlegel: You’re welcome.
M: So how did you start in music?
B: Well, when I was a little girl I sang all the time, I loved to sing. When I was five I took piano lessons and figured out you could play without having to read music. It was pretty liberating, you could play and sing at the same time. I wanted to be a singer. I got involved in my mom’s Country Western band and play VFW halls.
M: How long did you perform before you wrote your first song?
B: For years. You know, I feel like when I finally started to write, that’s when I was ready.
M: What did writing that first song do for you?
B: I couldn’t sleep for two weeks; I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. I was so excited that I wrote another song the next day, another song the next week. Because we were actively in a bluegrass band at that time, I would immediately take it to the band, we’d work it up and a day later we were performing it. It was great timing as far as that goes. I really didn’t have time to sit down and think “is this a good song, should we do it?” So, you know, all of the sudden the banjo, mandolin and fiddle would play. It was exilerating?
How would you describe your sound now that you’re solo?
You know, maybe more of the softer side of bluegrass. Some of it sounds very country, some of it sounds Americana, some of it sounds traditional. I think it’s a little bit of a soft sound, not that real driving bluegrass.
B:You moved to Minnesota from your home in South Dakota when??
I moved there in ’93 and in 1994, I bought a banjo and started playing in bluegrass bands and jams.
M: A lot of people don’t know that Minnesota has a diverse music community, how does that help an artist like you who was starting?
B: It’s huge, because you can go anywhere around town and hear all kinds of music. I wish I’d gone around more. That’s where I get inspired, to hear people perform songs. The more I listen to people play, the more I want to go home and write. The (twin) Cities have a large bluegrass population, it’s a nice city if you want to play bluegrass.
M: As you know, I was very impressed with your album “(For All The World To See).” I had no expectations but was.
B: Thank you so much. That was a nice review. It was so flattering, because we don’t know how people are going to react to it. So, thank you.
M: I was so impressed with it I wondered “why isn’t she on Rounder?”
B: Yeah, it would be pretty dreamy to be on rounder. Brian (Fesler, her co-producer) and I started our own label a couple of years ago and it’s working so well. We’re lucky.
M: Since you have your own label, you’re probably in tune with the internet?
B: Well, Brian handles that. He’s the business guy; he’s really a genius at that, a real business man. I’m lucky. I get to write songs and play and show up at the gigs
M: It’s probably very helpful to you?
B: It’s been very helpful to me because a lot of the business end of it can be very complicated. There’s a lot to it, more than you think. There’s a whole team of people, the publicist, the distributor, etc.
M: What are your thoughts on the computer and the internet and their role in your music?
B: well, ten years ago (1998) I got my first computer; I sort of used them before in High School but not the internet. In 10 years’ time look what’s happened. I think it’s remarkable; it’s such a pioneering time. It’s so great, so wonderful for the business end of music, at least the business end we’re involved in.
M: how do you think helps an artists such as yourself, someone who’s working on a grass-routes level.
B: The biggest thing I use it for, obviously the internet, but the word processer, when I write, I write down all my ideas, and they’re there, I can shift things around. It’s a great writing tool, it’s huge for me, it’s better than free hand, and it’s so fast. So that’s what I use it for.
M: what do you think of websites like myspace?
B: well, my sister in law who’s 10 years younger than me, approached me a couple of years ago and said “ ou need a myspace” and I’d never even heard the word. Myspace has been a really fun tool for me. You can talk to fans, interact and search for friends from high school, it’s fantastic.
M: What do you think about digital distribution?
B: Well, you know, any way you can get your music out there and get it heard, in my opinion, is a really great thing. And then the hope is, for me, that they’ll like it enough to buy the (physical) album. I love to read liner notes. I guess any way you can get the songs out there, is really great. It’s so quick and easy.
M: You’ve played “Prairie Home Companion” a few times. Do you think the exposure from there has helped you as you build your career nationally?
B: I’m certain that it helps in some ways. Somewhere somebody heard your song and they want to buy your album. They want to know more about you. Getting to sing with Garrison Keillor, is great. Live radio in general is so fun, to see how it all works.
Do you have a Garrison Keillor story?
B: Well, uh, He changed the lyrics to a song so they were funny. It’s really amazing some of the stuff he comes up with. He changed a song we were going to sing as a duet to “Oh, how I love to sing with Becky Schlegel.” So we talked about it and we were gonna go out and sing it, in front of the curtain, before the show started, not on air but just to the audience, he wanted me to memorize the words. For some reason I was nervous and I think he knew I was nervous so he said “I’ll memorize the words and you can just sing the chorus.” But when we got out there, he forgot all the words. But he made up a completely set of lyrics to the song, which all revolved around me.
M: Like an improv comic.
B: Yeah, exactly.
M: Where do your song ideas come from.
B: They come from all over, maybe I’ll write one about you (laughs). If a little hook catches you, you can create something from it. Whenever I lay down at night or am just relaxing, they come. it’s work to actually get up to write it down or record that riff you have in your head.
M: Your first national single is bound for Tennessee. What was the inspiration behind that one?
B: I wrote it for my sister-in-law. She graduated from high school and then really wanted to move to Nashville and she did. For me it was like living out the American dream. So she did it, and I wrote a song for her.
M: One of my favorite songs on the record is “Jenny" (listen) It reminds me a lot of Dolly. I wonder what inspired you to write it?
B: That story, to be honest, started about my sister-in-law again but I don’t know if it was started around the same time as “Bound For Tennessee” or not but you know how you can start writing and have five ideas for one song become five completely different songs. The first line was about her. But when I decided to finish the song, I had to really change the whole story, and I started thinking about what it could be about then I came up the line: “I’d give up my last penny just to give these words to Jenny.” So it’s completely made up but I guess my view on it is a guy had to leave to find work somewhere.
M: You know, I could hear a male artist singing it.
B: Yeah, it was actually written from that point of view.
M. I Don’t know what artist would do it…
B: Tim McGraw. (laughs). You know, Brian and I actually joke about.
M: He is a mainstream artist with the credibility and ability to do it.
M: Ok, since we’re on the subject, who are some of your favorite artists (past or present?)
B; I love Big & Rich. I’m a huge Big and Rich fan. My husband, somehow, got into Toby Keith and Big & Rich. So I’m a huge fan of both. I really like almost everything I hear. You know, who I really like is Jypsi. I think they’re really fantastic, I love that 3-part harmony.
M: What is your favorite song on the new record?
B: Um, I feel like It changes from day to day, I like them all or else I wouldn’t have recorded them (laughs). Probably “Lonely.”
M: Is that your favorite one to play live, too or does it change?
B: My favorite one to play live is “bound for Tennessee.” It just has a good feeling. But I do love performing “Lonely.” If you have a really good mic and the people are quiet and really listening, it’s amazing.
M: Who are some of your favorite musicians?
B: Brian. I don’t know where I’d be without him. He’s such a great musician. Also my band,
M: What’s your favorite venue to play?
B: Prairie Home for sure would be, I’d love to play there every week. Also the “Midwest country theater,” It’s sort of the “Grand Ole Opry” of Minnesota. They have people that want to play traditional country music; they have a house band that’s great. It’s on the RFD network.
M: Why do you think that acoustic music doesn’t get the credit it should from people?
B: It’s some of my favorite music, so I don’t know. I know growing up my friends wanted it ‘loud.’ Country music is constantly evolving.
M: What do you think when some people call some mainstream artists ‘not country?”
B. It’s all personal taste. With some music it’s probably harder for people to listen to because it’s not what they grew up on.
M: Becky thanks again for your time.
B: Thank you.
Talking with Becky Schlegel was like talking to an old friend. She has that quality that makes one feel at home, even in the sometimes awkward world of interviews. It's the same down-home charm that came through on her album "For All The World To See." The record can be found for sale at her website, many places online or at a local music store.