BettySoo Returns To Recording with Anthemic Cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” (SONG PREMIERE/INTERVIEW)

Austin-based singer/songwriter BettySoo is part of the power trio Nobody’s Girl (including Rebecca Loebe and Grace Pettis) who have recently released a self-titled LP, but she’s also been spending recent downtime working towards her next solo record, expected in 2022. Meanwhile a couple of meaningful cover songs celebrated her return to a studio after many months and the powerful results have been the release of cover singles “Ain’t Living Long Like This” by Rodney Crowell, and today’s debut of “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” by Richard and Linda Thompson.

BettySoo’s journey through 2020 and 2021 has included perplexing pauses both in her inclination to write songs and in her ability to speak or sing, but the triumphal return of both brought her plenty of observations about creativity and identity. Her explosive return to the studio with her live band to record these covers of songs laden with personal meaning for her took the form of a celebration and produced surprising results. I spoke with BettySoo about her new single, “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” and much more below.  

Hannah Means-Shannon: It seems like there’s been a fair amount of songwriting going on for you. I know that you and Rebecca and Grace write in person together when you can. How much is songwriting a part of your life usually?

BettySoo: Nobody’s Girl hasn’t been doing much writing together because we write for the group and we do all of these counter melodies and stacked question/answer harmony parts. Without the ability to do that in person, it just doesn’t work or feel natural for us. We generally get together and talk and catch up before we dive in and it’s out of those real friendship conversations that our songs tend to have their genesis. 

The first four or five months of lockdown, I really didn’t write much, which was very unusual for me. Usually when I’m home from touring, I just sit down and write, and enjoy it. I’ll write something every day, whether it’s a couple lines, some ideas, or a draft of a song. It was very weird to be at home for so many days in a row and not feel like I could enter that practice. Then, after a number of months, it was like I had never stopped. I just started writing again. But it is still weird for me to be home! 

HMS: This interruption of rhythm in peoples’ lives caused a lot of havoc. It’s like cabin fever, when people are cooped up in the winter, and find they sleep all the time or can’t sleep at all. It does weird things to the mind and body. 

BettySoo: Exactly. I remember six months ago or so having a conversation with my partner about what intelligence is. There are all different kinds of intelligence and we settled on the idea that intelligence in any field is the ability to observe patterns and anticipate based on those patterns, whether in woodworking or academia. But so many of us feel we are living in brainfog is because all of the patterns are gone. With this schedule-less, amoebic existence, life feels so formless. Without that pattern, our brains don’t know how to be their smartest. 

HMS: When your writing came back, did you notice any differences in it?

BettySoo: I don’t know yet. I think I’ll need to look back in a couple of years and see how this experience has penetrated my writing. I’m a bad judge of that close-up.

HMS: Are you someone who writes down impressions or phrases as you go?

BettySoo: I do make lots of notes and take lots of memos, but I’ll be really honest and say that I’m really undisciplined at revisiting them. I’m actually such a believer in the idea that almost all of our best problem solving is subconscious. I feel like the act of writing it down or making that memo, if I don’t revisit it, might mean that I never write that exact thing. But I do believe, deep down, that it’s still adding to things and going into the soup. 

HMS: You’re making me feel better because I have so many bits of paper, old notebooks, old sketchbooks, and I never look at them, but I don’t regret making them. But I agree that you’ll know what the right material is at the right time and you can’t force that into some kind of yoke.

BettySoo: Sometimes it seems like the songwriting act is a prescient thing that foresees events that will happen in our lives and I think that there are things we are processing subconsciously that we don’t even know about. At the time it can just feel like a fiction, and sometimes it is, but it’s interesting to me. 

HMS: When it comes to these two singles, first by Rodney Crowell, and secondly by Richard and Linda Thompson, I heard that these really stood out to you and inspired you during the pandemic. Was that more on the conscious level, or do you think it was subconscious, too?

BettySoo: At first, I didn’t even realize what I was playing. I was revisiting old albums that I loved in my record collection, and both of these songs are ones that I’ve always loved. I’m one of those people who will keep a CD in my car for five years and not mind listening to it every time I get in the car. Some of my friends make fun of me about this. I’ll play a song on repeat and I’m kind of like a nine year old that way. 

But these two were part of a handful of songs that I’d play over and over again until one day it struck me, “Duh! It could not be more straightforward why you need to hear these songs right now.” I thought, “If these songs are doing this for me, then I have to see if they do that for other people, and hopefully they do.” If nothing else, there was just the release of being able to play them together with my band once everyone was vaccinated. It’s kind of like the saying, “Dance as if no one is watching.” Well, record as if no one is listening. We cut them live on the floor to see what would happen, and knew that if nothing else, it would feel really good. 

HMS: I’m guessing that when you talked to the other band members, they were pretty excited to get going and record something. 

BettSoo: Yes, it was probably the least efficient use of studio time in the history of music making. We could not stop interrupting the session to talk and joke. In terms of studio time, we wasted so much time, but we needed it.

HMS: My friends seem to agree that if you’re trying to catch up with someone who you haven’t seen in person since 2019, start with a one hour minimum of constant talking before you can even move on to other discussions. Were there other songs that you recorded in that session?

BettySoo: We just recorded these two, and I didn’t think about it too hard. We didn’t consider strategies, though there were a number of songs that I’ve listened to a bunch over the past year. One day I just thought, “I’m kind of feeling like doing this.” So I texted the band, and everyone felt like doing it, so there was not a business plan in it.

HMS: That’s kind of wonderful to hear sometimes since that means you were doing it for yourselves. Do you think that the way that you performed it is pretty close to the way you would have done it if it had been a live show?

BettySoo: It definitely felt more like it would have been at a live show. It was actually a struggle for me not to categorize it as a live recording, but that’s how we cut it. We were all playing and singing at the same time and we didn’t do it the way that I would usually approach a studio record. These are people who I play with live, and luckily, they are all really great in the studio.

HMS: I’m so impressed to hear this because of the quality of these recordings. I knew that the songs had a live energy to them but these musicians are fantastic.

BettySoo: And as a live band, we’ve never covered these two songs before. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone has known the songs and played them before, but we had never done them before.

HMS: Did you have a specific approach to vocal style on either of these, or were you trying to stay close to the sound of the original recordings?

BettySoo: For the first time in my life, this Spring, I had this period of time where I completely lost my voice. I’ve never blown out my voice from singing and I also knew that this wasn’t what this was. I think it was just an extreme case of allergies, but it was months of not having my full voice and several weeks of not having almost any speaking voice at all.

HMS: That is crazy. I can’t believe you went through that.

BettySoo: It was very scary because other than music, my other job is that I do voiceover work. It was a reminder that so much of what we think we have control over, we have zero control over. All of the sudden, I woke up and didn’t have a voice. It started to dawn on me that if this never went away, I would have to completely change my life. I don’t think I realized how much of my identity was wrapped up in my voice, not just in being a singer and performer, but just in the sound of my own voice. It’s so much a part of your identity, even if you hate your voice. Then, sometime in May, it just came back. I recorded these songs just as I was almost recovered.

HMS: That is nuts. I wouldn’t have been able to tell. Did you worry that it might come and go?

BettySoo: That was exactly my thought. I didn’t say it to the band, but one of the reasons I was in such a rush was because my voice was returning. A part of me was thinking, “I better hurry up and do this while I can sing right now!” 

HMS: For “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight”, I know that you like the tone and approach of the speaker. Was the tone of “Ain’t Living Long Like This” also appealing to you? There’s a kind of determination and honest, bare-bones approach in that song, too. They are both very direct.

BettySoo: Exactly. I don’t think I noticed this until just now, but it’s almost as if the third verse in “Ain’t Living Long Like This” is almost a warning to the singer in “Bright Lights”. It’s like, “Go on and do it, but just don’t get caught.” And for her, “It’s the kind of mess I’m looking for.” It’s like a really cool parent and a kid who still has to rebel because you still have to.

HMS: It’s like Act I from one perspective and Act II with a different perspective. When I heard your version of “Bright Lights”, I was definitely informed by my experiences of the last 18 months. It was very emotive thinking about live shows. I was surprised to be reminded that this was the title track to Richard and Linda Thompson’s album since it’s such a statement.

BettySoo: With that great album cover. It’s so cool. It’s so raw and brave. They are a big part of the creation of Folk Rock and I think to introduce both of those genres together in this way paved the way for so many of us. 

HMS: This song is really interesting musically, too. That guitar plays such a major part and it really crosses the line into Rock music and back again. I loved that aspect of it.

BettySoo: One of my favorite things about this recording is that John Sanchez, the guitar player, is one of my favorite players, and he does these slow bends. I feel like there’s bravery and swagger in that. The attitude of the singer can be found in his playing. It’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to get to that note that you want me to get to, but I’m going to make you wait for it.” And it’s so delicious. It’s such a good ride and one of those things that I wouldn’t have thought of, and of course he did.

HMS: What about the attitude of the speaker in the song most appeals to you?

BettySoo: I just love the chorus because it’s a little bit of “Don’t let me down.”, and it’s a little bit demanding, saying, “This is what I want. This is what I need. Don’t get in the way.” There’s also the fact that she’s loving the energy that could result in knock-down-drag-out-fights and is like, “Fine. Bring it on.” It’s pretty cool. And so not me. I’m such a peacemaker and people pleaser. I’ve always shied away from doing things that might upset or offend other people, to my own and others’ detriment. To inhabit that space for three or four minutes is really nice. 

HMS: Do you want to play these two songs for audiences someday?

BettSoo: Oh yes. I’m so looking forward to that and being able to fulfill them on stage and celebrate with the band and other music lovers. Hopefully it will be a reward for good behavior. 

Photo by Charlie Hunter

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