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Kate Schutt

Singer-songwriter Kate Schutt has invited outsiders into her secret world of songwriting.

Telephone Game, which gets its name from an age-old children’s game, is a unique project that began with Schutt inviting listeners to submit song ideas. She then took those ideas and made them her own, crafting and nurturing them into songs. Along the way, Schutt shared the creative process with fans.

"I think people find it quite mysterious," she said. "It is mysterious. I tried to lay out how you go about capturing your ideas as a songwriter."

The trust that people showed in opening up their lives has been rewarded with the release of the singer's new CD, Telephone Game.

Schutt, who studied at both Harvard University and Berklee College of Music, has a sound that bridges jazz and folk music. Many of her songs recall old standards, but there’s a contemporary singer-songwriter feel to her thoughtful storytelling. Her songs are then made richer by her sharp, clear singing.

"Take everything, but leave me something," she sings on the bluesy "Take Everything." "Something that I can forget you by."

Telephone Game comes on the heels of Schutt’s outstanding debut studio album, No Love Lost. In addition, the multi-talented Schutt also recently co-produced, arranged, and co-wrote the music for hip-hop Koko Bonaparte’s new CD. You just finished Telephone Game, which gets its name from a school kids’ game. For those who have never played it, how does the game work?

Kate Schutt: The game is you whisper in someone’s ear a phrase or something. That person then whispers it, and every person whispers it down the line. What comes out at the other end is very different usually than what goes in the first person’s ear. The game has a number of different titles, and it seems to be played in a lot of different cultures. You then turned that idea into a songwriting exercise.

Kate Schutt: My record label and I came up with this idea to solicit song ideas from my fans and anybody who stumbled across my Website. People could essentially whisper in my ear ideas for songs. They could take any shape or form. They could be postcards. They could be stories. They could be journal entries. I had people send me paintings. They could be letters. They could be anonymous E-mails. I would use those ideas and the idea of whispering back and forth with someone to write the new album. It sounds like you received great response.

Kate Schutt: I did. It is always interesting. As an artist at my level, which is not that well known, you often wonder if there’s anyone out there. It was heartening to find out that, yeah, there are people out there and that people were willing to share their experiences in life and love. I was quite humbled by what people were willing to share. It was quite daring and risky of them. Tell us about some of the songs that came out of the project.

Kate Schutt: With the stuff that I received, there’s not one particular song that I can point to that has a corollary story or poem that somebody submitted. But because I said I would respond to anything anybody sent me, it caused me to exercise the creative and critical faculties that one has to use when writing songs. A lot of different songs came out of the whole project. I think I wrote 14 or 15 songs. Some of them will show up later as bonus material. The songs are a lot about love, a lot about leaving behind things that maybe bothered you in the past. There’s a song called "You Can Have The Sky," which is about the idea you can have the sky. You can basically have everything because I don’t need it anymore, and that includes the sky. There’s another song called "Take Everything," that opens the album. That has a similar idea: Take everything, but leave me something. The things that I’m asking to be left are sort of absurd like the name of the painter that did your eyes. It is the idea of moving beyond things that you were concerned about before.

I’m excited for people to hear it. The album will be [officially] released later this fall. It’s available for people to check out now, but we are not going to do the official release until a bit later on because I’m still getting attention for No Love Lost. In another move, you shared the creative process with your fans through videos that chronicled the making of Telephone Game.

Kate Schutt: Because I’m on ArtistShare, which is a jazz-centric label and has a lot of instrumentalists, I decided to showcase or talk about the process of songwriting and putting lyrics to music and how one goes about that. It was different than what some of the other artists on that label do. I think people find it quite mysterious. It is mysterious. I tried to lay out how you go about capturing your ideas as a songwriter.

JazzReview: In an interview, Nanci Griffith once said she was mostly a fictional writer, which is interesting. You usually don’t hear songwriters describe themselves as a fictional writer.

Kate Schutt: I’m a huge fan of Nanci Griffith. I think that’s probably true.

JazzReview: Are you more of a fictional or autobiographical writer or a mix?

Kate Schutt: I think I’m a mix. I really like a good narrative. I have some songs on No Love Lost like "Calamity Jane" and songs on albums before that are quite narrative and based on characters out of history, essentially character sketches. I have tremendous respect for songwriters who are narrative in their writing. The world’s a big place, and it’s not always just about you. Some of my favorite songwriters have written those kinds of songs. Nanci Griffith being one of them. Patty Griffin is another one who is quite a narrative songwriter. You are categorized in the jazz genre, but how would you describe your music? It’s not the typical jazz sound.

Kate Schutt: This is a dangerous question that I don’t like to answer. Music is music. We can talk about everyone from Nanci Griffith to Cole Porter. I just like good music. I sort of take from good music wherever I find it. Certainly over the last two albums, No Love Lost and Telephone Game, I have been experimenting with this idea of attempting to write something that sounds like a standard, a jazz standard, but modernizing it. I love that music. That was the music that I listened to as a kid. My parents listened to Cole Porter, Gershwin. That’s sort of in my DNA. Telephone Game follows on the release of No Love Lost, which is your first studio recording. People are still discovering No Love Lost. Tell us about it.

Kate Schutt: I made that album when I just moved from Boston to Canada. I made it between Guelph, Ontario, where I live, which is just a little bit outside of Toronto, and I recorded half of it in Boston. The whole impetus and reason for that album is that I had a whole bunch of tunes, five or six, and I saw Duane Andrews, who is a wonderful guitar player who plays sort of in the style of Django Reinhardt, a gypsy jazz style though he blends it with the traditional music of Newfoundland, which is where he is from, so it is quite unique and very compelling. I happened to see him play three or four months after I moved to Canada. It was like a bell went off in my head - that’s the sound that I’m looking for for the five or six tunes that I had. I was playing them myself, but I had an idea in my head for how I wanted them to sound, and there he was. I approached him out of the blue and asked if he wanted to come to Guelph from Newfoundland and play some music and perhaps do some recording. He said "sure" and came down with his partner in crime, a great Canadian trumpet player named Patrick Boyle. We sat in my home studio and jammed and played and eventually recorded two or three songs. They turned to me and were like, "Man, too bad you don’t have seven more of these." I said, "Hold that thought. Give me a couple of months, and I will get together the rest of the material that might go well with these other ones that we have already recorded." I went away for three or four months and wrote a whole bunch of tunes, called them back, and started making the album. I went back to Boston. I had a great drummer there, Dave Jamrog, that I love working with. We sort of bounced back and forth between those two places. Let’s talk about a few of the songs. How about "Mary?"

Kate Schutt: There are three or four different versions of that song. That song has been around for a while. I never quite felt that I got it right in terms of the recording. One version has me doing it in three-four, sort of a waltz. On another version, I do it in four-four as a kind of country thing with pedal steel on it. It never sat perfectly. It was such a meaningful song to me, and I felt I had to get it right. I think I finally did on No Love Lost. It’s the version that I like the best. Duane’s playing is beautiful. That song is followed by "Peter Please."

Kate Schutt: That’s a narrative song. That song is about Anne Frank. Unfortunately for me, I did not read The Diary of Anne Frank until four or five years ago. I was blown away by that book. I was speechless about Anne and her character, who she was in the world. The book left me speechless. I finished it in one night. I felt I had to do something. I decided to write this song. It’s about that part in the book where they were in hiding with another family, and the other family had a young teenage boy and his name was Peter. At first, Anne did not like him because she’s young. She hasn’t yet started liking boys. As the story goes on, she turns from being annoyed by him to liking him and wanting to spend time with him. The way that it happens in the diary and how she writes about is so loving and innocent and beautiful. That’s what I wrote that song about, sort of that moment when she turns from being annoyed by him to someone she wants to spend time with. That whole part in the chorus about the blackout screens, those are the screens that they had to put up in the windows so no one could see in.

Also, that recording features Toni Lynn Washington, an amazing unsung hero of the Boston blues scene, one of those voices and people, they don’t make them like that anymore. She’s in her 70s. It is a thrill to be able to sing with her. I feel so honored to have her singing one of my tunes. One more song: "The Moon Got Broken."

Kate Schutt: Again, that’s a narrative tune. People ask me, they assume that’s a true song. That song is about a story that I made up essentially. It’s about a couple that is going through some problems. If they can patch the moon up then things will be OK for them as well. Following along that Nanci Griffith line, I am a bit of a fiction writer. I do get ideas in my head that I then chase down on paper. That’s one of the songs. I was sitting in my studio working. I looked out my and the moon was in the trees. That’s where that idea came from. You threw in a surprise as well with an unexpected cover of Sheila E.

Kate Schutt: I’m a huge fan of the ’80s. The problem being that now it all sounds so dated. But a great song is a great song no matter how many synthesizers you have on it. Throughout my career I have done arrangements of ’80s tunes. I do a version of "What’s Love Got To Do With It." I do a version of George Michael’s "Father Figure." I’m working up an arrangement of the Eurhythmics "Would I Lie to You." I like to go back to that era and find the songs that are really good and change them.

It’s supposed to be fun. We see people in the audience. They get a quizzical look on their face. They know it sounds familiar but they are not really sure then a grin appears. Tell us about your guitar. It’s not the standard guitar.

Kate Schutt: Not for No Love Lost. For Telephone Game, I’m back to playing the six-string. I wanted to have a bass player take over some of the duties. For No Love Lost, I play the eight-string bass hybrid. That’s the instrument made famous by Charlie Hunter. That sort of happened on a whim. I’m a big fan of Charlie’s music, and I had been seeing him play a lot when I was living in Boston. I saw him at a particular concert and got what that instrument is all about. Since I performed a lot solo and in duos, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could figure it out. I essentially got one and started teaching myself how to play it. It’s a challenge for sure. It’s really difficult, but it’s great. It’s unlike anything out there. I would say it is more similar to a piano or an organ than any other instrument. You have to do two things at once. When did you know you wanted to pursue music?

Kate Schutt: It was about the end of my sophomore year in college. I have always played music. Since I was nine or 10, whenever I started playing piano and guitar, it was always part of my life. All of sudden it occurred to me that I was spending six hours a day training and playing sports. What if I put six hours a day into my instrument? What would that be like? It sort of dawned on me how much further I could get, what I could do. I called up my guitar player and said I want to check out Berklee. You mentioned your love of ’80s music. Do you remember your first record?

Kate Schutt: I remember my parents had the record The Cole Porter Songbook as sung by Ella Fitzgerald. I can remember the whole layout of the record. In terms of music that I listened to on my own, I have two older brothers, maybe they had made a tape from someone else of Rickie Lee Jones’ album, the one that has "Chuck E.’s In Love." There were no marking on the tape. I pulled it out of their room and squirreled it away. I remember listening to it over and over on my Walkman. I had no clue who it was. I listened to it over and over again. Weirdly enough it wasn’t until even 10 years ago that I knew who that was. Even though I came to it early I didn’t know who it was until later. The other one is Tina Turner’s Private Dancer album. I just love Tina. It was the first concert that I went to. What’s in your CD player or on your iPod?

Kate Schutt: I’m getting ready to go on tour so I’m listening and practicing. This morning I was listening to Blossom Dearie, a great jazz singer and pianist. Little Jimmy Scott. I’m listening to a lot of vocalists. I’m always listening to Aretha. I love Aretha. Sarah Vaughan.

Someone just gave me the new Emmylou Harris album, which I think is really, really great. Her voice is other worldly. The new Ron Sexsmith. I’ve been enjoying that. I’m a big fan. On you Website, there is a song, "Jane Doe" that is available. That’s a cool song.

Kate Schutt: I set up little structures for myself, forms to write in. One of them was let’s write a list song. There are a couple of examples of great list songs like REM’s "It’s the End of the World." There are a couple of Cole Porter tunes that are list songs. I thought it would be cool to do a list song about interesting heroic women, and it had to be weird juxtapositions, so that’s why you get everyone from Jane Doe to Althea Gibson to Aretha. Pretty much every woman in there is a force of good in the world except Mary Queen of Scots. She’s the only who has sort of a dodgy background.
That leads to the next question. If you could invite anyone to a dinner part who would be on the guest list?

Kate Schutt: Tina of course. I have to stand by Tina Turner. Do you invite a random mix? Do you invite artists and industrial tycoons? All painters? I’m overwhelmed. If I had to say anything, I would invite Tina Turner. What’s next for you, a tour?                                        

Kate Schutt: There will be something bigger when the Telephone Game comes out, but this fall I will be playing some dates. I have some gigs here in Guelph as part of the Guelph Jazz Festival then I will be in Boston at the Acton Jazz Café. I’ll be doing some stuff at Berklee and University of New Hampshire with a professor who is a friend of mine then I’m at the World Café in Philadelphia every month from now until December, which is an awesome gig. I’m hoping to get out to the West Coast as well.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Kate Schutt
  • Interview Date: 9/1/2008
  • Subtitle: Schutt Plays the Telephone Game
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