A Farmer's Daughter Heads to Broadway
When Crystal Bowersox auditioned for America Idol singing the soul classic "Piece of My Heart," Idol judge Shania Twain gave her a big thumbs up for "raw, natural talent." Crystal went on to make a big impression on the American Idol audience. She reached the final, became the first performer to sing her own composition on the show, and impressed the judges not only with her talent but her honesty.
Crystal has gone on to show she's a real force in popular music. She's got two albums under her belt, the second--All That For This--was produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, and she's already making plans to take the production reigns for her next long player. Later this year, Crystal will appear in the Broadway production of Always, Patsy Cline, the critically acclaimed musical that got its start in Nashville. And you can be sure Crystal will bring grit and determination to the role that Patsy herself would recognize. Epiphone is especially proud to not only have Crystal as one of our rising stars, but to also have her debut the new Epiphone FT-350SCE Acoustic/Electric Min-ETune™ guitar on stage. She's been using it on the road for a few months now. Epiphone.com spoke with Crystal in mid-tour, which is likely to be her state of affairs for the foreseeable future.
Thanks for speaking with us, Crystal. It's great to talk to you. How is the FT-350 Min-ETune™ guitar working out for you?
It's working really well. It's a really well-made guitar. Each instrument should inspire the person who is playing it and I've got two of them! So, that says a lot. It's great to have them on tour. In between songs, it just takes seconds to tune and it's really reliable and that's something that's really important to me. Here's the thing, I'm not a gear head but when I get a guitar I love, I just know it.
Do you find that having a new instrument--and having so many alternative tunings at your disposal--has inspired your writing?
Because of the tuning, for sure. I love to play in drop D and open D and a couple of others. It definitively gives me more room to explore in my songwriting, which is nice. It is helping to inspire me to write in different ways.
How is the Min-ETune™ working out on stage?
Great. When there is a lot of ambient noise it has a little trouble but otherwise its perfect. And the audience really likes it too. They like to watch it work. Everybody gasps at the same time and it's fun to show it off.
What's your musical life like right now?
It's very busy, which is good and grueling. I just finished up a new EP and that will be released in May or June. And I'm booked solid through the summer and I'm looking at some international dates as well. I'm always writing--that's the one constant. I've always got my guitar with me and I'm writing wherever I am in any place in the country. A song could be born any minute.
Do you find it easy to write on the road?
Yeah, it's definitely different than being at home in a quiet room. When you're on a tour bus with your other musicians, it's hard to find that space. But often times it's a collaborative thing and you start writing with the members of the band when you're having a good time. And different kinds of songs will happen in that environment.
Has writing, recording, and touring been a dream of yours all your life?
It's funny--I was just listening to some demos I made when I was 10 years old and was thinking: 'what happened to my cute little voice?' Yeah, this has always been my dream since I touched a guitar--this has been my plan. My Dad, he remembers me telling him: 'Dad, someday I'm going to be known for this. I'm going to be a songwriter and a performer.' He supported me but he was also like, 'yeah sure kid.' But now I've got there and I have American Idol to thank for that for sure. You don't get to play for 30 million people on just any other day.
Who inspired you when you first started singing and playing?
It started with Jewel. I really like her folky style, that sort of Joni Mitchell kind of thing. And then I started listening to artists who were more electric--Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt has always been very inspiring to me.
You mentioned jazz as an influence and I sense there's a lot of room for improvisation in your group.
Yes and no. I played with some really talented jazz guys in California and they were almost too far into jazz for my sound. It's hard to find the right players that have a balance of pop and jazz and I feel that the band I have now is pretty darn close! But I'm switching out members constantly and I like that because it keeps the sound fresh and just a little different each time. But you know, I like playing solo acoustic shows, too.
Do you feel that going back and forth from acoustic to electric keeps things fresh for you?
Oh, absolutely! And that’s one of the reasons why the Min-ETune™ is so great for me. I start each show with a full-on rock band for five songs and then I play the acoustic for a half hour where it's just me and my guitar. It's a nice change in the set and it's been going over with audiences really well to see both sides of my music.
I noticed on your website the various photos of you on stage--the Tonight Show, coffee houses. You seem to feel at home anywhere you play.
Yeah, I'm really happy to just go along for the ride. I'm not too particular. I love playing a 50-seat venue or a stadium. They're both great to me. A show is just a show and I just want to play (laughs). I'm just like a little kid.
We're big fans of Steve Berlin of Los Lobos who produced your second album, All That For This.
Steve Berlin and I were introduced through Jackie Greene, an artist in the Bay area. And yes, Steve's wonderful.
What kind of musician were you before you worked with him compared to where you are now? What did he bring to your sound?
Before, I was trying to make my own records--self-released and self-produced--and that was a little more difficult than I imagined it would be. And after working with Steve and just watching him and the way he listens to music... geez, he listens in a completely different way than I would listen. I don't have any training and frankly I don't have nearly the ear that he does. He was a great, heartfelt, and sincere person and really helped me build my confidence as a musicians and songwriter. Because, I just couldn't believe someone like him would think my thoughts or my songs were any good. But he definitely helped me feel more confident in that.
Anything in particular in his direction that stands out?
He helped me listen for tiny bits of ear candy--the things that are intentionally placed in obscure places in the music to just kind of make your brain say, "huh?" And did a lot of that in one of my tunes called, "I Am." There's this woodblock thing that happened by accident and he said: "No no, that's where it needs to be." And a lot of other percussive things, too. His work with Los Lobos is very indicative of that, with all the rhythms and polyrhythms happening. He brought some of those things tastefully into my music and turned it into something that was way cooler.
Do you try to reproduce those sounds on the road?
I'm traveling with a 5 piece and we just play like a rock band on the road. There are certain things that I really want from my musicians to bring from the record but otherwise, I play with the people I play with because I like what they bring to the sound. And my live show doesn't sound very much like my record at all. We have a lot of freedom and the songs are probably longer--a little more jamming, but I do think we're still representing what Steve Berlin did for the tunes.
Do you plan on producing your own records in the future?
I have a lot of ideas but I'm not sure that I'm necessarily ready to produce it all yet. But I'm working my way up towards it eventually. I'd like to produce another artist, too. But for now, I'm self-releasing the EP and my fan base are really incredibly devoted people and I just like making music and getting it out there. It's funny, I'm not great with the self-promotion thing in this business but I do hope that people like it.