Crystal Bowersox’s latest album, Alive, was an artistic breakthrough that showed the longtime Epiphone fan discovering new levels of both comfort and sophistication in her songwriting and singing. Now, Bowersox is about to bring her music and her life story to the theater world in a new stage production, Trauma Queen, based on her life before and after her appearances on American Idol. Epiphone.com caught up with Crystal Bowersox at the 30A Songwriter’s festival in Rosemary Beach, Florida just after Trauma Queen had its debut in workshop form at the Little Brick Theatre in Franklin, TN. Thanks to Perry Joseph @perryjosephphotography for the great studio pics.
It’s great to see you again, Crystal. How was the promotional tour for Alive? A lot has changed in the industry since the Promises EP.
Honestly, I try not to pay too much attention to the industry. I’m doing things on my own time and at my own pace and it feels really good to not have deadlines. I try to just let the music create itself by choosing a great collaborative team to work on a project. I don’t want to tell players what to specifically play unless there is a distinctive theme in a song; I want the music to organically rise from the vibe in the room. I also believe in my fans. They have been so supportive and loyal throughout the years and that means everything
How did Alive come together?
It was recorded live at The Kitchen Sink Studios in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Jono Manson and I at the helm. Although it was recorded live, we used a bit of isolation for capturing certain sounds and mixed it as if it were a studio album. We had a 60-person audience in-house for each show—we did three shows—and then the final mix was the best of the three together for the record. We did the same set for all three shows. I personally love Alive
the most out of anything that I’ve released. I’m proud of all of my records but Alive
has been the truest-to-form to who I am as an artist because it’s exactly what you would experience at a Crystal Bowersox show.
Did the songs continue to develop as the tour progressed?
They did. You find different ways to approach each song while on the road and all the fun little nuances come out depending on the vibe of the players each night. Some of the songs were brand new for Alive
and the band that I had for that record learned them just a couple weeks prior to recording. Then we toured with the record so they grew even more after-the-fact. But here lately, I’ve been diving in to the theater world.
How did that happen?
It’s all luck. A lot of amazing opportunities have fallen out of the sky and into my lap. I can’t take too much credit for it. I was cast as a character in a musical called, Play It By Heart
and went to New York to do a 29 hour script-read and through that process, I met Willie Holtzman and Marty Dotson. Marty is an award winning songwriter and a stellar human being. And Willie Holtzman has quite a list of accolades, too; two Pulitzer Prize nominations, a Humanitas Prize, a Writers Guild Award, and a Peabody Award. I’ve learned so much from working with them. Willy approached me and said, “I don’t think your Wiki page is up to date. Do you want to write a show about it?”
(Laughs) I knew what he meant. It was terrifying to think that I was going to put all of my secrets and personal history out there for the public to see. I’ve experienced a lot of anxiety over this show going public but the desire to tell my story and showcase all the awesome mistakes I’ve made in my life and everything that has brought me to where I am right now exceeded that anxiety. And in doing so, it’s been healing for me. It gives other people permission to accept their own lives and own their past. No matter how traumatic or whatever it may be, it’s all ‘ok.’ The show is called Trauma Queen.
It’s about my life leading up to my time on American Idol
and what moving through that whole process was like. I was briefly homeless. I grew up in a dysfunctional home and family and I’ve been a single mother since 2009. Sobriety. Marriage and divorce. It’s all of the hairy details about that. We just did a workshop with Studio Tenn in Nashville, a local regional theater company, and they were amazing to work with. So, we’ll just keep working and see where the show ends up.
Has working in theater changed the way you approach your songwriting?
It has been expanding. With ‘Crystal Bowersox’ the brand, I’ve mainly focused on writing songs for that
brand. And going into the theater world, you have to write to fit a script and follow the storyline, adding spoken word and underscoring. It’s all just another step in my growth as a songwriter and an artist. I’ve been working with Marty Dotson on the songs for my play, revamping some of my unreleased material as well, and I really admire his approach to the craft. There are a couple silly little songs to bring some lightness and humor to the dark parts of my story. There’s one in particular called, “Don’t Cry Over Shit.” (Laughs) It’s a real feel good, sing-along song and a great lesson for life.
And you have more performances planned?
At this point we’ve done one workshop and the next step will be a ‘one night only’ show in Franklin, Tennessee. From there, it’s really wherever we want to take it. Maybe a venue in New York or LA or any playhouse in the country. The show is built for a band, so it’s like coming to a
Crystal Bowersox show, except you’re about to watch a movie about my life. Ultimately, the band doubles as characters in the play. It’s easily something that I could tour with right now from city to city.
Does this new turn in your career surprise you? Did you ever dream of writing for a musical or being in a play?
Not really, but it’s exciting! I’ve always loved writing and storytelling. I once had a drama teacher tell me I should just stick to singing — that I would never have a future in theater. I like to call that kind of person a ‘dream squasher.’ I hope she can come to one of the shows (laughs). But sincerely, I wish her well. I give thanks to people like that who’ve given me the motivation to work harder on my craft. I can do whatever I want with my time here on earth and that’s an amazing feeling.
Do you find the play ‘freeing’? Just to let it all out on stage and have the music carry that weight away?
In some ways. Yes and no. It was terrifying to be on television. TV viewers got the boxed up and packaged version of my story, the one the show wanted to share to the audience about who I am. I have some demons in my past that they weren’t willing to set free, and so much has happened since 2010. My motto these days is no secrets, no shame
. Just put it all out there — I’ve got nothing to hide for any reason. I don’t have to carry the weight of guilt and shame with me. So, in that way, it is freeing. But it’s also terrifying. A little part of me still cares what people think of me.
That’s part of being an artist —you’re trying to communicate.
Right. They will most definitely know the depths of me after they see the show.
How are your Epiphones holding up?
I’ve got the Masterbilt Century Olympic
and I still have my FT-350SCE Mini-Tune.
I love the Olympic. She’s beautiful and is such a nice throwback. She’s got such a different tone to her in comparison to my other axes, too. It’s great for songwriting if you need a different inspiration. My Epiphones — they last. They are holding up on the road. They’re well-built guitars.
What have you been listening to through the writing process for Trauma Queen?
I’m still listening to my favorite artists, like Brandi Carlile, Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt — soulful lady voices. Their music is inherently dramatic and theatrical. Any one of them could easily turn an album into a script and show. I’m also learning to appreciate artists who use synthetic sounds and digital elements, so there may be some more of that type of stuff on upcoming albums. But as for my guitar, it’s still the foundation of what I do. As a guitarist and songwriter, my job is to paint the base layer for all of the other instruments and sounds on a track. I have amazing musicians around me who bring out the tones, colors and textures for each song. The process of writing for Trauma Queen
has made me more aware of all of this, for sure. I can explore melodically and lyrically much deeper in theater — or at least it’s forcing me to do so more than I ever have before. I think about some of the old story-telling songs and they’re basically three or four open chords and a rich story on top. I don’t know where this is all gonna lead, but the possibilities are endless, and it has definitely opened my process up in a way that is refreshing to me.