When we got word that singer-songwriters Birdie Busch and Gretchen Lohse would be sharing a bill tonight, July 7th, at Spruce Street Harbor Park, we thought: Wow. Now here are two really thoughtful, super creative Philly songwriters, each carving out their own niche — Busch with her new record, Thunder Bridge, and Lohse with the dreamy pop of her new band with Thomas Hughes of the Spinto Band, Carol Cleveland Sings. The second thought we had was: Hmm, have these two ever talked shop before?
We started them off with a simple question: At what point did it dawn on you that you were writing songs *from* Philadelphia? Or is that even part of the process or final product?
BB: I think I came to music specifically as a way to focus my mind around a place and yes, that place was Philadelphia. I had always been someone who felt overwhelmed with decisions and options. I used to imagine myself wanting to be everywhere all at the same time. My mind was wanderlusting and on so many trips, and this was something I remember about myself since I was LITTLE little. I remember as a child always wanting to move and trying to convince my parents to do so cause I think I wanted the new experience. But I was born into a family where my parents have lived in the same house since like '68. My dad still attends high school reunions at LA Costa in Sea Isle for St. Joe's Camden, and has the same best friend since childhood. I was not born to gypsies. My roots are waaaaay more Geator with the Heater than Woodstock, so to speak.
Songs, both unintentionally and intentionally, became the magnification glass, the blinders on the horse. They are like a distillation machine. They pulled me into the magic of celebration of present tense space and place, and Philly was where it happened after a stint in Miami and some extensive Mexican road-tripping. How do I see this city? How do I feel this city? How do the others feel it around me? And it really pulled me out of a life of always longing for elsewhere. Music felt like a cure. I knew the only way I was really gonna do it right is if I focused and built bonds with this city. On my first album, put out in 2006, I wrote about South Philly, about the praying Marys in the windows and the megaphone church chimes, etc. I felt the natural inclination to write about the here and now. Every record since has kept Philly in that vision and I even made an EP specifically for Philly.
So I guess pretty early on in my writing of songs, I was aware of how much Philly played a part in it and it's been a working relationship since. It's not to say it entirely curbed by dreams of the road and I have written things influenced by elsewhere. But I feel a pull to capture this place in song via my lens. And since becoming a songwriter I haven't lived anywhere else, due to a healthy combo of loving this city and never having the means to decide otherwise. Ha. And YOU KNOW, Philly is crazy. YOU KNOW. ha. But I've made it my mission to love it hard and many songs have come about as a result.
GL: Songs are inevitably all tangled up with where you are and what's shaping your day to day activities and this city is intensely itself. It's not a place you can ignore. I moved here to go to study history, but was quickly drawn into this beautiful community of Kensington/Fishtown musicians. I still have such love for them and how they were so kind to me and encouraged me… or at least humored me and taught me new chords and how to set up a microphone.
I often think how lucky it was that I was able to move into this neighborhood and into a house with a recording studio where the dinner table should be and a different band rehearsing in the basement almost every night of the week. I'd invite people over to record sound tapestries all afternoon, or to make ten different versions of a song I'd written, or bizarre covers of other people's songs with way too many string parts.
One of the best times I've ever had as a musician was one Saturday afternoon when my living room was filled with people, all of whom I looked up to, all playing on one of my songs. I had spent the week telling everyone I saw that they should stop by to play, without thinking anyone actually would. It was my own little Laurel Canyon jam, except maybe less pretty with the empty lot across the street. Those are the days that shaped me as a songwriter.
BB: So true. Philly is home of the ramshackle studio/rehearsal space. But I mean, I felt and still feel so blessed with friends who were so passionate and skilled by way of self propelled focus and interest. Devin Greenwood, who recorded a lot of my music, he grew up a Piney in Browns Mills, was one of those guys that as a kid made those rock fountains you plug in and a constant flow of water circulates. He came out of that ramshackle, do-it-yourself spirit and made me feel like "music was life" early on in my recording of it — and I came to think of that as totally normal and got right to it. I think having these alliances who so early on believed completely in me for me was crucial. I feel like different times call up different things. Now, the crucial thing is realizing that music is something that is always with me should I choose to be with it. Life only seems to bring more distraction and the challenge is to still honor the musings, it's still just as vital as ever, if not even more so for me.
GL: Oh, absolutely, when I think of the Philadelphia musicians I've been friends with and who have been the most inspiring to me are the ones who make music a constant, natural part of their lives. Something as regular to their routine as brushing their teeth or eating dinner. Like, why would you not just have a drum kit in your kitchen or record vocals in the bathroom. That's what a house is for. A while ago, my brother asked me how I had time to make so many things, but I didn't really have an answer for him. I can't really imagine NOT doing things. It's how I can sort of begin to make sense of the world and what's happening around me.
And yes, those early believers! As a naturally very shy person, I really needed people around me who encouraged me. I've found that Philly creatives are really supportive and warm.