8:57 pm in by Anna Maria Cornell
Q&A With Heather Miller-Rodriguez, singer, song-writer, and guitarist
You are singer and song-writer who has been on an exciting journey in the past year or so. When did you first start composing and when did you know you wanted to do this professionally?
Ten years ago, as part of my music minor at MUM, we had an assignment to write a melody every day for a week! I turned to my poetry journals for lyrical inspiration and the songs started pouring out, though as you can imagine, most of them were rather love-struck or angst-filled at first! The trick was that I had to sing them because I wasn’t proficient enough in an instrument to compose a melody.
Around that time, I also discovered a great many of my inspirations and role models – Sarah McLachlan and Dar Williams come to mind. Following their careers led me to a whole slew of other inspiring women artists working at every level from big label to independent. When Fairfield’s solar-powered community radio station, KRUU-LP (http://kruufm.com) came into existence, I began a blog and radio show called Lyrical Venus (http://lyricalvenus.com/) to highlight all these great female singer-songwriters I was discovering. Looking back now, it’s obvious that as I interviewed them about their songwriting process and performing life, I was also unconsciously doing research for myself!
Between moving forward with my writing and learning from others who’d made a career out of music in one way or another, it became clear that there were really no excuses other than the ones I made up for myself!
To pursue your dream, you took a huge leap of faith about a year ago. Tell us about it.
Once I realized that the biggest obstacle in my way was my own mind, and that the desire to pursue music was not going to go away, I was ripe to take a big step in the direction of my dream. Daniel Barrett’s Rubicon Year program, housed at Rubicon Artist Development and Recording Studios in Austin, Texas (http://www.rubiconartistdevelopment.com/) appealed to me because the focus was on developing as a whole artist and person, as opposed to just drilling scales or chasing fame. Dan understands that outer success depends on the inner foundation and is skilled at guiding artists through the treacherous landscape of artistic doubts. Attentive and intuitive, he senses what would best serve each artist to get to their next level, and he customizes their year accordingly.
My big directive for my Rubicon Year was to get out to as many open mics as I could while in Austin. After a little bit of a rocky start, I took to it in a big way and ended up making it to 157 open mics and showcase performances. The open mics changed everything for me—my voice, my guitar playing, my confidence all improved bit by bit over the course of the year.
The other huge challenge of the year was to create a studio recording with Dan. After we decided on five songs to record, I began focusing on practicing and performing them. Dan brought in some really talented pros to fill out the sound – Rick Richards on Drums (Dixie Chicks, Mary Gauthier), Red Young on Piano and Hammond Organ (Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt), and Warren Hood on Fiddle (The Waybacks). Several of my Austin friends came and added background vocals. By the time we got to the studio at the end of the year, I had gained confidence from knowing the songs backward and forward, and I had established a deep trust with Dan so that the actual recording was super joyful and almost effortless!
You’ve recently celebrated your 7th anniversary. Congratulations! An artist’s life can pose unique challenges on relationships. Can you talk about how your journey has affected your marriage?
Thank you! Gilberto and I met at MUM, so ever since he’s known me, he’s also known of my desire to pursue music and has been really supportive through both my triumphs and my struggles. It became pretty clear to both of us that I needed to do something to accelerate my musical growth or else end up unfulfilled and unhappy. Still, it seemed like a bit too much of a leap to completely pack up everything and move to Austin, especially when he has such a wonderful job at The Sky Factory here in Fairfield.
So we decided that I would go to Austin on my own for a year. It wasn’t easy! We met in person every few months and video chats helped a lot, but it’s not the same! Still, both of us having the space to explore and grow as individuals has been a wonderful lesson and gift. We are coming back together with fresh energy and new ideas, and more importantly, after a year of just DOING my music, it’s painfully obvious how much of my time and energy before Rubicon was spent on wishing, hoping, dreaming and complaining! Now that I’m not as wrapped up in all of that, I’m much more centered and present for our relationship.
You are now in the process of raising pledges for your first CD through Kickstarter. This is an all or nothing deal. If you meet your pledge goal, Kickstarter moves forward, if not, you have to start over in another way. This sounds nerve-wrecking. How do you stay optimistic?
Kickstarter is a pretty amazing platform for artists and designers of all sorts to raise funds for their creative projects. I’m just guessing, but I think there are folks out there who hear about Kickstarter success stories and think, “Hey, all I have to do is put my idea on the internet and people will give me money!”
It doesn’t generally work that way unless you have a built-in fan base (and the term built-in is a little misleading because most folks with a fan base have worked really hard on it!). You have to have a network of people who already know and support you, and you have to have a line of communication open to them. And then you have to be willing to reach out and ask.
Before even starting to put together my Kickstarter project, I studied other successful projects in my genre and concluded that I had a good enough chance of success to go ahead and take another leap of faith. It seems that so far on this musical journey, every time I take decisive action, things fall into place to support me in an almost magical way. When they don’t, there’s usually something I haven’t learned yet, and it turns out there was a very good reason why it didn’t work.
But, yes, it IS a little hard on the nerves if I let it get to me. I won’t pretend that I don’t spend more time than I probably should checking to see if new pledges have come in. I believe in the songs and I’m excited to get them out there, and if it comes down to it, I could do a digital-only release or a shorter run of CDs, but wow, would I love to have a finished product to hold in my hand and share with people, especially because the artwork by Alicia Carradus is so amazing! So far, the support has been truly affirming and inspiring.
This may sound like an obvious question but what would you most like people to experience when they listen to you sing and play? How do you grow and develop as a musician?
This is a great question, and I don’t know if it’s obvious, so thanks for asking! As a music fan and frequent audience member myself, I think you can tell pretty quickly when an artist is performing out of a desire to communicate and share an experience with an audience, or whether they are mostly there for attention.
A songwriting teacher once told me that “All songs are for either the head, the heart, the hips, or the feet.” My songs are definitely more centered around the heart and the head. The musicians whose songs I love make me feel like I’m not alone, that we have a shared experience, and they’d totally understand me if we struck up a conversation. I hope that some of my songs do that for other people; make them feel a little more seen, heard, connected, and understood. I delight in finding the joy and beauty in simple moments, and I think calling attention to them with a song brings that joy to life again.
As far as growing and developing as a musician, oh wow, I think that’s a life-long process!
Maintaining an internal equilibrium is fundamental. It’s easy to get lost in the thrill of the creative process, but I don’t think you have to burn out if you take care of yourself. TM, inspirational reading, quiet reflection time, journaling, supportive friends and family, creating realistic goals and keeping sight of what’s most important, all are foundational to growing as an artist in a sustainable way.
I learned that I need to take things slow and break them down in bite-sized pieces, which can be hard because in my mind, I see where I want to be and I get frustrated that I’m not there yet! When I give myself the time to just work on one phrase, one line of a song at a time, sometimes the most beautiful discoveries happen. When I go out and play a few songs every few days, the results are cumulative and in a year, my voice and guitar are totally different. If you keep doing it, you can’t help but grow!
How did you choose to attend MUM and how has your education led you to where you are today?
I actually went to MSAE from Kindergarten, so MUM seemed like a natural next step. Plus they were starting a theatre program at MUM that year, and many of my friends from High School all decided to go for that, which also seemed like a natural extension of our theatre time together at MSAE. I liked the block system of taking one course at a time and not being overwhelmed with a multitude of classes, subjects, and tests all at the same time. Besides the acting, I nearly minored in literature but ended up switching to a music minor in my last year.
Theater studies and performance helped me be successful on stage, once I got over the initial fears of singing my own words (totally different than working from a script!). Art and literature always feed a creative mind, and I really appreciated the deeper understanding of the foundation of music that I don’t think I’d get anywhere else.
In terms of the organization, creativity, resourcefulness, and flexibility needed to handle all aspects of being an independent artist, every MUM course taught me those qualities in one way or another—through the wonderful teachers and through the application of principles of the Science of Creative Intelligence. Those kinds of critical and creative thinking skills transfer over into ANY area of life and are useful in every aspect of living! I’m grateful to have such foundational tools that I know will serve me wherever I go and whatever I do.
Heather Miller-Rodriguez received a BA in Fine Arts with an Emphasis in Theatre from MUM in 2001. She earned a Master Songwriting Certificate from BerkleeMusic in 2011 and completed the Rubicion Year Artist Development program in 2012. To learn more about her music or to pre-order a copy of Anchor, her Kickstarter Project, go to heathermillermusic.com or http://kck.st/Le5Zff.
Current location: Fairfield, IA
Spotlight PS: Heather’s Kickstarter campaign reached 101% of the goal with 5 days to spare.