FOR SINGER-SONGWRITER, THE WRITING WAS ON THE WALL
By Paul Freeman [September 2012 Interview]
For the remarkable, rising, Oakland-based singer-songwriter Rachel Efron, the lyrics came first.
“For me, the entry point to music has always been the poetry. I grew up journaling and reading. I always had a very elaborate relationship with words and language. That was there from the beginning.
“I think I have more facility with words than with music. But I never compromise on my melodies. It’s very important to me that they have a perfect balance, that they have the perfect shape, that they have integrity. I go in with the words, because I’m more comfortable negotiating words. Melody is more of a magical thing. I have to listen for where it wants to go, rather than analyzing.”
Efron’s songs and vocal/piano performances are magical indeed. Melody and lyrics come together, as if they had always been destined to merge into her beautiful, emotionally evocative creations.
Efron’s brilliant new “Put Out The Stars” album was reviewed in Pop Culture Classic’s Deja Re-Vu: “Raised in New England and now based in the Bay Area, Efron proves herself to be an exceptional singer-songwriter-pianist. Her third album offers such tender, touching, elegantly crafted compositions as “Enough,” “Slow Dance” and the title track. Literate lyrics and haunting melodies make this collection special. Efron’s vocals are genuine, delicate and deeply moving. This is profoundly pleasurable pop with rich classical influences woven throughout.”
In the title track, she sings such poetic lines as, “name the pain that beckoned me to you; gripped at my reason, sails in the wind; hard as rain and cursed to undo you; loveliest season I’d love to rescind.”
She has already begun working on new material. “The new ones seem to be going in a bit of a different direction. It’s always exciting to have a blank slate, when an album is finished. I’ve been exploring some more uptempo stuff. I’ve always wanted to do uptempo to the same level that I feel like I can do the slower songs. And I feel like I’m finally figuring out how to do that.”
Efron describes the production concept she had for “Put Out The Stars.” “It was not so much creating some sort of soundscapes that the songs could live in, which I’d done in the past. We took the approach this time of letting the piano and the voice, letting the song itself take up the space... and then sort of hang the instruments on that. The idea was to let the songs speak. It was like I was confident enough in my music to let it be so forward, to let it feel more intimate, more accessible.”
Having risen to a new level in the studio, Efron now works to match that on stage. “It’s amazing to grow so much in the studio, making my last album, and then to perform again and realize that the way I performed before, it didn’t match where I was anymore. I really had to raise the bar for myself, in terms of what I do on stage.
“Performing’s a different thing now. I require more of myself. I love it. I don’t know if I loved it before. But it means a lot more to me now than it did. I realized how much energy it really takes to reach an audience. I’m more comfortable trying to create a space for people to experience the meanings of the songs, whereas before, I sort of was doing my thing and expecting people to lean in and meet me where I was.”
Efron grew up in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. “My father wanted me to try piano lessons, but I don't think anybody expected me, or necessarily wanted me, to love it so much as to keep doing it,” Efron says, laughing.
“When I listened to songs, growing up, it was the lyrics that I was listening to and I fell in love with. I actually covered my childhood bedroom with song lyrics. I was in middle school. I wrote on the walls in pen. I was a very bad girl,” she says with a giggle. “Actually, I was a pretty good kid, so my parents gave me a pass on that one.”
Lyrics of songs by Paul Simon, Tori Amos, The Beatles, U2 and Van Morrison were spread across her walls. “Anything that moved me, I would just write it. It was the meaning, something that would be expressed in a way that caught my attention. But also, I’ve always just loved the way that words sound.”
Efron didn’t begin singing until she had written her first song, which didn’t come until senior year of college. She had been planning a career in academia. Majoring in Social Anthropology at Harvard, her honors thesis was in language politics.
“I didn’t grow up around songwriters. There was classical music. Or, if you wanted to be different, you played jazz. I played jazz in the high school jazz band. It just never occurred to me to try the genre of songwriting, though I revered songwriters. But they seemed like different people from me, in this other category.
“When it did occur to me to trying writing songs, it just seemed so obvious, because I had all these books of poetry and was obsessed with music and melodies. So when I did begin writing songs, it was like, ‘Aha! This is what I do!’”
She values her education, however. “I wouldn’t give up my college experience. Life and everything you know informs what you end up writing about and creating. I think I was trying to study poetry and Social Anthropology was the closest thing to that, in a way, at the university. It’s sort of like studying culture like it’s a poem, because I studied linguistic anthropology. It’s looking at people’s words and how people make meanings out of those words. So it’s sort of like what I really wanted to be doing was making meaning out of words. I just wasn’t quite to the creative side of it yet.“
In her pop creations, Efron made good use of her classical and jazz experiences. “I think my songs sound pretty classical. That’s the music I grew up playing, those chords and those melodies. That comes out in my writing. And the jazz, it helps me to be able to add some jazzier voicings here and there. And it informs the kind of instruments that I want to accompany me.
The process of songwriting came pretty naturally to Efron, “which isn’t to say that my first 10 songs had any value at all. But there was something about that kind of negotiation of words and melody that captivated me. I was willing to suffer the discomfort of it.
“I wrote a song, because it felt rebellious. It felt exciting to take a couple of minutes of music to say what I wanted to say. It felt self-revelatory. I felt very much at home. And then I immediately wanted to make a career out of it. But it wasn’t that I wanted to achieve a certain end in the music business. It was more like I felt I’d just discovered a purpose.”
Efron has taught songwriting, as well as piano. “The biggest thing that people struggle with is, they don’t know what they want to write about. They don’t feel some urgency to communicate a certain thing. Or they don’t have words for that they want to write about, for the emotion or the experience. And when I started writing a song, I had so much language, so many journals that I’d filled out, just developing my personal vocabulary for what I thought about everything. So it’s never been a problem for me.
“When I first get an idea for a song, oftentimes, my first thought is ‘Oh, God, this is going to be hard!’ Because it’s very uncomfortable. It’s sort of like a flu,” Efron says, laughing. “But I also feel very grateful for the song idea. And when I write it and I’ve been able to take some experience or feeling and turn it into something that’s aesthetic, it’s the best feeling.”
Efron feels better these days about her voice. She should. It’s exquisite - emotive, vulnerable and mesmerizing.
“When I first started singing, I sort of sang like I played piano. It was like I was playing with my voice. And it’s taken me a long time to realize what singing is and that it’s very different from that. It’s so much more physical than that. It’s the phrasing. When I began, I was singing in this very structured way, almost like I was reciting poems. I had to learn to be freer, to not be beholden to the structure that I’d established with the piano. The singing has to have a life of its own. I was really bad at singing, at first. But I really loved it anyway. I’ve had to work very hard to make up for lost time.”
Efron has decided that the time is now, in terms of focusing less on teaching, more on performing. “It’s a little bit audacious, but also really liberating. I didn’t know how I’d feel touring, but it’s really fun. And, as I continue to figure out who I am, musically, I want to improve and build on what I do.”
For more on this artist, visit rachelefron.com.