Our guest this week on the Art of the Song Coffee Break is Californian singer/songwriter Ynana Rose.
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Katie: I’m sitting here with Ynana Rose, who is a Standing ‘O’ member and I am so thrilled to be talking with you today Ynana. Welcome to our program.
Ynana: Thank you so much, Katie. I’m happy to be here.
Katie: I just want to start out with a little bit of your background. You have this amazingly lovely image from when you were a child and you’re walking through the redwoods and you’re singing to the dogs and the trees these country classics. So I just want to know–music was a part of your life in your childhood and then you actually didn’t start writing songs until you were 37, so how did you get from singing to the redwoods and the dogs and the trees to writing songs at 37?
Ynana: I can say to sum it up: it was sort of a circuitous route. But it’s an interesting thing. I think life, if you stay in it long enough, I feel like we circle around to our essence, who we really are, and often that tends to be the person that we were when we were a child. At least that kind of helped me as I was getting older trying to find my way back into music. I was super musical ever since I can remember. I always sang. I had a very deep, mature voice as a child; even in my speaking voice it was very startling for people. I had a very big voice for being this tiny little person, so I got a lot of attention for singing. We lived in the middle of nowhere. The schools were very small. They were underfunded. I did have a really great choir teacher who just happened to move there from a big city and want to raise her family off the grid and do homeschooling and stuff. So we had a really great, I wouldn’t say full-fledged music program, but we had one good person and she played guitar and sang and I was in choir and whatnot. But, other than that, I have to say that I didn’t grow up with anyone else around me who was musical.
Katie: So no one in your family was musical?
Ynana: My mother was a single mom and it was just her and I. We were very isolated, so we didn’t have electricity or hot running water or indoor plumbing or anything like that. We got one radio station. It was an FM radio station. Literally on the dial out. That was what there was. There was AM stuff, but the only reception was, I don’t even know where it broadcast from, but somehow they reached us out in the mountains. It was country radio and, luckily, it was that era of country. I was born in 1971. We moved there in 1974, I think. So mid-late ’70’s to early ’80’s was a really phenomenal time in country music and I was attached to that little boombox like you cannot believe. I just had it on really constantly. We’d run out of batteries and we were always broke so it would take us a while the hitchhike into town to get batteries. Really, I’m not exaggerating. Music was a big part of my life in my emotional life and I want to say sort of spiritually. In terms of who I was, I was constantly singing, but it wasn’t a big part of my life in the sense of I was surrounded by music and I got to have really great music lessons and all that kind of stuff. Do you know what I mean? It was a very huge part of who I was.
Katie: It was just kind of innate in who you were but it wasn’t something that was around you and a big part of your day-to-day life and the people around you, but it was something that helped you connect and feel and relate to the world. It’s very interesting that you say that too because I noticed on your Standing ‘O’ profile you had mentioned that your biggest inspiration was your child self, so it seems like you’re connecting through the ages with this child self and who you were as this person in your purest form, and that seems to be a person who interprets the world through music.
Ynana: Yeah, that’s really true. It took me a while to get back in touch with her. There’s so much baggage that we accumulate, so many things that happen to us, or whatever we think we should be. I had to sift through all that to get back to that and sort of start.
Katie: I’m curious, what drew you away from that? What drew you away from the music that you were getting in touch with as a child? What did you do in the in-between of being this child singing to the redwoods to your songwriter self? What happened in between there?
Ynana: I would just say life. I’ve thought a lot about why I didn’t pursue music with a focus really at a younger age and I can say that honestly it comes down to lack of courage and lack of focus. I was very distracted by so many things. It was very scary to me. The artistic realm, there’s an instability in it. A lot of the people who are drawn to it don’t tend to be really stable people and I think more than anything I really needed to figure out how to develop stability and security. I lost my mom at a young age and I moved to Oregon and lived with guardians. My family situation shifted a number of times. It was a challenging childhood in a lot of ways and, not to go into a lot of details, but there was a lot of recovery that was needed. I think that I sensed that I wasn’t strong enough to do that kind of hardcore work that I really needed to do while also trying to become an artist. I’m one of those people who are very right and left brained. I have both, and I really sought much more refuge in the left-brain stuff. I was a math major for my first two years of college. I just really excel in all of that left-brain stuff. I loved second languages. I ended up getting my degree in International Studies and Spanish. I would be involved in music haphazardly. I’d be sitting at a party and somebody would say, “Wow! That girl can really sing.” I would stumble into these series of really bad bands. Then I’d leave and go do something else. In terms of really making a commitment to pursue it, it really wasn’t until I had developed a secure, stable life for myself. I had a husband and two great kids and then I was like, “Boy, that hasn’t gone away yet, I think I probably really need that.”
Katie: I think that makes a lot of sense if you are coming from this background that seems really precarious. It’s funny, it reminds me of a friend of mine and she’s a beautiful artist in her own right, but she pursued being a finance major for a long time because she was like, “I have to be practical, I have to settle my life”, because she had a very tumultuous childhood and I think that having a great childhood is a luxury a lot of times, because you have that stability to explore your creativity, but if you don’t have that, then you really have to grow into having that before you can grow into being an artist or, if you are an artist, and you decide, oh I’m going to pursue that at a young age before establishing stability it, as you said, can create a very unstable person because you have to go to those really ugly, hard depths of yourself, which is difficult if you’ve had a hard childhood I’d imagine.
Ynana: Yeah, it is for sure and some people are so driven. I didn’t have either. I lacked the courage and the focus. Some people are very driven even if they’re terrified or even if they come from a place of instability and they can create amazing art that way. That just wasn’t me. I think you really need both.
Katie: But you found that though.
Ynana: I know.
Katie: You found that when you were 37. You got the husband and the kids and, as you said, it didn’t go away. It’s still in you. And, even in one of the questions that you answered you were saying, “Nothing is more common than wasted talents. Perseverance wins every time.” So it seems like that was a skill that you actually eventually learned.
Ynana: Yeah, for sure. I’m reading this really great book, it’s kind of a segue, but it does speak to what we’re talking about. It’s called “How to be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass” and it’s by JoAnneh Nagler, and I just love it so much. It really speaks to my own journey and I read it really recently. I was kind of stumbling around for a while but I’ll tell you, in my early 30’s I went to a wedding in Mexico where I was reunited with these people that I used to create music with and I performed in the wedding and I was only there for about five days, which was a huge deal because I had a two year old at the time, but it was this time of really intense musical camaraderie and performance and whatnot. And, I came home and I said, “Honey, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but I have to create music, I have to be involved in music”, I think is how I put it at the time, and he was like, “Ok, well, we’ll see how we can figure that out.” But I tried to do it in a way that was very accommodating to my family because I had a young family and that’s just who I was at that time. So I tried to join a few choirs and that didn’t really do it for me. So I kind of stumbled into this band that their practice schedule worked well for my husband’s work and I kind of did things like that for a while. I would sort of up the ante each time, and it wasn’t until I had my second child that was a baby that didn’t sleep and I got to this point where I just said, “I have a song that needs to be written. It is like kicking me in the head so bad, I’ve got to figure out the tools to do it.” Then, coincidentally, I had been hanging out with this guy and he had asked me if I could play guitar and I said, “No, not really.” And he said, “Well, can you play guitar at all? Do you know what a C chord is?” And I said, “Oh yeah, I used to play.” So I picked it up a little bit and the first song that I wrote was like, you steal a little bit from here and there, you know, and you’re not even sure, does that make it original?” It was a very confusing process but it really needed to be done. I would work on it maybe ten minutes a day, but I was just obsessed. It took me probably six months to write, but I liked it at the end of it and I showed it to a couple of friends and they said, “Well, that’s how you do it. Originality is overrated. You hear something that you like and you study that chord progression and you put it together in a different way and you do something that makes your heart sing and that’s what you create.” It was super, super helpful. Then I had just figured out that I needed it. Then I started performing. It was a very, very scary process. Then it wasn’t really until I recorded my CD two years ago that I fully laid down my gauntlet in my local community and said, “I’m here. This is what I do.”
Katie: “I am a songwriter.”
Ynana: Yeah. “I am a songwriter. I’m a performer. I do my own thing.” You’re creating a brand in what you do. It’s been a process for sure, that I started I would say probably with that first song.
Katie: And I’m sure that was a struggle, given what we were talking about before, to proclaim yourself a songwriter and just be like, “This is what I do now!” So how long was it after you wrote that song that you actually went out and performed it?
Ynana: It wasn’t very long, but we have a wonderful resource I guess you could say in this community. There’s a man here named Steve Key and he does showcases called “Songwriters at Play” so it’s a step up from your open mic, but you’re only required to do three or four songs. So, if you’ve only written one, then you have a couple covers, it can be a good little in. It would have taken me so long to get to the level where you need a couple of hours of solid material. That’s a whole different level of courage and just kind of that insurmountable first hill that you have to climb over. I was very thankful to be able to dip my toes in and get more and more used to it. And it wasn’t pretty. There’s nothing glamorous or pretty about that process, trying to get comfortable playing in front of people. Writing your own stuff. Trying to remember how to play guitar. It did take a little bit before it felt comfortable and now I love it.
Katie: And I’m so glad that you mentioned that it’s not pretty because some people they go out and there are the stories that you hear where they’re all, ” I picked it up and I just went out and I just did it and it was fine”, and you’re like, “No, it’s not pretty”. I think I really appreciate that because a lot of people can get discouraged if they hear those stories of how easy it can be because it can, because it’s not easy. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s something that takes work and it takes practice to develop, the persistence, it takes practice to develop the courage. These aren’t skills that have to be innate for you to do it. It just has to be practiced and learned a lot of times I think.
Ynana: Yeah, exactly, and I have come from a place where I have shut myself down for literally decades. There was no fooling myself anymore. There were no outs. It was really hard. You can say, “Yeah, that was really hard. Next time I’m going to do this better.” It’s like you’re going on a long journey. It became very clear to me. Once your path is clear, you just start doing it. You don’t cry about it too much or, if you do, you just get up the next day and you do it again. There’s not really a lot of wiggle room if you’re fully declared. Do you know what I mean?
Katie: Oh, that’s a nice way of putting it. “If you’re fully declared”. So once you’re just like, “I am a songwriter and this is what I do”, there’s nothing that you can do but go forward.
Ynana: Yeah, you just get better, you just work. It’s just all about the process and the work.
Katie: So you mentioned Steve Krey, and you co-wrote a song, that won an accolade, “Lillian” with him and he also wrote the song “Golden” on your album, correct?
Ynana: Yeah. It’s actually Key.
Katie: Key, sorry (**if Steve is reading this, he actually became not only a supporter of the Standing ‘O’, but also an artist on the Standing ‘O’ after this interview…. I apologize for the name mix-up….in my defense, I am awful at names but will not forget Steve after this interview),.
Ynana: Yeah, that’s ok, but yeah he’s a local, he’s a performer, he’s a songwriter, but he does this showcases where other mostly original songwriters come through. He doesn’t really like people to do covers. It is “Songwriters at Play”, so not a lot of cover tunes. But it’s really cool. We live in San Luis Obispo on the coast of California, right along the 101, and so we get a lot of people on tour between San Francisco and Los Angeles, where they booked those two cities and they’re kind of looking for something else within a three or four hour drive and we are right on the route. So we get a lot of people from out of the area. It’s really wonderful. I get inspired almost every time I go. And I still go about once a month, once every two month, just because it’s such a great format for trying out new material and kind of soaking up some inspiration by seeing what other people are doing.
Katie: That’s really wonderful, and how did you meet him originally? Just through the “Songwriters at Play”?
Ynana: Yeah, just through the grapevine. I asked him if I could come play a couple songs. It’s neat, it’s a small town community, so somebody will come to one of my shows now and they’ll say, “I remember the first time that you played”. And I’ll say, “Yeah I was kind of shaken there”. It’s great. Everybody is really supportive here.
Katie: Yeah, you know, I hear that too. A lot of people, I think a lot of songwriters, come into it with the misconception that you have to be in a big city to “make it”, and I hear a lot of accolades from smaller, supportive communities that are just vibrant little arts communities that are supportive. Would you agree with that?
Ynana: Yeah, I would. This has been a great community to get my start in for sure. I will say that it is small in the sense that if I am going to play a show, that I like to play with a man that likes to play mandolin, he’s not really my mandolin player, but we work together a lot. If my mandolin player isn’t available, there’s no one else to call. There’s maybe one other guy. In a city, you make the contacts, but there are so many people. So like I’m thinking of putting together some shows south kind of around Santa Barbara area and north kind of around Monterey because there are people that are down in that area that I want to play with so that kind of gives you an excuse.
Katie: Have you played outside your community a lot?
Ynana: I haven’t yet but it’s right at the top of my list.
Katie: It’s on your to-do and you have to now that you have this great album out which, by the way, is just phenomenal. That voice, that low soulful voice from your childhood, you really tapped into that. It’s beautiful.
Ynana: Thank you, Katie.
Katie: So, speaking of your album, how was that process in creating that album. Was it just, as soon as you started writing songs, “Well, ok, this is eventually going to go to an album” or did that kind of come a little later?
Ynana: I didn’t really want to create an album in the place where I was at then. But I realized very quickly that I needed to have good quality recorded material just in order to work. People need to hear you. Actually you need video and all that other stuff too, but I didn’t realize that. I was just kind of step-by-step. So I realized that and had a sort of family discussion about it and I remember talking with a friend of mine named Enga Swerigin, who is a local, she’s primarily a jazz musician, but she’s amazing. Just one of the top people certainly in this area and has done a lot of touring, etc, etc, etc. So I just asked if we could have a cup of tea and everybody’s so kind here. Really supportive. We talked a little bit about it and I said, “Here’s my situation and I think I need to record some music, do you have anybody you can recommend to work with?” she hooked me up with this amazing guy and I remember just saying, “Enga, you know, I can see how much energy and time it’s going to take, and I just want to be where I would be or am going to be at the other end of that. I don’t really want to go through that.” And if you talk to anybody about that process of making an album, it is very, very cool but it’s grueling and it takes a lot of time and money and energy. She just kind of laughed and she said, “Ynana, I know where you want to get to and you have to go through it to get there.” So I was like, “if Enga told me that, then that’s what I’m going to do because she’s so amazing”. And it was true, I came out of that process just completely changed. I owned that material. It was fully mine. I had plumbed every little corner of every one of those songs and it was really just the first batch of songs that I had written, although I did do a cover tune on it that I had written that I loved enough to keep. There’s always a lot of discards, but from the time that I wrote my first song in 2008 to when I started recording I guess was probably 2014. So it was just kind of the keepers from that era. You just dig in and every little part of it was new for me. I’d never been in a recording studio before. Every single little bit of it was of the steepest learning curve, but it was incredibly exhilarating and it just felt 100% right. There was never any moment where I went, “Really? This was not a good idea.” It was like, “Ok, here we go.” And it was just amazing.
Katie: I love that you talk about exploring every single corner of those songs because, when you say it like that, that really rings true for me in listening to your songs too and I wonder, because you’re very thoughtful in your lyrics and you have beautiful imagery in there and I wonder, you said you took six months to write that first song, is that true of a lot of your songs? You really take a lot of time for each song to write it and develop it? Or do some come out really quickly? What’s your writing process like?
Ynana: It really varies. In general, I would probably consider myself a pretty slow writer, but that’s only from very first beginning to very final when you’re like, “I’m not going to edit it anymore, it’s done”, which I don’t personally know that it’s at that point until I’ve gone through some recording process and not necessarily formal in the studio but pre-recording at my home or I performed it a number of times. Maybe run it by a few people. I’m a huge re-writer. I’m a big editor in general. If I write a long email then I’ll read it through again and kind of edit it. It’s any piece of writing for me, lyrically, and then in terms of chord progressions it’s the same thing. If something’s not working, then either I figure it out or I set it aside and then figure it out, or I set it aside and it never gets figured out. I don’t want to go through the process of recording something if in twenty years I’m going to hear and go, “Oh man, yeah, this wasn’t it….” That’s a bummer, right?
Katie: Yeah, and it’s so funny, but I’m hearing that left-brain come in. I was like, “Whoa, that really helps you out in that regard” because there’s a lot of songwriters that have trouble. They’ll write the song and then they have trouble going back and editing and it sounds like your tendency to go do that is really helpful to you as a songwriter and very necessary.
Ynana: Yeah, I feel like it is. Everybody’s creative process is distinct and I really have to own mine. I always regarded my type-A personality and all this highly organized, all the left-brain stuff, as a hindrance to being truly creative. And I will say that there are definitely aspects of that. Like jamming in a circle is very hard for me, but lately because it is hard for me, I’ve been pushing myself into that realm and it’s really, really fun. But I will never be an improviser. Even vocally, scatting has been always really terrifying. I could do it for therapy, but I’m not going to be a professional jazz scatter. I mean, never say never, right? Maybe when I’m 60. I mean, you just never know, but it’s certainly not my comfort zone.
Katie: Alright, well I’m going to interview you in another 10 years and we’ll see if you’re scatting.
Ynana: That’s right. I’m all for pushing out of the comfort zone. I always thought that was a downside but now that I’m really in the realm of talking and reading about other songwriters and what they say…. really serious songwriters, professional songwriters that write for other people, boy, we’re on the same page with all that. You have to be flexible to rewrite and let things go and recycle and all that.
Katie: Yeah, absolutely. Well, if there’s one thing that I’m getting from you, it’s that if you have the voice inside you to begin with, eventually you end up pursuing it whether it’s innate to you or natural or easy to you or not. So I’m so curious to see where you go from here too.
Ynana: Me too.
Katie: I’m really interested to know too, since you started writing at 37, when you write, do you write about your current life or do you draw a lot on the past? Since we were having that conversation about using your child self as inspiration, I’m just curious of how your past experiences come through in your writing and if they do or if it’s more centric to what you’re going through at the moment.
Ynana: Well the first song that I wrote was about my life currently at that time and it was about my marriage and love. It’s “Don’t Even Think of Leaving Me” I think. So that’s on that album and that certainly was kind of what I tried to write about in the beginning, but I would say that by the time I was writing my 3rd/4th song, it was a lot of nostalgia and looking back and taking a lot of inspiration from the previous lives that I had lived. So a lot of reconciling with loss and old love that you still maybe think about. A lot of that looking into the past kind of thing. I’m sort of a born nostalgic person, so I can write about lost love and longing and mourning and all of those kind of wistful states of being. I can write about that all day.
Katie: That felt really present too in your writing. Even if you were having this moment of nostalgia, it still felt present and also all of it, no matter what you writing about, felt intensely personal too, which I’m really appreciative of.
Ynana: Thank you. You just have to go with where you are. As a new songwriter, I’m sort of slowly emerging into that intermediate songwriter state and you need to flesh out from there too, so that’s kind of where I’m at now is trying to push that voice a little bit. I really like to write in different voices. It’s not always non-fictions. If you can really fully inhabit that character or whatever scene or image you’re trying to convey, if you can fully inhabit it then you can write about it. I haven’t got to the place as a songwriter where somebody just gives me some homework and then I go write a song about that. I’m going to take an online course over the winter, and I’m going to be pushed into doing that. It’s important to figure out if you have those muscles I guess.
Katie: Yeah, no kidding. I’m sure having that pressure, I’m sure it’s going to be pretty amazing what you come out with too. I’m curious, when you write in different voices, are these characters that you’ve come up with in your head or are they characters that you see out in the world? Where do these characters come from for you?
Ynana: Well, I have written about real people and I think those are actually the hardest to write because you’re personally connected to them and you’re always kind of blinded by yourself in the picture. It’s really tricky. So Steve Key again helped me write a song about my grandma and I was so attached to her, there was just so much emotion in it that I couldn’t really step outside enough to craft a coherent story. He really helped me do that. So we wrote a song called “Lillian”, which will be on my next album. And I’ve written songs about people that were real and really important to me, but I don’t do that as much I would say. It’s a little limiting because the storyline is limited. I’m inspired by real life for sure, but the songs that I’ve been enjoying most, I would say lately, have just been something…a phrase. I’ve been working on this song called “Strawberry Moon” and it’s from a phrase that I was reading last year in June about this special moon that we had and reading the backstory of it. It just inspired me. Maybe probably shortly after I was reading the articles, just the phrase and a melody and then the image will come. Like what happened in that example was I heard the chorus, which was something like “Strawberry Moon, why oh why do you bring memories that make me cry?” So, clearly, it’s going to be kind of like a cowboy lost love ballad thing.
Katie: Yeah. Oh I love those classic country influences. I’m just like “Whoa, that’s fantastic”.
Ynana: Me too! Then you just have to sit with that. I was looking at it geographically and trying to get a coherent story out of that. So it’s a fictional character. And write it down. Well, from who’s perspective is it from? It’s from my perspective. So who am I? Maybe I’m a young man or a young woman and we had a lost love. And how that love wasn’t able to be fulfilled for the rest of our lives. So, why? What happened in there? In this case, it was the evil parents who came in and destroyed our love. So you got to go with the story, right? It’s like writing fiction. It is.
Katie: Yeah, but it’s like someone’s story that’s calling out to you to be written. It feels like at least when you embody these characters. It’s just a really, really beautiful thing. I’m really excited to hear that song by the way. I’m curious because you mentioned that there was almost a spiritual aspect to singing for you. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Ynana: Yeah, I can talk about that. It’s kind of like it really forces me, I will say, to get out of my thought process, to get out of my head, to get out of my ego and truly do it for love. So if my heart is not open, I am very nervous, I’m very worried about the result, I’m very worried about praise or whatever. I’m being critical, right? I’m listening to every little thing. If I can get out of that and be in the moment and feel gratitude for the opportunity to communicate through music, then everything is better. The singing is better, the performance is better, and you’re in the moment. The audience feels that then they’re in the moment with you. Then you have that strong connection. I’m not a Buddhist, I may be some day, but it’s that. It’s whatever it is that forces you to be in the moment and out of yourself, right? I know that that’s how I was as a child; I think that’s who we all were as children. But so much of the dabbling in music that I did over the years, so much of it had to do with the critique and the analysis and doing it for praise and just the nervousness. It was scary because I put so much negative stuff in it. I feel like we’re all sort of just trying to get back to those early days when people just sat around as a tribe and played music together.
Katie: It’s like a conscious release. When you’re a child, you can naturally just let go and you can sing to yourself and twirl around and dance for people, but it’s like you have to re-learn how to be a child when you’re an adult. I think that, going back to what we were talking about before, building that sense of safety and security, kind of letting go of the ego, seems like it would be part of that. Well, that was just a beautiful way of describing that so, thank you for that.
Ynana: It’s a good question.
Katie: Well, we’re actually running out of time here and it’s been just really lovely talking to you.
Ynana: You too, Katie.
Katie: Thank you. But before we go, I just want to know do you have any advice for any songwriters out there who are maybe starting out?
Ynana: Yeah, first of all, you really have to love it. There’s got to be something in you that’s demanding it. There is very unlikely to be any money in it. It is not glamorous. But if you really do love it, you’re going to be miserable unless you do it. So you just have to get started. It’s about the work. It’s not about the outcome. It’s about the process. Write 100 songs and then you’ll write that one that really, really rocks your world and maybe rocks the world. You got to let that go. You got to dig inside and do your work. Get tools in your toolbox. Take your classes and read your books and study up on whatever your instrument is. Do it every day if you can. Map out your week. Look at your time really, really carefully. Again, I really recommend this book “How to be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass” by JoAnneh Nagler. It’s a practical guide and that’s really important because our culture doesn’t know how to support creating art. It’s very confused about it. And you may be very confused about it too so it can really help. Just take it seriously if it’s what you really want to do inside you. It’s worth it.
Katie: Yeah and being able to learn how to do that too when you have every day responsibilities like a job or you have kids. It’s hard to say, “Oh it’s ok to be an artist if I have kids or I have a job or I have things that I need to do in my day-to-day life.” And you’re proof-positive that you can do that which is exciting. Thank you very much, Ynana, for talking with me today. I really appreciate it.
Ynana: Thank you so much for your time Katie, it was really fun. Let’s do it again sometime.