“But you kinda have to put yourself out there anyway and see what happens.”
When you listen to Heather Hammers’ song, “Comedy Show” maybe it will hit you that you’re not where you want to be at that given moment. Maybe you’ll be on a four-minute trek that’s so familiar your phone has long since memorized it as your home-to-work drive. The chorus will come in, “Well, I can’t stay here/ No, I can’t die here” as dilapidated homes parade by your driver’s side window, and you’ll be left wondering what’s happened to your hometown or was it always this bad?
Then, as the song concludes, you’ll be pulling into the parking lot. Maybe you’ll feel a sense of control, a realization that nothing is done yet, that it’s up to you what comes next. And as the sun peers over the building you’ve known so well for the last nine years, maybe you’ll feel the comforting warmth of familiarity. This is your home, after all. It’s just the spaces in between that seem to challenge that.
This balance between feeling trapped yet hopeful, heartbroken yet resilient, is prevalent in a lot of Heather’s songs. So is the theme of home, of finding a safe, comforting place in a world that is neither. Maybe home for you is a space in the Northwest that you visited once and fell in love with, maybe it’s a subway ride deep under New York City, or maybe it lies on each end of a four-minute drive you know so well you could drive it in your sleep.
At times, I love where I’m from. Other times, I feel stuck here. Both of these things can be true at the same time. Still yet, this town isn’t my home. No, my home is the places I’ve carved out with my loved ones at the edge of it all. It’s a place we’ll take with us wherever we go.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been fortunate to exchange a few emails with musician, Heather Hammers as we discussed her music career, songwriting, and how hard it can be to share personal songs with those you’re closest to.
Our conversation follows:
Dane wrote on July 31st at 3:53pm:
Let’s start with something I legit don’t know, but probably should. What led you to start playing music in the first place? Has playing music changed you at all?
Heather replied on July 31st at 6:03pm:
I’ve been singing from the time I could walk and talk, so I guess learning to play instruments was always something that was bound to happen. I would sing as I walked around the house, write little songs with my friends, and perform in school talent shows. It’s always just been a part of me, but it wasn’t until I was about 14-15 that I decided I wanted to play instruments. I was just starting to get seriously into music at that point. I think a lot of us go through that sort of phase when we’re teenagers, that period of time where we feel like we’re waking up and really discovering music and figuring out what we love for the first time. I was into a lot of singer-songwriter type stuff then and decided that I wanted to play guitar, so I bought a super cheap (like $40) acoustic and started looking up chords online and teaching myself to play.
Music has changed me in so many ways. It’s been a form of therapy for me for a long time. It helps me cope and process my emotions when things are hard, and it encourages me and makes me dream big when nothing else can. I tend to be pretty closed off sometimes, so having a way to let all of that out is huge for me. Aside from that, I’ve also met tons of cool people through music. Friends that I’ve made at local shows, fellow musicians I’ve played in bands with, and even people I’ve connected with through email, YouTube, social media have all impacted me so much.
Dane wrote on August 3rd at 8:58pm:
I never really knew you before we met at shows so it's awesome to get a little insight into who you were before then. Music did similar things for me, though I started later in life. I got my first guitar for Christmas when I was 19 and I didn't even know how to put my fingers on the strings. Within a couple of months though I was writing silly songs for my friends. Music definitely helped me break out of my shyness and awkwardness (some) and, like you said, helped with self-expression and meeting a lot of cool people.
Since music has always been a part of your life, do you ever see yourself not writing songs or performing? What's something you haven't done yet with music that you still want to do?
Heather wrote on August 6th at 12:37pm:
I couldn’t remember where exactly we met, I’m glad you mentioned that it was at shows! It’s cool to know that you’ve had some similar experiences with playing music. I’ve always really enjoyed your songs, so it’s nice to get a little insight into how you started playing as well.
I don’t think I can ever see myself not writing, but I’m not sure I’ll always want to perform. While I love how it feels to get out and play songs live and meet people, it takes a lot of energy and can be a little emotionally draining for me (intovert over here). I’ve gone through spans of a couple years at a time where I didn’t really play out and I was fine, so I guess I don’t see it as an essential part of me. As long as I can always write and record my songs, I’ll be happy.
As far as something I haven’t done yet that I want to do, at some point I’d love to professionally record an album and get it pressed on vinyl. I have dozens of songs that are sitting around in limbo waiting to be shared. I picture a lot of them full band, complete with drums and flutes and violins and steel guitar and all sorts of special little magical sounds that I don’t have the means to create on my own. I want it to be a big collaborative effort where I bring in a bunch of my friends and other talented musicians to help bring the songs to life. I guess that’s a fairly simple goal…but as of right now, there’s not much more I really want. Touring someday would also be super cool, but I’d like to wait until my 1 1/2-year-old daughter is a little older.
Dane wrote on August 8th at 4:13pm:
I definitely agree about how emotionally draining playing a show can be. While I'm in the moment, I love it; I feel so open and it's such a release. But then later on, it's like anxiety rushes in and I start critiquing every mistake, each misfretted chord (there are usually a lot for me), each off-key note, and then it's like: oh, my god, I was really acting dumb at that one point, what was I thinking?
With that said, I do enjoy it, but the older I get, the fewer shows I actually want to play (which it's not like I really play a whole lot any more anyway). Also, of course, I'm full of contradictions because I would love to go on a week long run of shows again or do anything like a tour.
Having an album released on vinyl has always been a goal of mine too. I would love to hear an album of your songs, fully realized and fleshed out however you'd like them to be. I hope you do that some day, because I'm sure whatever you'd make would be great. I think if you started a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign, it would be funded so fast.
Beyond just audio though, your YouTube videos have really taken on a life of their own over the years too. What was the first video of yours to really take off and get thousands of views? What was that like? What is your process like for making your videos now? Has it changed since you started?
Heather wrote on August 10th at 7:53pm:
Oh, man. I love the way you describe the aftermath of playing shows! I’ve said similar things to myself on countless occasions.
I'm glad you mentioned crowd-funding, because I've been thinking about doing that for a while now. I've almost done a Kickstarter so many times, but one thing or another keeps holding me back. One big thing - I've realized that part of me is worried I'm not totally ready. While I wholeheartedly believe that art is never perfect and is never meant to be, I tend to look back at older stuff I've done and notice all of the things I should've done differently or could've done better. So then I overthink it all and I'm like, "Oh gosh, what if I hit a flat note again and don't catch it?" or even "What if I release something and a year from now I completely hate it?" It's funny, because when I'm listening to music, I find those little imperfections so special. Hearing a chair creak or an old heater whirring in the background or a few faint words spoken between verses... those things add emotion and draw me deeper into a song. But when it comes to my own music, I need to learn to let go and embrace that kind of stuff. I'm working on it and hope to start taking steps toward an album really soon. Hearing that you think people would want to contribute to something like that is super encouraging.
I'm pretty sure my first video to really take off was my "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" cover. At the time I uploaded it, I was typically getting a few thousand views per video, but that one blew up out of nowhere. I'm not sure if somehow YouTube started recommending it to people, or maybe the Insidious movies brought the original song further into the spotlight, but it's still my most viewed video to-date. I had a ton of fun filming that one. A friend and I walked out into the woods a few blocks from my house with a ukulele, a laptop, and a microphone in tow. It was cold and nearing sunset and I just stood there in the middle of the trees playing the song. Music and being outdoors are two of my favorite things, so combining them for that video made a lot of sense. I've gotten comments on how the setting adds to the eeriness of the song, and others have commented on how I make the song "less creepy." Either way, it's really cool (and it kind of blows my mind) that so many people are watching it.
Although I've upgraded some equipment over the years, the basic process of making videos is still the same. I choose either a song I've recently wrote or a cover that has been impacting me, and practice until I can (at least mostly) make it through the whole thing without messing up. It usually takes several tries to get a take I'm okay with. Once I get that done, I'll load everything onto my computer to start editing and adding harmonies/instruments/whatever else I come up with. I spend a lot of time playing around with ideas (and my junky old laptop is awful), so the whole process can take weeks sometimes. It can be a lot of hard work, but the feeling of accomplishment is absolutely worth it.
Dane replied on August 14th at 5:02pm:
Your videos are always so impressive and well made. That's an entirely separate skill apart from the recording, which is separate from the songwriting, but you excel at all three. Though at the same time, your songwriting is so strong, it would show through regardless.
I once heard Kevin Devine say that with most every song he writes, he tries to encapsulate a range of emotions while also telling a story to expand on those themes. He then went on to say that he feels like he's only accomplished this a handful of times, giving his song, "I Was Alive Back Then" as an example. Is there a song of yours that you feel most proud of? A song that you can point to and say, "I got that one right"?
Heather wrote on August 16th at 1:15pm:
Last fall, I wrote a song called, “Comedy Show” that I still feel pretty good about. Although it covers some heavy stuff, it also has sweet moments woven in, and I’m really pleased with the way the whole thing came together. The guitar part turned out exactly how I envisioned it, the structure is a nice change of pace from my norm (I hardly ever write choruses these days, because I find it one of the hardest things to do well), and the melodies seemed to flow out of me effortlessly. I’m not sure if other people do this or not (I only have a handful of times in my 10+ years of writing songs), but it’s one where I look back and think, “Man, this is so solid. How is it possible that it came from me?!”
It almost feels foreign, like some song from a like-minded artist that I happened to come across when I needed it most.
Dane wrote on August 20th at 4:05pm:
Man, I love “Comedy Show,” that was the first song I had heard from you in a while and I remember just being floored by it. There’s so much honesty in your songs that I wonder if they’re ever hard to play for those you’re close to. Are you ever hesitant to share your songs with your family? Or do you ever think of your daughter growing up and listening to the songs you’ve written? Does that make you change your approach at all?
Heather replied on August 25th at 9:06pm:
It’s super hard to play songs for people I’m close to. I can only remember a few times that I’ve played a song I wrote about someone for them in person. It makes me nervous every time, which is probably why I don’t do it often. I’m also not great at sharing my feelings face-to-face (which is probably a big part of the reason that writing songs is so important to me). These days, when I write a song for someone, I’m most likely to just record it or make a YouTube video and hope they hear it.
Some of my songs are so personal that the idea of my parents or my daughter hearing them makes me cringe a little bit. I’ve thought of that a few times, but for the most part I try my best to put it in the back of my mind. If I focused on it too much, I think it would really mess with my ability to write. And honestly, I feel like that nervous, uneasy feeling is just a part of making art. You never know exactly how it’s going to be received or if your close friends are going to understand, but you kinda just have to put yourself out there anyway and see what happens.
Dane wrote on August 27th at 2:32pm:
Oh, yeah, it can be super uncomfortable to share that stuff with those you’re close to, but sometimes it’s even more awkward to have acquaintances or co-workers hear my most vulnerable thoughts and feelings. But like you said, you just have to put yourself out there and let people decide for themselves how they feel. And since I lean towards a near constant-anxiousness anyways, that’s a good sentiment to help chill me out some.
You mentioned that it’s hard to talk about your feelings face-to-face but you can write them in a song. Has there been a song you’ve written that helped you through a difficult time? Or has there been a song that—through the writing process—helped you better understand your own feelings? If so, and you don’t mind sharing, which ones?
Heather replied on August 31st at 11:05am:
In one way or another, I think every song I’ve written has probably helped me through something. I’ve written countless heartbreak songs that helped me heal and gave me hope. I’ve written songs about family members and friends who’ve hurt me, which helped me process those feelings and let go of them. Like I said earlier, writing is therapeutic for me. Anytime I have really strong emotions about something, I try to make it a point to get them down on paper.
One thing I’ve been trying to do more of lately is use my songs to look harder at situations and figure myself out. Now don’t get me wrong, I still love a good breakup song, but these days I feel like there’s so much more to say. A good example of this is a song I started writing a few years ago, called “Home.” It was shortly after I had taken a trip to Washington state to visit family, and I had completely fallen in love with the Pacific Northwest. “Home” started out as a sort of daydream, of me imagining myself leaving everything I know and moving there to start a new life. It was left unfinished for months, and by the time I came back to it, I was newly pregnant with my daughter. I was trying to picture what her life would look like, while at the same time, thinking about my own parents and my childhood. How things were far from perfect, but how I was surrounded and protected by love, and how genuinely happy I was. With all of those thoughts swimming around in my head, this verse was born.
I have come to accept all the things I had once denied,
My careless heart doesn’t break for the ones I will leave behind,
And my mother continues to cry in bed,
Wishing still for a life that she maybe could’ve had
That song ended up being about several different things, but the overarching theme is really just me trying to figure things out. It helped me cope with change and uncertainty and taught me a lot about myself at a really important time.
Thanks for the interview. This was really fun!
Heather Hammers is a singer and songwriter from Southern Illinois. You can listen/buy Heather’s music on bandcamp as well as subscribe to her channel on YouTube. Heather also makes fantastic creations for her small business, The Crooked Spruce over on Etsy. You can support Heather’s music via Patreon for cool exclusive rewards each month.