Posted by: Liz Massey | June 27, 2011

In the Studio With … Coyote Grace

Coyote Grace - from left to right, Michael Connolly, Ingrid Elizabeth and Joe Stevens.

This month, we pack a triple-punch as we interview all three members of the folk/acoustic/Americana trio Coyote Grace.

I first got to know original band members Ingrid Elizabeth and Joe Stevens when I wrote an article about them for Echo Magazine in 2009. In addition to being great musicians, Ingrid and Joe have an interesting story together, as they began their relationship before Joe completed his gender transition from female to male. Their music is easy to listen to and speaks to the heart.

Recently, Ingrid and Joe invited a third member into their band, Michael Connolloy, who is also working with them to produce their third full-length studio album.

 Tell us about your creative pursuits, paid and unpaid.

Joe: I have been writing songs since I was a teenager, more so for mental health than anything else. It then turned into my career. I have created music for dance, theater, backed up other musicians, sang in large choruses with symphonies, worked with other song writers to write songs and just love music overall. Money is an unfortunate necessity of the trade, which I try not to take too seriously.

Do you have any formal training in your creative discipline(s)? Do you feel training is important in creative development?

Joe: I do have formal training. I grew up singing in children’s choir – my mom is a choir conductor, and my father was also a singer. I started writing songs in high school and didn’t do a whole lot of anything else, and was self taught on guitar. I went to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle to study music composition, which is also where I met Ingrid.  My formal education definitely informed my creative development and taught me there are many ways to fine tune one’s craft, and that no two artists’ paths are alike.

Ingrid: My primary artistic medium is music – as songwriter, vocalist, bassist, and percussionist for Coyote Grace. I’ve had some basic training in music theory, as I grew up singing in choirs and doing musical theater, but most of my instrumental skills are completely self taught.

My musicality comes from a very intuitive place, but every little lesson or pointer I’ve been given along the way from a more skilled instructor has proved extremely valuable. I believe any training in one’s creative medium only shapes them into a more efficient vessel for their talent and self-expression to flow through.

Long before I was a full-time performing musician, I was a dancer. I was classically trained in jazz, tap, modern, hip hop and West African before relocating to the west coast at age 19. During my off-time from touring, I also perform with a contemporary fusion dance troupe in San Francisco called The Sarah Bush Dance Project.

Michael: My work is divided between being a performing musician with Coyote Grace, a music teacher on mandolin fiddle, and a recording engineer/producer.  Of the three main areas, I have received formal training only as a performer, mostly in the form of piano and clarinet lessons as a child through my teenage years.  I did complete a degree in electrical engineering, which informs the technical side of my studio work.

I feel that training doesn’t foster the creative spirit in particular, but can be hugely important in saving time in reinventing the wheel.

What habits do you cultivate to facilitate your creative “flow”?

Joe: My habits to facilitate my creative flow are to be in a room alone for an unspecified amount of time.  I have written songs outside, but inside has better acoustics, i sit close to a mirror so the sound bounces and reverberates the whole room.

Ingrid: when it comes to dance, I like to take dance classes on a regular basis when I’m home in between tours, or go out dancing at a club to see what comes out when I’m freestyling.  Musically, I really like to go see other people’s live shows, as I find I seldom have the opportunity to just sit back and be inspired. Also, most of my songwriting begins when I’m driving in the car by myself. So, being alone in a space where no one can hear me is essential to letting my unedited self-expression flow freely.

Michael: It’s important to me to have room in my schedule for “playtime” – playing around on an instrument or working on a project without a particular deadline attached to it. In Coyote Grace, several songs which are now part of our performance repertoire were honed while driving to the next tour location. We had time to kill in the car and the next thing you know, we arranged a new (or old) song and were excited to try it out onstage.

What advice would you give to a “blocked” artist in your discipline to free up their creative energies?

Joe: To the blocked artists I would say try to change something up about your routine: either re-tune your guitar or play someone else’s guitar. Play a different instrument if you can, or play song games with yourself (for example, challenge yourself to write a song with specific chords). The best thing you can do is finish a song no matter what you think of it. Songwriting is a practice; you practice it by doing it.

Michael: Contribute to someone else’s project and try to unstick them instead of yourself.  They may be able to unstick you in return – or, the simple act of actually moving forward on any project, even someone else’s, may get you moving again.

Ingrid: I agree with Michael, that working on someone else’s project and framing your artistic contribution as a backdrop instead of the foreground, can be a really good way to subconsciously be inspired and get things stirring in you. Also, I know that any kind of ‘jam session’ leaves me feeling really open to what I’m capable of and sets up a framework for me to do different things artistically, more than what I come up with on my own or what I’ve rehearsed with the group. Spontaneity and collaboration are very important tools in my artistic toolbox.

Which artistic project that you are working on excites you the most right now?

Joe: There are two main projects going on in my life. I am very excited about the next Coyote Grace album that we are working on; I am excited to see what Ingrid and I can do after four self-produced crash-course albums combined with the tools that Michael brings to the table.

I am also working on restoring a vintage 1968 silver trailer!

Ingrid: I am equally excited about two projects right now: first up is a big dance show I’ve been preparing for with The Sarah Bush Dance Project for the last 6 months. It’s called “Rocked By Women,” and is a 75 minute dance show with integrated film and music that is a tribute to the women’s music movement.  Also, Coyote Grace is heading into the studio to record our third full-length studio album this summer, and I’m so excited to have a lot more time and creative flexibility since we’re recording at Michael’s studio. This batch of songs is just bursting to be out in the world!

Michael: I am very excited to be gearing up for the next Coyote Grace studio album.  I’ll be producing this one at my studio in Seattle.  It’s exciting to get to take a collection of new songs and have the latitude to run with them.

How do you select your creative projects? What elements of a potential project tend to intrigue you the most?

Joe: Creative projects tend to select me. Other artists and their historical influences intrigue me, or the space/place in which the project may happen intrigues me. Oftentimes the thing that grabs you about a project comes as a surprise.

Ingrid: Being a full-time self-employed artist, I have to be realistic about how much time I can dedicate to a project. My first priority is whatever is brewing for Coyote Grace, and anything outside of that has to really work with the rest of my busy touring lifestyle. Mostly, I am open to working on projects that will take me as I am – a very busy touring musician, but a very dedicated and passionate performer.

I really love to work in projects that fuse lots of different mediums – dance, music, poetry, film, visual art, etc. I’m a bit of a “Jill of all trades” artistically, and I like projects that call for more than just one of my passions.

Michael: A huge factor for me is the potential to learn a new skill – it might be recording an album for a singer-songwriter who wants to try a recording technique that is new to me – or arranging a new song for Coyote Grace that calls for me to play a new instrument.  I recently started playing upright bass on a few songs in our set … traditionally, it’s Ingrid’s instrument, but she is experiencing a similar love affair with the cajon — a wooden box which you sit upon while playing.  For both of us, it’s stimulating to play a new instrument, breaking us out of our routines and giving us a different role within the band.

Any other advice to artists to help them make their creative activity more satisfying?

Joe: Believe in it, love it and do it often. Tell your story.

Ingrid: I really try to entertain as many opportunities as I can find. I know I can’t do them all, but I look at every flyer, every want ad, every Facebook invite, every random conversation, and look for the possibilities therein. For me, art is my spiritual path and my divine purpose on this earth. Nothing is more important than finding ways to give that gift to myself and sharing with the world.

Michael: As a longtime sideman and recording engineer, I spend a lot of time helping people’s musical ideas come into their fullest expression – either by playing an instrument to help fill out the sound of their ensemble, or by recording their album and coaching the best performances out of them that I can. I feel that my creativity is best expressed in helping other people’s “seed idea” become fully realized.

For artists whose primary motivation is self-expression, I would invite them to try playing the “sideman” role on someone else’s project – it can be a refreshing change of pace to lend your skills to someone else’s vision, and you may be surprised at what you create together.

Coyote Grace band members relax backstage while on tour with the Indigo Girls. (Photos courtesy of Coyote Grace)

To learn more about Coyote Grace, visit their website at http://www.coyotegrace.com.

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