Bethany Thomas On Chicago’s Creative Cross-Pollination
Written by Vocalo Radio on August 21, 2020
From rock to blues, from soul to opera, from the Hideout to the Lyric Opera, Bethany Thomas is a powerhouse of the arts.
The definition of a dynamic and multifaceted performer, Thomas has called Chicago’s art scene her home for two decades, with no signs of stopping.
Thomas stopped by to talk about her creative process and her upcoming album BT/She/Her.
Vocalo: Thank you so much for speaking with us! With everything you do—singing, songwriting, acting, performing—how would you describe your work to someone new in just a few sentences?
Bethany Thomas: Depending on who I’m talking to, I’m either an actor who’s in bands OR a singer who also does plays. I feel like there are a ton of artists who straddle that line- it’s only once you start talking about the specific bands/plays that it seems extreme.
Your music itself is just as versatile as your talent! From Folk to Soul to Rock and more, you’re not afraid to dive into and blend genres. It makes me curious as to who some of your biggest musical influences are.
The answer to that question is different every time I’m asked. Sounds from these artists run through my head A LOT: Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, David Byrne, Kate Bush, Radiohead, Prince, Minnie Riperton, Harolyn Blackwell, Joni Mitchell, Judy Garland, Isley Brothers, Ann Wilson, Linda Ronstadt, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Turner, Neil Young, David Bowie.
I know you’re deeply rooted in Chicago – were you born here? What about Chicago’s creative scene do you find so addicting?
I grew up in Kenosha, Wis., but now celebrating my twentieth year as a Chicagoan!
Oh sheesh, will we ever have a scene again? I hope so. I say that because I think a lot of Chicago’s creative scene is shaped by our love of being in a room together to share an experience. It’s addictive because it doesn’t take long to feel a degree of ownership over a specific scene or venue or festival when so many circles (music, comedy, poetry, live lit, theater, activists) cross-pollinate so many spaces.
We’ve got “I’ll Keep Walkin’ (Now More Than Ever)” on our “Poised To Break Through” playlist and it is, as you’ve described it, an “iconic moody bop.” Interestingly though, this song talking about isolation, was written before quarantine was even a worry in anyone’s mind, and the song we’ve got on our playlist is actually a quarantine-dance-remix of the original, which was dropped back in January. First of all, how incredibly prescient! Were you looking back on this song in March and April and just shaking your head?!
Ha! Right? Though isolation and anxiety are pretty timeless 😉 But it was actually all my producer, Packy Lundholm‘s, doing! He straight up made the whole thing in secret and just surprised me with the track in late April. It blew my mind. It’s so different. I’d never written a dance song! I love it. Remixing anything of mine would have never occurred to me.
What inspired the revamp?
Packy’s tastes and skills are really strong all across the board… he was just feeling saucy and wanted to try something completely different from our album vibe and more in a Tame Impala/Holy Ghost direction.
Of course, “I’ll Keep Walkin'” is a single from your upcoming album, BT/SHE/HER, out August 28, and is your first project since your debut EP First dropped in 2017. What have you learned about putting together a record in the three years since First?
First felt like an anthology, or a collection of songs we made and liked and wanted to just get out there. BT/She/Her was developed. I had the title pretty early on and made kind of a narrative/energy arc for myself to try to follow. It’s anchored by a few older songs (“I’m Not Sorry,” “Air is Smoke,” “Run”) that my band had been playing a while but never settled into proper arrangements, and filled out with newer tunes written on the road, on the other side of heartbreak, on my first guitar… but in service of the arc.
This album will be more focused and personal than First. Did you work on honing in on your sound, your message, or both? And what steps did you take to do so?
Both, I think. I was lucky enough to enlist the same musicians with whom I usually play live, and they are all multi-instrumentalists, so a new tune could go a million different ways depending on who played what. Figuring out who adds texture or who rocks a lead was a big part of building the sound. Once I figured out where/how I wanted a tune to fit, my co-producer/engineer/mixer/musician Packy Lundholm would help me shape it to make sense in the big picture.
You’ve said that on your upcoming album you’ll have “proclamations and questions – for myself as much as anyone – about moving through the world in this bi-racial, fat, queer, wonderful body.” What are some of those proclamations?
I wrote “I’m Not Sorry” and “I’m Not Scared” years ago but it’s a concept I have to re-learn every day. I am through apologizing for the space I take up and I no longer care if that bothers you. Physical space, professional space, intersectional space, space for one’s anxiety, yearning, discovery, growth, space for one’s love.
The album was recorded throughout 2019 between your gigs as an actor, and then mixed and mastered in the middle of a pandemic… How do you find the inspiration (and energy) to keep moving forward and continually creating?
I don’t know how to stop working. Even if there is no profound inspiration. My collaborators and I did so much shit just for the sake of getting together to do it, and that’s not how things work anymore. The pandemic has proved my lack of hobbies dangerously glaring at me and I have a lot of weird energy bouncing around my home without any productive direction. So while this album is an important milestone for me, there was never a set release date or big show to play.
When we had to start canceling mixing sessions at the studio in March, I was very afraid I’d somehow let it fade away into the noxious fumes of 2020. Luckily, Packy was still knee deep and would email me mixes. I’d mask up and walk around Humboldt Park to listen and make notes. Some of it felt like it was from a million years ago, but some of it gave me life in a new way than it had before. And listening to the old stuff mostly made me want to write new stuff, so in June I started a whole different record with my girl Tawny Newsome, and that re-lit the fire under my ass to actually get this out there. This is the only job I’ve got now.
What can we expect from you, to celebrate the album release? What do you have planned for your fans since we can’t have in-person shows right now?
Ugh it’s so boring now! I hope to get a live show taped or something in September, but who knows? A stretch goal is to make a video.
Finally, your website states that BT/SHE/HER‘s “Nine tracks explore moments with Bethany as the woman she is and the woman she wants to be… or maybe just wants.” Can you tell us, who is the woman you want (to be)?
The woman I want to be sees no limits for herself. She is inextricably connected to the earth and gives more than she takes.
Bethany Thomas also put together a playlist of songs that are especially meaningful. You can listen to them here:
Follow Bethany Thomas on Twitter
BT/SHE/HER releases Aug. 28.
Interview edited for length and clarity by Luis Mejía Ahrens
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