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Arts and Entertainment

Interview: Erin McCarley, a Songwriter You've Heard on TV

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Erin McCarley

Erin McCarley/photo by Reid Rolls

In recent months, Erin McCarley's music has been featured on shows such as Grey's Anatomy, Privileged and One Tree Hill. The movie trailer for He's Just Not That Into You includes her song "Love, Save the Empty." And tonight, she'll appear on the Late Show with David Letterman. Not bad for an artist whose first album debuts today!

LAist recently chatted with McCarley a couple days after hanging out on the set of her first music video shoot. During the conversation, she opened up about the new record, the best advice she ever received, and why she might take up grocery shopping as a hobby.

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LAist: I noticed that your song "Pony" has a couple references to The Wizard of Oz in it. What inspired that decision?

Erin McCarley: I don't think I meant to do that. (laughs) I don't really play piano, but that was the first time I wrote on piano, and I was just in my apartment dinking around on this crappy Casio. I was literally playing with two fingers doing this "Chopsticks"-type thing and I just started singing. It's really weird when phrases fly out of your mouth that you're not intending, and you don't even necessarily know what it means at the time. It was just this imagery. I don't know why I went to Yellow Brick Road!

Have you found that your writing style changes depending on the instrument you write with?

Oh yeah. Whenever I'm stuck as I'm trying to write, my friend k.s. Rhoads tells me, "Go get someone else's guitar and write on that." Even if it's the same instrument, but one that's not yours, just the tone of it inspires you do to something different.

Since Love, Save the Empty is your debut album, I'm curious how long it took for you to write all of the songs on the record.

It's my first record, so I think it's been compiling for a while. But I guess I really started digging in and writing it when I moved to San Diego around 2004 or 2005. We finished the entire album last July, so that means it took three or four years. I pulled a lot of it from the past—any lingering pent up emotion!

What's your writing process like?

I usually start with some sort of melody. I'm a vocalist over an instrumentalist, so I'm usually humming a melody in my head, then I'll follow it with a guitar. Usually, if it's something that I'm really into and can feel, some words will come out that reflect the same emotion as the music.

Do you play any instruments on the album in addition to singing?

Yeah, I play guitar.

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And don't you play melodica as well?

That's just on the tour we're doing right now. It's so fun to play!

Erin McCarley/photo by Reid Rolls

I know you've said you pay a lot of attention to the delivery of the words you sing. Whose style do you admire most when it comes to that?

Fiona Apple, for sure.

As you're touring, which song off the new album is most fun to sing live?

Well, I haven't played every song off the record yet, so it's still to be determined. It really depends.

I've gotta say that "Blue Suitcase" makes me feel like doing the tango...

Yeah, "Blue Suitcase" probably is one of the more fun ones. That song is really great to play when I'm with my full band. It really depends on what kind of setup I have. "Pitter-Pat" is always special live, and "Hello/Goodbye" is pretty rocking.

Speaking of "Pitter-Pat," who did the background vocals on that song?

That's Jamie Kenney, who also produced and co-wrote a lot of the record. He and I are the only ones who did background vocals on the whole album.

How did the two of you meet?

We met through a mutual friend in Nashville. I had worked with a couple of different producers and had just not found the right match. It was so important to find a good producer—I don't know if I wasn't confident enough or if I simply didn't have the skills to be able to use the technology. But what I found in Jamie was someone who could bring out the vision I had in my head, understand it and make it better than I ever thought it could be. It's been amazing.

At one point, I was living in San Diego, and he came out to LA to check out a band. We had dinner and I played him some songs. What he spoke to that—what he saw in the music—sounded right along the lines of what I wanted.

So he said, "You don't have to give me any money. Come to Nashville, we'll work for a week, I'll get a bunch of studio guys out and we'll see what happens." So I went out there and the first songs we did were "Pony" and "Sleepwalking" and it was pretty amazing. From the first moment of working together, we knew it was going to be something pretty special.

Did you have the strings and the strong beats in mind when you were originally writing the songs?

There were really broad ideas and general instrumentation. I'm a huge fan of Jon Brion and what he does, and Beck as well. There were certain records where I thought, "I just love how this feels." So Jamie and I sat in a room for a while—listening to a few records—and I told him, "This is the direction. I want this, but within the emotion of my song." Jamie captured the emotion of the words and just the feel of everything so well.

Erin McCarley - "Love, Save the Empty"

And as a result of what you produced in that recording session, you got some attention from record labels. I know you're now with the Universal Republic label. How did they come to sign you? Was it after SXSW?

Yeah. Jamie had I had posted a couple songs up on myspace when we were in the process of making the album. We were only going to do an EP, then we raised enough money to finish a full record. By that point, a few people—labels, managers, publishers—had contacted me on myspace. So I compiled a list of everybody, but I didn't have anything to give them. They wanted more but I had to say, "No, not yet. It's not done!" So after we finished enough, we sent six songs out to people who had requested them. I think those got circulated further than I realized.

Universal Republic ended up getting it from a friend of a friend, so they—along with the other labels—came down to SXSW. It was really cool that they all showed up. Universal was the first one that said, "We want to fly you out next week. We want to be the first. Just tell us when and where." From the very beginning, they were just so enthusiastic and wanted to be a part of this record. So that was enticing!

You got some great buzz after that SXSW performance and it seems like that catapulted a lot of what has happened since...

I know! And I feel thankful, because it doesn't really happen like that for a lot of people. It's an honor.

It is pretty amazing, too, that your album is only being released this week, and yet your music has already been in all these television shows and the movie trailer. What's been the strangest or most surreal part of this past year?

I don't know—this may sound kinda weird, but whenever I'd hoped for this, I had sort of envisioned what's going on right now. I have a couple mentors who have been in the industry for almost 20 years, so I've asked a lot of questions along the way. They're very laid back mentors, but very wise. They'd tell me what to focus on and what not to, that sort of thing. I think their support helped it not be a shock to the system.

He's Just Not That Into You - Movie Trailer

How did you find out that your song was going to be included in He's Just Not That Into You?

I'm sure it was Justin, my manager. I think CAA, my booking agent, has a film and TV department. He's Just Not That Into You had already picked their songs for the soundtrack. They were doing market testing and the music in the trailer wasn't testing as well. From what I understand, they hired another music supervisor to come in and revamp it a little bit. The reviews since then have shot up. I don't know if it's due to my song, because I think they added another song to the trailer as well, but it's crazy how music will affect a film's reviews!

A minute ago, you mentioned that you have some great mentors in the music business. What's the best music-related advice you've ever received?

I think it was from Kathleen Carey, who's my publisher now. Five years ago, I met her through the same mutual friend who hooked me up with Jamie. I went to her office and told her what I wanted to do and she told me, "Just go home and write." And I said, "But don't you think I should try to play Hotel Cafe once a week or something?" But she persisted, "No, you need to go home and write."

So I started writing, and anytime I came up with something I thought was good, I'd drive up to LA and play it for her. At the time, I was totally broke and was thinking, "Why won't she give me a publishing deal? I just want that so I can write full time and not have to worry about money." I was pretty much having a pity party, thinking to myself, "Why is this not good enough? I should be out on tour!"

But she just kept sending me home saying, "Write more. It's not worth wasting your time on the road if you're not proud of every single one of your songs." And she was right.

But once you finished the album, you finally got to start touring. What was your recent stint on the all-female Hotel Cafe Tour like?

Honestly, I was a little apprehensive going into it. Since it's all girls, you just never know the level of cattiness. But everyone was very sweet and down to earth. It was a great experience. I think if I could change anything, I would've had each of us bring out our own player that we're used to touring with. We played with this great house band, but I felt sorry for them, because they had to learn something like 74 songs due to our rotating cast of girls!

And I know you're really busy, but do you have any hobbies when you're not touring, recording or writing?

Man, I used to know what a hobby was! It's so weird because I just want to be normal when I'm home. One night, when I'd just gotten home from the Hotel Cafe Tour, I was driving by the grocery store. It was dark out and I'm always a little more moody and sad at night anyway. But I saw some women going into the grocery store with their carts and I thought, "I'm going to die if I don't go and do that right now!" I just had to go to the grocery store, push my little cart and stay there as long as I wanted to. No one could stop me. So, grocery shopping could be my hobby. (laughs)

Speaking of shopping, do you have any favorite LA shops, venues or restaurants?

Obviously, the Hotel Cafe is a place I hang out at a lot, and we also go to the piano bar right around the corner. Food-wise, I like Katsuya and the restaurant at the Hotel Roosevelt.

This must be such a busy time for you. What are the next couple weeks going to be like?

Well, the day my CD is released, Jan. 6, I'm playing Letterman. I also have a CD release party that night at Joe's Pub in New York. Then, a week or so later, I'll be touring the country with Brett Dennen. I'm looking forward to it!

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Erin.

Erin McCarley's debut record, Love, Save the Empty, is out today. To learn more about her music, check out her myspace page.

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