Name: Katy Guillen
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current Release: Katy Guillen & The Drive's debut full-length Another One Gained is slated for release on 19th August 2022. Until then, you can already check out the first two singles off the album: “Set In Stone” and “Discoloration.”
If you enjoyed this interview with Katy Guillen, visit the official Katy Gullen & The Drive website. You can also find her on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you?
I create some of my favorite work based on emotional responses to life experiences, and inspiration usually strikes when I’m feeling impassioned about something.
I like to sit down and have deliberate writing sessions too, because creating in that way allows you to truly focus and work on your craft with a more structured and thoughtful approach.
What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
The role of dreams, journaling, stream of consciousness, response to visual art or music, personal relationships, mental health issues, the state of society and how it affects people, and dealing with the loss of loved ones have all been woven into music I’ve written over the years.
This album is full of songs that cope with change and taking care of your mental health through challenging times (Because It’s Blue, Avoiding Every Sound, Discoloration, Harsh Realization), as well as songs that follow personal relationships (Another One Gained, Different), and a song that I wrote in memory of my uncle (Nothing Comes Close).
I use music as an outlet for expressing, understanding, and relating.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualization' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
The songs on Another One Gained were largely unplanned. Most of the songs were written during a time of transition and uncertainty, and I was writing as a way to release, to cope, and to heal. Most of the songs came from a deep, raw, and emotional space. However, there was a lot of ‘visualization’ and planning that went into the arrangement, production, and soundscape of the songs.
Steph [Stephanie Williams] and I tracked demos at home during the pandemic- we would listen back, try out ideas like adding a chorus here, layering in a melodic guitar line there, and then we sent those ideas to Kevin Ratterman (engineer / producer). Then there was another phase of planning and visualizing the songs based on his suggestions.
It’s good to stay open and be flexible during this creative process.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
If I’m planning on doing a writing session, there are a few things I prefer, like silence, either alone or with Steph, and being in nature.
I’ve done a few retreats where I went to a friend's cabin by myself, unplugged from social media and the internet, and the only thing I did was write for a few days. I would go on walks or runs and spend time outside listening to nature. I really prefer peacefulness and silence and I love to drink coffee when writing.
On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes I’m struck with a lyric or melody during the most chaotic and inconvenient times, like driving to a gig or during soundcheck. When that’s the case, I just write down the ideas in my phone or record an idea in my voice memos.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I usually just work from ideas that I’ve recorded or written down already. Sometimes I’ll set a timer and play around on my acoustic to see what comes out.
You can’t put too much pressure on yourself to write a ‘banger’ every single time you sit down because it takes something away from your ability to be genuine and free.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
Lyrics come in different ways. They can happen on their own before music, after the music, or at the same time. I’ve experienced all of these ways of writing lyrics.
It really just depends on what that first seed of the song is - was it a melody, three words, a chord, maybe a beat?
The inspiration or beginning of a song can vary, and the lyrical component depends on the individual song.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
To me lyrics are good when they’re either simple and memorable (this usually has to do with a good melody), they’re genuine in that you can tell the words came from the heart or the gut, they illustrate a situation or emotion in a poetic but not overly complicated way (Erika Wennerstrom), or they relate a personal experience in an accessible but unique way (Phoebe Bridgers, Sharon Van Etton). There are lots of different writing styles out there, but these are some of my favorite types of lyrics and are approaches that I strive to include in my songwriting.
It just comes down to what lyrics make the back of my head tingle or give me some sort of visceral reaction, and what lines I find myself singing randomly in my house - those are good lyrics (again usually melody has a lot to do with it). Lilly Hiatt writes some of my favorite lyrics lately.
[Read our Lilly Hiatt interview]
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
It evolves over time. During the pandemic, we had so much time to work on our music and time to revisit ideas and finish songs. I forget how I worked creative time into my schedule before the pandemic.
It can be more challenging to find good writing time when we’re busy touring and in the middle of an album release cycle. I still capture snippets of inspiration and ideas anytime it hits me.
For me, the work evolves, unravels, and develops over the course of a couple of years just based on how much time I’m able to spend on writing and how often I’m able to get to that quiet, relaxed headspace. I like to call it ‘being in the mode.’
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I do like to have control over the process, while staying open to ideas and being flexible in trying things. Having control over your art is one of the benefits to being an independent artist.
With Another One Gained, Steph and I had an idea of what we wanted the final product to be and chose our team to help us achieve the direction we had in mind. I think it’s important for artists to have their own visions for their projects and to work with people who enhance but also challenge their ideas to create the best possible versions of their art.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Yes, this happens to me. My brain likes to bounce around a variety of possibilities. I try to not get too stuck on an initial idea or be “too precious” about the early stages of a song, knowing that it will likely change.
You do a dance with a song - sometimes you lead and sometimes it leads. That’s why I think it’s good to keep an open mind and an adventurous and fun attitude when writing.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I’m most creative in two states; when I’m relaxed and at peace because I can hear and sort my thoughts and ideas, or when I’m overcome by an emotion or impassioned about something.
The process of writing can be spiritual, cleansing, and cathartic, especially when used as a way of processing emotional experiences. When this is the case, I usually feel better after I write.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Once I think I’m ‘done’ with a song, I usually sit with it for a period of time, we’ll practice it at home quite a bit, sometimes we’ll try it out live at a show and see how it feels or what the response is, and oftentimes we revisit and make a few edits.
I used to think that what marked the end of a song was when you finished the recording, got it mastered, and released it. However, I’ve come to realize that songs will always be open to interpretation, even by the writer. A lot of artists have re-recorded their own songs or made different ‘versions’. My former band did a whole album that reimagined arrangements of our previous songs.
I would consider reimagining or reinterpreting to be part of the writing process, because it takes a lot of creativity and can be challenging to let go of an initial idea of what a song should be.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
My take is that production is very important and should be thoughtfully planned out by selecting a producer and/or engineer to work with, having an idea of how you want the album to sound, and mapping out your recording days to maximize productivity and allow time for exploring ideas. If you think through, discuss, and plan out as much of your project as possible ahead of tracking, then the processes of mixing and mastering can be done more efficiently.
I’ve learned that it’s easy to get hung up on tedious and oftentimes unnecessary edits in the mixing stage, so it’s important to work with engineers that you trust. We’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing mixing and mastering engineers who have made those parts of the process feel streamlined.
This is how we approached making Another One Gained, and we’re very happy with the outcome.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
To me, the ‘sense of emptiness’ happens because there’s so much build up to releasing an album. It can be difficult to put so much time, energy, heart, and money into a release, only to have people ask when your next one is coming out.
I think a lot of people don’t realize how much work an artist does to release music (especially independent artists) and how much time it takes. There is a cost and process to releasing your art that can be emotionally, mentally, and financially exhausting to the artist. To me that’s what the sense of emptiness is; it’s mainly exhaustion and a chance to take a huge exhale and say, “X years of work is now out in the world.”
However, the release process continues for months after the release date and there is a lot of excitement and joy in sharing something that you’ve put so much into. It’s important to give yourself time and space after a dense release timeline to process and recharge before starting the next creative endeavor.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I think writing a piece of music is both similar to and different from making a great cup of coffee. I was a barista throughout college, and I treated making coffee like an artform by appreciating attention to detail and respecting the elements and skill sets involved in crafting coffee and espresso drinks.
Similarly, I appreciate the attention to detail and discipline that it takes to express a feeling or idea in the form of art. I’m an emotional writer, and I put a lot of time and passion into what I create. For me, writing music is a more complex creative process than making coffee. There are fewer, more subjective guidelines to follow and much more room for individual expression in songwriting.
I respect anyone who does their job, or creates their art with passion and authenticity.