Inside “Bluebird,” the New Song by Laura Westman

Zoom interview of Laura Westman and Noah Evan Wilson
Laura Westman (left) and Noah Evan Wilson (right) discussing her new song, “Bluebird,” on Zoom (August 8, 2022)

The New York City chapter of The Acoustic Guitar Project continues its tenth season with a new original song by New York-based singer-songwriter Laura Westman.

The Acoustic Guitar Project (TAGP) is a global music platform and concert series that inspires musicians to write an original song and record it live in one week. TAGP was created by Dave Adams in 2012. He launched the first season in New York City and Detroit, and the project has since expanded to more than 50 cities worldwide with songs from over 1,000 artists. Every year, in each city, curators select five local artists to participate using the same recorder and guitar, which they then sign. The NYC guitar alone had 78 signatures at the end of last season, and Westman’s makes 82.

I began curating the project in Denver in 2017 and in NYC in 2018. This year, I have teamed up with Soundshop founder Akpanoluo Etteh to curate our first season since the COVID-19 pandemic locked down the city.

The songs will be accompanied by introduction videos on The Acoustic Guitar Project website in which each artist discusses their week with the guitar and the inspiration behind their new original song. As we gear up for the coming releases and the salon and concert at The City Reliquary on September 16, Akpanoluo and I wanted to delve deeper into the conversation with them to learn more about their songwriting process and the unique experience of writing for TAGP. This week, I sat down with Laura to talk about her new song, “Bluebird.”

N: You mentioned in your introduction video that, during your week with the guitar, you felt like a part of a broader community. Having begun your music career in New York City and recently moved to the Hudson Valley, how did it feel to see the names on the guitar?

LW: First of all, it was really cool to be invited! I think part of what felt so cool about it was that it had me include myself in a group of people I look up to. It’s a very interesting moment to be like, “Oh, I belong in this cool club! That’s neat!”

And it’s cool to hear you talk about how I began my music career in New York City because that really is where I began to let my relationship with music unfold again. It was also very interesting because, when I was living in Manhattan, I was struggling with having enough space and time to really get to know people in the various arts communities in a way that I would have really wanted to. In some ways, moving away felt like leaving behind community, possibility, and accessibility.

So, to be part of this now — see all these people, go back into the archive, and listen to their music and stories — it dissolved this barrier in my mind of feeling like proximity is so critical. To feel a sense of connection and belonging in a project like this.

N: I want to take a moment to say how much I appreciate hearing that from you. I think it is exactly in line with what Dave Adams envisioned when he created this project. It is what drew me to it, and I am so glad to see you experience it and recognize it as well.

You also mentioned the element of ritual in your video. How did the ritual of TAGP impact your usual songwriting process?

LW: I think that, when you invited me to be a part of the project and I looked it up and you explained to me what I was going to need to do, I was like, ‘Okay, cool.’ Then I filed it away for later in the summer when it was my week to pick it up and all that good stuff.

Something changed when I actually physically got the guitar from you. Because then I was like, “Oh, this is like a real thing.” Now, okay, this isn’t just me like scribbling ideas down on a sheet of paper, like, I’m actually going to do this in exactly the same way that all these other people have done it.

And I don’t know about you, I’m not a religious person, so there’s a lot of, I think, rituals in life that I don’t participate in, that some people might and I think that there’s something really cool about knowing that every person who’s had this guitar has had the same exact tools, has had the same exact time, you know, has had to at some point, probably be like, “I don’t know about this,” and then probably at another point be like, “It’s time to wrap it up now!” So, in a way, it did feel like a ritual, kind of like passing through a door.

I wouldn’t brand it as a challenge; it doesn’t feel that way. I think it’s more in line with a ritual where there are steps to go through and there’s a transformation that happens. And I will say, I think one other thing about the ritual aspect that spoke to me was that I didn’t really look at the guitar, like the names on it, until I was finished and I was ready to put my name on it. I don’t know why.

But I didn’t want to sign my name until I was done with the song and the recording. It just seemed like that was the thing to do last. So, I did it last. But when I did it, I was like, “Oh, now I’m part of this, like all these other people.” I think that was the coolest moment of the ritual, the actual closing of it.

N: Were there any elements of your own songwriting ritual that you brought to the table? If so, how did the framework of TAGP affect those practices?

LW: I don’t have like a formula or like a linear way that my songwriting process goes. Often, ideas drop out of nowhere. But what I loved about this was the constraints I had to work inside of…. It was a little bit meta for me because I just ran a coaching group for a bunch of creatives where they had to empower a certain length of time to finish something. So, it’s like, I walked them through that. And then this was like, next up is me. And so, it was sort of like the universe winking at me.

One thing I do think I have fundamentally learned is that I have to be more committed in my songwriting to being satisfied in some way at the end, versus continuing to tinker with it until it’s exactly right…. When you asked me this question, I wouldn’t have put it this way, but there is often a moment where the most important part of the song is how I want it to feel, more so than any of the other elements. And I think that was a turning point…. I kind of just let go of the structure being anything super fancy and just let lie.

N: Do you often write a song in this time frame?

LW: No. I mean, sometimes it’ll fall, it’ll just: Clunk! But usually, it’s a much more drawn-out process, without a lot of constraints. It’s very playful. But I do think there’s something to be said sometimes for giving yourself that deadline. Because I knew within that commitment, I could make it what it needed to be, you know?

This one song on my EP, “The Laura Song” — I put it on my voice memos, and I used to listen to it sometimes on the subway and just like, think about what it should be, what it shouldn’t be. And then one day on the train, I was thinking about the lyrics and they just sort of showed up…. It wasn’t something I could have demanded. It just had to reveal its process.

N: I noted this lyric in your song: “Simple sun catcher you gave to me / I’m a prism of beautiful opportunity.” You mentioned in your video that the song is a “conversation with yourself.” I recall that “The Laura Song” is also a conversation with yourself. What aspects of yourself are you in conversation with in “Bluebird”?

LW: It’s interesting that you would start with the “suncatcher” line because I didn’t do this on purpose, it kind of just worked out this way…. As a conversation with me, first, my focus is very much just me and me [quoting song]: “I can’t tell if I’m mad or I’m sad right now.”

The next part is about location. The line “It’s taking a lot to make me smile,” which I think is just true for me in times of transition, when I’m uncomfortable and happiness feels the hardest like the hardest thing to touch. You know, it’s like it’s not safe yet.

And the line “took nine years to go these 66 Miles” is about moving from the Lower East Side to up here. It did take us nine years to get here. The third verse that comes about the bluebird…

N: Sorry to interrupt, but on the subject of the bluebird, you said in your video that it was “a long story” and that you “wouldn’t get into it.” Can we get into it?

LW: [Laughs.] Okay. So, the bluebird: a couple of years ago… during a time when I was like, “I’m working too much; I need room for my music and my art, but I don’t know what that’s going to look like,” I went to a meditation retreat.

And as part of the retreat, you know, you’re going very deep in your soul, essentially visualizing different parts of your soul. I don’t know another way to explain that. But there was a moment in this long, complex, deep meditation where we were picking up objects to save for later. And when we were debriefing what those objects were, the one that really stuck with me was that I had picked up the Bluebird.

And so, I was talking with the guide about it, and one of the things that I took away was that a bluebird often will represent your truest nature. You know, it’s like, so sweet and pure and natural. And at the time, my bluebird was looking for a place to land…. And, interestingly enough, here in our new house, I’ve seen a lot of blue jays, not like cute little bluebirds or anything, but like, literal blue birds.

I enjoy writing things like that into my songs, where it’s like, there’s a literal Blue Bird, but it is also representative of my stage of life right now, this moment in time. I moved here so my bluebird could land, so I could see who I am without the stories or being stressed or productive. And who is that version of me? And so that verse to me was the one that locked the song into place because it was this little moment of a bluebird landing on a tree and a moment of self-recognition.

N: In your video, you also talk about how part of this conversation with yourself is asking: Who am I without stress? That really hit me. I see how, like you said, the bluebird landing symbolizes self-recognition and a release of stress. How else do you think this question shaped the song?

LW: The bridge is the stress of right now, the bridge is: I don’t know what’s coming next. Like, I can’t see myself right now. Like, I feel unrecognizable…. As someone who works in transformation, I know when things feel particularly dark and sticky, it usually means there’s something equally beautiful and awesome on the other side of it, but it doesn’t make the process any less gross.

In that line “always come out better for my effort,” at first, I didn’t want to keep it because it felt too cheesy. But then I was like, “But that’s what’s really true”: when things are tough and I’m having a hard time getting a read on myself or knowing where I’m gonna go next, if I keep putting one foot in front of the other, it does always work out…. One thing I really enjoyed about writing this is that it’s a product of my transformational work over the last 10 years of my life…. And that last line of the bridge, “temporarily out of sight”… there was this theme of needing to see myself through other people in order to be able to see anything.

N: I think maybe that’s why the “prism” line caught my attention, because for the first time in the song there’s a “you” not just an “I”; there’s another person in the song seeing all these versions and possibilities of you.

LW: It wasn’t an intentional choice at first to add another person into this…. There is a literal suncatcher in my window that my husband Cody gave me for Christmas last year…. It wasn’t something he put a ton of thought into, but it was nice to hang up. And half the day when the sun comes in, there’s rainbow all over the floor….

So, when I was thinking about the perspective shift and how I wanted the song to be complete, I was like, “Well, when times are hard, sometimes I need to see myself the way other people see me for a while and then I can kind of catch up.” And so, talking to my nearest and dearest in the song seemed like the most appropriate thing, and the suncatcher just spoke to me in that way.

N: What else did you do that week? What music did you listen to? What books did you read? What films or TV shows did you watch? And do you think any of it had an influence on “Bluebird”?

LW: Actually, I had a lot of work-related stress that week. Just some unknowns. Summer is a tough time….

We had started watching “Severance” on Apple TV+, though…. Adam Scott is the lead, and he works for this company that’s experimenting with this chip in your brain so that when you take an elevator ride to work, the chip activates and you’re a different version of you that doesn’t think about anything or know your life outside.

N: I don’t think there’s any chip-in-the-brain for the narrator of your song.

LW: Yeah, she took hers out!

N: What’s up next for you creatively?

LW: This actually inspired me. I was like, “Well, what if I did a series of songs on the guitar?”… I think that one of the things I really enjoyed about this experience was the simplicity of it. I love that gentleness and the honesty of the song that I wrote. And the kind of love in the recording, just how dressed down it is. It’s just so simple…. The immediate what’s next is, I’d really like to go to some open mics in town and in towns close to me and start to meet people and share my music. Get to know some folks in the community. But this has picked up a desire to write some more stuff and have it be intentionally chill.

N: Since TAGP is centered around our songwriting community, is there a local artist that you’d recommend we check out?

LW: Yes! I don’t know a lot of people up here yet. However, at a gig I did in Red Bank last week, I got to see this guy who was so good! His name is Eric Ginsburg. He’s an amazing songwriter. He has the air of a bard or raconteur, an amazing presence, and he would be a great person to invite to participate in this project.

— Noah Evan Wilson

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The Soundshop Music Blog

The Soundshop Music Blog

This is the blog of The Soundshop music salon and community of New York City. This blog aims to analyze music in a way that enhances general music knowledge.