Artist Spotlight: Billy Schafer
With his alt-pop melodies drawing comparison to the music of Jason Mraz and Joshua Radin, San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Billy Schafer has made quite a name for himself in the Bay Area music scene. He’s already been honored by his peers with a West Coast Songwriters Association award and an invitation to perform at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco.
In the wake of his debut release, First to Believe, Schafer took some time to answer questions for TWRY about his life, his music, and that flying pig floating across the cover of his album.
Interviewed by Heather Kobrin
You grew up in a musical family – your mother played piano and your father classical trumpet. What kind of influence did this have on your adult musical tastes?
I think it influenced me in a couple ways. One, I’m pretty melody-oriented —both in my writing and in what I’m drawn to as a listener. Second, I suspect all the classical music I was exposed to has shaped my production sensibility. I’ll be writing a song and hear a French horn or pizzicato string part. I get excited by the prospect of drawing from a broad palette of instruments versus just a standard rock instrumentation. Beirut is an example of a band that hits the bullseye for me in terms of great melody and more eclectic production. I’d love to be in a band like that at some point.
While you’re originally from Houston, San Francisco is now your home. What made you decide to make the move out West?
My family came out to California for a two-week Schafers-Go-To-Wallyworld type road trip when I was a kid. The fantastic landscape and unofficial “anything-is-possible” motto of the west (and California in particular) enthralled me. It felt right. I think I knew then I’d end up in California.
There’s a very detailed post on your web site blog discussing the reasons why you write songs. You note that a songwriter friend of yours advised against posting it, because he thinks music fans aren’t interested in hearing about the process. TWRY readers are the real deal though, and we want to know. Can you give us the CliffsNotes version of what inspires you to write?
To boil it down, it feels good. I get sort of punch-drunk from messing around with melodies and words. It’s viscerally and intellectually stimulating. Yes, sometime it’s work, but mostly it’s fun. The other part is that I’m drawn to the challenge and satisfaction of creating and sharing something authentically me that others value. Unfortunately, achieving that objective is a crooked and bumpy road that sometimes tosses you to the gutter. But working through it and sticking with it has been good for me as a person.
Can you take us through a few of the tracks on First to Believe and share what you can about the stories behind the songs?
“The Dream is Alive” is, to me, a brimming bucket of west-coast yearning hurled against a glass wall. It’s a deliberate attempt to blend the facts and tantalizing illusions that have drawn optimists, adventurers and hopefuls west in pursuit of something more… vibrant possibilities. It tries to pose the question, is the illusive dream the destination, or is the destination the illusive dream? As for “My Mona Lisa,” my girlfriend at the time got really upset because she felt I took too much interest in some co-eds in bikinis playing volleyball at the beach in Santa Cruz. We were with a group of friends (guys and girls) who were watching and making playful and admiring comments. I thought it was ok to join in. Wrong. My girlfriend was hurt. She didn’t have a model look, but to me she was one of the most captivating and gorgeous women ever. So I was inspired to make that point in a song… that she was my own Mona Lisa… Mona Lisa still being one of the most arresting female figures in classic art, even though she doesn’t conform to certain modern preconceptions of beauty.
The album’s cover art features a pretty unique mascot — a flying pig. The image is meant to sort of playfully represent your resolve to establish yourself in the music industry, is that right?
Largely, yes. I was looking for an image that paired the heavy and almost ridiculous undertaking of forging a career as an indie artist with the underlying sense of oblivious play and wonder that fuels the undertaking. A tremendous winged hog also fit with what felt like the overall theme of the album: defiant hope. Sort of a way of saying, this pig WILL fly, gravity and logic be damned.
You recently finished up a Fall tour in which you played 11 shows over 10 days. In one of the funniest road stories I’ve ever heard, I understand that after one of these shows, you were approached by a therapist who wanted to discuss possible fear-of-commitment issues that she was sensing in your music. I’m guessing that was an awkward conversation?
Yes, a mixture of bizarre and awkward. There were a bunch of people standing around listening. Part of me wanted to say “Hey, you’re not supposed to ask these sorts of questions! Yes, I realize I just spilled out all this personal stuff through my songs, but that isn’t carte-blanche to Dr. Phil me in front of everybody.” The “letting go” side of me saw the good intentions and said to just roll with it, which is what I did. I was careful, though, to not get defensive or disagree — that would have led to further probing. I just smiled, nodded, and said “Hmm, that’s interesting, I’ll have to go back and look at those lyrics of mine… you may be onto something.”
What do you enjoy most about playing live?
The energy that sometimes gets created in the room. You can so tell when people are vibing with the music — it’s like this collective connection that’s happening. When it does, it feels great.
Are there any plans in the works for you to come out and see us on the East Coast?
I’m game for an East Coast tour. I’ve been getting requests to come out that way. Maybe I’ll piggy-back an East Coast tour onto whenever I get invited to do one of those morning news shows?
What can you tell us about the new tracks that you’re working on?
As a writer, I’ve been experimenting and stretching myself. I’ve also been writing songs that address messier and moodier moments of my life from the last two years… dealing with a major break-up, confronting my and others’ fears, vulnerability, and even mortality. There are also a couple social commentary songs in development. Those who I’m close to and have shared previews with have responded really well to the new material, which is encouraging.
Is there a message that you’d like to leave with your fans?
Thank you for supporting Indie Music. Obviously, you’re here for a reason —maybe you hunger to hear something new and different that hasn’t been mass-culture pasteurized. If my music strikes a chord with you, please drop a note and say hello… I appreciate hearing what folks think… what’s working for them: firstname.lastname@example.org.