Claire Heywood takes songwriting seriously. The 27-year-old Denver-based vocalist, lyricist and guitar player debuts her professed perfectionist tendencies on a new single and video produced by Nosferatune, that premieres today, February 21 (see it for yourself, below).
With a flair for tension and release through thoughtfully measured words and melodies, Heywood demonstrates what she has been working on since graduating from Colorado State University in 2013, touring Central America and living in Asheville, North Carolina, for a spell. Her new EP, The Wind It Howls, which was recorded at Third and James in Denver, drops on March 7, with a show at Syntax Physic Opera.
Westword spoke with Heywood to learn more about her artful compositions.
Westword: When did you start writing your songs?
Claire Heywood: Well, at the age of 22, I was really into meditation, and I went to a retreat center, where we sang in the morning and again at night, and it kind of reconnected me with my voice. I was writing essays at the time, and I had an English degree, so I knew I wanted to write. But the experience got me back into singing, and then it took me a couple more years of kind of putting all the pieces together before I made a concerted effort at songwriting.
And you grew up in the Denver area?
Yeah, I grew up in Littleton. I went to Littleton High School, and then I moved up to Fort Collins, where I went to Colorado State. I lived in Fort Collins for about seven years. I made it my base for a while, and I was also traveling during that time. Fort Collins is a nice place, and I found cheaper living up there.
What year did you graduate from CSU?
I graduated from CSU in the fall of 2013, and then I started traveling soon after that. The place I mentioned earlier where I was meditating and singing was in Belize. I went down to Central America to do some backpacking.
What kind of stuff did you study in terms of English at CSU?
For the most part, I did composition classes, which was writing essays, making arguments and taking literary criticism classes, which I really loved. Toward the end of my degree, I found some creative nonfiction classes. I hadn't known about that genre at all before. I really enjoyed writing some creative nonfiction stuff. That kind of segued nicely into songwriting, because in songwriting I pull details from my real life, and I process in sort of a nonfiction kind of way.
Are there any writers who you really like?
I love Mary Oliver (who just passed away in January). I've been revisiting a lot of her work recently. And I love Wendell Berry and Diane Ackerman. When I was a teenager, I liked stuff by Paulo Coelho. I've been reading a lot more poetry since I've been songwriting in the last couple years. Berry writes a lot about nature in his essays and poems. He lived on a farm his entire life, so he writes about natural sciences and stuff. I also like [Rainer Maria] Rilke. Recently, I've been reading a book of poems by William Stafford called The Darkness Around Us Is Deep. It's great.
How about songwriters who have influenced you?
In high school, I listened to a lot of folk, and I liked the work of Gregory Alan Isakov, Joe Pug and Amos Lee. As a singer, I connect with good vocalists and songwriters like Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive. I sing along with her for training. I also love Lucinda Williams and Sharon Van Etten, Amy Winehouse, Angel Olsen and Frazey Ford. While I was growing up, I also listened to stuff that my parents liked, such as John Denver, the Beatles, Elton John and those kinds of artists. I grew up on that.
Can you tell me about your new release?
I'm releasing the single "Old Souls Motel" on February 21, and then an EP, The Wind It Howls. It took me about two years to explore the craft of songwriting before I felt my songs were ready to play in public. I'm a perfectionist, so it took me a while to get comfortable. This record documents a time that was pretty difficult for me, and I was processing life through the act of writing these songs. I had let go of a relationship, and so a lot of the record deals with what was happening in my life. It was written in 2017. "Old Souls Motel" was the song that broke from the theme of the other tunes, which deal with romantic relationships and feeling lost generally. Old Souls is more about moving on. I wrote it at a time when I was ready to pick up and move forward. I was thinking about taking responsibility for my life and about learning how to care for myself in my mid-twenties, how to really get [my] life together and be an adult.
Do you play any instruments?
I play guitar. My stepdad is a guitarist of more than fifty years, and so he taught me a few things, which have helped me to write my songs. The band also helped me adapt the ideas and add more contrast and stuff like that, but I play guitar, and I've been playing short solo sets on guitar since late 2017.
Were you living in North Carolina for a while?
Yeah, when I started writing songs I was living in Fort Collins, but I wanted to move to a different environment for a little while. I moved to Asheville for about seven months and ramped up the songwriting and took voice lessons online and guitar lessons, and I really focused on my craft while I was there. I wrote songs every day and studied songwriting. By the time I had a good thirty-minute set of material together, I moved back to Colorado, to Denver.
How was Asheville?
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It was cool. There was a thriving music scene there and lots of subcultures. I met a lot of people who were pursuing their art. There are lots of tiny towns and farms around there, so it kind of sprawls out. It's definitely smaller than Denver, but it felt kind of busy with there also being a slow country lifestyle, kind of like Fort Collins. New Belgium Brewing is there, too, which is bringing a lot of people. Growing up in Colorado, we used to talk about how everyone was moving here from California, and in Asheville people would say that a lot of Coloradans seemed to be moving there [laughs].
Were you able to learn what you wanted to learn before you started writing your own songs?
I knew that with any new craft there is plenty of free information on the Internet, so I started there. I found that there are lots of mistakes you can make as a first-time songwriter, such as the tendency for people to rattle off a litany of ideas that can confuse listeners. So I learned about structures and how to whittle down my ideas and how to create contrast in my songs. Berklee College of Music has a lot of good lectures on YouTube that are helpful. They cover stuff like lyrics, melody and structure. I needed to get up to par as a guitarist, too. So I worked on everything from chord changes to strumming patterns. What I love most about songwriting is the process of distilling information into its most succinct form.
Claire Heywood album release, with Kiltro and Sydney Clapp, 9 p.m. Thursday, March 7, Syntax Physic Opera, 554 South Broadway, $7.