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April 5th, 2024

Q+A with LEAF Songwriter Competition Earlybird Finalist Erin Williams Banks

Congratulations to our LEAF Singer-Songwriter Competition’s “Earlybird” Finalist, Erin Williams Banks.

 Erin grew up in Lyons, Georgia. She has been writing music for over 30 years. In the beginning, she would sing on dirt roads from the back of a horse. Now she sings with the rivers that wind through the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. Her newest album, Coyote Mother, came out in September, 2023.
Erin and seven other finalists will showcase at the 10th annual LEAF Singer-Songwriter Competition, presented by NewSong Music, at LEAF Global Arts Retreat on Saturday, May 11. 
NewSong Music: You’ve talked on your social media about the experience of having professional photos taken after age 40 — how about the experience of putting out an album after 40? Were there any surprises or insights that age brought to that process?
Erin Williams Banks: I was so grateful to turn 40. I have always had a strong sense of self and have been comfortable being me but it was the perfect storm. I moved from my South Georgia homeland and uprooted. I started over in Boone, N.C., and left so many things behind. I became a phoenix and when 40 hit, I welcomed it with fiery arms. Parts of me burned up in that transition, but I feel like whatever was left was my true form. As I was writing songs and moving towards a new decade, I felt stronger than ever and I knew I wanted to document what was going on in and around me. Recording the music I wanted to record was a dream come true and I felt like it was a gift to myself and my family and friends that they could have forever. 
Coyote Mother just came out last fall. Can you share a bit about the animal inspirations on the album?
My muse is the river. The river is the ancient pathway that so many take refuge in. I used to go to church but now I go to the river. The Ohoopee River is one black water river that winds around old Cypress trees till it finally meets the Altamaha River, which is full of prehistoric creatures like gar and alligators and sturgeon that swim up to breed in the swirling muddy waters. How many interactions with coyotes and deer swimming across the river have you had? How many different kinds of herons have you seen? How many endangered plant and bird species have you noticed hiding along the river’s edge? I think if you are willing to leave early in the morning and go paddle you will feel a need to write about it, too. It is like you have seen a ghost and for the rest of your days it’s one of your stories that you’re telling the kids at bedtime: Remember that time I saw a pair of yellow-crowned night herons? Or the time I was riding my horse on a full moon and saw a cougar cross the dirt road? 
You worked on the album remotely — you in Boone and your producer in Asheville. Why did you choose to work remotely rather than in the studio together? And how do you feel that served the album?
My friend Everett Hardin had recorded and produced several of my closest friends’ albums. What they said about him was “he will take his time with you” and “he will get your voice to sound exactly how you want it to” and “he isn’t like other male producers — he’s not an egotistical asshole.” I was a little worried at first because the only experiences I’d had were super-quick weekends to track it all. I didn’t mind it that way because that energy is like a driving force. I thought that was how I worked. So, when Everett said “No rush, it could take six months or a year,” I was kind of disappointed. I thought rushed was better but it turns out that I actually loved to be pushed. I love writing five versions of one song and getting to the gold. I thrive in an atmosphere where we are having honest critiques and, because we are now good friends, I know he loved my songs and voice so I could handle the heat and the push back if something wasn’t working. I write so much … probably a song or two a week. A lot of those are trash, so I needed someone to tell me what I should record and what I needed to leave in the diary. 

We set his rig up in my attic, which was also my husband’s office at the time. It was freezing and I couldn’t run a space heater. Everett was a little square on the computer screen. I have such limited technology skills I wasn’t sure this was going to work, but it turned out that all I had to do was turn the power on. He controlled everything from his computer in his basement in Asheville. The only part we had to go over a few times was when the motorcycle gangs would rev it up at the light down from my house and it would bleed into the vocal track. That was fun. 
For weeks, we would squeeze in vocals here and there. Everett was the voice inside my head. It was kind of awesome. It was like we were in the same space. And you know, the producer is always in the next room so it wasn’t that crazy. It felt like we were together. I just got to record in the comfort of my house and he got to engineer and produce in his house. Pajama party!
Also he played almost all the music! He and his wife wrote and played all the string arrangements. He’s the total package. He will never be able to find some of those weird tunings he did on some of those songs. He’s a wizard for sure. 
Can you share a little bit about why it’s important to have a songwriting group, and how you found your songwriting group?
The songwriting group was the biggest selling point for me to move to Boone! That first week I was here I was invited by my dear friend Sarah Deshields to join her little group. I was so nervous and I never get nervous! I guess it was because it was so small and intimate. I played a song I wrote called “Goodbye South Georgia” (about which I’ve written so many goodbye songs and I’m sure I’ll write a dozen more). Everyone loved me from then on. That group contains some of the best human beings I have found on the planet. They are my family. I wrote several songs from the album from prompts the group gave. They have been so supportive and we always ask each other to sing or play on our records. Sarah Deshields, John Lucas, Cayla Fralick, Kevin Deshields, and Amanda Opelt are all on my record and members of my songwriting group.