Interview with Myra Flynn
by George Dow
It’s a sunny winter day in Harvard Square in Cambridge. The snow may still be piled fifteen feet high and covered with months of sand and salt but after a brutal January this 40 degree day feels like the first day of summer. I even consider taking my winter jacket off. The sun is shining. The snow is melting. It’s a great day for a show.
When I sit down in the early afternoon to talk with Burlington, Vermont-based singer-songwriter, Myra Flynn, this Super Bowl Sunday afternoon, Club Passim is nearly empty. We choose a table near the front and sit down to chat. I’m taken immediately by how focused and self-assured Myra is. She may be a passionate artist but she’s equally passionate about her life, her career and her musical community.
Talk of her early life moves quickly to Vermont, her love of Burlington and her on-again, off-again relationship with the city.
“I was born in Rockford, IL and we moved when I was 5 to Brookfield, VT which is literally in the middle of the woods. I kind of did the leave, come back, leave, come back thing and then came back and it stuck. I’m still there but I’m kind of getting the itch to move on. It’s been 5 years in Burlington and it’s been awesome. I love it there. It’s the coolest city in the world. It’s where I want to have my children someday. But I may be itching for a little bit more right now.”
During her early music career she had dual professions as both musician and journalist.
“I worked for the Burlington Free Press. I still write for them. I was an Arts & Entertainment writer. I was an editor for the Letters to the Editor department. I was a business reporter. I did a little bit of everything. It was while the newspaper industry was crumbling and all these rounds of lay-offs and furloughs kept happening.”
“My very last interview was with a life coach. It was very interesting because I didn’t know what the hell a life coach was. I sat down with her and she said, ‘The only way I can really tell you what I do is to give you a session.’ She asked, ‘What are the two most vexing forces in your life?’ That was easy; music vs. journalism. They were both really picking up. I didn’t really know who I wanted to be. Being a musician is automatically a conflict of interest with being a journalist, who is supposed to be this kind of hunkered down, behind-the-scenes kind of person. So she asked, ‘What would it take for you to make a decision between the two?’ Well, I’d either have to lose my voice or get fired. One of the things she asked was, ‘Why does something so drastic have to happen for you to make those decisions for yourself?’ Then, the next day, I was laid off. So I’ve tried to go about making fearless musical decisions since then.”
When I ask about the soul music scene in Vermont, Myra is unimpressed, but she is also quick to deflect the “soul singer” moniker that has been foisted upon her by many in the music community.
“Dave Grippo has a great funk band and there’s definitely some music with some beats and some fun, but (soul music in Burlington), it’s not really there, but I’m not so much soul. Some say I could border on folk or Americana as well. I think people, and a lot of the press, like to put me in the place with soul. That’s been interesting to me. I’ve been like, ‘Okay, so I guess I’m a soul singer.’”
She goes on to explain the unique mix of styles she represents and how her history and culture play into that sound.
“The difference is that I’m very lyrically heavy. Soul music is stereotypically more production or arrangement-heavy or harmonically-heavy. Lyrics mean the world to me.”
“I’m half black and half Irish and I take both of those sides very seriously. When it comes to my music I try to fully represent both sides. I grew up with a lot of Celtic music and I grew up with a lot of Luther Vandross as well. Combining the two of them is something that Adele does very well. I consider her what I would strive to sound like someday; to find that balance in the same way she does. I just try to stay true to that.”
Live, Myra plays out in a variety of different configurations; solo, trio, full band. When asked about her favorite way to play she doesn’t hesitate, not even for a moment.
“Solo. But that also comes with the expectation that there’s a crowd that can handle a solo show, or that I can handle a crowd as a solo artist. (There’s) the expectation that people are listening, and that they’re caring, and that they get it, which doesn’t always happen when you play solo. A solo show can also really hurt your feelings if it doesn’t go perfectly. But when it does, it’s like… it’s like the most magical moment in the world. It’s just so cool.”
“I’m really particular about what I think the venue calls for though. If it’s something that needs a band I’ll bring a band. Or maybe it’s not the electric guitar kind of venue but it might be more the viola kind of venue. I’m particular. I like to have the basics and then a surprise instrument. That’s usually sax, viola or electric guitar.”
Myra and fellow Vermont singer-songwriter Justin Levinson were recently married. We talk a bit about their differing styles and their musical life together.
“Every once in a while we play together. We’re getting better about it. It’s not an easy thing to sit there on stage with each other’s babies. It’s a whole other level of intimacy. We get into little tiffs. We have very concrete inner compasses about where we think a song should go, so to mesh the two is hard. His ideal gig is a crazy dancing crowd and packed stage; ten musicians soloing in the round. All of that gets in the way of what I’m trying to say. Some people do it really well. I’m envious. We’re working towards it I think.”
She smirks and offers a sly challenge to her husband, “I’ll say this, ‘I’m all for it. Justin Levinson, if you’re listening, get on the bandwagon!’”
Her first album, Crooked Measures was released in 2009 and with its release came a new level of success.
“I did it with Colin McCaffrey in his home studio. He was really great to work with.”
“I had been singing for years at that point but singing other people’s music. Just for fun. Just as a hobby. Then, it’s so interesting, I was a full-time journalist. I got laid off and I got thinking, ‘I’ve gone this far with music without really putting any effort into it. I wonder if I actually put some effort behind it, what could happen?’”
“I brought this scrapbook of original songs to Colin and said, “Help”. We just started crafting all the songs. All my songs are very cathartic and very melancholy and very diary-like so I always wondered if people are going to relate to them or if they’re just going think it’s just my crap. But Crooked Measures really took off. I don’t even have any more copies. It’s all sold out. It sold out in less than a year.”
Now she’s hard at work on her second record.
“Gregory Douglass is producing. We’re still in the process. I’m still campaigning and fundraising to get it all finished. That’s a full-time job in and of itself. I’m hoping for a release around my Birthday which is July 26th. I’m pretty sure we’re going to be able to do it by then.”
“Gregory has just been the most amazing person to enter my life in such a long time, since my husband. I’d equate him with the same kind of special space in my heart and in my life.”
Myra’s relationship with Colin reveals her modus operandi. She surrounds herself with equally creative people, building a community of support that benefits them all.
“I play out with Simon Plumpton. He’s is a drummer who’s been with me for about 5 years. Dave Grippo , who I mentioned before, I’m just so honored that he wants to come play sax with me; such a Vermont celebrity. To have a band member who’s listening and in support of me is so cool. Paul Boffa, he’s from the Montpelier area and he has been playing with me for 5 years as well. He’s kind of my right-hand man. Then I just switch it up all the time. I mean obviously we’re all independent musicians doing this pretty much full-time. So everyone’s kind of a slut in certain ways. We play in different bands and not everyone’s available consistently. I think the day of having your band might be kind of over in Burlington, which is sad… sometimes. But it’s fun. You switch it up and you have a good time with it.”
“I’d like to give a shout-out to John at Q Division Records. He has been such a great mentor for me in this area and has made me feel like I have a sense of community in the Boston area. It’s helped me feel that there’s a whole other community waiting for me when I come play here. I just want to reach out to any other musicians here and hope they know that they’ll have that in me if they come to Burlington.”
Our conversation turns to the music business over and over again. While discussing the current state of the music industry I quickly realize I’m not talking with Myra Flynn the singer-songwriter but instead with the President and CEO of Myra Flynn, Inc. She has a pinpoint clear vision of her career and her place in the industry.
“For someone like me, (today’s music industry) is a better opportunity. I really thrive on tangibility. I really love to create my own destiny even if it means just walking from this table to that one over there and seeing that I can do it. That means a lot to me. There are all sorts of avenues for me to shovel my energy into and see some sort of outcome, no matter how big or small it might be.”
“There’s just no formula. I think for me, it makes me feel like I’m running my business in a way that I can keep on top of. I really love it. For those creative, flaky artists out there, I bet they’re feeling a little freaked out right now. Just because you’re a singer doesn’t mean you’re good at marketing. It doesn’t mean you’re good at managing. It doesn’t even mean you know how to use email. I really feel for those people.”
“I’m one of those rare musicians with a Type A personality and I’m in an industry where I can put that to good use and feel really proud of myself. Not just because of my “talent” but because something came through that I worked hard on.”
Making albums has changed too. There’s an entirely new culture of fundraising get a new record released. This is an approach that Myra has taken to with the full force of her passion. She’s funding her new record through pre-orders and other fundraising activities.
“Obviously, with the industry changing the way it has, you have to get creative. And it’s fun to get creative with the fundraising. I’m just offering people what I have in return for them pre-ordering the album. And hopefully that’s enough. Maybe it’s vintage posters, signed, sealed and delivered or a CD of songs that didn’t make it to the album. Maybe it’s a private house concert, or maybe it’s a private shopping spree with me somewhere. Never has it been so appropriate for you to be so accessible to fans.”
When it comes to touring, her work ethic is the same. Music is more than a full-time job to Myra.
“You go to bed with your computer and you wake up with your computer. You live with your iPhone attached to your eyeball. You just keep at people. You keep harassing them. Then you link up with other musicians in the area. That’s really the best way to do it. ‘Dude, I don’t know where to play in Ohio. Can you help me out?’ As competitive as the independent musician scene is, people are very helpful. They will come through when you ask them.”
“It’s not easy. I feel like fans should know that. It’s… not… easy. There’s this whole (misconception) that all us musicians just travel around playing what we like but there’s so much work that goes into it. When it does happen it’s really wonderful. I think that’s important for people to know. We’re very real. We’re hard, hard working. Supporting live music, supporting music in general, has never been so vital.”
Later in the evening Myra plays the opening set, supporting her friend and producer, Gregory Douglass. Alone, at her Roland keyboard, she demonstrates the musical and artistic side of the Type A personality that she described earlier. In front of 30 or so music stalwarts, uninterested in the spectacle of the Super Bowl, she bares her soul, singing to the intimate crowd as though we were an audience of 3,000 instead of 30.