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Louisa Branscomb

Singer-Songwriter Q&A



How old were you when you started playing guitar?


Began writing songs at age 5. I didn’t play or know music. I wrote the melodies as stair steps (I see music visually) and wrote the words on the correct step for the pitch of that word. So, there might be one word on a step, or several, and the steps extended out according to how long you'd be on that note.


I started ukulele at 6 and guitar at about 12. Piano at 10.


What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?


It was a Sears Harmony my parents bought for Christmas. Dad took the soft shell case and we painted fiberglass on it to make it stronger. That stuff was awful! It smelled for years and the fibers could cut you when you picked it up. But it saved money because I had to pay for the case and couldn't get a hard shell. I don’t have it now.



Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments?


As far back as I know they all played. Maternal grandmother sang folk songs to me; maternal grandfather sang amateur opera at college. Paternal grandmother also sang. Both parents sang and played piano. Dad played classical and blues and boogie woogie piano and all those genres on harmonica too.


Louisa's grandmother, Helen.


If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?


Our family sang as a pastime. Yes, I sat on the piano bench with dad and improvised. He often performed with me on stage after I began playing professionally and also went to Nashville to record tracks on one of my Compass albums on harmonica.


Louisa's, "That's What Texas Was For", featuring her dad on harmonica.


What are the guitars that you play?


Collings, D-18 (46), D-28 (46). RainSong carbon guitar. 1967 00-21. I also have several banjos and mandolins I sometimes play on stage but not as often now as guitar.






Do you have a favorite?


1946 Herringbone (Martin D-28).


If so, why is it your favorite?


Balance, warmth. If it’s bad weather and I’m playing outside I use the RainSong.


What strings do you use (brands and gauges)?


I’m not that picky. I use light gauge on all instruments. On the vintage guitars it’s better for the neck and front; on mando they are easier to play. On banjo I use the JD Crowe GHS strings so you have a heavier 4th.




How often do you change your strings?


I changed them before the pandemic, in 2021. Then I changed them beginning in 2023 when things opened up, I changed them on the instrument I was playing on the gig.



Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?


Tortoise shell - light (thin) on guitar and medium light on mandolin.



Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?


No.


Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?


I’ve used Randy Wood as well as Mark Bramlett in Georgia.


Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?


My new favorite is Acoustic Corner in Black Mountain NC. David is a great owner and the atmosphere is welcoming and collaborative on the business end of things.



David Zoll, owner of Acoustic Corner.


At what age did you start writing songs?


5.


What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?


All of the above. The songs that come melody and lyrics together I think tend to be the stronger ones I write. I write starting with image and feeling then to lyric and melody, preferably both at once. Sometimes I start with an idea. But usually it’s the image that captures something I’m feeling, or a feeling lands on an image I notice. I am a heart writer, more so than a story writer. Images capture heart, and the heart understands things in images.



Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?


Only one, Leonard Cohen.


If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?


Leonard if he wasn’t too stoned.


What are your top three “desert island” albums?


Honestly I don’t listen to music very much. I’d be listening to the waves and the breeze in the palm trees and hopefully a good lyric would come to me. It would probably be about being alone, and thank God music survived the shipwreck!



What was the first concert you attended?


Peter Paul and Mary at age 16.


What was the last concert you attended?


Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls.


The Beatles or the Stones?


Is this a question lol? I like both. The Beatles had a brilliance that was immeasurable. And the Stones are just right when you want their music.



Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?


I think it was my all female bluegrass band, Bluegrass Liberation, in 1971. Probably made about $100 each. It was for a Street Scene Festival, in Winston-Salem. But we also were on a Union Grove album that year, or a year or two later.


Bluegrass Liberation


What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?


The night I happened into the Station Inn and there was Alison Krauss singing Steel Rails. I didn’t know she’d recorded it. It blew my mind and changed everything. Wiped the slate clean.



However, before that, Mel Tillis heard one of my songs and invited me to Nashville when I was about 21, to play my songs for him, and invited me to join his publishing company as a songwriter. That was a great memory as well and changed my destiny as well.


What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).


Well there are a few across the years! The best was also the worst. I got trapped in a porta-john back stage at the Grandfather Mountain Festival in about 1978. The porta-john was on a slight incline and shifted and the latch wouldn’t open. My band, Boot Hill, was to perform in between the Earl Scruggs Review and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, so nobody could hear me. Finally when the Review went off stage somebody heard me and three people tilted it back up and I got out barely in time to tune the banjo. My band members, one or two of them, said where were you? I said where were YOU??? They said, hanging out with Merle Watson. (think: recreational substances).



It was also the best because it was so beautiful, and people stretched across the mountain. I think there were about 25k folks, and getting to share the stage with such greats in the music.


What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most?


Used to be the bigger festivals but now it’s house concerts. I love songwriter rounds too, anywhere. I also really enjoy facilitating my workshops and retreats and helping the writers I work with take their writing to new levels, whatever their dream is.


Photo credit: Dave Heinmiller


What things make the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?


All of that. Cultivating a listening crowd.


How do you work out your setlist?


Lot of considering tempo, message, who’s singing. I try to think of what is best for the audience as an overall emotional musical journey in that performance. It's not about me. It's about them.


Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?


I didn’t have any mentors - I was shy and there weren’t that many identified songwriters around in bluegrass in the 70's, and the organized music I was part of. So later on, I started a songwriter retreat community in 1989 to try to provide what I wish I had had (Woodsong Farm and Lyric Mountain retreats) and it’s still running. My next workshop is in Black Mountain, NC on April 1 weekend (2023).



Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?


Find a safe artistic community where you can trust their friendship and feedback. Attend workshops that have that value; retreat style workshops I feel are most helpful.


If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?


Then I’d be a songwriter-singer. Which is really what I am anyway.


Photo credit: Ki Ki


I also have careers in psychology (creativity and trauma) and writing. Songwriting is the calling.



I enjoy directing my non-profit, ScreenDoor Songwriter Alliance, devoted to using songwriting to bridge communities, assist veterans and kids, and provide scholarships to workshops.



Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.


Louisa's website: louisabranscomb.com



Louisa's YouTube channel


Louisa's Facebook page


Louisa's next Lyric Mountain Songwrirer Retreat starts Thursday, March 3oth.

For more information on the retreat, reach out to: branscombmusic@gmail.com.



Photo credit: Krista Tortora





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