by Morgan Davis
Photo Portrait by Carlos J. Matos
Ovrld and the SIMS Foundation recently partned for a Cultural Arts Division-funded portait project titled Heart of the City (which you can donate to here). Spearheaded by our own Carlos J. Matos, the project aims to put faces to the struggle of music industry professionals in Austin with beautiful portaits of 12 of those professionals, ranging from performers to sound technicians to radio personalities. We also interviewed each of the subjects and will be releasing the full interviews throughout the year. We previously shared our conversations with veteran singer-songwriter Gina Chavez, KUTX personality KUTX DJ Laurie Gallardo, veteran hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm, beloved Austin producer and musician Jim Eno and Mohawk stage manager “Jesus” Josh Siebert, and now we’re thrilled to bring you our profile of prolific fan favorite singer-songwriter Betty Soo.
Morgan Davis for Ovrld: We’ve been beginning all these interviews by asking people about their journeys to Austin, and I understand you came from Spring, a town slightly outside of Houston…
Betty Soo: Right, yeah, I grew up in Spring and then I went to school here at UT Austin, but part of that was just because I wanted to live in Austin [laughs]. This was back in the days where you could just sign a piece of paper UT had sent you and you were in! So I signed the paper and I came to UT and I was just psyched to be in Austin. And I was one of those people who went to school and then stuck around.
Ovrld: And you originally had a more academic background, right? You were looking to go into education?
BS: When I was an undergrad, I thought I was going to be an English teacher. I did my student teaching down at Austin High and that was great and I was working with an amazing teacher but I realized that that was probably not the right fit for me. Then I spent a few years working at a bunch of different jobs. I worked for Dell for a while, I seamstressed for a while, I worked in law firms, I did so many different things. Then I went back to school to become a therapist and I was like halfway through grad school when I dropped out to become a songwriter.
Ovrld: Something that stood out to me from reading other interviews you had done was your explanation that part of the reason why you chose to focus on music was because the community in Austin was so supportive and that kind of helped you realize it was something you could do full time.
BS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I had always played music. I grew up in a real musical family. But none of us ever thought we would do that for a living or do that professionally. It was actually a friend of mine who sat down with me one day and was like “You know, everybody knows you want to do this, except for you.” And she was right. Once I started meeting people in the music community in Austin I was just amazed at how much of a family it was. And how much people took care of each other. It was not really a competitive environment, it was a nurturing environment and I think it still is. That’s why so many of us stay in Austin and keep doing it because it’s our family.
BS: I came into it late, so by the time I was even in college, SXSW was kind of a big deal already. Although you could still get wristbands at Waterloo and spend your spring break doing that. Within the family of musicians in Austin, I don’t know that that’s changed so much. I think it’s just a bigger circle now, it’s a bigger city.
Several of us joke that it’s amazing how often you assume your friends know each other and they don’t. Like not only have they never met, they’ve never heard of each other and you think “How is that possible? We all listen to the same music! We go to the same shows!” It’s just a bigger pond, you know? But I think within the Austin music community, there’s still that real familial vibe. I was out of town but when I saw a friend of mine had messaged me about the Dixie Chicks show the other night, they had put up on the Jumbotron “Please support our friend George Reiff, who has become ill” and to me it was like that’s what the Austin music scene is like. That it’s so supportive. I don’t know, I think the city around it has changed more than the scene itself.
Ovrld: On that Dixie Chicks note, your most recent album collects a pretty impressive roster of talented session musicians who showcase Texas’ music history…
BS: Yeah, that’s true!
Ovrld: Including Lloyd Maines, father of the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines. What was it like to work with such a wide range of Texas musicians with such incredible experience?
BS: It’s great. Lloyd is so sweet and he’s like the ultimate supporter kind of person. He is all about the music and all about being friendly and being a nice person. We were recently at a wedding together and kind of performing but it was a friend’s wedding. Before I went up to go sing my song he was like preparing my guitar strap for me and holding it for me and making sure it was good. He was acting like my guitar tech or something. Just no ego, no overblown ego. I think it’s neat that I get to connect with some of these people I have looked up to as major musical heroes since I was really little and they treat me like a friend and a peer and it’s kind of mindblowing.
Ovrld: Do you think Austin is more approachable in that regard than other cities? Not just the musicians that are here but the level of talent you’re able to approach easily?
BS: Yeah, I definitely think it’s different. There are a lot of other music cities where there is a definite hierarchy and a pecking order and a real inter circle. Kind of land barons of the music industry or something. You have to know your place. And I think in Austin as long as you’re a nice person and you’re decently respectful, you’re mindful of what these people have accomplished and that they’re your seniors in some way, nobody makes you feel like you’ve got to jump through some hoop or be their gopher. And people want to collaborate!
I remember when I first started playing in Austin, and you’d hear about some gig or some movie that was being made and it was looking for music or you’d hear about a commercial and all of your friends would all email or call or text each other and say “Hey, these people are looking for a song” or “They’re looking for this kind of singer” and they would email everybody they knew who fit that description. And I know for a fact that in a lot of other cities they wouldn’t tell anybody. Because they don’t want any competition on it. Here I think we hold on to this idea that “I might not get it, because I might not be the right fit, but I really hope somebody I love gets this.”
BS: Oh, it’s so great! I love seeing people go through the process of giving themselves permission to make music, or to just try something. I grew up in this really musical family. I grew up playing a ton of instruments, I grew up singing my whole life, and I realized by the time I started singing out and I was like 26 or 27, the only reason it took me so long was because I was the one who didn’t give myself permission to do it. I couldn’t even acknowledge that that was what I wanted to do with my life. And I see it all the time with people who feel like they can’t even consider pursuing something that would be foolish, even if it’s not for a career, just like if they spent any time or any effort on something that they might not be good at or that other people might not recognize. So whenever I do a workshop, whether it’s in schools or in a guitar camp or workshops or whatever, it amazes me that people of all ages have been giving themselves that same negative talk. But the fact that they’re there, they want to take that step. They want to see if they have something there to mine.
Ovrld: Do you think the sheer number of venues in a city like Austin helps with that accessibility and helps encourage people to take that first step, since there’s always a place somewhere that they can get a gig?
BS: Yeah, I think so. I know a lot of people have a lot of different opinions about how many different venues there are or where they’re located. Or what genres they support. But I really think Austin has become a huge city and it needs a lot of venues if a lot of people are going to play at different levels. Or if at different places in their career, or if they have different crowds. I’m all for it and I like them being scattered all over the city, I think it’s a good thing.
Ovrld: We’re doing your shoot in Cactus Cafe, which has a long history in Austin, but also has a long history of challenges and obstacles that have almost pushed it out of existence. And some other venues have not survived the way it has under similar circumstances. Do you think that sometimes Austin is not as good about recognizing its history on that front? Especially in the time you’ve been here. Are there spots that you wish were still around that are no longer around?
BS: For sure. And if the Cactus had gone away, I really would have mourned it, it’s a really special place to me. It’s one of the first places I ever played, it’s where I released every album. And I have a very deep love for this room. I miss Momo’s, there are a lot of places that I miss. I totally understand that places change. The hard thing about cities is that it seems like it’s grow or die.
When I see some of the new hotel buildings and that kind of stuff downtown and it’s all pretty pricy construction, what I miss is that more of them had what the Hotel Van Zandt has with Geraldine’s. If they’re going to displace a few music venues, I think they should have a few music venues, because they’re selling— whether it’s to conventions, or it’s to business meetings or it’s to vacationers— part of their sales pitch is that their guests will be staying in the live music capital. And I think, what better way to show that hospitality than to have the music right there?
Ovrld: Right, it makes sense, it’d be right there, there’d be that convenience. Just go down a floor and hear music.
BS: That’s a big question. I don’t think we have figured out what the next, for lack of a better phrase, physical piece is. We haven’t figured out music delivery. Or rather, it was figured out for us, right? But people who come to a show still want a personal interaction with the artist. They want something physical that represents the music. And for a long time, the record or the tape or the CD or whatever was that thing. It physically embodied the thing that they were supporting but it also provided a way for them to interact with the artist personally, get an autograph, go home, open it up, read more and learn even more about the artist and the process of that music being made. And I don’t think we have figured out yet what the next mass version of that is.
It was also, of course, a huge source of our income. For me, when the CD sales dried up, I think my income was effected just as much as all of my friends, and we’re all kind of searching for the next solution to that. And not just because it’s our income, because it’s for our listeners and we want them to have something physical to hold on to.
Ovrld: Are there specific challenges you think Austin artists face that artists in other cities might not?
BS: I think Austin’s income disparity is pretty marked. I’m not gonna lie, my husband works in tech, so we personally are grateful that it’s kind of Silicon Hills here. At the same time, we were gentrified out of our old home. We had a house in central Austin and we couldn’t afford it anymore because of the taxes. There’s a huge difference between a couple or a family that has two tech incomes and a couple or a family that has two musical incomes. I don’t know, we’ve got to figure out as a whole city musical community how to bridge that gap a little bit better. I think there are other cities that just because they haven’t had quite as rapid a boom or because they’ve had a slower, more gradual change and the infrastructure came with it, they don’t have as much of an identity split as Austin does.
Ovrld: Are there some things you think the city has been good about addressing? Are the current resolutions helping achieve a better balance or defuse that problem a little bit?
BS: I don’t know if I’ve seen anything that I think is going to stick. I see a lot of good intention, though. And I think that’s important not to dismiss. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that there are a lot of people who are concerned about it and active about it, and our mayor is trying to address and figure out what the real questions are.
And we’re so lucky to have HAAM and to have SIMS. When I talk to musicians from all over the US and Canada too— where they have socialized healthcare— they are floored by the services we have here for musicians. I meet musicians in other cities who haven’t seen a dentist in 20 years. They can’t even imagine having that luxury. So I think through nonprofits like that some of that gap is being bridged. But I look forward to seeing some of the intentions the city is trying to present turn into more of those kinds of solutions.
BS: Oh gosh, I have no idea [laughs]. I think I was already so in love with the city growing up and would visit it and visit my friends here that it’s just kind of been a gradual and continual process of falling in love with it for different reasons. I don’t think I’d warn myself of anything I didn’t like, and I sure wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise of any of the good stuff.
You can donate to the Heart of the City project here. Heart of the City is funded in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department. Thank you to our sponsors Rojo Hospitality and Distinctive Life.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.