20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
Washington native Beth Whitney dwells in her songs, exploring every note and phrase, turning them inside out, pulling us into her own journey as an intimate partner, sharing in her joys, her grief, her wonder, her gratitude. Sometimes her songs soar with a hymn-like spaciousness that swirls and spirals upward and transports us in flights of wonder; sometimes her songs echo with a rhythmic cadence that digs into the messiness of our daily lives, going to ground in search of the deep-rooted love that helps us grow. Whitney’s orchestral folk echoes the intricacies and warmth of choral music, as well as the soulful, tender, and fiery vocals of Sara Watkins, Courtney Marie Andrews, and Alison Krauss.
Whitney’s new album Into the Ground, out everywhere on May 28th, feels like a true follow-up to 2017’s The Wild Unrest, she says. She continues her explorations into darkness and light on her new album, but this time she’s looking even deeper. “On my last album, I was looking around and above me in the woods as a way of learning about myself and the world. On the new album, I am looking into the soil to see what nourishes us.” Into the Ground digs deep, exploring what’s going on beneath the surface of our lives: what produces the beauty we see in the world? What emotions boil in our hearts to prompt jealous and angry acts? What are the roots of our feelings of wonder? “We talk so much as a culture about flying and soaring into the sky,” Whitney says, “but it’s really been a season of digging into the ground for wisdom, acknowledging needed work and healing, and hopefully, planting healthier things for tomorrow.”
I got to chat with Beth Whitney all about Into the Ground as well as her musical background, who has influenced her work the most, why it’s time to give up doom-scrolling, and more for this week’s edition of 20 Questions. “Maybe beauty is chaos that has been unraveled and reordered with love and design.”
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a musician?
I was about 14 when I knew I wanted to be a musician. I didn’t play guitar, write, or perform but I turned to my friend (after we watched Dawson’s Creek, probably) and out of nowhere I said, “You know what I really want to do? I just want to travel around and sing and play guitar for people.”
Which artists did you listen to the most growing up? Have they influenced your work?
I remember hearing Debussy drift up to the loft when my grandpa would play the piano while all us grandkids fell asleep in a row. My dad listened to artists like John Denver, Jose Feliciano, and Burl Ives, while my mom liked choral music and Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. The first piece of music I ever bought was a tape of the single “I Wish” by Skee-Lo in 5th grade. In high school I liked Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss, Pink, Lauren Hill, and The Chicks. I’m sure it all folds into what I create. The first song I learned to play on guitar was Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and that picking pattern is all over the place in my work. For most of college I listened to the Gladiator soundtrack while studying and really sunk into the blend of orchestral sweeps, Celtic-style vocals, and deep rhythms.
As an artist, what would you say is the general theme of your music?
I’m realizing more and more that I often write of a longing for some sort of existential home that I’ve yet to realize. I tend to write in that space between what is and that of which I daydream. If I experience a moment or a person that harmonizes this far off vision, it usually ends up in a song somehow or another.
Who is your style icon?
Early on I admired the style of the Amelie character and Bjork. Solid colors, stripes, whimsical lines… Since having kids I’m in a sort of vortex of second-hand flannels and that SNL mom-jeans commercial. It’s not the kids’ fault… it’s just hard to crawl out of “practical.” It’s probably safe to say that I’m not anyone else’s style icon.
What time of day are you most inspired?
I haven’t found a way to get inspiration on a predicable schedule. Generally I’ll find it late at night, but that early morning window is so crisp and serene if I can catch it. These days it seems like I wake up at 3am with some pretty good, blurry-eyed ideas. Timing aside, I’m most inspired with my phone off and I’m in the woods somewhere.
Favorite book of all-time?
Ah! That’s tough. Probably East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
One song that you will never be sick of?
“Fear Thou Not” by Josh Garrels.
As a songwriter, which artists have influenced you the most?
Mindy Smith, Bob Dylan, Enya, Anna Tivel, Jeffrey Martin, Courtney Marie Andrews, Hans Zimmer, and Jon Foreman.
The last series you binge-watched?
Firefly Lane. It was filmed in Snohomish where I grew up! We did not have fireflies.
The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My Grammy would say, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” I can get pretty paralyzed by an ideal, and even though music is one of those things that somehow sits above or beneath tangible value, I think sometimes as songwriters we can get stuck under the pressure to create something “good.” But we forget that making something good wasn’t the point, the point was making something. Fortunately we’re not obligated to record everything we write. Kids help remind us of this concept also. There’s always room to chisel and perfect something, but we gotta let it breathe first.
You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous musician would you want sitting next to you and why?
Well, today the answer that comes to mind is Pink. She’s always seemed like someone with a lot of courage, strength, and tenacity, and those are three attributes I could use in this season. We’d share peanuts and talk about parenting. I’d ask her to teach me to sing with my full voice and she’d ask where I got my flannel. We’d have a great time.
How would you characterize your new album Into the Ground?
Sonically, it’s wild orchestral folk. Thematically it’s a look further into the soil beneath us. What are we made of? Why are we alive? Where do we go from here?
One vice you wish you could give up?
Favorite movie of all-time?
Gladiator… or Benny & Joon.
Apple or Android?
Apple, but looking into getting a phone that is… less smart and less addicting. (See question 13.)
Favorite type of song to write?
Something moody in a minor key with lots of strings.
One artist you’d love to collaborate with one day?
What does the word “beauty” mean to you?
Beauty is what the wise part of me looks for in all things. Maybe beauty is chaos that has been unraveled and reordered with love and design.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
Learning to garden.
What can we expect to hear next from you?
It’s hard to say because it hasn’t come to me yet, but I have I found myself writing short prayer/chant style songs in the last while. If I can capture some of those, you might be hearing them in the future.