By Cody Herron-Webb
Ava Earl is a teenage prodigy, who at age 17, is on her way to Nashville where she will be producing her fourth studio album. From stage to studio, Ava is no stranger to the music scene. I caught up with her just before she left to ask her a bit about her music.
How do you balance time between school, friends, and working on your craft?
I’ve developed a really good work ethic when it comes to school, so usually homework isn’t an issue for me. Plus, I am in sports all year (cross-country running/skiing and track), so I always see my friends at school or at practice and meets. I work on music after school, on weekends when I have gigs, or just whenever I feel compelled to write a song.
So far, what has been the hardest thing you have faced in being a musician?
I am 17 years old, and I could definitely pass for a few years younger, still. It can be hard to establish myself as someone who is a professional musician while a teenager. That isn’t to say that I don’t have a lot to learn still, but that it is easy to expect that I need to be told a lot of things. I’ve been told I should go on talent shows like The Voice, and I’ve been told to avoid them. I’ve been told to be myself, and I’ve also been told that even if I memorize hour-long poems and learn to recite them that I will still never be HALF as talented as Homer (the poet who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey). Basically, I have come to understand how to both accept advice and keep my art original and true to myself.
How does playing at festivals compare to shows where you are the main or opening act?
I like playing everywhere. Festivals are fun because of the festival energy, and you get to see all the other acts. Listening room shows might be the most rewarding for me though, because that’s when I feel like I get the chance to really connect with the audience.
Have you ever had an experience in dealing with a venue /promoter where you felt that they treated you unfairly or would not deal directly with you because of your age?
I don’t think I’ve ever been treated unfairly, but definitely (especially when I was younger), I was treated more as a kid than as a performer. Now, most venues know me as a musician first, so that helps a lot.
In addition to playing all over Alaska, you have traveled out of state for a few shows. Are there any stages or venues that you dream of playing on?
I have always wanted to be on the Mountain Stage in West Virginia — I think maybe because it was always on the radio when I was younger. Of course, I wouldn’t say I haven’t thought of singing in Carnegie Hall, either. Regardless of venue, I think that my dream performances are shows where I really feel connected to the audience, and I’ve had some of those already.
Everyone is asked what they want to be when they grow up. Was a professional musician one of your dreams? Is it still?
I can’t remember if I ever wanted to be a musician, per se, but this year I’ve done a lot of reflecting and realized that I am exactly the person I dreamt of being when I was younger. I am really glad that I have stayed true to myself, and I have surrounded myself with people that I truly love.
What are your plans after High-School? Will you be going to college and what for? Do you plan to tour and play more shows? What else would you like to do?
I would like to do some mini-tours in the summer but I plan to go to college in a year or so for something in the science field.As far as a career, it is my dream to work with the gene-editing tool, CRISPR. I’ve been a bit obsessed with it since I was about eight or nine and I want to work on curing diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
Artists use their craft to be a platform for addressing issues important to them. What are the matters that most deeply resonate with & inspire you?
I have a few songs that fall into my “social movement” category. One of the first of these I wrote about a year ago, and it stems from my frustration over how our government was handling immigration into America. The song is called ‘Heart of Mexico,’, and I wrote it from the point of view of a Mexican mother (or father) and her/his daughter trying to smuggle themselves across the border. As a very privileged white American citizen, I have thought about how this song my come across with certain insensitivities since I have never had an experience anywhere close to the one I portray in the song, and of course since I am not Mexican (or a mother). My hopes for the song are that people are able to see things from a new perspective––I think that’s really what is so magical about music.
Another of my songs, “March,” is about gun violence in schools. When I talk about this song, I say that no matter what you believe, you shouldn’t be shot in a school by someone with a semi-automatic rifle. It is horrible, and there are so many ways to prevent it (and I don’t mean shooter drills). The song is also focused on love, and how beautiful it is to see the people of my generation rise up in the face of such destruction.
I am also inspired/saddened by Anchorage’s homelessness crisis, and for it I wrote my song ‘For the Good’. In it, I promise myself that while I can’t do it now, when I am older and have the resources to help make a difference, then I will work to make that change in the quality of life of everyone who lives outside each winter in Alaska.
With the rise of musicians reaching nationwide fame through YouTube and other sharing platforms, how does social media play into your marketing strategy?
I have an Instagram and Facebook account that I use to promote new shows and projects, but I’m hoping to put together a good marketing campaign for promoting the new album, so I might become a bit more active on social media to spread the word. YouTube is great because I can share songs really easily through it, and it gives me a chance to been seen by people who wouldn’t find me on Instagram or Facebook.
If you were to form a band with whichever artists you could choose, who would be on your “dream team?”
Some of my favorite musicians are Elliott Smith, Fiona Apple, Laura Marling, along with many others. I think the wonderful musicians with whom I will be playing in Nashville are a dream team, and so is Andy Mullen, who I have had the honor to collaborate with for the past four or so years.
At 12, you recorded your first album and you are now getting ready to record your fourth. Can you briefly tell about your first three?
It was great! My first album was really exciting for me, and it helped me learn a lot about what I wanted to do with my music. My second and third albums, recorded with Hawkins Wright and Andy Mullen, were a lot about the beauty of simplicity. We got some awesome sound from just the two of us (Andy and I) but was joined on a few songs by the wonderful Anna Tivel and my sister Hadley.
You expect that your new album will cost about $15,000 to record/master/distribute. Is there somewhere that fans who are interested in helping out can go to donate towards the production costs?
Yes, I had a crowdfunding campaign that ended last week. If anyone wants to help but didn’t get a chance to donate, they can message me through my website and I certainly won’t turn them away. Or they can always buy an existing album, or one of my new ones when they come out. All of the money that I make from music goes straight into making more :)
Do you feel relieved after you finish recording or are you hungry to start working on the next one?
I really love recording, and I find that it is a great release for me to have my songs somewhere permanent. While the process can be draining at times, I love every bit of it. After recording, I tend to take a bit of a music break and focus on relaxing or hanging out with my friends for a bit before I eventually start writing again when inspiration strikes.
Does songwriting come easy to you? Can you explain your process for our readers?
I have rarely struggled to write. From my first songs to the ones I write now, I have almost never forced myself to write a song––I do it when the inspiration strikes. It’s hard to explain, but I usually don’t get a fully formed idea. It’s more like an itch, and I have all of this restless energy, and the only way to relieve myself is to write, or at least fiddle. Most of the time, I will have some strong feelings that probably need to resolve themselves inside of me, and music is my platform for that. I start writing with guitar in hand, and I keep my songbook in front of me to write down anything good. Sometimes, the chorus will come to me first (this is hard, because writing a verse after a chorus comes less naturally to me), but usually I start from the beginning of the song. I record sometimes while I’m fiddling in case I say something brilliant and then forget it (because I tend to forget things right after I say them!). It all comes together in about 30 minutes to an hour. If I don’t finish a song in one sitting I get bored, and I don’t come back to them until I have my restless energy but no inspiration to go along with it, so then I piggyback on something I already started. This system isn’t always efficient, since I end up with so many unfinished songs!
Do you have favorite songs? Least favorite? What criteria do you use to judge the songs you make?
I definitely have favorite songs. My favorite songs so far tend to happen quickly and sometimes they just kind of pour out of me like the words were just waiting for a sequence and a melody; they also come from the deepest feelings of mine, and I feel like they are very true to who I am.
Unfortunately, I have least favorites too. Some songs I write, and I feel that they sound just like every other song I’ve ever written, or too cliché, or a bit hokey. Sometimes, just the shape of the chords I play in the song will make me feel like I’m just following a pattern in my music, which tends to make me feel that the song is cheap (to be clear, I definitely reuse chord progressions, even though I kinda don’t like that I do sometimes...I’m not sure how anyone could avoid it).
What made you decide to head down to Nashville for this next album?
I met JT Nero and Allison Russell from the folk group, Birds of Chicago, after My mom and I saw them perform here in Anchorage. (Big thanks to Whistling Swan Productions for bringing them up!) Someone who knew me through the local music scene, told them that I was someone they should know about and they asked me to send some of my music to them. I gladly obliged, and we have been corresponding since.
JT reached out to me this summer and asked to collaborate on an album together, so we have been planning, and been working together on songs. JT and Allison are both super busy, and I am super excited that they have decided to spend some of their free time helping me create something amazing. Since they record at the Henhouse Studio in Nashville Tennessee, I am going to join them there for this amazing opportunity.
How do you go about picking songs to go on an album? Do you prefer them to have a certain theme throughout or are ready to record once you have a certain number of tracks that you like?
It’s been a while since I recorded my last album, and so I have written a lot in the meantime. I sent a bunch of songs (25-ish) to JT Nero, who will be producing the CD, and from there we pared it down based on themes that he heard and what my personal favorites were. I still don’t have an exact list of which songs will be on the album, but I have some priority ones, and we’re planning to go from there.
Do you have a name for your new album picked out already?
I have brainstormed a few ideas, but I’m not sure quite yet. Hopefully I will be inspired one way or another while recording. In the meantime, I think I kind of like the idea of it being a surprise.
Where can people who haven’t heard you play before (or existing fans) go to listen to you sing?
I have most of my music online at Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube! You can find links to all of them at my website, www.AvaEarl.com, as well as finding out when and where my next shows will be.