Q&A with Folk Singer-Songwriter ISABELLE STILLMAN

ISABELLE STILLMAN finds inspiration from balance, whether it is her dual life as an English teacher and touring musician, or her upbringing in Missouri to her present day in a crowded Los Angeles, she — a guitarist, songwriter and singer — has grown to find a harmony that resonates deeply within her music.

Stillman was raised from Midwestern roots, often attributing her groundedness to her strong family life. She craved music from an early age, always singing and growing up with her parents’ music as the soundtrack. Stillman was a teenager when she first picked up guitar; but school remained her primary focus. Systematic learning satiated her — the definition of “success” so clearly defined. Raised in a community that valued structure, Stillman embraced it. And yet her creativity continued to flow.

Following a family tradition set by her great uncle, southern writer Peter Taylor, Stillman went to study Fiction Writing in college, growing to create worlds, people and messages on a page. As she continued to search for a place her writings and drive could affect social justice, Stillman was offered a teaching job and relocated to Denver to spend two years as a high school English teacher. Still unfulfilled, she went back to her guitar and started to delve into songwriting. As Stillman simply puts it, “It was something of a relief – in a society where progress is the goal, and achievement and productivity often define our worth, I could capture my heart and it felt in equal parts rebellious and healing.”

Stillman taught by day and gigged by night. By the end of her second year teaching, she had produced a full-length album. Her debut album, Middle Sister, paid homage to her family and upbringing while launching her onto a path abandoning traditional genre and ignoring guidelines. Released in 2019 to good reviews, it reflected the confusing process of becoming an artist and a grown-up, cohesive in lyricism, addressing themes of grounding and aspiration, love and loss, independence and reliance. As Taste Magazine wrote, “Isabelle’s love of words and depth as an artist are apparent…”; the project brought into full focus the intersection of all of Stillman’s worlds. 

What first got you into music?

You never know if it’s nature or nurture – but I think it’s a little of both. I’ve always loved music, both listening and playing. My parents often had music on when we were growing up too – my Mom loved country radio and my Dad played a lot of singer-songwriters. 

Who inspired you to make music?

My Dad’s love of music definitely inspired me to play – he can really hear what’s going on in a song and feels music really deeply, and I always admired that and took after him in that. My favorite artists growing up were more aligned with my mom’s taste and are also a big inspiration – The Chicks, Sara Evans, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride – all the women of country music! 

How did you learn to sing, write, and play?

I sang for fun from a young age, and started singing in choir and acapella groups as I got older. I took guitar lessons with an amazing teacher named Dave Schellenberg starting in middle school and picked up a bit of piano on my own following that time. I studied creative writing throughout college, but never wrote songs until about a year after I graduated. Since then, I’ve learned so much from NSAI workshops and music conferences. 

How would you describe the music that you typically create?

I struggle to describe what genre I write in – some Americana-folk-country-ish, some a little more pop-y. The throughline I think is that I’m very lyric-based as a writer. I let the words and the concept guide the music

What is your creative process like?

It usually starts with an idea – a feeling, a situation, a moment I want to capture. Then, I’ll sit down with my guitar or at the piano and play what I think 

Is there a hidden meaning in any of your music?

Hm. I’m an English teacher, so there’s a hidden meaning in everything!!! And I think that’s the beauty of it. As a listener, you get to create what the song means to you, and that counts just as much as what the writer was trying to say. 

Have you ever dealt with performance anxiety?

Not really! I’m lucky, I think. I’ve been in plays and performed music since I was little, so I’ve gotten used to it a bit. I also stand at the front of a classroom and put on a sort of show for teenagers every day, so that’s good practice 🙂 

What’s an average day like for you?

I’m a high school English teacher and a graduate student in English and Creative Writing along with being a musician, so my days are pretty busy! I either teacher or have class, then plan lessons and do homework (reading and writing), all alongside making and sharing my music. 

Who would you most like to collaborate with?

Lori McKenna or The Highwomen.

If you could go open a show for any artist who would it be?

The Chicks or Tyler Childers. Ugh. The dream!

What is one message you would give to your fans?

Remember to listen to the voices you don’t always hear 🙂 

What is the most useless talent you have?

I can close my eyes upside down. Like, make the bottom lid go up to the top lid instead of the other way around. Ha. 

Do you sing in the shower? What songs?

…duh. Honestly, I’ve been singing a lot of songs from musicals lately…

What would you be doing right now, if it wasn’t for your music career?

I guess I’d have to say teaching or writing, but because I’m already doing those things, maybe they don’t count…Sometimes I think it’d be fun to be a Park Ranger. 

Where have you performed? What are your favourite and least favourite venues? Do you have any upcoming shows?

Last year, I spent a lot of time on tour, playing a lot of different types of venues. I loved playing Blueberry Hill in St. Louis, my hometown, Di Luna’s in Sandpoint, ID (honestly the most amazing small town in America), Globe Hall in Denver, and Belcourt Taps in Nashville. I also love playing house shows because you get to meet everyone!! 

How do you interact with and respond to fans?

I really miss talking to fans after shows 🙁 I love getting to know people in between sets or after I’ve played – learning about who they are, how they ended up at the show, and what music means to them. Since COVID hit, I’ve been communicating through my newsletter and social media but it’s not the same!! I miss connecting over music in real life.  

How do you feel the Internet has impacted the music business?

It’s a double-edged sword, I think. On the one hand, anyone can release music which is awesome. On the other, because our society doesn’t always value art and music monetarily, with such a saturated industry, it’s become even harder to make a living doing it. I wish we all admitted how important music is to all of us and paid artists based on that!!

What is your favourite song to perform?

I love playing my song “The Gun” live – I play it on guitar and with a foot drumkit, so it’s fun and upbeat. I open every show with “The Gun.” 

Which famous musicians do you admire?

Brandi Carlile, The Chicks (again – are we seeing a pattern?), Tyler Childers (also again – good is good, no?), Marren Morris, Mickey Guyton – people who aren’t afraid to say what they believe in. 

What is the most trouble you’ve ever gotten into?

Hmm. Once I got a tattoo and didn’t tell my parents. That seems a little boring though. I guess I’m a little boring. 

What is the best advice you’ve been given?

“Write the most honest feeling you have. Even if it’s embarrassing, even if it’s mean, even if it’s painful. Honest writing makes real music.” 

If you could change anything about the industry, what would it be?

More women on stages, on the radio, on playlists, on the charts. And valuing artists monetarily in the same way we do emotionally. 

What’s next for you?

Keep on! Keep writing music and releasing it! Meeting more musicians, playing out when it’s safe, being creative in general 🙂 

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