I got the chance recently to interview Graham Weber at the idyllic House of Songs. For any of you who don’t know, it’s a non-profit that provides a space for artists from Austin to collaborate with other artists from Austin as well as other parts of the world.
I found out about the House of Songs after being invited to do a co-write with Daisy O’Connor. It was a magical experience and such a lovely little getaway inside what sometimes feels like an overwhelming city.
After writing a song there, I was eager to learn more about the history of the organization — which brought me to the living room of The House of Songs with Graham Weber, Director of Artist Management and long time member of the Austin music community.
His journey alongside this organization is an impressive and enlightening one. Graham had so much insight to offer on the local and global music scene as it stands, how it stood, and how it’s walking on into the future.
AH: Why did you choose to start working with The House of Songs?
GW: The HoS has been around for about ten years – we’re about to celebrate our ten year anniversary. About seven years ago, maybe longer, I was asked by Matt the Electrician if I wanted to do some co-writing with an artist from another country. I told him “Yeah, I’d be into it! I’ve never co-written but I’d love to give it a try.”
I wrote with a guy from Helsinki named Samae Koskinen and it was a great experience. His music it was almost like Paul McCartney, he had great melodies, good pop stuff, but not what we call pop music currently in the US.
AH: Right. I feel like that’s always such a weird thing though, like pop, people say “what I do isn’t really pop,” but could it be popular? That’s all it really is right?
GW: Right, Frank Sinatra was pop for his era. Samae’s stuff was kinda like 60s, 70s, pop, with elements of Elvis Costello. We wrote this tune, came in with nothing, and we finished a song in three hours. I didn’t work here then, I was just in as a guest writer. He wanted to go to an American football game, and it was the first home game for UT. I took him to the game and he had the time of his life. He didn’t really know what was going on but he was really happy about it. I took him to get BBQ and around town. I called Matt the next day and I said “I’d love to do this again, just let me know.”
So then I started getting called to do this, I wrote with a Canadian girl, some Swedes, and some Danes. The HoS started on a Danish wind-powered island called Samsø. Troy Campbell (HoS founder) went to a summit there with his good friend Poul Krebs. Poul is like the Springsteen of Denmark – he’s crazy famous there, but not as much in the US.
They got together and were like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring Danish artists to Austin?” Troy had a vision, so he bought this property and then they started bringing Danes over. We would get funded by artists getting funded by the arts organizations where they were from. We never try to make artists go out of pocket. We soon expanded throughout Scandinavia. Those countries are socialist democracies and they’re good about funding artists through their arts councils and organizations.
AH: That’s awesome!
GW: That’s how we sustained ourselves for almost nine years, basically through the grants given to artists that applied for them. But yeah, I wrote with a Danish artist shortly after that, a guy named Esben Kronborg. He looked like one of the Proclaimers, like a blonde Buddy Holly.
AH: laughs I love that.
GW: He says, “You should come to Denmark and do a tour,” and I said, “Tell you what man, sure, that sounds great. Book the tour and call me!” We had a great time and we really hit it off.
Then he called me like two months later, and in that time I found out my wife was pregnant which was kind of unexpected. And he says “Well I’ve booked a tour, are you going to come?” I said, “Well yeah, I guess. I’m having a kid a little before that.” And he said, “Well you should do it, you’ll make money, it’ll be good.” I said “Alright.”
So I did a three-week run. When I left, my daughter was three months old. I found the money to go and came back in the black. They’re also good at paying their artists over there. I got back from that, and I’d been on the road a lot. I was just burned out and I knew that breaking even, domestically, wasn’t gonna be good enough with my kid on the way. So I got back and I called Troy. He owns this house and the house in Bentonville, Arkansas. I called him and didn’t really know him.
I was trying to find something where I could make some money. The band I was in broke up soon after I got back from Denmark. I went back to playing a winery every Saturday in Spicewood, grocery stores, happy hours, and just the cash gigs, if you hustle you can do it ya know?
AH: Oh I get it, I’m there right now, I know.
GW: I always rationalized, “I’m doing way better than I would be if I was waiting tables or cooking or whatever” – printing t-shirts I did that for a while. But I wanted something else supplemental where I could get paid and not have to be somewhere all the time.
GW: So I was like, “Hey, what can I do?” And we talked. We ended up finding out that we grew up about 20 miles away from each other in Ohio, like same county and everything.
AH: Wow! That’s absurd.
GW: We have a lot in common, a lot of mutual friends. We talked for like two hours, he said, “You know why don’t you come help, we’re doing a camp. It’s our first big one.”
I started taking over the booking for the guest Austin artists shortly after that, and that’s all I really wanted to do. I like connecting people in our community with people in other places. Matt had done this for a while and was going back on the road, so I took over his job. Around that time another project came in and Troy had met a woman named Betsy Brumley whose grandfather is Albert Brumley who wrote the song “I’ll Fly Away,” the traditional gospel tune and he wrote hundreds of songs.
They had a collection of his unfinished work and they were trying to find something to do with it. So Troy pitched a project and said we could do it at the House of Songs kinda like the Woody Guthrie stuff that Wilco & Billy Brag did. We were also at the same time looking for some way to work with our Australian counterparts – our sister city is Adelaide, so we talked to them and they sent three artists here to work with Graham Wilkinson, Dawn and Hawkes, and Akina Adderly. They worked here for a week, they finished fourteen songs I think, and then they made a documentary about it.
AH: That’s awesome, what’s the documentary called?
GW: It’s called Brumley’s Suitcase. It premiered at SXSW film, Austin film festival, Adelaide Film Festival, and Americana fest. We were able to send our four Austin artists to Australia – I didn’t go, but it was great for me because I was in the position where I could actually help export people. That’s still one of my big goals.
AH: Especially for arts under the current legislation and whatnot.
GW: I was just speaking at a panel in Ft. Worth, speaking to delegates from every city in Texas, people from LA and Omaha, “if you can export your artists, if you can support them, they will be so happy you supported them. They will go and be the best mascot, they will be the best flag bearer for your city.”
AH: Of course! They’ll be the best representative because they’d just be so pumped.
GW: Yeah! Because they’re not worried that when they get back that they’re gonna get evicted or something like that for paying for a plane ticket.
AH: Yeah, that’s definitely a worry I face thinking about planning a month long tour.
GW: So yeah, that’s been the goal. Export the artists and connect them with people, who do what they do, from somewhere else.
AH: Who else do you work with?
GW: We work with over 30 countries now. Our second location is in Northwest Arkansas, where we have a beautiful 1890’s Victorian House. Like this one here in Austin, there’s a baby grand, and loads of instruments. We’ve been there for two years, and have worked with many talented regional artists, and have been able to put them together to work with artists from all over the world. It’s also been a privledge to be able to expose people to that area. It’s a place that is excited by and interested in new art of a plethora of artistic disciplines.
One of our newer partnerships is in New York City and it’s with a great organization called Artspace. They provide affordable housing and facilities for artists all over the United States, and through our partnership, we are able to utilize their guest residence to install our program up there. We liked the idea of having artists in New York because it’s a real place you could tour, but it’s hard to make money in the city. It’s never a guarantee that you’re gonna come out rich after spending all the money to be in New York, it’s like London, you bleed money while you’re there. But if we can help an artist stay in the city for a week, work with New York artists and get to know a community(s) of like minded artists, then the next time they go they’ll have a foundation to build an audience there.
AH: With Austin exploding the way it has, do you consider yourself an Austinite now?
GW: I moved a lot as a kid, and moved a lot as a young adult. I was only gonna be here for two years. That was it, I’d never been her before. I just met my community here, and that’s why I stay in Austin.
Yeah, even when I moved here, it was like “you should have moved here twenty years ago.” I don’t know if I say that a lot. But I do know there are some things that I miss.
AH: I think that it’s growing pains, I know that Austin is an artist’s town and sometimes that’s very apparent.
GW: Yeah, it’s an artist’s town. Not a ton of people know much about the business here. I work a lot with Austin Music Foundation and BlackFret, and all three of us are nonprofits. Those are great organizations, like The HoS, focus on educating and advancing the careers of Austin artists. My band (Western Youth) is a BlackFret artist this year and was in AMF’s Artist Development Program last year. Being both an artist, and a facilitator I get to see how these organizations can benefit the music community as a whole from both sides.
GW: Selfishly though, I love this. One of the best things about this job for me and having a lot of skin in the game is that I get the benefit of that networking, not as much because I don’t write with everybody, but I do get to facilitate and hopefully I get enough time where I can sit and bond with someone for an hour or two. And I will go out of my way if I really dig their music. If we can help inform the artists that are working hard and treat their career like a business, it’s gonna help the whole town. There’s something like 130 music nonprofits in Austin. We touch the artists on the ground, and I think we’re using our platform to improve the community so everybody gets better.
AH: To close it out, perfect world, what does the future look like? What would you like to see?
GW: What I’d love to be able to do is export artists from Austin around the world and to different cities and scenes. I want to embed our people for the same amount of time for two weeks. If we had the funding, we could build the infrastructure for that. Through the things we’ve done already and the new things we’re getting into now, I can see that as a reality in the next few years. I want to do more of these songwriting summits. We want to create a lot more focusing on diversity in culture and genre. I’d like to see some cross genre collaborations, but I want to make it so it’s beneficial for them, not just because it’s…
AH: Because it’s like a wacky combo or something.
GW: Yeah I mean it should be fun, but the main thing is I don’t want to waste an artist’s time. It’s a valuable commodity for them. I also want something to work, the more success that people can get from working with us or if we facilitate a successful relationship — there’s nothing better for our organization than being able to do that. And raising awareness about the organization is great, like somebody is gonna read this, and then they’ll tell their musician friend and maybe say, “Hey, you should check this out.”
AH: So for those reading this right now, how do they get involved?
GW: They can go to www.thehouseofsongs.org and there’s an artist’s submission on there, and then we will send a follow up survey and get to know you better. If you’re in Austin you can be in the Austin Player to Player program and write with another artist here. We’re big flag waivers for our community here. If there’s anything I can do to break down these silos and bubbles and tighten the community. There are cliques and groups, and there’s not a lot of friction but people don’t want to get outside of their group. I want more people to know more people here too.
AH: It becomes a very small town really quickly I feel like. If you’re one of those people who is out there doing shit all the time or trying to make connections with people and being an active part of the music industry.
GW: That’s what I tell people, it’s all about showing up. You have to go where you want to be. What kind of shows do you want to do? What kind of clubs do you want to play at? Go there and hang out. Just be there. Whoever’s on the stage, they’re only two feet up. It’s not like you can reach them, it’s not like you can’t go and meet them later and be like “Hey, I’m a musician.”
People are inherently nice here. I moved here from Northeastern Ohio. It’s a very gray place, people have their guard up a lot of the time. My first hour after we’d unloaded the U-haul in a t-shirt in December, we went down to South Congress. This guy was like “Hey, how’s it going?” to me and my wife and I’m like, “Do you know that guy?” She’s like, “What are you talking about? That guy’s just being nice, we don’t know anybody here.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah.” It took me about an hour and I’m like, wait a minute I’m inherently a nice guy, I want to be a nice guy. People look younger here and they are happier as a general rule and a little kinder. I just totally shed that part of me.
AH: So how can people donate to The HoS?
GW: We have a PayPal link on our website, and also at any of our public events. Our tenth anniversary is coming up. We’ll have something in Austin, I can’t say where, but we’ll announce pretty soon. We’ll be starting a series showcasing the ATXP2P program starting July 12th at the new downtown Taco Deli location. Those will be on Fridays, every 6 – 7 weeks, showing Austin artists’ collaborations from The HoS.
AH: It’s all about trying to make more of a community right?
GW: Yep. Our community is at it’s best when we help and support each other, and are open to new ideas from other places.
AH: Definitely. Well Graham, thanks again for taking the time. I know time is the most valuable thing for us.
GW: Definitely, I appreciate it!
If you’re an artist looking to get involved, click here.
If you’re someone who’d like to donate to the cause, click here.