SXSW 2023 Interview: Pop Singer-Songwriter Shirley Hurt (Exclusive)

Bringing an air of ease and simplicity to songs that embrace inherent intricacy is a powerful way for musicians to showcase their talent while launching their careers. Singer-songwriter-instrumentalist Shirley Hurt is doing just that on her recently released eponymous debut album, which emphasizes a timelessness that makes it feel like it has always existed. The nine-track record is clearly the beginning of a long artistic story for the artist, which will likely be driven by many unpredictable chapters.

The critically acclaimed ‘Shirley Hurt’ LP blends together experimental indie folk, pop and country elements to create a singular sound that’s infused with elegant unpredictability and ease. Skeletal arrangements tastefully support Hurt’s compelling voice not only replicates some of the world’s greatest classical singers, but also retains a distinctiveness that’s increasingly rare in modern society.

In support of the album’s release, the Toronto-based singer-percussionist-guitarist (née Sophia Ruby Katz) performed three showcases during this year’s SXSW in Austin. The first performance was held on Monday, March 13 at Second Play Showcase at Embassy Suites Hotel South Congress; the second show was held at Canada House at Swan Dive on Wednesday, March 15; and the final performance was held at Seven Grand on Thursday, March 16, which was presented by Gorilla vs Bear + Luminelle.

On the afternoon of her second show, March 15, Hurt generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview at Bouldin Creek Cafe in Austin. Among other things, she discussed that she often creates the lyrics and melody for the group’s tunes on her own, and then shared her ideas with her fellow musicians to complete the final version of the song. The singer-songwriter also shared her appreciation of being able to share her music with audiences at SXSW.

The conversation began with Hurt sharing what inspired her to pursue music as a career. “I’ve been making music for 10 years. There have been different iterations of different projects. This is the first one that I feel like I found a soundbox that I’m happy to play in long-term,” she admitted.

“I love everything that I’ve done before, and when I listen to it now, I’m like, I don’t even remember how I did that. But it seems very emblematic of a specific time in my life, but I don’t see this project having a cap yet. I can envision the next few albums in my mind’s eye, which is a nice feeling,” the singer revealed. “But overall, I’ve been seriously making music since I was 18 or 19.”

Hurt then delved into how she approaches penning her tracks and what the experience was like of putting her new record together. The process is “song specific; I don’t have one method. But typically, I’ll start a song when I’m not doing something music-related. So I’ll be washing dishes and hear a lyric or melody or a little snippet. But a lot of times it will be something more than that,” she shared.

“I’ll hear it and make a split-second decision of whether I’m going to stop what I’m doing and pursue this idea. I try to do that as much as I can. So if I’m washing dishes, I have to put them down and go get my pen out and write down as much as I can get,” the scribe further divulged.

“Sometimes when I do it, I get a whole song, and sometimes I only get a snippet, and it will take another three years for the song to materialize,” Hurt admitted. “But when I’m lucky, it can be a pretty quick process.

“Usually, I come up with the lyrics and a melody to accompany them first. I’ll then bring them to my piano, usually, or sometimes my guitar,” the instrumentalist added.

With her LP featuring a wide range of genres, from indie folk to pop and country, Hurt then delved into what styles of music inspire her the most. “I don’t know if there’s one particular genre that I like or inspires me the most; again, it’s almost song specific. Each song feels like its own little world, but the worlds all have pathways to each other, and they’re all related,” the musician shared.

“The songs usually speak for themselves, without me having to think about genre too much. I have a lot of bands and artists that I like, but I don’t really have bands or artists that I’m really thinking about when I’m creating my songs, for the most part,” Hurt revealed.

The singer then further delved into how she chose what tunes to include on her recently released titular album. “It was a shockingly smooth process because up until ‘Shirley Hurt,’ I found writing to be a pretty laboriouss process,” she noted.

“Then with this project, my bandmate, Harrison Forman (who plays the guitar and bass), and I were going on a road trip across North America. About halfway through that trip was when I got the first few songs, and there wasn’t a lot of effort in it,” Hurt explained.

“It’s kind of like what I described – I would hear a song and just run with it. Then before I knew it, by the time the trip was over, I essentially had a whole record,” the songwriter revealed.

“I was like, ‘What is this project? It’s not like anything I’ve done before. But when I’m writing, I have the option to reject something because it doesn’t sound like something I’ve done before, or it’s a different ‘genre,’” Hurt further divulged. “Or I can keep it and see how it goes.

“At the time, the project didn’t have a name, and I didn’t know it was going to be a full album. I just knew that the songs kept coming down the pipeline. That was a nice feeling, so I chased it, and here we are,” the musician added.

Further speaking about how her time traveling influences her process of penning her tracks, Hurt shared: “The first record was enormously influenced by being on the road because it was written entirely on the road, except for maybe one or two songs before or after we left.” She continued: “Being on the road without any obligations was a pretty unique thing because we didn’t bring the project on tour, since it didn’t exist yet. My bandmate Harrison’s project was touring, either, as we were still in the midst of the pandemic.

“So it was like an on the road writer’s retreat. But we didn’t intend for it to be; it just manifested that way,” the songwriter added.

Hurt then explained how working with Forman and their fellow musicians influences the way she approaches scribng songs. “Typically I write alone, but Harrison is an incredible songwriter. With a song like ‘Problem Child,’ which is the first single off of this record, it happened to be that Harrison and I were sitting next to each other, and he started playing this guitar line. I was sitting at the piano, and the song materialized in about 20 minutes. It was so easy.

“So he contributed to that song, as well as the rhythmic guitar melody on ‘Pendulum.’ But I’ll typically write solo and then bring songs to him and the rest of the band to work on in the studio,” the scribe continued.

“So when I’m writing, it’s usually a pretty insular process, and get the whole thing in an exceptionally unorganized way in my brain. I’m horrible at organization; sometimes I’ll write songs on a voicenote and the notes app on my phone. Then the other half will be on a notepad somewhere, and I’ll have to mix it all together to manifest a song,” Hurt admitted. “It’s a nightmare, so I’m trying to get better for my bandmates!”

The singer then shared how she and her bandmates describe their performance style together, as well as their interaction with their audience. “We haven’t done a ton of touring together yet, to be honest. Much of the touring we have done has just been Harrison and myself,” she divulged.

“But when we play with the band, it’s definitely a different dynamic than when it’s just Harrison and me. It’s less intimate in some ways, and overall, it’s a lot more robust. So I would say that it’s more fun for us to get to play with a full band because everyone in the band is a playful person,” Hurt shared with a laugh. “So it feels like a more playful environment when we play with everyone.

“So the band is incredible. We’re looking forward to touring more together this year and next year,” the musician shared.

“They’re all professional musicians, as they’ve been making music and touring for a long time. But I’ve never been on tour with this project, or any other, really,” Hurt admitted. “We’ve done miniature tours that lasted about three days or do one-off shows in other cities, but not a full-length tour. So that’s coming down the pipeline, hopefully.”

The singer then shared what her experience was like of being able to perform with Forman and the rest of their bandmates at SXSW. She admitted with a laugh: “It’s been a wild ride. It’s been a different environment than I’m used to in a confusing and pleasant way. I think I continuously forget and remember that I don’t function well at music festivals because I get socially overwhelmed very easily,” she admitted.

On the group’s showcase the night before the interview on March 14th at Swan Dive, “I was holing away in the green room the whole evening before we went on. It feels like such a pretentious thing to do to not be out in the crowd interacting, but my body tenses up in those environments sometimes,” the performer admitted.

“I almost drove into oncoming traffic on my way to the venue, so I had to shake that off when I arrived,” Hurt also revealed. “But I’m getting used to these environments, so I think this is a good primer for that!”

The musician then emphasized that despite her nervousness at performing live at times, she is happy to interact with fans whenever she can. “To be honest, I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that I get to make music and play it for people at all. So I feel sort of confused when someone comes to one of our shows who’s a stranger to me but a fan of the music; it still hasn’t completely registered that that’s a possibility, but clearly it is! But my brain hasn’t caught with reality it, but I’m getting there – it’s amazing!”

Besides performing at SXSW, Hurt and her fellow musicians have been working on their second record together. “We were working on it in January, and then took a little break,” she shared. While performing at the Austin-based music festival, she had plans to continue working on the group’s sophomore record when she returned home to Toronto. She already had the inspiration for the songs, and planned on working with the other members to put the final version of the LP’s entries. “So everything’s really coming together!,” she concluded.

Photo credit: Alicia Owen

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