Emotional singer-songwriter Billy Lawler joins us at one of our favorite Hollywood cafes, Solar De Cahuenga, to discuss his latest single “Sorry,” the pressures artists face in a social media-focused world, and the intense power music can have on listeners.
You’ve recently released your latest single “Sorry,” wanted to say congratulations!
Billy Lawler: Thank you!
I also wanted to ask if you wanted to share a little bit of behind the scenes info on how the lyrics and the instrumentation came to be.
Billy: I first started writing “Sorry” probably about five years ago. I was living with my now ex, and while I was in that relationship, I realized I hadn’t been writing much. I wanted to get back into it, so I set up my recording gear, hooked up my keyboard, and I started playing the chords that became a part of the song’s instrumentation. The lyrics “I’m sorry if I let you down,” was the first line that came out of me. A lot of times when I’m writing I’ll mumble things, but when I’m recording I’ll do what I like to call ‘word painting,’ where I just kind of sing along to whatever words come to me at that moment. Sometimes I end up with different tracks of gibberish and stuff, but the only line I had for a really long time was “I’m sorry if I let you down.” Fast forward a few years, I ended that relationship, and even though it ended on a good note, I still felt responsible and guilty for putting someone in that situation.
That shows that you’re a good person.
Billy: I’m a very empathetic person, and I’ve been on the other side where you’re the one who doesn’t want it to end. For some reason, the whole situation was coming back to me, and I felt guilty about it, so I thought I would take a swing at writing it. It all just kind of came out at once, and it was kind of ironic, serendipitous maybe, that the song seemed to come out as some sort of apology. In regards to the instrumentation, that was something that I really worked on with my producer Ryan Gilligan. I didn’t have specific instrumentation in mind, I just kind of had a generic overall sound that I was thinking of, but he really helped me put it together. As far as percussion and synths, we layered them throughout with light background vocals, but tried to keep it mainly piano and vocals because that’s where my live sets are. I didn’t want it to be too much of a stretch from what my normal style is.
And I mean, apologies are a recurring topic, whether we care to take part in it or not.
Billy: With the release of the song, I was kind of going for a campaign that was focused on the power of apology. I had watched this video where someone had explained saying ‘sorry’ as one of the first things that we learn as children, but as adults it’s one of the hardest things to do. We just don’t do it well in terms of genuinely apologizing when it’s called for. But there’s also a culture these days with people over-apologizing, especially with women. I think about our leadership in the country right now, and I think about how different some of these conversations would be if the person being accused of whatever it is actually came forward and apologized for their actions, like, a genuine apology where there’s an understanding and they’re owning up to it. But with apologies and “Sorry,” it’s a very feeling concept for both parties that hopefully opens up more opportunities for forgiveness too.
Apart from going in and not knowing what the song’s sound would have been, how would you say that the recording process and writing process for “Sorry” was similar or different than that of your past work?
Billy: I guess in terms of writing it was pretty similar. It was me and my keyboard, and like I said, setting up some recording equipment, singing some gibberish. *laughs* I guess this one seems a little different because the majority of it came out in a very short amount of time. Coming back to it years later, it kind of just poured out at me in a half hour to an hour. But with the recording process I took my time. Once I had finished writing the song, it took me several years to actually record it I really wanted to take my time to find the ‘right’ person. It was also different in the sense that I wasn’t doing a full EP, just one song this time, so we could give it more attention and, like I said, take my time to try to get it to be the way that it was in my brain. I worked with a different producer than the producer I worked with on my previous EP because I wanted to diversify my collaborations. I had spent some time researching producers and I found Ryan. I’d seen that he was working with a couple of people I was familiar with from the songwriting scene around here, so I reached out and we made it happen!
It’s always good to know someone who’s worked with the people you know! So if you had an unlimited budget to do a music video for “Sorry,” what type of concept would you want to do?
Billy: That is actually a hard question. I would probably just pay someone to help me come up with the concept. *laughs*
Get one person to do everything! *laughs*
Billy: Yeah! Like a creative director or someone who is good that would be able to come up with a cool concept. This is the part of being a singer-songwriter that I find difficult, trying to come up with all the different pieces of content. I can do the song, I can play at my piano and stuff, coordinating the recording, I mean, it’s just performing in the studio, I can do all of that. But the social media stuff, and the music videos, and the photos, and trying to be creative and different and stuff, with a limited budget it’s hard, but even with an unlimited budget it’s hard. I don’t even know, my mind just doesn’t go there.
You’re like ‘It makes my brain hurt!’ *laughs*
Billy: Yeah! *laughs* You have so much choice with an unlimited budget. I know that I would want to make the video artistic and creative, but also not too literal where there are two people and they’re just apologizing, or arguing, or whatever. I would want to make it a little more abstract, something really nice to watch. So yeah, that’s a hard question. I would definitely use some of that money to hire someone to help me figure it out. It’s hard for me to step outside of myself and see what it should look like.
Sometimes you just need another pair of eyes, like, ‘Does this look ok? Does this sound right?’
Billy: ‘Do I even need to be in it?’
And those kinds of creative people, like, the really awesome and creative filmmaking people that we all love, especially here in L.A., are not cheap, nor should they be.
Billy: Oh no, music videos are not cheap. Even recording a song, none of the making of the content is cheap unless you have the connections.
Nothing about making art is cheap.
Billy: No, not at all. I think making it free to show off your creativity is great for the exposure, but the content that you have to create around the art is what costs the money. And there’s no guarantee of getting it back! In one way, shape or form, you tend to gamble.
Art is a gamble and so is life.
And so, with the way that the music industry kind of leans more towards single releases and shorter EP styles as opposed to full-length albums, do you feel like there’s a specific reason why it’s become that way? I mean, when we were kids it was all about the albums, and now it’s almost gone back to the start of music recordings with single releases.
Billy: I think there’s a couple of reasons. 1. People’s attention spans are just not as long. I think in this age of social media and streaming with everything available at your fingertips at all times, people just don’t really have the patience to sit through an entire album unless you’re an A-lister like Ed Sheeran or Beyoncé. I don’t think that people want to invest the time in listening to a full-length album from most independent artists. I think the other reason why it’s shifted back to singles is because you need to have consistent content. It makes more sense to space them out over time, that way you’re kind of putting yourself in front of people more often instead of one big album all at once and then waiting however much time until you can put something new out for people to consume. And I think that with technology making recording and releasing so accessible to anyone, there’s a quicker turnaround time to create things and get it out there. There’s kind of a snowball effect that might happen strategically if you release one song, gain a few fans, release another, those fans may double or whatever. I think it kind of helps build momentum to release singles once a month, or even once a year.
Plus you can prolong that whole aspect of visibility you had mentioned.
Billy: Right, exactly! That’s a good way of saying that. *laughs*
So a little fun question for you. You like to do some cover songs on social media, which we had already started discussing, but if you could do a five song EP of covers, which songs would you choose?
Billy: So I would want to do “Motorcycle Drive By” by Third Eye Blind, which I made a video for and put out a few months ago. The band shared it too! I even gained a few haters! *laughs*
You know you’ve made it big when you got haters. *laughs*
Billy: *laughs* Exactly! I thought that was kind of fun. So I’d definitely do that song because it’s been one of my favorites. I also really enjoy covering “Waterfalls” by TLC. I do a slower piano and vocal version that I would like to record and make it more gospel sounding. I think that would be really cool.
That would be insane!
Billy: Right?! It’s something that’s unexpected and different from the original. Three more right?
Yup! Three more!
Billy: I should have thought of this more. *laughs* I’ve covered James Blake‘s “Retrograde” before. Since his version is much more electronic and produced, this would be more stripped down, and again, hopefully unexpected version. Hmm, I’m trying to think of something I haven’t done yet. *laughs* I love Donny Hathaway, but I know a lot of his bigger songs are actually covers, so it would be a cover of a cover, or something. *laughs*
It’s a cover-ception! *laughs*
Billy: Yeah exactly! A cover of a cover of a cover! *laughs* I should probably do something more contemporary. Hmm, who is someone I could do? Someone who would be a contemporary artist that people would listen to. Not necessarily because I love the artist or the song, but something a little more strategic. Maybe Taylor Swift? Or even Drake? Something like that would be kind of fun!
It would definitely be something interesting to hear, a Drake song set to piano.
Billy: Like a ballad-y, slow, soulful, Drake song.
Like a moody version of “Hotline Bling!” *both laugh*
Billy: I always have a hard time choosing covers.
I feel like they have to speak to you on some intense, inspirational level.
Billy: Right. I know I can’t just sing any song and make it sound good. Sometimes you end up having the original too much in your head that you can’t really put your own spin on it.
So speaking of social media and it pretty much being the prominent form of marketing nowadays, do you feel that it makes it easier or harder for artists to make a name for themselves?
Billy: This might be cheating, but I think there’s pros and cons. I do think it makes it easier to reach people directly, but with that accessibility comes a lot of competition, or saturation, of the marketplace. Because recording is so easy, and social media allows you to connect with anyone, a lot of people are also trying to do the same thing. So while it’s a great platform and a very useful, valuable, and even necessary tool, it also has its own challenges because so many people have to use for everything that they’re doing. You just have to be smart about it I guess. I don’t feel like I’ve totally cracked the code for my brand yet.
I don’t think anybody has. When you think that you have, they go ahead and change it all again.
Billy: Exactly. The rules are changing all the time, which makes it really difficult, and the expectation of having to consistently post content doesn’t help. I personally feel like I put too much pressure on myself. It’s not natural for me to post things on social media, so it takes a lot of effort to do, and to have to do it often feels like a lot of pressure sometimes, and when you don’t get the results you want, it’s disappointing. I’m beating myself up for caring so much about social media statistics and metrics and things…
When you could be worrying about other, more important, music-related things.
Billy: Yeah, when I could be worrying about writing a song. It’s valuable and necessary, but at the same time, to me, it takes away from the joy of actually creating. When it’s more of a business that you’re marketing constantly, it just changes everything.
Do you feel like it also adds on a pressure to portray yourself in a certain way to your audience?
Billy: Yeah, I would say I definitely have this quality control tick in my brain, which I think is because the culture of social media is trying to be more and more about authenticity. It’s nice that there’s a relief to not have to perfect photos or look perfect. I mean, sometimes it’s the photographer that you’re working with that makes everything look amazing. Some photographers have a more clear style or a done-up, ‘perfect’ depiction of a person or brand. Sometimes people are looking for a more organic thing. And yeah, I do feel a pressure to portray myself in a certain way, but I also pressure myself with trying to figure out what that is. It’s like the music video, it’s hard to step outside of myself and see myself looking at how people see me. It’s hard being in the middle of it. I do have awesome people helping me with things, so it’s nice that I do have people to bounce ideas off of. If I find myself making it all about the marketing and all about getting the word out, I forget about the music-making part of it, which is really where it all starts. Right now I’m trying to get back into that. If anyone looks at my Instagram, I rarely post just because I’m trying to relieve that pressure and not think too much about it.
Do you feel like there’s a kind of unpublicized competition within the L.A. music scene? Specifically the singer-songwriter scene?
Billy: I definitely feel like I hear the word ‘community’ a lot, and it really is a community, but I’ve also noticed that there are certain cliques, and that some people have their own agenda, which is very obvious. There’s a range of people who are really only out for themselves and don’t reciprocate the same amount of support sometimes. For that reason, I’ve also stepped back from trying so hard to be involved in that kind of stuff. I’ve been trying to stand my own way by doing my own thing, and trying not to compare myself, which is a better attitude to have anyway. But also, there are people who are genuinely in it for the community aspect and are supportive of it, so there’s definitely a lot of great people. And of course, the talent is phenomenal! It’s hard not to compare ourselves!
I mean, L.A. is definitely the hub for creative people.
Billy: Oh definitely! And there’s so much of it! This is definitely one of the places to be if you’re into the creative arts, I mean, that’s why we’re all here. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a competitiveness, but everybody’s got their own agenda, and that’s totally normal. Although, it does feel like some people make it more obvious or they have a hard time hiding their motives.
Like they have a bad poker face.
Billy: A little bit, yeah.
So you’ve gotten the chance to perform in many parts of California, including Nor Cal and different areas here in L.A. Have you noticed any differences in regards to how the audience reacts, or how excited they are when a musician comes through? Specifically between Northern California and Southern California?
Billy: My family is up in Northern California, so I’ll play a little bit there. That’s always its own kind of feel because a lot of friends and family and people I haven’t seen in a long time will come out of the woodwork to come to the show, I’ll have this opportunity to have a big reunion of people that I’ve known from my past. But in some of the smaller towns that I’ve played or even if I’m in a town outside of L.A. in Southern California, compared to shows here in the city, there is a little bit more of an interest of people keeping in touch by following you on social media or signing up for an email list. Whereas here in L.A., it’s so common that sometimes I don’t think that people are all that excited about it. I think they appreciate it, but it’s just another event that they can go to when they can.
Yeah, you could literally a show every night if you have the time and wanted to.
Billy: Exactly! I did a Sofar Sounds in Riverside, and I had signed up on email lists, followed on Instagram, talked after the show, all that stuff. I did another one in Portland, and it’s very similar where there’s lots of email hang-ups, new followers on Instagram, people liking and having a nice rapport. And then doing shows in L.A., it’s really hard to get people to come out, or buy tickets, or whatever it is that needs to be done to meet your minimum requirement for certain venues. Sofar Sounds is a great experience. I noticed that the audience genuinely wants to sign up for every single person’s email or follow every single person on social media. In L.A., I guess maybe we’re just so used to performers being around all the time that it’s a little bit less exciting or less appreciated or something. I don’t think it’s a bad thing necessarily. It’s nice to walk away with extra fans for what you do. Everywhere is different, every venue is different, and every situation is different, but there’s always something valuable to take away from the shows.
Yeah! Seeing the positive! And if you could create your own world tour and bring three artists with you, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
Billy: Can it be deceased artists?
Hell yeah they can! It is your dream tour and we practically already have the technology to bring them back! *both laugh*
Billy: The Hologram Tour!
Billy: Let’s see…a world tour. This is another hard one because there are so many I can go with. Stevie Wonder would be amazing! Everyone loves Stevie. I’ve been a fan for a long time, like, I just can’t even fathom being on a tour with him. I would love to have Kevin Garrett he’s one of my favorite contemporaries doing the indie thing and being really successful. And for the last one, ah! I wanna say something really wild!
It is your dream tour! All of the possibilities are open to you!
Billy: Does it have to be a musician? *laughs* Kind of makes more sense to be a musician.
I mean, the possibilities are endless when it comes to the definition of an ‘artist.’
Billy: That’s true. Maybe I would bring Russell Brand. I love his work, I follow him along on Instagram, I just love his whole ‘brand.’ *Heather laughs* He’s kind of become this comedian with substance where he gives advice and wishes people to be whatever they want while still being funny.
Like a realist comedian or something? Probably not correct terminology, but that’s what we’re calling it now. *laughs*
Billy: Yeah! Something like that, where it’s some sort of self-help humor.
We all need a good laugh and good music!
Billy: And something you can evaluate, something you can take with you, and make a better version of yourself.
How do you balance your professional life with your personal life?
Billy: That’s a good question, because I’ve had a hard time trying to find a balance lately. I feel like pursuing music and trying to grow while still having my actual job is tough to balance out. I feel like I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to be doing something productive with it or making something happen every day with music, or else I would be ‘failing.’ It felt like I turned into an obligation than something to have fun doing. Right now, I’m just trying to simplify and not put pressure on myself as much, and to have no expectations so I can go back to just enjoying the process of creating music. Even if it’s writing a song that no one will ever hear, having that therapeutic process again is still better than forcing myself to do something. That’s what I’m currently doing to try to find a balance.
It’s tough. Life is such a balancing act that we will never be able to quite master.
Billy: It really is, but we can at least try.
Yeah! We can have an A for effort.
And if you could give your younger self some advice in regards to what you’ve experienced so far in music or in life in general, what kind of advice would you give him?
Billy: I would tell him to stop comparing yourself to others. Make the most of your voice, your sound, and your brand or personality. Don’t try to be something else musically. Don’t worry so much about little things that don’t matter. Maintain expectations, and generally, just chill out. I think that’s it. I think that’s the gist of it. *laughs*
If only it were that easy. *laughs* I guess that’s where ‘take a chill pill’ comes from, right?
What do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
Billy: I hope that they can relate, in one way or another, to the messages of the songs. I tend to write songs that are a little more emotional, like, maybe not the happiest or danceable songs, but that’s what I value in music, when I can listen to something and connect with it. Music can help someone formulate an understanding, or the language needed to access a certain emotion or experience. If I can create something that means something or moves them in some way, or something that puts their feelings into words that they’ve never been able to find themselves, that’s the best thing I can do.
Yeah, and I mean, everyone says that music is a powerful force, and it really is. You hear stories of people who chose to not commit suicide because they listened to one song that made life worthwhile, and it’s so crazy how even one song can have that much of an impact, maybe even save someone’s life.
Billy: And making people feel like they’re not alone in whatever they’re going through.
And maybe even making them just open their eyes to what’s going on around them, like, they’ve never realized until they sat and listened to this artist singing about it.
Billy: Exactly. It can change people’s lives. It is a very magical thing.
And it’s why we’re here right now doing this interview!
So to end us off, apart from continuing to promote “Sorry,” what other big, exciting things should we be expecting from you?
Billy: Well, eventually I will have another song recorded. Like I said, I’m re-centering myself at this moment, but I do have another song ready to go as soon as I’m ready. I’ll have another cover video, kind of in the same vein as “Motorcycle Drive By,” so one song and one cover video at a time. Those are the two more immediate things, and then I have some songs that I’m working on right now. We’ll see what the next cycle of single releasing goes. And then probably more shows, but again, kind of want to try to take a break from those too. It would be nice to come back to show some of the new stuff.
Yeah! Either way, we will be excited!
Billy: Awesome! I appreciate it!
About Solar de Cahuenga:
Hollywood’s Solar De Cahuenga will forever hold a special place in my heart due to it pretty much being the starting point of how Billy and I are connected. Prior to starting Crooners In Coffeeshops, I had been freelancing Music Connection Magazine writing live performance reviews. When I was ‘auditioning’ for a writing position, I had chosen Solar De Cahuenga as my workspace for writing on the piece that would land me my role with the magazine. Fast forward to my first published work, which happened to be my review of Billy’s show at The Viper Room. It was only fitting that we return to Solar De Cahuenga to come full circle.
Now enough of the trip down memory lane, what other things make Solar De Cahuenga special? Well to start off, they have a wonderful atmosphere! It’s easy to find yourself settling for loud, crowded shops with minimal seating for you to spend more than the amount of time it takes to finish a cup of coffee, but Solar De Cahuenga is not one of them. Not only is there plenty of seating indoors (which includes an adorable nook-like setting next to the entrance) and outdoors (check out their cozy patio area in between the building and the parking lot), but they make sure that the lighting is not too bright and the music is not too loud so one can hustle through their work without distraction. If their atmosphere doesn’t impress you, their food and drink menu sure will. From organic fare and signature crepes of the breakfast, sweet and savory nature to caffienated classics and specialty lattes (including my recommendation, the Solar Latte), there’s no reason why you wouldn’t want to make Solar De Cahuenga your go-to shop!