Sam: I grew up out in the country in Northern California, about an hour north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. I’ve loved to sing my whole life, and started playing guitar when I was thirteen. I went on to study acting at U.C. Santa Cruz, where I started my professional theater career at Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Megan and I got together as Misner & Smith after being part of the play/musical “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” in 2004, and have just released our fourth album, Seven Hour Storm.
Megan: Growing up in the Sacramento Valley in the small college town of Davis was an amazing place to spend my childhood. And now after having lived in a number of other places–most recently San Francisco–we moved back to Davis. Arts and education are very important to the people who live here and I was so lucky to be in this environment as a young artist. I began pursuing a professional acting career in the San Francisco Bay Area after college. As Sam mentioned, we were cast in a beautiful play about Woody Guthrie, his music, and his life. That was the play that changed my life. We began playing music and we never stopped! It was entirely organic and has remained such a unique and wonderful partnership.
In what ways does your environment influence your work (present and/or past)?
Megan: The environment around us has become increasingly important the longer we play music together. We started playing together when we lived in San Francisco. We lived in a beautiful apartment in the Richmond District right across the Bay from the Marin Headlands with the Golden Gate in the foreground, hanging in the fog. It was a beautiful place and we enjoyed our many years there. Being on the road as much as we are it became clear that we were going to have to make a change. We made the move to Davis and we’re really happy we did.
Sam: I definitely feel influenced by the environment around me. I like being close to nature. I grew up out in the country, and I cherish that part of my childhood, being raised in such a beautiful place. Different places inspire different songs, for sure.
What is the best part about being a songwriter/musician/singer?
Sam: I’ve always found singing to be one of the purest forms of expression. There’s something about music, it’s so primal–and when it hits us right it affects us in ways that we’re not even aware of at the time. I think the best part of being of musician and a songwriter and a singer is that I get to participate in that connection with an audience that, when it’s all working, is so much deeper than simply ‘playing for applause’, or to ‘express myself’. It’s an exchange on a very basic level.
What is the worst?
Megan: Lots of self-doubt. Being an artist of any kind is like living on an emotional roller coaster and that can get a little tiring sometimes.
Sam: Everything Megan said, plus a side order of financial insecurity…
What motivates you to write?
Sam: A whole myriad of things, but at the heart of it all is the desire to tell stories. And telling stories is also why the music and the theater parts of our lives feed each other, and inspire each other. I like the exploration of writing. Finding meaning, and letting the process direct things, in a way. I rarely sit down with something specific that I want to write about. The songs often start as fragments; whether it’s a melody or a single phrase that has a particular image that strikes me. I love contradictions, too, ideas that seem to be paradoxical, or are slightly askew, unexpected. I try to let the song develop on its own to a certain extent. Experiences in my life definitely find their way into the songs, but more often than not they’re kind of filtered through a character, even if the song is written in the first person.
Megan: My contribution to the songwriting process often has to do with the musical arrangements. That’s where I feel the most inspired and confident and where I do my best work. I’m always searching for that pull of the perfect harmony.
Early in your career, before you had any real success, what fed your determination to keep trying?
Sam: I’d say it was because I enjoy writing and playing and singing. And I loved connecting to audiences. I still do. If I didn’t really enjoy playing music there’s no way I’d want to put up with the parts of the business that can be so hard.
Megan: It’s funny, I think I’m still trying to figure out what feeds our determination. I think maybe it feels a bit like there’s almost no other choice. We have to do this because it’s what we do. I also feel that if we didn’t have the kind of support that we both get from our families, close friends, and of course from each other this wouldn’t work. We’re very lucky in this respect, we have a lot of people who keep us moving forward.
What would you tell the younger you, just starting to write and perform?
Sam: Now that would be a long list…But to narrow it to a few, I’d say to try not to be too hard on yourself for not knowing what you don’t know. Truth is, I still have to remind myself of that.
Megan: Open up your mouth and sing Megan, don’t be afraid.
Are there some rituals you follow in your creative process?
Megan: I think it’s important to take care of yourself, mind and body. Exercise, healthy food, good friends and family. This is all going to feed your muse. For myself, if I’m balanced and happy that makes it way easier for me to create something of worth. Something that goes beyond my own experiences, something that other people can relate to.
Sam: I don’t think I have any rituals per se, but in performance I always try to focus on staying grounded, connected to my body. Aware and open.
How closely do you follow your original idea in the process of writing a new song?
Sam: That sort of depends. In the beginning I might be playing around with any number of ideas of what the song is going to be about, once I latch on to a thread I pretty much stick to it. Sometimes the original idea morphs into something even more interesting. I actually enjoy the editing part, too.
Megan: As I said before my contribution to the songwriting process often happens after the initial work on lyrics and basic melodies are already in place but I have penned a few songs of my own. The lyrics for the song “Polly” came to me while I was backstage at the Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. I was playing the character Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and one night during the show it just sort of came to me, so I wrote it all down as fast as I could before I had to be onstage for the first act. I hope that I get that same experience again someday, it was such a rush.
Do you typically work on one piece at a time or have several going at once?
Sam: It always feels good to have several pieces going at once, it’s nice to be able to switch gears if one of them feels stuck for a little while. I enjoy the editing part of writing, and I also like sitting with something for awhile, trying different lines, shifting things around to see how different words can change the entire meaning of a line.
Megan: Working on several different songs can widen your creative scope and help you to think outside the box. Just not being afraid of trying something new or scary because it’s unknown or unfamiliar. Experimenting with what you know and trying something you don’t know, in other words, keeping things fresh and flexible.
How does the internet affect your work?
Sam: Well, I’ll say that there are amazing things that the internet allows us to do, no question about it. It has made some things so much easier, more efficient, connected, in so many ways. There are some great things about the internet. I’ve read/learned about/watched very valuable, worthwhile things online, I’ve connected and stay connected to people I care about, and the internet is a great tool for many things. But I also know that spending an extended amount of time online almost never makes me feel creative…
Megan: I think the internet is a powerful tool and we can use it for good when we choose. But as a creative person you have to be careful how much time you spend gazing at that glowing screen. It can sometimes feel like it’s sucking the life out of you.
Can you talk a bit about balancing being a writer with romantic relationships/family?
Sam: Communication is the key, that’s for sure. I’ve never worked as closely with anyone in my life, and I feel incredibly blessed to have a partner like Megan. She’s the most positive person I know, and it’s a very special rhythm that we have together. We’re a team. That’s not to say it’s always easy. It can be a challenge working so closely, balancing work with personal lives, both as a couple and as individuals, but when it gets down to it we know we have each others backs 100%.
Megan: Sam inspires me every day. His creativity and sense of humor make working with him such a gift. It’s true that it can sometimes be difficult for any two people to work so closely all of the time but I think we’re very fortunate in this because we’ve spent many years fine tuning our trust and communications skills with each other. Our music is very much a product of trust, communication, and hope.
How do you get through writer’s blocks?
Sam: I’m still trying to figure out how to do that. As I’ve gotten older I try not to put too much pressure on myself, I try not to force it.
How do you deal with the disappointment/despair when your work isn’t getting the attention you desire? How do find the strength to continue?
Sam: I try to remember and draw on the experiences I’ve had talking to people at our shows who have been truly touched, and moved by a particular song or one of our performances. Or a song on one of the albums. It can be hard sometimes, no doubt about it. I’m lucky to have a partner in all this, because we definitely keep each other going. Humor is an important part of it all, too. Laughter can keep you from taking everything too seriously.
Megan: Again, I think at this point we’ve chosen a path and we just get up every day and walk that path. It’s also important to remember that if the music or art that you’re pouring yourself into doesn’t get the attention that you think it deserves, you’re still you, you’re still ok, and all you need to do is just keep moving forward.
What are your vices?
Sam: Vices? Oh I don’t have any vices…
What kind of pets do you have?
Megan: Tommy is our cat, and he is our buddy.
What is the last wild animal you saw?
Sam: Just a couple days ago we saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk catch a small bird out of mid air. It wasn’t more than 20 feet from us when he caught it, which stopped us in our tracks, and then it landed on the ground less than 10 feet from where we were standing with its wings over the prey protecting its catch from anyone who might try to steal it. It was incredible to be that close to the whole scene.
Pick one or two of your songs and describe the inspiration/inclination to write it and some of the process.
Sam: When I came up with the first line of ’15 Months’ I immediately hoped Megan would want to sing the song. It felt like the song needed her voice to tell the story. With two wars going on at the time there was so much in the news about families being apart from loved ones, and I just couldn’t even imagine the strain that must put on people. I wanted to express that side of the story, that anguish, that helplessness and spectrum of emotions that must weigh so heavily on a person.
Megan: It’s really hard to pick just one song but I will say that all of our songs are in some way about the theme of hope. We try to sing songs that will light people up from the inside and create a shared experience.
Click to listen to Misner & Smith
Seven Hour Storm https://soundcloud.com/misnerandsmith/sets/seven-hour-storm
Fifteen Months https://soundcloud.com/misnerandsmith/15-months
Next live performance: Thursday, May 8th @ 8:00pm The Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, California
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