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RITA HOSKING: Davis, California

  I grew up in the mountains of Shasta County, married, had two daughters, and became a U.S. History teacher at our local junior high for 10 years.  When I was around 30, my mom asked me “what would you have been, if you could change things?” Without much thinking, I surprised myself with “a songwriter.” It’s certainly never too late, so here I am—a 44 yr. old country-folk singer-songwriter with five albums and a pretty good little business.

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I call my childhood home my “spiritual core.”  It is still where most of my dreams take place, and since the two worlds are not too far apart, a lot of my songs come from there, too.  However, beyond the surface, the spiritual core is not the particular mountain, buildings or place—it’s the connection I made with all those, as well as the amazing, delightful and complicated lives that intertwined with mine.

Those types of core connections are developing all the time—they’re certainly not restricted to childhood.  Currently my favorite place to write songs is in northern Ontario, Canada.  My husband’s family has a home there we visit in the summer, and I’ve made some deep connections there.  Once, after a few years of visits, I drew a picture of myself gliding down a hole in the ground, there, by the lake.  I was “going in.”

What is the best part about being a songwriter/musician/singer?  I am my own boss, I get to make art, and connect with others through art.

What is the worst?  It requires too much traveling, and the pay is erratic, and often not enough on the whole.

What motivates you to write?  It feels good to sing, and it feels great to sing and play my own songs.  Sometimes I just want to hear something new—something in my head, so I’ll sing it.  I like to surprise myself.  I’m driven to make connections with people through songs.  Plus, money motivates—if I don’t write, I don’t make money.

Early in your career, before you had any real success, what fed your determination to keep trying?  I was tired of teaching school, and was attracted to the music in my head and heart.  I got great encouragement from many people.  I wanted to set an example for my daughters of an entrepreneurial woman pursuing her passion.  It was also a way to do something for myself, which I was not accustomed to, and a way to relate more deeply with my husband, who is an avid musician.  I like to make small, reachable goals.  Each little bit of progress fueled me enough to try another step.

What would you tell the younger you, just starting to write and perform?  I would say tell myself that I’m doing great. I’d say—“You are about to embark upon being a woman, you will learn a lot.”

Although I was singing at 14 and writing at 20, I didn’t do music seriously till I was about 35.  My priorities were with college, marriage, children, home-making and a teaching career.  That’s all part of who I am now, and I’m all the wiser for it.  I’m very thankful for the things I did and learned.

 

 

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 Click to listen to Sierra Bound from the album Little Boat

 

 

Are there some rituals you follow in your creative process?  Not really, but I do like to be alone, if possible.  I dream of songwriting time alone in a cabin somewhere lovely (away from computers and phones, for several nights.)  Maybe, someday!  As I write more and more, I find that I need to be more disciplined about making time for it—it doesn’t jump out ahead of everything, like it used to.

I like how I can write according to my own rules.  For instance, the paper I use is usually a mess of writing at different angles, much of it illegible to the outsider.  You’ll see arrows, drawings, unrelated monologues, whatever comes out.  They are things I don’t need to worry about sharing with anyone, because they are part of my process only.  It’s unlike many other jobs where you’re watched every step of the way.

 How closely do you follow your original idea in the process of writing a new song?  Not much! In fact, I’m very open to new meanings or ideas, and am constantly on the lookout during the process.  Sometimes a change won’t dawn on me until I’ve written all the melody and lyrics, and begin to edit them.  Meanings can also reveal themselves much later, like after having sung it for the 100th time.

 Do you typically work on one piece at a time or have several going at once?  I’m a “several at once” kind of person.  If I have an idea for a song, it’s likely that I actually have 3 or 4 ideas within the same few weeks.  I let them brew and stew, and sometimes steal from one to give to the other.  It’s a rather unharmonious process, but I try to look at them as only pieces at first, to give myself flexibility to borrow, dismantle or demolish if need be.  Once I’ve settled on a distinct identity for each, I start to call them songs and they gain some protection from each other.

How does the internet affect your work?  On the whole, it probably balances out to neutral.  It affects my work negatively because I spend so much time on the computer instead of playing guitar.  Its positives are equally huge—I can get my music out in the world with the internet.  I do discover new music, art, and stories on the computer, but I would do that without the computer as well.      I have a desk where I spend an enormous amount of time working on everything related to promotion and shows, but I do not write music there—I go anywhere else with my guitar and notebook.

 

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Rita Hosking & Cousin Jack            photo by Kora Feder

Please talk about balancing being a writer with romantic relationships/family?  Because my work involves tons of travel and playing late at night, sometimes in dark, stinky clubs, it is not ideal for children.  My family is my first priority, and so I am away from home less than many of my peers.  I am really, really thankful that I’m able to do that.  When I’m at home, I take care of the business and writing side of things.  This has gotten easier as my children have grown older, of course.

Because music is my husband’s passion too, our relationship has gained a lot from collaboration.  We are definitely a team, both at home and on the road, and it has been great for us as a couple.  My husband, Sean, plays dobro and banjo with me and also holds down a full-time job.  We depend on each other a lot.

 How do you get through writer’s blocks?  I like to do “songwriting sessions” with people, as well as classes and workshops. (It’s a good combination of my teaching background and music.) There are a lot of tricks you can have up your sleeve to get around a block.  Things like, if it’s a lyric problem, singing nonsense, or making a rhyme list of pertinent words.  Or changing the rhythm, key, or song arrangement if it’s an issue with the music.

Once when I had a block, I realized that it was because I was trying to write about something too unfamiliar.  I had many concrete notes, but not enough thorough feelings or knowledge.  So, the teacher in me gave myself an assignment.  I had to begin writing a song in the next 5 minutes.  The song had to be about something in my house that I knew everything about—no questions.  I quickly identified my topic as the sink full of dirty dishes, and out popped a song called “Dishes.”  It was a good thing, because I was so frustrated before, and so relieved to know that I could still write a song.  Who knows which one will be your last?

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?  Well, I try to understand the market and what they’re geared toward.  And then, I wrestle with myself over the extent to which I can or should cater to what the market wants. I’ve always had ambition to excel, and I let it out as needed, (from its secret place).   All in all, I end up reminding myself of the countless beautiful words, tears, hugs, and support I’ve received from fans.  I tell myself to stay true to what I love, and if in the end it doesn’t work out, that’s alright—it’s not everything.

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photo by  Rik Keller Photography

What are your vices? I can be overly melancholy at times, and a little antisocial.  I procrastinate and worry a lot.  I have a messy desk and make piles of papers around the house (though I keep the rest tidy.)  I am horrible at keeping contact info, and I generally avoid phones.

What kind of pets do you have? We have one large, male, orange tabby cat named Fergus. He’s a perfect pet for our family.  (He’s listed on the “musicians” page of my website.)  My last dog passed away ten years ago, and since we travel so much for music, we’re unable to have another.  That’s been a hard reality to face, as I love dogs and miss their companionship.

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What is the last wild animal you saw?  Birds.  I watch them through my windows and listen to their songs.  Sometimes their songs can inspire melodies, too.  Fergus watches the birds with me, of course.  In college I had a ring-neck turtle dove as a pet.  Her name was Yoshi and she flew around my room and house.

    My family has a history of music.  My mother is very musical–she plays flute and piano, and has a lovely voice.  We had an old upright piano that was stored in my room, and sometimes she would play and sing to me at bedtime.  She was also active in music at church, and I spent many an evening stretched out on a pew during choir practice.  I loved falling asleep to their music and feeling the organ vibrate through the choir loft.

    My father also has music in his blood.  At Christmas, he would tell my sister and I to “sit down and shut up,” while he played some old 78s of his grandfather’s singing group.  His grandmother and grandfather were from Cornwall, England, and his grandpa came to California by way of the deep, underground gold mines in Grass Valley, CA.  They were singers, many of the Cornish miners, and they were even broadcast live on national radio on the eve of Christmas, World War II, from 1,000 feet underground.  While my dad played the records, he and his father would stand and sing along, gazing out the window at the snow, sometimes with tears.
   When I had an opportunity to sing inside the last working underground gold mine in the Sierra Nevadas, I decided to write a special song for the event.  I called it When Miners Sang (after a book by Gage McKinney about those Cornish mining singers, including my great grandpa.)  It’s a story of a young girl whose daddy works all day deep in a gold mine, and doesn’t get to share what she loves, topside, so she leaves him gifts to remember it by.
Click to hear When Miners Sang from the album Burn
 
Pick one or two of your songs and describe the inspiration/inclination to write it and some of the process.  Your paintings, Irene, remind me of dreams, so I’ll pick a song that was birthed from a dream.  The dream was one of my father and I returning to my childhood home to visit.

In reality, my parents haven’t been back since we left over 10 years ago. (They needed to move for health reasons.)  It was a tough place to leave, particularly because they had worked so much of their adult lives to stay there, and so much had happened there, and we all loved it immensely.  Still, all chapters come to an end.

I think this sadness weighed heavy on me, and so I “decided” to return in a dream with my dad.  We were about to go in the house when I looked up toward the barn and noticed a gate had been left open.  This would always raise great alarm when I was younger, because it meant I would need to find a way to get to the bottom of the hill and close the final gate, before our horses beat me to it.  If they could make it, they’d get to a beautiful green meadow on the other side of the highway (and possibly cause an accident, or become very difficult to catch.)  In the dream, when I looked up, there were many more horses, as they had multiplied while we were gone.

Because I needed to act quickly, I glanced at my father to say “what now?”  He looked at me with a face of “that’s your decision.”  The horses began thundering down the hill toward us.

Now, in the dream, I’m not sure I remember anything past looking at my dad with this question in my eyes.  But when I awoke, I certainly knew my answer.  It became the song title—“Let’em Run.”

(Let ’em Run is on the album Come Sunrise)

I have a few songs that went like this—a dream becomes the script.  They are often pretty deep, as dreams are, and I love writing them as they are easier for me to trust.  I figure I already did some serious work on it in sleep-state, and I respect it in wake-state—it must be worthwhile.

For the process, I just began writing down the sequence of events, as well as concrete details that I knew could help visualize the story.  Sensory images were big, like feeling the ground shaking, hearing the thunder of hooves.  I knew that I wanted the listener to interpret this dream for themselves, so I didn’t try to translate anything for them—I think that can often spoil art.  Folks should make of it what they will.  Besides, conclusions are always more powerful if they are your own.

I wanted it to begin with a calm, exploring feel of a nice dream, and then the ensuing drama is carried by a turn in the melody and tone.  The refrain, or the “answer” in this case, is repeated, as it needed to be to drive home the point to ourselves in the dream, and perhaps in reality.

Are there any other aspects of your life as a singer/songwriter you would like to talk about?   I really appreciate how much being an independent singer-songwriter has taught me about running a business.  I’ve learned tons about the world that I hadn’t really known before, and feel like I’ve gained multiple new job skills.  I imagine this would be the same if I were a painter or wrote books—one becomes a small business owner.  I always say “Well, if this music thing doesn’t work out, I can always be a publicist, or a booking agent, or a web designer, or producer, book-keeper, professional driver, travel agent, etc….”

Find out more about Rita here: http://www.ritahosking.com

Check out Rita’s interview on NPR: http://www.npr.org/2013/10/27/241043267/song-for-ghosts-carries-on-the-sorrow

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One Comment

  1. I listen to many different kinds of music and each one brings something into my life I forgot I needed. Recently I heard Rita Hosking and Cousin Jack playing at Harmony House in Sisters, Oregon, near where I live. It had been a long time since I listened to authentic American folk music and I was transported by the stories Rita sings in her tenderly emotional, yet powerful voice. She writes with a western originality.
    Her band, Cousin Jack is great too!

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