Katie Scullin is a talented singer/songwriter who’s been performing around the Madison area for over a decade. She’s played countless bars and cafes throughout Wisconsin as well as a number of large festivals such as Summerfest. She’s been a part of several bands over the years, including Rivalry, a band named for her relationship with her brother and bandmate, D.J. Scullin. She’s also played with Star Persons, an electronic/hip hop group similar to The Black Eyed Peas, and currently, The Katie Scullin Band, which she jokingly calls a “revolving door band” because the members tend to come and go.
Her accolades include being nominated for and winning multiple Madison Area Music Awards (MAMAS) for her role as front woman in Star Persons, as well as “Best Alternative Artist” in 2011. She was also crowned Best Singer/Songwriter by 105.5 Triple M’s Project M Competition and Best Local Musician in the Jefferson County Daily Poll for the release of her EP “She Smiled,” in 2013.
Katie recently released an album titled, Pieces, a blend of tracks written over the last couple years that deal with personal growth, sudden life changes and deep introspection, possibly even a little frustration. She writes from the heart, making it easy to be drawn into her world: one filled with rocky roads and arduous climbs opposite still lakes and silent, snow-covered forests. Her music is a way to escape the distractions of everyday life and the disquiet of unwelcome thoughts, not only for herself, but for her audience as well. Her song titled, “Whitney,” is evidence of her desire to relate to any kindred spirits out there who share her points of view.
In this in-depth interview with Katie, we talk about her latest music video “Dream Awake,” and the story behind it. We also get her thoughts on Pieces as a whole and learn about her writing process. What’s more, she tells us about her Kickstarter campaign that raised a whopping $21,000 from supporters! She also explains her struggle as an independent artist and the challenges she has faced while raising a family and trying to make a decent living from music.
Listen to the podcast here:
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
J: How is your son (Mason) doing?
K: He’s awesome! Very good! He’s going to turn six in a couple weeks!
J: Six already?!
K: I know! He’s a lot of fun. He loves playing the drums which is very, very cool. He’s getting into singing. His dad likes metal, so for a while there he thought that singing was screaming. I’m trying to wean him down a little bit and be like, “Oh, but you also have to be good at singing like this too.”
J: I’m sure he’s you heard you sing plenty of times though right?
K: Oh yeah. Sometimes he tells me to stop singing.
J: I think the last time I saw him you were living in Stoughton.
J: He was just a little baby.
K: Oh was that at Joe Ramos’ (a mutual friend of ours)?
J: Yeah. He’s grown! I saw the clips in your video “Dream Awake,” from when you first had him.
K: Oh yeah.
J: That was really cool.
K: Thank you.
J: So, tell us about “Dream Awake.” What’s your take on the song?
K: When I started writing it I was living in the basement of a couple’s home, and they lived up on a hill overlooking a lake. I had a really awesome view from up there. The weather that day was crazy. It was like Mother Nature was almost bipolar. There was a snowstorm with twisting winds and all of a sudden the clouds would part and it was sunny out, like a spring day. The water had this crazy, blue hue to it. I was at a point where I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go in life. I was sort of reflecting, thinking about the turns my life took, not expecting what had happened to happen.
I think it’s really about painting a picture of your own life. You have control of your own thoughts and how you react to things, whether or not it’s going to be a cloudy, crappy, stormy day or it’s going to be sunny and beautiful. We do have some control of how we react to things.
The music video was interesting. The director took a turn with it bringing Mason into the picture. I thought it was really cool because he interpreted the story differently. His wife had a similar story to mine where she was about to go to Africa to do an anthropology project and she ended up getting pregnant. Her whole life changed at that point and she had to rebuild her life. It was neat that the director had that story in common about his wife and what she went through. I wasn’t expecting to have a child. It was amazing at first but then I realized music was going to have to sit on the back burner a bit.
J: Well, I’m glad you have stuck with it. It was exciting reading your article in Maximum Ink about your Kickstarter campaign. I can’t believe it! You raised $21,000? Tell us about that experience.
K: Yeah. It was a huge decision and really scary because I didn’t want people to know that I was struggling, but I came to the realization that I either needed to ask people to help me out or I wasn’t going to be able to do it anymore. I planned a lot for it because I knew I was going to need a good chunk of change to put together a polished product. I felt like there were so many artists around me doing the same thing and all of them including myself were struggling.
Every time I would do a show I never had anything to sell because I didn’t have the money up front for it. I had this little five song demo that I put together for $1200, and we did it in like three weeks time. It was never mastered. The volumes were really low. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. I just felt like I didn’t have anything to show for as many years as I had been doing music. I thought I had to do a Kickstarter and I saw a lot of people who were really successful with it, so I pushed aside those self-defeating thoughts that I might fail. I might not make it. I planned a lot and had a lot of help from my family who gave me ideas on how to reach an audience aside from online. Because a lot of people who donated were not online and wouldn’t have known it was even happening. I was a basket case for a month.
J: Did you do any shows beforehand to get people interested in what you were doing?
K: Yes. I talked about it a lot before I even launched it. Where I bartend and at my shows I spoke about it just to let people know I was going to be doing something. I put together a little two song demo with what I had done already. I had started the album previously and realized I couldn’t finish it without financial backing, so the two songs I had already finished I gave away. I printed 200 copies. Every single person that I gave it to I asked them to check out what I was up to and if they liked it and people felt like donating, they could. So that was a way to reach people. I also had a fundraising party where we had computers set up and my band came and played.
J: Awesome! And the name of the album is Pieces? And it’s available on your website?
J: Is it available anywhere else?
J: So, you were talking about merch and how important it was to have that. Why do you feel it’s important? Do you notice a difference in response from the crowd at your shows when you do have merchandise?
K: Yes. Definitely. People are intrigued by it because I have stuff that looks good now. It looks professional. Sometimes I do shows and nobody buys anything, but then there are shows where people buy a ton of stuff. It definitely helps because people come up and look at it and it starts a conversation. People love t-shirts. I made some handmade coasters, and I’ve got stickers and stuff. It’s extra revenue on top of the performance. It helps get the word out when people have your stuff and they’re wearing it.
J: So in terms of physical CDs would you say you’ve sold more physical copies than digital?
K: Yeah, I think so. You know with streaming these days it’s hard to say. You get less than a penny per stream. With digital downloads where people have actually paid for the album, yeah, I think I have still sold more physical copies.
You know as much as people are into digital downloads and having everything on their phone… I’m old school. I think there is something cool about getting something tangible in your hands, being able to look at the artwork and read about it. A lot of other people still feel that way. They like to have something, but a lot of vehicles don’t even have CD players anymore.
J: What was your inspiration for the songs on Pieces?
K: Some of them were songs I had written in previous years. One of them was with my band Rivalry, which originated from Sibling Rivalry with my brother. Another song I had half written, and I went down to Nashville and worked with a songwriter by the name of Carey Ott. He’s really amazing at what he does. He’s like a music mentor now. I was having writer’s block and he kind of helped me finish it and pull out the good stuff. But the idea for the album came from the first song on the album which was “Whitney,” not really named for any particular reason. It was the working title, and we just left it. I felt like maybe there was some Whitney out there who might think the song was written for them and maybe it would help them in some way. But I was at a low point. I didn’t know how I was going to continue doing music as a career because it’s hard. It’s really, really hard as you know. I just felt this urge while writing the song to just keep reminding myself or reminding whoever is going to hear this song and feel inspired not to give up. You don’t have to have it all figured out right then and there. It’s a journey. You’re going to figure it out as you go, and that is what it all came down to. I didn’t have it all figured out when I started. I just knew I wanted to do something bigger than what I was doing. As things developed, “pieces” were falling into place. It was like a puzzle, picking from different parts of my life, different pieces in the song, bringing it all in and figuring out exactly what it was. It was a reflection of where I was in my life. I was in a broken place and I needed to make something of myself from that broken place.
J: Where did you record the album?
K: We started recording it up at my parent’s cabin. We did an experimental project and filmed the video “The Walrus,” which is on YouTube. We played a gig up there and used the money to rent the rest of the equipment we would need to start recording. I thought that we would record the whole album that weekend but that was not the case. It took another two years to finish. But I had all these pieces from there and then we went to DNA Music Labs with Mark Whitcomb, and I did some stuff in my kitchen. Paul Schluter, from Megatone Studios, also helped produce the album. He took all these pieces and kind of mapped it out and we recorded the rest of it there.
J: What is your writing process like? How do you go about writing a song?
K: I usually start with the guitar and I will just start humming. It’s almost like I am talking in a different language, like speaking in tongues. *laughs* I just start these melodies and then a line will come out and I will be inspired by that, and then I figure out, okay where did that come from? What is the subject right there? And then build off of that, and it kind of just develops from there. And then sometimes I will write a poem and just start singing pieces of the poem and begin rearranging it if it doesn’t quite work with the guitar, or if the melody and consonants don’t fall into place.
J: When did you start to feel comfortable being on stage?
K: Right after high school I auditioned for a play called “Tick Tick Boom,” and I got a pretty good part. I practiced and practiced. I don’t know what it was but I built up a confidence to keep those nerves at bay. It felt really good. I felt like my voice was getting stronger. I still get nervous but it’s controllable I guess. Knock on wood. I’m opening for Jay Leno on Friday (May 19th, 2017).
J: I was going to ask you about that! How did you get hooked up with that show?
K: A friend of mine is their main booking person now. He’s been helping me out with shows here and there since I got into the Madison music scene. He does the main booking for Brat Fest. Do you know Michael Alexander?
J: I don’t know him personally but I’ve heard the name.
K: Yeah, so he took over that job and asked me if I wanted to open for Jay Leno. I was like, “what?!” I think I’ll pass on that.
J: But you decided to do it anyway?
K: Oh yeah. It wasn’t for sure I was going to get it. He had to personally approve it, so I quickly went online and dolled up my website. In the top corner I put a “Hi Jay!” with a little smiley face.
J: Do you do your booking personally or do you normally have someone book for you?
K: It’s a mixture. I have two different booking agents that help me out.
J: As a singer/songwriter would you say it’s pretty easy to get shows in Madison?
K: Yeah, but I do 50/50 covers and original material. People always want to hear covers. I’m trying to get away from that and do more original stuff. I’ve been trying to get more into the listening room type venues which is more difficult than booking at a restaurant/bar and being the background music. I can do the Tracy Chapman or whatever songs people want, but then I’m not really doing my own art. It isn’t as rewarding as booking a coffeehouse where people pay $5 or $10 and are really engaging and listening to the music. Playing a bar sometimes is easier. You get paid a flat fee, but you don’t really gain as much in terms of fans.
J: So other than Star Persons and Rivalry you have the Katie Scullin Band. Who is in that band?
K: I like to call it “the revolving door band.” There have been so many people in it. My original drummer is Travis Drumm. He recently moved out to California. He was in a lot of different projects so I would have several other people fill in for him. The original bassist stepped away for awhile so Nate Wiswal took over. Nate is on 8 or 9 of the 11 songs on the album. He also got a really good job out in California and moved out there so Jacob Bare is playing bass with me again. My brother has always been my number one guitar player. He has a newborn now and is married and has a really great job, so he doesn’t do all of the shows. My boyfriend, my baby’s daddy, Darren, is also my guitar player, but sometimes it’s hard getting a babysitter so I’ve had Paul Schluter play guitar for me before. And then my new drummer, his name is Bruce Root, filling in for Travis. I don’t know how long he will be in California… You should play!
J: It would probably be good for me to play! I rarely play live, but I want to get to the point that I feel comfortable doing it. So are you thinking about writing a new album?
K: Yes I am. I worked on Pieces for so long that within the last 6 to 8 months I probably wrote a whole other album worth of songs. I learned a lot this time around and think things will go easier next time, knock on wood.
J: Well I’m down to help on production.
K: That would be awesome!
Want to see Katie Scullin live? Click here for her tour schedule.