Interview with Singer and Songwriter, Brad Yoder

Interview with Singer and Songwriter, Brad Yoder

Brad Yoder is a Pittsburgh-based singer, songwriter and performer who explains his primary goal in writing a song is to make audiences think, laugh, feel and even involuntarily sing along.

Originally of Harrisonburg, Va., he graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in music from Goshen College in Indiana and spent a year studying in Germany. Mr. Yoder has lived in Pittsburgh for more than a decade and is making a splash on the city's music scene. He was voted "Best Acoustic Artist" by the readers of the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2003 and 2004, was named "Best Solo Performer" by InPittsburgh Newsweekly in 2001 and was dubbed the "ruler" of the coffeehouse scene by Pittsburgh Magazine.

Mr. Yoder's songs have also reached beyond grassroots appeal. His song "Used" was featured on the CBS show NUMB3RS in February of 2005, and his song "Second Thoughts" will appear on the DVD release of the 5th season of the popular WB television show Dawson's Creek. His song "Till the Colors" was featured in the fall of 2005 in the Pittsburgh History Museum's 9/11 Memorial exhibit. Sales of his three self-released CDs have passed 4,600; his fourth CD is due for release in 2006.

Averaging more than 150 shows a year, he plays venues including colleges, coffeehouses, benefits, clubs, church basements and even the zoo. In addition to his performances at colleges and universities, Mr. Yoder has also led "Exploring Songwriting" workshops at 20-plus schools to encourage student songwriters to find their own unique voices.

Mr. Yoder has performed at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, the Pittsburgh Folk Festival, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and the North by NorthEast Music Conference (Toronto), as well as opening for artists including Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tegan & Sara, Ellis Paul, Lynn Miles, Todd Snider, Steve Forbert, Vigilantes of Love, Robyn Hitchcock, and Hot Tuna.

"You have to define success on your own terms. That doesn't mean I don't work hard at getting heard. I try to get satisfaction out of the music I write, and not the attention I get," says.

Brad Yoder's Career

You have gained a reputation as a standout performer on a regional basis, and are breaking into the national scene. Tell us about your career as a musician, singer and songwriter. How did your career unfold to allow you to advance to where you are today?

My musical life goes back to being very young and singing a lot, especially in church. I grew up Mennonite singing four-part harmonies a cappella in church. In sixth grade, I started took a guitar class and I was in the middle school band. I had a lot of musical interests, even in high school, into college, I wrote a few little songs with guitar. I was kind of a dabbler.

I didn't anticipate being a performing songwriter, but after getting my music degree from Goshen College, the performer/songwriter thing sort of snuck up on me…it was a gradual process of putting different skills together. I still play some of that first burst of songs I wrote after college. In terms of getting really comfortable with singing and playing and telling stories in between songs, it's been a long, ongoing process, I know but I'm glad I stuck with it to get a place, at the age of 38, where I sing and play and entertain as well as I ever have.

For me, the highlight is I've had a song on a network TV show and on the DVD of a television series season, and for the last two years I was voted best acoustic artistic in Pittsburgh. Going somewhere to perform, and having someone say, "That record meant a lot to me" or "those songs still run through my head," is also rewarding.

There are songs I have written this calendar year that I really like, which are in some ways culminations of 15 years of writing, and a lot of songs weren't that good or that memorable. There's something to be said for being able to do something for a long period of time, without of anxiety or drama; hanging in there pays off. Performing/songwriting is about 75% of what I do. The music is nice, but the drag of being an independent performer/songwriter is lot of time is spend dealing with logistical details, so when I actually get to play for 2.5 hours, that's the good part. I also give a guitar lessons, and I work two afternoons a week coordinating a non-profit tutoring programs. I've held on to that job, because it's a nice balance. I'm probably a nicer person because of it.

You have to define success on your own terms. That doesn't mean I don't work hard at getting heard. I try to get satisfaction out of the music I write, and not the attention I get. I am also creative about where I live, and how I spend money; for me, living less expensively, means the time I spend doing other things than music. I live in a cheap town and inexpensively, so I don't have to spend a bunch of hours every week making the rent. That's a part of being creative, being able to organize your life so that there is space. The whole driving around to play songs thing is not generally a very efficient way of making money. While at times, I get paid really well, those times are balanced with driving to Canton and coming home with $56. Beyond the financial payment, there's the good will of the people at the show; at some point in the future it might pan out into another performance opportunity.

Here's an example of being a quasi-celebrity in a small geographic area: Right after being voted best acoustic artist in Pittsburgh, I had been pulled over for going too fast in a school zone. It was the middle of the day and there were no kids, and the cop was an aspiring songwriter/performer who had been looking at my web site the night before. He let me go without the $500 ticket; just the fact that could happen is hilarious to me.

You have performed in professional capacities from coffee shops to church gatherings to college formats to folk festivals. What similarities and differences have you found in your various musical endeavors?

It varies a lot between an intimate house concert where people are really listening to a coffee shop where they are chatting and they clap between songs, but aren't really listening. The type of venue changes the stories I might tell between songs, the interaction with the crowd.

Last night would be a typical kind of experience, I played at a student coffee house, which offered a discount on coffee to bring people in. There were all of these students, but it was loud and chatty, and not too many were really listening to the music. There are some students who will come out again at my next show, but after driving two hours, financially it wasn't a great use of my time. On the other hand, at another recent show, someone came out on their birthday that really liked an older CD of mine, and requested a bunch of songs that I don't play that often. For me, the creative reward is that there are people who really value the songs I write, who sing the songs to themselves when they are washing the dishes. I don't have the quantities of people some do, but I do have a nice smatter of folks around.

At the coffeehouse, I was connecting with folks who were listening. I try to enjoy the moment even though it might not be ideal. I love to play my songs in all kinds of different places. I did sort of a festival thing in Cleveland on the sidewalk in the evening, and people mostly just wandered by. Sometimes they'd stay for a song, sometimes for four. It's another creative aspect that in each setting, I can choose material appropriately.

I love to play fragile, pretty songs, but sometimes that would get kind of lost if I'm there as background thing, so in that case I tend to play more energetic, extroverted songs. I try to stay connected to the enjoyment of doing what I do, and that has gotten me very far. One time, I had a show in a little town with a 7 o'clock start, but no one showed up until 7:30. So for almost half an hour, I was playing songs for myself and the guy behind the counter. But that was OK. I played some old songs I don't play very often, and made sure I remembered them.

Beyond your vocal abilities, you have expertise on several instruments, including the guitar, soprano sax and piano. Which is your favorite and why?

For me, the piano is really just messing around, where I do my arranging. The soprano sax I like because it's a great collaborative instrument; someone else can start a song and I can jump in and play along. It's a beautiful sounding instrument, and a fun way to do acoustic collaborations. I don't play it as much as I'd like, so my sax skills are maybe not where I'd like them to be, but I can pick it up and be able to play a couple times of month. Playing sax is like speaking German; it's this thing I worked hard at for a long time, and now it's fun. Guitar is such a friendly instrument, I've never studied it except for two one quarter classes in eighth grade and sophomore year, I've really learned more by noodling around and years of applying other knowledge to the guitar; my skills have evolved organically over the years. Guitar is a friendly thing to pick up and play; a lot of the songs I play start out that way, with me messing around with the guitar. When performing, I have a couple songs where I sing a cappella, and I use the guitar as a percussion instrument to hit a beat. At about a third of my shows, I play with a guy who plays bass, which creates a different energy, I like playing solos too. Occasionally I work with a full band, though that's more rare.

What unique challenges and rewards come from working as a professional musician, singer and songwriter?

I get a chance to be kind of a mentor for student songwriters by doing workshops when I'm playing colleges. I also get a lot of satisfaction out of the immediate music making, and the immediate response as well as the bigger connection. When people listen to my music at home or in a different context, its humbling and gratifying to have a song where I'm talking about my relationship with my brother that someone says, "It captures the feeling I have about my sibling."

In some ways, people assume that a songwriter or an artist is someone who's more in touch with their own emotional world, but the opposite may be true. I write songs to figure out what's going on with me, to make something out of my experience in hopes other people will have a connection. If one other person feels the way I do, I can wipe my brow and say, "I'm not a freak!" It's all about the human experience, and I get to do that in a tangible way.

When I write something that's like my song "Keep it Yourself," which is a song that expresses solidarity with gay and lesbian friends I have and puts myself inside their heads. Even though I myself am not gay, I have friends who have dealt with it, and to have someone say, "That song really got it right," that's really gratifying to me.

The biggest challenge is that it's a marathon, not a sprint. I have to take care of my physical health, like being an athlete …especially now that I'm getting to my late 30s. Financially, I'm a single guy without a family to support, so the amount of income I need to generate in a month is modest. I'm finally at the place where I have the money to play the bills, but it's definitely a challenge to organize my life. I don't have cable TV, mainly because I don't have time to watch it. I know guys who have held onto the 40-hour week jobs, waiting for the record to set them loose, but it never did. To me, it's better to be playing on a given evening than to be picky about where I play.

I know at some point I'll spend a stupid amount of money, and not think twice about writing a check for a master CD. The choices do matter, because as an artist, choices are tied into my ability to live on the income I generate playing. There's a fellow named Andrew Bemis who is a crazy good banjo player with a sweet, beautiful soul; his music sounds like out it's of the 1930s and he takes the Amtrak train every where. His words of advice are "learn how to live on no money, and then learn how to get paid for playing music."

What professional or artistic organizations do you belong to? What are the benefits?

I belong to the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA), which is one of my connections to get college shows. If the students love me, they generally have some disposable income and will buy a CD.

I'm also a member of recording National Recording Arts & Sciences, which means I get to vote for the Grammy's. To be a member, you have to have nationally-released record, and since you can buy my CDs on amazon.com, I qualify. I've never been one of the people you can vote for, but I do get to vote.

What are the biggest inspirations for your career as a singer/songwriter?

I just started writing songs (especially after college), and they started accumulating, and they seemed to be getting better. This crept up on me. I could use some of the energy I had at 22, but then I didn't have the songs, or the maturity, or the voice, etc. In college, I wanted to be a jazz sax player, but ended up with tendonitis from too much uptight practicing. I found my way to songwriting after other things fell through. For a long time, it was what I did on the side, sort of for fun, and it gradually became more than that.

Tell us about the songwriting process. What inspires you to write your songs?

Different stuff. Sometimes it's things I notice, or a phrase I'll hear someone say, or someone I'll see on the street. As far as writing, it's keeping my ears and eyes open as I go through the world. I try to hold on to some of the pieces – a quote, an image – and I jot them in a notebook. Sometimes there's no real explanation for it. There's something a bit mysterious about that process. Sometimes it feels like "inspiration," and other times it's more like cross-stitch, something you pick up and work on for a while, and then set down again. Like anything, the longer you do it, the better you get at it. Sometimes it's very hard, and sometimes it feels more like finding songs than "creating" them.

I have songs that are funny, serious, and some that are poetic and artsy. I don't know what I'm going to write next, but I carry ideas around in my head, I sing to myself when I'm driving places. The point of being an artist is to take your experience and make something creative about it, weaving it into something that you can share. Really great songs have sprung from unlikely sources. Sometimes I'll be driving down the road, and I'll see something that might turn into a song. I listen to other people's songs as well.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

The physical experience of using my voice well and really shaping a phrase are two things I enjoy. I'm fortunate in that I've always sung lots, and used to do solos in high school. I had some pretty serious vocal problems, which I've mostly worked through, thanks to a great local voice teacher here in Pittsburgh, who's given me lessons on a barter basis for the last four years or so.

How old were you when you decided you wanted to make an album?

I recorded my first tape in 1992, but that wasn't too serious a deal. I spent under $1,000, as I recall. At that time, I was 26. The record-making but has come to me fairly late in life, too. I started what became the first CD when I was 30.

Tell us about the process of self-launching of your CDs. Any updates on new releases?

My 1999 live solo acoustic release, "Talk to Total Strangers," and my 1997 debut disc have sold a combined total of over 3,000 copies. That includes thirteen CDs sold at a house concert in Pittsburgh, attended by people who came from as far as New Jersey.

To finance my 2002 CD "Used," fans and supporters loaned me over $9,000, most of that coming in $50 and $100 increments. It was released in the summer of 2002 to accolades in the local press.

I've got a record which is almost done, there are a few musical tracks to be tweaked, and art to be put together. It's like overtime, it keeps dragging on. "Someday or Never" is the title, and that has also turned into the release date. I'm powering toward getting that out into the world. I'm starting to record shows with the bass player so that early next year we can put out a live disk.

Are there any singers/songwriters you would like to work with? Who is your favorite singer(s)?

Lots of them! I really admire Ani DiFranco, Elliot Smith, Bruce Cockburn, Victoria Williams, Dar Williams, Michelle Shocked, Lyle Lovett, Mark Eitzel, Elvis Costello, Ron Sexsmith, James McMurtry, Sam Phillips, Gillian Welch... the list could go on and on. I'd love to open for some of them, or try writing a song together, or just be considered a "peer" by some of the artists I admire who have influenced me, like Joni Mitchell, Elliot Smith, John Crone, early REM and U2.

Elvis Costello is a great singer. Emmylou Harris is amazing as a vocalist. Again, there are lots of singers I like, but I'm especially amazed by people who can be so consistently musical with their voices--that's something I've worked hard at, but I still have work to do! I'd love to sing like Vince Gill, but it's not going to happen.

What style of music do you listen to the most?

Especially modern acoustic/singer-songwriter/rocky/pop stuff, but other things too, like jazz, classical and hip hop, too. I try to spend time each week with writers I want to learn from. I think there's a lot to be learned from every style: rap, country, whatever, and I find things in every style which I like. Country is easy to find, and it is slick; everything in a country lyric is in place and has been designed to tell a story. The country radio stuff is very crafted, maybe even more so than what's on rock radio.

What ranks among the favorite achievements that you've completed in your career and why?

The last CD that I put out, "Used," has sold a pretty big amount. It was a pretty big undertaking, but it's pretty much managed to pay for itself, which is an achievement. It was a stretch; I took on a lot of credit. NPR talk radio played the song Used, which is about things that are worn out, after it was on the CBS episode of NUMB3RS. A guy in Idaho heard the song on NPR and got in touch with me to buy the CD so he could play the song at the wedding of his 80-year-old father. I get excited about the random stuff like that; to me, that is as cool as being voted best acoustic artist.

I'm very pleased that I've been able to do this as along as I have, and that I still attract new listeners from a wide age range. I have kids who like my songs, even though they are younger than some of my songs, and I have people much older than myself who come out to hear me, and a mixture of all ages in between. I'm proud that if 100 people hear the music I make, 10 or 15 will really like it. I'm not so concerned about mass appeal, because I'm a folk singer. I like the people who come out to hear me; they are a diverse and smart bunch of folks. It feels good to have good people like my music. I don't assume that I'll indefinitely be able to go to college campuses and be cool. As long as I can be as honest as I can, I'll be able to connect with some folks.

What are some of your professional goals for the future?

I'd like to keep getting better at what I do, and I keep working towards that. You get up and you try to do better every day. I'd like to play more festivals, be a little less random about the way I get myself heard. When I do the songwriters workshops, I talk about my fathers garden, he tills and waters and mulches and fertilizes, but even doing all of those things, he doesn't know in a given year what the overall success will be. It will be a better from season to season, and sometimes the soybeans all get eaten by deer. He always gets a lot of tasty vegetables. My music making is a lot like that. There are things within my control and things that aren't. A certain amount of my musical success had its randomness to it, interesting to see where it will go next. I'm not the kind of musician with a five-year plan for world domination.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your music education.

I got my music degree from Goshen College, in northern Indiana. As a student, I spent time on lots of different things. I arranged things for choir, did some conducting, played with small jazz groups, coffee houses, I kind of dabbled all over the place. I started as a voice major, but had a vocal strain problem, so I started focusing on the saxophone and ended up with tendonitis of my arm; my own body was saying, no, that's not it.

At the time it seemed unfocused, but it turned out to be pretty useful in terms of doing what I do now. Because I have some useful musical skills from school, like being able to write things out, do arrangements for a recording, and understand how harmony works. It amazes me that I am using my music education as I work on my livelihood, which is not the case for a lot of people. Since college, I've gotten vocal instruction that allows me to sing without problems and have learned how to play without having the strain.

How did you choose the school you attended?

I picked a small liberal arts college that I knew had a good music department, Goshen College. Part of it was knowing a lot of the people that would be there, part of it was the school had a good reputation. I've been interested in a lot of things, language, social issues; I studied in Germany for a year.

How can prospective music students assess their skill and aptitude?

It's not really something you necessarily go to school for the way you would graphic design, the best thing to do is work hard at it. It's not such an unusual thing to play and sing and write some pretty good songs. The best thing people can do is get out and do that as much as they can, and start a process of getting feedback on playing, and then work on the different parts of it. It's a pretty long process, in general, with not a lot of exceptions. It takes a lot of time to get somewhere even kind of modest, and in school, you're in the midst of all kinds of people who can sing and play like crazy, or write really good songs. When you create something, you fall in love with it, but it's another step to go beyond that and ask how it connects to someone else, what about it stands out and is memorable. At the beginning, students write some songs, and don't realize what kind of hard work lies ahead from going from good to great. You can be great in any number of ways, but you need to work towards some dimension of great singing, playing, writing…preferably, some of each.

More often than not, when I play at a college, I do a workshop to try to encourage songwriters and help them grow their skills. College students wonder if the are good, or if they are no good, and even ask me, "should I stop?" It might be meaningful to you and the people you love; does it matter if it's just something you do because it's good for you?

What factors should prospective music/performing arts students consider when choosing a school? Are there different considerations for those who know they want to specialize in a certain area?

If someone is really convinced they want to work on the professional side of music, there's something to be said for Berkeley school of music, where they have specialized music training, studio production, very specific. They'll put you in contact with other people with similar aspirations. The other alternative is to go somewhere like New York or Nashville, and get some of that education for a lot less money from the competitive scene. I know a lot of good writers who didn't go for the high dollar music education; you can go online find great music and figure out what's great about it.

The tact I took was to become well-rounded, I had a sense of myself in the world, then worked on writing out of that. Even though I didn't get a lot of instruction in college about writing per say; harmonic theory in jazz has been invaluable. A lot of it is self education that really good performing songwriters are always doing, figuring out what works and doesn't work, and bouncing ideas off of someone else. That's the process that matters; there are schools where that that can happen naturally, but you can make that happen without paying tuition.

On the flip side, I can think of a lot of artists who could have been better off going to college, getting their minds expanded so that their writing grew with that. I'm thankful to have the liberal arts education that I have. I've found it pretty valuable. You have to grow as a person if you want to grow as an artist.

In what ways could the music/performing arts education system be changed to better serve society?

Performing arts education should focus more on craft and on really opening up with the idea that everyone is an artist and has things to express, stories to tell. If more people were told "You are an artist, and what you do matters to you, those around you and maybe even to people who you haven't even met," then in some modest way, the world will be a better place because of that creative work. When people have that experience, it's potentially very transforming. That doesn't mean that everybody who writes a song and sings it is someone you want to hear when you turn on the radio.

I resist the notion there is a line drawn between people who have talent and people who don't. People have different experiences and make different choices about who they focus on. I would love for the music and songs I write and play to encourage other people in what they do, instead of having them listen and say "I could never do that."

It's inevitable that it's hard to make a living at it, and a strong dose of reality would be a good thing, but it ought to be possible to give people a sense of perspective without devaluing what they do. Even if it just touches the people around you.

Job Information & Advice

How can the reality of a career as a musician/singer/songwriter differ from typical expectations?

People don't necessarily realize how much work it is, how much driving, how much leg work, how critical it is to field good relationships with people who support what you do. It's like creating a customer base. I don't have that many folks who are hard core fans, I have to learn who they are, to get some sort of artist-relationship, like someone who opens a store and knows all the names of the people who shop there. There are people who look at how much I play and wish they could do that, but they're not necessarily aware of the other things I do to get to play shows. That is the reward.

What is the average income of a singer/songwriter? What are people at the top of the profession paid?

I don't think many people are getting rich. It's not an efficient way to pay the bills. I've been very careful about building credit. I have a fair bit of debt associated with making records, in different forms; I manage it in a way that I don't pay exorbitant interest rates. I've generated $20,000 to $30,000 a year in music-related income, but I've also spent fairly ridiculous amount of money making recordings. It's pretty similar to being a sole proprietor of an independent business; it takes a lot of work to build something over the long term. One of the products of the information age is its more and more doable to make some kind of living, because it is much less expensive to record music, promote, and book yourself.

Can you offer performance tips for novices?

I feel like I'm sort of a novice. I'm not one of these people who naturally light up in front of an audience. I have to find a connection. Have someone tell you honestly what it's like to sit and listen and watch you; video tape and audio tape yourself, play it back, listen to what you say between songs; listen to how you sound; and gauge audience reaction. The biggest thing is to expose yourself to as much honest feedback as you can stand, don't be complacent, because it's a long process. The greatest song you have today, you're not going to play in three years because you're embarrassed you wrote it.

The hardest thing, and thus the thing to most covet, it's to have a clear sense of what you do well, and the things you do less well, and maximize what you do well. It's hard to have a lot of your personal feelings and have someone tell you a song is a cliché. If you want to buy groceries by making music, you need someone to tell you in an honest way, this is what you're good at, and this is where you lose us. I have nights where I'm pretty on, but I know where my traps are, so I don't fall into them as much. I've gotten comfortable with who I am in front of an audience. Basically, it's a slightly exaggerated version of myself.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in music performance?

Get as many experiences and input as you can, and learn as much about music as you can. Maybe the biggest one is not to decide in advance where the whole trip is going to take you. I know of a lot of folks who had a lot of success, but who were disappointed because they didn't the success that they expected. I also know people who got success they never expected, but are really enjoying it, like people in rock brands who now do children's music because they have children, and people that teach. If it's something that you really love, work hard at it. If you have some lightness and flexibility about the whole path, it's likely to bring you to a good place.

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the music profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed?

I get a standard string of people at my shows who want advice on how to be a performing musician, who want to be where I am. In the bigger scheme of things, you have to have a really strong connection for the pure love and enjoyment of writing songs, and then playing them for people, getting a reaction from people. That's the essential thing, the only fuel powerful enough to keep me doing what I do. But initially you have to do it for yourself.

Editor's Note: If you would like to follow up with Brad Yoder personally, click here. For more information about his career and future performance dates, be sure to visit the Brad Yoder website.

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