Heather Kropf, a singer/songwriter and native of Portland, Oregon has now made Pittsburgh, PA her home. Heather’s beginnings in music were in classical piano training. She is making her presence well known in the Pittsburgh area, performing at venues such as the Three Rivers Art Festival, First Night and WYEP and WQED studios. Her original music, melodies and amazing voice bring together a complete package of talent that make any listener quickly realize that Heather Kropf will become one of their favorites. Listening to any one of her albums will make you a fan and you’ll want to begin adding all of her works to your music library.
I was able to get this amazing artist to take some time and give us an interesting perspective of her thoughts about life in Pittsburgh, background and goals for future directions.
DL: So, what brought you to decide on Pittsburgh as your new home?
HK: I came to Pittsburgh for a one-year post-college internship program called PULSE. My part-time assignment was working as Assistant Music Director at WYEP 91.3 FM. The other half of my time was spent pursuing my interest in visual art. By the end of the year I realized I was spending more time writing songs than making paintings so I continued with music and radio.
DL: How would you compare the Pittsburgh music scene compared to other areas of the country you have been?
HK: I am not sure I’m qualified to answer that question since I haven’t spent large amounts of time elsewhere. The only other place I’ve been for an extended period of time is in Northern Indiana. There, music seemed to be more about community and less about a concept of “making it”. I could be wrong about that, but that’s how it seemed at the time.
DL: What made you decide on devoting yourself to music and follow a path of music as a full time career, rather than following the 9 – 5 work world?
HK: Well, in fact I have straddled both worlds for most of my time as a singer/songwriter. There was a brief time where I was full-time as an artist, and it was really an amazing experience, but I found I sort of like having roots in multiple places. When you’re self-employed or an entrepreneur it’s hard to know where to make boundaries between personal and professional time, at least I’ve found it hard. So, multiple interests keep me balanced, ironically. For me it’s all about finding the right fit between the kinds of jobs I pursue to pair up with my work as an artist, and not about whether I’ll be an artist. That part I can’t help. Some day jobs have been less supportive and some more. I still haven’t perfected the balance, but I’m always in the process of perfecting it. Quitting all the 9-5 jobs is like jumping off a cliff, and if you don’t have the love of all aspects of being an entrepreneur then you shouldn’t do it.
DL: Who were the musicians who inspired you the most in your beginnings and then in your song writing?
HK: I was inspired by singer-songwriters like Paul Simon, Sting, Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega, Edie Brickell, and Kate Bush, among others. I especially liked folks who had a poetic sensibility for lyrics, as songs for me were as much about the words as they were about music. Even today I can listen to a Joni Mitchell song and get a handful of spin-off ideas for lyrics. She uses a really rich palette of language and I find it opens up my brain.
DL: How has the move to Pittsburgh been working out for you? Do you find Pittsburgh a great city to succeed as a recording artist?
HK: Well, both of those questions are challenging for me to answer. It depends on how you define success. I don’t want to badmouth Pittsburgh but in my experience it has not been a supportive city for my work. I see lots of incredibly talented musicians and singer-songwriters fighting for survival. Venues don’t last. There doesn’t seem to be a culture of going out and hearing live original music, at least not for the singer-songwriter genre at large. There are individuals who are interested, but it’s a very small group indeed. That’s not a good or bad thing, but it does make it more challenging. I’ve been able to record projects here and meet great people, and get some nice press, but sustained success in terms of income or artistic development hasn’t happened. I’ve heard from other artists who make Pittsburgh a home base for their touring, that it can be a fine city. But they’re not depending on Pittsburghers for the bulk of their income or inspiration; they’re out of the road. Since Pittsburgh is situated nicely between regions and is relatively inexpensive, it can be a great location. Pittsburgh can work for some. It doesn’t work for everyone. I think those who are already doing it know that, and those who are considering entering the fray should be aware of that. What’s important is to spend a little time defining what success it for you first, and to revisit that question every so often.
DL: What is in the works for the near future? Do you have any new projects or albums we can look forward to?
HK: I don’t have any definite plans for another album, but I do have about 6 songs finished that I’d like to record, and I hope to keep working at it. I’ve got some concepts and people in mind for how to approach the pre-production, which excites me. So, I’m sure I’ll record again but for now I’m really stepping back to re-discover what I love about songwriting and music. I need to foster that connection for a while. I need to disconnect from the 24-hour cycle of the indie music biz culture.
DL: Can you tell perhaps one story where someone or a particular event shaped or sent you on your path to becoming a recording artist?
HK: I began writing songs in Junior High but always kept it to myself, as songs were the equivalent of journal entries and they were private business. In college there were two guys that wanted to create a compilation album of campus songwriters. A friend of mind knew I wrote songs and so she told the organizer. I went to the first meeting armed with my lyrics with guitar chords written down — I don’t play guitar but I write some songs for guitar-and the organizer started playing and I sang along. Two of my songs made the project and I started playing coffeehouses to support the release. That was my start.
DL: Can you tell one interesting story of an experience where you perhaps had the opportunity to play with a well-known musician or band and how that went?
HK: I have done the opening set for some really amazing people. I opened for Betty LaVette who said my voice was “pristine”. That was pretty sweet. When I was working for WYEP I had to pick up Peter Himmelman from the airport and deliver him to Rosebud. His shows are improvisational and usually involve the crowd at some point. He knew I played piano so called me up to play a bass line for one of his improvisational songs. That was pretty fun. I have to say, though, that my favorite experiences are sharing the bill with Pittsburgh artists who I think could easily be as well known as any national touring artist. These folks are doing their thing and have brilliance. And they’re right in our back yard all the time. Songwriter circles can be especially fun.
DL: Do you have any advice for someone who is trying to make that decision to strike out and become a recording artist…perhaps management advice or how to handle things when everything seems to be trying to tell them to quit and pursue a different career choice?
HK: I could talk about this for days. I come from a school that cares about audio quality of recorded material. Your permanent expressions of your art matter so take the time to find an engineer you like, find producers if want to, find the right musicians, do your due diligence of pre-production and budgeting. Who cares if people listen to your song as an mp3. It’s still your art and you should do it right. But don’t overdo it. And don’t forget to budget a huge chunk of change for marketing and touring. These are things I didn’t know when I started out and I made some mistakes. Being a working artist means you are embracing being an entrepreneur. I didn’t have a built in support system of family and extended friends in Pittsburgh so when I stared I was a nobody doing everything myself. If you have people close to you that believe in you and want to help with all the stuff that surrounds being an artist that’s probably worth considering. Lots of successful touring artists today survived because of their families in the early years. There is a lot of administrative, accounting, and promotional work to do and it looks like the Indie music culture is mandating that. You have to make some choices: how much do you want to buy into that, are you gifted at that yourself/do you have time, do you need support from others? If someone tells you to pursue a different career choice, well, they probably wish they were an artist or they’re living with you and wish you made more money! Some people enter music because they’re entertainers at heart, so because they are artists. Either way, true entertainers and true artists can’t help. It’s there, like the color of your skin. The best you can do it keep after that perfect song or that perfect moment on stage, or that perfect song arrangement that gives listeners a chill. I guess to sum it up I’d say life is short. Do what you love. It may or may not be an easier life, but you’ll love getting up in the morning. If you don’t love it forever that’s ok, too. It’s ok to change your mind!
DL: Thanks for the interview Heather.