“If I don’t have writing time blocked out regularly, it’s hard to stay on task and complete things,” explains Lakeland, FL-based emerging Americana singer-songwriter Van Plating, “especially since I’m an independent artist wearing lots of hats and a mom to four growing kids…”
Capable of remarkable eloquence and emotional depth through music, Plating caught our attention with the release of her debut self-titled LP, and now, we’re excited to partner for the World Premiere of her latest video single, “How Lonely,” taken from her new album The Way Down. Plus, don’t miss an exclusive, holiday-themed performance from Plating and her family!
5 Questions with Van Plating by Sam Shansky
1) Last month, you released your sophomore studio album The Way Down via Fallin’ Angel Records. What were some of the themes you aimed to address when writing those songs?
Recovery, love beyond romantic relationships– love as all encompassing force that touches everything– pushing through your wounds into health, being ok with not being ok, being alone not always being bad but rather necessary place for rebirth/rebuilding, learning how to dance your way through lament. Finding strength in vulnerability.
Bonus: How do you like to write songs? What’s that process like for you?
I like to create structure in my day to day routine that provides space in the day for me to shut off my other roles and be fluid without other demands. If I don’t have writing time blocked out regularly, it’s hard to stay on task and complete things, especially since I’m an independent artist wearing lots of hats and a mom to four growing kids who all have their own needs and schedules.
When I create space in the day for the muse to greet me, she always does. Here’s what that looks like: Everyone is off to school. I shut all the doors heading to the rest of the house and let my husband know it’s writing time (he works from home at the other end of the house). Light a little incense, and I grab whichever instrument appeals to me at the time. Sometimes it’s guitar, sometimes piano. Sometimes I’m just laying on the floor singing without anything in my hands. I just start singing and try my very best not to get in my head, but just to sing until I naturally find an idea and then start to lean into that little nugget and create architecture around it. I always record whatever it is so I can revisit. Some days I only have an hour blocked–some days it’s 3. The important thing is to do it every day.
I also keep a log in my phone of little phrases that hit me as lyrics, if I happen to not be somewhere that I can sit and hash it out when the idea comes out. Once the ideas are flowing, they keep coming, running all day in the back of my mind while I’m doing other things. If I’ve had my meeting with the muses for a couple hours during my work day, then as I’m rehearsing the lines while I’m cooking dinner, or taking the dog for a walk, boom–the next part of the idea will fly into my head and I’ll scramble to snatch a note or voice memo so I don’t lose it. Sometimes an entire verse or hook will come into my head in the shower before bed! The more disciplined I am with protecting my writing hours, creating space for creativity, even if the time is short some days– the more fruitful my days become. I wrote 40–50 songs last year during quarantine with everyone at home this way! If I can do it, anyone can.
With songwriting, I love to start from melody. I’ll improvise melody and sing gibberish until words start to come out and then I like to take the chords underneath and lean into unexpected changes here and there to keep the harmonic structure interesting. To make the listener lean into the words. I love the interplay of chords with a melody because the chords you use hold so much power to pull the listener into what you’re saying. I write often, and try not to edit while I create. I just let it come out and then lean into the sounds presenting themselves with curiosity. I don’t shield myself from whatever I’m feeling anymore, like I did when I was a younger writer in my 20s, and I think that vulnerability comes through in the work. So I’ll start with a melody. Or sometimes, a guitar part that I like. The sounds help me access a feeling, and then the feelings guide me to the words.
I love to take a melody and then make it more impactful by switching up the rhythm of what’s going on beneath it, whether it’s rhythmically or by making chord changes that are just a little bit unexpected (“The Way Down” and “Oxygen” are good examples of this on my new record). A lot of times with my songs you don’t realize how much work is in the chord structure + melody combo until you try learning them. And I think that’s pretty cool because they’re very singalong-able, but deceptively complex.
2) Who did you collaborate with on the new album, where did you track, and how would you describe the overall experience?
The Way Down all started with a co-write one day by a lake here in town with a new friend–Bryan Elijah Smith. He’s from Virginia, but was making his way through Florida on tour and reached out to me to write after we’d mutually discovered each other’s music kind of weirdly simultaneously. I love his 2019 record In Through The Dark. We wrote “Bird On A Wire” together during that first session and I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to work with him on some singles to release later in 2020. This was before any of us knew what 2020 would bring. With touring out of the picture, I dove into writing and Bryan enthusiastically agreed that we should make a record instead of a few singles–we had time, resources, and inspiration so why not?
The overall experience was very intuitive. There were moments when we were working where we really didn’t need to speak–we were just following where our ears wanted the instruments to go. We worked on the album over the course of a year, swapping ideas back and forth remotely and tracked over the course of three sessions from June 2020-June 2021, in his studio in the Shenandoah Valley. It was a perfect place to work. Away from everything in Mennonite country. With Covid in the mix, it was easy to focus because we were the only two people on the project and the only two in the studio. No distractions. Each of our three recording sessions were about a week long and I’d come straight from the airport to the studio and then we’d just work til we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore, I’d drive to my Airbnb and crash for a few hours then head back and work some more. Since I was traveling such a long way we really did our best to pack as much work in as possible on the days I was there. The last week I was up there we tracked three songs start to finish and filmed two music videos all in five days. It was insane.
3) Could you share your musical journey (from starting as a classical musician to becoming an indie rocker in Pemberley, then a church musician, and now an Americana artist)?
My journey was eclectic from the start. I began violin lessons at 3, and while I was studying classical music throughout my childhood I was also immersed in bluegrass, courtesy of my grandparents on my mom’s side who lived close by. I learned to improvise from my grandad and his brothers on the weekends after mornings spent fishing the lakes around Eustis and Leesburg. They’d sit in a circle in the front yard, and plop little tiny me down with my fiddle, and I’d just make noise. Eventually, it started to sound good–so that was a freeing contrast for me, while during the week I was hardcore into the precision world of Bach, Mozart, Dvorak.
I went to college on violin and academic scholarships and got a performance degree. Ever since I can remember music was my constant companion. My dad is a beautiful singer and guitar player, he’d sing with us a lot in the evenings after he got home from work and my mother played piano–hymns and southern gospel songs mainly. There was always music and I started writing at a young age but never took it seriously until I had a breakdown after college.
I’d been shaped into who I was largely by the violin and I never loved it the way I love singing and writing. But I don’t know if I ever told anyone that, in those words. I was good at violining. But it didn’t light me up inside. When I blacked out on stage at SUNY NY during a grad school audition (I was playing Prokofiev, it was too much for me mentally that day), that’s when I decided I was done with classical music professionally. I’d done it my whole life at a pretty high level for a long time and I just couldn’t do it anymore. The perfectionistic, elitist culture was toxic for me. So I came home, licked my wounds and asked my mom if I could have my grandad’s guitar that she’d held onto in order to start trying to teach myself to play. I had a short stint with an emo band I cobbled together and then it fell apart–people moved away or the vibe wasn’t right, I tried writing in the band setting and it didn’t go very well back then–probably because I was so unsure of what I was doing. So the band broke up and I hit the reset button again. That was the beginning of Pemberley, my first indie rock band that I fronted and wrote songs for myself.
I’d played in bands since high school and done session work forever but I had never stepped out in front before. I held some auditions and was joined by a gal named Rachel Lyn on bass and a guy named Eric on drums. His family had a funeral home and he drove a hearse to gigs because he said his drums fit so perfectly. It was Y2k Baltimore so, that pretty much sums it up. Our first gig was in a basement in Baltimore city with a little indie band called Annuals. The cops shut down the night partway through their set because it turned out that club wasn’t legal. Annuals blew up the following year with Be He Me and we kept in touch with them and saw them in Florida a few times later on as they exploded onto the indie scene.
About three months later my husband had an opportunity to move back to Florida and we took it. Rachel Lyn moved with us and we started Pemberley proper, here in Lakeland all those years ago. It was an awesome time to be in indie rock in central Florida. We were mostly a regional band, touring heavily in Florida and the southeast. I was really cautious about spending more money than we had in the band fund for touring and while signing with a label was tempting and we had several offers, I had too many friends in compromised financial positions during that time period to want to jump at it. This was a handful of years after Napster had first made its appearance and the industry was changing like crazy back then. Super unstable. So we did things ourselves and we did really well, playing with bands like Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, Matt Pond PA, Annuals, The Postmarks, Copeland, The Dark Romantics, and many more I can’t remember right now.
After a good long run of a number of years, life shifted again and people started having kids and moving away, and I hung up my touring life and we began our family. I started volunteering at first at church as part of the worship and arts team and very shortly found myself there every week, playing every instrument I knew how to play, and eventually was on staff for several years before resigning to focus on writing original music again. I feel like in the indie rock years I was paying my dues, schlepping my gear everywhere, leading a band, learning how to be a frontwoman in a way that was different than being a concert violinist–being ok with mistakes and organic moments that I couldn’t control. Then the worship gig taught me how to open up–to lead people into vulnerability, and just the sheer workload of learning new songs every week and playing them on short notice with limited resources on instruments that I wasn’t as familiar with–I’d never used a capo before playing in church. I was a purist. But then there wasn’t any time anymore for me to be a snob and I had to just get in there and get it done!
It makes you light on your toes and also you’ve gotta have a thick skin as a worship leader because people feel entitled to share their opinions VERY freely, whatever that may be, in real-time, right after or even during your service. Church musicians have my respect because they work hard and put up with more criticism than anyone realizes. In the outside world–you can take or leave what a person says about your work–it’s art–it’s subjective–but in church, you’re expected to humbly receive it and then adjust. It’s tough gig, y’all. Imagine getting a few hundred sober people to soften up and open their hearts first thing in the morning, every single week, year in and year out! That’s a JOB, wow. It’s also a privilege and I loved it. I learned so much about the tension of strength, truth and vulnerability in that job. It broke me in a lot of ways. But that period of my life is its own whole conversation.
In 2018/2019 as I fearfully and with much trembling and trepidation leaned into writing again, it became apparent that I was at a fork in the road. It had to be one or the other and in January 2019 I resigned from my position and threw everything I had into writing. It was a really hard, really intense time in my marriage and in my life. I was in a public position in my city and so while I was trying to uncover my own voice which I’d hidden and silenced for years (this was hard enough–teaching myself to open up and write again) I was also inundated with the voices and opinions of others.
I wrote Van Plating while I was confused and hurting and trying to find my way back to my design. I wrote it with no plan for the future, no idea how I would release it or if anyone would ever hear it or care. Amazingly, I ended up in LA that following May/June, recording with Courtney Ballard who did not have to take me on as a project and certainly had no reason beyond liking the songs and a mutual friend in my co-writer. He made it financially possible for me to do something I never could have done on that scale without help. Bradley Walden was my co-write on that album and he was supportive of me taking the lead and making the vision my own. My name was going on it. It was my project. Wild!
It was eclectic on purpose. Every song its own little world. I had no one to please but myself, so I tried things. It wasn’t until after that record came out that Americana found me and I came full circle back to the roots community I’d grown up in, but on a larger scale. “Standing Still” was premiered by Wide Open Country. I was getting comparisons to Jenny Lewis, Kasey Musgraves, Neko Case. It’s funny back then I didn’t hear the rootsiness in my own voice. I was still exploring and I really didn’t pinpoint the slight twang or rustic slant in my voice until others started to point it out. Then I said, “well yeah that makes sense” and decided to lean into it. The more I listened back to that record the more I could hear it, there’s sweetness and grit in my voice and I do have an accent, but I never noticed it until way after the record was done. I was so close to it and trying too hard to make something honest and beautiful that I really wasn’t worried about genre or anything like that. I figured it would find its place, and it did!
I was invited to play an Americana festival in Orlando that fall called “Folk Yeah” and that was my introduction to the Americana family in person, before the world fell apart a couple months after. I love the inclusiveness and the sort of anything goes vibe in Americana. We’re all misfits, we’re creative, we’re weird. We don’t fit the mainstream country mold. Most of us are pretty liberal and open-minded. We’re all storytellers. Through the pandemic, I started making more friends via Twitter and Instagram and I finally got to meet and hang out with most of them at AmericanaFest 2021, where I was so lucky to have performed in September. The community surrounding Americana is really special and I’m a lucky gal to be part of it.
Bonus: Despite the different methodologies or approaches to music and performance, in what ways has music remained constant throughout the years for you?
It’s always kept me honest. Music has always felt real to me. I don’t have to be anyone I’m not to feel something when I’m playing or listening to music, no matter whether I’m playing Bach, Aerosmith, Patsy Cline or my own songs. I think that’s why I keep playing. There is nothing like it. I feel most myself when I am playing music.
4) We have the honor of premiering the official music video today for your song, “How Lonely,” filmed and edited by Bryan Elijah Smith. Could you share on the inspiration behind this song and now the new video?
Sometimes when I’m going through a hard time I like to reflect on the good times. This song kind of came out of that process for me. We were living through a pandemic and Jack and I who both travel for work had both been home nonstop and life was just very much like Groundhog Day. It still is. We were grumpy and fighting with each other, not in a sexy way, in a tired way. And so one afternoon in my studio while the four kids were all running around being kids and he was working I was just thinking back to the intoxicating moments of falling in love. The surge of fire in our intimacy together and how much that dance means to both of us. We chase it. We have since we were 17. And I wrote a song. Thinking of how grateful I am for the dance and how I can’t imagine what it would be like “if I never fell in love” with him.
I’m here to say this is a very good approach to getting your spouse in bed. It worked. And it’s cool because in a healthy relationship under times of strain, thinking back to the goodnesses really does help shift your perspective, even if you have to go right back to life as usual like we still do right now–even if life as usual isn’t the life it once was before Covid. You still have everything that you are. You still have everything that you’ve been. For better or worse.
5) This year was arguably your biggest yet as a solo artist. What’s next?
I will not argue with that statement! I have been blessed to make so many friends this past year of working on The Way Down and I’ve performed, shared and discussed my work more than I ever have in my whole career– all in a year when the world was shut down!! Wild. There are so many more well established artists sharing work right now and I’m incredibly grateful for the voices in music who want to see, hear, discover something they haven’t heard before and then celebrate it. Your support means more than you know. For an indie gal like me, that support is everything and it’s made a huge difference in the trajectory of my career.
As far as what’s next–I’m planning tour dates for 2022!! January Florida dates are up. I’ll be at Folk Alliance playing the Stetson Kennedy stage late February in Kansas City. I may be playing Gasparilla Music Fest (that’s still in the air). Planning to attend and play a non-official show or two at SXSW in March (maybe an official one, they’re still sending out showcase slots–TBD). I’m producing my first album for someone else, an artist named Liv from upstate New York who reminds me of a mix of Fiona Apple and Shania Twain. She’s incredible. And I’m going to finish the other record I started during quarantine that I keep hinting at in interviews. It’s a very cool, all live take performances from my studio at home, unedited, super organic/raw project that is different from anything else I’ve done yet. I might start dropping songs from that one in a couple months. Undecided. Hopefully hitting the fall festival circuit hard again in 2022 and I’m just really excited and hopeful for the future. Thank You Ditty for having me!!