While Nirvana may have put Seattle on the music map 20 years ago, it’s the artists since then who maintain Seattle’s status as a thriving and respected music city.  In recent years,  a lot of great music has come out of Seattle—acts like Macklemore, The Head and The Heart and Fleet Foxes, as well as singer/songwriters like Damien Jurado and David Bazan.  But what about the women?  We caught up with three women singer/songwriters at three different times in three coffee shops (well, two coffee shops and one backyard, sipping coffee in the sun) to talk about their songwriting processes and their musical journeys so far.

Naomi Wachira - anywhere you go

Hearing Naomi Wachira sing and sitting across from her talking about music are two different and equally powerful experiences.  On stage, her strong melodic voice carries equally strong messages about love, politics and the human experience, touching the heart of anyone with a pulse. Sitting across from her, I’m shocked by how petite she is, but her smile and laugh and heart make her seem as big as her voice and her message. A preacher’s child from Kenya, Naomi is making a big name for herself here in Seattle and around the world.

What was it like growing up in Kenya?
It was great. I had a great childhood. I grew up in a very small village about an hour outside of Nairobi. I had a good upbringing. My dad was a pastor; my mom was a business woman. It was a good, normal childhood. As normal as it could be. (laughs)

You started singing in your parents’ choir as a child?
Yes, my parents had this crazy thing. It was 11 or 12 families who were friends. They started getting together and started singing and there were a few pastors in the group. One of the memories that I have of it was of us traveling across Kenya going to different churches and we would sing and someone would preach.

How did you find your way to folk?
That’s a long journey. I had such a strong pull toward music. When I was in eighth grade I tried to convince my parents to let me to pursue a career but my father was like, “Uh, no… That’s not happening because music is not a real career.” So I had to tuck that away and did that for a very long time. It wasn’t until my early thirties (that) I really started to separate myself from my parents and what they wanted me to do and started claiming my own life.

You moved to Seattle from Chicago? 
Yes, I was in Chicago. I came for graduate school to study theology. And then I discovered this whole music scene and I started doing open mics here and there. Just testing my material out and slowly I think I started taking my writing seriously. I thought, “OK, I really want to write good music. I really want to write songs that are about my life and what I see around me.” In 2012 I did a three-song EP and it was so well-received that I was like, “All right. I guess we’re gonna try and do this!” And I started playing a lot in the local scene. I believe that this is what I was created to do.

Your songs seem both political and personal. Do you consider yourself an activist?
Yeah, I would consider myself an activist, but sometimes I shy away from that word because it can mean you’re out with a placard damning everyone. But that’s not me. At the same time I want to be the singer who advocates for people. Whether it’s people who have no voices. I want to stand on a platform for their voices to be heard.

Do you think music can be more powerful than activism?
Oh, I think so. Absolutely. Because I think it was Angelique Kidjo who said, “Even your enemies listen to the same type of music.” To me that is the most powerful, most potent way of looking at music. There’s something about it (music) that tends to calm people and create this space for a dialogue or a sense of humanity. I think music is a very powerful tool.

Do you have any process to your songwriting?
No, it’s different all the time. But it always starts with something. An event. A look on a face. When I was in Germany when the migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea with something like 700 people on board. There was a picture of all these Africans and to me there was so much history in those faces. And from there I wrote the title song to my next album, called “Song of Lament.”  I felt “I have to write a song about this.” So I picked up my guitar and started messing around and the melody came and then the words came. I wrote that song very quickly. I think I wrote it in two hours.  When I let inspiration lead, I can write a song in two hours. If I sat down and said, “Ok, let’s write a song about poverty,” that’s not gonna happen. So I’ve learned to just rely on the inspiration itself.  I become the conduit.

Do you think music can change the world?
I think it can. I absolutely think it can. I think it’s the most non-judgmental way to talk about what’s happening in the world. It’s that thing about being able to hold someone’s soul in a moment and convince them of something that they may not believe or think. And the possibility lies that you could change their mind. Or you could change their heart. Which is why I stay away from metaphor. I just keep it as simple as possible. I’ve always had that idea that I wanted to write music that someone in Nepal, who spoke a little English, could listen to my music an be like, “Yeah, I know exactly what she’s talking about.” It’s about the human experience that is so universal. And that’s what I’m targeting. Knowing what it’s like to be heartbroken. Knowing what it’s like to be loved or wanting to have a better life.

SHELBY EARL - grown up things

Sitting with Shelby Earl in a yard of the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, sipping iced coffees, felt like a chitchat visit with a girlfriend. Her easygoing manner and joking and laughter sometimes make you forget that she sings serious songs about serious, heartfelt topics with a warm, beautifully soulful voice that wraps around you like a velvet blanket. Maybe this is why she has so many fans — she’s the girl who you can relate to and who you kinda-sorta wish you could be for a day. I mean, don’t we all wish we could quit our corporate jobs and become a rock star? She did. And that’s badass.

Where did you grow up? 
I lived the first 10 years of my life in Olympia and then my parents split up. My mom remarried to someone in L.A. So I was in L.A. for junior high and high school, which was very different from here. And then I moved back here to go to UW and have been back here ever since. When I got back here I thought, “Well, I’ll just go to college in Seattle and move back to L.A. and do music.” But Seattle kept me.  I always wanted to be a singer, and I was in a performing group in L.A. but that was doing pop music, cover music. It wasn’t until I moved back here that I met people who were doing original music. So that’s what kind of turned the tide a little bit. I kind of went, “Whoa! I didn’t even know you could do that.” (laughs) It was this new realm altogether. So that’s how Seattle kept me. Because I didn’t find that in L.A.

Seattle kept you. Is Seattle an inspiration for your songwriting? 
For sure, I think we have an interesting perspective here where there’s this element that it’s not Nashville so you don’t have to be a session-level musician to be able to play shows and do your thing. There’s more of an emphasis here on personal expression and your voice is unique because it’s you and that’s worth something. I think Seattle really cultivates that compared to places like L.A. and Nashville. You know, I picked up the guitar really late and I’m not a super instrumentalist. I’ve been singing forever. But you can kind of do that here and people can find value in it and that’s special. And that’s been part of what’s kept me.

Where else do you find songwriting inspiration?
Oh man. Everywhere. It’s the classic answer: “I write in the car or in the shower.” But I write in the car a lot.  Voice memos. (picks up her iPhone). iPhone, as much as I curse it half the time, I’m so grateful for it. But, inspiration, a lot of it comes from just listening to things other people say. Conversations. Often I’ll just pick out a line that someone threw out there and steal it and make it a song. I’m just often thinking, “Oooh, there’s a song in that.”

You start with lyrics?
I usually start with lyrics. That started to change a little bit the more I’ve gotten comfortable on guitar and the more I just sit and play because I used to only sit down and play when I was trying to learn a specific song for something. Or when I already had the lyrics and a vocal melody and I had to figure out how to accompany it. But now, I play guitar for fun, so songs will come from a groove. I’ll play something and think, “Oh that’s cool. Maybe I’ll try singing to it and see if anything comes.”  If you just start singing and vocalizing, that little out here (points around the sky) inspiration gets to flow. The same thing can happen with a pen and a journal but…. I think singing it uses a different part of your brain than writing.

You said you always wanted to be a singer. Was that from childhood?
Oh yeah. I think I was three when I first said, “I want to be a star,” and my mom thought I meant an actual star in the sky. I was an early MTV kid. My brother and I watched the first MTV video and I was just completely obsessed. In my room all the time singing. But I was not a child talent of any sort, I mean at all.  I started voice lessons when I was 11, and of course because it was L.A. I had to audition for lessons, and here I am, I’m terrified. The woman took me on because she said she saw something in me.

What’s next for you?
I feel I want to hear a different treatment of my songs currently. I maybe want to hear fewer harmonies and I want to hear more space, but that’s purely about my taste at the moment. I am starting to make a new record and I'm extremely excited about it. It's going to be different. It will be more rhythm-focused and the overall feel will be new. The writing style itself has changed a bit, but so has the band lineup. This will be kind of a one-off project with a new group of players who are all about vibe and backbeat. 

Lotte Kestner - wordless

Formerly the singer and guitarist of the band Trespassers William, Anna-Lynne Williams is now the angelic voice behind Lotte Kestner and the dream pop band Ormonde. Anna-Lynne’s personality is reflected in her singing and songwriting — she’s thoughtful, sweet, mature, and even though she’s had to adapt her craft due to a severe case of tendonitis, she hasn’t lost her sense of humor and ability to poke fun at herself.  With a career that has spanned major-label status with managers and producers (with Trespassers William) to self-recording and self-producing records in her apartment, the one thing that has remained consistent in Williams’s life is her desire and need to make music.

You grew up in California?
Yes, my parents are both from England and so I grew up with a lot of British music in the house. And I started out singing with a little British accent and I’ve gotten rid of that so now I sound like a Valley Girl. I moved to Seattle 10 years ago.  Trespassers William all moved up together, except the drummer. We wanted to stay on the West Coast. It’s all we knew. When you grow up near the ocean, you tend to not go too far inland, I think. 

Let’s talk about your songwriting. Do you always start with guitar?
Yeah, it was all guitar. But now I have tendonitis that goes all down the side of my arm, and two fingers kind of don’t work anymore, so I can only play a little. It flares up sometimes to the point where I can’t leave the house. The last song I remember writing, I wrote singing into the phone, coming up with different parts and then figuring out what chords I was thinking in my head and quickly playing it when I was having a good day or something. It came out pretty good, but it’s weird. Because you don’t really know if it’s any good if you’re just singing in the car. (laughs)

Talk more about how the tendonitis has changed your music?
One of the benefits of having this trouble is having to work with other people. I had gotten on this independent kick and was doing solo stuff. I was going to do everything alone — mix the record alone, record it all alone, play it all alone, and then this happened so I had to start having friends come, and sometimes two or three different people would play with me.  Having to learn to lean on someone else isn’t bad, but you want to feel like you can go back to being independent. The only place where I can do that is when I’m recording. I can do 10 tracks of me, playing as simple as I want.

What inspires your songwriting? Do you wait for inspiration?
For the first decade or so of my songwriting, when I was fitting it in between work and band rehearsal, I think I’d just write whenever I got the chance, almost as practice. There always seemed to be something to sing about. But as time goes on, and I take my albums more and more seriously, and my life more seriously, I pass on most of the ideas that come to me, let something go if it doesn’t really move me. Also, with my tendonitis hurting me so much of the time, it simply isn’t possible or worth it to just sit around strumming a guitar anymore. I have to really be taken with something, be willing to hurt a bit, feel that it’s already going somewhere before I even pick up an instrument. That doesn’t happen that often, but when it does it’s usually something good. 

What do you do when you’re not making music?
I spend a lot of time with people either collaborating musically or having three-hour conversations with someone, which hopefully will turn into songs later. My friend Sam Watts says there’s a cycle where you live for a certain amount of time and then you write. You process. You go on a journey and then come home and write about the journey.

BY  HEIDI HARTZ WATSON