48 Volts: Interview with Billie Howard

Pianist/violinist/vocalist/composer/photographer/painter/blogger Billie Howard seems to be doing a bit of everything these days in Chicago. Her blog By Measure recently caught our attention with its in-depth interviews and behind-the-scenes glimpses into the the work spaces of local musicians. Quirky questions and personalized “mix tapes” keep her interviews intimate; each is a unique and entertaining read. She graciously took the time to share with the Soapbox crew some of her own ideas about music, space and creativity.

Soapbox: Your blog By Measure takes a behind-the-scenes look at the places where musicians work. What compelled you to start it?

Billie Howard: My dad always has photos of artists in their studios (Picasso, Richter, etc) up in his own work space, and I’m intrigued to see into their private world a little bit. I was thinking about how there are not many photos of musician’s work spaces, so I decided to start documenting them on my own.

Soapbox: In the process of photographing and interviewing your subjects, has anything in particular surprised you?

BH: Nothing has been that surprising so far. I feel badly sometimes when I can tell the person has been frantically tidying up before I arrive. I have a quote up in my office that reads: “a perfectly kept office is the sign of a misspent life.” The point of the project is to see how musicians really work and I find the daily clutter all the more interesting.

Soapbox: Do you have any thoughts on space and the creative process? In what ways do you think a space can encourage/discourage creativity?

BH: The space I’m in when I’m practicing or writing music or rehearsing really affects me. If I’m in a tiny piano practice room with no windows, my attention can be very short. If I’m having band practice in a small, dingy, dark room, I can get really crabby with my bandmates. For me, open space, just the right lighting and general quiet are really helpful for focusing on both classical music or writing rock songs.

Soapbox: Have the folks you request to interview always been happy to share?

BH: Yes, everyone has been really enthusiastic about the project. I’ve only had one person not respond to my request.

Soapbox: You are a professional musician yourself. Have the behind-the-scenes peeks influenced your own musical workspace?

BH: It’s interesting to see how the spaces have many similarities, yet the musicians have different working styles. I’m trying to make my own space more efficient, less cluttered and more cozy. I like to put up small installations using lights and sparkly colors.

Soapbox: Can you tell us about some of your musical projects?

BH: I play in two bands: an aggressive, post-rock band called the Paver and a 1960’s-influenced indie-pop band called Very Truly Yours. I play keyboards, electric violin and sing in both bands. I also play a lot of new music around Chicago and recently formed a piano trio (we’re working on the Ravel piano trio right now). I’m working on starting a doom metal band, an electronic band and a no-wave band. I need more time!