Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Playing It Forward with The Accidentals
[00:00:04] PF: What’s up, everybody? This is Paula Felps, and you are listening to On a Positive Note, where I sit down with a songwriter, recording artist, or music insider to learn how music can lift our spirits and heal our hearts.
Sav Buist and Katie Larson were shy high school students when a music education presentation changed the way they saw their future. A decade later, they front a trio called The Accidentals, and have earned glowing album reviews, while packing venues with their live shows. But because they’ve never forgotten how that high school presentation changed their lives, they also host and lead workshops around the country to inspire young musicians to find their voice and use music to improve their mental health.
They’re here today to talk about all those things and how they are changing young lives one song at a time. Let’s take a listen.
[00:00:53] PF: Sav and Katie, thank you so much for coming On a Positive Note.
[00:00:57] SB: Thanks for having us. We’re excited.
[00:00:59] PF: You have such a fascinating backstory of the way that you got into music as your lifelong career. Can you talk about how you met and how that grew into your career?
[00:01:12] KL: Yes. Sav and I met, what, 11 years ago now.
[00:01:16] SB: Oh, goodness.
[00:01:17] KL: It’s been a lifetime, and we were both really shy high school students interested in music. The thing that brought us together was our high school orchestra program in Traverse City, Michigan. Our public school had a great strings program, but most importantly a conductor who was really interested in alternative styles and opportunities for young musicians.
So Sav and I were in a quartet together at one point, but we also were in the alternative styles for strings club, which was this really dorky group where we’d get together after school and play sheet music arrangements of Coldplay and Led Zeppelin on our cello and violin. So we do our little pop and rock music and and folk tunes and jazz tunes, and make our own arrangements sometimes too.
There is a duo called The Moxie Strings, who came in to teach a workshop on improv. That also kind of opened our eyes to musical opportunities, and there’s not just one way to carve your path in the music industry. Like you can be in a band. You can write music. You can produce and record and tour and teach. So that really inspired us.
From the beginning, Sav and I just started playing tunes together around our hometown in Traverse City, Michigan, and writing music, and recording, and touring. 10 years, 11 years later, we’re in Nashville, Tennessee and still playing music full time. We see each other like every day. Yeah, so still making music.
[00:02:56] PF: That’s terrific. So prior to having that experience with Moxie Strings, did you see yourself having a career in music? Or did you know how much that you could do with it?
[00:03:05] SB: We did not I don’t think. I mean, we definitely knew music was always going to be a part of our lives, but I don’t think those dreams would have come to you as much fruition have we not had role models not just in The Moxie Strings, but in the Michigan music community as well. Both sets of our parents are musicians. So that kind of told us it was possible for sure, and they were super supportive once we decided that’s what we wanted to do.
I definitely had like all kinds of passions, and Kate does too. What’s nice about the career that we have is that we’ve been able to get to a point where we can pursue all those passions and have music as a full-time job, which is pretty amazing. We’re really, really lucky to be able to do that.
[00:03:48] PF: One of the things that’s so impressive is how big you are on music education and giving back to youth. Do you think that was inspired by the experience you had as high school students?
[00:03:58] SB: Oh, definitely. Yeah. Because we wouldn’t be a band had it not been for our high school orchestra program, like a public music program. That’s the thing is that Kate and I were also introduced to sort of unorthodox instruments from the time we were 11 because there was like a local public music program that helped kids come up from like age 11 to the end of high school, just playing instruments, saxophone or violin or cello or any of those instruments.
Not every public school has one of those programs. Or sometimes, they’ll have an orchestra but not a band or a band but not an orchestra. I even heard one instance where the school no longer had a budget for musical instruments, and so they threw them away. So there are some really – I mean, we can acknowledge that we’re really lucky to have grown up in that program because we literally wouldn’t be a band without it, and we wouldn’t have been shown these instruments and gotten the chance to do something really new on them.
But also, it’s important to us that every kid has the opportunity to try something new and to find a way to like vocalize or, I guess, verbalize their emotions through music.
[00:05:08] PF: That’s a great point I wanted to bring up because when someone who’s not musically inclined or doesn’t put a value on it the way that we do, they hear music education, and they think, well, they’re taking band classes, and they don’t really think about all the things that you learn through music education. Can you talk about what students are getting emotionally when they start going through a music education program?
[00:05:31] SB: Totally. We like to joke that music is cheaper than therapy. That’s like how we opened –
[00:05:37] PF: [inaudible 00:05:37]?
[00:05:38] SB: Yeah. We’re [inaudible 00:05:38] because it’s true, though. Like we use music and writing lyrics or sometimes even just writing instrumental pieces as outlet because we’re both really introverted. Especially back in high school and middle school, we were really, really shy and didn’t make friends easily and playing music in an orchestra for kids who don’t want to play a sport. It’s really nice to have that community, and you can start forming friendships, without even talking that much. Because music is sort of its own language, and it sometimes can do all the talking for you. So, yeah, that’s really important for us. Go ahead, Kate.
[00:06:12] KL: Yeah. I was so bad at sports. I tried every single one. I think what it came down to, for me, I’m definitely a perfectionist. I’m competitive with myself, but I don’t do well in other competitive settings. Whenever we play sports in gym class, I would just feel like, “Let me get out of here.” I think it took like extra math classes to get out of gym once.
[00:06:37] PF: That’s hardcore.
[00:06:39] KL: What I liked about music was I was having a hard time like solidifying an identity in school. When I picked up the cello, like it just felt like something that I instantly bonded with, and it was a portal to songwriting. Like I can strum chords on the cello. I could write music on the cello. I could play my favorite songs. I could – It was almost like meditating, practicing sometimes. So that was really good for me personally.
But like Sav said too, when you’re playing in an ensemble, like you’re learning all sorts of teamwork skills. You’re learning listening skills. A lot of improv is really 90% listening and then, I don’t know, 10% being fearless and jumping right in, which I took jazz band for two years at our public school, and that taught me like just keep going. Even if the tune is flying by, if you get lost, like just keep going. Just so many skills.
We both were in the pit for our musical theater production. Later, we went to an art school called Interlochen, and we took like choir classes and poetry classes, and learned how to incorporate things like history and current events and art into our songwriting and music. So there’s a lot of education where music is like a really good portal.
[00:08:03] PF: Then how did you start becoming involved in music education? Because it’s a lot of work just to be a recording artist to be writing songs, to be touring, doing all that. Then you’ve added this whole other dimension to it. How did that start?
[00:08:17] SB: Well, it’s actually kind of been around for a while for us, simply because like when we’re touring, oftentimes, we’ll be in a town for like maybe six or seven hours, mostly at the venue. But there’s like a little bit of time before that, where we can probably go into like a elementary school or a high school and do a workshop.
Oftentimes, we’ll just ask teachers like, “Hey, what’s your curriculum currently like right now? Like what are you guys struggling with?” They’ll be like, “Oh, we need kids to like find an emotional outlet, or we need them to like learn how to take chances and be fearless.” We’ll go in and kind of structure workshop around that.
But that’s something that’s always been really consistent with who we are, and we’ve kind of had that almost since the beginning of the band.
[00:08:59] KL: Yeah. I think almost there’s certain benefits of going into schools, while you’re still 17, 18, 19 years old. I think when we were first doing that, a lot of the first opportunities were us just coming in and playing songs and doing a Q&A or just talking to other students about what we did because we were basically their age or a few years older.
[00:09:23] PF: Right. And they’re going to listen to you.
[00:09:26] KL: Yeah. I noticed. So we’ve definitely like shifted our approach. Now, I’m 26, and Sav is 27, and we’ve evolved and adjusted but definitely feel a distance growing every year from us when we go into the schools. So the very early stuff, I mean, it was us just talking and performing. It was a lot less formal. It doesn’t always need to be really structured, I think.
[00:09:53] PF: That’s great. Then is that the Play It Forward, Again and Again initiative?
[00:09:57] KL: So Play it Forward, it kind of combines two different things that we were passionate about, and we finally got nonprofit status in 2020. That was one of the benefits of –
[00:10:06] PF: Congratulations.
[00:10:07] KL: Being off the road is that we were able to get the paperwork done for that. But really what we’ve been working on prior to that was one part is getting instruments in the hands of young students and also mentorship. Because we’ve seen so many students who’ve had to give up playing like viola or another instrument because it’s too expensive. So before the nonprofit, we would do fundraising campaigns. Like one time, we did a kick starter for a young girl. I mean, it was instantly funded by –
[00:10:39] PF: Oh, my gosh. That’s amazing.
[00:10:41] KL: And she got an instrument right away. So part of Play It Forward, Again and Again is based on that. Another part is to get more musicians and more bands into schools to do performances and workshops, sort of like what The Moxie Strings did for us and what we’ve been trying to do for students who were on the road on tour.
[00:11:03] PF: How hard has it been to get other musicians involved?
[00:11:07] KL: There’s definitely a different approach. You kind of have to get your feet wet in it because I think a lot of time, touring musicians, we get into like our flow. We do like a show every night for a similar audience. Then when you get in front of a school, like a group of students at any age range, it’s like a totally different experience.
Like a group of five year olds, they’re going to be honest with you. If you’re not entertaining, you’ll know. But in a way, that’s like the most pure form, I think, because they’re not there to judge your technique or to think about your – Overthink the lyrics or anything. They’re there to have a very pure musical inspirational experience. So anyone that we’ve talked to who has gone into a school, like they’ve gotten out of it with like just such an appreciation for music.
[00:11:59] PF: What do you consider a success when you’re walking out of a classroom situation?
[00:12:04] SB: Honestly, I think it’s just successful if somebody takes away even a little piece from it, which oftentimes one of the songwriting workshops that we do is we like pass out a bunch of books, and then we’ll ask students to pick a sentence out of every book. Then we’ll go over to the wall to like a whiteboard, and they’ll read off the sentences. We’ll write them down, and then we’ll show how you can change a couple of words and start to put together an actual verse, even from widely different material. I think we used like an RV Cookbook once.
[00:12:33] PF: Oh, my gosh.
[00:12:35] SB: We’ve used like all kinds of crazy books, and we always get something out of it. Then we’ll ask students to finish the songs. Oftentimes, we’ll get like these songs through our email that are like completely finished, like either lyrics. Or they’ll like pick up some chords and start putting it to that.
That, to me, is like peak success from a songwriting workshop or from a workshop in general is just seeing them be excited about it and take it home and like apply their own creativity towards finishing it. Because just knowing that somebody believes you can do it, I think, is a huge aspect of actually finishing something. Not everybody believes that they have the ability to do something.
There are lots of times where we go to a town, especially like a smaller town, and we’ll teach a workshop, and the kids will be like, “Yeah, that was great. But I don’t think I could ever do that.” So we’ve really had to restructure to make it like, “No, this is something everyone can do,” and made it really inclusive because that’s what art is supposed to be, and that’s what art is to us.
[00:13:32] PF: In doing that, you’re completely changing the way they’re thinking about it, right?
[00:13:36] SB: I hope so.
[00:13:36] PF: Now, they’re going to – Their mind is going to start seeking that out like, “What could I do with that? What can I do with that phrase?” You’re like really opening up the way that they think about how they discover their creativity.
[00:13:47] SB: Yeah. Like there’s a song we have. A friend of mine, a childhood friend, passed away really suddenly, and I didn’t have any closure. So I was trying to figure out how to write it down because that’s sometimes the first step towards acknowledging and healing. I was having a hard time describing what grief actually felt like, and so I started looking around at household objects. The line ended up being “Grief’s a sheet of tin foil that I crush inside of me.”
So I tell kids about that line because it’s like you might think it’s stupid on paper when you first look at it, but somebody is knowing exactly what you’re talking about in that moment. Most importantly, you know exactly what you’re talking about. That’s helping sort of unravel some of these things that are super hard to find the words for. Sometimes, it’s easier to sing it.
I’m really interested in neurobiology too, not to go on a big rant. But like there’s some really interesting stuff about music that pulls people who are having sort of debilitating memory issues. It’s almost like an entirely different aspect of memory that music is attached to, and I think it also is attached to an entirely different aspect of emotions, where sometimes it’s easier to express how you feel through music rather than having like a full hard conversation.
[00:14:57] PF: Absolutely. Right now, with kids having gone through such a difficult last three years, and they’re not able to process – Adults aren’t able to process what all has happened and how it’s affected us. So do you see that coming out through music? Do you see them being able to manage their emotions better and deal with what they’ve been through?
[00:15:17] SB: I hope so. I think it’s important that we try. It’s important that we keep workshops like this going and initiatives like this happening and not to bring it back to public music programs. But I really think that’s a huge aspect too is accessibility and belief and having the right tools is important.
[00:15:35] KL: Yeah. We just did a collaboration with a youth studio orchestra in Cleveland called the Kaboom Collective.
[00:15:42] PF: That was my next question, so good. I’m so glad you brought this up.
[00:15:46] KL: I think that was a really good example because we had to stop touring in 2020, like everyone else did, and we were doing upwards of 200 or 250 shows. That tour with the Kaboom Collective was really one of the first big tours we did back and, exactly what you’re saying, was the experience of a lot of students, who they were between the age of 15 and 25, and a lot of them had missed out on their high school graduation, prom, like –
[00:16:17] PF: Turning 21.
[00:16:18] KL: Yeah. Senior trips, college, like freshman year. These are all things that they kind of had to experience in isolation. I know for sure like a few of them were having maybe a difficult relationship with music at the time and nothing quite like being on a stage. We had one show on tour that was in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Frederick Meijer Gardens Amphitheater and performing in front of 4,000 people live and feeling that energy.
I thought that was really cool to talk to the students after that show and see a lot of them say like, “Wow, I didn’t know this was part of music. I didn’t know this connection was part of music.” That was a really good feeling.
[00:17:06] PF: Tell us a little bit more about that collaboration because you had the album with them. What was that like, both for you and for the students, to have this entire experience together? Honestly, you could have done it yourselves. For you to bring along a student orchestra was just incredible, and what a ride that you gave them.
[00:17:26] SB: Well, what’s funny is I think we really couldn’t have done it because they did all the arrangements. The students did. Again, they’re like 15 to 25-year-olds, who took the initiative to like completely figure out our songs and then the emotion behind the songs and what it should be and how they could amplify that beat arrangements, which is a super amazing skill set to have at 15 years old.
To have your name on a record at 15, to have like your name in an old music guide, it’s just ridiculous to like be able to actually do that. I mean it in the best way. It’s completely amazing. So I wish like I had done this when I was their age.
[00:18:05] PF: I know. It’s like you wish you had been there for you when you were that age, right?
[00:18:08] SB: Yeah. But like, tangentially, we’re so honored to just be able to work with them because it really was like kind of a treat for us, as much as it was for them. Touring together, yeah, the logistics of taking like 40 students on the road with like all their instruments, including like upright basses and tubas and everything we had, that was quite a process. It took like a whole amazing team of people to put it together, including our manager, Aryn Madigan.
But, yeah, it was just a wild time. So we’re really excited that it happened and panned out. We learned a lot, just by being around them. They’re all like so nerdy. They knew like every classical piece that you could name. Then also, we’re like listening to these cool punk indie bands, and it gave us a lot of not to say like hope for the next generation because there’s always something good in every generation to find. But it’s really amazing to hang with the future of music and to kind of see where that’s headed. Both of us were just really excited about it.
[00:19:12] PF: That’s terrific because your music is – It’s not just about the music. You are about spreading joy, and you are really working to make this world a better place. Why is that so important?
[00:19:24] KL: It helped us. I think that’s a big piece of why we keep doing it. I mean –
[00:19:31] SB: Yeah. It’s a selfish aspect of our –
[00:19:36] KL: I mean, music is not always – It’s like a long-term relationship. I mean, it’s a way to express creativity. It’s something that, I don’t know, we live and breathe, and it sounds kind of cliché. But we see it impact people day-to-day. We also have that experience with people who are not musicians.
We have like a page on patreon.com, where people support us, and we do just random things. Like we do a tour blog every week, but we also interact with our patrons on Zoom, doing like book club, and we review favorite albums that everyone submits. Having that relationship, we see and we hear stories from our patrons about like how music totally changed their lives, even if they’re not a musician, and just like listening to music or seeing a show how maybe changed the relationship with their parents or their children or relationship with themselves.
So I think that those little things inspire us because some days, you go online, and you’re like, “Why am I making music? TikTok is – I just spent like three hours on TikTok and like five people viewed this thing.” You know what I mean? But then when you hear a story like that where you see the impact, then it’s like, “Hey, we should keep doing this.”
[00:21:04] PF: Yeah, because you’re making such a difference. Now, you’re in Nashville, which is where I’m located too, and it’s such a great songwriting community, such a nurturing community. Has that changed your relationship with the music? Has it changed your songwriting? What has it done to be here?
[00:21:21] SB: Yeah. So what’s funny is that we have kind of shifted to another side project. So we have The Accidentals generic rock band, and then we have Kaboom Collective and like collaborations and workshops and use music initiatives like that. Then on top of that, we have a co-writing project, where it’s a series of EPs that we write and record. We write them with people who inspired us to become writers. So these people include Tom Paxton, Gary Byrd, Georgia Middleman, Maia Sharp, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Gretchen Peters, Mary Gautheir, Jaimee Harris. Like the list kind of goes on and on.
But we basically write songs of these people, and then we compile those songs into EPs that we self-record and engineer right here in my very messy studio, Crooked Moon Studios. Yeah, so that’s been going on for the past couple of years. It kind of started right before the pandemic hit, and one of our first co-writes that really kicked off the idea of putting them into a record was with Kim Richey, and it was over Zoom. We just love the song so much, and we love the idea of writing over Zoom so much during a time of isolation, we’d say, to keep it going. So a lot of the songs were written in isolation.
Now that we live in Nashville, luckily, we can actually be in the same room with the people who inspired us to become songwriters in the first place, as we write the songs together. So it’s just a really amazing experience. I like to joke that co-writing in Nashville is like the equivalent of getting a cup of coffee everywhere else. Or it’s like the first thing that comes up half the time is like, “Oh, yeah. I’ve heard about you. We should write a song together.”
It’s happened so much while we – Since we moved here. That’s been a really great aspect, and we’ve also done a ton of session work this year. Kate and I, we played violin, cello, viola, and upright bass. We essentially serve as our own quartet or orchestra if we’re doubling parts. So we’ve done a ton of session work this year. We’ve gone to a lot of studios. We’ve recorded a lot remotely here at Crooked Moon Studios, which is our studio here in Nashville. Yeah, it’s just been a really awesome time living in Nashville and getting to actually hang with the people who inspire us.
[00:23:23] PF: That is terrific. So looking down the road because even though you’ve been doing this for 10 years, you’re young, and you’ve got a lot of highway ahead of you. What is that future going to look like? What is your legacy that you want to leave behind, as you do so much good with the next generation?
[00:23:42] SB: Man, I think we just want to leave something behind that continues to sort of unite people’s emotional platform. Not everybody knows how to find what works for them emotionally. I think like leaving songs behind shows that – It sounds like cliché, but like you’re not going through something alone. People have experienced the same kinds of grief or the same kinds of pain. Just having a song that speaks to you sometimes helps unravel that not.
So I think that’s why we write songs. That’s why we put music. But it just does a lot of the really difficult work of sort of untangling what’s hard to verbalize, and it’s like an initial step to healing. That’s like sort of the intangible part of what we want to leave behind. I think our idea of like physical success is just to be able to do this for a living and to continue to record or continue to write, continue to do workshops, and continue to put out albums of music that speaks to us, whether we’ve written that collaboratively, or we’ve written that therapeutically for ourselves.
[00:24:43] PF: That is terrific. Katie, do you have anything to add to that?
[00:24:46] KL: Like Sav said, that hopefully some of these students that we’re teaching when we’re retired, and Sav is like studying wolves in Alaska or something, and I’m like on a goat farm. Hopefully, like the animal life that there’ll be more music and people stepping in our shoes and continuing to try to make the world a better place.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:25:14] PF: That was Sav Buist and Katie Larson of The Accidentals, telling us how they’re inspiring the next generation of musicians while living their dream. If you’d like to learn more about The Accidentals, check out their music, or follow them on social media, just visit livehappy.com and click on the podcast link.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of On a Positive Note and look forward to joining you again next time. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.