Critically-acclaimed and all-around awesome rising artist Seth Glier talks about Starbucks, dropping out of college, and making a difference on the road
I’ve read that the main reason music is so affecting to the listener is because it makes a beeline to the emotional centers of the brain. Seth Glier’s music is equipped with dual turbine engines to get it there faster and make it hit harder, its resonance lingering like a little flame long after the ride is over. He’s young – only twenty-three – but with a commanding voice that occasionally switches gears to a killer falsetto, and a mastery in writing and composition that allows him to make each song a powerful little story. His career is beginning to match the momentum of his music, with a flurry of critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination under his belt after the release of his most recent album “The Next Right Thing.” Glier, along with longtime friend and collaborator Ryan Hommel, stopped by our office last Saturday to talk about their music and play a couple songs before heading to The Ark for their sound check.
So, looking back at the very beginning, when did you start creating music and what inspired you to do that?
I loved playing baseball and ice hockey, and I would sing the national anthem before my team games. It was actually 9/11 that started my whole writing process, after September 11th that’s when I kinda just wrote poetry, and music was a way to keep things organized – like a filing cabinet in a way, and that’s what piano was.
Where did you grow up and how does that environment influence your music?
I grew up in a small town called Shelburne Falls in western Massachusetts. It’s a lot like Ann Arbor, it’s one of those cultural Meccas where there’s a lot of college areas around it, but also it’s sort of the country. It’s influenced my music a lot more later, once I left and started traveling I come back and I realize how lucky I am to live there cause when I’m traveling I’m looking for towns like Ann Arbor, towns that are really cool like Shelburne Falls. I think it’s influenced my life a lot more after the fact.
What is your song-writing process like?
There really isn’t one process, but I’m always taking notes on my iphone and lately it’s been starting a lot with a line or a title, then kind of a spider web building off that. Sometimes it’ll start just with a couple chord changes. I’m a very inside-out person… Sometimes the mood of chord changes is what’s sort of inspiring the mood of what I’m thinking about or dwelling on.
I read that you left Berkeley to refocus your music career. Can you expand on what led you to that decision and how you dealt with some of the pressures or uncertainties that may have come along with it?
Yeah, I mean, I really enjoyed my time at Berkeley, but I found out halfway through the second semester that I was spending more time in Starbucks people-watching and learning more about my songwriting from that experience than I was across the street in my time in class. So I think in a large part, I didn’t really look back. And the next step was Ryan and I sort of essentially moved into my parents basement and recorded a record. We knew nothing about recording and nothing about making a record. I thought I knew a little about songwriting and we knew our instruments, but we were just kind of trying to redefine how to go about making a career in things, and that process hasn’t changed a bit. We still go in to record a record in a really similar way… Leaving school was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
You spend a ton of time traveling. What would you say are some of the ups and downs of being away from home so much?
The ups are being away from home, the downs are being away from home (laughs). You get both the agony and the ecstasy of traveling. I love just meeting people and it’s really rewarding to take music to a place far away from your own neck of the woods, and when people show up and you realize your songs have lived with them since you’ve been gone that’s one of the ultimate joys. You almost feel like Johnny Appleseed in a way – it’s very primal, it’s very organic, it’s something that you can’t hold at all but you feel like you can really touch it, it does feel tangible.
You’ve gotten to travel with some influential artists – is your music influenced by the people you travel with?
My most recent experience was traveling with Ani DiFranco on the West Coast and that influenced things a lot because it’s changed my value system with just the set. She’s an activist and a feminist and she keeps those things very much at the forefront of her show. And that’s kind of influenced me in different ways as well. So that’s definitely the case. With other artists sometimes it’s not as influential in that way, it’s more about doing your own thing. But I’m always fascinated seeing people who have been doing it for twenty years more than me because my whole motto is that it’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice – and when you find someone who’s been doing it that long and still has the joy in it, it’s rare and really inspiring to see because I hope to be going that direction.
From what I’ve read, there’s a lot more to your touring than just playing music. Can you talk a little about your environmentalist initiatives as well as your involvement with Musicians on Call?
As a touring musician, whether I like it or not, I’m an ambassador, and it’s your sort of pilgrimage to take these songs to people, planting seeds like we were talking about before. And you can sort of plant a message – Ani DiFranco does it every night. For me it started with getting a Prius then saying “ok, how far can we take this,” then it went from printing all of our shirts on recycled fibers using soy and vegetable-based inks, then it went from shrink-wrapping our cds with soy plastic and using recycled paper, and now what we do is we have several companies such as Cliff Bar that purchase CO2 offsets so at the end of a tour we calculate our CO2 emissions and they purchase wind energy credits to offset. So for the past three years we’ve actually been zero carbon footprint touring artists. With the Musicians on Call thing it’s one of the things that we do before our shows, go into hospitals and perform for the patients there.
When your latest album “The Next Right Thing” was nominated for a Grammy, what was your reaction and what did that mean to you?
To be honest, I sort of got thrown into the PR pipeline of things pretty quickly. It didn’t really hit me until four or five days later when I was out for a run – we were in Austin – and I just stopped and totally soaked it in. It’s amazing because it’s a goal I never really set out for. Ryan and I were in Denver watching Family Guy when we found out. It changes everything from the outside, now when you’re introduced onstage it’s “Grammy nominee…” and that stays with you for the rest of your life. And it really hasn’t changed anything else except that people want more money. But we’re still in a Prius. It’s still pretty grassroots.
Can you explain the distinction between “the next right thing” and “the next thing right?”
It kinda goes back to when we were talking about Musicians on Call and green touring. We live in a world where people are just trying to get to the end of the day and I just could never see myself as a community of that world, which is part of the reason why I dropped out of school and part of the reason why I’ve chosen to do this kind of life. But I think that in a large part, people’s day-to-day decisions are just trying to get things done and do the next task that they have in their day correctly, as opposed to being open and vulnerable and trying to do the next right thing, whether it’s socially or personally. I guess it’s the difference between being tuned in and tuned out.
It seems the trajectory of your career has you reaching bigger and bigger audiences as you just keep doing your thing – do you have any specific goals or visions of what you’d like your career to look like or what kind of influence you’d like to have?
I think that I have very little to do with it. I think it starts and ends with the music and the content. But I would love to be able to have a lifestyle where music can fully support it, and be able to play to as many people as possible without compromising what’s important. Like how we were talking about Justin Bieber earlier – and I think Justin’s great – but it’s not about music. And if it is, it’s not just about music. I want a huge, giant career, but I want the integrity to be pure and simple. And I think you can have both, I think Bruce Springsteen has both. He’s a badass.
When you look back at your career up to this point, are there any single memorable or significant moments that come to mind that you can share?
For me, the ultimate joy is being in the car with Ryan, my best friend for eight years, and whether it’s after a show or before a show that’s my anchor both personally and creatively. I was thinking about it last night, that’s definitely one of my greatest joys. There are big shows that come and go, they pass through and you ride that wave and it’s exciting, but the real things stay in the car, ya know?
Seth Glier recently left Ann Arbor, but be on the lookout for this blue Prius in the near future. After all, Ann Arbor is one of his favorite cities (and he’s one of our new favorite artists, someone you won’t want to miss out on).
Here’s Seth and Ryan performing “Lauralee” in the iSPY Studio.