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Rachel Zylstra: Taking time in a distracted age

This term we’ve given a grant to American-born, Edinburgh-based musician Rachel Zylstra, thanks to our amazing community of Sputnik Patrons. Rachel’s piano-led folk songs wear their heart on their sleeve, and form an important part of her life and emotional journey – as she shares here. We had a great chat about the development of her craft, and the role of music in our lives.

We love to see honest, full-blooded art, digging into the human experience without either cynicism on one hand, or gloss on the other. Join our Patrons scheme for as little as £5 / month – and we can keep supporting great artists like Rachel.

Hi Rachel. Can you introduce yourself?

Hi! Yes, I can try. Stream of consciousness list… I’m a child of the Midwest (US), former theatre nerd, former (?) actual nerd, former didn’t-call-myself-a hipster, folksy artsy type, friend, wife, mom, daughter, sister, music-maker, bargain-hunter, improviser, procrastinator, ENFP, lover of God, and there but for the grace of God go I.

You have a new EP coming out and we’re delighted to be supporting this through our patron scheme. What can we expect from the new project?

I am delighted and grateful for your patronage! My albums have often been produced on a 5-7 year lag from when bulk of the material was actually written, and this one follows trend. When I moved temporarily to Scotland in 2016, my life was about to change big-time but I didn’t know it yet. This new project will be an EP of 6 piano-and-vocal-led songs written in the 2 years following that move, during which I traversed through making friends with solitude, making human friends, job-seeking, a bad relationship, a last break-up, falling in love, and then learning how to be married… not a new season’s turning so much as a new season exploding.

These songs are partial documentation of that era and I’m excited to finally get them realized onto a record, alongside other albums reflecting other times of life.

Your music often seems to reflect transitions and seasons in your own life. How much do you make music to help you process your own experiences and how much do you create with the audience in mind?

For this answer, I’ll exempt music created for the church, which is another passion and takes a different approach. My personal music making is usually, for better or worse, personal processing: articulating my perspective to myself, and trying to create beauty and suss out the meaning even in the mundane or more regrettable parts of my story. I’ve not veered away from this habit very often in 20+ years of writing songs.

What I have found is that when you’ve written genuinely and specifically about your own heart’s experiences, failings, and fulfillments, listeners who get it, get it. They’ll respond. There are listeners who will hear their own story told, will strip away your specifics and subconsciously fill in their own details as they listen, and in that feel not alone, feel understood. This is one of the joys of being what I call a ‘confessional’ singer-songwriter. When it happens, it’s always a gift.

You’ve been doing this for a while now and clearly have considerable experience as a songwriter, recording artist and performer. What 3 pieces of advice would you give to any young songwriters or musicians who are just getting started?

One: Don’t compare yourself to other artists’ timelines or speedier routes to exposure. I felt like I was behind even in my early 20s. If I hadn’t had a catch-up mentality so early on, I would have taken a breath, a class or two, workshopped my songs more frequently, chosen more meaningful networking (ie, with people and in settings I cared about, rather than just what was dictated to me as “the thing/event/website all young artists must flock to”), and spent more time preparing myself to be my own best advocate for my music.

Two: This advice might be a bit dated, as social media and its related self-promotion was not yet a thing when I was starting out, but… Don’t wait around passively for someone powerful and influential to take you under their wing, get you on track, sign you, roll you out and give you that “big break.” Just slowly do the work, build on your creativity, keep learning, treat any new listener with care, and listen to what trusted, supportive people close to you are saying.  In the course of my day job I spent the better part of my 20s brushing elbows with entertainment execs in high places. In turn, there were a few years during which, as soon as someone with big industry connections gave my music notice, I would give their input too much sway, and I would wait months for their next 10-minute morsel of advice, before making a next move in my music journey. At the time, waiting seemed wiser and more demure than forging a less trod path on my own and risking missteps. But, there’s a cost of delay, and there’s a cost to letting your, say, 4th life-priority item be handled at the pace of someone else’s 40th priority.

Three: Yes, social media is fairly unavoidable if you want to thoroughly promote your music. But, for your soul and your well-being’s sake, if you create primarily with a social media audience and virality in mind, it will not be sustainable, and it will suffer from a lack of sturdiness and lack of depth. It amazes me how much time and energy can go into maintaining a surface presentation, and in turn to just “giving people more of what they want” or becoming a slave to narcissistic habit. I’ll admit this advice is not sexy – clearly there is some fame and wealth to be found in harnessing social media algorithms.  But fellow Christian artists, preserving your sense of worthiness and sense of self as determined through Jesus; protecting your real-life relationships; preserving your hedge of privacy and a modicum of separation between your personal life and your artist work-product: I do believe refusing to lay yourself down at the social media altar will, in the long term, positively impact you, your art and your best ability to inspire others.

To stay connected with Rachel and her work, you can follow her on Instagram, or check out her website.