Laura Tsaggaris is a friend and former client who has recently released her first new song in four years, “Lead Me”. Laura has had an incredible journey with five records and 40-plus songs of folk, Americana, alt-country, blues, rock, and pop. She’s eclectic and wildly talented, to say the least. I’ve been a longtime supporter and enthusiast of her work, and when I heard her new song, I was deeply moved and wanted to hear the story behind it.
I recently sat down with Laura to discuss just that—her journey, the business side of being a musician, and what led to her new song. Listen or watch the full interview here, or read the transcript below.
Brandon Green: I wanted to bring Laura in today because I came across her new song. “Lead Me” really spoke to me. Not only the lyrics but the cadence of it. It was incredibly well-produced and I hadn’t heard anything from you in a long time. We haven’t been in touch for a while. So thank you for being here.
Laura Tsaggaris: I love that you connected with the song. That’s great.
BG: So let’s start by giving some background on your personal story. How did you get into music? Was this something that you started early on as a child or did you get into it later in life?
LT: Well first, thanks for having me. It’s nice to see you. It has been a long time. I’d also like to thank Brandon for being such a great support during my career. He and his company were a corporate sponsor for my last live album, which was really a big accomplishment for me and couldn’t have been done without folks like you.
So, let’s see. How do I get into it? I mean, it’s a bit of a long story. My family’s pretty musical. Both sides of my grandparents were musical in different ways and my parents are very musical. My cousins are touring musicians. My aunts toured off-Broadway. So, when I was a kid, I knew there was a lot of music in my family but I was primarily focused on athletics, playing a lot of tennis. I went to school on a tennis scholarship. But all the while, I kind of had this strange, intense feeling about music. If a song would speak to me, it felt like I was naked or something. My dad had a guitar and I started playing around with it, I kind of figured things out on my own after he showed me everything. I played the guitar through that time and in college. I had some significant social anxiety. Playing the guitar really helped me assuage some of that by having an outlet, playing in my private time. I then went to the College of William and Mary. When I left, I got a job in finance outside of New York.
But when I had been in Virginia, I had fallen in love with Washington, D.C. I always felt comfortable there. Once I decided finance wasn’t for me. I found a way to get a job in D.C. I worked for a law firm and considered going to law school, but when I moved here, things really started falling into place. You know, my own writing, my own playing, and I started putting the challenge out to myself to see what those anxieties of performing in front of other people were about because I had significant stage fright.
BG: Oh, really? Interesting.
LT: Which is funny to think about that over 20 years later. I’m a completely different person when it comes to that. And that’s something that, over the years, has been challenged and changed through every facet of my musical life just as you’ve had journeys.
BG: How did you overcome your anxiety? Because I can imagine you realized, “Well, this is a problem. I’m going to go into music.” How did you do that? Because I think a lot of people can relate to that, whether they’re in music, business, or in life where they think, “Ahh, public speaking…”
LT: I think I first realized that music was something I was good at. I distinctly remember going to see an Indigo Girls concert, or it might have been Ani DiFranco. I mean, how stereotypical, right? I thought to myself, “Look, they’re having so much fun.” I remember feeling like, “Oh, I want to do that or I feel like I could do that. Then I started going to open mics around D.C. I was playing covers, which was kind of my specialty. I’d take a cover and make it my own. I did a pretty good job with it. And then, after a while, I said to myself, “All right, I’m not going to go back out there until I have something of my own I want to share. A song of my own that I’ve written.
I then met really wonderful cognitive-behavioral therapists through the years. I don’t know what your experience with therapy is–but sometimes when you’re in a session and there’s a topic that comes up and your brain kind of scrambles, or you can’t really think about it, it’s almost like you ask yourself, What’s there? So, we’ve got to go in there and find out what’s going on.
LT: That’s a huge challenge and you’ve to be…I don’t want to say you have to be brave, but you have to have the stomach for it. But the rewards are amazing. Through those sessions and through that relationship, I was able to really ask, “What’s this anxiety about?” and try to go after it instead of running away from it like when I did my first full-length album, Proof. I remember I was in Raleigh, in a hotel, and the producer was going to pick me up and we were going to start working that day. I was in tears waiting for him. I almost got in my car and drove home. because I thought this was going to open up a whole box of things that I don’t know if I want to get into. For some reason, I didn’t leave and I went with them, and I’m glad I did.
BG: First, I think everybody should see a therapist. Everybody could benefit from a great therapist. But I agree with what you’re saying. It really resonates with me in that it seems our accomplishments are the things that we want or are often on the other side of things we’re really scared of or scared to do. There’s sort of a twisted irony to that, right? To get what we want, we have to plow through what we don’t or think we don’t. You were doing that. You really wanted to make music a big part of your life, yet you were afraid to perform but you worked through that. I’m also hearing, though, that wasn’t just a one-and-done. I imagine this took quite a bit of time by first playing covers in front of small groups. Is that about right?
LT: Right, exactly. It was exposing little by little and finally being comfortable with that. What I love about music is I assume 20 years from now, I’ll have even more to say about this and be better at what I do. But I have two young kids now, seven and four. So they’re not as young but when they were really little, I was playing music for a playgroup. That was a whole other thing where I didn’t take myself too seriously, also breaking down this barrier of where music was this precious thing and just make noise, just be loud. Children have this way of loving whatever you do as long as you’re goofing around with them and making beautiful sounds. It was a nice divergence from the path I’d been on. Now, it’s great to be getting back to my own art, for sure, but I learned a lot from playing with kids.
BG: So tell us about this last phase you’ve been in. I was really fascinated to read how there’s been a period of time where your creativity didn’t seem to be blossoming and it seemed to correlate with the kids. While I don’t have any kids, I can resonate with that. My creativity very much ebbs and flows. Sometimes, there are periods of time where it becomes almost alarming and I think, Where did it go? Then it comes back! So I’m curious, what’s been happening for you the past few years? Something happened and your creativity came rushing back and you produced this recent song. Can you tell us about that?
LT: I think it’s only natural and a part of the process to create and then have a fallow period. Right. A lot of times, for me, the process would be to do an album, get in there, be in the bubble, get out, do those tunes, and always know that it’s going to come back around. I’m never going to feel like I can’t do this anymore because I’ve been there. I know that I’ll get back. Every time the creativity comes back, and every time it gets a little deeper, you know.
BG: Is it scarier after it’s been a while?
LT: It’s kind of like when I was a kid when you go from grade to grade and you expect it to be really hard. My mom would say, “Huh, they’re going to find out you’ve been fooling them all this time.” It was just multiplied by the fact that I was so out of touch with myself with being a stay-at-home mom and so out of touch with everything, even my physical body, through childbirth and taking care of the kids. It’s easy to have your identity thrown up in the air and then you grab certain parts of it back. Also, I think through therapy and all this time I’ve spent as an artist, I would say one of, if not the most important relationship I have is with myself as a writer.
So when I had children with my wife, it wasn’t necessarily true anymore. It could still be true that it’s important to me. But where does it fit in now when I have these two children and they’re…everything, right? It was a lot of work to kind of figure out how to put all those pieces together so that they can all have their space and part of this song–although it deals with social responsibility and racial unrest and everything going on right now–a big part of it was about my kids needing to see me doing things outside of them.
They need to see me being my best self too, not that my best self isn’t the person that takes care of them and gets their needs met. It’s also that I have passions and that I have things I can show them and maybe they’ll find things they feel the same way about.
BG: I can resonate with that in my own way. I find that I can lose myself in things that I value and go all in. In hindsight, I kind of lost my own journey in that process. I’m hearing a little bit of that with you and how you’re all-in on your family and then you think, “Wait, where am I?”
It sounds like you’ve had this other realization where there’s a higher level of responsibility now too which is to regain myself as part of that prioritization. If you don’t, then it kind of ends badly as soon as the kids leave the house. Was there a moment where, all of a sudden, you were inspired and things came rushing back? Or has it been gradual over time?
LT: It’s been a little gradual. It was staking that space of getting out of performing kids’ music. I think that was taking up a lot of space for me. Not that I can’t still do that here and there. I teach some classes, but I think it was carving that space as well as my kids getting a little older. A very close family friend gave us this amazing present, a piano. That’s been here at the house and it’s been a nice thing to just sit down and play and let go. Sometimes I’d have quartets over to the house and play. Feeding that and also getting involved with the D.C. Arts Commission. The past few years (they’ve?) have been super supportive with me applying and receiving grants where I was able to get to this place and say to myself, “OK, I am this artist I know I am.”
BG: Switching gears a little bit, tell us about the business side. A lot of people that are part of our community are entrepreneurs. You’re an entrepreneur with what you’re doing and music entrepreneurship strikes me as particularly challenging. I want to understand from your perspective how is this all working these days? It seems like you can get free music all the time where I can listen to that [song] for free, but it wasn’t free to produce. So, I’m trying to reconcile all that. What can you tell us about the business side?
LT: I think that’s a great train of thought. It does seem like music is more present than ever. It’s just ubiquitous, everywhere you turn, it’s there. You can just get it and play it on whatever platform. That being said, the business side is that it’s really hard to make money from the songs. For example, with this last tune, I can put the track on Bandcamp and people can listen to it. I think if you listen to it three times it says, Buy This Song. But then if you just take a break and go back, you can listen to it again and you don’t have to pay for it. But there are reasons why you put that song on Bandcamp because the press can see it before it’s out. All kinds of stuff.
Bandcamp is great because people can say, “Hey, this song really hits me. I want to give you two dollars or five dollars for it and it goes right to me. But then the songs also need to be on Spotify, iTunes, which is great but this kind of gives you an idea of what goes on with those platforms. I have a friend who’s a producer in Los Angeles. He’s had some really interesting success. I called him about this tune and he tells me, “You know, a million plays on Spotify is four grand.”
BG: Oh, my gosh. A million plays on Spotify is four thousand dollars for the artist?
LT: And he was saying to me as if that’s great!
BG: Oh wow. I had no idea. That really just hit me…a million plays. I’m just calculating what is required to build a platform to get anywhere close to a million plays. The cost associated with that and the return for the artist being four grand. Oh my goodness.
LT: Right. And that and it’s like, “Hey Laura! Love the songs. We’ll talk to you later.” But look, I’m not going to stop writing songs. It’s just not going to happen and I’m not going to stop trying to get them to sound the best they can and work with the best artists that I can find. It’s about trying to find ways to get different income streams. Whether that’s trying to get it on TV and film or trying to focus more on live performances: playing people’s weddings, playing people this, that, and the other thing, which is obviously not happening right now.
For a lot of musicians that don’t get a million plays on Spotify, it’s about getting different revenue streams outside of music. I’ve started doing some property management for a friend. I’ve got a lot of skills outside of my talents as a musician. It’s about using all of those things so I can still continue to make my art. That being said, there’s this artist part of me that wants to say, “No. I can’t let people know that I’m not making millions of dollars off these songs, because that’s not the truth.”
BG: Well, over the last several months with COVID, I’ve gotten a lot better on these kinds of platforms and I’ve been learning a lot more about the cost associated with really good audio, really good visuals, and how all that works. Can you give us a sense of what would be the different types of costs associated with producing great music and where are those cost centers? Who else needs to be involved in producing something like you produced?
LT: You have a producer who takes on a lot of different roles. They might be somebody doing the actual engineering of the project. So like the person for you, if you have a producer for your show, they’re setting up your microphone, they’re checking audio levels, they’re putting reverb on it. They’re “DS-ing” your words. That person is extremely valuable just as an engineer.
But then also producers are the people that can help you decide what instruments are going to be on the song. There comes the next clause, paying the musicians to come in and play those parts. Sometimes musicians come in and play the parts and you pay them for it, but it doesn’t end up working out on the song. So that’s lost money. On the engineering side, it’s whether you’re going to be in a studio and renting the time or if you’re home, and you have to get really expensive microphones. Some I’ve recorded on are $5,000. I don’t own them, but they certainly make me sound great. So there’s that cost. Sometimes the producer is the same person who mixes the song, the person who decides if all the vocals are going to be this level above the drums or what have you.
And after the track is done, you have it mastered, and that’s another cost. So then the mastering engineer has a studio that’s completely audio perfect and they mix everything. And that doesn’t even talk about how you’ve got to get it online or you’ve got to make a CD.
BG: So far, nobody knows about the song.
LT: Right. In the past, I’ve spent a lot of money on press and PR. For somebody at my level, it’s really hard to justify that money when the returns are really hard to measure. Then there’s just getting it online, getting on a platform, some of those costs aren’t that much if we use CD Baby or something like that. It might be $50 or $39 to get it online. But if it’s a cover you recorded, like I did that “Message in a Bottle” (The Police song) and I had to pay for the licensing which was a couple hundred dollars, and I had to go through this whole thing.
BG: Thousands of dollars are adding up here. As a business, I can see why you’ve got to pursue multiple streams of income. Sure. Which are not even related to music in order to make all this come together.
LT: I have a cousin who’s in a very successful rock band, Coheed and Cambria. They’re called Coheed and Cambria. They’re like progressive rock band. They’ve been one of Sony’s top artists. He’s played like Madison Square Garden, okay? They’re big and he still doesn’t make the amount off of his songs you would think. It’s really interesting trying to figure out how to navigate and get where you want to be.
BG: I want to do a couple of quick questions with you. And I want to talk about this latest song you produced, and then we’re going to listen to a short clip of it and come back. What’s inspiring you as you look into 2021?
LT: What’s inspiring me are the people creating businesses around not just businesses, but living their lives in a way that is keeping social responsibility, kindness, and community at the forefront. I was just posting something about this friend of mine’s business yesterday called DC Vegan Catering. They’re doing awesome stuff. Through this whole pandemic, they’re giving out free meals. I’m not vegan, but it’s like I should be. It’s kind of like this song when I put it out. It was like, “I need to be doing more.”
BG: If you could give some advice to an up-and-coming musician who has no platform but they’re producing some music, what would you tell them?
LT: I get this question sometimes because I do some speaking engagements for high school students and seminars. They ask, “Should I put myself out on YouTube now?” I say no because I think what you really need to do is ask yourself the questions. What’s important to you? Is privacy important to you? Is control important to you? All kinds of things.
I think going after just numbers and fame can be very detrimental to your mental health and to your career, too. Not that I necessarily have all that much experience. But I think one of the things I’ve talked about in therapy is this juxtaposition of how being on stage makes me feel powerful, but it also makes me feel vulnerable and how to balance those two things and get what I need out of them. So yeah, maybe I would say go to a therapist!
BG: Start with a good therapist and call me back! Tell us about the song you have recently recorded, “Lead Me.” What inspired that? What is it saying? Give me some background on the song itself.
LT: Basically, what I do when I’m writing or being creative is I’ll record something small on my phone with a voice memo. I’ll have some ideas and sometimes I’ll go back and play around with it. This was in June when the kids were out of school. We’re going to go down to Florida to visit my parents in Naples. I didn’t want to go down there because of the whole pandemic. I didn’t want to get my parents sick. But they needed to see the kids. Before we left, I was just playing around with a couple chords and I came up with this melody.
To back up, I had been doing some songs and cover songs with some local D.C. musicians that I’ve worked with for a long time and I was starting to get some of the creativity back, but I didn’t know this song was coming.
Anyway, the melody came and I started thinking about two women I’m friends with. One is the wife of the producer, Tim Lyons, I work with—his wife, Moira—and another friend, Katie Holloran, a Capitol Hill friend of mine. Moira and Katie both do great stuff in their lives. They volunteer a lot of their time. They both show their kids what it is to volunteer. They. You have interesting careers in public service. They’re just very mindful of everything around them.
I saw it as a challenge for me to do more, not just with these two folks. Since the 2016 election, I had to shut off the news for my mental health. It was convenient because I had two really small kids and I just was like, “You know, I’m going to focus on making these kids really kind and know what it is to say hi to people and help people. That was where my focus was and I think that time spent is worthwhile. But it also became obvious, from everything with George Floyd and protests and the current political landscape that it wasn’t enough. We’ve got to do more to educate ourselves on what we can do. The reason why I brought up Florida because on the drive down there, I literally sang this poem in my head for four hours.
BG: So the lyrics came first and then the melody?
LT: I think the melody to the chorus came and I started to figure out the words to the chorus. A lot of times what I’ll do is vocalize around the melody and then the words will come after. I don’t know if you ever heard the Michael Jackson “Thriller” demo tapes?
LT: They did a remastered version of it, and at the risk of comparing myself to Michael Jackson when he does like “Billie Jean,” he’s just singing these little notes and doesn’t have the words yet. It’s amazing to hear that process and know where the song went after. So anyway, I do a little bit of that.
BG: It comes in pieces and then it all eventually comes together.
LT: Right. And I do a lot of revision. A lot of rewriting. That’s where my obsessive tendencies work best. They don’t work against me in that sphere.
BG: How do you know when you finally have it and go, “Aw! There it is.”
LT: That’s a great question. I think it really is a gut feeling. You can’t rely on whether somebody else thinks it’s ready. But I really take the time to celebrate those moments when the song would come back from mastering, I would say to Tim, the producer, “Can I come over and we can have a beer?” So we can celebrate this.
If nothing else happens, that’s it. We did this thing. So, I think it has to get to that point where you’re really proud of it, to the point where it doesn’t matter if anybody likes it. Do I want to make a million dollars from the song? Sure. Gimme a million plays for four thousand dollars. You know what I mean? Of course. I have thoughts of how can I make this a commercial success. I do think it has a lot of potential for that. To answer your question of how do you know when you’ve got it? I think it’s when that revising stops. I’m really into punctuation and I’m really into grammar. Whether it’s a full sentence here or whether there’s a comma here, once I’ve worked all that stuff out, it’s good to go.
BG: Well, personally, I think the song has a great shot for commercial success, we just had to get it in front of the right people. So we’re going to do our best with our platform. Know I saw other people. All right. Well, let’s just listen to a couple of minutes of it, a short little clip, and then we’ll have a wrap-up conversation. So, let’s listen to a bit of the song.
BG: What was it like for you to watch that?
LT: I’m really proud of that song. I did get emotional. You know, like anything you do, you put your all into it. I went to L.A. to do that video. I invested in making those pictures great and the director did a great job. Talking about the money side of the business side of it, it’s a real leap of faith in many ways to say, “All right, I’m going to throw this in there.” Of course, you can go crazy. There are certain things I can’t or couldn’t do, but I did my best and think we did a great job.
BG: I think it sounds incredible. It really does. So how do people support you? How do people support musicians like you?
LT: Well, I think there are a couple of ways. Say, if somebody has something on Bandcamp, I mean, you see even big artists like Ani DiFranco on there. You have these First Fridays, I think every month, and you can buy their catalog, or buy whatever song and all that money goes to the artist. Bandcamp doesn’t take any fees. Another is a platform called Patreon. I just made my account the other day. And I think this is one of those things that could be the next road of where you do a streaming performance or something and someone can go in, either pay you for that or there’s a monthly subscription to them. But I have a bit more to dig into that. I think just if you really enjoy live music, maybe come and buy some of their CDs, that’s always a good thing to do. Taking lessons, taking music lessons, whatever, a lot of musicians teach vocals and guitar.
BG: Let’s let’s spread the word about this incredible song and Laura’s great work and see if we can help you out with that. So thank you.
And thanks, everybody for being with us today. Make sure that you take a look at Laura’s content online. You can find her on Instagram at @tsaggs, Facebook at @lauratsaggarismusic, Twitter at @lauratsaggaris, and YouTube at Laura Tsaggaris.
And if you haven’t already subscribed to the Brandon Green report, just go to BrandonGreen.com and you’ll be able to see the subscribe section.