Rachel Ohnsman on Songwriting - a Labor of Love

Meet Rachel Ohnsman: a senior from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania studying Jazz Voice with a minor in Psychology. She’s a multi-talented artist with background in classical piano, musical theater, jazz singing and now songwriting. Her debut album Lovers, featuring all original music, is due for release in Spring 2018. I sat down with her to talk about her album, her writing process and what she sees on the horizon for her career.

Q: How long have you been working on this EP? (EP = Extended Play = Longer than a single, shorter than an album. Typically 4-6 songs.)

A: “I started working on it last summer. It started off with me wanting to do five songs, and then it turned from five songs into 7-8 tracks, so now I’m calling it an album. It’s grown into something more, just because the process has taken fairly long. It’s taken a lot longer than I expected, because I’ve never done something like this before. As jazz musicians, we tend to think 'Okay, we go in, we’ve got our charts, we play, it’s great, we leave, it’s done', but it’s not like that at all.”

Q: So, how did you expand from the EP to a full-blown album - did you start with a few songs you really wanted to do and then just end up adding more as you went?

A: “The concept of it actually came together pretty quickly. All the songs were about different people, maybe different exes, or a one-night stand or something. So I decided to call it Lovers because it was a nice overarching theme. It was actually a blessing in disguise that it took way longer because I did write new songs. It ended up really filling [the album] out a lot better.”

Q: What was your experience using a crowdfunding campaign to fund your project?

A: “I was really hesitant to do it at first, because I tend to really hate crowdfunding…I tried to basically design it in a way that was setting it up as preorders. So it was basically like, you can pay this much and you’ll get the album and a thank you. And then if you pay more, you get fancy prizes. Things like, 'I’ll write a song about something for you,' or 'If you pay another $5 I’ll send you some embarrassing middle school photos of me.' I tried to keep it entertaining and not just say 'please help me.' If you do it right, it also keeps people interested in the product. People still say 'Yeah, I’m really excited to hear the album, how’s it coming along?' So people know it’s coming, and you have to post about it a lot. If I gave advice to someone for crowdfunding, I would say that when I first made it, because I was trying to keep it funny, I ended up veering too much on the funny side to the point where it sounded like I didn't really care. You want to keep some humor in it, but you also want to make sure that the people know you really appreciate them, even if they just give $5.”

Q: How do all of the facets of your musical background play into your songwriting?

A: “A lot of people who know that I have a theater background will hear a song and immediately say ‘Oh my God, I could hear this in a musical.’ At least some of my earlier ones especially. All of [the different styles] affect my tools as a musician, which then affects my writing. I guess the main thing behind my songwriting is probably my experience. Some people find it easier to write about other things because when they write about themselves it’s a little too close, and it’s hard to separate yourself. I find that more difficult to do. My life is my central influence topic wise. The writing styles I’ll sort of vary… I don’t know, as far as the different styles, I know how they affect my voice. How they affect my songwriting, I’m not necessarily sure, I think whatever you listen to is what comes out [in your writing].”

Q: How does it affect your voice?

A: “With theater I pay a lot of attention to the lyric. That’s the main thing for me. Even if my voice doesn't sound as pretty singing something one way, if it carries across the lyric I think I’ve done a better job. Then of course the classical side of it is all about making it beautiful and having good technique. So if classical was the base, then theater came next and that was ‘Pay attention to what you’re saying,’ and then jazz was ‘Now how can you say it in an interesting way?’”

Q: What’s your favorite song on your album and why?

A: “I like them for different reasons. The thing that I’ve grown to like more about my writing is that they all sound very different. Some people, you know, you can kind of classify: ‘This person is indie-rock’ or ‘This person is very Taylor Swift.’ Their songs are different enough, but similar, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, they just have a specific style. With mine, maybe it’s because I’m still trying to find my voice or it’s because of all of those different influences. I think that’s probably it. That’s how it affects my songwriting the most. *Laughs* There you go, question answered. As far as a favorite song, one that I think I’m the proudest of is a song called "Chloe". That one I spent a long time ‘perfecting’. I was in Valencia, Spain, and I had met this girl. She was an amazing person who I really liked. She was an incredibly free person, a little bit wild. I was more free when I was with her, and that was really special. So I had an idea for the chorus, it kind of popped into my head. I ran back to my bunk in the hostel and wrote down the lyric and notated the melody because I didn't want to forget it. That chorus came very quickly, but the verses I spent a long time working on trying to create the scene.”

Q: Do you feel like your songwriting style has changed between when you first started writing and now?

A: “Definitely. A couple of the songs [on Lovers] I wrote a year and a half ago, and that was still when I was fairly inexperienced with songwriting. I think my lyric writing has evolved a lot. Also stylistically, some of the earlier ones I have sort of book-ended on the album. One of the first songs, ‘Nothin,’ and the last song ‘Tracks,’ they’re very bouncy, kind of Regina Spektor vibes. Those are kind of more in that vein, rather than a few of them that are maybe groovier, or darker. Most of the darker songs, at least on the album [are newer]. Now I’m writing happier stuff. [The darker songs] were mostly just a result of what I was going through at the time.”

Q: How do you feel your time at UM has shaped you as a songwriter?

A: “I am really proud to be at this school. This was my top choice school, and I also got a scholarship to go here, so it was a perfect storm. I wouldn't be where I am now if I didn't go here. I was originally really interested in being a choral conductor. I still love that, I love choral conducting and I might do it more in a theater context in the future. But the other schools I looked at had great classical departments. The jazz department here surprised me. That wasn't a thing that I was aware of when I was in high school. I didn't know I could do it. Even physically, I didn't know that I was capable of making the sounds that I make now, which is cool. So when I did get here I was surrounded by all these amazing musicians in the jazz department, and all these great songwriters, and classical musicians too. I was overwhelmed with wanting to get as much as I could out of the school from all of the departments. To stretch myself, I thought ‘Wow, I love hearing people sing their songs, they’re so moving. I want to do that. I love hearing people sing jazz, I want to do that.’”

Q: What’s next for you? Do you have an image in your head of what you want to do after this year?

A: “Even as I was recording the album, I’ve been writing new stuff. I have all the Foxlove* stuff too; we’d really like to make that a bigger thing after we graduate. With schoolwork it’s difficult to make that a priority for all three of us. We’d like to build that up but we’re still working on that on the side. Basically I have some tiers of goals. I have the album - my dream is for it to do really well. I would love to share my music with people who really like listening to it and care about it. If it moves them and helps them through something they’re going through, that’s a really big thing. If it does well and I get to just tour and play my music, that would be awesome. Past that, I do love teaching, so I might stick around in Miami for a little bit and continue teaching. I’ve been doing a lot of studio work lately as well, writing songs in studios that I’m trying to sell up the food chain to people like Rihanna. I really like doing that. I’d like to have my own stuff too, but the songs that I write for other people aren't necessarily what I would want to perform myself. It’s fun to exercise my brain in that way. As for where I’ll be, I don’t know if I’m going to stay in Miami forever, but I might move to Nashville. That would be an obvious one. Maybe LA, although I’ve never been to LA.”

*Foxlove is Rachel’s vocal trio with fellow students Cathryn Lovett and Sofia Carrillo. You can check them out here.  

For more info about Rachel, visit her website here