Written by Katharine W. Poole
It’s as if one has entered a serene, rustic artist’s spa, being welcomed into the home of Hilary Romaine. A sense of peace and tranquility envelop the space like a warm breeze on the coast of Mexico. The subdued lighting feels like warm candlelight, accompanied by soft music, reflecting the essence of this beautiful female artist and her lifestyle. Each chosen piece is carefully planned and beautifully executed. Hilary is a woman of many talents, with a background that encompasses the arts in an eclectic multiplicity of expressions. Born in New York City, growing up in Westchester County while spending summers in Wyoming with her mother and stepfather on a Dude Ranch; residing by a magical river twelve miles from Jackson Hole with her infant daughter; uprooting her life to raise Casey closer to her father in California – how then did she ultimately choose Nashville as her home?
“Hmmm…” she breaths, but the answer is very clear to her. “The size of the city, the location, and because Nashville had an East Coast vibe to it. And, I’m also such an aesthetic, visual person that my surroundings are very important to me: the change of seasons; I could afford to have a house; have dogs; I wanted to be closer to my daughter…” She came here to write and sing, but she mostly came here to live.
Attending Syracuse University Hilary chose to major in Art History. “It was the only major that I could think of that I would enjoy. I had honestly always been an artist from the day I was born, but I lacked the confidence to tap into any of it.” She is a talented painter as well, using many different materials as her canvas, from the latter, to wood, to jeans and anything that inspires her. “As far as the painting goes I do like to create pieces that are going to be positive and inspirational. It wasn’t until I hit college that I started writing poetry, kind of the beginning of the songwriting. I played piano by ear but very minimally, so the two never got put together until I bought my guitar.”
Music and words have always been a thread in the weave of this artist’s life. “Because I paint and I do photography; I was a dancer for a long time and, you know, I loved theatre. I thought theatre was what I wanted to major in, but I didn’t have the confidence to audition – Even doing writers rounds, that first one was terrifying, because you are up there and people are looking at you. I’ve worked through all that. But still, at the end of the day, it’s the group experience. Being in a band, or even a duo, that is ten times more satisfying than just being up there. The performance part is only fun for me if there are other people.”
Hilary became a songwriter after raising her daughter and realizing it was her time to chose what was next. “Really at the time I moved here I had only been writing songs for, maybe, two years. Like, this is a new venture at this point in my life. I knew coming here, I would tap into the songwriting world eventually – I didn’t know how it was going to happen – I just knew I was going to be doing it, and then whatever else evolved out of that would happen. I wanted to absorb it…and then to see how it fit on me.” It fits her like the perfect leather jacket. Her songs are beautifully crafted with a troubadour style. There is an old world, old school presence that she brings to the scene. A bit Joan Baez a bit Joni Mitchell. A poet who captures music from the stories of the people around her. She grabs hold of the moment. She does not map it out. The path seems to find her.
Hilary bought her first guitar, in Los Angeles, not long after her father passed away, in 2008. “[I told] my good friend, Bruce Buckingham, who has been a teacher at MI, [Musician’s Institute at the College of Contemporary Music in LA,] for thirty-some years – I said: ‘I want to go buy my first guitar. You’re the man. You have to go with me.’ He’s a jazz guitarist.” She laughs. “He was just giving me the basics like: ‘How does it feel when you’re holding it?’ – I picked this Sigma Martin, which I don’t play anymore. I’ve upgraded a little bit. I literally started writing as soon as I learned the major and minor chords. It’s been non-stop. It came together instantaneously.”
She regards the walls of her living room where several guitars hang or relax in their stands. When asked which guitar is her favorite, Hilary pauses more than momentarily. It is not an easy question, as each instrument has it’s own personality. “Well, I have a Taylor and I have a custom Breedlove. I actually designed the Breedlove at the Two Old Hippies Guitar Factory in Oregon. I had no idea at the time that my employers Tom and Molly Bedell would give it to me. It was supposed to be for the store. Yeah,” she says in awe, “It’s the most beautiful guitar. So, I take that out when I play out, my trophy guitar. When I’m at home I mostly use my Taylor. It’s just out on the stand. The special Breedlove always goes back in its case.”
Though songwriting was relatively new to Hilary, she was not new to the business of music itself. While residing in LA she helped to start the label Little Engine Records with Lizabeth McGraw and the support of Jeffrey Yapp from CMT/MTV. “We represented a country artist Sean Patrick McGraw. Touring with him as a label representative and photographer is when I first started coming to Nashville. He [like the few others she knew here] always spoke so highly of Nashville as a city. He was sort of my initial reason for coming to Nashville. I thought, I’m just going to try it out.”
“My first impression, it was a very small town. Everybody kind of knew everybody, everybody played with somebody at some point, and everybody writes together – there’s this whole sort of networking thing. The people I knew before I came here were connected into the Country world, and that’s not really my genre. I started my job, at Two Old Hippies, six months after moving here in 2011. The store has become such a portal – I started meeting with people and connecting with people. It was because of a couple of people that I worked with, (Matt Walburg and Chad McMillan,) that I did my first writers round in early 2012, almost a year after arriving. ”
Up until that point Hilary was “soaking it in,” by attending music rounds, seeing what others were doing and learning what it was all about. When asked if friends helped her with her career when she arrived in town, she laughs and states: “Not really. Because I don’t think they even really knew I was that serious about songwriting. It was so new to me. I wasn’t even going to proclaim myself as a songwriter until I was confident in what I was writing. I wasn’t ready to present myself. I think they knew maybe that I sang and I appreciated music.” She saw Nashville as a new chapter.
Hilary’s goals were modest. “My goal as far as song writing? [As far as] the music world was concerned, was very small. Really to just be able to get up on stage and sing my songs.” She’s accomplished so much more, and yet Hilary humbly states: “I’ve never been a planner. I’ve never been like, OK in twenty years I’m gonna do that. I mean how the Hell do you know that? I’m sorry, I don’t even know tomorrow. I never consciously said: ‘That’s going to be my goal.’ Now I have no problem even if I’m just sitting in an audience and a friend of mine were to call me up, I don’t hesitate. It’s easy ‘cause of feedback that I’ve gotten with my songs.”
She breathes, contemplating the future. “I suppose now thinking about what is it that I actually have to start doing…what do I do with my songs now? I had that goal for myself. I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life regardless, writing. How am I going to make money doing it? Because I think there is money to be made.” It is a matter of fact delivery, which she rounds off with: “Who to get my songs to. Navigating that whole part of the business.”
“I listen to how other people do their writing process – I don’t do a lot of co-writing, and that’s a huge thing here in Nashville. I understand it from a business sense. I understand why people want to do it. It’s very unnatural to me. To make an appointment with somebody, a lot of times somebody you’ve never met, and say: ‘What do you want to write about?’ It’s a very organic, unstructured process for me. So, to put it in a box and say: ‘You need to sit down and write a song.’ I don’t want to write something that’s going to be meaningless. There’s all this formula and I don’t really know what that formula is.” She laughs, with the utmost respect to the craft and her fellow writers. “I’ve never asked anybody what it is. The Nashville formula. I’m not saying anything against that, it’s just that’s not what I’m drawn to. A lot of the time I will just sit down and the song is done in ten minutes – I don’t mean that to sound like it’s so easy, ‘cause they’re not all that.”
The longest pause comes in response to a question that may be a challenge for many musicians – Who inspires you other than other musicians? It takes Hilary almost forty seconds to begin speaking, and that calming space leads to a unique answer. “OK, I guess I would start by answering…it’s not always a who but it’s human experiences in general. Because I don’t always write about my own experiences, I write about others. You know, people who are close to me, things that I see other people going through.”
“The majority of my songs are about love and loss. There will never be enough of those songs to write. It’s a what and a who. “General who,” she exclaims saluting and laughing. Hilary adds: “My daughter, Casey completely inspires and amazes me, I could not be more proud. I haven’t written much specifically about her, but I will.” And musically the history speaks for itself. “My stepdad was a huge old-school Country Music fan. His record collection had Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, he had Gordon Lightfoot and Crystal Gayle – just this whole genre of music which I’d never heard of. I completely fell in love with some of those artists. That’s when I fell in love with that kind of country music. It’s taken a little detour,” giggling she pauses, “- you know recently – but I’ve always loved music.”
The Nashville 7:
The final questions posed to Hilary (inspired by James Lipton’s approach to interviewing for Inside The Actor’s Studio.)
- In one Word describe Nashville: Hilary pauses and laughs: “Ok.” (pause) “Growing Pains. I know that’s two words.”
- Your favorite food experience in Nashville: “Beer Cheese Pretzels at The Village Pub!”
- One word that describes your music style: “Contemporary/Folk-Singer/Songwriter.”
- Who is the one person you want to meet in Nashville: “Patty Griffin.”
- If you could ask (him/her) one question what would that question be: “How do her songs come to her?”
- What is your favorite Nashville venue: “The Ryman.”
- Your favorite lyric from a song you wrote: “My sail never caught the wind until there was you.” She adds “That’s so funny, I’m sitting here thinking about it, ‘cause unless I’m singing it, I can never remember if it’s – did the sail catch the wind, or the wind catch the sail – because when I first wrote it, I had to ask my friend Matt: “Which is it, does the wind catch the sail? Or the sail catch the wind?” Technically it could be either.
Whichever way the wind blows, Hilary’s sail has caught the Nashville wind and the wind is carrying her music into the future of our city.
Hilary Romaine and Friends will be performing at Natchez Hills Winery at Fontanel on Friday, November 20th: 6:00-8:00PM.
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*The material included in this article is the sole property of the writer, (Katharine W. Poole,) and the photographer, (Cilene Bosch.) All elements may be used in other publications as determined by the owners. Permission must be obtained for reproduction.