Total Babe is a songwriting duo from Atlanta, GA. Their song “Prayer” off their forthcoming self-titled EP is an earnest and unflinching portrait of family. The song is driven by Emily Backus’ yearning banjo and plainspoken lyrics with Meg Brooks’ warm harmonies. At its heart “Prayer” is a confession of doubt rendered into celebration. Backus’ narrative captivates as it castigates, and ends with a final declaration that: “beauty lies not up above / but in these roads we pave”. Backus and Brooks joined me for a brief chat about co-writing, family, and the importance of punnery.
You can listen to “Prayer” here.
SC: I love how this song begins with a rumination on family dynamics and ends with a self-assessment of faith. How do you view these two themes working together in the song?
EB: My family went to church together every week for the first 15 years of my life. One of the first symptoms I noticed of my parents’ failing marriage was that my father started staying home on Sundays. When my dad got remarried, he tried to get his union to my mother annulled in the Catholic Church, which, naturally did not go over particularly well with the protestant daughters who were the product of that thirty-year marriage. The whole mess of hurt and grief from losing my conception of earthly and heavenly fathers has been swirled together in every song since.
MB: I am always pleasantly stunned by Emily’s writing for many reasons, not the least of which is that she has an uncanny tendency to take the words right out of my brain. My parents split up a few years ago, and the first time I heard “Prayer” it felt like the song I needed but hadn’t figured out how to write yet. One of my favorite things about the writing is the juxtaposition of the chaos and confusion of a family being dissolved, that feeling of the familiar becoming unrecognizable, with this refrain of naming the things that will not change, that are still identifiable: “blood is blood / kin is kin,” “man is man / lies are lies,” etc. It’s a thread of subtle reassurance in what is ultimately, I think, a pretty hopeful song.
SC: Can you tell me about these lyrics “I will worship open skies / But not your holy son”—and how they relate to the title “Prayer”?
EB: I loved church camp as a kid and have held onto that peaceful reverence in nature even as I’ve left the fold. I miss feeling right and centered in the way I did as a religious person. I carried this song around with me during a really tough year and it filled up the space that scripture and prayer left empty. (That second line may be subconscious nod to the weird pain of seeing my dad connect more with his stepson than he ever did with his daughters. No shade to my step-brother, who is a very cool and nice person!)
MB: I’m just a sucker for a well-constructed pun.
SC: You are both strong songwriters. What’s your writing process like? Do you write together? Do you bring songs to each other? And individually; do you write on a schedule? Or do you wait for inspiration?
EB: I don’t co-write but I lean on my bandmates as editors and arrangers. Meg has given new life to tunes that I could never quite figure out. My writing process is mostly in my head. By the time I sit down and make something proper, it’s been brewing in my brain for a bit.
MB: The words always happen first for me, but they come from all kinds of places. I’m working on a song now that was inspired by a Rita Dove poem about a Greek myth, but more often I’ll just get a phrase stuck in my head and let it roll around for awhile. I have a little notebook full of bits and pieces and I sort of wait and see if they assemble themselves into something cohesive. Playing with Emily has really expanded my conception of melody and tonality, and made me want to challenge myself to take more risks with my writing.
SC: How does your community of songwriters inspire you?
MB: The process of making the EP has made me hyper-aware and endlessly grateful for the amazing group of artists I am lucky enough to call friends. Some of those people are musicians and songwriters who helped us arrange and record and produce, some are photographers and visual artists who helped make it (and us) look good. All of them are people who put their time and love and tenacity into contributing beautiful things to a world sorely in need of beauty, and boy howdy if that doesn’t make me want to sing!
The Sound Connector is an online magazine for songwriters. We feature songwriting challenges, monthly interviews, and the opportunity to discover new songwriters. We are interested in all things related to the craft of songwriting.
Do you want to be featured on The Sound Connector? Send us your songs!