Bettman & Halpin performing. (Lynda Kay Burton)
Music act Bettman & Halpin formed in 2007, and since then have been hypnotizing audiences with their unique brand of Americana music, rooted in folk and bluegrass influence.
The duo is composed of Stephanie Bettman and Luke Halpin; they perform Sunday, February 16 at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. The show’s scheduled for an 8 p.m. start. Tickets are $20.
A Southern California native, Bettman is an accomplished writer, singer and fiddle player. She has drawn comparisons to such greats as Joan Baez and Emmylou Harris. Her compositions are characterized by her witty and poetic insight.
Halpin, who is also a SoCal native, is a renowned master of the mandolin, as well as gifted at the guitar, fiddle, and banjo, among others. He has collaborated with such acts as Merle Haggard, Lone Star and The Steve Miller band.
Their material is characterized by enthralling instrumentals and thought-provoking lyrics in story-telling form. Their arrangements are perfectly balance, laying the ground for Bettman’s phenomenal vocals and Halpin’s harmonies.
Their critically acclaimed songwriting and performances have earned them several awards, including Best Instrumental for their song “Buttonwillow” in the 2012 Great American Song Contest.
In an exclusive interview for Living Out Loud, Bettman & Halpin discussed their beginnings, latest album (Diamond), show in Los Angeles and more.
Living Out Loud: Bettman & Halpin has been together since 2007?
Stephanie Bettman: Yeah, I think our first gig was in May of 2007, or something like that.
LOL: The duo formed in Los Angeles, but both of you now live in Denver. Why the move?
Luke Halpin: We had just finished a 3-month tour a few years ago, and we thought we must live in a town where music is happening and where the industry is, but the reality was neither one of us wanted to live in Los Angeles anymore. We sort of felt like we had to [live in LA.] But after being gone for 3 months on this tour, it just hit us – we just spent 3 months away from LA and everything is fine. Colorado had been on the radar. We never really picked Denver, but once we made the decision to move, we started touring Colorado and in the end, Denver was where we felt comfortable.
LOL: Tell us about your latest album, Diamond. How different is it from past albums?
SB: It’s a very new album, actually. This tour is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to share it with our fan base. It’s hot off the presses. Technically, we recorded it in our basement for the most part…We had started recording our fourth album a while ago, and we had a different record in mind. Then we got involved with this organization in Denver called the Tennyson Center for Children, which takes care of abused kids and kids from dangerous family situations. Through this involvement, the song “Diamond” was written. We really wanted to put it in our next album, but the song had a different feel – it wasn’t as rootsy as what we had been doing. So we decided to go with that song and that feel and actually changed what was gonna go on this album. It’s more pop vibe, and we’re more produced on this record than we have been in the past. We used all the tools at our disposal, including electric guitars and big drum kits, so the fiddles and mandolin are not as featured as they have been in previous records. With this record, we were more concerned with creating the atmosphere of creating a song. It gave us an opportunity to show off our instrumental skills. I’m really proud of this record and we’ve really managed to make the songs what they want to be with no concern for anything else. It’s been a lot of fun.
LOL: How is the duo’s song-writing process and how do you guys get inspired?
LH: Lately, Stephanie has been doing the majority of the song writing, especially on this new record. But I can tell you this: this association with the Tennyson Center for Children sparked a few songs that started dictating this record. The work we were doing with these kids was very inspirational.
LOL: Luke, you play many instruments, including the banjo, an mandolin. Have you considered incorporating other instruments into the duo’s music?
LH: Yes, I would have to learn them (laughs.) I am the type of person who would love to play every instrument and know how to incorporate it into what we do. Some of it is cost-prohibited because I’m not a wealthy man. I’ve had dreams of being a saxophone player, and although I’ve never played that type of instrument, I’m sure I can figure it out.
LOL: So what’s your favorite instrument and why?
LH: For years I’ve identified myself as a mandolin/fiddle player. But now that I’m in this situation of having to become a guitar player, it has been pretty fun. I would say, right now, I am enjoying the guitar a lot. Everyone sort of plays the guitar, but I’m exploring different ways to play it. Since we’ve been touring as a duo, one of the things I’ve been focusing on is how to arrange the parts to maximize the guitar. Every once in a while I pick up the mandolin and say, ‘Wow this is the one I love.’
LOL: Stephanie, what’s your take on classifying music through genres?
SB: Well, in my mind, it’s impossible to truly classify original music. So much is taken from various places, you know? We steal a little bit from Aretha Franklin, and a little bit from that Bach partita you heard as a little kid, and you might lift a little bit from that country song you fell in love with. That’s where the creation comes from, with so many influences. But at the same time, I do understand the business side of it. When marketing anything, you have to somehow define what it is such terms that people can feel like they know what they’re buying, and at least know what they’re looking for. I think that’s why these genre classifications exist; you have to be able to market it. It’s also a burry line sometimes. We keep using the classification of Americana because it seems that’s where a lot of our influences come from, and it’s a pretty broad umbrella. We have room to play.
LH: I’ve never been compelled to uphold the traditions of a specific genre of music. I know a lot of people do that, and that’s awesome, but that doesn’t interest me that much. What interests me more is just exploring the possibilities of music, and to see what can happen with these combinations of instruments and voices.
SB: I would go even further and say that for me, specifically, I’m more interested in blending different genres. I find that fascinating and very exciting. I started a bluegrass band while keeping in mind that one day I was gonna have an African percussionist and a funk bass player. Never quite happened, but those thoughts are always in my head. What element in this song can come forward and make it different from something people have already heard.
LOL: What can we expect from your upcoming show in Santa Monica on Sunday?
SB: We’ll do a more stripped down, duo version of the show. It will be very intimate and we’ll be sharing some of the songs from the new record, but I think there will be more room to play some favorites…Sometimes people ask for specific songs during the break.
LOL: What else is on your agenda for the next few months?
SB: This current tour is just through the month of February, but we do have another tour coming up in May on the east coast. That will be the first time touring the east coast, so that’s pretty exciting. We’re also doing a big release concert towards the end of April in Denver. We have some other projects that are just starting to come together as exciting possibilities. It relates to material we’ve been working on through the Tennyson Center for Children. We’ll see how all that pans out, but there’s lots of stuff on the docket, as far as things we want to create and tours. It’s very possible we’ll be coming back to Southern California in the summer, but that’s not figures out yet.
LOL: Aside from music, what do you guys like to do for fun?
LH: It’s sort of a cliché, but you get into music because you like doing it. It’s pretty all-consuming right now. One of the reasons we moved to Denver was to explore a more outdoor-ish life.
SB: We both like to cook in certain circumstances.
LH: I love reading a lot.
SB: I guess there are no official hobbies. When you’re self-employed in the arts, it pretty much has to be all-consuming.
LH: I will say, something we’ve been thinking about doing from a hobbies perspective, is taking some of our old material and remixing them, having fun with our own music, not thinking about how it will sell. We’ll see if it turns into anything.
LOL: How do you guys see the future of this industry, as it pertains to technology, and digital vs. physical media?
LH: It can go either way. At the same time people are talking about it all going digital, there’s this resurgence of vinyl. So it seems no one really knows what they’re talking about. (laughs)
SB: I have no idea where it’s gonna go. The one thing that is clear is that it’s a changing landscape, which I think creates opportunity but also creates a lot of confusion. I can only speak for myself, personally, but I know that when I buy a physical piece of music, a CD, etc., it feels like I bought something. When I download music into my computer, the feeling is not the same. I don’t know if that’s the direction we’re really going to on in – it is more efficient, but it’s less satisfying in a way. Music then becomes an ephemeral thing that even more undefined and maybe even more devalued because there’s nothing there. There’s sound, but there’s nothing to hold on to in a physical way. It’s impossible to know where it’s going to go.
LH: One of the things we did on this new record Diamond was to purposefully make it as a record. Each track stands on its own, but it’s meant to be listened to from top to bottom, and experienced as a work of art. So we hope people take us up on the offer and buy the actual record instead of just downloading their 2 favorite songs. So we have not given up on the concept of records. That’s one of the problems of the digital world. I’m all for digital media, it’s exciting, but when it turns into people just buying one song at a time, that’s just boring. A single is a whole different experience than a record.