Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

Beth DeSombre: Blog

NERFA Mentoring: Artist Bios

Posted on November 14, 2015
My second mentoring session at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference was with Mary Lou Troy. Although she offered several different topics on which to mentor, one of them was “writing artist bios.” My music bio needs updating in a general sense, but I also had some specific issues I wanted to focus on.

From the beginning of my music career I made an effort to keep my music life separate from my academic life – plenty of people in the academic world didn’t know I was a musician, and even fewer in the music world knew that my day job was college professor.

I guess, on the music end of things, there were two main motivations to keep those identities separate: first, there’s a stream of anti-intellectualism in bits of the folk music world; and second, I was afraid that somehow people wouldn’t think I was serious as a musician if I had another serious career.

A number of things, though, have convinced me that it’s mistaken to try to keep such a separation. For one thing, people on both sides of the line keeping seeking out information about the other side of my life. That’s particularly true of music presenters, who will often bring up my academic life in intros, even when I haven’t told them about it.

And Val Denn, a fantastic booking agent, told me this summer at Song School that being a college professor and book author is what makes me interesting and memorable (and the fact that she remembered these things about me two years after briefly meeting me was a sign that she might be onto something).

In any case, it was one thing to decide that I wanted to keep those parts less separate, and yet another to figure out exactly how to do it, especially in how I present myself in the music world. And that’s apart from the fact that writing your own bio is hard no matter what, especially for someone not fond of self-promotion.

Mary Lou began by reminding me me that bios should be updated regularly, especially if you’re coming through a place you’ve previously played, since venue people and press folks often simply take what’s in your bio and write it into the story or description, and you need to have something the next time around that can be a different press release or article). And, of course, the need to have bios of varying lengths accessible on my website.

She had useful ways to frame the broader endeavor of bio-writing. She pointed out that the bio is information about someone, but that it needs to read as a story. Who I am informs what I do, and so making that be part of the story is key.

She suggested that I think about what the academic and the music side of my life have in common, like the fact that I’ve always been a writer (and that the academic writing and the songwriting are different ways at getting at the same questions). In answering her questions I was also reminded that I was a songwriter before I was an academic, so putting that down to go to grad school and then picking it back up could be part of how I frame my story.

The other big question is about how to describe my music. That’s always the big question, and it’s a struggle I’m reminded of when I’m in a conference with hundreds of other singer-songwriters and we’re all trying to describe what it is we do. That’s particularly true if what I want is to find the audience of people who want to hear the kind of music I play. (And that observation is a reminder of one reason integrating my whole life into my bio is a good idea: that anti-intellectual stream in the folk music world? That’s not my audience, and spending time trying to disguise who I am not to scare those people off doesn’t make any sense.)

She had a couple strategies for that. One is to write down a list of my most played/appreciated songs and for each one write a few lines about what the song is about, or what I’m proudest of in that song. A second good plan is to ask other people what my music is about, or to describe my songwriting. It’s much easier to describe someone’e else’s music than your own. So if any of you have ideas about how to best describe my music, send ‘em my way – and be forewarned that you might be hearing from me with a specific request.

She also has a set of prompts she’s going to send me; questions that when I answer them will help get me figure out what the narrative is. She also recommended I watch a youtube video Susan Werner has posted (called “EPK” – I haven’t seen it yet) in which she is talking about what she does. Mary Lou suggested that I ask myself what questions she’s answering in the video and think about how I would answer them myself.

Ultimately I agree that being the full version of me makes sense, and that finding a way to tell that story will convey what’s interesting about me and my musical path is a good plan. I just need to go make it happen.