Holly Montgomery: DC-based freelance musician talks gigging, teaching and guitars

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Washington, DC-based, freelance musician and award-winning songwriter, Holly Montgomery, gets down to business, sharing her knowledge and experience, on the ups and downs, and how to’s, in achieving continual success, as a full-time, freelance artist.

Holly, tell us about how and when you started playing music and performing?

You know, I wish I knew. Both my parents were musical people and so it always seemed to be part of what I did. When I was quite young, my mother, who played guitar, used to bring us to sing with her when she performed. When I was growing up, I played a little piano and trombone through high school and college. I always sang. And then when I was about 19, I discovered electric bass, moved to Los Angeles, and the rest is history.

You performed and lived on the west coast for many years. Now, you currently reside on the east coast, in the Washington DC area. What are the similarities in opportunities and the differences, between the west and the east coast, for a full-time performing, freelance musician? 

The music scenes are like night and day. When I lived in L.A. and pursuing/getting the record deal thing, I was routinely driving 4-8 hours to play gigs, that actually paid something. Supply and demand made it such, that in L.A., it was largely pay-to-play, and where the myth of playing for the benefit of “exposure” is enshrined. And where everyone who works at music venues gets paid, except for the people, actually making the music. On the other hand, there was a wealthy music industry there. So, it made it possible to dream the biggest dreams, where the sky was the limit. I am so glad I did all that. But, I found that in the DC area, if you are willing to be diverse and work hard, you can make a living as a middle-class musician. Which provides me a lot of freedom in my head as there is a lot less pressure to conform to musical trends. Also, a friend pointed out to me recently that lots of national acts go to DC to find players because there are so many great musicians here. So true! I don’t always get to do my own music or do my favorite kind of music, but when I am doing something else, I look at it as working on my craft as a player. Overall, I am grateful and feel blessed to be at a place now where I really just want to make art with what I’m doing, and I don’t feel obligated to impress anyone at a record label.

How have you managed to keep a balance between being a mother and being a full-time musician? 

This may not be popular to say, but, for me, I did not find a balance. I adopted three older kids – 9, 13, 15 years old – from Kazakhstan and it required my complete attention for some years, during which I barely picked up my bass. I am glad I did it this way as I am sure that I would not have been able to do both simultaneously, and besides, it has had the unintended effect of keeping me surprised and grateful these days that I am working as much as I do. The kids are grown up now, as I only had them a few years, and being able to be their mother is by far the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

Tell us about your bass guitar rig and gear you perform with. Also, your acoustic setup for solo work. 

When I lived in Los Angeles, I had the privilege for nearly four years to work for Mike Tobias. He made me a bass, which was my primary instrument until fall of 2016, when he made me a new MTD bass. There were a few things I needed and got from this new bass. First, I needed something lighter, as light as possible. He has a way now of roasting the wood so that it is lighter without sacrificing tone – roasted ash with walnut top. It also has a birdseye maple fretboard, which I really wanted for clarity of tone. This bass weighs a third less than my previous pre-Gibson Tobias bass, and it is much more versatile in tone. It can get the growl of a Fender but is still quite ferocious in the low end. Also, the neck is further into the body, which has been a great relief.

Allow me this tangent – I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it – they don’t make guitars for the female body. It’s hard to get them to hang properly in the front, if you take my point, and if you’re short with tiny hands, like me, it’s a double whammy. Oh, the chiropractic issues I’ve had from a lifetime of playing instruments built for 6’ tall flat-chested dudes…rant over!

I currently endorse Tecamp bass gear, and have a Puma 1000 amplifier and a 2×12 cabinet, which sound great.

My solo guitar rig has changed in the last few months. After years of playing only Taylor guitars, I recently bought a Yamaha Silent Guitar and I love it. I wanted an acoustic guitar that hung on my body like an electric, but did not sound thin, and this guitar is the best of both worlds. It took some getting used to, to not hear yourself other than through a speaker. But I love the way it feels and plays, and the onboard effects work for most things I do.

You are in high demand as a studio musician and musician for hire throughout the DC region. What suggestions would you have for musicians looking to relocate, finding work and opportunities to play? 

For the most part, people in the music community in DC are really open and welcoming, and will pass your name along. A friend of mine here in DC once said that all he had to do was show up to every gig 100% prepared and not be a d*ck and he was always able to find work. That’s absolutely true. Too often, I have hired people who show up unprepared for the gig, or think that winging it is okay because the gig doesn’t pay that much, or it is a small gig, so not that important. I believe that every gig is important. And that it is a personal integrity issue, to do the best job I can, every time I play. Especially because there are so many better players than me around here, and I have to work as hard as I can to be in their league. I would tell someone moving here, that DC is full of world-class musicians – even if Capitol Records is not located here – many of whom are touring, gigging, scoring movies, writing, and making great music. So, you will be competing with them for gigs. Still, unlike many music-industry centered places, there is not the cut-throat attitude here, so these world-class musicians will help you get a gig if you practice your craft, and are nice to them!

“Oh, I must say that I was born a rocker chick and I will
hopefully die a rocker chick – with my grandchildren
rockin’ out with me!”

You currently perform in a trio, solo, duo, freelance, teach, write and do session work. What is your favorite format and what do you feel is most lucrative, nurturing growth as an artist and proving lucrative, financially?

Oh, I must say that I was born a rocker chick and I will hopefully die a rocker chick – with my grandchildren rockin’ out with me! If I had my way or won the lottery, I would only play with my band, and would write and record with them, and grow that part of my musical world. I enjoy doing many things, but that’s where my heart lies. That said, I love doing session and freelance work. I also really enjoy writing songs for other people and projects. But, the percentage of my time that went for the different musical things I do, would change in my ideal world, though I’d keep doing all the things I do.

This past year, you received many awards and accolades for your songwriting effort on your latest music release. Please share with us the awards you received and how those songs developed and where your writing begins.

I won the rock category of the UK Songwriting Contest in 2017, and also the rock category of the Mid-Atlantic Songwriting Contest. My song, “Song Of My Life” won both contests. I was deeply moved by Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” video, which was done with the last shred of his awareness, as he gradually succumbed to Alzheimer’s. I actually wrote the song in a moment of sheer panic, as I imagined how terrible it would be to know that your mind and awareness were slipping away from you. I wish I could say that I wrote it in an uplifting frame of mind, but that would be untrue. The song is about my hopes to grow old on my own terms, still as the person I am now, secure in the freedom of my thoughts and memories.

Right now I am on a writing binge, and have lots of unrecorded new songs. Being the aforementioned rocker chick, my songs require full band recording, which is expensive to self-finance. I am trying to decide if I feel brave enough to, again, crowd-fund for the next group of songs, as I am mindful that there is a glut of people doing that these days. That said, towards my next release, I have two songs finished and mastered, three songs recorded and waiting for mix/mastering, and six more songs written and in demo form, and another group of four, that are written. I am trying to decide which I will put my energies into. I have this grand over-arching idea for this next group of songs, and if I were to win the lottery, they would be part of a grand rock opera that has been living in my head and nagging at me for a while now. But, I will be happy just to hear this next group of songs in some form, some day, and so the idea for my rock opera will have to go on living in and nagging me, in my head.

In 2017, you reunited and performed with The Mustangs, an all-female west coast band you used to work with. Is there more on tap for this project in 2018? 

Oh yes, I am on my way to L.A. in April 2018 for Mustangs sessions, and we have other plans for later in the year. It’s really great to work with these great women again!

What has been the most cherished moment in your music career? 

Hmmm. I don’t think I have one single moment. There are some revelatory moments, like when I recorded my first song – after taking the years off after adopting the kids – and thinking, “Okay, that’s not bad!” There are some individual moments from shows where I remember feeling like I became one with the universe, and I wish those moments were more common. But really, at least right now, my most cherished moment, is when I remind myself that I don’t have to go out today and get a day job.

“I also love to travel, and would be quite happy to live out of a suitcase, seeing the world and discovering how other people live and think.”

You have, in addition, managed to fit into your busy schedule, teaching music lessons. Are most of your students, learning bass, guitar, or voice? Female or male? Have you had any of your students really stand out and continue on a path to becoming a full time working musician? 

I have gone back and forth with the number of students I have. And in the past, I have had as many as 25 per week. However, as a teacher, I am far too idealistic and feel really guilty taking parents’ money when their kid(s) don’t practice in between lessons. So, I’ve backed way off. I try to tell myself that even if they hold the instrument once a week it’s better than not doing it at all, but it’s no good, I just can’t do it in the long run. I used to teach at a local music school, but I couldn’t find the joy in it. It felt to me more like the kids were going on a play date – not that there’s anything wrong with that – it just doesn’t interest me personally to play that role. That said, I had a few students from that school who are now in college learning music and who are fantastic players and doing great. I currently have five students that I teach at their homes, two piano students and three guitar students. They are all musical kids and have parents who make sure they practice. As a result, I bring them to gigs a lot and often have them play with me and/or my band.

My approach as a teacher is always to prepare the student for any contingency on stage, to be able to speak the musical language, and to have the skill to listen and the knowledge to recover after making mistakes. I think it’s an invaluable life lesson to learn that mistakes are part of life and that we can recover quickly from them if we set our minds to it. So I would say, that if you are a student who wants to be able to play in bands and play gigs, then I am a good teacher for you. That means you accept that you need to understand how music works, and have the patience to practice technique. Otherwise, every gig would take months to learn the material. 

What does Holly do to relax?

Relaxing actually makes me nervous. Such is the burden of the self-employed! That said, I am an avid reader, and have even lately, been writing a bunch of short stories that I’ve submitted. I am a history geek and love to read history and watch historical drama and documentaries. I find that unraveling the timeline of a particular point in history, goes a long way towards calming my mind and understanding the present. I also love to travel, and would be quite happy to live out of a suitcase, seeing the world and discovering how other people live and think.

What are some links, readers can checkout to learn more about you and see your schedule, for performance dates?

My music world and show schedule is always posted on my website, www.hollymontgomerymusic.com. I am averaging at least 20 gigs per month and am careful to note, on my calendar, if I am playing with my band or solo/duo, or if I am freelancing with another band. A big thank you to anyone who comes to a show!


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