Singer-songwriter Susan Herndon is known for many things, but her reputation as Oklahoma’s consummate example of a working folk songstress might be how she is most remembered.
The internationally touring live-music veteran has worked as a full-time musician for the majority of the last two decades. According to her website, Herndon plays around 200 shows a year.
Her very personal and often relatable lyrical style most recently graced fans’ ears on the EP Spin, released in November with her band the Bella Counsel, which also consists of talented multi-instrumentalists Bob French and Randall Coyne.
Bella Counsel recently finished recording its new studio album. The full-length effort, Herndon’s ninth album total, will be released in the near future.
Herndon will participate in a live song swap event with fellow singer-songwriters Mike Hosty and Larry Spears Thursday at The Blue Door, 2805 N. McKinley Ave. The trio of musicians will play their own music and engage in an improvised collaborative jam session. Admission for the all-ages show is $20.
Herndon — a guitarist, pianist and upright bass player — does not regret her decision to leave her old job teaching French at a Tulsa high school 18 years ago to become a full-time musician. Still, she stops short of recommending others follow in her footsteps for a life of relentless touring.
“Only 2 percent of it is great, which is the 2 percent you’re playing a gig that’s really great,” Herndon said.
The other 98 percent, she said, is less-glorious hustle and hard work. Herndon said anyone who cannot bring themselves to love, or at least tolerate, the behind-the-scenes work that goes into being a musician should probably keep it as a hobby.
Herndon still loves music, but she said the only secret to keeping her focus is not having a viable fallback plan.
“I can’t get out now,” she said. “I mean, I could, but what am I going to do?”
Herndon wrote the material on Spin months before the 2016 presidential election reached its wild climax, but she embraced the connection when her self-reflective lyrics began to so strongly and serendipitously align with the chaotic political season. On the title track, she sings, “I’d rather be right and lose than be wrong and win, taking me so deep down in the spin than I’ve ever been.”
She said hope that a shift from the election cycle would restore some kind of national or global order quickly evaporated and the world continued to whirl out of control. Like many others, Herndon has grown somewhat jaded to the news that pops up in headlines these days and she’s desperate to return to a time with fewer scandals and violence.
“I never trust anything,” she said. “It’s all just smoke and mirrors.”
Herndon has a degree in French and spent a few years teaching English in the country in her 20s. To this day, she still tours Europe as often as she can. What seems like an uptick in terrorism-related violence on the continent has been very disturbing for her to watch from afar and is sometimes too close for comfort.
During a recent tour through England, Herndon said her band left the country just the day before the May 22 attack in Manchester most famous for the bombing that killed 23 people following an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena.
Herndon said her band rented their instruments out of Manchester. It also nearly flew in and out of the city.
“It was very close,” she said. “It was all right under our noses.”
The seemingly unpredictable nature of the world today brings more importance to the idea of musical healing. Herndon said gigging can be as beneficial to the musician as attending a gig can be for fans.
“It doesn’t matter what size [show] and for whom or how big the place is,” she said. “It just feels right to be doing that.”
While she recognizes the power of music to heal, the career musician does not claim to be offering anything holy or altruistic at her shows.
“I’m pretty selfish about it,” Herndon said. “I feel like if we strive for our highest aim, then we’re kind of doing it for everybody. I don’t take on an attitude of, ‘Oh, I’m doing this for the poor people.’ But I do think music is healing. It does bring people together. There’s nothing like a great song to unite.”
Herndon often sees the singer-songwriter lifestyle glamorized by outsiders. The reality, she said, is rarely as ideal as it appears. Herndon is not a homeowner and has no children and no health insurance. She recently had no choice but to perform a week’s slate of shows while sick.
“I had to go and do those gigs,” she said. “Otherwise, I’d have no income.”
Songwriters are often asked where they get their inspiration. Herndon said for her, it is a true mystery. She believes in divine inspiration and muses, but, as is true in the other aspects of her career, Herndon also looks at the art of songwriting from a pragmatic point of view.
“It’s a mystery, but it’s also really mundane and craftwork — a real bitch,” she said. “I hate it sometimes because it’s not easy. It’s great if it is and it comes in 10 minutes. That’s cool, and sometimes it happens, but more often than not, it takes working through ideas.”
Herndon said when she started her music career, the local folk scene was strong but segmented. There were pockets of talented artists across the state who more or less remained in the same circles without interacting.
These days, perhaps due to the connective power of the internet, those boundaries have faded away. Oklahoma’s folk scene, built on the foundation of Woody Guthrie and his legacy, is currently seen as one of the healthiest and most vibrant in the nation.
Herndon said the state has also become more accepting of female artists and their work. She remembers the early struggle of getting some club owners to recognize her as a legitimate artist.
“I remember even 15 years ago finding myself beating my head against clubs in Tulsa,” she said. “That was before I got hip to, ‘Why am I beating my head against this wall? It doesn’t feel good.’ Now I realize to never do that again.”
Herndon, one of contemporary Oklahoma folk’s most recognizable names, said while working as a full-time musician can be personally grinding, the reward it offers easily overshadows any negatives.
“Meeting people who love the music,” she said, “that makes it all worthwhile.”
Susan Herndon, Mike Hosty and Larry Spears Song Swap
8 p.m. Thursday
The Blue Door
2805 N. McKinley Ave.
Print headline: Steady hand: Susan Herndon successfully maintains life as a working musician in an ever-changing world.