When she was 18, Capps moved to New York City to follow her dreams of music stardom and attended Wagner College in Staten Island on a vocal scholarship. Feeling isolated from the music scene, she took a year away from her studies and began focusing on her own craft.
She moved to South Slope in Brooklyn, transferred colleges to Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts in Greenwich Village, and started writing music and exploring the Brooklyn music scene. Now she is releasing her first album of original material.
I met up with Capps near her apartment in East Williamsburg at Grand Morelos, a local diner and bakery at 727 Grand St., to discuss her road to releasing her first full-length album of original material.
What originally brought you to New York?
I came here to go to college, but I always knew that I wanted to be here. My mom always used to take me here when I was a kid and it was always such a magical place to me, so I always knew that at some point I would move.
What was that decision like for you taking a year off from school for your music?
Well when you’re a young musician, I mean it seems silly since I’m only 25 and I have plenty of time obviously, but the kind of music that I’m doing, like pop and at the time was a little more jazzy, but being youthful is important. I think that I just wanted to dive right in and get my feet wet and see what the community was like. I think I got a good sense of that.
Were you scared?
Yeah, I was scared. It was my first time not having that cushion of school. I was with one of my really good friends at the time who I met at Wagner College, and we roomed together and he was in the arts industry as well.
What did you discover taking a year off school?
I did a lot of writing and I discovered more of a sense of songwriting style because I had time to just really knuckle down in my bedroom and figure out my own musicality. In terms of the community, I just found that I was still kind of gaining contacts at that point, and I realized how hard that is to break in and make those contacts and find the right places to play. It was first my experience doing that, but now looking back I have played at tons of different venues and have those connections to go back and play wherever I want.
At the time, it was all about learning how to reach out to people, where to reach out, where the good places were, where the funky places were and I was 19 at the time, so the places that would let me in at 19. (laughs)
Had you always written your own music?
It really always has been part of me. Since I could talk I started singing. My household was very musical and artistic. My dad is a jazz guitar player and he has a home recording studio. My mom is an artist and she teaches visual arts to kids. It was always around me so it was just kind of natural that it happened.
I started taking piano lessons when I was six or seven. I didn’t really start playing guitar until high school and I started taking voice lessons when I was 15. That was when I realized that’s really where my passion was.
In what ways did your vision of expressing yourself change when you were in school?
I think I experimented in different ways, engaging in some more electronic and avant garde kind of stuff. I also started getting into the ukulele, and I started using it in less traditional ways. That is definitely influenced by what I do now.
I definitely consider myself a singer first and foremost, but I do have enough knowledge of the ukulele, the guitar and the piano to write songs. Today I write my own music, but I do collaborate a lot. My boyfriend and guitar player, Anthony Farina, he is the co-songwriter in the new album that I’m coming out with; I think he wrote like half of it. I think it’s always important, that even though I can write my own music, it is always important to get feedback and collaborate in different ways. Sometimes I’ll build a really nice structure to something, but he’ll have a better melody. I’ll do the same thing with my piano player; I’ll have a good melody and he can put all the right chords to it that I wouldn’t have thought of.
So now you’re ready to release your first album; what came before this?
This is my first full length of originals but it’s definitely not my first album. This will actually be my fifth because my dad, as I mentioned, has his own recording studio so I put out a little EP when I was 15 and sold it at my high school. I put out two jazz albums after that, and they did pretty well.
When I was a senior at the New School, I put out an EP of originals, Maybe In The Morning, which was a good step forward because it was my first short album of original material. But this is the next step in the process, and having a full-length album of originals is really exciting.
What are your first thoughts about putting out The Wishing Forest?
It is going to be interesting to see people’s feedback, especially those who were a fan of the jazz stuff that I did, to hear what they think of the original material. I’m more excited than nervous though.
I think jazz is going to be a part of what I do. Even in my pop songs there are a lot of jazz influences. There are very jazzy progressions and melodies and subtle phrasings from the jazz world that will just never leave my memory because I started with that. That is what kind of makes it original sounding because it has a pop component to it.
Where was it recorded?
We recorded it at Vinegar Hill Sound, which is in DUMBO, and we did that this summer in June. Reed Black, who was the touring piano player for the band Saves The Day, he was the engineer on it and did a really awesome job. We had it mixed by Michael Brauer at Electric Lady Studios, which is really exciting. He is kind of a legend in the mixing engineer world, he's worked with John Mayer and Coldplay and all these cool people. They took all the pieces and just put it together so beautifully. It was really exciting.
Where did you come up with the name The Wishing Forest for your album?
The Wishing Forest is actually a real place in my dad’s backyard in Vermont. There was this little cluster of trees on his 'ginormous' property that he would take me and my sister down to, and we would pick a spot and make a wish. There’d be a tree cut in half and we would sit on the stump and make a wish.
I found in the album that a lot of the songs were about wishing for things in one way or another, so it just made sense to call it that. There is a song on the album called “Storybook” and the line, “the wishing forest,” is mentioned. So in a way, “Storybook” is kind of the title track of the album.
What inspired you to first get into music?
It was a lot of combinations of things, but it was definitely my dad for sure, being around and teaching me. “Skylark” was the first jazz standard that I learned and I fell in love with it. I always had a lot of pop idols when I was a teenager. It just came naturally to me that it was always what I wanted to do as a very little girl.
It was never really a choice for me. I have always been a very determined person, and I have been lucky enough to have the support of my friends and family, and not everyone has that so I have been blessed in that way, but I am pretty confident that I will be doing it for a long time.
Look for Hillary Capps’ new album The Wishing Forest on Jan. 21 and join her at Rockwood Music Hall, located at 196 Allen St. in the LES, on Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. for her official album release party.