Phoebe Hunt’s excellent Live at the Cactus Café flits (“Fly On”) and flutters (“Take Me Home”) with relentless resolve. CMT Edge spoke with the former Belleville Outfit leader about songwriting, her Austin roots and recording her new solo album at the city’s most hallowed listening room, the Cactus Café.
“This was the first project where I decided to just do it and I did it without looking for a studio or a label or anyone else to help me out,” Hunt says. “I was like, ‘I want to do a live album.’ So, I booked the shows.”
CMT Edge: Did you settle on the Cactus right away?
Hunt: The original idea was to record four different live shows at four great listening venues in Texas and make it a Live in Texas album, especially since I was moving back to Texas from Nashville at the time. I thought this would be a perfect way to move back to Austin and do a recording in different rooms. We recorded shows at [Houston’s] Mucky Duck, one at the Bugle Boy [in La Grange] and at Main Street Crossing in Tomball, Texas, and we finished at the Cactus Café. That show was just magical and blew the other ones out of the water.
Describe the atmosphere the night you recorded.
Oh, it was just full of love. That’s the best way I can describe it. It was the hometown love, people from my childhood, people from my entire life, people from the Austin Montessori school from growing up all the way up to my current best friends. It captured my entire life span of being an Austin person. You’re looking around at this room full of glowing hearts, all wanting you to do the best you can. The band onstage, we were all ready because we had all these other rehearsal shows. The audience was ready for us to have a great show, too.
How essential was the Cactus in your development as a songwriter?
I got to see some incredible shows at the Cactus when I went to the University of Texas for college. Carrie Rodriguez played there with Chip Taylor recently, and I went to see that. It was incredible. There’s been this magical element in every show I’ve seen there, especially when the room is full. I mean, when the room is not full, it’s also special because it’s a legendary room. So many people have played on that stage, which has a lot of great energy on it. Townes Van Zandt played there weekly for however many years to whoever showed up. I think it’s impossible to say it hasn’t been a part of my songwriting because I am from Austin and it’s such an elemental room here in Texas.
Do you prefer writing alone or co-writing?
I like it all. Writing by myself is like giving myself time to really bring an idea to life. When I’m writing by myself, it’s like giving myself a blessing. So often, I end up filling up my calendar with other people. I have lots of projects going on and constantly keep myself busy. So giving myself the time to sit and finish an idea is a very sacred experience. I cherish the times I allow myself to spend with myself, if that makes sense.
I also love collaborating and getting other people’s creative juju into my creative process. Every time I create with someone else, it’s a completely different process. I feel like a chameleon when I walk into their world. Two people together each have their own chemistry, so I like to just see what happens. I really love thinking of life as a big experiment.
What did you take away from the Belleville Outfit as a songwriter?
As a songwriter, I think I really learned how to arrange when I was with the Belleville Outfit. We worked really well together on arrangement and that taught me to really ask the people around me for what I want to hear. Now when I’m working as a bandleader, I have more confidence and I’m able to ask people to play a certain part or do a certain thing. I think the training I got by being in the Belleville Outfit was huge in that.
Tell the story behind writing “Take Me Home.”
I wrote that song with Kelly [Mickwee] from the Trishas. I was living in Nashville and she came to town to visit. She was doing co-write sessions in Nashville every month. We just connected. She was staying at a boat house north of town, and I drove up about 45 minutes to go visit her and hang out in this cool boat house. She was feeling really homesick that visit and was on the phone with her husband missing him and wondering, “What am I doing, coming here to song write?”
I totally relate to that experience. What has brought me to this random nook in the world and why am I here rather than at home with people I know and doing things that are familiar? I’m in this completely random place in the world and for what? This career? This song? Why do I do all this? Just take me home. Hang out with me. Let me be comforted and know that you love me.
Are you back in Austin now? The release says you went to New York.
Yeah, the press release is interesting. I moved from Nashville back to Austin in January. I have a little attic nook here in South Austin, and I’m moving to New York in July. I’m doing a co-living situation. My boyfriend and I are renting a room in Williamsburg, but I’m keeping my little attic nook here. I’m just basically going to New York to experience the magic and creative powers of New York.
I want to go there and get the fuel and the fire lit under my butt. Just thinking about the huge energy and going has made me step up my game and focus. So, I want that to be in my life for the next few years and inspire me, but I need to keep the grounding and healing and amazing treasure of Austin in my life.
Yeah, the communal feel here’s totally unique.
Oh, Austin’s always been an incredible community for me. I always know that I can go to Central Market or Whole Foods, and I’ll run into someone I know. I can just go to Barton Springs and hang out. Austin is an incredible place to hang out and for being a creative person, but there’s this intensity in New York that I’ve always wanted to feel out.
Also, there’s a huge movement in the acoustic music scene in the Park Slope and Brooklyn area. The Punch Brothers all live up there. Aoife O’Donovan lives there. There’s a huge community of acoustic music, either bluegrass pickers or jazz or folkie singer-songwriters migrating to New York right now. I just want to be a part of that and bridge the cities. I think there’s sister city-ness about Austin and New York, and I’m basically just going to check it out.