Perhaps it’s because she never gave a thought to becoming a professional folk singer that Austin-based Korean-American Betty Soo has succeeded so well. In other words, she’s a natural.
Like so many others, Soo messed around with a guitar in college at University of Texas at Austin, where she majored in English and thought she would become a high school creative writing teacher. Then one day in 2006 while in graduate school, her counselor had a heart-to-heart talk with her. “This woman was a big mentor to me,” Soo says in a phone interview from her home in central Austin. “We had two big folding chairs facing each other. She said, ‘Betty, why aren’t you doing music when everyone who knows you says that’s what you want to do.’
“It was a big hurdle for me, psychologically, because I felt it was totally legitimate for other people to do music, but it was not for me. If I was doing it, it would be vain and narcissistic,” says Soo, 30, who had already been performing informally with gatherings of friends in Austin.
“It wasn’t until she came out and said that to me that I finally thought, ‘Maybe I’m being selfish to avoid it, I do want to do that, and I’m probably frustrating the people around me who know me.’ If she hadn’t had that conversation with me, I don’t know if I ever would have tried it.”
Soo performs on Saturday, March 28, at Concerts at the Crossing in Titusville. Kate Taylor, sister to James and Livingston Taylor, is also on the program.
Working with friends at Fat Caddy Music, Soo quickly purchased her first professional guitar and got publicity photos made and her biography written.
Born in South Korea, Soo was raised in Spring, Texas, just north of Houston, one of four daughters. Her mom is a pediatrician and her father an internal medicine specialist. Her parents run a Medicaid clinic in an underprivileged neighborhood in Houston. “My oldest sister is a dentist, my middle sister works in a big law firm in LA, and then my younger sister is a really successful physical trainer in Houston,” she says. “They all make real money.”
When she came to Austin in 1996 for college, she fell in love with the city’s still-vibrant club and coffee house scene. She graduated early in 1999, but quickly points out why: “The reason I graduated early was because I was doing my student teaching and realized that this was not for me,” she says. “I went to my school counselor, and she said, ‘If you’re not going to get your teaching degree, then you’re done.’”
She later entered graduate school to earn a masters in counseling at UT, but in between, worked several sundry jobs at various law firms and a church children’s ministry, and as a parking garage attendant. “I wasn’t playing out at that time, I wasn’t pursuing music at all, so I supported myself on odds and ends. And then I got married,” she says. Her husband, Dave Terry, now her drummer, hails from Rochester, NY, and came to Austin for an engineering job during the high-tech boom of the late ’80s and ’90s.
“It wasn’t until after I was married for a time that I went for it and decided I wanted to try and play music full time,” Soo says. She started late, in her mid-20s, she readily admits. She won’t be traveling with a band on this tour, shesays, but will be accompanied by guitarist David Glazer.
In late 2004 when she got her first guitar, she immediately began writing her own songs. She counts Simon and Garfunkel and Lyle Lovett among many influences. “I just knew I wanted to sing and do music and I went to a songwriting class hoping to find struggling songwriters looking for a singer. But in the process, I found out I could write my own songs.”
The proof is in her three albums, and in particular, her latest, “Heat Sin Water Skin,” produced by Austin-based guitarist, songwriter, bandleader, and impresario Gurf Morlix. Morlix has produced brilliant albums by Lucinda Williams, Slaid Cleaves, and Mary Gauthier, among others, and his own albums are a refreshing blend of blues, Americana, and roots-rock.
How did she get Morlix to take an interest in her, given that she’s so green? “I’ve been a fan of his music for years. I don’t think there are that many Americana artists who aren’t inspired by him, yet I knew I’d have to be at a certain level before I could approach him,” she says. “I contacted him last year in the summer and he said he was going to Canada. He said, ‘Send me some stuff,’ so I just did a bunch of real simple guitar and vocal demos, and then he wrote me back from Canada.”
Things happened quickly for Soo after she secured a couple of opening slots for bigger name acts that played at the Cactus Cafe, a large coffee house on the UT campus. “I had my CD release party at the Cactus, and then the win at the Kerrville Folk Festival was a huge break for me, and that was right after winning a smaller award at the Wildflower Festival,” she says. Both festivals are noted for drawing legions of up-and-coming singer-songwriters.
“Griff, who runs the Cactus Cafe, has been a huge help,” she says, noting he threw her opening slots for sold-out shows by the likes of Jackopierce, Shawn Mullins, Ruthie Foster, and Bob Schneider.
Aside from her husband on drums, her Austin band includes Todd Wilson on keyboards, Paul Prestridge on bass, and either Will Sexton or Jeff Frankenhorn on guitar.
In terms of her approach to songwriting, Soo says she finds she can’t keep a diary on the road or at home for very long and prefers to write songs into her computer, using guitar or piano. “They come in spurts,” she says of the songs. “I’ll have a month where I’m not writing anything, and then I’ll have a week where I write six songs.”
For New Jersey audiences largely unfamiliar with Soo, the singer says, “I’m a folk singer with a country influence. And there’s gospel and blues influences in there, and a little twang and a little pop, too. I have a hard time narrowing things down, which by the way, music fans love about me. But that’s one thing the music industry hates. The record companies all just want you to do one thing.”
At the March 28 concert, she says, “I’ll tell some funny stories, do some ballads and there’ll be some soulful, gospel-inspired music in there as well.”
Betty Soo, Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville. Saturday, March 28, 8 p.m. Betty Soo, a Texas-based Korean American singer songwriter, opens the show for singer-songwriter Kate Taylor, who will perform songs from her 40-plus year career, including classic songs that reflect her rhythm and blues and pop musical influences. $25; $5 children 14 and under. 609-510-6278 or www.crossingconcerts.com.