Hers is a career with long hours, low pay and slim chances for advancement, so what keeps Hilary Scott singing?
This story has been adapted from Hilary Scott’s Inside Columbia Magazine cover and editorial in December 2005
The confident, articulate woman sharing stories from her childhood might have been a doctor or a CEO. It’s not for lack of intelligence that she chose to become a musician. In fact, she argues convincingly that a career in music requires mathematical prowess and business savvy.
Hilary Scott enjoys local acclaim as one of Columbia’s favorite entertainers and as word of her talents spreads, she is starting to attract national attention from admirers and record executives. Her five albums since her 2000 debut have forged a loyal fan base and her release last year of the radio-friendly “Out Of The Wilderness” [ital] is garnering interest in the music industry.
A few minutes in this woman’s presence quickly leads to the realization that she could have succeeded at a dozen different careers, but she has followed the path she stumbled upon when she was 2 years old.
The Family Band
“I would listen to the radio and then climb up on the piano,” Scott says. “The first song I picked out on the piano after hearing it on the radio was ‘You Light Up My Life.’ [ital] I was fascinated by the piano; it was definitely my first love.”
The daughter of a physician and a research chemist for Apollo space mission projects, Scott was taking piano lessons by the age of 4. Three years later, she was also studying violin. Her affinity for music came as no surprise, though. She was only following the example set by her older brother and sister.
“Everybody in my family played two or three instruments,” she says. “I did everything my brother had done — piano, then violin, then alto saxophone. I also wanted to sing like my sister, who has a gem of a voice, and then guitar followed.”
Ready for her close-up
Hilary Scott enjoyed star treatment from local businesses that provided merchandise and services for her Inside Columbia photo shoot. This photo was the cover shot for the December 2005 issue.
Her interest in guitar was born out of the need for a portable instrument. By the time she was in high school, Scott was writing her own music and “I couldn’t carry a piano with me.” She continued to hone her talents at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., where she majored in English and studied vocal performance.
Although she was raised near Seattle, a city known for its music, Scott didn’t harbor any teenage fantasies about performing onstage for a standing-room-only crowd.
“I guess there was a tendency toward performance inside of me — I was always trying out for plays and trying out for choirs — but I definitely had stage fright when I was younger,” she says. “I think it actually happened because of piano recitals. Those were very nerve-wracking for me. I didn’t like adjudications. I didn’t like a panel of judges who were there to dissect every little thing. But something happened my freshman year in college when I was chosen for a solo in the Madrigals choir, which was exclusive enough to really boost my confidence. A switch just kind of flipped and I was no longer scared of performing. It was then that I decided I wanted to sing my own music for people.”
Every step of Scott’s musical journey, from piano-plunking tot to crowd-pleasing professional, has been celebrated and supported by her mother.
“My mother is a great inspiration in everything I do,” Scott says with obvious pride. “Not only is she musical — she’s a very good pianist — she’s also a visual artist and photographer and graduated from college in chemistry at a time when that was a hugely male-dominated field. She worked for a company that had a consulting contract with NASA, she’s been a mayor and an incredible mother, and she let me know through her example that I could really do anything that I wanted to. My mother was always my biggest cheerleader and it didn’t matter if I decided to go to law school or if I did this, she was going to help me.”
Scott’s father, an obstetrician/gynecologist, was more the pragmatist when it came to his daughter’s career choice.
“We went rounds about it,” Scott says, “but he’s become a little more accepting and I know deep down he’s proud of me and what I do. His occupation is one where the results are right in front of you — the paycheck is very obvious so the rewards are extrinsic. I know my father also gets intrinsic rewards from helping people, but I’m in an occupation where the rewards are often solely intrinsic. When you can’t see the reward, the measuring stick for success is, well, invisible. In a way, my father asking the questions and having the doubts enabled me to ask the questions and have the doubts and then look inside myself and answer them. I think it made me stronger.”
But the family member Hilary Scott keeps closest to her heart may be her older brother.
“I definitely idolized my brother,” she says. “I loved him from afar even though we fought like cats and dogs. He was so cool. He was seven years older than me and out of the house already by the time I was hitting my stride, starting to sing solos and doing the things I wished he’d seen me do. He never saw me do any of that. He died while I was in college, two weeks before I graduated. The only thing he’d ever heard me sing was ‘O Holy Night’ [ital] at church, and he cried. It was so amazing to see my brother be so proud of that.”
What many of Scott’s fans don’t realize is that Scott isn’t really Hilary’s last name — it’s her brother’s first name.
“It’s the performance name I chose so he would always be with me,” she says.
A New Stage
The drive from Seattle to Columbia is a long one, but the decision to make the trip didn’t take long at all.
“The thing about the music scene in Seattle is that there are more people, more venues, and when I was just beginning it was me and the guitar,” Scott says. “I definitely wasn’t making any money at it, but I was getting a lot of good experience.”
One of those early gigs was to provide entertainment in the lobby of a local theater. About a week before the show, she met Michael, a percussionist and the friend of a friend.
“My friend said Michael was going to stop in Seattle for a break on his cross-country motorcycle trip for awhile and she’d introduce me to him,” Scott says. “He had listened to one of my CDs and he said, ‘You know, I really hear some drum behind this.’ We were drawn together by the music before we even met and when we did meet we spent that first week playing music. The theater asked if I had a band and I told them I didn’t but I could bring along a percussionist. We were trying to learn about 20 songs in the space of a week and we did it, we pulled it together, and we played the show and then he met my mother and we all went out to dinner. The train was rolling full-speed ahead and we were just holding on for the ride. I think you know when you know — maybe that’s one of my stupid idealistic tendencies that worked out.”
Idealism packed her into a Honda with no air conditioning, making the trip to Michael’s home in Columbia within a month.
The couple married 10 months later and Michael, an industrial technology and health teacher at Oakland Junior High School, is still pounding out the beat in Hilary’s band.
“It’s not just that he says he’s willing to make the sacrifices and go along with me; it’s that he physically does it,” Scott says. “He works long, long days at school, then follows me on the weekend to faraway places. He’s literally my biggest support. I’m really blessed to have him.”
Another pivotal player in Scott’s development as a first-class musician and songwriter has been Columbia itself. Although she had heard about the town in glowing terms from her future husband, she wasn’t sure what to expect when she left temperate Seattle only to be greeted by 110-degree August weather in mid-Missouri. What she found, weather notwithstanding, was the perfect climate for her budding talent.
“What I needed at that time was to develop my music and my craft and that’s what Columbia allowed me to do,” she says. “I don’t know if people living here realize what amazing musicians there really are here. They’re around every corner and I was blessed to meet many of them right away. They agreed to play with me when I wasn’t making anything. They gave their time just because they loved the idea of playing original music and they liked what I was doing.”
Even those citizens who aren’t musicians have embraced Scott and her music. She has become a popular draw at local and regional venues and often shares her talent to support causes she feels passionately about, including the Leukemia/Lymphoma Light the Night Walk, breast cancer awareness, Pascale’s Pals, and Hurricane Katrina relief.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm first met Scott when she volunteered to give a concert for the Officer Down Fund.
“In my profession, one of the things you learn is to be pretty perceptive about people and I knew very quickly that she was the kind of person you want to do business with,” Boehm says.
“I have visited with her on numerous occasions since that concert and find her to be a very talented person and very interested in giving back to the community. That’s not always the case with talented people of that nature.”
Boehm has become of fan of both the person and her music.
“Her music certainly has a nice sound to it and you can tell it’s genuine,” Boehm says. “It’s things that she’s thought about and wanted to write about. You can see her personality in her music.”
Behind The Music
Before Scott sings a note at any concert, she’s spent hours preparing. It’s that behind-the-scenes part of the job that most people underestimate and undervalue, she says, but it’s there that her business acumen has given her an advantage.
Who’s Singing In Hilary’s Ear?
Hilary Scott finds inspiration and escape in a wide variety of music. Here are a few of the artists appearing in heavy rotation in her CD player.
“I think she is one of the most talented songwriters out there today. She’s just an amazing storyteller.”
“It would be my ultimate dream to be onstage with that man.”
“He’s country music before it became about glitz and shine and long-legged skinny chicks.”
“I went along with the advice of my mother who said that for tax purposes and to keep the government happy and a multitude of other reasons, the best thing for me to do was start my own corporation, so I became Hilary Scott Inc,” she says. “It’s so much more work than people realize. There’s a portion of the day when I’m doing administrative duties and a portion of the day when I’m answering e-mails, talking to venues, literally taking care of business.”
Scott supplements her income and helps groom the next generation of musicians by teaching piano, voice, violin and guitar lessons several days a week.
“What excites me so much about the piano in particular, and what I try to tell my students, is that a lot of people think it’s boring because it’s common, but it’s really the most versatile instrument,” she says. “It’s a perfect tool for understanding the basic principles of music.”
She also uses teaching as a platform to promote math education, particularly for girls.
“I want my young female students not to be afraid of math and I use music to introduce them to mathematical concepts. When I went to school, even then I would say that girls were often ignored in math classes. I know that’s changing, that it’s not as true now, but I still think girls can be intimidated by it and they need encouragement that they can do it. Music is an excellent way to make it clear that math is applicable to many things in your life. It’s necessary, and it’s not something to be feared.”
Judy Schermer is certainly sold on Scott’s teaching abilities. All three of her children have taken music lessons from her and Schermer herself studied piano with Scott for a year.
“I think she is a gifted teacher,” Schermer says. “She is able to teach both children and adults. She even got me to play at a recital! My youngest is 10 and she sensed that he was getting a little bored with some of the regular books — the series of books that most piano teachers use — so she started looking for the type of music and the appropriate level for him to keep him excited about music.
“Hilary is beautiful, inside and out. She’s a very caring person, very sincere and sensitive. I think a lot of that comes out in her own music, which really adds to it.”
Sandwiched somewhere in Scott’s busy days are those precious hours when she exercises her creativity. Her music, which she describes as pensive rock, is lyrically rich and often drawn from personal experience. Other songs are born completely from her imagination, but the end result is almost always a wonderful surprise for Scott.
“A lot of the ideas come while I’m driving in the car,” she says. “I’ll be zoning out and all of a sudden I’ll think about something I need to write about. I have to match the lyrical ideas that I have floating around with the musical ideas that I have floating around. I’ll have chord progressions and melody ideas just sitting on the shelf in my head, so to speak, and I have to find a way to match them to a lyrical concept. It’s almost magical when that specific lyrical idea finds its melody, and I often, strangely enough, feel it is out of my hands and things just fall into place.”
With songs in hand and her paperwork complete, Scott can prepare for that night’s performance. It’s not as simple as putting on a nice outfit and doing a mike check. The reality is that a musician’s life is difficult and the financial rewards are few.
“There’s a hesitancy to pay what live music is actually worth,” she says. “If you talk about mechanics who fix cars, they get between $50 and $100 an hour. They’re experts. If you say a musician who has been studying their trade for 20 to 25 years should be paid as much as a mechanic and they play a three-hour show, then we would pay them $150. If you multiply that by a seven-piece band it starts to get expensive.
“But you’ve got to think about the fact that these people aren’t just there playing music, which is the enjoyable part. They’re doing what we call the ‘actual work’ part of it. They haul in the gear, do the heavy lifting. It takes a minimum of two hours to set up and a minimum of an hour to break down at the end of the show. You may get paid for two hours, but you work six or even eight. You don’t sleep. It’s tough. It’s definitely not an easy path.”
Scott aspires to take her music to a national audience but in her late 20s, she knows that with every passing year, her age could work against her in such a youth-driven business. And there are some sacrifices she would not be willing to make in the name of stardom.
“It sounds very simplistic,” she says, “but I’d like to have a comfortable life, maintain my friends and family life. I’d like to have children in a few years. Ultimately, just being able to support myself financially — better than I currently can — and reach many more people through my music would be perfect. I’m not looking for the whole Madonna thing.”
If fame and fortune elude her, though, Scott will continue to thrive on the rewards that come without dollar signs.
“An incredible affirmation of what I’m doing came recently when we played a show in Kansas City,” she says. “A man came to me and told me that his friend’s son had been killed in an accident and asked if I could play ‘Find Heaven’ [ital] for him. It is a song I wrote several years after my brother’s death and it was very difficult for me to write that song. Here I was, years later, able to comfort someone with something that had been borne of incredible pain. If something I created helps just that one person, that’s why I do it. It’s not for the money I got at the end of the night. That was one of the best moments I’ve had.”