Just in the last 10 years alone, the music business has changed dramatically. Where bands used to form in the hopes of getting a major label deal and hitting the big time, now many are finding creative fulfillment and musical satisfaction staying closer to home and juggling a “real life” with a desire to play music and build a solid if modest fan base. It’s no longer an all-or-nothing prospect.Fort Wayne band What She Said have taken that approach and are slowly but surely finding their following expanding as they continue to balance the demands of their daily lives, their desire to write and record original music and the practicality of playing the music that audiences want to hear. The core of the band that exists today, guitarist Jon Durnell and bassist Missy Burgess, had their origins in Tenfold Back, which played around Fort Wayne for several years. Through a series of personnel changes, Durnell and Burgess began looking for other members for their evolving lineup, adding drummer Larry Ford and lead singer Beth Toth in the process.
“Larry had been playing with my guitar teacher, John Forbing,” recalls Durnell. “So we hooked up through John. But Beth we found by placing an ad in whatzup, actually. We were looking for a lead singer in 2002, and she submitted a demo CD with songs she had written. That was a priority for everybody in the band – that we write original songs. That immediately impressed us, because most people were sending demos with covers. Then when I heard her voice, I knew she was something special.”
The group continued as a foursome until 2005 and had by then dubbed themselves What She Said. But Durnell knew something was missing.
“We were recording, and I was doing a lot of two-guitar stuff in the studio, which I knew we couldn’t do on stage. So we decided to add another guitarist, and again John Forbing introduced me to Gary Toth.”
If you notice a similarity in name, it’s no coincidence, though Beth and Gary Toth were not related when each joined the band. But in the three years since Gary signed on to What She Said, the singer and guitarist quickly established a relationship which eventually led to marriage and a two-year-old daughter. It isn’t only the Toth family which has expanded in recent years. Only a month after their daughter was born, Durnell and his wife had a son as well, adding to the practical considerations the band faces when juggling their music career.
“It’s a point of contention with the band,” admits Durnell. “We all have day jobs and now families, so we have things pulling us in a lot of different directions. We’ve been playing so much, and everyone wants family time, so it’s been a balancing act. We’re gigging and rehearsing so we sound good when we’re gigging, and we get together to write and record. We try to keep it a democracy as much as we can, so we have band meetings and make decisions about how we want to balance things. We’ve decided we won’t play out more than five times a month anymore. It means being open to everybody’s opinion without letting things become monotonous so that it’s more of a pain than a creative outlet.”
Durnell has expanded his home studio and moved it into his three-car garage solely for the purposes of recording What She Said. His approach to recording has gotten more adventurous over the years and leads him to try things beyond what the band is able to do in its live performances.
“I started out wanting to be able to recreate 90 to 95 percent of what we did in the studio when we played live, but I’ve changed my thinking on that. Now I see the studio as an opportunity to try different things, and I don’t worry as much about whether we can play it exactly the same way on stage. And I don’t think people expect us to make a song the same each time anyway.”
While they continue to pen their own original material – and Durnell is the most prolific of the writers – What She Said also know the importance of doing covers when they play most of the venues they frequent, which now includes areas in western Ohio as well as the greater Fort Wayne area. Durnell credits their management, Cosmic Music Promotions, for making it possible for them to expand their audience in recent years, but in playing more bars and clubs the band understands that playing covers if part of the deal.
“At our heart, we are an original band, but the way things work is you have to relate to people first, so in practice we’re a cover band. And some people may say that’s selling out, but you have to introduce yourself to your audience before you can share your originals with them. Once they know you and you have their attention, then you can play those original songs. People are responsive to our originals as well, and I think they respect you if you can do both covers and originals. And you learn things when you do covers, about playing and improving your music. Music is a medium, and our whole goal is to reach a wider audience.”
Durnell cites the success of fellow area musicians as an example of how an artist can use covers as an entrée and then parlay it into larger success.
“Anybody with any business sense at all has the tools to make a band a success. It’s not just about recording and equipment but about using the Internet to promote your band. I read everything I can get my hands on and look to guys like Mike Conley who’s been playing covers for years but then releases a CD of originals and sells 1,000 copies. He’s used those covers to get attention but then plays his own music too.”
A shared musical perspective and similar musical tastes and influences is at the heart of What She Said and the way they’ve been able to merge their individual sounds for over three years. Durnell said it was an early realization that they shared interests that solidified the band’s relationship with Beth Toth when she joined the band.
“We discovered that we were all fans of Blind Melon, and when we discovered that a light went on. There’s an age difference between Beth and me, but we discovered we had some of the same influences, and we share other music that we’ve loved with each other and try to learn something from all of it.”
Looking ahead to 2009, Durnell says What She Said will try to expand further into regions outside of Fort Wayne and will continue to record, with a possible EP sometime next year. They continue to find which local venues provide the best audience for them and aim to return often to the places where they’ll get paid more and play for more people. Although they consider themselves an independent band and aren’t seeking a label contract, that doesn’t mean that What She Said don’t aspire to accomplishing more.
“We try to set goals all the time,” says Durnell. “If you don’t set goals, it’s easy not to do things. You may not always meet all of the goals, but if you don’t set them, you won’t meet any.”
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