Billings resident Danielle Egnew could be described as a singer, producer, actress, writer and even a psychic. However, when she spoke at the Western Heritage Center last month, her primary topic was songwriting and how she becomes inspired when doing creative work.
Egnew’s speech was part of the Western Heritage Center’s “Montana Inspiration Project” in which local artists discuss the sources of their creative inspiration.
Egnew says her inspiration has come from multiple different sources. One of these is her home state of Montana.
“I have personally drawn a lot of inspiration from being a Montanan,” she said. “What I noted, with being from Montana, is that the creative people here very much tune into nature to receive inspiration. In Montana, we have not separated ourselves yet from the ground or the sky. One of the hardest things for me while living in Los Angeles for 11 years was that the culture there had separated itself dramatically from nature.”
Egnew told a story about recording her first solo album in 2008 while living in Los Angeles. The album was called “Red Lodge” and inspired by her life in Montana, but she found herself having difficulty with the album because she was separated from the area that she was writing about.
Even though the album proved to be a hit, Egnew learned an important lesson from the experience: She moved her recording studio to Montana and now only lives in Los Angeles when she has to work with other music executives and writers.
“Once I got back here, I could connect again with the ground and the sky and I’ve just been cranking out material,” she said. “I have come to peace with the fact that my creative juices are connected to the ground and the sky. It is better for me to have space around me when I create.”
Like many artists, Egnew has also derived inspiration from her personal experiences.
“Creating stuff, whether it’s a song, a book, or a TV show, is a reflection of the self,” she said. “It’s usually something in the self that you’re trying to work out of your system. For example, I wrote some of my best songs when I was sad and needed to work through pain.”
Egnew suggested to the audience that creative people should stay true to whatever their inspiration may be and provide their audience with a sense of authenticity in everything they create.
“Remember where your center is and don’t place any sort of judgment on where you get your inspiration from,” she said. “You might get inspired by the grass or the bunny rabbits or your tennis shoes. It doesn’t matter as long as you honor whatever you need to honor. To be a creative person, you need to accept who you are in your entirety and not try to be somebody you’re not. … Authenticity in creation is where the joy of creation comes in. Human beings connect with authenticity.”
Egnew says that some of her most popular music has been the songs that were most true to her real life. For example, her solo album “Red Lodge” became her best-selling album ever.
Another example is “Play Some Merle” - a song she wrote recently for legendary country musician Merle Haggard. Egnew’s songwriting partner originally wanted the song to be about Haggard’s life, but Egnew rewrote it and based it on her experiences from touring with her all-female rock group Pope Jane.
“When Pope Jane played in Montana bars and we had gotten to the third set, the audience would start to get full of Jack Daniels and get sick of hearing all original rock music sung by chicks,” she said. “Pretty soon somebody in the back would shout ‘Play some Merle!” Not wanting a beer bottle thrown at my head, I would say ‘Here’s a Merle Haggard song for you’ and then play a Pope Jane song with a country twang to it.”
Egnew drew on this experience to make “Play Some Merle” a story about how a woman at a bar uses a Merle Haggard song to break up a fight. The song became a major hit for Egnew – the song’s music video on YouTube has been watched more than 73,000 times. She has received fan mail from people all over the world complimenting her on the song. But Egnew is especially thrilled about one particular fan.
“I actually got to meet Merle Haggard once and he told me, ‘Hey, that is a great song,’” she said. “That was pretty awesome because he’s usually a very quiet man.”
However, there is a drawback to making art that is so personal. When somebody criticizes your work, she said, it can often feel like they are criticizing you. Thus, Egnew says it is important to separate oneself from criticism.
“If I have a child, that child is not me – it is separate,” she said. “If I have a creative work, that also is separate from me. If somebody doesn’t like the piece, it doesn’t mean that they don’t like me. Not all art is for all people. Art is supposed to make people feel. … If people don’t like your work, you still did something right. You were still able to make them feel something.”