Seela Misra wasn’t intending to become a videographer when she began making her new album "Cool," which comes out Friday. But sometimes necessity is the mother of invention.
The longtime Austin singer-songwriter, who performs under the single name Seela, likely would’ve been planning a CD release party this week at One-2-One Bar under ordinary circumstances. She’d held a semi-regular residency at the South Lamar listening room for much of the past year, until the pandemic put a hold on that.
Lots of artists have turned to livestreams as a way to get their music out, but Seela wasn’t convinced that was the right avenue for her. In the meantime, she’d been learning how to make animated videos. So when a live show to celebrate the album’s release became a moot point, Seela decided to make a video for all 13 songs on "Cool." She’ll show them all, in sequence, at 7 p.m. Friday on her Facebook page for what she’s calling a video-watching party.
"I had no idea how to do it," Seela said of the video-making process. "I was just like, ‘I’m pretty sure I could do that.’" First, she bought a digital illustration app called Procreate for her iPad. "It was like 10 bucks. I watched a couple of YouTube tutorials, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK, with very little knowledge, I think I could make something mildly amusing.’"
In April, she posted her first effort, for an upbeat track titled "Up2Me." Some of its illustrations reference the Tin Man’s enduring search for a heart, a theme that fits the song’s lyrics about how love can be elusive and hard to pin down. "You can totally tell it's the first one I did," she says with a laugh about the video’s relatively simple illustrated frames. "It seems like an intended style, but really, it's just me figuring out what I'm doing."
She’s since posted two more, for the songs "Bad at Good" and "Cool," the album’s title track. Seela’s learning curve is evident in the subsequent videos, which have smoother animation and use all of the lyrics to the songs.
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She figured out how to incorporate more bells and whistles when editing them in iMovie. "I learned stuff along the way and watched more tutorials and figured a few things out. It was really fun," she says.
Now it might even turn into a supplemental incomes stream. "I’ve got three in the hopper that I'm going to be doing for other people," she adds.
That’s par for the course with Seela, who’s perhaps been a model of adapting to the tough times musicians have faced during the pandemic. She got a head start last year when she launched a small venture: baking and delivering bread to a handful of clients in the general vicinity of her home.
"I’m called the South Austin Bread Fairy," says Seela, who only delivers to that part of town. She refers to the breadmaking process as "science you can eat." Initially her goal was to make enough money to pay for art classes she was taking from the Contemporary Austin Art School at Laguna Gloria. Now it’s a vital side business for a musician who’s had no gigs for several months.
But it’s also become a coping mechanism. "It helps my brain in a certain way that I really need. It’s probably kept me off of medication," she says. "Thursday night I'll bake a batch, and Friday morning I'll get up and bake another batch and pack it all up. Sometimes I bring my little dog; she came with me today in the back seat. And I drive around South Austin putting bread in mailboxes."
It seems fitting, then, that Seela’s new album contains 13 songs, as that number is sometimes referred to as a baker’s dozen. "Cool" was a new adventure in that it’s the first time she’s produced an album on her own. In the past, she’s worked with a variety of talented producers, including Austin fixture Brian Beattie (Daniel Johnston, Kathy McCarty) and New York singer-songwriter Ari Hest. Former Austinite Anthony da Costa, now an in-demand Nashville player, co-produced her last album, 2017’s "Track You Down."
"I’ve never regretted anybody I've ever used," she said. "But it was overdue, and I'll probably never go back." The reward of self-producing, she says, is "just being able to make the record you want to make with all the thoughts that are in your head, and not having to justify or explain to anyone how it's all going to work."
That said, she’s quick to credit the album’s engineer, Britton Beisenherz at Ramble Creek studio. "I couldn’t have done it without him," Seela says. "That place is a playground. Whatever organically happens or occurs to me, I'm allowed to get up and go, ‘OK, let's try this. What if we tried this?’"
Many of the songs on "Cool" grew from Seela’s participation in songwriting groups that help spur the creative process for musicians and poets. A "prompt" — a word or short phrase — is sent out to all of the participants, and everyone has to finish a song using that prompt. "It’s like a little anchor to get you out of the big vast outer space of, ’I'm going to sit down to write a song now,’" she says.
Sometimes the prompt ends up becoming a song title. That’s the case with "His Final Performance," the last track on Seela’s album. An amusing consequence of the group-participation is that some artists end up with entirely different songs that have the same title; she notes that singer-songwriter David Hamburger also has a tune titled "His Final Performance."
Eventually, Seela expects to return to performing live, both with her own band — anchored by her husband, drummer Jon Greene — and with the Purgatory Players, a local collective that arose from a Sunday gospel brunch residency at the now-shuttered Strange Brew before moving to El Mercado Backstage. She also performs occasionally with local singer-songwriter Matt the Electrician and was a fixture in Jaimee Harris’ band before Harris moved to Nashville.
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In the meantime, Seela seems fine with leaving livestreams to other musicians. "I haven’t done a single one," she says. "I’m feeling like I ought to do it, but to tell you the truth, there is not a molecule in my body that wants to."
She says she’s watched a few, giving a shoutout to pianist Emily Gimble’s Friday evening livestreams in particular. But most livestreams tend to be either solo or duo affairs, and Seela says that "I need to either have my band or an audience, or preferably both. There's just that experience: There's a relationship going on, there's something happening."