Ann Arbor News Review: October 5, 2003
Whitley Hill’s Next Step: Music With The Postcards
Known as a dancer, she’s moved into songwriting, singing and a show at The Ark, Sunday, October 5, 2003
BY ROGER LELIEVRE, News Arts Writer
Ann Arbor’s multitalented entertainer Whitley Hill, known over the years for her work with her dance company “People Dancing,” unveils her latest creation Thursday at The Ark. It is an endeavor that has more to with music than movement.
Hill, leader of the “beatnik-tinged alt-country” music group Whit Hill and the Postcards, says she’s glad to be involved in a project in which she doesn’t have to worry about the aches and pains that go along with being a dancer. “With music I can make songs and sing and I don’t hurt myself,” explains Hill, who is probably more familiar to many Ann Arborites under her maiden name, Whitley Setrakian.
The performance at The Ark is a CD release party for the band’s debut disc, “We Are Here,” which contains 14 original songs for which she wrote lyrics and music. The Postcards, founded two years ago, consist of singer-songwriter Hill, singer/keyboardist/guitarist Al Hill (who is also Whitley’s husband), bass player Patrick Prouty and drummer Tim Gahagan.
Al Hill, a familiar talent on the local music scene for years, is also leader of his own group, the Love Butlers.
“I had never written songs till I met Al,” she admits. “He’s an integral part of the band, and a sounding board for sure. He produced the CD. … He’s made a CD before. I didn’t have a clue. I’m a total baby at this,” she admits, laughing.
Among special guests at The Ark show, in addition to opening act Dana Falconberry, are Celtic fiddler Jeremy Kittel, songwriter Bill Edwards and blues guitarist Shari Kane. In fact, it was Kane who introduced dancer Setrakian to musician Hill. They were married in 1996.
“I first saw Whitley perform 10 years ago when she was with Dick Siegel. … We were on the festival circuit,” recalls Kane. “I loved her ability to characterize something on stage. I noticed she could play these roles while she was singing. … She just charmed me. But it wasn’t until I got this record I found that she has the most amazing ability to tell a story through words.
“Some people have the gift of singing, or the gift of storytelling. Not many people have both,” Kane says. “She’s been making music for years and years, but not in a starring role. She belongs there. I have feeling Whitley could go really far with this if that’s what she wants to do.”
Ark board member Maureen Martin agrees. “Whitley has more talent in one finger than most of us could even conceive of – she is a writer, actor, singer, musician, poet, songwriter, humorist and dancer all in one. She is one of Ann Arbor’s most important creative voices,” she says.
Hill says her interest in country/folk music started young. “Both my parents were raised in the South, and I grew up listening to a lot of cool old stuff: Alan Lomax and his Folkways recordings, Odetta records, the Weavers, Doc Watson, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band,” she recalls. “I had five years of piano training (in her native New York City) and I sang for a season with the New York City Children’s Choir,” she says. “I went to the High School for the Performing Arts (the “Fame” high school).”
Hill moved to Ann Arbor to enroll in the University of Michigan dance department, from which she got her degree in 1979. For a short time her U-M roommate was the soon-to-be-fabulous pop star Madonna, an experience Hill acknowledges on “Maddie,” one of the tracks on the CD.
“It was a part of my youth and a weird little tangent to my life,” Hill says. “It was fun knowing her … sometimes annoying and nerve-wracking, but mostly fun, and I hope that comes across in the song.”
Hill was artistic director of People Dancing for 14 years, “then (former Gov. John) Engler pulled the plug” on state arts funding about 10 years ago. Plans she had made for the company stalled and she did solo and duet work for a while, but “I had a lot of injuries. I was doing more music, and felt like it was time to stop (dancing). I had a great run and it was fabulous.
“What a wonderful town to dance in. Audiences were informed, supportive and curious,” she says.
She also recalls her days as “a Na” in the band Dick Siegel and the NaNas in the early 1990s.
But that was then and this is now, and Hill is still marveling over an art form that has a life beyond the actual performance.
“When you dance, it only exists for the time you are doing it,” she says. “The whole idea of people being able to come to the show and take something away from it (like a CD, for example) is a novel idea … very practical. Dance is so ephemeral.”
She explains that her band’s name stems from her interest in postcards – “the 10-cent variety,” she clarifies. “It made sense to call it that. Everybody’s happy when they get a postcard.”
If listeners think her disc a bit on the dark side, there’s a reason. “In music, and dance, too, you stand a better chance of being taken seriously the more mysterious and dark your stuff is.
“I don’t want to be pegged as a novelty act,” she says.
Although she has high hopes for her future as a musician, Hill has yet to quit her day job as a writer for the University of Michigan Medical School or her gig as a freelance scribe for the Ann Arbor Observer (she also wrote for The Ann Arbor News years ago).
“I’ve never worked full time before,” Hill muses. “It’s been very soothing not to struggle moneywise.”
© 2003 Ann Arbor News. Used with permission