A Woman's World 

Eatman, a woman

Eatman, a woman

On good days, Heather Eatman refers to herself as directed. On other days, she admits that her single-mindedness can turn into obsessiveness. “Sometimes it’s a good thing,” she says, “and sometimes a bad thing. The times when I’ve been unhappy have been when I’ve focused this obsessive energy I have in the wrong direction. Right now, I feel I’m directed toward making progress.”

Eatman’s self-direction seems to be paying off. A year ago, she was intently focused on gaining confidence as a performer, playing to such difficult crowds as the ones found at CBGB’s record store in New York’s Bowery district. Among those wondering into legendary punk club’s retail section during Eatman’s set was Al Bunetta, John Prine’s manager. He was drawn in by the petite performer’s vibrant delivery and colorful, distinctly detailed songs. In whirlwind time, he recruited Eatman for Oh Boy Records, the label he co-owns with Prine. This Saturday, Eatman celebrates a year’s worth of career successes when she returns to Nashville to open for Prine at a sold-out Ryman Auditorium show.

Eatman’s obsessiveness should be plenty evident in her performance: It shows in her thematic fixation on women—mostly ambitious, larger-than-life women whose vanity or delusions have transformed them into sad, pitiable cartoons. “Distorted, misshapen characters—that’s a consistent in my work,” Eatman confides about the songs on her Oh Boy debut Mascara Falls. “I find those characters more beautiful than people who are put together.”

In “Good-Bye Betty Jean,” Eatman recounts seeing a dinner theater performance in which a once renowned actress blows her lines and stumbles over her cues. In “Sheila,” a “bible-quoting, pill-popping, shoplifting” pregnant woman becomes the most visible presence in a poor neighborhood. In “Barbs,” another former glamour queen pops sleeping pills and hides away after the bright lights have turned elsewhere and the press has turned against her. In “Lucky You,” a gal wearing a borrowed dress and a stolen purse gets drunk while watching a former lover excel at standup comedy. Eatman explores the same themes in a new song, “Cupcake,” which looks at a prostitute struggling with the desire to find a new line of work.

Eatman’s obsessiveness carries over to her album artwork. A graduate of the prestigious Parsons School of Design, she created the illustrations featured throughout her CD. All of them are variations on the cover drawing, which depicts an overweight, heavily made-up woman teetering on a barstool, balancing a drink and a smoke while spilling out of her too tight dress. “I’m big on distortion,” Eatman says. “I find it very aesthetically pleasing. That’s very typical of my style, in my art and my music. My drawings tend to be a vision form of my songs. They’re expressing the same things in different ways. If I couldn’t write songs, I’d be drawing all the time. It’s very therapeutic for me to create my own world.”

The singer figures she learned about the beauty of tragic women, as well as the comfort of slipping into a self-created world, while growing up around the theater. Her father, a drama professor, moved his family through college towns in Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania. “As a kid, I always felt shy and withdrawn and off in my own world,” she says. “I spent a lot of time watching these plays. I learned to escape into these fictional situations and lives.” She blames Tennessee Williams for her enthusiasm for tattered, aged females. “Williams was one of my father’s favorites,” she says. “He was great at coming up with these memorable women.”

Yet Eatman is the antithesis of the characters she creates: She’s effusive, upbeat, motivated, and “honest to a fault,” she says. “I kind of insist on being honest with my friends. It makes people crazy, but I think it’s important.” Honesty can be delivered in two forms, however: One way is cruel, the other warm. Eatman’s songs can sound hard, but, in person, her generosity and warmth shine through.

To get beyond her innate shyness, she draws on a gutsy inner strength—something she developed during her time in New York City. At age 17, after spending her whole life in college towns, she left home for art school, living alone in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan. “That really toughened me up,” she says. “I learned to be independent.”

It was while attending school and working two jobs to make ends meet that she began to feel the pull of music. She started writing songs, and as graduation neared, she started thinking about focusing her obsessiveness on songwriting and performing. “Then I dived right in,” she says.

Performing, as it turned out, gave her a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction she hadn’t experienced before. “When I was young, I had this secret fantasy of being a singer, but it didn’t seem like reality,” she notes. “But when I went onstage, I felt like myself for the first time. All my life, I’d felt incapable of being who I am. But, as a songwriter, you can preplan how you come across. I create my own world, and I’m comfortable in it.”

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