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After years spreading her Austin roots as an in-demand session player, touring musician, producer, and front woman, S.L. Houser releases her debut solo EP Hibiscus.
It’s late December and Sara Houser, who records under the moniker S.L. Houser, sits near a very happy Monstera and other healthy-looking tropical plants in her living room. One’s home says a lot about a person. It’s not a simply a reflection of taste, but of state of mind; filled with traces of the journey that led to them to present.
A classically trained pianist and Berklee College of Music graduate, Houser’s high-caliber musicianship has made her an in-demand session player and live performer in Austin, TX. Although she’s not just an accomplished musician, but also a music educator, arranger, producer, and songwriter. Every great music scene is made possible by the often under-seen work of humans like her, and for over a decade she’s spread her roots and nourished the Austin Music Experience with her expansive talents, but it wasn’t until last November that she released her debut solo EP, Hibiscus.
“I started taking lessons on piano and playing by ear when I was really young. My parents got me a keyboard when I was seven…they were really encouraging…and just kind of let me explore.”
First growing up in Florida, Houser’s family eventually moved to South Carolina’s low country where she went to a performing arts high school. She was originally focused on classical music and competitive classical piano, but in high school became interested in jazz and performing in jazz combos. All the while she had also been writing and composing music since she was 14. To say the least, Houser has cultivated her exceptional skills since childhood, and it earned her a scholarship to Berklee College of Music’s songwriting program.
Berklee often encourages students to move to the big music industry cities like L.A., New York, and Nashville, but as she approached graduation she wasn’t sold on the obvious locations.
“I came to Austin for SXSW my senior year trying to figure out where I was going to go… I have a little bit of family here…and it was pretty cheap to live here, there’s a huge music scene, it’s different, it’s not like the other music cities. It’s cool, more grassroots, had a more punk rock feel to it. It was the antithesis of Berklee in a lot of ways to me.”
“Austin has…on a community level, people wanting to get together and get in a practice room and make music together as a collaborative experience. Really just for the sake of doing it and for the sake of playing shows.”
Houser quickly fell into the session musician world in Austin. Working with artists like Taylor Wilkins (Otis the Destroyer, Otis Wilkins), Golden Dawn Arkestra, Walker Lukens, and many many more, on top of fronting her band Löwin.
“I’d say probably one of the first things was when Walker Lukens hired me to come into a session, and through that session, I was introduced to Jim Eno, who ended up hiring me for a Spoon record. Which was crazy…Spoon was a huge reason why I moved here.”
Austin has…on a community level, people wanting to get together and get in a practice room and make music together as a collaborative experience. Really just for the sake of doing it and for the sake of playing shows.”
“I love working on other people’s music. So it just ended up kind of opening the door to a lot of other bands because I had this huge band on my resume now all of a sudden. So after I toured and sang with Golden Dawn Orchestra for a long time on a lot of their records. I do a lot of the vocal background, vocal arrangements, and harmonies for their music.”
Her work with Spoon also led her to participate in Jim Eno’s Project Traction which was created to train non-male artists in production and engineering (women and non-binary artists represent less than 10% of music produces and engineers).
“[Jim Eno] has always been like in my corner and supportive. And I did the song with Lizzy Lehmen and ended up producing a record for them that came out this last year. That was the first time somebody had taken me on to like actually do a full album. It was incredibly affirming and, and just an actual joy to work on. . . I would love to get more production work. I really love helping people bring their ideas to life.”
Houser’s musical accomplishments are legion and on full display in her debut record Hibiscus. Released through Spaceflight Records, the EP travels though her Florida roots and the many musical lives she’s lived up until this point. Houser effortlessly glides through a range of sonic landscapes across its six tracks, but her expert songcraft, musicianship, and ear brings harmony to its variegated sounds, so if you’re familiar with the plant, you may understand why Hibiscus is a beautifully apt title for her debut:
“I just was outside looking at my plant and it hadn’t ever occurred to me. The flowers. . .they really only last for a day when they bloom. . .You know, sometimes you put all this work or effort into something. . .and it’s over like that.. But it blooms a lot, and it blooms often, and it’s a really resilient plant. And so I think kind of an overarching theme with all the songs on the EP was growth and, you know, resilience. It was like a happy accident that I kind of like had this thought about this plant that’s been a part of my life for a long time.”
Texas has its own native Hibiscus, but most species flourish in tropical environments like her home state of Florida. It’s an understatement to say Austin’s moody climate is not an easy location to get a tropical plant like a hibiscus happy enough to flower (or a Monstera like the one in her living room to look like its happily growing on a tree in a tropical forest while in the dead of Texas winter). It requires not just knowledge and skill, but a great deal of patient care and sensitivity. Now after years of cultivation, S.L Houser is in full bloom on her solo debut Hibiscus.
“Fever In My Eye”
“Wind In The Door”
Album: Hibiscus (Spaceflight Records 2023)
Musicians: S.L. Houser – vocals, piano, guitar; Rae Mascardo – keys; Aric Garcia drums; Geena Spigarelli – bass; Otis Wilkins – guitar
Producer: Deidre Gott; Production Assistant: Confucius Jones; Audio Engineer: Jake Perlman, Rene Chavez; Audio Mix: Jake Perlman; Cameras: Michael Minasi, Michael Minasi, Deborah Cannon; Edit: Deborah Cannon; Host: Laurie Gallardo