Student Profile: Keppie Coutts
When Keppie Coutts came to Berklee, she planned on leaving her proclivity for activism behind and concentrating on her aspirations as a singer/songwriter. But no sooner had she landed here than she was drawn to various causes, realizing her social consciousness could not be squelched.
"I wanted to focus on the music rather than get involved in student organizations," she says. "But you can't leave yourself behind."
Indeed, Coutts has delved into many causes close to her heart while at the college. With Pakistani classmate Arooj Aftab, the Australia native created the Global Students Network, a collective that organizes student activities using music to promote peace and positive social change, as well as supporting the cultural diversity at Berklee. As a result of that initiative, Coutts landed a job in the college's Office of Cutural Diversity as a special projects assistant and cultural liaison, a post she plans to maintain after she graduates.
Though a professional music major, Coutts has taken quite a few songwriting classes, and it was through her work with the Songwriting Department that she made a connection with songwriting professor Mark Simos. Now the two are working on developing a web-based portal for politically and socially progressive songwriters.
"It's a tool kit for songwriters, talking about the craft, technique, and structure involved in songwriting," she says, noting that it's also a forum to talk about the power of songs of conscience.
And as it turns out, her career goals and her activism perfectly fuse, creating a foundation for music with a message. Indeed, Coutts firmly believes that songwriters should take responsibility for the content of their songs. "It's not about censorship, but about taking responsibility," she says.
"For me, music has always been tied to expressing something very clearly and poetically," says Coutts, who counts Ani DiFranco among her biggest influences. "I've always had the assumption that firstly, you should always be writing your own music and secondly, that it should mean something. If you're not trying to get at something, then why are you doing it in the first place?"
For Coutts, that philosophy just makes sense. After all, when you trace music to its origins, "it's always been about storytelling and passing along information," she says. "It's never just been an entertainment medium."
Coutts, who describes her style as "acoustic fusion with humor and soul," credits Berklee—where she landed two weeks after releasing her debut album Tears de Picardie in Australia—for helping her hone her craft. "I thought my guitar performance was weak [when I came here] and I've been able to fill that in," she says. "More than that, my actual craft is not as a guitar performer but as a singer/songwriter/performer. My songwriting has just improved so much."
As testament to that improvement, Coutts has earned some prestigious accolades here; she won the Songwriters Showcase competition and the Counseling and Advising Center's Songwriting Contest, and secured one of 12 spots to perform in the Performer/Songwriter Showcase. She was also selected to play in Guitar Night.
Coutts counts making meaningful connections with faculty members among her greatest experiences here at Berklee. For example, when it comes to songwriting, liberal arts professor Pat Pattison taught her to focus on what a song is about. "Once you know what it's about, everything will work," she says.
Those words could easily apply to Coutts's circuitous path of self-discovery during her pre-Berklee days, one that took her around the world and exposed her to a wealth of experiences.
Coutts took piano lessons as a child and began her introduction to guitar when she was around 7. "I learned enough to write a few songs. Then when I was 16, I was into acting and through that, I got into singing. At some point, I wanted to try to write my own music."
Coutts picked up the guitar again in high school. "I was just lucky enough to find the right teacher at the right time," she says. "He really inspired me and got what I was about. He helped me learn guitar in a way that was conducive to songwriting as well as gave a good understanding of harmony with the intention of writing music. It's actually a fairly new concept to me that people wouldn't write their own music."
Throughout high school, Coutts wrote songs and performed them in small indie art spaces and galleries. At the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, Coutts studied law, a pursuit she says is more related to music than one might think.
"[Law and music] are not disconnected," she says. "The learning process is very connected to the creative process. Whether you're in college or you're learning as human being, it's really about trying to dig away toward the center of your identity and trying to recognize that common humanity in an artistic and creative sense-using that creative process to generate a deeper understanding, to acknowledge the diversity that exists in everyone's identity. That's what has always really motivated my social justice."
That, and growing up in a progressive Jewish youth movement, which holds as one of its core values tikkun olam, meaning "heal the world."
Halfway through university. Coutts shifted gears, scrapping her law studies to pursue a degree in politics and international relations. During a year abroad in Montreal, Europe, and East Africa, her music resurfaced in a big way, and she played and performed often. "The gaps that were being created by my disillusionment with law were being filled by playing more and writing more," Coutts says. "And it just got to a point where that was obviously inhabiting my soul and creative space. The more I did it, the more opportunities arose."
The idea of attending Berklee came to Coutts she was in Montreal, taking guitar lessons with a Berklee alumnus. "He would always come up with words of wisdom that his Berklee teachers had given him. So Berklee was in my ear." Then, while visiting her sister who was studying at Harvard University, Coutts visited Berklee. "I was flipping through the bulletin, looking at the courses and thought, 'I could go to school for this?' It just felt like the veil lifted."
Now, with her eyes wide open toward the future, Coutts isn't ruling anything out. In addition to following her dream of a career as a singer/songwriter and continuing to further social justice through music, she and her journalist sister have a business idea they'd like to hatch some day back home in Australia.
"It's based on the idea of hyper-localism and actually using the internet to generate a sort of community at a hyper-local level," she explains, describing a website that would blend local reporting and cultural listings and provide a forum connecting artists and musicians with local businesses. "For us, it's motivated by the fact that we've both entered professions that have been completely eroded by the internet, professions whose traditional income base has been eroded." Wherever the idea takes her, Coutts can be counted on to make a difference.
Keppie's top five on Any Day of the Week
- Ani DiFranco
- Bobby McFerrin
- Tom Waits
- Tommy Emmanuel
- Crowded House