For the past decade, Bethany Thomas has been a fixture in the Chicago music and theater scenes. She’s appeared at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Second City, Court Theatre, and Writers Theatre, among others, and she won a 2013 Jeff Award for a role in South Pacific. As a musician she’s played almost every major venue in the city (including shows with Robbie Fulks and Jon Langford), and she’s also a regularly featured artist at the Paper Machete and Salonathon.
One thing she hasn’t done—at least not till now—is make a recording of her own. On Monday at the Hideout, Thomas celebrates the release of her debut, a six-song EP called First.
Thomas is beloved for her soulful, commanding singing voice, but until recently her live sets have consisted mostly of other people’s material—James Taylor, Brian Eno, the Beatles, David Bowie—whose variety shows off her adaptibility.
“I do play a lot of songs where it’s like, ‘Why are you doing that?'” she says. “It’s stuff where people can’t automatically think what I would sound like singing it.”
Thomas began writing some of her first original songs a little more than three years ago, while on her longest out-of-town acting gig. In September 2013, she moved from Chicago to Milwaukee (near her native Kenosha) to perform in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s fall production of Ragtime. She did well enough to be cast the following spring in the company’s production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, but she had a lot of downtime.
“It was one was one of my first times doing a show out of town for an extended period,” Thomas says. “So I had a lot of time to myself. I bought a keyboard on Amazon while I was there. I had it in the housing that they gave me. And I tried to write stuff and got a few things down.” When Thomas returned to Chicago in April 2014, it was to a different house than the one she’d left, and the new environment helped her keep working on her songs.
Thomas wouldn’t enter the studio till years later, though. Between January 2016 and February 2017, she recorded First with longtime collaborator John Szymanski, a formidable multi-instrumentalist, and two other members of her regular band, guitarist Patrick Martin and drummer and keyboardist Packy Lundholm. (Onstage they’re also joined by Alex Kliner and Andrew Green.) They recorded the basic drum, bass, guitar, and piano tracks at Minbal in Humboldt Park, then added vocals and other overdubs at Szymanski’s apartment.
“John is friends with the [studio] owner,” Thomas says. “So John was able to engineer the recording.” Szymanski’s attention to detail was crucial, says Thomas, mentioning a Mellotron part he added to one song that completely changed it. “His touches are all over the whole thing,” she says. “Not one song would sound the same without John.”
Thomas met Szymanski in 2010 because her roommate was doing a show with his band the Two Johns (which also included John Bliss) that November. Paper Machete cofounder Christopher Piatt encouraged Thomas to play the series with the Two Johns in early 2011, and she proposed the idea of a Neil Young cabaret.
They never got around to that, but they did play several Machete shows, and over the next couple years they gigged occasionally as a trio—Bethany & the Two Johns, naturally. When Bliss left to focus on family and other commitments, Martin stepped in—he was a friend of Thomas’s, and he’d already been gigging with her when the Johns weren’t around. He and Szymanski became the nucleus of her current five-piece group.
In June 2013, not long before Thomas left for Milwaukee, Szymanski gave her a track he’d written that fit perfectly with some lyric ideas she had. She immediately sent it back with full vocals she’d added in GarageBand. It eventually became the First song “On the Couch.”
“I’m thinking back and it’s like, ‘Why did everything take so goddamn long?'” Thomas says. “But it’s impossible to progress when everyone has a billion different projects, and I have neither the talent nor the technology to produce content by myself. Every time we’d get some momentum performing or just working on new tunes, I’d do a play and it would occupy all my evenings and weekends for two months. Which would dovetail onto whatever three shows John was scoring or sound designing that month, or whatever.”
At first, Thomas was reluctant to record. She had studio experience, but not singing her own songs. “You get different things from a recording than from seeing a live show,” she says. “I know I can be a powerful performer sometimes, but I don’t really know how it comes across in recordings yet. So I’d been a little hesitant to actually follow through.”
With the EP finally finished, though, she’s glad she took the gamble. “A big part of it is feeling free to sing things how I want to sing them,” Thomas says. “I don’t have to worry about who the character is or what motivates the character. I can just sing and emote and express from how Bethany is feeling. . . . I don’t have to worry about not living up to an assumed expectation. All I need to do is just be me. It’s my stuff and I don’t have to answer to anybody.”
Thomas has sung R&B, soul, jazz, rock, classical, musical theater, and more. And when it comes to writing songs, she doesn’t tend to stick to one style. “I don’t do well when I’m trying to write for a certain genre,” she says. “It usually ends up wherever or however I want to sing it. And we’ll build off of that.”
Fans are the biggest reason Thomas finally recorded her songs, she says. “We’ve been playing the original stuff live for a while, and everyone always asks me, ‘Can I buy this anywhere?’ And the answer was always no,” she says. “We had the time, and they had the team together, so we decided it was time to actually release something.”
It might be a while before Thomas can record again, because she has a busy year lined up. Her acting pays the bills and generally dictates her schedule, but she tries to maintain enough flexibility to jump at opportunities. She appeared in a season-two episode of Empire that aired in September 2015, singing a few lines from an Alabama Shakes song badly at a girl-group audition.
“My 30 seconds on network television is me not singing well. I’m very happy I got to do it,” she says.
Even if it takes Thomas three more years to finish her next release, she’s looking forward to it. “I’m so glad First is done. We’re super proud of it,” she says. “However, we’re already ready to make the next record—I think the tunes we’ve written since then are getting better.”
Thomas is already on another record, in fact, but it isn’t one of hers. She’s in a new band called Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls with the Mekons and Waco Brothers front man, and this fall they’ll release a self-titled album on Bloodshot. The lineup consists of Langford, Thomas, Szymanski, and Tawny Newsome, and everybody but Szymanski takes a turn on lead vocals. “It definitely sounds different from anything else Langford’s done,” Thomas says.
Last November, Four Lost Souls recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with veteran producer Norbert Putnam and a band that included legendary session bassist David Hood (father of Drive-By Truckers songwriter Patterson Hood). They plan to tour to support the release.
Thomas is excited for her next project, whatever it turns out to be. “It’s just more experience in front of people, not just giving yourself but taking what they’re giving back,” she says. “It happens in different ways, but I think it helps everyone grow.”