I’ve run into Austin Lee of The Gardener and the Willow at shows in Columbia and Charleston for years now. He’s often front-and-center, sharing the intensity of emotion with whatever artist is on stage. Artists notice this too, so when he decided to play music on his own, he was instantly surrounded by a support system of some of South Carolina’s best songwriters.

It was a chance meeting in early January at The Royal American in Charleston when I ran into Lee at a Brave Baby/Two Slices show and asked if he’d be interested in doing an acoustic session before his upcoming gig at New Brookland Tavern. I’d only heard small clips of his music, but knew I liked it and wanted to film some of his songs. After sound check we walked down to the river walk in West Columbia and found a spot with enough light to film. The setting, color, and lighting ended up being perfect.

As a singer songwriter you can tell Austin Lee has that it factor. A uniqueness to his voice that sets him apart and an earnestness to his lyrics that make his songs instantly relatable emotionally. Be on the lookout for more music from The Gardener and the Willow and read more below in our Q&A with Austin Lee.

Q&A with Austin Lee

How did The Gardener and the Willow get started and what initially made you want to dive in and start playing shows and putting out music?

I was living in Arizona and I flew into town for three days to see a Valley Maker show. My friend, Zac Curry, introduced me to this guy named Zach Santiago. Before the show, we all hung out and shared some songs with one another. At the show I remember Austin Crane specifically saying how easy it was to get out and play music. I flew back to the dessert but stayed in touch with Zach, continuing to share songs. I decided I was coming back into town for the Holidays and threw Zach the idea of having a house show. The morning of, we were in his back yard drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes talking about our musical ambitions, each of ours including a SceneSC write up and playing a show with Austin Crane. Since then, Zach has accomplished both with his band Dempsey. I look back on that house show and laugh. I created a band page for that house show and decided to see where it goes.
I’ve always wanted to play music, I just never really knew I could. I moved back home from AZ and started going to at least 5-6 shows a month. Most of them were local bands. I really fell in love with the music and believed in it. I started meeting folks in the scene and decided it was something I wanted to try and be a part of.

What local bands have had a big influence either musically or just getting you more involved in the music scene?

My good friends from Dempsey and Trees on Mars really helped me get my first shows booked and some demos recorded. Amber Grace, Gabi & Hunter Park of She Returns From War were very kind and willing to give me help and advice early along. I played a few shows with the Morris Brothers and we quickly became good friends. Patrick has been playing drums with me and that has really meant a lot. I feel like I have no business playing with that guy . . .

When do you think you’ll record and release your first true material with TGaTW?

Hopefully very soon. It’s something I’m really looking forward to, but I’ve decided I’m going to be patient with it. I’d like to say by summer, but I was supposed to release an EP last April, the 8th of April to be exact. Hell, for the record, lets say I’m shooting to release that same EP April 8th of this year. Don’t hold me to it, though. I pretty much have no idea.

What artists would you save have most influenced your personal style?

Night Beds, Austin Crane, and Willy Tea Taylor

What’s been the driving force behind your songwriting?

Well, I reckon it’s an effort at healing, moving on, and growth. Most of my songs, well all of them are about broken/wounded relationships. Admitting my responsibility for the current condition of those relationships was hard, but now I reckon it’s forgiving myself and getting better each day. I was really ashamed of myself for a while there. I had an idea of what my life was going to be like for the longest time and it didn’t quite work out how I had in mind. I thought I knew what I was doing and I fucked it all up. It’s been hard for me to accept that. I’m kind of still wondering “what the hell am I supposed to do now?” Music has given me a way to admit that I have no idea what I’m doing. As I continue to play and write music, I’d like to think it will be an honest representation of trying to figure that out and hopefully at the end of this journey I’ll be proud of where I am. I’m meeting incredibly passionate people who have great ideas and outlooks. I feel like I’ve learned and grown so much since that first house show and it’s all due to the people around me. I’m really proud of that and that I’m able to call these folks my friends. Their constant encouragement keeps me going.

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