Good rainy Sunday night to you, Reader. I hope you’ve been well. This week found me teaching long days of rock music to kids up in Madison, Wisconsin. I absolutely love the community up there, as well as the teaching program itself. Enthusiasm and encouragement abound. Also, the staff knows just what to do if you go into pre-term labor…
That’s right. Friday morning it began: full swing Braxton Hicks contractions, nausea, fever—the works. Doctors say this still isn’t ‘real’ labor, but sufficed to say, I’ll be laying low from now until this baby comes. Which could be tomorrow, or a few weeks from now.
So during these past two days of downtime, I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of world my baby will know. In light of this week’s events, it dawns on me that the world my child knows will be one where all people will have the right to marry who they love. They’ll live in a world where cowardly acts of racial violence will be fought with acts of bravery that range from peace protests and potent songwriting (thankyouPeterMulvey) to actual scaling of poles to remove racist, antiquated flags (thankyouBreeNewsome).
There are so many times that I’ve been saddened by humanity, but this week is not one of those times.
I’m so grateful to be living right now. Generally, I’m a good-ol-days type of girl, forever longing for things to be “the way they used to be.” But lately, I just can’t get enough of right now. So many good things are happening, and I know there is so much more good change to come.
While I’m sure that some of this optimism has been brought to you by hormones, I like to think that at least part of it reflects legit feelings. Things are looking up, Reader, and I’m happy tonight. I hope wherever you are, you are happy too. -Em
Happy Father's Day, folks. I hope you're having a nice Sunday. This has been a busy week. Six days into the Kickstarter, and this project is already 17% funded. I feel overwhelmed by the generosity of both friends and strangers alike. It's astounding. All I can say is: thank you from the bottom of my happy, pregnant heart.
In new album land, the live recording session for Shine Kid Shine was sensational. John Abbey, Gerald Dowd, Gregg Ostrom, Steve Dawson and I recorded 10 songs in 5 hours at King Size Sound Labs in Chicago. I am convinced there is no finer way to make an album. We all sat in the same room where we could look each other in the eyes. This "live show" feel translates so well into the album, and I absolutely cannot wait for you to hear it.
Tomorrow, I begin teaching a songwriting program up in Madison for the entire week, and then I'll be mixing/mastering Shine Kid Shine until the baby comes. My dear Reader, in light of the Charleston tragedy and other troubles in this world, I am still convinced that the world is indeed a wonderful place. I hope you're having a sensational summer. xo Em
I hope you’re enjoying this beautiful Sunday night. This week, I finally launch my Kickstarter. You’ll be seeing a lot of changes on my site and on social media. The next 60 days will be filled with loads of excitement and nail biting. Wish me luck!
Because I’m now having to make up “rewards” for various levels of giving on my Kickstarter, I’ve spent a lot of time this week reflecting on motivation, that inner drive that makes us want to do our best and work for something. After some self-assessment, I’m learning that what spurs me on is fascinatingly childish.
My worst motivator? Money. Money does nothing for me. I understand its importance. I understand I need it. But it doesn’t make want to do great things.
A close second to money for worst motivators are gifts, which are almost tied with words of praise. Doing things because I’ll get something in return or because someone will tell me it’s “good” doesn’t make me reach my highest heights…it just makes me accomplish tasks with lackluster mediocrity.
A finally comes this miserable motivator: doing something because it’s the right thing to do. God, what a terrible reason to do anything. Nothing takes the wind out of my sails like accomplishing things for a moral standard. Being “good?” Blah blah blah snore snooze yak blech.
So I’ve been thinking about it all week, and it occurred to me that my five very best motivators are:
1) Fun. Plain and simple. I do well when things are fun.
2) Making a difference. If I think that what I’m doing will support a cause I believe in, I kick into freaking overdrive.
3) Entertainment. If something holds my attention and keeps me riveted, I will give everything to it.
4) Beauty. I like to make things beautiful. Gardens, houses, works of music--if it looks beautiful to my heart, I want to make it even better.
5) An end goal. I like to work towards something down the road, towards some big dream or idea. That may be my best motivator of all.
With that in mind, I’m going forward with this Kickstarter assuming that maybe I’m not alone. Maybe there are others who are wired like me, and they may be more motivated to help me out if I can apply my Top 5 List to my Kickstarter rewards.
Whatever makes you tick, Reader, I hope my Kickstarter has something to offer you, and that you’ll consider giving to it at the level that motivates you. I’ve tried to make it as fun, whimsical, and meaningful as I possibly can. If no category of reward seems to fit, I hope you’ll consider passing along the link to your friends. I need all the help I can get! Stay tuned... -Em
Dear Lord. I. Am. Pregnant.
This week, I started the process of recording my building’s Kickstarter album (again, more details there soon). It was really great to get back into the studio, albeit strange. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to get nice, full breaths in at 31 weeks pregnant…seems like the baby is hanging out right where my diaphragm used to be.
It actually feels like I’m more baby than Emily this week.
Historically, my go-to response to anything “in my way” is to steamroll over it. I used to have a mantra that went something like “Don’t let your circumstances define you!” In my life, limitations have traditionally been something to overcome, to triumph over. And I realize the irrationality of the approach, but what can I say: it’s worked for me in the past. However, I’m learning this week a tough truth: steamrolling over my pregnancy isn’t an option.
And it dawns on me. Tough circumstances are like forest fires: it's unrealistic to expect to stomp them out in one-fell swoop of gusto-driven will power. Entirely the opposite. We must 1) stay calm and 2) tend to them with some care and mindfulness until they become more manageable.
With the new approach in mind, I only worked half a day today before sitting down and taking it easy. We hauled lumber from 9-noon, and then I just stopped. What an odd concept…actually letting my circumstances define my day’s activities. And while my brain screamed “CRAZY LAZY LADY! MOVE YOUR BUNS!” my body seems to be thanking me for listening to it rather than following the battle cry of my intensely merciless mind.
All this to say, I’ll be slowing down a little more until the baby comes in an effort to work with my body instead of against it. I hope you’re having a beautiful week, Reader. See you back here for next Sunday’s reflection. -Em
There’s a great quote by Pablo Picasso that goes: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” I’m feeling you this week, Picasso.
Pretty soon here, I’ll be announcing a new project. But until that time, let me just say that I’ve been preparing a fresh batch of tunes. Last week, I clocked about 8 hours a day at the piano. Sometimes, the songs came to me in my sleep, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night (I’ve been sleeping next to the piano) to jot them down. Other times, a melody would haunt me, and the words wouldn’t come until 3 days later when I sat down with my notepad. And then there were times that my muse would make me spend 7 ½ hours working on a dead end song, only to plop one out of the sky just before I was ready to give up for the day. Thank heavens I was still at the piano when the song finally came.
It occurs to me to me that writing a good song is a lot like hunting.
First let me say that I’m not really a hunter. But the process of capturing something that is fleeting is something that I fully understand. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out on a drive and seen something incredible, only to find myself without a camera. Or how many times I’ve seen a great fishing hole and been without my pole. Or stumbled upon a patch of wild black raspberries with nothing to carry them home in.
The point is: you can’t catch something without having the tools of your trade handy.
Whatever your passions and hobbies, it appears that you need to surround yourself with whatever you need to capture it at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, I can’t exactly carry my piano inside my purse, so until further notice, you can find me holed away with all 88 keys, ready to catch the falling songs. -Emily Fudd
When I was in high school, I never did find my “circle.”
I was in musicals and loved everybody, but wasn’t in the “theatre kids “group. I played volleyball and softball, but I was mediocre at best, and I wasn’t a part of the “die-hard sports” click. I liked the hipsters and the hippies, but I never got into skating or weed, so I wasn’t fully indoctrinated into either club. Same went for the debaters and the chess team…I just never really went all in.
This genre-less life has followed me into the present. This week, I got a letter from Pandora saying my bluegrass band—Stone Blind Valentine—was accepted to its list of artists. Apparently, SBV falls into a very specific category, and therefore has a home at Pandora
Emily Hurd is still rejected, though.
I’ve been reflecting on this event this week, and I’ve made a decision: I love not being anything in particular.
Not that I have a problem with those that happen to fall into a niche. I’ve just finally come to realize that I don’t need to be easily labeled. Sometimes I’m a little bluesy. Sometimes a little rock. I like quiet nights and also loud nights in my favorite bar. I like to paint a little and woodwork a little and cook a little. I’m equal parts emotional and logical. Sometimes I feel like singing twangy, and other times jazzy. And if all of those things make it hard for me to find a home in any industry, well then I suppose I’m also happy to be without any “home” besides the one I’m building for myself.
I hope you had a wonderful week, Reader, and if you too find yourself in the middle of a strange Venn diagram, belonging to every circle, but to none in particular, then three cheers to you as well. Here’s to being nothing but yourself. -Em
Happy Mother’s Day, Reader. This was another hard week for me on the home front. The new/old building has taken every last drop of energy and money I’ve got left. But rather than spend this blog whining, I’d like to dedicate it to my mother, as well as the long line of mothers that gave birth and brought me to life. (Because nothing combats self-pity quite like a healthy dose of gratitude).
So every year on this day since about 1992, I’ve been giving my mother some version of the same letter. Distilled down, it generally read something like this:
“Dear Mom, thank you so much for continuing to support my wildest dreams and serving as a ferociously strong and loving role model. You rock, and I love you like crazy.”
Pre-1992, the letters were even less interesting. Un-distilled, they read something like this:
“I love you Mom! Save this note and redeem it for 2 household chores of your choice.”
Now Reader, it’s not that these notes were inappropriate. I was sincere in what I said, and I don’t think I could have said any more. But today, as I’m in my third trimester of pregnancy, I feel like all of those IOU notes really didn’t communicate all that I now feel so very grateful for. Without further adieu, I would like to issue a belated Mother’s Day card to my mom from my younger selves, ages 0-12. Ahem.
“Dear Mom: you are remarkable. I am in absolute awe of you. To think that you bore all 9 pounds of me inside your tiny 5’2’ frame is literally jaw dropping. I know you worked your job right up until the day you delivered...how difficult those months must have been for you. I think now about you, pregnant in your office, trying to focus on your career, all while I jabbed at your insides like a strange parasitic belly-dwelling ninja creature. I can’t thank you enough for enduring those months.
I know that other women told you that you were supposed to bond with me, even though we’d never met. What an incredibly hard thing to try to do. How does one bond with somebody they don’t know, particularly one who offers nothing in return? You gave me every nutrient I needed, every bit of oxygen and blood. You allowed me to stretch your bones, muscles, and skin in a way that would cause permanent changes to your young body. Your emotions likely spun out of control with the influx of hormones, and you must have lost so much sleep. You spent your hard-earned money on doctor’s appointments and materials for a room for me. And what I likely gave you in return for those 9 months of sacrifice was a permanent bloated feeling in your abdomen and incontinence every time you coughed, sneezed, or laughed. That was hardly an even trade.
Labor must have been such a scary and painful endeavor. When it was over, I know I provided little time for you to rest. Those first few weeks after I arrived must have been so fatiguing. Previous daily activities like showering and cooking became a luxury. Thank you for giving up life’s simple pleasures, all so that I could be healthy and flourish.
In the years that followed, I know I was challenging. I got sick, and you would get sick too. I called you out of bed countless times to come and sleep with me, and you would always come, giving up your own good dreams to soothe me during a nightmare. I would sometimes vomit on the carpet and wet the bed, and it was you who had to find time to clean up after me, amidst the million of other things you had on your plate. My gratitude for this thankless work is unending.
Finally, as I started going to school and you perhaps started to hope your life would “get back to normal,” I know I proved you wrong. I was stubborn and emotional and hardheaded. I tested your love for me, even though you had proved it time and time again. I said things I didn’t mean, just to see how far your love for me would go. And though I know I must have hurt your heart quite badly, you never once made me feel unloved, despite me sometimes making you feel like I didn’t love you at all.
Mom, today your sacrifice is well understood, and it means the world to me. Thank you for giving me life and love. Thank you for choosing to give to me when I could give nothing back. Thank you for nourishing me in all the ways a being can be nourished. You rock, and I love you like crazy. P.S. Redeem this blog for the household chore of your choice. –Em”
Today, I said goodbye to my friend Steve Zimmerman. Steve was the father of one of my best friends, Nick. I just can’t believe it. I saw him a few weeks ago at one of my shows and was fortunate enough to talk to him for a long time before I went on. This week, he died of complications surrounding his kidney cancer.
At his service this afternoon, my friend Nick read a letter. Steve apparently wrote it last week when he realized his days were drawing to an end, and he wanted the letter to be read at his memorial. It was such a potent note; he basically distilled down his life into one page of reflections on what and who mattered to him. In addition to wishing farewell and sending love to all of us mourners, he explained that his whole life was just a summation of beautiful memories. Which got me thinking.
At the end of my life, what will I remember?
It’s an interesting question. And I thought I’d dedicate tonight’s blog to it. Part of learning how to live well is learning how to prioritize those things that your memory clings to, and not fretting over the things the you won’t remember anyway.
For instance, the days following my own father’s passing are a complete blur. I don’t remember what I wore, ate, or said. And I don’t remember a single text that I received, or who sent flowers.
But I remember every single person who called me. Every single one.
(*Note to self: always pick up the phone and call a person who loses a loved one).
So off the top of my head:
+ I remember every late night I spent around a campfire (but not a single late night in front of the TV)
+I remember the smell of every home I’ve been in (but now how that home looked).
+I remember each time my friends and I laughed ourselves to tears (but not the things we’ve fought over).
+I remember every Christmas morning coffee hour with my family (but not the gifts I received).
+I remember the melody of every song I’ve written (but not the words).
+I remember the face of everybody who has ever come up to me after a show to chat (but not their names).
+I remember every fishing trip that I’ve been on (but not what we caught).
+I remember every live music performance that gave me chills (but not a single song that didn’t).
+I remember the smile of every student that I ever mentored (but not the school subject).
+I remember every painting I’ve ever done (but not where those paintings ended up or if they ever made it to a wall).
+I remember every show I’ve ever played (but not what songs I played).
I could go on all night, but I’m seeing the theme here and can make a basic summary. Based on my remembrances, I should focus on spending time with people, being creative, keeping a good smelling house, and interacting with the world around me. Nothing else apparently matters in this brain of mine...nice to know.
And with that, I'm off to bed. As an aside, I want to thank those of you who came to Friday night’s show at Just Goods and cheered, laughed, and chatted with me afterwards. It was unforgettable. –Em
Ahhh. This week was just what I needed to get me out of last week’s funk.
For those of you who don’t know, I teach songwriting and piano in my free time. Since early Friday morning, I’ve been teaching non-stop at an all women rock music program in Madison, WI. Here’s the gist: my fellow teachers and I meet women who have never played an instrument before, teach them to play the instrument of their choice, then help them form a band with other women, write a song with them, and perform it on stage. All in three days. Ridiculous. And amazing.
So I’ve been reflecting this afternoon and thought I’d take a break to blog. Here’s the lesson of my week:
Sometimes there’s no better solution to a problem than to step away from it for a while.
I’ve been so immersed in my restaurant building drama that it took over all the space in my head and heart. I allowed the problems with that building to blare too brightly; they had blinded to me to everything else.
I just spent the last 4 hours watching my band of women (“The Incognitos”) rehearse their song…in sunglasses. In “real life,” they are doctors and teachers and lawyers, but today, they are a band of ladies rocking sweet shades. And it got me thinking about how incredible it is for all of us to put on sweet shades and leave our normal roles. Burnout is a very real thing. We all need moments away from what defines us to appreciate the beauty we sometimes can’t see behind our day-in-day-out routine.
And now, my 15-minute break is up, and I’ve got to get back to the band. Rest assured, dear Reader, I’m feeling much better this week after a short time away. I hope you’re enjoying this week. Thanks so much for checking in with me. See you soon. -Em
Well. I'm in over my head this week, Reader.
I feel like I'm at war with the building that I purchased. And while I'm trying to be optimistic, it's been a little more difficult than usual lately. Working alone everyday is starting to take a toll. I'm not standing up to naysayers as well as I used to. My belly has gotten big enough that bending over to tie my shoes is becoming a chore. Ripping up carpet and hauling it into a dumpster...well let's just say it's a much bigger chore. As hard as it is to admit, I'm not sure than preggos in their third trimester were meant for building demolition.
If any of you are reading this and happen to know anything at all about renovating an old commercial building, please let know; your knowledge would be so welcome. Hopefully this coming week provides some clarity into how best to approach my building woes.
Whatever your woes, Reader, my thoughts are with you. Let's hope this next week finds us ready to tackle all those things that feel insurmountable. If you had an incredible week, I'd welcome any good vibes that you'd like to send my way. -Em
Well, it was a big week of moving my husband into our house. The coming together of two worlds is wonderful: our fireplace mantel is now half musical instruments, half model wooden boats.
In my down time, I spent a lot of time at the piano. After last week's rejection, I've been on a roll. (I keep forgetting what a great motivator rejection is...nothing makes me work more feverishly at my craft than a bad review). The melody of this week's tune seemed to fall from the sky in the middle of the night, and since then, I've been trying to fill in the words that this song is asking for. I feel not so dissimilar from a younger Paul McCartney.
The story goes that when Paul wrote "Yesterday," the tune came to him in the middle of the night. But it was only the melody. He needed to write placeholder lyrics until the right words fell out. Apparently, what we now know of as "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away" used to be "Scrambled eggs, oh my darling you have lovely legs."
The same goes for Paul Simon. He gave an interview once about the days he spent trying to find the perfect word to fit the melody that he made for "Still Crazy After All These Years." The word "crazy" wasn't settled upon until he went through pages of other words and finally settled on the one he was looking for after days of trying. He said he had a full notebook's worth of paper, full of ideas, crumpled up into balls and thrown across the room.
Likewise, my beautiful melody currently has the placeholder lyrics: "Kick off your shoes, pass me the wine. We'll kick the blues in the ass this time." Hopefully this tune will be all wrapped up in time for my show on May 1st, and you can hear what the lyrics turn out to be. Until then, wish me luck finishing up this ass-kickery tune.
I wish you the best of luck in all of your endeavors this week. Thanks so much for checking in with me from time to time; it means so much. -Em
Evening, Reader. Since I last wrote, two large life events have transpired:
1. My music was rejected from Pandora, along with a note saying that it doesn't "connect with a listening audience."
2. I had an incredible show with Willy Porter, where I had a great connection with a listening audience.
The point? Nothing really. Just an interesting observation. Life is becoming a little more understandable to me the older I get. Nothing really matters as much as it used to. Of course, I do believe that great evils are worth fighting against, and great goods are worth fighting for. But beyond that, life is just a series of small events, and there's no point is getting worked up about any of it.
This week, I'm working at The Norwegian and continuing to write songs to my baby. I love how simple life is these days. Small truths feel so potent lately. Coffee is so glorious. Rain smells great. Writing music feels wonderful. Pets are compassionate. And Belgian waffles make me swoon. I'll be 6-months through my pregnancy next week, and the time is flying by. Before you know it, it'll be Sunday night. And I'll see you back here then. -Em
I'm not sure if it's being pregnant or what, but lately I'm up every night from about 1:45 am to 5 am. I call this time The Zombie Hours. I'm not really myself in this time, and I'm certainly not plugged in, and yet there I am...
It occurred to me last week that I ought to use these 'unplugged' times to songwrite. And so last Friday night, it began. I got up, and started playing the keys. At first it felt like torture. Honestly. But then it began to morph into a different sensation, almost as if I was lullabying myself to sleep. And eventually, I did.
When I got up the next morning, I was ready to bust a gut laughing at whatever I had managed to write in the zombie hours the night before. No chance it was any good, I figured. I found 4 big pages of scribbled out melodies over chords. The handwriting didn't even look like mine.
Actually not only was it pretty good, it was something unlike anything else I've written. Fully alert Emily would never have penned anything quite like it. And so I've deduced that being slightly out of one's body and mind is a kind of nice place from which to create.
(Said every stoned musician ever.)
This said, I've begun a new album. It will contain songs that were largely written in the middle of the night. At some point, I'll call it something clever and beautiful, I'm sure. But for you few blog readers, well...you and I will think of it as:
Happy St. Patrick's Day Eve to you. It was a solid week of working down at The Norwegian for me. Then this weekend, I went to Chicago to play some songs at the Old Town School of Folk Music for my dear friend Aerin's 40th birthday party.
I had completely forgotten that it was also the weekend that the city of Chicago turns into a drunken frat party of green beer and grown people wearing miniature green leprechaun hats, hoping to get lucky. I know there was a time that I too was a part of this fraternity, but at 5 months pregnant, I was sincerely glad not to be taking part. That said, I did really enjoy people-watching on Sunday morning as the hungover leprechauns unluckily did the walk-of-shame down the sidewalks, desperately seeking coffee and to forget what happened the day before.
The great lesson of my week came from a $12 table that I bought at the Goodwill. I'm currently in the position of having to outfit my house with furniture. Since I a) don't have the money to buy new furniture and b) wouldn't buy new furniture even if I could, I've been getting creative. I found the beat-up table for almost nothing because the entire top was covered in cracked varnish, deep scratches, and water spots. But I could see that it was well made and that it had life in it, and so I brought it home.
I stripped off the old varnish, then carefully sanded the top, discovering it was mahogany with gorgeous grain. I stained it, and the grain popped out even more. The table is currently on its third coat of varnish. And in the great words of Carol Burnett, it shines like the top of the Chrysler building.
It occurs to me that the process of reviving something and bringing it back to life is truly restorative for the soul. I feel this way often when I reuse a snippet of a song that I never really found a home for, or when I find an old shirt that looks brand new after sewing on some fresh buttons. I don't know. Maybe it's just that it's spring and new life seems to be popping up everywhere. Whatever it is, giving a new life to things that has been cast-off feels like rejuvenating something ancient inside my heart, and this small act has put a twinkle in my eye today.
I hope you're all enjoying this little stretch of beautiful warm weather. Until next week, slainte: may the luck of the Irish be with you. -Em
I spent the afternoon writing a song to the baby in my belly. I do this a lot lately. I'm not sure the baby can hear me, but it makes me feel good to do it, and so I do it.
Today's song is called "Better Than Me" and it's about how I hope this kid will end up happier, stronger, brighter, kinder, more confident, and just in general a lot cooler than I am. Not because I don't like myself. But because I believe that the evolution of anything should expand on and surpass what was there before.
I thought a lot about this concept while working at my building this week. After a long conversation with an environmental health inspector, I learned that the building is filled with asbestos in the basement and in the attic. This silicate mineral was obviously used extensively in the 20th century before the health risks were discovered. Most 30's era buildings like mine have asbestos in them somewhere.
Which made me wonder. People used to make hats with mercury, which of course led to the infamous term "Mad Hatter." Cocaine used to be in Coca-Cola, and people are still wrapping their heads around why we used to put lead in paint. Asbestos is everywhere. Humans generally don't "figure things out" until the repercussions of using the product are already widespread. I wonder what we're using now that we'll later learn is killing us. Styrofoam? Plastic? Easter peeps?
So it is with human behavior. I can only hope that the next generation of people will learn what didn't work for our generation and do it better. Love better. Live better. Be better all around. This is my only wish for the 6-inch baby in my belly. Well that, and also to develop a deep love for woodworking, music, and cooking. And hockey. And winter weather. And... -Em
I've been a lone wolf for as long as I can remember. An only child, an artist, and an introvert. Fiercely independent and sometimes a bit of a hermit. Definitely not one to seek community.
But this week, community sought me. And now I'm apparently a part of a wolf pack.
As many of you know, I just bought an old commercial building (circa 1930) in my hometown of Rockford. I've spent the last 3 weeks cleaning it out in preparations for office spaces upstairs and a little pub downstairs. I ripped out 2 walls myself before posting a demolition picture on Facebook. One person in the area saw the post and passed on the information to the rest of the neighborhood. Yesterday, about a dozen people showed up to volunteer their time.
And voila. A job that would have taken me at least another week was done in six hours. The whole crew worked for pizza and beer. I'm so grateful for the communities in Signal Hill, Edgewater, and Churchill's Grove for not only welcoming me into the neighborhood, but for actually helping me to build something here. My heart is full to the brim. Thank you thank you thank you. -Em
Awesome week. I spent the first half of it tearing down walls at my new building, and the second half was a big hoot with my fam in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Here we are hiking down to the frozen waterfalls at Gorge State Park. As I reflect on the week, I'm reminded of the importance of family.
Family cannot be won. Family cannot be bought. They cannot be charmed, and they certainly cannot be fooled. Honesty is not the best policy...it is generally the only policy. Because of all the honesty, the good times are honestly the most wonderful ever, and the bad times are honestly the worst ever.
The relationships can be hard to maintain, but they are almost impossible to break. Humor is a requirement in order to stay sane, and so that humor has usually been refined into something incredible and unique to each family. Traditions are created and honed and modified, and having a role inside those traditions feels amazing, albeit embarrassing. (But hey, at least you're all embarrassed together).
And ultimately, it's just so wonderful to be truly included. You always have a place with family. They are the people that carry your painful and joyful memories with you as you walk through life. I feel so lucky to be a part of my family tonight. Thank you, fam. And thanks to you, Reader for continuing to check in with me. See you next Sunday. -Em
I love these weekly reflections. Tonight I'm trying to squeeze it in before the "Best of SNL" special that comes on at 7. 25 minutes. Here we go.
It's a strange and lovely thing to get older in the music business. This week, I made a music video for one of the songs on my new album. Ten years ago, I would have felt that my whole career was riding on such a video. Now, it's just something random to do on a Thursday while you're 4 months pregnant.
I worked with the small crew from the indie film company in Chicago called Polymyth. What an incredibly kind group. Derek, Dan, Jonathan, and I spent the day laughing about lip syncing and how to best hide my burgeoning belly. It's so incredible to be at an age where nothing is taken too seriously. It's not that things don't matter as you get older; they're just less pivotal. And what a nice revelation, to know that your career is not 'riding on' anything.
I've learned that--in a music career--you'll write albums that people love, but that don't mean that much to you. You'll write albums that mean the world to you, but that mean absolutely nothing to anybody else. You'll make music videos that may only be appreciated by a few people, and the masses will criticize. You'll take photos for album covers that look absurd to you later in life. You'll spend money on press campaigns that won't do anything to increase your fan base, then later, then you'll tweet something ridiculous that gives you 20 extra Twitter followers in 5 minutes.
There are no mistakes in any part of this process. There are just a series of steps that you take in your life journey as a musician. And more importantly, there is no end to be reached. There is just the walk. I'm learning every year to try everything, and not to be disappointed if things don't 'work out' the way you hoped. There is no full success or full failure. There is just trying. You just keep trying. You try everything. And as long as you do your best, you are exempt from personal and public judgement.
And now onto SNL and peanut butter cups. This week, I'm doing more clean up at my new commercial building, ripping up moldy carpet, knocking down walls, taking down drop ceilings, and hauling garbage. If you're reading this and ever feel like driving to Rockford, IL to help me out, I'll have a paint roller with your name on it. Let me know. email@example.com. Until next week, Reader, enjoy these days. -Em
I've heard that your time is like a closet: no matter how much you have, you always manage to fill it.
Which is why I just bought a commercial building at the same time that I'm releasing a new album at the same time that I'm 4 months pregnant. Somehow it all has to fit, right?
As of this week, I'm the proud owner of 1406 N. Main Street in my hometown of Rockford, IL. I'll have to put in a lot of work to make the space usable, but I love the challenge. The place was built in 1930 before the Great Depression hit the city. Gorgeous hardwood maple lays buried beneath layers of hideous carpet and glue, so the project of finishing the floors alone will be a doozie. Not to mention the repainting and trimming of 8,000 sq ft of walls and ceilings.
But I'm excited. And it's been awhile since I've been this plainly excited. Which is how I know it's a great time to add something else to my projects list.
I keep thinking about how rare it is to feel really alive during our lifetimes. Once in awhile when I'm writing, singing, walking the dog, cooking a meal, watching the snow, teaching a student...then maybe I experience that thrill. But for the most part, I lose sight of what living is all about. Taking chances and trying new things brings a fresh rush of inspiration. I feel so energized by the enormity of what lies ahead. And I can't wait to dig in.
I'll keep you posted on social media as the building begins to take shape. Until next Sunday, Reader, I hope you're well. -Em
Well it's halftime on Superbowl Sunday. I just finished watching Katie Perry's performance and I figured that was enough for me. As much as I love football, the amount of resources that go into the halftime show always triggers my "this is why the terrorists hate us" response.
So it was a week of hard work for me, putting together press packages. For this album, I'll be sending out 300+ cds. Cost per package = $2.72 each. That's a lot of cash, considering there's no guarantee the person on the other end will a) get it, b) open it, then c) read/listen to it. Still, writing to strangers is a strange but necessary part of the process.
My press process has changed quite a bit over the years. I'm still no expert. But I'm learning. And if anything I've learned can help somebody else with publicizing an album, getting reviewed, trying to chart, etc, then please read on.
1) Handwrite...everything. I know it's so convenient to make handy labels in your computer to address your package, but nothing makes a person feel less inclined to dedicate any time writing about you when you can't even write their name on an envelope.
2) Spell names and nick names correctly. Obviously. A stranger will feel like you're a stranger if you don't find out this small part of who they are. When a Google search says the reviewer at XYZ Magazine is "Russell Smith," then go read an article by Russell Smith. You may find out that all of his loyal readers know that he goes by "Rusty." Already, he knows you know a little more about him than most.
3) Put a small note, handwritten, inside the package. People in the music business get hundreds of these packages a day. In addition to a bio and an album, be sure to include a small, personalized note--even if it's just on a post-it--telling them who you are and what you want. So many reviewers have told me they appreciate this gesture.
4) Be specific and keep it short. Know exactly what you want from the person you're writing to. Example: "Hello DJ Joe, will you consider playing Track 4 from my new release on your program? Thanks, You and your contact info." DJs and reviewers have told me for years to "write less." Don't make my mistake.
5) DO YOUR RESEARCH. I can't tell you how many rejections I've gotten over the years from people telling me I'm "wasting their time." If you're a folk musician trying to get played on radio, be sure the package goes to the folk dj, not just the station manager. I know it adds an extra 5 minutes to research each package, but I've wasted a lot of money by not taking the time. Make your effort worth it. Read the bio of every DJ and reviewer that your package is going to. Be sure your music fits their style before you spend $3.00 on them.
I've got a birthday this week! Looking forward to catching up with friends. I hope you have a sensational week, Reader. See you next Sunday -Em
It may seem strange to be making this sort of announcement right as I'm releasing a record, but hey, life is strange. So here it is. In case you've been wondering why these past few months have been relatively quiet ones on the music front, that would be because I'm pregnant. AH! It even looks strange typed out. I'm just coming out of my first trimester, and my due date is August 2nd.
This is my first time being pregnant, and it's been a ride unlike any other. Without going into too much detail, I've developed something called 'rhinitis of pregnancy,' a condition where all of my nasal passageways have swollen shut. Most of the singing I've done in the past few months has sounded like I'm crooning though jello.
What can you expect from me this year? Bad news first. I'll be playing far fewer shows. Doctors say I'll need nose surgery as soon as the pregnancy is over. But then you can bet I'll be right back on tour. Because the good news is, I'll be pushing Landmark like crazy over the next six months, as well as writing everyday. I've always believed that great art comes in times of hardship, and I'm excited to see what comes from the forced downtime.
I've got a few other big news bombs to drop over the next few months, and I hope you'll keep checking back here from time to time. Until then, keep the emails coming! I love hearing how you all are doing, and the correspondence feels even more important now that I won't be seeing you in person quite as much. Much love to you. -Preggo.
Hello, Reader. It was a gorgeous sunny Sunday here in Northern Illinois. I've heard that the rest of the U.S. is bored by our flat, Midwestern landscape, but I don't get tired of it. Below is a picture I took of the geese on Rock Cut State Park in Rockford, IL. These small lakes in the middle of flat prairies and forests always calm me down, the kind of calm where I can feel my whole body--even toes--audibly exhaling.
On the topic of tranquility, it's been a relatively slow week for me, waiting for my record to arrive on the doorstep. This waiting process generally makes me pretty anxious, but not quite as much this week. And I have an app to thank for that. So this blog is just a quick plug.
The app is called 'Headspace.' It's free, and it's worth every penny.
I've been an on-and-off meditator for my adult life. But meditation for me is like taking vitamins: I know it's good for me, but I tend to forget about the regimen after a while. However this meditation is easy. It takes 10 minutes. It's guided. And it's so refreshing. Everybody has 10 minutes. I can't recommend it enough. It's been a really nice start to my days, and it's a welcome change of pace from my usual routine (slugging down hot coffee while skimming headlines and eating a toaster waffle off a paper towel).
My record will definitly be here this week, and I'll have news soon about you can get a copy. Until then, get the Headspace app! Peace & geese, Em.
Good Sunday night to you, Reader. Hope you've had a good week. In the Hurd house, the week was spent preparing press kits in honor of the new album, which will be arriving on my doorstep this week or next. Like every record I've released in the past couple years, when it came time to release this album, I found myself asking:
Is it still worth it to press hard cds?
And then the prompt answer: of course. Why?
Because humans want as many ways as possible to experience the things they love.
When I was a 5, my favorite movie was “Back to the Future.” I loved the movie so much that I learned all the words to the songs from the movie. (“Power of Love” is still a favorite). I wanted a puffy orange vest like Marty McFly’s. I even got the “Back To The Future” video game for my Nintendo, a game which is nothing like the movie, btw.
Point being, if people like something, they like the paraphernalia that goes with it. It’s why bands sell t-shirts and buttons at their merch tables. It’s why the infamous Dave Matthews Band bumper stickers landed on the backside of every other jeep throughout the 90’s.
And it’s why we continue to press cds. Cost inefficient as it may be, we press on.
The packaging on this album is minimal and eco-friendly, and the photographer did a bang-up job on the pics. I hope you get your copy when they come out.
Until next Sunday, have a terrific week. -Em
Happy New Year to you, Reader. It's been a quiet start to 2015 here in the Hurd house. We made the traditional split pea soup, took a long walk with the dog, and saw "The Imitation Game" at the movies (so good...recommend it). Now I'm bundled up in a blanket with a couple (handfuls) of leftover Christmas candies and thinking about resolutions.
Once again, I don't think I'll be making a resolution this year. True, I love the concept of making clean starts with good habits (hello so much kale!) and clean breaks with unhealthy ones (goodbye too much ale!). But I don't need to make a resolution to strengthen my resolve. Besides, rigid vows are rarely effective for me. I don't like being "held" to my word. I like my words to hold me. Words should support, not bind.
So rather than make myself a promise, I'm making myself a prayer. Not the "Our Father who art in heaven" type, or the "Please Lord help me sell my records" type either. (Although for real, sweet Lord, please help me sell my records!) No this year, I'm simply sending out positive thoughts that I'll be able to live a bit more intentionally.
2014 was a great year, and so much was accomplished. But there was not a lot of purposeful thought or action on my part. The pace was fast, and decisions were impetuous. I'm hoping that in 2015, I'll be more clear-headed. That I won't waste energy on feeling lost or worried. That I will be a calm influence on myself. And that I will remember to stand up for what I believe in. (Because truly, if I've learned anything from the racial and social incongruities of 2014, it's that we need to stand up for ourselves and each other.)
I hope you are enjoying your own clean start, Reader, and that you're only taking with you into 2015 those words that will support you. I look forward to what the year will bring, and what we will all bring to it. -Em
Welcome back, Reader. As you can tell, I'm doing a little site maintenance while I get ready to launch the new record. Huge thanks to Brian Milo for the stupendous new round of photos.
Sweet, sweet Brian Milo. He showed up on Thursday asking what I wanted for my newest pictures. I said: "something in a field where I look plain and strong." (Terrible prompt #1). Without asking for more info, he hopped in my car, and we drove until I could find "a good looking field." (Terrible prompt #2). We found said field at the corner of Auburn and Meridian in my hometown of Rockford, Illinois. He asked what I wanted to wear. I replied, "What I'm wearing, I guess." (Terrible prompt #3) And yet somehow, without any direction from me, Brian Milo made some magic happen.
That's a good photographer for you.
And with any luck, there should be some great music to go with these pics in the coming week. Until next time, Reader: enjoy this holiday season. -Em
What a crazy delightful world it is, Reader.
We just spent a long week in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for Thanksgiving. When we returned home to our family, we met a whirlwind of two new births, one death, four birthdays to celebrate, and a holiday to prep for. A person could get the spins.
Instead, focus just gets scary clear.
It blows my mind that in our busiest, craziest times, we are able to see our best. Apparently, it’s when the mind sits still for too long that it becomes inaccurate.
And so with my new-found, eerily-calm super-vision, I can see possibility everywhere. I’m starting the next round of music videos this week (and learning new camera skills). I just finished up recording a project for a dear songwriting friend. And now, we’re mastering my album that’s been two years in the making, all whilst making album art.
So bring on the holiday spins! I’m super woman this month. -Em
What an incredible morning. Today, kids from St. James, Washington, and Guilford schools in Rockford collaborated with the band and me to make a full-length song about their home town...all in 15 minutes. This was such an inspirational experience.
The song highlighted all of their favorite parts about the city. It felt incredible to be a part of this kind of positive, spontaneous creation. By the end of the workshop, we were all playing the song. Some kids sang, some played their instruments, and some beat-boxed. Everybody rocked.
I feel so proud of my hometown today, and I hope all of the kids do, too. I'm so happy to be from Rockford. -Em
Well, the honeymoon's over, as they say. I've been back in the studio most days, mixing the record that is now almost 2 years in the making. You have my vow: it will be done before the holidays.
The good news is, the hard work has paid off. The strings, pedal steel, organ, backing vocals, etc added a ton to the finished product. John Abbey and I are really proud of the way this album is coming out, and I can't wait for you to hear it.
In other news, I'm teaching a workshop for a couple hundred Rockford area school kids tomorrow morning at The Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center in downtown Rockford. Please send all the good thoughts, prayers, and mojo you can...I'll need it! -Em
Well friends, we successfully made it through our wedding and honeymoon to France. This has been a month I will never forget.
A number of you have been emailing, asking for wedding pics. Our friends Dustin and Courtney took our pictures. We haven't seen most of them, but here's a teaser: http://wallerweddings.com/em-m-teasers/
As far as our honeymoon, I just can't say enough about it. But here are my Top 10 Takeaways.
1) Paris really is the city of love. The whole place seems to say: "It's cool. You're here. You're in love. Swoon." I find myself really lucky to have been in Paris with my husband. We've spent every minute of everyday together. Still swooning.
2) When we do this again, I want to be on a motorcycle.
3) When we do this again, I think I'd spend a little less time in Paris proper and a lot more time in the country. I'd start the motorcycle adventure in southern France, which wasn't so heavily bombed in WWII and thus has retained more of its history. Mark and I had far more fun chatting it up with the locals in Caen, Port en Bassin, Bayeaux, and Rouen than we did in Paris. And I could do without all the shopping in the big city.
4) Speaking of small towns: nobody speaks English. When we said, "We are from Chicago," everyone had a catchphrase from a movie to quote us (our favorite was "you bettah reck-ah-nize), but that was fairly useless when trying to find out what we were eating.
5) The eating in France is insane. Just in the world of fish, I ate oysters, shrimp, octopus, mussels, squid, sardines, cod, lobster, anchovies, crab, snails, and salmon four ways. The pizza was out of this world. As was the bread and cheese. But I never thought I'd say it: I have seriously missed broccoli and other green edibles.
6) Victor Hugo reigns supreme in Paris. This is not an arguable point.
7) Shortly after Victor Hugo comes America. This was shocking. Mark and I were startled when French people in small towns shook our hands and thanked us for liberating their country. One man in Caen, whose Jewish grandfather fled from Poland just before WWII and had survived, actually cried as he told us his story. These moments were equal parts weird and powerful. Our trip to Omaha beach was sobering and difficult.
8) The French are in no hurry. They walk slowly, eat slowly, and talk slowly. We loved the pace. But we felt OLD. Dinner doesn't start until about 10 pm. We found ourselves eating like hobbits: all day, all the time.
9) The wine in France is better than any drink either of us has ingested. At home, I can't drink one glass without waking up with a headache and a stuffy nose. Here, we each drank about a bottle a day, and not only had no hangover, but woke up every morning feeling awesome. One night (for strictly scientific purposes), we each drank 2 bottles of wine. Same result.
10) Finally, the French revere our music. I was expecting to hear nothing but stuff like "C'est Si Bon" blaring over their airwaves. (Typical ignorant American). Instead, all we heard were "hits" from the states. Amazing.
I felt oddly proud to be an American in Paris, and I can't wait to get back. Until then, I'm back to work in the studio, trying like hell to finish up this record. Dear Reader, I hope you're well. -Em. (Now Mrs. Em)
Evening, Reader. It's been another banner week; Mark and I got our marriage license. It was an incredible feeling. And laughable. You have to undergo a litany of questions at the courthouse, including: "any chance you two are related?" We got a kick out of that.
But we didn't get a kick out of it entirely. While I generally try to keep my blogs about music, I'm dedicating this one to the right to marry, and how absurd it is that so many people still don't have that right. It was enough to make me feel guilty about getting a license myself.
Fortunately, in Illinois, we allow same-sex marriage. But the woman who granted us a marriage license told us in no uncertain terms that she thought "those people" who sought that kind of marriage are definitely going to hell. Mark and I couldn't believe it. I wanted to slug her. But I wanted the license more. So we simply told her we disagreed.
"Those people" are all of us people. It is human to want to be united with your partner. It is also human not to want to have a partner. It is human to want a tax break. It is human to hate paying taxes. It is human to want romance, and it's human to gag at the idea of romance. We are all just people walking around with a desires that span the gamut of human wants and needs.
The only thing inhuman I still see in this marriage debate is that there are righteous people out there denying other people pretty basic rights if they want them. While I'm so frustrated by this injustice, I know we will beat it. I can see it coming. And the more we can see it and talk about it, the closer we are to it becoming a reality. Stepping of my pulpit now, but some things need to be said. -Em
Oh Reader. I write to you this Monday night drunk on exhaustion. Or maybe this giant glass of red wine beside me. But more likely exhaustion.
Mark and I are one month away from getting married, and we're doing everything ourselves. So far, I've baked 144 cakes (now in the freezer). We've made 36 food trays out of some real nice hickory. We've milled, built, sanded, and varnished 44 benches from felled maple and oak on our property. We've built 30 cathedral windows from elm. We're essentially building a chapel and restaurant in our woods. Mark is right now in the basement building a bar..no shocker there.
People are calling us crazy. And of course they're right. But I am so loving crazy. Like anything, the more of yourself you invest into something, the more of yourself shines through in your project. Working like this tends to bring me a lot closer to myself. (And I'm getting an awesome work-out to boot!) It's been a great week.
I've really enjoyed taking this break from music to work on our wedding. Hope you keep checking back here for more pictures and updates from us crazies. -Em
Good evening to you. What a whirlwind couple of weeks. On August 29th, the band (along with the help of bass player Andrew Wilkins) recorded another album at King Size Sound Labs. Best session ever. Why?
Tape. Sweet, sweet tape.
We made this album the way that records used to be made: the engineer had to ride levels and adjust EQ manually during the recording. Because we recorded directly to tape, we could make no changes after we finished. That's the first time that we've done that. And while the end result is a less-polished finished product, you walk away with incredible peace of mind, knowing that you did your best, and that there's absolutely nothing you can do about it now.
It's funny, really. We musicians have a tendency to think that the more options we can give ourselves, the better. With endless time and money, we could rework and overdub until the cows come home, making our solos perfect and never being off-pitch. And while that's great, it's also stress-inducing, because you tend to wonder what more you could have done. In our case, we did what we could do, and now the album is already off to be manufactured. That bird as flown. It comes in next week.
There's a bit of magic in recording this way, and we hope you can feel it when you give this album a listen. See you back here again soon. -Em
Evening to you. I'd like to dedicate tonight's blog to one of the very best music venues in the Midwest.
If you keep up with my tour schedule, you've likely seen that every six months or so, I play the Just Goods Fair Trade store in my hometown of Rockford, IL. After Friday night's show at this little gem of a concert hall, I'm more in love with it than ever.
By day, Just Goods is a not-for-profit store that promotes ecological and social responsibility by selling wares that benefit struggling communities across the globe. By night, it hosts an underground music series that totally rocks.
The music room is nothing fancy: just a little space with about 60 folding chairs facing a tiny raised stage. But the people who run the series are passionate and tenderhearted and completely lacking in pretense. The crowd that comes for these free shows tend to tip big, clap loud, and buy every piece of merch you've got to sell. They talk to you after the show like you're a part of their family. And even a stoic person like me gets choked up thinking about how much that kind of loyal love means to me.
I'm done gigging now until after I get married; I'm so glad I ended this year's round of shows on my favorite stage. Until next weekend...Em
Photo by john r connell, 8/22/2014
Evening, Reader. Two months from today, I'll be a married lady. It's hard to believe. Exciting times. Yet while I'm filled with love for my fiance, I'm really not digging the wedding planning.
There's a bit of a machine in place when it comes to weddings in the U.S. these days. And there are a whole hell of a lot of musts. You must send out save-the-dates. You must create a registry comprised of cheap home goods. You must get your bridesmaids gifts. You must provide a plated meal to guests...
I must be ready to vomit.
The only part I've truly enjoyed in this wedding process is of course writing all the music; it's so meaningful. Writing the "Emily Gets Married" soundtrack has been a beautiful and thoughtful process that I'm really looking forward to sharing with all of my friends and family. And so I'm happy to announce...
My band--Stone Blind Valentine--has made its second album (my wedding album), and we'll be recording the bulk of it on August 29th at Kingsize Sound Labs. The demo version of the record will be given to my wedding quests. The finished product will be on-sale to the public in 2015. I think you're going to love it. The working title is "Black Veil White Veil." Keep checking back for details... -Em
Morning to you,
I had started writing last night, but then heard the news about the passing of Robin Williams. I was so taken aback that I decided to watch old clips of his work. What an inspirational actor...he is missed.
Last week, Ingrid Graudins sang backing vocals on my album. I just don't even know how to begin to write on this. One of her fans probably said it best: "having Ingrid sing backing vocals is like having Chagall paint your house." Her voice is so rich and impossibly soulful, a true one-of-a-kind. Then she took it a step further and sang several levels of harmony with herself, making a whole choir of talented singers. John and I sat in the studio with our jaws open. She blew us away.
Then I got to thinking how good it is to have talented people in our lives. When I was a kid, I never tried out for varsity volleyball; JV all the way. I wasn't a fan of "upping my game." I'm more the "play the nice and easy game" type. Which is pretty damn wimpy.
It's better to up your game. Play with the big dogs and fail and fail and fail if you must, but you'll get better. That's not to say that my new album is a game or that I'll fail. But you can bet that I sure have been singing like crazy to be ready to sing my parts with Ingrid's. Bottom line: let talented people make you feel like getting better, not like getting threatened.
And with that, I'm off to Chicago to practice with the crazy talented men of Stone Blind Valentine. Have a great week. See you back here. -Em
Evening to you, Reader. There was no blog from me last weekend because Sunday night was spent recovering from my bachelorette party. (See above hotness).
For the party, I requested a low-key lake day with some of my favorite women, and that's just what I got. That and a great bottle of scotch (Balvenie!), which was emptied in 8 short hours. You'd think I'd learn. Alas no.
Last weekend got me thinking about what these women have done for me. Not only for my mind and heart, but also for my career. Because when you're good friends with an indie musician, it's a unique kind of friendship.
I remember all those late-night Chicago shows in dive bars where I would play until 2 am, usually to just a handful of my closest girlfriends, singing to them as they drank cheap beer while I played pretty rough covers of Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones. As we got older, these friends bought all of my albums, which I would have given them for free; then they bought extra copies to "give as gifts" but more likely to use as coasters. Years passed, and these women left their young babies with their partners so they could be in my audience to help fill up what would have been dead rooms. I could go on. Needless to say, I was a rockstar to them before anybody else knew my name. And I'm a very lucky lady.
See you back here next weekend. -Em
Good morning, Reader. I don't have long to write today. I'm headed back to Madison for the final performance of the kids rock program that I've been teaching this week. In 5 days, 5 kids learned an instrument of their choice, wrote a song together, recorded it at Paradyme Recording Studio, and will now play it for a crowd of hundreds at the Goodman Center in Wisconsin. Amazing.
In random news, my fiance and I were featured on a classic boat restoration site this week. Click here to check that out. Can't believe it.
This week, we record background vocals for the new album; details soon! -Em
My hometown of Rockford, IL has several summer music programs for kids. But this week, we made a bit of history. I taught Rockford's first weeklong intensive kids songwriting camp. The result? Eight new songs were born, as well as six full-length music videos and a goodly amount of sweet band posters.
Nine kiddos and I spent the week at the Mendelssohn Club on Church Street, songwriting everyday on ukuleles, pianos, guitars, and flutes. Some of the kids had experience on their instruments, though very little. Only one of them had written before. In the end, I was totally impressed by how easily they jumped into the experience.
The kids ranged in ages from 8-15. That's a big gap. And while they all had different topics to write about, they all had something they wanted to say, and music helped them say it. The older kids wrote about what older kids write about ("I hope he/she notices me"), and the younger kids wrote about what younger kids write about ("I hope no one is mean to me"). And I found myself going home after camp and writing about what I write about ("Man it's good to be alive").
Thanks Connor, Anne, Noelle, Mike, Marley, Maggie, Danny, Serenity, and Natalie for all your hard work and creative energy. You made my week. See you next year. -Em
Good Sunday, Reader. Hope you're well. I just got done with a big early morning bowl of pasta. Sometimes cereal just won't do.
It's amazing to me how endless the pool of incredible songwriters is here in the Midwest alone. Last Saturday, I went to Ravinia and saw local musician/hero Robbie Fulks. I thought, "Man he writes beautiful stuff." Last Thursday, I played the Chicago Songwriter Festival in Wicker Park, and I thought, "Man, everybody here writes beautiful stuff!" This morning I was listening to our local NPR station and caught a music segment including group from Chicago. And again with the beautiful stuff.
There was a time early in my life when I used to worry about how I could possibly stand out amidst all the beautiful stuff. What a weird phenomenon, to be threatened by something gorgeous. But for the last decade or so, I can say how happy I am to be a part of such a talented community. There is so much value in it. I feel challenged (in a good way) by wonderful writers. And I feel a sense of personal achievement when I marvel at somebody's beautiful work. Not to mention, I just feel so much support from the writing community in general. We come to each other's shows. We compliment each other. We offer critiques. We share gigs, we share stories, we share wisdom. And the majority of the leg-ups that I've had in my career have come from local writers.
And I'm happy to announce that I am now officially part of the community: local writer Chris Darby just made us all our own trading cards. Collect all of us beauties! -Em
Afternoon, Reader. Thought I'd give you a quick album update.
The next step in making my album is to add the backing vocals of the incredible Ingrid Graudins. I just can't tell you how in awe I am of this woman's talent and tremendous spirit. She was formerly the backing vocalist for Jonatha Brooke, and she sings for the likes of Johnny Frigo and Gerry Leonard. She hosts a songwriting series at SPACE in Evanston and is just an overall excellent human.
She is so excellent that she has flummoxed me. And she has turned me the very least Rock-And-Roll version of myself.
I think there's a general misconception that most of us performers are in some way a bit narcissistic and therefore don't care too much what people think of us. And while that may be true for some of us, I'd say the majority are even more sensitive than the non-performers I know. I seriously shed tears when a critic writes a bad review about me. I emotionally eat late-night tacos after I feel like I played poorly...
And apparently, I turn crazy after I find out Ingrid Graudins is going to sing on my album.
I've been so nervous about having such a great backing vocalist that I've been trying to re-sing my own vocals so she doesn't think I'm a hack. (God bless John Abbey, my producer, for his patience in listening to me try over and over to sing the same song "better.") Last week, I once again spent several hours singing these tunes, trying to make them good enough to include someone as fabulous as Ingrid. I've re-sung the title track no less than 30 times.
During these long hours of me re-cutting vocals, Ingrid texted my producer, saying, "I haven't heard back from Emily about singing on her album. I really want to do it! Doesn't she want me anymore?"
Moral of the story: Ingrid is also not-so-Rock-And-Roll, and frankly, nobody is. People care. Caring is human. And to all of you beautiful caring readers out there, I hope you're doing well. I so appreciate you checking in with me and my ramblings. I care about you too.
Just please don't send me hate-mail, lest I emotionally eat a dozen tacos before bed tonight. -Em
Big thanks to those of you who came to the show this weekend in Rockford. We had a fantastic time playing. But the whole evening felt a bit like improv comedy. First, we had the rain. Then we had the delivery of the pizza right at showtime. Then we had a piano mic blow out as we took the stage; the whole show had to be played with no piano. The sound system failed in every possible way. Mosquitos were feeding on us all night...
And all while the crowd watched.
We always talk about the many hats that indie musicians wear: manager, roadie, street team, etc. The easy and fun part of being a musician is the music. The travel, the load-in, the marketing, the sound pitfalls...that's the actual work. I can't say that we've ever worked harder onstage than we did on Saturday, but somehow--with a lot of humor and quick thinking--we pulled it off. Again, thank you to those of you who sat through that routine that we threw together in the midst of the chaos. We surely appreciate it. -Em
Top of the morning, Reader. I played a wedding this past weekend in the Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago with my longtime guitarist buddy Gregg Ostrom. We literally played under a palm tree. It was pretty awesome.
The bride and groom asked us to learn songs by several specific artists, including Lana Del Ray, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, and Miley (never thought I'd see this day) Cyrus. And of course Billy Joel.
Billy Joel is an exceptional writer. I've always thought so, but now I know so. Having learned his chords and lyrics this weekend, I can tell you that--even though his songs are easy to sing and hum--they are actually pretty complex and well-honed. His writing is clever without pretension. He uses each word and chord with meaning. There is not one filler-element to any of his songs. Every piece of them is intentional.
Dare I say it: Billy Joel writes perfect songs.
Songwriters almost NEVER use the word "perfect song." My personal song list is incredibly short and includes tunes like "God Only Knows" by Brian Wilson, "For No One" by Paul McCartney, "It Had To Be You" by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn, and "America" by Paul Simon. Now I'm apparently including "Just The Way You Are" and "She's Always A Woman."
All songwriters should learn to play other songwriters' perfect tunes. Here's why. So that we too learn to write with intention. So that we too make every word and lyric memorable. So that we just continue to have a pen in hand if ever that magical lightning bolt strikes and we too might craft something perfect. Mostly so that we stay very inspired. Right now, I'm so ready to songwrite that I can hardly write this blog. That's the Billy Joel Effect.
(Incidentally, American Songwriter has a nice big article featuring Billy Joel this month. You can read it by clicking here.)
We play a hometown show in Rockford this Saturday; hope to see you! Until next time, Reader. -Em
This week I have to thank my wonderful friends Damon and Dani Hall. These two have been following me since they saw me play a little show in Saginaw, MI years ago. On Friday, I drove all the way back to Saginaw to play a surprise house concert in honor of Damon's 50th birthday.
Fans-turned-friends like this are invaluable to a musician. Seriously priceless. They keep up with your life when everyone else has decided you're no longer interesting. They value your music...ALL your music. They care for you as a person and treat you with respect; they hope for the best for you (and incidentally, the Halls have also played matchmaker for me). They come out to your shows that are off the grid, and they don't mind being the only ones in the audience (in fact, they might prefer that). They sing along to your music. And they make requests for songs that are so ancient in your repertoire that they actually remember the words better than you do.
After I met with the Halls, I hopped a high-speed car ferry across Lake Michigan to get back to Illinois faster, and that was a real hoot. I hope whatever you're doing this Memorial Day weekend is making you happy. I'm a grateful lady tonight. -Em
READER! I'm coming up for air just to let you know: I am ONE song away from being done with lead vocals on this album. (We're killing it this week). Hoping to wrap it up today!! WOOOOHOOOO! -Em
Happy Cinco De Mayo, Reader. Such a week for me. Didn't see it coming.
This past Thursday was supposed to be the day I recorded vocals for the new album. I've been revving myself up for it for weeks; and I've been singing along with this album for close to eight MONTHS. I couldn't be any more prepared. So on Thursday morning, I got up early, put on my comfy clothes, purchased fancy coffee, and sang the whole way while I drove to the studio. John got me all set up in the vocal booth and hit record. What happened next floored me.
About a minute into the first song, I started trembling. By 1:15, I was off pitch. By 1:30, we had to stop rolling. I was sobbing. Yes seriously. If you know me, you know I'm not much for public crying. I've always felt it was unprofessional. Besides, I can rein in my emotions like a champ.
But most of the songs on this record are about my Dad, who passed away last year, and clearly I still have some feelings about it.
When I finally pulled it together, I was embarrassed. I asked my producer's forgiveness and tried to forge on, but I really couldn't compose myself enough. After 5 hours of trying, we called it quits. We kept none of the takes.
I felt like such a failure the next day. At least until I spoke with John again. He reminded me that we had other weeks to try again. The words "try again" really resonated with me.
And that's when I could feel my perspective shift. I was probably going to need to break down at some point. My composure would necessarily crumble. In which case, my miserable day was just a necessary step on the way to greater things. The road to success includes failure. The sooner we look at our downfalls as phases and not as character traits, the sooner we can learn to believe in ourselves and carry on.
And so I'll try again this week. On a complete aside, I had a total hoot performing on Saturday night. For the first time ever, I cooked a 4-course meal for the audience before the show. It was intense and slightly overwhelming, but overall, an incredibly experience. Amazing how things move forward.
See you next week. -Em
Hi Reader. It's been quite a week. My fellow female Midwest musicians and I taught rock music all weekend in Madison at Ladies Rock Camp. I'm still in recovery from all of the melt-your-face screaming that happened over the past few days.
Teaching is totally draining but somehow remarkably energizing as well. Additionally, it offers healthy perspective. I just spent the past 72 hours complimenting, encouraging, high-fiving, stage-jumping, applauding, rousing, reassuring, and straight-up praising these women. Using that much positive language is so good for us.
I'm just like everybody else. I've got a miserly inner critic who feels an ample amount of doubt, dread, shame, and hopelessness. Left to her own devices, this critic would take over, and she would solidly kill all of my confidence. But endlessly cheering on others with reckless abandon reminds us that we too deserve to quell our fears and believe in ourselves. Crazy how simple that concept is, and yet I need to be constantly reminded. Thank you so much to those of you who attended this weekend for the reminder.
After the big showcase on Sunday night, fellow coach Anna Vogelzang and I popped over to the High Noon Saloon for a drink, and Anna sang on some tunes with Peter Mulvey and Kris Delmhorst. Watching them on stage, I was just blissed out. It felt like the perfect end to a seriously uplifting week. See you back here next week. -Em
Good evening, Reader. I hope this finds you well. I'm fresh off a tour this week with fellow songwriters Emily White and Katie Dahl. What a great bunch of shows. We hit Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, and South Haven before heading back home and collapsing.
Touring with other musicians is incredible. You place your trust in your fellow artists as you work together for the common goal of bringing a good time to an audience whilst having a good time yourself. You become friends quickly because of this goal, and you create memories with these new friends, stories that you can tell to your fans at the nightly shows. You learn to sing on each others' songs, and you find ways to play off each other on stage. At first, you care about each other because you need to rely on each other, and eventually that care becomes genuine.
My new friends Katie and Emily and I are so grateful to the venues, staff, and fans who helped to make our tour so wonderful. We're planning on doing it again next year. Hopefully we'll see you then! -Em
Big news this week reader. Sad news. But also smart news.
The new album is no longer being called "Soul Car." Why? Because it's just too similar of a name to the movie "Soul Plane."
Now I've got nothing against the 2004 flick. But nobody seems to be able to disassociate my album name from the image of Snoop Dogg and an airplane and a giant afro. So I'm throwing in the towel and currently accepting album names. If you've got any, please send them my way! Looking for words that nod to the concept of time traveling. Anything? -Em
It's been an incredible week in the studio after last week's trip to Austin. John Abbey and I are all ready to record vocals on the album. I could continue on with music talk here, but instead I thought I'd dedicate the blog to my Dad, who would have been 69 today.
The picture below was taken in 1985. Dad and I would wear matching hats and call each other "pahd-nah" like we were cowboys. Dad was hard-nosed and no-nonsense, but he was kind and honest. He taught me how to tie boat knots and make Bloody Marys and shuffle cards. I think I was equal part his kid and his favorite party trick. When I was younger, Dad used to bet his business associates that I could beat them in pool, and I usually didn't let him down.
When I became an adult, our relationship got much more complicated. Dad wasn't great at reaching out, and being his daughter, I wasn't great at it either. We drifted apart emotionally, though we were always in each other's life. In the fall of 2008, after a rough time of my life, I reached out to my pahd-nah. That was a real turning point for Dad and me. We became closer than ever.
In the last few years, Dad and I had a dream relationship. We took epic road trips, zip-lined, fished in the Atlantic, played countless cribbage games, stayed in a cabin that Gene Autry constructed, built 2 bars, and clocked endless hours on the phone. During the last 4 years, I drove from Chicago to Rockford as many Fridays as possible to have happy hour with Mom and Dad, only because I so enjoyed their company. The last words I told my Dad were "I love you."
When Dad died, my world stopped for a bit. I'd say it stopped completely for about 6 months. During that parallel time, I wrote an album of songs mostly about Dad that will be called Soul Car. Now we're so close to finishing it. I'm not sure how it will be received, and I'm not sure I can handle the usual barrage of negative reviews, but I've finally reached the point of not caring. I only wrote it for me, and for Dad. It's so wonderful to pay tribute to him in this way. Mom and I were talking today about how lucky we were to have him in our lives; truly, each day we had was so full. Even though he's been gone a little more than a year, I still want to wish him the very happiest of birthdays. Miss ya, pahd-nah. Hope you enjoy the new album. -Em
Evening to you. I hope this blog finds you well. I'm writing to you from a hotel in Springfield, Missouri. It's been quite a week for me, and I owe it to a super fan, Larry Springer. A quick recap...
On Tuesday, producer John and I edited more on the new album in Chicago. Our next step is to record vocals, so he gave me a disc of our recordings without vocals; this way, I would be able to sing along on the long car ride. Wednesday morning, I started the drive to Austin, Texas. Just 20 hours later, the weather was 70 degrees warmer and gas was $0.40 cheaper. Larry had essentially booked us 2 shows at the best listening rooms in Texas.
Our mandolin player Colby couldn't make the trip, so we picked up a local Austinite Andy Lentz to fill his shoes. I practiced with Andy on Friday morning, then I picked up Gregg from the Austin airport, and we all drove through driving hail to The Bugle Boy in La Grange. This place is a small venue in the middle of paradise owned by the feisty and caring owner, Lane. We played 2 beautiful sets, and it was truly one of the best shows of my life. Thanks to Pete for the incredible sound. Thanks to The Back Porch BBQ for the food. Thanks to the audience who made the night so special, including those that watched the show through Concert Window.
Saturday found us on the strip on South Congress, catching up with family and old Chicago friend Linda Tomasello. We got Torchy's tacos and caught Redd Volkaert at The Continental Club before heading over to our show at Strange Brew. It was a full house and a warm crowd and we couldn't have asked for more. Thanks to Jessie for the hospitality and Carles for the wonderful sound.
Of course the greatest thanks goes to Larry. Fans like him are priceless. I consider myself the luckiest lady in music tonight. I'm looking forward to getting back to work on the album this week in Chicago. I hope you're all well. -Em
Well reader, I moved out of my tiny Chicago apartment this week. I was surprised how sentimental I became whilst packing up. I thought I'd dedicate this week's blog to this special spot.
I moved into 5559 N Magnolia in Andersonville during the winter of 2010, after the rough ending of a crash-and-burn relationship. When the building manager showed me the place, it wasn't love at first sight. But I saw the potential. I was told I couldn't paint the walls, so my first move was of course to paint the walls.
Then I painted old furniture that I either found in the alley or in my parents' attic. After a couple of months, the place felt like home. I ate hundreds of comfort food-based meals here; roasted chicken and sweet potatoes were staples. I had friends over to eat as much as possible. I counted 89 wine corks in my cork car, indicating at least 89 solid nights were had throughout my 3+ years in this space.
I taught music lessons in this apartment, and I started making pen and ink mosaic drawings here when I was inspired by the huge blizzard of 2011. I wrote most of the Stone Blind Valentine songs here, as well as the entire Any Given Day album. (The Any Given Day album poured out of me during the autumn of 2012; I remember sitting at the piano for 5 straight days, writing tunes and drinking espresso).
I had guests and musicians from all over the country crashing on my couch. My favorite breakfast with my father happened in this apartment just 4 months before he died. I left smoke marks on the walls from burning candles, and I left paint spills on the floors from building Halloween haunted house parts. There will forever be grains of sand between the floorboards where my dog Hank tracked in bits of the Bryn Mawr dog beach. My mother spent countless nights here in 2013, kicking back and relaxing and sometimes walking to her favorite dinner spot-Jin Thai-on the corner of Broadway and Catalpa.
After I put the last of my things in a box, I realized the old adage is true: the house does not make the home. Walls and windows are everywhere. People are what make places special. I want to thank all of you who came to visit me here, turning this little flat into something special to me. The memories go forward. Onward! -Em
Friends, I’m in the studio as I type. The wonderful Scott Stevenson is laying down the Hammond B3 on the album. So far we’ve had to take apart the organ 3 times to dust off the tubes, and Scott just broke off the Bb key whilst glissing. We’re crossing our fingers that the instrument holds together long enough to make it through the session.
Last Tuesday, Chicago’s best Brian Wilkie played the pedal steel for the record. This album has come a long way since it started last year.
Thanks to all of you who came out to Kryptonite on Saturday night for the Screw City Songwriter series that we’ve started. I felt pretty loved in that full room, and it means a lot that you were there for the video that took place.
Ugh! We’ve got to take the organ apart again. I’m off. See you next week. -Em
I opened like a crocus this morning. For the first time since January, I feel completely awake. What a gorgeous sunny day. I feel so full of life. Vibrant! Alive! And so I could think of no better time to do my taxes.
I actually don't mind them that much. They come with life. But here's what shocked me this year. After Dad died in early 2013, I decided to take a year off and seriously cut back on touring. I still played shows, just not nearly so many. So I added up how many miles I drove to my shows on my "year off." 4,775.1 miles. That's how far I drove without trying. Incredible. My ratio of time spent in the car to time spent performing was about 9:1.
Thinking about it, it occurs to me is that every musician is a traveling musician. Unless maybe you're truly just sitting inside your house and not sharing your talents with others (if that's you, Reader, then knock it off and get the heck out there!). We're all traveling. Maybe you're driving to band practice every week to play. Maybe you're rehearsing for church on Sunday. Maybe you're strapping your guitar to your back or hopping a train to get to a gig or a class. Have instrument, will travel.
The point? Tip musicians! We traveled a distance to play for you.
Tomorrow, I'll be traveling again. We'll be in the studio recording pedal steel for "Soul Car" with Chicago's own Brian Wilke. I'll be sure to update you next week. Until then, enjoy these longer days. -Em
Well shame on me this week, Reader. I let my relationships slide, I'm now I'm paying the price.
I've been revving up to tour again in March, so Gregg and I have started practicing for our upcoming shows. I've spent the last several months in album making mode for Soul Car, and I haven't visited the old tunes in a while. Foolish, foolish Hurd.
The old songs that I've written have always felt like timeless friends. You know...the kind of friends that are there for you at the drop of a hat. The kind of friends that will always love and support you. The kind of friends that keep you close always, never to forget or forsake you.
Wrong-o. Songs turn on you faster than you can say "traitor" when you haven't practiced in awhile. Pay them no attention, and you can't remember their lyrics, melody, even the key they're in. Running old tunes this week was a wake-up call.
You have to check in your old stuff if you expect to use it. It's like any relationship: it requires upkeep in order for the connection to stay strong. And so, I'm off to catch up with some old friends. Have a great week Reader, and we'll see you back here next week. -Em
I keep thinking that one day I will have talked so much about songwriting that I will have run out of things to say about it...still waiting on that day.
The newest issue of American Songwriter came out today. In it, there's an article about the great Jim Steinman. Who's Jim Steinman? I sure as hell didn't know. But I do know Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," Meatloaf's "I Would Do Anything for Love," and Air Supply's "Making Love Out of Nothing At All." He wrote all of those tunes.
It's still fascinating to me that--beneath all the layers of instruments and production and marketing--there is a person with a pencil and paper, writing out a story to a melody. It further fascinates me that this person (unless they are also the recording artist), will receive little to no credit for their work. Money, yes. Publicity, no.
It takes a very special kind of artist to step back from their work and allow the world to love or hate the creation more than its creator. Think about J.K. Rowling, the writer of the Harry Potter books. People don't know much about her, but everybody knows the characters of her books; we have an entire theme park devoted to them. The same goes for Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek. Trekkies dress up as Spock, Kirk, and Sulu at conventions worldwide, but no one talks about the characters' inventor.
And there are just so many incredible songs that are written by people that no one will know. I love that.
So a little bit of a late New Year's resolution for me is to start creating like these kinds of artists (or at least how I perceive them to work). Essentially, they are able to let go. They make, and they move on. They sell their work to make money so they can continue to work. They are ok being the forgotten 'man behind the curtain' in the interest of allowing their creation be unforgettable.
And now it is time that I let go of this blog I've created and move on with my day. I hope you all have a wonderful week, reader. -Em
Hi Reader. Hope the week was good to you. I'm just getting back from Markesan, Wisconsin; we went away for the weekend to kick back, drink a little local beer, and watch the ice fisherman pull in their 3.5' long Northerns from the chilly waters of Green Lake. (Yup, it really is just like the movie "Grumpy Old Men" here in the Midwest...see pic below.) I'm feeling relaxed and ready to take on the week.
Last week, John and I made a decision. We've been moving full-steam ahead on the album and now have piano, drums, bass, acoustic guitar, strings, and scratch vocals done. Our next move is the B-3 organ, but before we do that, we're pausing to listen to other people's music. It's been a valuable lesson.
I'm not good at pausing. More accurately, I'm terrible/miserable/awful at pausing. I'm more of a "charge-forth-and-conquer-everything" type of gal. (This would explain why I've made 11 albums in the last 8 years.) I'm abysmal at being patient and even worse at taking a full-on break. Forget about "sleeping on it"...drives me nuts.
But I've learned this week that sitting back and pausing to listen to other music doesn't mean losing momentum or direction. In fact, it's a necessity. Hearing is a sense, just like taste and smell. Have you ever gone into one of those candle shops, and after awhile, you stop being able to smell the difference between the scents? Your nose is overwhelmed. Usually the shop owner has a canister of coffee grinds at-the-ready for you to smell. The grinds reset your olfactory perception, and you're ready to sniff away again.
In the same way, we have palate cleansers to bring back our sense of taste. In the music world, we either sit silently, or listen to different types of music.
So we stopped to sniff the proverbial coffee grinds this week. We closed our eyes and listened to a bunch of other people's tunes. After a while, we pulled up our album and made some incredible tweaks, tweaks that wouldn't have happened without the pause.
And now, back to my regularly scheduled full-steam-ahead comfort zone. See you next week. -Em
Good Sunday to you, reader. I thought I'd use this week's blog to address a question. A dear music-making friend of mine just asked me:
"Are there any resources you've used to help in the craft of songwriting, or some sort of primer to help think about the whole creative process? I'm asking around to see what fellow writers have used to pull their terminology, philosophy, and insight from for songwriting. If you have some time, please let me know. Every secret. Every single one."
It's an interesting question, and every writer is so different. In thinking about it, I realized the significance of rhyme in my songwriting. First though, here's how I get started.
The songwriting process is the same as any creative process: I have to love doing it, or it's not going to be good. That means I have to find joy in the lyrics, in the chording, in the arranging, all of it. If I'm not in the mood to write, I don't.
But if I am in the mood to write, it goes like this. I start by sitting down and playing or humming something, either sitting at the piano or strumming the banjo. I'll just meander musically and see how it feels. If it feels good, I keep going. If it gets weird, I go back to the first thing that was good. That "good thing" could be as short as humming 3 notes in a row, or just shouting out one word. If I love it, I keep it. Then I revolve everything around that one bit that I love.
Once I'm in love with the direction, I'll figure out what I want the "theme" of the tune to be. I ask myself: am I telling a story directly, or just trying to make people understand a feeling? This matters. Because if I'm telling a story, I might have a song that starts with "I came home last Tuesday to find you gone." If I just want to emote, the song may start with "There is no greater emptiness than a room that holds the scent of the departed." (Not great writing here, not to mention depressing, but you get the idea).
At this point, I figure out my rhyme scheme. I've been told that "real" writers don't use rhyme because rhyme is limiting. And to a some extent, they're right. It can be a crutch, certainly. But for me, it's what makes music catchy and appealing. I feel like a song is a train, and the rhyme scheme is the track, allowing the whole thing to move forward. Plus it opens doors creatively for me. Here's how.
Let's take the song that's currently on the homepage of my site, "Think What You Will." The first thing I wrote were the words "think what you will of me honey," and I heard a melody for the words. So then I tried to come up with a rhyme by breaking it up.
THINK WHAT YOU WILL OF ME HONEY needs something that sounds like...
ING UH OOO ILLL UH EE UNEEE at which point, I just started rhyming in my head til I stumbled upon...
ING UH COULD KILL YOU'DA GUNNED ME which then became...
IF LOOKS COULD KILL YOU'DA GUNNED ME and eventually, that gave way to the whole line:
"Think what you will of my honey; if looks could kill, you'da gunned me down."
I never in a million years would have written that line if I wouldn't have had been using rhyme to push me forward. If I had all the words in the world to choose from, the line might have said "Think what you will of me honey; there's no way to please you, and I'm not going to try." But it's not as musical or catchy, plus it's not as poetic. The limitation of rhyme seems to make for more interesting wording. Rhyming lets me say things in a way that's not as conversational and in a way that tends to make the song pop.
Once I figure out the rhyme scheme, I'm home-free. Some songs are Verse-Chorus-Repeat til the story has been told. Some are Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus. Some are nothing but Chorus over and over again. It really doesn't matter. Tell the story in whatever format you'd like. There are times when I only need a minute to say what I want to say. Sometimes, it's a 10-minute situation.
When the song is done, I go to town editing. Changing chording into something more interesting, adding better words, trying different grooves, etc. And voila: a song is born.
I have no idea if any of this is interesting to you, reader, but hopefully it pushed back the curtain a bit. Have a wonderful week, and I'll see you back here soon. -Em
Well friends, success...I hope. After almost a month of handwriting string arrangements for the album, we hit the studio on Thursday to try out the parts. My friend Ida Pajunen from Madison played the violin, and she brought with her Bruno and Victor, members of the Chicago Sinfonietta. With few exceptions, the whole thing went off without a hitch. I couldn't have asked for better players. There are some studio sessions that feel like dream sessions, where everybody shows up on time, plays well, has a good time, and goes home feeling good about what happened. This was one of those times.
We go back on Tuesday to listen back to everything that happened. Tuesday also happens to be my birthday, and I can't think of a better way to spend the day. I admit that we'll have to edit out a lot of the string parts. Even though I was trying to score minimally, I still went overboard. (What can I say...I'm a sucker for the cello). But as a wise man once said: better to have and not need than need and not have.
I've got more to say, but I'll be damned if this pneumonia isn't more stubborn than I am, and I'm just beat. I hope you're all staying warm and loving life. We're getting pounded with more snow every week here in Illinois. I try to keep this under wraps, but between you and me, reader: I'm loving every minute of this cold and snowy winter. -Em
Friends, I hope you're doing well on this Grammys Sunday. We were supposed to be in Chicago today, getting ready for the Grammys viewing party tonight. Ah, the viewing party. This event is so whimsical: you dress to impress and spend the evening hobnobbing with other music industry nerds at Lincoln Hall whilst watching the whole shindig on a big screen, sipping wine and eating greasy finger foods, blissed out by the spectacle of it all.
Instead I'll be watching from bed. I've got pneumonia, of all things. I've heard bad things about pneumonia, and let me tell you, it's every bit the drag they say it is. Still I refuse to let my Grammys enthusiasm be derailed.
Why do I love the Grammys? The majority of my pals in the music world avoid watching the Grammys at all costs. Common responses when I mention my love of the Grammys include:
"But you're an independent musician! There are NO indie musicians on the Grammys! How can you support that??" Or...
"The Grammys only recognize mainstream artists who sell out. Most REAL musicians will never get a shot at them" And my personal favorite...
"The Grammys are basically the industry high-fiving itself. They were invented so record labels can vote for the people they make famous."
To all of these things, I say leave the old gilded gramophone alone. It's an awards show, not a war. Yes. There are just a handful of mainstream, radio-friendly musicians who get a lot of praise at the Grammys. Also yes. There are hundreds of thousands of non-mainstream musicians who will never get praise at the Grammys. But that handful of musicians? They did a lot of hard work to get where they're at. REAL work. And the people who vote for them? They also did a lot of work to get where they're at (including yours truly). We're making informed decisions based on talent and musicianship.
Are there better songwriters than Pink and Taylor Swift? Absolutely. But Pink and Taylor Swift write music that resonates with a HUGE demographic in this country. The Grammys aren't just based on artistry; they're based on that artist's ability to impact people, lots of people. The Grammys are about celebrating music's ability to touch lives, to have songs stuck in our head, to feel understood because a song perfectly captures how we're feeling. The Grammy's are about showcasing music and taking a night to highlight what the year offered.
If this helps, let me guarantee you a couple of things: first there are no free rides in this business. At some point, we've all worked for peanuts and slept in our cars. It comes with the job. Daft Punk, Beyonce, Bruno Mars...they've done their time, I promise. Second, no matter what anybody says, radio-friendly music doesn't brainwash us into believing it's good. The people with a lot of talent make it, and their music lasts. The less-talented ones that the industry pushes forward in the hopes of making money do not make it, and they fade away. It's that simple; these things sort themselves out. Finally, all musicians are independent artists. Some of us may have publicists, labels, and marketing teams that make us more successful, but at the end of the day, we're all just individuals trying to make good decisions for ourselves and our music. People don't "sell out" and become popular. (Believe me, if I knew how to do that, I would). Popularity happens when great musicians make something so undeniably good that most of us can't help but love it.
So high five, all you Grammys nominees. Good luck tonight! -Em
Good Sunday night. What a gorgeous day. Fresh snow, bright sun, and some wonderful musicians are in town staying with us tonight. One of them brought me a handmade lamp that she fashioned out of a Balvenie Doublewood Scotch container. Life is good.
This week, I spent all day, everyday, scoring the string arrangements (violin, viola, and cello) for Soul Car. We've got a recording day set: January 30th. I've got a lot of work left to do. And don't get me wrong, I love it. Scoring string parts is like working a giant math problem that has no wrong answer. As long as the notes sound alright when they're played together, it'll work. But there's an artistry to this. I know, because I've been getting inspired by listening to everything from John Williams' "Home Alone" soundtrack to Elton John's "Madman Across The Water" album. And what I've come up with is this: these string composers have a gift that I just don't have.
I've scored strings before, for my Daytime Fireflies album. One reviewer said that "whoever scored the strings for this album was just fidgeting, copying a post-Beatles style." Yikes. Probably don't want to go that route again. This time, I'm trying to up my game without overdoing it. It's hard. Here is what I've learned.
Strings are to music what salt is to cooking: the right amount can make the meal. Too much, and you can't taste anything but salt. In this type of singer/songwriter music, everything you put on top of the song has to enhance it in the interest of creating a better finished tune. If it overpowers it, the message is lost, and the experience is ruined. The strings have to be added in just the right amounts and at just the right times.
For every song I've scored so far, I've had to go back and erase more than half of my work, not because it was bad, but because it didn't enhance. More than anything else I've done in life, scoring strings has taught me to let go of my work. Throw it away, even if it's wonderful. Even if it's spectacular. Even if it's a masterpiece. The song is paramount. If it doesn't make it better, it drags it down. Care about your song enough to give it what it needs. Care about your work enough not to show off for the sake of showing off. And care about the listeners enough to give them a song that feels well-constructed and easy for their hearts to understand.
Oh where were these wise feelings when I was younger...
Hello reader. Hopefully this finds you well. I just put together a dinner of cheese and crackers and a nip of scotch and am happy to be done working for the day. But I find myself writing with a muddled brain tonight. Here's why.
This week, producer John and I hit the studio again for the first time in the new year. It felt nice to get back to work, refreshed, albeit rusty. We fixed a couple hiccups and edited several tracks. And then we hit the part of this process that I've been dreading. John muted my scratch vocals and burned me an instrumental disc. Then he told me to figure out how I'd like to sing these songs, for real.
So essentially I've been singing along with my own music all week...I'm learning how to do the best karaoke rendition of myself.
If you're not in the music industry, I'm assuming this sounds like a no-brainer: just sing the way you sing. But it's not that simple. Nobody has just one voice. Our voices can be loud or quiet. Sometimes we hold notes a long time, sometimes we dump them out like we're having a conversation. Voices are soulful, folksy, indie, husky, and everything in between. We can try to sing "sincerely" (which I've always felt was noble), but sometimes sincerity just isn't what the song needs.
So how should I sing? I still haven't decided. I've tried a lot of options and haven't settled on anything. A person wiser than myself once told me this: "the right answer to your questions will be so right that you'll know immediately when it presents itself." I've found that to be true thus far, so wish me luck having that "aha" moment this week. I hope your week goes well, that you stay healthy and well, and that I'll see you back here next time. I'm off to indulge myself in a little Downton Abbey drama. -Em
Hi there, you wonderful reader, you.
I'm sitting down tonight with a glass of wine to write what I hope will be a regular Sunday night blog. Last year didn't find me at the computer much. I'm not a private person, but after Dad died last January, I felt strange sharing my thoughts. Grieving is more personal than I could have imagined, and withdrawing a bit allowed a lot of much needed time to heal. I don't know that a year is long enough to grieve. I actually don't know if any amount of time will be 'long enough.' But I'd really like to move forward, so ready or not, here I come.
Despite the sadness of 2013, there was so much to be grateful for:
10) Stone Blind Valentine Released Our Debut Album
We had an exceptional weekend of release shows, starting in Rockford at The Mendelssohn and ending at SPACE in Evanston. There were great big crowds of fantastic fans at both shows, and that support felt so wonderful. There are so many "best parts" about the music industry. One of those "best parts" is playing music for people who listen. We're so lucky to have fans like that.
9) Madison Women Music Programs Rocked
Several killer songwriters and myself had another wonderful year teaching women and girls to play instruments and write songs in a series of weeklong camps in Madison. Rewarding doesn't do the experience justice. To help students find their voice and hone their skills and boost their confidence in the process is an infectious process that left me tired but beaming at the end of each day. Special shout out to Beth Kille for running such a sweet program.
8) Big Awards Went To Good People
I love the Grammys. I love songwriting contests. I basically just love watching people being lauded for their talents. As a new member of the Recording Academy, I can say I was beyond thrilled with the winners of the 2013 Grammy Awards. And on a smaller scale, I was literally crying tears of joy when Chicago-based Jonas Friddle won the Grand Prize in The John Lennon Songwriting Contest. There is a man with a band that deserves every drop of good that comes their way, and I'm so glad the rest of the world is paying attention.
7) We Gave Our Regards To Broadway
After Dad died, Mom and I decided to spend his birthday somewhere far away. Though it wasn't across the world, we did buy plane tickets to New York City. In April, we saw Tom Hanks on Broadway in the last Norah Ephron play-Lucky Guy. It was my first Broadway show, and it lived up the hype. The next day, we had a day of anti-hype, which was equally amazing: we headed up to White Plains to see Pete Seeger lead a folky sing-a-long in a small Unitarian Church. I left that experience with more wholesome feelings than I've had in a long time.
6) The 'Chain of Light' Video Raised Funds
I found out in January that the video I made in 2012 with my music making friends went on to raise several hundred dollars for The Great Lakes Nature Conservancy and The Bright Hope Foundation. Thanks to all of you who tipped the video. Thanks to all of you who contributed your lovely faces to the video. Thanks mostly to the Great Lakes Conservancy and Bright Hope for being organizations worth giving to.
5) Emilyfest Turned Reunion
The annual Emilyfest down on the Burton Farm was the biggest year yet. We were lucky enough to have several members of the Hurd family come down and join us in the beautiful holler in North Carolina. The barn was thumping, the fires were burning, and the stars were out. We loved every minute of it.
4) TV Used Me
I'm on the fence about how it feels to have your songs on television. Most of me feels that's pretty awesome. A small bit of me wonders if I shouldn't be concerned that my sincere tunes are being used behind scenes where characters slash tires. Ultimately, I think it's pretty awesome.
3) The House Was Full
Our house got bigger this year. Though I kept my Chicago apartment, I moved to Rockford this year to live with my Mom. It felt like Union Station around here. We had people coming in and out constantly. I'm an introvert, but having the house humming felt great and made the ensuing quiet times echo with the good energy that our family and friends brought to us.
2) New Songs Abound
I spent the month of January, 2013 writing songs. They are my best songs yet. They came from a real place, and then I took the time to arrange them the best I could. The album is called "Soul Car," and John and I will continue working on it for these next few months. It is a project I truly believe in.
1) I Made A Best-Of For A Best-Loved
So I finally made a best-of collection. I've always been too scared to record songs, just me and the piano. I don't have the piano chops I'd like. But in November, 2013, it happened, and it was actually not too bad. I chose songs from my last 10 albums that I'd written about my first love, Mark, who incidentally became my fiance this year. I could go on, but it's late, and I'll save that story for another time. Needless to say, so much good can happen in dark times. You don't see it at first, but when the shadow lifts a bit, it's amazing to find that things aren't all that bleak, and in fact they're quite alright.
Thanks for reading, and hopefully I'll see you here again.
October has been a busy month. Between shows in Chicago, shows down in North Carolina, cutting a new album, and getting too familiar with some super flu/cold, I've barely gotten much time to enjoy the fall. After this week, I'm planning to to get in some much needed outdoor time.
So here's what I logged on to tell you: please be sure you're signed up for the mailing list. I don't spam; truly I only send out a couple of emails a year. But once again it's that time of year when I like to give away things ("things" generally meaning "music," but you never know...it could be BMWs at some juncture), and I can't give them to you if you don't sign up for the list. So please do that!
Thanks for checking in, and I hope you're well. You'll be getting an email update from me shortly. -Em
What a great round of shows this weekend. Thanks to Joanna and Beth for a solid Songwriters in the Round night in Madison on Friday, and to The Brass Ring for the fancy drinks after the show. Huge thanks to Lori and the folks at The Monroe Arts Center for the gorgeous venue, awesome food, and killer sound on Saturday night. This week I'm writing piano parts for the new album, and playing on Sunday outside on Clark in Andersonville for their City Made Fest..hope to see you!
The album: she is underway. Gerald Dowd came into King Size last Thursday and laid down the drums as only Gerald Dowd can do. It was a good but bittersweet night, since the Yankees were playing the Red Sox while we were in the studio, and John and Gerald are rivals in the baseball world. So they of course handled that situation like grown men: with trash talk and epic pettiness.
Anyhow. I'm so happy with the vibe of this record and can't wait to add on the piano tracks. In the mean time, I played a really nice house concert at Sharon and Kevin's on Saturday night in Evanston. Thanks to the packed living room of folks who braved the heat to listen to the new songs...what a great evening. Hope to see you all again soon. -Em
Helllloooo. Yes, the summer is almost over, and I couldn't be happier. As you might have seen on my tour schedule, I spent a very hefty chunk of time teaching up in Madison, WI these past few months It was an incredible way to spend my days, but now I've got my nose back to the grind stone, and I'm heading back into the studio the first week of September.
The album that was once going to be called 'A.D.' has now become 'Soul Car.' Why? It fits the theme of all the songs. I like the way it rolls of the tongue. I smile when I think about it. I used to watch Soul Train and am making an album saluting it. For all these reasons and more, I'm calling the album 'Soul Car.' The fantastic Gerald Dowd will be laying down drum tracks first, and I'll be sure to update you from the studio as that's happening. Until then, I hope you're all enjoying these beautiful days. -Em
A lot of you have wondered where I've been low these many months. I've never taken such a long break from blogging. Never fear good people. I'm alive and well, just writing like the dickens.
After 5 months, I'm happy to say the new album is completely written. I've never spent so long on the songwriting process. I used to be the type of writer who thought that spending too long on fine-tuning songs created less-raw and less-true tunes, but I take it all back. Working hard to make every word and every chord count has been a fantastic experience for me. I feel a much deeper connection to the songs. It's like anything in life: the longer you spend nurturing a caring for something, the closer you feel to it.
I guess I'm saying I just had 10 song babies, and I've enjoyed motherdom immensely. I'm covered in little bits of paper most days, tired and a little brain dead, but it's a labor of love. A glass of wine in the evenings doesn't hurt either.
So how have YOU been? I had a great time seeing some of you on my last tour to the East Coast. For those of you who came to the SPACE show in May, thank you thank you thank you. We raised a lot of money at that concert. And for the new fans who came to Stone Blind Valentine's house concert last week, you were a dream audience, and we had a such a great time. More soon. -Em
Friends, a week from today, I'm playing a special Chicago show. I'm part of "Candlelight Concerts for Epilepsy Awareness." 50 shows in 50 states, bringing messages of hope to those suffering from the disease. Included in the roster of talent across the states are Eric Clapton, Shemekia Copeland, Colbie Caillat, Soul Asylum, Madleleine Peyroux, They Might Be Giants, G. Love, Todd Snider, and so many more. I'm sharing the bill with the talented Drew Gibson. $8 at 8 pm at Uncommon Ground, Devon in Chicago. Call 773-465-9801 for reservations. Really hope to see you. -Em
Alright folks, next weekend it's happening: my band is releasing their new album. We've been working on this for a long time, and we can't wait. We'd love to see you at one of the release shows. The ticket information is on our new site. Check us out: http://stoneblindvalentine.com.
It's been a rough month. My Dad died a few weeks ago, and my world has been turned on end. I've heard the expression "the show must go on," and I guess it does, but what goes on backstage is certainly different. Sufficed to say, the loss is enormous, and I will miss my father more than words can say. So I'll be saying it the way I know how...
In addition to promoting SBV's new album, I'm going to work on another solo album. I think the record will be called "A.D." ("after Dad"). The songs are pouring out of me these days. I'll keep you posted there.
I hope you're all warm and well. If you are East Coasters who felt the effects of Nemo, well....as you know, I'm jealous. :)
A little self-reflection about lessons that I'll take into 2013, and few old habits that I'll be giving back to 2012. Happy New Year, folks.
- +Working with talented people makes you more talented.
- +It's good to say no to opportunities that won't serve you or the planet.
- +Play more genres of music; dare to be bad at it.
- +Do what feels right, and stand for something; don't expect to be loved for that decision.
- -Working with people who only praise you will not make you more talented.
- -It's not good to say no to opportunities because you're afraid that you're not ready. If you weren't ready, you wouldn't have been presented with the opportunity.
- -Giving up on a dream because it will take a while to be good at it is not a reason to give up on a dream.
- -Looking to others for personal affirmation makes them look away from you.
- +Money and integrity can co-exist.
- +Music is art and is worth money.
- +Some money is for saving, and some money is for spending. You must know which is which.
- -People with money are not shallow people who don't understand others.
- -The album is not a business card; it costs money.
- -Money should not be spent or saved before you believe in yourself.
- +Friends take you as you are from one day to the next.
- +It's good to lean on people, for their sake as much as yours.
- +Family is beautiful and challenging and has to be approached with a sense of humor.
- -Friends don't make friends feel guilty.
- -It's very lonely trying to relate to a person who won't relate to you.
- -If you try to seriously understand your family, you will be seriously disappointed.
- +Meals taken with others taste better.
- +Letting things go makes it easier to keep the right things.
- +Celebrities are humans. Venues are buildings. Money is paper.
- +Talk to kids and ask them for advice.
- +Give presents like crazy, especially the ones that will only cost you time.
- +Self-criticizing, is a slippery slope, but luckily, so is self-love.
- -Chase dreams, not people.
- -Your health doesn't belong on the back burner.
- -Not everyone will rally to your cause just because it's a good one; everyone must find their own cause to champion.
- -Some chemicals eat the varnish on your hardwood floor. Read instructions before working with haz mats.
- -People shouldn't be written off because they don't take to you immediately. Those people are sometimes more trustworthy than your fast friends.
- -New York City doesn't hate you...it just can't help but give you hell.
The Chain of Light video...done. I wish I could have taken video footage of my taking video footage of all of these wonderful musicians. It was an adventure.
For those of you who don't know, I've been on a musician scavenger hunt to try to get as many of us as possible to raise awareness and $ for the Great Lakes Nature Conservancy and Bright Hope. The project took me all over the Midwest. Diana Lawrence was shoved in the bathroom of Flacos Taco in downtown Chicago for her shot. Jamie Sue Seal was filmed in a small unused kitchen in the Blueberry Shoppe in South Haven, MI. I stuck the Sons of the Never Wrong in Bruce Roper's closet, and all the musicians in Sturgeon Bay were filmed in a dimly lit phone booth in the Holiday Music Motel in Wisconsin. Thanks to everyone for going with it for a good cause.
If you see the video, please leave a buck or two and share the link. Lots of people giving a little does a lot. Em
Hey folks, this Wednesday, I got to tour the Bright Hope building in the Hoffman Estates. It's an international organization that gives support to those living on less than a dollar a day. Bright Hope works with struggling communities world-wide by first giving them food, clothing, medicine, and education. Then they encourage economic empowerment by providing job skills training and micro-lending so people can raise their incomes above $1 a day and become self-sustainable.
Next week, Midwest musicians are going to release a video on Vimeo and monetize it. Please help us by passing it along, and donating in the "tip" section of the video. All the money is going to be split between Bright Hope, and Nature Conservancy of the Great Lakes. We'd really like to give back, and every little bit helps. Thanks in advance, Em.
In one night, we recorded an album of original Christmas music that you can listen to all year long. Here's how it went.
At 4:30 pm on Tuesday night, John Abbey, Gerald Dowd, Gregg Ostrom, and I showed up at Kingsize Sound Labs. We set up the live room so we could all see each other. Gerald (drums) was thrilled not to be relegated to an iso booth for once. Gregg and John and I sat pretty close to each other so we could watch for endings.
At 5:15, Mark Helenowski showed up to shoot some video footage for me to edit later.
At 5:30, we drank some wine, ate some chocolate, then hit record. (This album was recorded on a 70's Neve board that John got from WGN studios in Chicago). We played the title track, "Any Given Day" three times, then went back into the control room to listen to what we got. We deemed it to be good, and tipped our glasses.
At 6:00, we started a pattern of taking 2 or 3 passes of a tune, then heading back into the control room to listen back, eating some poached salmon and antipasto, and going back into the live room to record the next song.
At 7:30, we were five songs in. Halfway done, we decided it was a good time to crack open the bottle of Dalwhinnie...which was nice.
At 8:00, the pattern continued, with the addition of scotch.
At 10:00, we got ready to play the last tune. We saved the loudest ("Good Will") for last. That song feels like an old Stones or Dr. John tune. It was loose and loud and fun, and I had chills. We were banging away and the sound was bouncing off the walls of that warehouse and it all was like magic to me.
At 10:30, the album was done, the scotch almost empty, and all of us were feeling good. We backed up on a hard drive, and called it a night.
Yesterday, John and I went back into the studio to listen back. I was nervous that maybe all that magic was in my head, and maybe the recordings weren't going to capture the way it all went down. But they do. I added on some sleigh bells and backing vocals.
Today, we have just one day to mix, master, and get the disc into Breakthrough Audio by 5 pm in order to make our holiday deadline. Here's how I'm feeling.
Something about the way we did this album makes me feel like I'm in the long continuous line of timeless music making...like I'm walking on the ancient music territory of my predecessors. These days we make most albums to sound perfect, because we can. There's not generally any drum bleed in vocal mics or buzzing guitar strings or squeaky piano benches, because all of that gets edited out in the interest of achieving that perfection. But with this album, perfection wasn't the goal. The goal was to get a clear picture of the magic of one night, to make listeners feel what we felt when we played in a big room together. And I think we did that. And I'm happy. -Em
I love Christmas so much that I wrote a holiday record that you can listen to all year round. I am a genius.
There's no mentioning of the word Christmas, Frosty, or Jesus. Mistletoe...zip. Candy canes..sorry. Santa...no ho ho. Yet these are unmistakably Christmas songs. Lots of sleigh bell is going to be happening. And then more sleigh bell.
All of the tunes were written in the month of October, my busiest tour month, during a sickness, and with no extra time besides the wee hours of the morning. (My muse and my schedule have never been aligned.) We set up a recording date for November 13th. The album will be played live at Kingsize Sound Labs with John Abbey (bass), Gregg Ostrom (guitar), Gerald Dowd (drums), and me (keys/vocals). I'm making a smorgas, and we're going to set up some mics and try to capture the unpolished message of the album: any given day is as much of a cause to celebrate as Christmas.
Wondering what to give as a stocking stuffer this year? Please buy this record. Folks, it's going to warm the cockles of your soul, and I'm so proud of these tunes. Support local music and green causes (we're using recycled cardboard packaging from Breakthrough Audio). You'll also be supporting my own personal cause of trying to buy another banjo after mine was misappropriated.
The album art has already been made and turned into the manufacturer (Carla Englof shot the photos outside of Chicago's Uncommon Ground on Clark...incidentally the place where I played my very first open mic). Now all we have left to do is record this album, and get it to as many people as possible. No biggie.
Can you help me? Do you own a store front that can play and sell these records? Do you know someone who does? Can you spread the news through social media? Please do it...let's get these songs heard! -Hurd
Tonight, I passed out candy to trick-or-treaters with my friend Sarah. Good times.
An observation: every kid is ridiculously happy to get their candy. They're seriously beaming. But the joy fades instantly the moment they watch their friends getting candy. At which point, they start comparing. How many pieces did they get? Did they get more than me? Did they get better candy than me? I want what they got...
I've been noticing this candy bucket envy a lot lately. I taught at a Rock Camp for women in Madison two weekends ago. It was one of the most inspiring weekends of my life. We essentially taught a bunch of Wisconsin women how to play an instrument, form a band, write a song, and perform it live at the High Noon Saloon.
When the campers first walked into keyboard class, they were eager and excited. Then we started working on solos. I noticed that most of them fell into the trap of comparing what they could do with what others could do, at which point, their joy was toast.
Why do we let our envy for what others may or may not have take away the happiness of what's already in our own candy bucket?
I'm as guilty of it as anybody. I was telling other staff up in Madison that I was always the kid in school that was a hair behind everybody else. My pottery was always the weird misshapen one in the corner that couldn't hold water. Of course when I made it, it was a masterpiece. It only became a piece of crap when I looked at it next to everybody else's.
I think I'm going to go on a small mission in November to keep my eyes on my own candy bucket and be grateful for what's going on in my life. It seems like that's the best way to be happy with our pursuits. And I have a lot of pursuits going on right now that I don't want to get down on just because they're not as good as what other folks have got.
Included in these pursuits are the wrapping up of a bluegrass album (all we have to do is master it!), and the quick turn around of a Christmas album. Both of these projects make me happy beyond belief, and I'm looking forward to sharing them with you. Hope whatever goodies you've got going on in your life are making you happy too. -Em
Stone Blind Valentine got back late last night from the annual Emilyfest down in North Carolina. There is so much to say that it makes me want to be brief. But here's what happened...
Gregg and I drove down to North Carolina on Thursday. I was so sick...like, Tom Waits voice sick. Gregg took the wheel, and he also took the brunt of my sickness in stride, which was good for me because I was a handful. This chest cold made me resort to the only medicine I really know to treat a cold: raw garlic and ginger, which I ate in excess. Didn't work.
Friday morning I woke up sicker. We turned on the local NPR station 88.5 to listen to the on-air spot with David Ford that I'd recorded the week before, which sounded awesome. After a quick breakfast, we left to pick up Colby from the Greensboro airport. We brought him back to the Burton Farm where we were all staying. We got in a quick rehearsal with our friend Steve Block, who sat in on upright bass with us this weekend. I was drinking cough syrup like it was water and Theraflu pills like they were popcorn. A little later, my Mom, Dad, Uncle Dave and Aunt Cathy took us all out to dinner at the Filling Station before we headed over to the C.A.C. for our show in downtown Winston Salem. The space was incredible (and the grand piano didn't hurt either). It was packed in there, and Jim did a great job making us sound our best. Well, the guys sounded their best, and I sounded like Tom Waits. All those drugs..nothing helped.
Saturday morning, I was worse than Friday night. I was desperate to make it through the Emilyfest show that night. I started in hard and heavy with a little concoction Gregg liked to call the atomic fireball: boiling water, a dried habanero from the Burton garden, honey, and strawberry moonshine. The stuff ate the lining of my stainless steel thermos, but it at least cleared me up enough for the show. We had the biggest turn-out yet. Incredible vendors, amazing decorations, an epic post-show bonfire jam, kids running around everywhere, hay in everyone's hair...I could go on. Head over to my FB page and check out David Reavis' photos if you'd like to see it all. I fell asleep that night happy, albeit sick.
With a lot of help, we got the farm back in order on Sunday. I decided since no medicine was making me any better, I'd just use overall healthy food as medicine. We had a low-key evening, riding the mule (the ATV, not the animal) up the hill for dinner. Monday, Gregg and I headed back west, and I stuffed myself with kale, onions, and all the other power foods that make kids cringe. I slept hard last night, thinking that at minimum, rest would make me feel better.
Today I have no voice. I tell you folks, I've tried every kind of medicine I know. And after everything, it seems to me that there is no finer medicine than time. It heals hearts, fades scars, and repairs illness. It mellows the mind, tames the fires, and softens the spirit. If it were more acceptable to be sicker for longer periods of time, it seems to me we wouldn't need 95% of what we find in the medicine aisle. I think there's a lesson in all of this, but I'm still too sick to pick up on it. -Em
I left my banjo at the Canadian border in Port Huron last night.
I didn't notice until I got back to Chicago. I was planning on sitting down to write a quick blog about how grateful I am and how much I feel that I have everything I could ever want or need. But that's not the case anymore. I want and need my banjo. And it's on the Canadian Border...eh.
Banjo aside, I had a great Michigan tour with my incredible songwriter pal Heather Styka. We hit Foundry Hall in South Haven on Friday night and got to hang out with Andru Bemis and some wonderful fans. Big thanks to Sandra for the beautiful hospitality and Dylan for running the killer sound...hats off to you on your first day; coulda fooled me.
The next day we stopped and got our fix of autumnal goodness at one of Michigan's many local farm stands. (Note to anybody who is hesitant to give tips to out-of-town musicians: some portion of the money you give us absolutely ends up going back to your local economy. Want to support local Michigan farmers and artisans? Just tip musicians extra well so we feel we can load up on your local wares.)
We played a couple of shows yesterday and got to see some of the prettiest country I've laid eyes on in a while. The biggest surprise of the day was getting to see 2 old friends from Saginaw. Damon and Danielle Hall followed us to both shows (including the one where they had to sit 10 feet below the stage). At one point, we all got to talking about success in music. After a weekend with Heather, sharing songs and amazing company with fans and with each other, I can say without a doubt that if nothing else changed in my music career, and I get to keep at this until the day I drop, I will truly not be wanting for a thing.
Except my banjo. I want my banjo. -Em
I just saw the movie “The Campaign,” and I felt like blogging about popularity.
We’re at that time of year when people running for government offices talk about how they’re doing in the polls. Up a point. Down a point. One day they’re trailing, the next they’re gaining ground. Such stress. Welcome to a musician’s world.
Every morning, I’m told how I’m doing in the music polls. No joke. I turn on my computer, and one of my many social media sites tells me how I’m doing. I know how I’m ranked within the city of Chicago, within the nation, and within our solar system (truly). I know my ‘band equity’ before I even brew my morning coffee.
Without trying, I’m on the campaign trail.
I've been told these popularity trackers are useful. But to me, musician polls are crazy and illogical. I can go to bed as one of the Top Ten folk musicians in Chicago, and wake up at the bottom of the heap. If I didn’t know better, I’d wonder if I committed a major offense in my sleep that made me lose public favor.
But I do know better. These numbers can make a person insane, and they’re not worth losing sleep over. I know who supports me because they are people in my life, not hash tags in cyber space. I can't focus too much on trending if I want to be a lifelong musician. The industry may be asking me to run for office everyday, but I think I’ll just make music instead.
Besides, if I've learned one true thing, it's this: the more I try to be liked, the more people don’t like me.
Needless to say, I’m not gunning for world’s #1 musician, and likely won’t be gunning for a government office either. But if I ever do, I’ll know just what to wear: a knee-length red dress, fancy jewelry, and a sleek blond hair-do. (I did a side-by-side of Ann Romney at last night’s RNC in Tampa and Will Ferrell’s fictional wife in ‘The Campaign;” the resemblance is uncanny.) I couldn’t help myself. -Em
Tour was a doozie. Here are my top 3 take-aways.
Coming in at #3: When on tour, pack your vehicle for all-seasons survival mode.
I was a Girl Scout. I know how to prepare for the worst. In my car, I’ve got a knife that can break through glass and cut through a seat belt for all those times the Subaru is submerged underwater. I have rope should I need to repel off any Mid-western mountains, and a snow shovel for the occasional summer blizzard. However I apparently don’t carry any logical items for typical problems.
I had a blowout on I-65 in Indiana at 10 pm after my last gig. I lost control of the car and veered off the side of the road. No one saw it happen. I had no working flashlight. No food or water in the car. No carjack to change my tire. A fat lot of good my survival kit did me. I could see the headlines: “Musician’s Body Found Beneath Subaru After Trying to Change Tire With Snow Shovel.”
Luckily, the town of Lebanon is full of nice folks who eventually saw me and pulled over. One woman said her husband worked for Pomp’s Automotive, and he came out to lend a hand. Big big thanks to those of you who stopped, and for allowing me to pay you in CDs. #barteringrocks
#2 Play the show, even if there’s a chance no one comes.
We started the tour in Rockford, playing our first gig as Stone Blind Valentine. As fate would have it—in the middle of the biggest drought in half a century—there was torrential rain. We decided to play anyway. We knew that there would be little to no audience.
When you’re on stage, you don’t see who you’re playing for. You look out from the lights, and there's just lots of darkness. For all we knew, we were playing to event staff and some rain clouds. This picture was taken that night by Tracy Stephani and Tony Bartman. In the same way that people pay big bucks for backstage passes to shows, I would pay for back-of-the-house passes to witness these kinds of things...
#1 Keep the tour interesting so you can name it again afterward.
Most bands still name their tour. For the rest of 2012, I’m on the “Long Lost Ghosts Album Release Tour.” That sort of name works fine for getting folks to come out to see you. But once the tour is over, that name is bogus. So much of the tour is what happens in between shows, all of those crazy stops in odd towns that drew you in along the way. Now that I’m home, I’m calling this last leg the “Rainy-Seeger-Lobster-Banjo-Amish-Tire” Tour. For those of you who saw me this time, you know what it means. Great to play for you as always. -Em
Today I walked into the Beacon River Front festival in the Hudson River Valley, all ready to play my keyboard. I met the coordinator Nancy. She kindly let me know that the event was solar powered, and I wouldn't be able to play the keyboard. So banjo it was. I went up to the car to grab it. When I got back, Pete Seeger was playing his banjo and singing "This Land Is Your Land" to a huge crowd of folks and TV cameras. As soon as he finished, I was announced to the stage. I thought everyone would leave, but instead Pete grabbed a chair in the front row and watched the whole set with the rest of the audience. This is one of the most surreal and happy days of my life.
As soon as I got done playing, the news interviewed me, I met a load of other talented musicians, and then was randomly draped in parrots by a woman advocating "Parrots for Peace." I was given free chili and corn on the cob, and hung out with my old friend Jann Klose.
Then I hopped on board the old Sloop Woody Guthrie for a ride around the Hudson. When I got back, some of the other musicians asked if I wanted to be a part of the grand finale, so we sang "I'm Sticking To the Union" and "Down By The Riverside" with Pete Seeger and other great players in a chorus of festival goers. Now I'm headed to Long Island to try to process how awesome today was and spend time with my cousin Joan. What a day. -Em
I don't think there's a musician I know who wouldn't love the opportunity to play and record their own music from 9-5 everyday, the way most other folks work day jobs. Well for the past few days, we got a taste of what that would feel like.
The bluegrass project happened even better than I expected. Months of Thursday practices really paid off. The goal was to track 14 songs live with mandolin, fiddle, guitar, piano, and 3 part vocals. We had to overdub a little, and we only ended up with 13 songs, but otherwise, we did it. We're totally spent, but we did it.
Carla and Kevin filmed the entire time, so you should get to see some great videos of how everything happened. Needless to say, Colby played killer fiddle and mando, and Gregg played some of the best guitar (and slide guitar) that I've ever heard. We all sang our hearts out.
This is the first album that John Abbey recorded using his brand new Neve board, and we're elated (seriously...elated) at the sound quality. The food was good, the company was better, and we all put in 2 of the most honest and hard working days of our lives. Can't wait to get mixing. -Em
Last night, we had our last long band practice in my apartment before hitting the studio this coming weekend. We’ve been practicing for the bluegrass project for months. After the guys went home, I got to thinking.
For whatever reason, I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about "giftedness." The concept is that certain people are bestowed with natural abilities in specific arenas, and some aren't. The gift could come from good genes or from the heavens; regardless, it’s supposedly inherent. Years of practice can help the “ungifted,” but they’ll just never be as good as those with natural talents.
Barring an instance of childhood prodigy, I’m going to disagree.
While I may have been born with a functioning voice box and an ear that can detect pitch, I was not born a singer: I was born a baby. Small people are not born horse jockeys, and without some desire to play basketball, a very tall person is just a very tall person.
I don't have "the gift." My first song was literally about Swiss cheese and it was pretty awful. My voice was awkward and off-pitch. The next hundred songs were about love that I hadn’t experienced, and they were just as terrible. A couple hundred songs in, I started to get the hang of it, and with the help of voice lessons, I went from being awkward to being mediocre. Now, singing and playing the piano feel a bit more natural.
I’ve heard the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of work within your craft to achieve a level of genius. That sounds plausible to me. But there’s more to it than that. What keeps you practicing? Or a better question: what made you want to start practicing to begin with?
For me, here's the answer: the love of music was always bigger than my fear of being mediocre and sometimes bad at it.
A parent can force their kid into all kinds of lessons, but if the child doesn’t love it, they won’t want to keep it up. My parents pushed me into ballet, and if you’ve ever seen me dance, you know how well that turned out. Tonight, I can’t stop thinking that we may as well surround ourselves with the relationships and activities we really love as much as humanly possible. Ultimately, those are the only things that will last and become increasingly more natural, because they’re the only things that will weather years of sweat, tears, and growing pains.
The Olympics start this week. A lot of the world has Olympic fever, myself included. Olympians make their sport look so beautiful and effortless; watching them mesmerizes me like watching videos of Michael Jackson dancing or Esperanza Spalding playing the bass. True some of the athletes have had a life that gave them a leg up physiologically, economically and socially. But these athletes work…hard. What I marvel at most is what must have kept them so dedicated and in love with their sport for so long. I can’t wait to watch. Happy Olympics to all of you fellow ungifted, and I’ll be in touch next week after we make the album. -Em
I ran into a fellow musician on the street last week in Evanston. We ended up spending more than an hour on the curb talking about the songwriting process. He went to school for music and teaches music full time. He has read and explored so much that he has become a walking resource on most topics. But when it comes to writing, he struggles. He asked me why I thought that was…
There is such a thing as having too much experience.
Here’s some proof. I spent all of last week in Madison teaching at a rock camp for girls. Many kids had no musical experience before the week began. They were clean slates. By the time it was over, they had learned a few chords on an instrument of their choice. With those chords, they came up with a song (or several), formed bands, recorded tunes at a professional recording studio, and performed live in front of an audience of hundreds. These moments were made possible by the beginner’s brain.
Beginner’s brain is in a perpetual a state of fascination. It’s like you’re a pioneer, who not only doesn’t know where you’re going, but also doesn’t know you’re a pioneer. You arrive at a destination without using a map and have no idea what you’re looking at, so you’re able to take in your experience free of judgment. You also don’t have to worry if you’re trespassing, because you’re just too busy looking around to worry about what belongs to whom. Musically speaking, you can create endlessly because there is no previous reference for what you’re experiencing. There is such power in that sensation. It feels like the music you write is just being created for the first time…ever…on the whole planet…in the whole universe.
The older we get, our travels lock us into routes. We’ve experienced so much that we relate everything to something else. We believe we’ve blazed every trail to be blazed. Musical terrains start to feel well worn. We can hear the same chords as the beginner and think:
'I’ve heard these chords before and I’ve used them a million times. I’d have to throw in some more chords, otherwise it’ll sound just like that other song I wrote. Plus that other musician has already used those chords together, so…'
The pioneer—gone. How do we get lost again?
I’m no expert on anything, but it seems to me that the best way to get lost is to get out of our comfort zone. I played the piano for years, but the smartest decision I ever made as a piano player was to pick up the ukulele. Then, the smartest decision that I made as a uke player was to pick up the banjo. After I’ve gotten comfortable there, the smartest way to get better at the banjo would be to add in another new musical experience.
Nothing turns off the creative juices like getting overly comfortable. If you’re reading this and you’re an artist in any capacity (aka everyone), try something new that you have no experience with, not because you care what kind of work comes out of it, but to reawaken the belief that new work can exist. There will always be new discoveries to be made; the day we stop believing in that is too ridiculous to fathom. -Em
I’ve heard a lot of songwriters talk about how they don’t write as many songs as they used to. One of the common theories behind this phenomenon is that we mellow with age, and something about being young and hotheaded makes a person write like crazy. I don’t disagree.
But I think the bigger reason it takes so much longer to write tunes has nothing to do with a lack of impetuous creativity or bizarre material or bursting emotions; we just hold ourselves to higher standards. Don’t get me wrong: the songs I wrote fifteen years ago were fine and well, and I’m grateful to my younger self for penning them. But they were also slapped down on the page faster than you can say “heartache” without much attention to detail.
I’ve been writing songs all week, and rather than writing 5 songs a day, I’m taking 5 days to write a song. Here’s my takeaway.
The older I get, the more I can physically feel how much every moment in life matters. The big picture is so clear, and I want to make everything count. Filler moments are not only unnecessary, they're undesirable. This attitude has carried over into many aspects of my life, including my songs. I don’t want filler lyrics. I’d like to feel the relevancy and intention behind what I’m doing. And that takes time. Besides, I think I would be doing young Emily a disservice by continuing to spit out tunes like gunfire. She would have hoped I up my standards and take better aim.
And on that topic, when I was 16, I built my parents a kitchen table (we were without one after a big move). I used oak from the woods we lived on. The finished table was ok, but the top was uneven, and you could see a lot of screws, chipped paint, etc. It’s bothered me ever since. Over Memorial Day weekend, I took the whole thing apart and rebuilt it, making every bit count. I made a new top out of hickory and finished it with plain Danish oil. Dad is making some corner pieces to make it feel even more complete. It looks purposeful, well planned, and unique. Quality. -Em
Between shows and meetings and parties, I witnessed a weird kind of communication breakdown this week, and I thought I’d blog about it. Here’s an example of how it goes down.
Me: Wow George, I really love the way you wear the color blue.
George: You don’t think I look good in any color except blue?
Humans have a tendency to think that affirming one thing is automatically negating another. I’m as guilty of it as anybody. A fan came up to me after my last show, saying how much they loved the songs that I belted out like Janis Joplin. In my brain, I’m thinking (So….they must not have loved the mellow songs…in fact…I think they may have said they didn’t like the mellow ones…actually, they hated them...and I suppose they hate me too…well who needs fans anyway….not me….jerks).
How crazy this is, not to mention a huge waste of time. We can read and read and read beyond a compliment until every nice word is in fact a cut down in disguise. And so I’m going on a mission: no summer reading. That’s right. No reading, all summer. Three months. No digging in deep and searching for hidden symbolism or untrue mathematical equations of A=B≠C through Z. I’m just glancing at covers and not turning one page to see what might be on the other side.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Please consider joining me in my reading ban. In the mean time, enjoy the pictures from the Hard Rock Café’s Acoustic Songwriter Series that I played last week with Shelley Miller. We rocked that night. (For those of you not joining the reading ban: no…that does not mean that we don’t rock every night). -Em
I've always been late to the exercise party. Call me lazy (lazy), but I never saw much of a point to moving around, what with the existence of porches and big slices of pie and all. Besides, Mom and Dad had me hauling wood and pushing the wheelbarrow as soon as I could walk, so the idea of moving when I didn't have to just seemed nonsensical (plus...L-A-Z-Y).
This past weekend, my cousins and I ran the United Lincoln Park Zoo 10 K in Chicago. I've been in training for the past month. My body rejected the idea immediately, giving me creaks and squeaks and pops in all my joints, so much that I sounded like heavy deforestation every morning (TIM-BER!)
But I type this tonight a changed woman. I get the appeal...in fact I can't wait to race again. Aside from the free t-shirt and food and the knowledge that you're helping a cause, the race gave me tremendous calm...not what I expected.
When I first decided to run, I feared that my feet clumsily pounding the pea-gravel and the sad sound of my lungs wheezing for air would irritate and exhaust me. I thought I'd have no energy left for songwriting and playing. Not so.
Running puts you in the perfect space to create. Pushing yourself to move for so long with your heart beating out of your chest leaves very little room for thought. All that time without my daily meaningless internal dialog put me exactly where I wanted to be when I sat down with my instrument. Besides, my first hour of songwriting is just trying to get to the place where my head is clear of thought anyway. Some people use drugs to get there. Others, lots of tantric playing of their instrument. Turns out, exercise does it too...plus it makes the piece of porch pie that much more well-earned. -Em
After a couple of nice shows in Michigan last weekend, I was flying high. Good music, good barbeque, good weather. I drove back in one of those epic lightening storms that makes you grip the wheel and drop your jaw and ponder the bigger things in life…love those.
Since being back in Chicago, I’ve had some conversations that have made me want to pack the Subaru and head back to good ol Lansing.
In one week, I’ve been told that I should stop making music videos, that my music won’t earn me any financial security, and that playing the banjo is career suicide. I’ve got enough unsolicited two cents on me to buy a round at a bar…a fairly empty bar, but a round nonetheless.
Words words words. Always with the words. We say them, we sing them, we think with them, we dream with them. I’m blogging with them right this moment. They’re everywhere. Some of them hit home and some of them roll off like white noise. This country promotes freedom of speech. Here here!
I also advocate for the freedom to ignore it.
Or at least most of it. I can think back on a lot of good words that I really should have listened to. And I can think back on several others that I knew in my heart were true, but that I ignored anyway because I didn’t want to have to change.
I sat down tonight with the goal of trying to come up with a master formula for how to respond to words, especially the words that come at you in the form of advice. Some of them are right, and some of them aren't. So which words do you take to heart, and which ones do you send packing?
What I’ve come up with is this: listen to the words that complement, ignore the ones that put down, and adopt the ones that your conscience tells you have merit. I was walking my dog Hank tonight and thinking about how he is the happiest creature I know. Yes, half of his joy comes from enjoying simple things like chasing tennis balls and ground-scrounging for food bits. But the other half comes from ignoring most if not all the reprimanding words that come out of my mouth. There’s a lesson there. -Em
The longer I’m alive, the more I like to devote time to the things that make me feel alive. You know those things that keep you up at night because you’re so excited to get to work on them? The things that make you jump out of bed in the morning with bizarre alertness? We call these things distractions because they get in the way of our routines and disrupt our ability to stay focused. And thank God for that.
A distracted mind is an opportunity. The little flashes of inspiration that nag and plead me to listen to them generally lead to something remarkable, or at the very least, to something fun. When I think back on all my years in school, I believe I got more out of the daydreams that I was jotting in the margins of my notebook than I did from any of my class notes. I don’t remember a lot about Ramses of Egypt, but I remember that on that day in history class, I invented a cream-filled donut recipe that I scribbled down next to his picture in my textbook.
For almost a year now, I’ve been surrendering to my food distractions. When I get inspired to make a meal, so much that I can’t focus on music, I put down the pen, pick up the spoon, email my friends, and invite them for dinner. We call these nights Supper Club. I was so happy with last Thursday’s distraction that I’m posting the pictures below. 14 people, 5 courses made almost entirely with Green City Farmers Market ingredients, in a 500 square foot apartment. It felt so great to get off course for a night.
I’ve been told that the key to success is to keep your head down and stay focused, and while I think there’s some truth there, staying singularly focused makes a person a little less whole, not to mention a bit bored. We’re not meant to go through life with blinders on, plodding on monotonously. We’re meant to look around and dream. Who cares what the dream is. If it gets your heart excited, let it distract you. -Em
Three weeks ago, I was out on the streets of Chicago for my weekly wrestling match. The contenders: Me vs. The 95 lb Keyboard that needs to get out of my apartment and into my Subaru before every show. Somewhere in the middle of Round 3, a man drove by and called from his window, “Hey ma’am do you need a hand with that?” Jaw clenched, with the vein bulging out of my forehead, and the sweat dripping off my nose--I managed to breathlessly grunt, “No thanks, I’m all good here.”
Two weeks later, in what was surely Round 26 or 27, I ended up in the hospital with internal injuries from heavy lifting. Winner: The 95 lb Keyboard.
Have you ever been affected by those movies where the broke kid from the sticks enters some sort of competition and has to face well-trained, privileged kids? And the trials and pitfalls are enough to make you burst at the seams at the injustice? And the whole situation feels inhumane and is almost hard to watch? But in the end, when that little kid comes out on top, you’re elated? Yeah me too.
I have a David and Goliath complex: I love nothing better than watching the underdog take on an unconquerable challenge and somehow prevail through perseverance, determination, and sheer will. But honestly, in real life, that drama is fairly pointless. I doubt they’ll ever make a movie about the heroic woman who—against all odds—triumphed over the evil, oppressive keyboard and drove off victoriously into the sunset with a crowd of on-lookers cheering and weeping tears of joy.
Music is just music. It’s been hard work to pursue it, but there’s no sense stepping into the ring and making an opponent out of nothing, just to prove I can struggle. Of course I can struggle. I’ve done it for years. But when I don’t have to, I don’t have to. Not putting up a fight doesn’t make me any less of a fighter, and taking the easy route doesn’t make me weak; in fact sometimes it just makes me smart.
And so today I am the proud owner of a 30 lb Yamaha MOX8 with a lightweight carrying case a handcart for loading (courtesy of my Dad). It was a heck of a lot simpler to change tactics than to undergo backbreaking feats just to show dedication to my craft. There’s simply no logic there. Lesson of the week: don’t confuse senseless dedication with dedicated sensibility.
With that said, I’m looking forward to showing you the new keys! -Em
My songs are considered my ‘intellectual property.’ I get a kick out of this term--it conjures up a picture of me with a “No Trespassing” sign tied around my head. Steal one of my ideas, and I’m within my rights to tell you to git offa what’s mine lest I grab my pitchfork and call the sheriff.
Most songwriters are hyper-aware of the possibility that their ‘brand new’ song lyric or melody may be someone else's property, a pilfered idea that was consciously or subconsciously taken from another musician. We’ve been scared into originality by the famous George Harrison v. The Chiffons case, the one that George lost for apparently lifting the melody from “He’s So Fine” and using it for “My Sweet Lord.” Three common notes, and pow: George is a thief.
George didn’t steal the idea on purpose. It’s hard not to be subliminally inspired by the art that’s already been made and moves us to create. That said, we can’t steal. Steal at school, suspended. Steal at work, fired--and sometimes jailed. Steal and don’t get caught, well…religious folk would still call it a sin. Needless to say, society says no to stealing. (Actually who are we kidding: even in the animal kingdom filching is a bad thing--I once saw a buck go all antlers on another buck for appropriating his doe, and it wasn’t pretty).
So anyway, last night I sat down to songwrite. And I came up with the greatest chorus hook ever...until I realized it was a John Hartford line. Damn.
What’s to be done when we want to create, but nothing new is coming? Worse, when what’s coming isn’t even yours! Just power through until something—anything—gets made? Call it ‘writer’s block’ and try again later?
Today I realized that I’ve been so scared of plundering ideas from somebody else that I’ve forgotten all about the possibility of stealing what’s already mine.
I decided to find an old idea that I once loved, unapologetically rip away the old context, and bring it to life in a new way. I looked at a bunch of old notebooks from a decade ago. My younger self may have been more naïve and emotional, but good ideas stand the test of time, and a couple of those lines light the same fire in me today as they did before. So I pillaged and looted and stole off into the darkness like a bandit, and I love the song that came from it.
You know that thing you wrote years ago that you never did anything with or that you didn’t really share? There is probably a line in there somewhere that was genius at the time, and is still genius now. Go bring that idea back to life. Plagiarize til the cows come home. Just because you already wrote it once doesn’t mean it’s locked in time, never to be used again. Revisit it, and nab it. It’s already your property...trespass away. -Em
The word show gets used at least a hundred times throughout my day. Planning shows, booking shows, marketing shows. But when it comes down to playing a show, what is it I’m actually doing? A show or performance implies that I’m putting on something, that I’m presenting a version or rendition of reality. Actually when I’m on stage, it’s the complete opposite: I’m taking off any façade and being as honest as possible. In fact, I think I’m more myself on stage than I am on the street.
And to that effect, I’ve decided I don’t play shows. I play anti-shows.
I can remember years of feeling nervous about what to say in between songs. Should I prepare bits? Get a shtick? Adopt a stage persona? And what about when I’m playing music? Close my eyes? Stomp my feet? All that pre-planning leads to a confusing and awkward live performance. It's too much to keep track of, and calamities occur: a person ends up trying punk-rock head banging, Elvis hip-swivels, and purring like Earth Kitt all at once.
The longer I stay in the music industry, the more I’ve learned that the audience doesn’t want to see performers doing anything but being themselves. They want to relate to you doing your natural thing, whatever that is. Which is a huge relief, because it’s hard enough trying to figure out who I am without having to figure out who everybody else wants me to be.
Musician/entertainers get so swept up in the concept of entertaining that we can start thinking of performances as an audience of real folks watching a stage of surreal ones. But it seems to me that my best nights of performing have come from approaching the room like we’re all there having a night of being ourselves, and the musicians play some good music too. These days, I'm taking any energy I would have spent coming up with something to say or do before a performance, and using it instead to get down to what I really am, what really moves me, and how to best share it.
I’ve had a great round of anti-shows this week. Playing SPACE with Jonathan Edwards was so fun, plus the turnout was phenomenal. And Saturday night at The Brink in Madison was a full house, packed with some of the warmest, genuine folks I’ve met. One audience member came up to me afterwards and said the performance broke through every trivial thing they thought was important and brought them to their most primitive state of being. I rest my case. -Em P.S. Thanks to the mystery lady in the front row for snapping this photo.
This week a friend told me that it seems like I don't think before I act. Well obviously.
I really don’t think much before I act. (I would have made a terrible doctor; there’s probably never going to be a big market for spontaneous surgeons). I work best when I start moving immediately upon having an idea, then making modifications after the ball is already in motion. When it comes to following an arts-based career, I have one motto: get it done. If you were to ask my advice on most ideas, the answer would be the same.
“Hey Em I think I missed my calling and want to be a photographer. What do you think?”
You probably did. Get it done.
“Em I’ve recently been thinking about running a 15K to raise awareness for my small business. Is that a possible?”
Sounds good. Get it done.
“You know, Em, I want to cook all summer using only food that I’ve purchased from the farmer’s market. Thoughts?”
Awesome. Get it done.
The smallness of the phrase isn’t meant to patronize the enormity of a project’s undertaking. It’s just meant to propel. Every time I over-think a potential project, it either a) doesn’t happen at all or b) happens too slowly and methodically. Nothing takes the wind from my sails like waiting and thinking and talking and thinking some more.
When I wait to act, the negative voices in my head do a number on the original idea until it’s just gone (which is why I never edit a song until after I write it…a lesson I learned too late to salvage some nice budding tunes). Worse is when I share the idea with others before I start moving on it, and then I let other people’s voices shut it down. Why do I do that? If I wait to figure out what everybody thinks of the idea, then my need for outside approval tamps out the originality, not to mention the joy I had when the idea first came to me.
Moving immediately doesn’t mean that endeavors happen quickly. They don’t. I’ve been in the process of making a new album for a couple of months now, and we’re not yet in the studio. But it’s moving. I got it going. Now I gather some more momentum. Make movements. Get it done. Get it done. Get it done.
Years have passed, and I’ve tacked on an addendum to the motto. Get it done, but enjoy the work, modify the plan when necessary, and don’t hurt yourself or the planet in the process. Thank you time for the lesson.
This Thursday is the big show at SPACE in Evanston with Jonathan Edwards. I’d like to make sure as many folks come out as possible. I’ve got 3 more days to get it done. If you’re reading this, please come out to the show and bring friends. It’s going to be a wonderful night. -Em
I don't believe that things happen for a reason. That said, I do believe that things happen, all the time, even when we think nothing is going on.
Every action—big or small—brings about some reaction. Some reactions happen right away: I brush my teeth, my teeth are clean. I run a mile, my heartbeat quickens. I sing a song, the audience claps (or sometimes boos, but since this is my brain doing the writing, they’re clapping. Actually, it’s a standing ovation. Wait now they’re throwing roses…).
Reactions that happen right away are the ones we all crave. The delayed ones, not as crave-worthy. Who wants to give a gift that the receiver will open in 4 years? Who wants to have a drink and be tipsy 6 hours later? Who wants to work hard at a job and be paid decades after the fact? Not I said the fly.
Delayed reactions are mysterious and annoying. They enable our negative actions and discourage our positive ones. Littering is easy because the ensuing bad reactions happen months and years after we throw our scraps into nature. Likewise, following our dreams is hard because our lives aren’t altered immediately by that choice; if I were to decide tonight to give up music and devote my life to helping save the panda bears, I’d wake up tomorrow and feel pretty much the same as I do right now. There is so much dead time between our actions and their tangible reaction.
But I think that dead time is actually a period of incubation.
After going through my last big heart break, one of my friends asked how many songs I’d written about it. I answered: none. Not one. Until I serendipitously got a banjo last fall, and now, more than a year after the fact, those songs are pouring out of me.
I played those tunes at a hometown show this weekend at Just Goods Listening Room, which was a wonderful time. I found out that some of the audience was made up of folks who wanted to support me because 5 years ago I did a benefit concert to help finance Rockford’s first wind turbine. (Five years later, and that choice I made is having an effect). That’s the miracle of the delayed reaction.
If you’re reading this, you probably got to work, realized nothing was happening, and thought you’d kill some time on-line (which is awesome; hello and thanks for killing your time on me!). But things are happening. Maybe not in front of your eyes and maybe not swiftly, but still, the choices we've made are in some way happening. After this weekend, it occurs to me that the best way to live a fortunate life would be to put as many positive actions in place as possible, then hope you live long enough to see the results of some of them.
Having said that I’m off to act positively on my own behalf and eat some breakfast. Have a great week. -Em
All my best and most original ideas come from having almost no resources.
Case #1 Given a full grocery store of food with endless options, I take traditional ingredients and make a traditional dish. I have no need to think outside the box because I have everything I need at my finger tips. But if I only have 4 ingredients in my cupboard--say, pancake mix, eggs, an orange, and a mango--my creative juices start flowing and voila: mango upside down pancakes with orange syrup are born.
Case #2 Having a credit card in my wallet and walking into a retail department store to buy clothes leads to me spending an awful lot of money to look just like the mannequins in the window. But if I only have a $10 bill and need a new outfit for a show, I wind up with a vintage cotton dress from salvation army--likely with holes in it, which I patch with colorful threads from the rag bin at a fabric store. Old scarves serve as belts and old belts serve as hair ties. I may not look like everybody else, but nobody else looks like me.
Case #3 With the best studio in the world, the most accomplished musicians, and the most ample recording budget, I could make another album that sounds as shiny and polished as those bright ditties I hear on country music radio. With no budget, no studio, but with some seriously willing and remarkable musicians, my brain has been coming up with the most exciting ways to make another album. As most of you know, I've written another round of tunes that I'm trying to record. Though I'm not entirely certain how it's going to happen, I assure you, not only will it happen, but it will look and sound like nothing else, very simply because I can't afford for it to look and sound like anything else. And I don't see that as a bad thing.
Does it take more time to be ingenious when you don't have much to work with? Yes. It's hard. You bang your head against the wall. You think your problems will be solved with more money, more time, more everything. Additionally, your ego takes blow after blow as you try to creatively work through your disadvantages. But that inimitable one-of-a-kind feeling that comes from inventing something entirely unique...well, it's worth all the money you never had to spend.
My life lesson this week: use what you don't have and let it work in your favor. Let your circumstances dictate your move, rather than contriving some way to get more before you make a move. There's no limit to what you'll come up with to overcome your limitations. -Em
I've spent my whole life trying to be a nice person. Or, to use a better descriptor, a kind person. A good person. While having this as a life-long, work-in-progress type of goal feels noble, the older I get, the more it seems to clash with another life-long, work-in-progress type of goal: being a respectable, fair, and strong person. I imagine several Midwesterners--and women in general--experience this phenomenon.
But these two goal don't actually clash. They can coexist perfectly dandy.
This weekend has been rough (except the show at Foundry Hall on Saturday, which was absolutely lovely), and once again, I find myself at what initially feels like a crossroads. But over the many years that I've been faced with the conundrum of nice v. respectable, I've learned that the real trick once at the crossroads is to wait to react, examine the roads, and then take the first step.
What's going on is that my bathtub drain has been exploding, kindergarten-science-project-volcano-style, leaving dirt and sewage slime all over my bathroom in the night, so that I wake up every morning, feeling like I've been visited by the Sewer Fairy, giving me hours worth of mess that no amount of scrubbing can truly eradicate. I love my rented Chicago apartment, but this is crazy.
I told my landlord, and the situation has escalated. I was told (not asked) to clear out my apartment while the same man who has been trying to fix the problem for a year and a half, tries yet again. I came back from my show on Saturday night to find my bathroom sink in my hallway, and my bathroom completely torn apart. The place is a total mess with actual blood smears on the wall. No joke. Blood smears on the wall. Management does not only not apologize, but makes further demands.
Crossroads. Here again, the same archetypal roads emerge for me, just with different circumstances and options and potential outcomes:
- The "Don't Tread On Me" Road--do nothing. Just stand there, because there is no way to walk forward without having an impact
- The "Justified" Road--explode in outrage.
- The "Nice" Road--think about how truly hard it must be to own and manage a beautiful apartment in beautiful Chicago. Tell the landlord you understand, but gee whiz would sure like the problem fixed soon.
- The "Midwestern Nice" Road --see "nice road," but add the phrase, "bless his heart" at the end of it when repeating the story to your friends.
- The "Rogue" Road --fix problem on your own. Don't tell anybody. Buy "Plumbing for Dummies." Wear flannel shirt while listening to music by 38 Special on an old jukebox and ripping out the bathroom floor. Replace creepy maintenance man's blood with your own blood. Hard core.
- The "Emotionally Manipulative" Road --attempt to make apathetic landlord feel guilty using wily women skills, imagining you alone can suddenly make a grown person have a conscience.
- The "Matlock" Road --hire lawyer. Throw the book at them. Lawsuits begin. Justice will be yours.
- The "Zorro" Road --find out where landlord lives. Paint their door with sewage slime in the shape of the first initial of your name. Then write a terrible Yelp review of their company.
- The "Backtrack" Road --view situation as scary, and run away. Vacate apartment. Leave no trace. Change phone number and perhaps legal name.
- The "Respectable" Road --attempt "nice road." If desirable results are not produced, remain calm. Call professionals, and get problem solved professionally. Explain steadily to landlord that rent will be deducted by the amount spent on fixing problems. Write blog to deal with any residual frustrations.
And there it is. That is the road I will walk. (Not going to lie..."rogue" road usually tempts me to take at least a few steps down it at every crossroads.) If you don't hear from me for awhile, I have taken "matlock" road, then veered off on a branch of that road called "library trail" where I research tenant rights. In the mean time, walk strong. -Em
I'm back home in Chicago after being out on the road for a couple of weeks; it takes a while to get your walking legs back after spending so much time behind the wheel of a car or in front of a piano. I forgot how much I enjoy putting one foot in front of the other...
One of the best things about being on tour is how present you're forced to be. Most of the time while I'm in Chicago, I dwell on things until I can dwell no longer, then I wake up in the morning and dwell some more. The pace of touring naturally negates dwelling because you're onto the next thing, too tired and future-focused to spend time looking back on the night before. Self-questioning and worry go out the window because there is simply no time. A real clearness of thought emerges. Unfortunately, as I'm looking back, that clearness now feels like a blur of road signs and coffee and gas-station string cheese. But if I really try reflecting on the past 2 weeks, here's what I learned:
-Enjoy the town you're in before the show; you'll have a better time in that city, and the audience will appreciate that you enjoyed it...hometown pride is not dead.
-Try to share the bill with musicians and performers who are better you; you will learn more and become better yourself if you have to up your game.
-Don't take New York City personally.
-Eat fruits and vegetables while on tour; road life is too unpredictable to let your body get out of whack.
-Ask to play on other musicians' sets, right before you go on-stage; rehearsed gigs are fine, but magic happens when both audience and musicians get to witness the making of a sound that is completely new.
-Make the sound in the monitors and in the house really good before the show starts; no exceptions.
-Ask everybody in town where else they see live music, then go see live music there.
-Some people really will come to see your show--even if they've never heard of you before--because they read about you in the paper. Make friends with local media outlets while you're in town so they might give you a bigger write-up the next time you're in town.
-Find a local bar. Order the special, then sit and listen. Better to be impressed by life than to try to impress others...you'll have time to do that while performing anyway.
-Do laundry if you can; you smell worse than you think you do.
-Take the money you earned from the show out of your wallet, and put it in a lock box. It's too dangerous to have that much cash in a spendable environment while you're tooling about in fun new towns.
-Even in the noisiest of bars, always perform like somebody's listening, because usually, somebody is.
-Double check load-in times before the day-of; you probably got at least one load-in time wrong.
-Ask for help loading in instruments; you just drove hundreds of miles, no need to be more of a hero.
-Sleep. It's more important than food, water, and exercise combined.
And on that note, I'm heading for bed. Hope you're all well. -Em
Happy St. Pats! I'm on the last day of this tour and really can't wait to get home to Chicago. I had an awesome time playing in Youngstown last night; thanks to everybody who came out and to Kenny for starting the night out right. I've got to hop in the car and dash to Indianapolis, but slainte! And as they say in Ireland, "May the cat eat you and the devil eat the cat" (let's hope I just wished you well...hard to tell with the Irish. Regardless, have a good one!) -Em
NYC, you keeping biting me in the rear! More huge parking tickets, angry New Yorkers, lost gear, etc. But I'm not giving up on you yet; let's just take a break and give each other a little space and see if we like each other better in a couple of months, after we both take time to work on ourselves. No need to rush this relationship; it's ok if it's not love-at-first-sight.
Anyway, last night's set at Gizzi's with Jillian was tons of fun and we ended up a great crepe joint on the Lower East Side where we sat gabbing til the wee hours. Today I'm in New Jersey, motoring just as fast as I can to Youngstown, OH tonight for a show with Kenny Greco at Lemon Grove. Hope you're all having a great St. Paddys Eve. -Em
Well, since I can't send all of you a postcard, and my camera has had a critical lens error for the last 6 days, let me describe to you the view this morning: clear skies, vast soft rolling mountain ranges that hang like a misty plum backdrop behind little mountain towns in valleys where kids still apparently get up at 7 am to play baseball in local diamonds; the sun is adding a bright petina to everything, lighting the local bakeries like such enticing beacons of joy that I feel like stopping and buying a donut from each of them.
(Ha, actually, as fate would have it, I can show you exactly what I would look like if I had eaten a donut from each of them...here's the picture that was taken of me yesterday using the fat booth app; thanks LJ. :)
Anyway, after a sobering trip to NYC, I headed to Princeton, NJ and had a marvelous time, recharging my batteries with my dear friends Laura and Pam and a couple of friendly labradors. Princeton was completely in bloom, magnolia blossoms everywhere and folks walking down the intoxicatingly quaint main streets in their shirtsleeves. From there I headed to Pennsylvania, stopping along the way for a phone interview with the Youngstown Trib, and then an on-air radio spot with WNTA in the afternoon (thanks Jimmy!). I rolled into Pittston last night around 7:30 pm, went to a fun joint called Pazzo for a big dinner and quickly got to talking about horse racing with the folks at the bar (I'm apparently really near the downs; Buck, best of luck to team Chester this week man).
Last night's radio spot on Pennsylvania's NPR station wasn't live like I thought it would be; it was actually a recording session which will be aired in mid-April. Regardless, it was excellent. Radio veteran and savant George Graham and station intern Ian met me at the door, walked me through the magical world of Sesame Street (the local TV operates from the same station), then into a small theatre with a Steinway all mic-ed up and a ready to record. I flipped out a bit. I think I played about 11 tunes, 5 on my banjo. Really cool experience, and I'll let you know when the segment airs.
I'm on about 5 hours of sleep and have to split to head towards NYC for tonight's show in the Village with Jillian. But also wanted you to see that Americana UK gave Ghosts a good review! I love this website and check it often, and it means a lot to have a good write-up. You can read it here.
Last night I played The Rockwood Music Hall and stuck around to hear Charlene Soraia. She's from England and won our hearts with her gorgeous vocals and exotic electric guitar and her super sweet banter. I hadn't heard of her before, but she seems like she's on a big roll across the pond with a song advertising Twinings tea. You must see this girl live to believe it; she'll take your breath away. She is the epitomizes the importance of being true to oneself, no matter what.
Last night, I fell victim to the terrible beast that is self-criticism and tried to play a set that would match the rocker energy of the act that went before me (they truly did rock). I wish I hadn't. I relearned a lesson I thought I learned ages ago: go easy on yourself and own what you're about. It doesn't matter how happy the audience is if you're not happy yourself. I'm pretty grateful to have that notion reinforced. Thank you, Charlene; you go knock em dead at SXSW, girl. -Em
Last night's show at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, CT was excellent. What cool room and even cooler audience. Anne Marie, thanks for creating such a wonderful listening space. Orice, Chad, and Tommy: you guys rock. I had an awesome time singing with you and getting to know you all. (Chad, I'll be ready for us to play Dueling Banjos the next time I'm in Connecticut. Google search "cheap banjo hartford." Seriously, do it now!)
After the show I got a great tour of Wesleyan by Eric and then a fantastic meal at a Thai joint on Main Street before heading a little further south in preparation for tonight's show at The Rockwood Music Hall in NY. Another sunny day on the East Coast and I'm headed for a decent view of the ocean. Lake Superior is definitely a great lake, but it's no Atlantic. Briny ocean walk, here I come! -Em
Greetings from Middletown, CT! I'm loving this tour, but wishing I had more time to stay in each town. After a beautiful snowy drive on Friday morning (and some fun Maple Syrup Festival stops in eastern Ohio where I bought old-timey wares from women in bonnets), I rolled into Pittsburgh. I had less than one day to live it up. But live it up I did.
Downtown Pittsburgh is gorgeous, but the architecture just outside of downtown blew me away. I did the infamous Duquesne Incline at dusk, catching the convergence of the three rives and the nighttime view of the city from on top of Mt. Washington. Then I hit Liberty Avenue (SUPER record stores), grabbed a fish sandwich (you can't spit without hitting a fish sandwich joint in Pittsburgh...not sure if this is to do with it being Lent or it being Friday or just it being Pittsburgh) and headed over to Howlers for a show with Elise Massa and Tim Ruff. Jason played bass for Tim, and Chris Massa sat in on djembe on all 3 sets, including mine, which made my night. Great crowd, great songwriting, great vocals (thanks for harmonies, Tim), great sound (thanks Bengt and Lauren), and great support (thanks Catherine).
After the show I crashed with the Massas in their house, which was a former parsonage and--in keeping with everything else in Pittsburgh--beautiful and historic. Short night of sleep, but I was up and out by 8 am and drove 6 hours through the mountains, blaring John Denver, who sounds every bit as good in the Alleghenies as he does in the Rockies. I rolled into Sergeantville yesterday afternoon for an hour interview on WDVR in New Jersey with Melissa (aka Melba Toast), a fellow animal and Eva Cassidy lover. From there it was a 3 hour drive up to Connecticut, past NYC at night (love this), and now onto an afternoon show at the Buttonwood with piano phenomenon Orice Jenkins. Can't wait. I've got one day to figure out how to live it up in Middletown. I'm all over it.-Em
More than a decade ago, Mom and I were scouting out culinary schools on the East Coast. She drove, I navigated. Right before we were supposed to hit Vermont, we passed a government sign that said, "Welcome To Maine." I told Mom to ignore it; clearly the sign was incorrect.
A couple of years ago after a late show in Chicago, I was tired and had to park several blocks away from my apartment. I couldn't remember where I parked my car the next day. Ten minutes of looking, and I decided to call the police. Clearly, the car was stolen.
My brain is the kind that holds onto its theories at all costs, even in the face of new data and logical contradictions. And so it was, that when I showed up for The Ark open mic in Ann Arbor last night, I stood in line with my banjo, and looked at the rest of the people in said line. After several minutes, I noticed nobody else in line was holding an instrument. So CLEARLY, the reason for this was because everybody else was either a) borrowing instruments from The Ark that I just didn't know existed or b) intending to beat box for the open mic.
It wasn't until The Ark started letting everybody in for the regional Irish band playing last night that I realized there was no open mic.
On a total aside, Ann Arbor is a lovely town and I got a delicious latte from the Espresso Royale joint on Main Street. You Michiganers are lovely. Go Blue!
So I drove on to Lansing to stay with my buddy Jamie Sue and Kirk last night. We all got up early this morning, and I had a rainy but beautiful drive through the heartland to Akron, Ohio where I did a really fun radio spot with Tom Ball on Just Plain Folk. (I took some super pictures, but I'm struggling to upload them...check back for pictures in a couple of weeks). Tom is a delight and a real gem; the country is lucky he's still on the air-waves. Looking forward to tomorrow's show in Pittsburgh with Elisa Massa and Tim Ruff. -Em
Chicago in the winter feels like magic. The lights at night, breathing out pockets of steam into air that smells of fry-o-laters and hops, huddling in closer to get warm with the folks on the El instead of standing isolated in the back of the car. I love it. But having almost no signs of winter, the city has seemed a bit less magical to me this year. Not only less magical, but erring on the side of strange. This week has been full of out-of-the ordinary events that I blame entirely on the weather.
1) I played my first Chicago show in months, and it rained. The show was actually a larger success than it could have been, because of the weather. (My theory is that if folks brave elements and go to great lengths to get to a venue, they're more inclined to stay for a while.) Thanks to all of you who stayed for BOTH sets at Uncommon Ground Devon last week with Andru Bemis and Elisabeth Pixley-Fink.
2) The next day, it snowed. Big monstrous wet snow. My friend Sarah and I got inspired and seized the moment and went ice skating near Wrigley. I never do that. We both took serious diggers...worth it.
3) The next day, it was hot, all the snow melted, and I ended up with allergies to something in the air. I swear, this warm winter is making us all sicker than usual.
4) The next day, it was cold. I thought I was done making soups/stews, but I thought "why not" and went to make jambalaya with my cousin. Half-way through chopping a red pepper, I cut off the bulk of my thumb skin. I went to a clinic and am all sutured up with fresh tetanus shots, and I've been given the prescription of "1 to 2 weeks of no playing instruments."
Tonight, they're predicting thunderstorms. Who knows what that'll bring...
I had a whirlwind trip through Indy this weekend. Friday I headed to Fort Wayne for a show at The Dash with Lexi Pifer and Hope Arthur (HUGE thanks to Felix Moxter for playing viola on my set). The girls rocked into the night, then we all headed to the Shady Nook for night caps. My take-away of the musicians in Ft Wayne: big chops, big hearts, small egos.
Saturday I drove into Shelbyville for an early afternoon set with Penny on WSVX. Before we were on-air, she mentioned that her son (14 year old Carson Diersing) was a harmonica player. Well Penny and her family came to the show Saturday night at Indy Hostel, and Carson sat in on my set. Folks, you heard it here: this guy's going to be a household name in a few years. I don't know that I've ever heard that much soul come from somebody that age. Hohner is wise to sponsor him.
I left early Sunday morning from John and Karen's incredible space (going to Indianapolis? you must stay here http://www.indyhostel.us) to catch The Brunch Bash at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn. Colby, Rita, Steve, and Mike packed the house, and washboard Barb and The Teflons brought it down. I'm gearing up for a show tomorrow at Uncommon Ground. Hope to see you there! -Em
I was laid up over the last couple of weeks with the sickness that's going around Chicago. Without a TV, I decided to head over to Hulu on-line to watch the Biography Channel (one of my favorite ways of killing time), and I caught hours worth of information on famous folks (man, had I forgotten that Ivan the Terrible really was quite terrible). What held my interest most were the biographies of actors: Sean Connery, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, etc.
Repeatedly, these actors were lauded for fully delving into their roles. Critics praised Sean Penn for being believable as both Spicoli in "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" and as Harvey Milk. Brad Pitt, as both J.D. in "Thelma & Louise" and as Benjamin Button. Versatility is the key to their art. Experimentation, mutability, and vision are their key tools, and the best actors use them constantly. The reason they take on these wildly unique roles? For the challenge, and for the money. The better they do at changing themselves into their new character enough times, the more money they bring in.
Which got me thinking about money and art, as it relates to music. I feel like it's rare for a musician who was made famous (and consequently rich) by creating one album in one genre to then go on to receive positive fame (and $) for something completely different. More often than not, musicians who gain popularity and recognition for one style of music are usually encouraged and expected by their management and most of their fans to continue down that same musical path. And then when they do stay on that path, every one ends up disappointed that the new stuff isn't as fresh feeling as the old stuff. Which should come as no surprise.
I'm not saying it's wrong to make art in the interest of the almighty dollar; Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel, and it's not as though it's "bad art" simply because he was paid to do it. But I think when it comes to music, once money is made in a genre and style, it's difficult to break out and make fresh feeling art, because the major music industry (and the fans who are acted upon by that industry) ultimately doesn't encourage the musician's ability to dapple in many styles.
So I declare that I'm on-board with anyone who's been changing that. Eddie Vedder, hats off for that ukulele album. Bob Dylan, if I were in Newport that year you plugged in, I would have been going wild. And Robert Plant, "Raising Sand" with Alison Kraus was a genius move. Thank you for your daring leap into a whole new kind of music and shining there too. Way to think like an actor.
Speaking of Robert Plant, here's a picture from the archives that my friend Dayna came across recently. She and I are the ones immediately to the left and to the right of Robert with elated faces and probably a little drool on our chins. -Em
Last night's show at Space in Evanston with Raul Midon was excellent. Zach, Dan, Jake, Eric, Patrick, and Miranda, I really appreciated being treated so well. The sound was phenomenal and so was the crowd (Jenny, thanks for those handmade earrings...I'm still stunned at how well I made out in that barter!). Looking forward to next time! -Em
Thanks to those of you who braved the blizzard on Friday night and headed over to the show at Strobe Studios. I can't believe you still came out after all of the Weather Station's direction to stay in. It meant a lot to Gregg, John, Maria, Frank and I that you made it. It's a shame that the sound system was a wreck, but your positivity made the night worthwhile for us. Tony Bartman, you are wonderful. Barbara Glatt, thanks for taking so many pictures on your phone. All the rest of you, thank you for all the support. Hope to see you this Friday at Space! -Em
I had a great drive through a blizzard (snow finally!!) on Friday night on the way to Michigan. Saturday found me well-fed and in good company at the Eiseler house. Thanks to all of you who came to Songwriters In The Round on Saturday night in Dewitt. Jamie Sue, John, Greg and I all had a great time. I am always impressed by how kind you Michiganers are; thank you for that. I'll miss you until next time... -Em
There is so much I should be doing right now that I thought I should do none of it. Instead, I've started reflecting on 2011, and looking forward to 2012. I thought I'd blog the highlights of the year. Why 20? Just because. So..in no particular order:
1) John, Darren, Sue, Maria and I made an album, and to date it was the most fun I've had making a record.
2) Anne Leighton came into my life and is now my promoter and dear friend. She is a wonderful person and a powerfully good presence in my life.
3) My dog Hank and I have visited the dog beach on Lake Michigan in all seasons, with winter clearly being my (and his) favorite.
4) Last night they played "A Lot Like" from the new album on WXRT. Never gets old knowing your music is on the radio. In fact, in never stops being totally exhilarating. Other radio stations helping to get the new album out there in 2011: WGN, WKHS, WSPN, KZFR, WCSB, KFAI, WFHB, and Troubadour 1700.
5) I started a group called "supper club" this year. I've had great group of hungry folks in my tiny Chicago apartment this year, and I look forward to cooking the meal all month. Keeps me inspired.
6) I got a banjo in 2011, and it has helped me to give a much stronger and self-assured voice to the characters in my songs (I am supposing this is to do with the twang).
7) My old high school buddies and I got to go deep sea fishing at my friend Nick's wedding. Water and sky can fix a lot of what ails you.
8) My voice students have grown by leaps and bounds. I love watching you all enjoy music so much. Great work.
9) Wendell and Jensina Burton put on another amazing Emilyfest. I tell you what, you two: I felt weird that you named a festival after me at first, but now I've totally embraced it. I can't wait for Emilyfest 2012.
10) I got to play 2 shows at the Skokie Theatre in 2011 before they officially close their doors. Al and Annalee, that experience was great, and you two are both headed for even better times, I know it.
11) My girls and I have had some pretty epic nights this year, but none so adventurous as that one in November, which ended on horseback. Thanks ladies for another great year.
12) I've started playing some bluegrass music with Colby Maddox. I'm anxious and excited and kind of jittery every time we play, which is how I know I'm really learning something.
13) Fans flew me to Utah for a show, and I got to hike Zion National Park. Thank God for national parks and thank Indiana Jones movies for making them feel even more thematic.
14) My friends Maggie, Jerm, Molly, Nick, Jenna, and Jeremy had babies this year, and you all have blown me away by how great of parents you already are.
15) Tony, Tracy, Erin, Rick and I made a music video, and we had a lot of fun doing it. Thanks for the great year you guys.
16) Just when I thought I knew them all, I discovered even more pockets within the city of Chicago this year that I can't believe I lived without: Andersonville Galleria, Cafe Svea, Noodle Zone, Gethsemane, Mr and Mrs. Digz, Presence, and the New Century 400 Theatre.
17) My family has been over-the-top great to me this, especially Mom and Dad, who are in the slow process of retiring to the way way backwoods of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Thank you so much for letting me operate the fancy tractor with no previous experience. It was a thrill.
18) I started painting again after years of not.
19) Sara gave me the best bowling birthday a bad bowler like myself could ask for.
20) Yet another year, and I wasn't mauled by a mountain lion. (If you don't know me, you think I'm joking. If you do, then you understand how truly grateful I am for this.)
Onward to 2012. -Em
Happy New Years to you and yours. Today the new album is officially released: YA-HOOO!
I ended the year taking photos with Tony Bartman and Tracy Stephani in the Prairie Street Brewhouse in Rockford; it was the first professional photo shoot I've had in years, and we had a blast. Thanks you two.
I'll be spending most of the next few months booking shows. Shoot me an email if you know of a venue you'd like me to try to get into, and I'll do what I can to make it happen. See you soon, Em.
For Christmas this year, I got an espresso machine, fuzzy slippers, black licorice, and shingles. I confess: I didn't know shingles were something that people could still acquire. I thought the disease had vanished along with polio and small pox. Obviously not.
But my holidays are so far from ruined. The downtime has been pretty great, and I was still able to make cookies with Maggie, sing Christmas music at the Maddox house, and the hit the double feature at Chicago's Music Box Theatre with Sarah. This morning, my family is celebrating with all the usual traditions, which I'm about to get back to. I just thought I'd take a moment to write to wish you all a very happy Christmas. HAPPY CHRISTMAS!!! -Em
I spent a lot of time in downtown Chicago this past week, hoping to get inspired to make the fan list holiday gift. The lights were festive, although the city is sorely lacking in snow, in my opinion. Regardless, I hope you like the present this year friends. I'm starting to run out of artistic mediums that I can use to give you things. I may need to learn how to sculpt or whittle soon.
Come to the Chicago release if you can! It would be great to fill the studio. In the mean time, I hope you all have a peaceful and happy holiday. I'm looking forward to spending some quality time with my family, my dog, and my banjo, in that order. Whatever you're up to, I hope it's fulfilling. Thanks for your support year after year; it means a lot. -Em
Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours. We're in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, about to head to Lake Superior after a long morning of stuffing my press packages. I'm very grateful for all of your help and support this year, friends. Thanks for all you do for me. -Em
I'm on 2 straight weeks of sending out the new album to radio for airplay consideration. My Bic just ran out of ink on my 140th letter. I decided it was time to give it a rest and blog a bit.
These days it's so hard to see the person at the other end of our correspondence. I can be so quick to judge. I delete emails faster than you can say "spam" if I can't feel the human behind them. Most telemarketers are hung up on before they finish saying their name, and half of my postal mail ends up in the recycling if I don't get the sense there's anything in the envelope that looks like it was intended for me personally.
But the fact is, there's a person behind everything that I get. Though we're not having a face-to-face interaction, they're still trying to reach me, and I probably ought to honor them by at least trying to see behind-the-scenes a bit. (Tangent: I just read an ingredients list on the back of a package of sausage that included "mechanically separated chicken." So no person behind-the-scenes there...crazy). Anyway, if I think I'm important enough to ask for someone's time of day in a letter, I could stand to give them some of mine. (Thank you Roald Dahl books for making me the kind of person who wants a life lesson out of everything).
So in case any of you radio DJs received my letter and are now at my site, let me tell you: I researched your station before I sent you my press package. I sat right here at my kitchen table, reading all about you and looking through your past playlists before finally deciding to send you a package and a hand-written letter, uniquely crafted for you. I appreciate you taking the time to listen to the album.
Sincerely yours, Emily Hurd, fellow human.
Thanks so much to all of you who came out to the Skokie Theatre to catch the show with the Sons, despite my playing minus one semi-critical banjo string. We had a great night, and as always, couldn't have done it without the expertise of Al and Annalee (sound goddess). The Sons played my favorite song of theirs ("Maybe Just Maybe"), as well as some fantastic new tunes. After the show, we hit the local pizza joint down the road. A basket of fries and several onion rings later, we all called it a night.
The next day my friends and I went into epic Halloween mode. After a day of creating jack-o-lantern scarecrows for a frighteningly excellent display, Sara and I ended up deciding at the last minute to dress as White Russians. Hope you're having a great Halloween! -Em P.S. (New video released soon!)
Well, I made it alive out of NYC and safely to cousin Joan's house on Long Island. After a much needed day off, I drove up to Saratoga Springs for an on-air show with Chris McGill. I woke up before the sun; the little town of Saratoga was alive with color even at 6 in the morning. By the time the sun rose, the leaves captured light like stained glass windows. I was snapping pictures like crazy until I got into the radio station.
After I got done playing the show with Chris, I drove on to Buffalo and the shores of Lake Erie to stay with my friend Aerin (Congress of Starlings) Tedesco. From there, I hoofed in back to Chicago, where I've been working hard on promoting the new album. This Friday, I'm opening for Sons Of The Never Wrong at The Skokie Theatre. Should be a really good night of music, and I hope I see you there! Em
I tried to 'heart' you. I did. I tried to 'heart' you as effortlessly as all of the rest of the people here in NYC seem to, flagrantly declaring their affections for you on pins and bags and t-shirts. But clearly, we're just not ready to take our relationship to that level, or at least, it takes a while to win you over. Maybe it's my fault. Maybe I should have done a better job declaring my intentions from the get-go. I never was good at communicating in relationships. Let me explain.
After driving up from North Carolina, through the cotton and tobacco fields of Virginia, over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, through Delaware and New Jersey, I anticipated my arrival with bated breath. You are a marvel of innovation and ideas, of historical and future significance, of possibility and brilliance. I couldn't wait to meet with your music industry workers and to play your stages. I could have shown my excitement more outwardly, but I was playing it cool. Never again, New York. I swear.
I've learned my lesson. Since landing here, you gave me a $35 parking ticket for not placing my muni-meter tickets far enough on the driver's side of the dashboard of my car. I got a $115 parking ticket last night for not moving my car from its legal and paid-for parking spot to an area of the Village that doesn't close its streets to passenger cars after 11 pm. I'm collecting tickets like baseball cards (really really awful baseball cards.) You've taken from me the money that I made in North Carolina. Dirty pool, NY.
Driving in Greenwich last night, I couldn't discern your crosswalks from your "stop here" lines very clearly; see, they look different in Chicago. So your people jumped on the bumper of my stopped car and started pounding on the roof. Two men punched my hood and called me names that I didn't know you could call a woman (sheerly from an anatomical standpoint). Cabs laid on their horns like they were the third movement of an orchestral concerto, despite the signs declaring that they'd be issued a $350 fine for honking. You looked the other way for them. Them, you 'heart.'
After tripping over your curbs, I spilled an entire bag of clothes into a puddle that--from my estimation--was equal parts urine and rain water. I took the drenched clothes into a laundry mat on Avenue A. I'm sorry: I got it wrong there too. The thing is, I'm accustomed to washing my own clothes. I didn't know I couldn't use a Trader Joe's bag as a laundry bag or that I needed to have my clothes separated. Please tell the woman operating that establishment how sorry I am, and that I'm sure I deserved her sharp tongue, a tongue that I also got from two police women and three female shop keepers on 6th. I thought women kind of looked out for each other, just because. Maybe they couldn't tell I was a woman in my band t-shirt, baggy pants, and tennies. Highly possible.
But I'll tell you what, NY. Even though you have been bringing on the rain since I showed up, I still loved the show I played last night at Gizzi's. Jillian Hicks and I had a wonderful wonderful wonderful time making music with our banjos, fiddles, guitar, ukuleles, and keyboard in that warm and fun space. Karen, Julie, Elisa, and Roxanne had lovely sets that we were happy to catch. Michael McHugh, you booked a great night. Anne, thank you so much for showing up and for the great quote; it made it all worthwhile.
I may have done you wrong, New York. Maybe it was my Illinois license plate. Maybe it was my unskinny jeans. Maybe you could sense that I smuggled in cheap groceries from New Jersey to save money in Manhattan. Whatever it was, I apologize. Could we start over? Let's try again. Hi. My name's Emily. I only want to play a little music and leave. I will buy my fruit from your bodegas and my beer from your pubs. My jeans will fit properly, and I will hail cabs for all future outings. Let's start as friends and see where things go. What do you say? Until next time, I remain respectfully yours.
I really can't say enough good things about North Carolina. Truly. But I'll try.
Gregg and I left from Chicago for North Carolina early on Thursday morning. 13 hours later, we were almost at our destination, and we got lost. We had to pull over to the side of the road with our flashers on. It wasn't 30 seconds before the first car pulled up next to us to ask, "Y'all alright?!" (Incredible: people apparently still do these kinds of things). When we finally got to the Burton Farm, Wendell and Jensina were waiting for us with open arms and an open refrigerator. After some cold beer and hot tomato pie, we collapsed. The next morning, we woke up in farm paradise.
After a long morning and a few cups of Alva's special coffee, we met up with Jeremy Merritt and Steve Block for band practice. I don't think any of us could rightly believe how well we all played that day. Feeling relieved, Gregg and I headed back over to the Burton Farm for an outside jambalaya cook-out. Jensina's cooking is the best in the state. You heard it here first.
The next day, everybody was hard at work setting up for the show. Road signs were put up (what?!), and the stage was set. Gregg and I worked on getting the PA up on stage (THANK YOU Beth and Mary Jo and the whole crew of Jackson's Music for the excellent sound equipment). My dog Hank worked pretty hard too...
Wendell made so much for this show, including hanging mobiles, fire rings, and a hand-made chair with my signature on it. (No joke. I now have a gorgeous chair with my signature burned into it.) Once everybody got seated down in the holler, we started the show. Kids were romping on hay bales on my right. Jeremy, Steve, and Gregg were playing tight on my right. And right ahead of me were more than a hundred faces shining in moon and fire light. Don't get no better.
After the show was over, the moonshine and hot dogs made their annual appearance. Music continued at the bonfires until after 2 am.
Sunday morning was all about brunch at the Childress Winery with Dave, Cathy, Bill, Pam, Laura, Scott, Haley, Julie, Gregg, Mom, and Dad (my family came down for the big show this year...North Carolina suited them just fine too).
We said goodbye to Gregg, and today I spent the day getting the car fixed by the good people at Lindsay's Auto. Thank you Ryan and Jim for making my car ready to hit the road tomorrow morning. I've got 11 hours in the car tomorrow before I hit New York City; can't wait. The fall colors out East are stunning, and so are the people. -Em
Fall is off to a bang. Thanks to all of you who came out and supported the Edgewater Street Fest. Colby, Gregg, Steve, and I had an awesome time playing for you. Here's a pic I snapped during set-up. It was the best show of 2011 until...
Steve and I caught Fleet Foxes at the Chicago Theatre on Saturday night. I decided it was the best show of 2011, until....
Sarah and I caught the beginning of the color change at the Morton Arboretum on Sunday. Then that was the best show, until...
Gregg and I play in North Carolina this Saturday. I figure since I'm on a "best show" roll, it's going to keep going, and the show this Saturday will blow the roof off the barn. We leave tomorrow for the drive East. Can't wait. Hope you're all enjoying the fall. -Em
The eagle has landed. The new album arrived on the doorstep on Thursday, and it looks great. Big thanks to Phil and Joe at Breakthrough Audio for another great manufacturing job, and the folks at MinuteMan Press for the dynamite work on the booklet.
On Friday night, Tracy and Erin headed into the city for Chicago's Renegade Craft Fair on Division. Erin and I got started on the first of many cd stuffing parties (manually putting the booklet inside the cd packaging). Now I'm off to send some of the discs off into the world, hoping for some favorable reviews before the release in 2012. Do you know a music reviewer who might be willing to listen to it? Send me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll get you an advance copy. Can't wait for you to hear it!
The album is supposed to get back from the manufacturer this week or next. This is my eighth album, and still I can say that there are very few things that make me feel more anxious than waiting for all the boxes of albums to come in. I believe there are two reasons for this. One: it's like Christmas morning, only a lot lot lot more boxes, and the Christmas tree is a doorstep. Two: I am scared to death that me and all my spell checkers will have missed a major spelling error, and the title will read "Emily Nurd: Long Lost Goats" or something. I woke up at 4:30 this morning, thinking about it. Which wasn't so bad. I caught the sunrise for the 3rd day in a row. This morning's was dazzling.
I just heard on NPR that Honeyboy Edwards died today. I feel like mentioning it, because there are so few musicians that actively play out at age 96. I saw Honeyboy Edwards at The Hideout in 2006 playing with the guys from Devil in a Woodpile, back when he was a spry, young 91 years old. I got to talk to him between sets. The man shamelessly flirted with me and told me all about how his sister was the one who came up with the nickname Honeyboy. That conversation is burned into my brain; that man was sharp as a tack, and definitely an inspiration. He will be missed by us in Chicago and certainly worldwide too.
This Monday, I spent all day in Rockford with Tony Bartman, shooting the rest of the music video for "Long Lost Ghosts." The day started out at Rock Cut. Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous day, but the first thing we saw out there was a load of turkey vultures hanging out in the trees above us. However since the day went so well, I'm gonna go ahead and say that turkey vultures must be a powerfully good omen.
After Rock Cut we headed to my parents house for more shooting, where we made use of the fact that their deck was completely demolished by the storms a few weeks ago. We rolled the piano out onto the deck (HUGE ordeal...can't believe we did it), and took a bunch of video inside their house.
We picked up Tracy Stephani and between the 3 of us, we filmed the rest of the scenes in an old pick-up truck. Super big thanks to Tracy for driving so well and breaking the law in the interest of art. After we finished up we headed to Erin and Rick Klaren's for a BBQ. Don't know how I got so lucky to have met these folks, but I'm so glad I did.
Last night I played on the dock of the Rock River; this was the view from where I was sitting. So great to see such a fun event happening in my home town. Thanks to Shawn and Danielle for making this happen. See you all soon.
Still on a high from finishing the album, I headed to my hometown of Rockford on Friday for a show downtown. Getting paid to play music outside never gets old, and the fact that there were so many wonderful friends, new and old, made the show a pleasure to play. Thanks, friends. See you next time.
And just like that, on a dark, humid city night, we finished mixing the album. I took myself out to celebrate, doing the requisite drive in the car, listening to the album from top to bottom while trolling around Chicago. I think it's a smash record, and I know you're going to love it. It's off now to be mastered by Mike Hagler, and then it goes to the talented crew of Breakthrough Audio to be manufactured. (Suddenly feeling a metaphor of my album as a teenager going off to school to make something more of itself.)
Up next for me is music video completion and then record label hunting. Stay tuned folks. Em
We're about to go live with a new website, friends. (It seemed only fitting that we update the site as we're getting ready to launch the new album). Because it's new, I could use all the eyes I can get on it to help me find any kinks. Once it's up, if there's anything screwy, send me a line at email@example.com. Thanks!! -Em
John and I are spending a lot of time in the studio now, making final tweaks on Long Lost Ghosts. This is the point where we listen, sleep on it, make a small sonic adjustment, then repeat. It's tedious, but the pay-off is huge, so we're taking all the time we think it deserves.
In the mean time, we've been putting together the album art. I don't want to leak the cover to you, but here's an outtake from the photo shoot at my parents' house. Still not sure how Mom and Dad and I managed to get the piano outside, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the midwestern stubbornness gene.
Hope you're all staying cool! Can't wait for you to hear the new record!
Last weekend, I spent time with "fans-turned-friends:" Erin, Tracy, Tony, and Rick. We had an unbelievable time hanging out on piers, boating, moped-ing, and working on the music video for Long Lost Ghosts. With Tony as director, Tracy as the artistic director, Erin as the producer, and Rick as the stunt double, we got the video well underway.
This week, we had our last day of recording. Sue Demel came in and added her lovely voice to the mix, giving the record that special something we were looking for. If you've never heard of Sue, you are missing one of the century's most unique voices. I can't wait for you to hear her work. John and I are just a few days of mixing away from being done!
Finally, and in sadder news, we lost my Grandma Ruth last week. She was the matriarch of my family and a wonderful woman. She was 100% Swedish and 100% natural. She lived in her house on the river (that my grandpa built) for the last 70 years. She taught me about harvesting black raspberries, laughing hard, and being true to your creative impulses. My family honored her yesterday at her funeral, and then out at her house for a big Swedish party afterwards, complete with Akvavit, herring, and an impromptu dip in the river. Skol, Grandma. We miss you.
This week, John Abbey and I were in studio recording Maria McCullough. Maria and her mom Grace came in at 10 am on Thursday, and Maria got 9 songs done in just under 4 hours. Girl's got talent.
Darren came in at 4 pm on Friday and got all 8 tracks that we needed him on done in three hours His vocals add so much to the vibe of the album. Over a lot of his drum tracks, he added tambourine, maracas, and shaker. We also spent a lot of time in one of the iso booths, making clap tracks over and over and over. So when you hear the album, and it seems like we got dozens of rowdy people in a room to record some of these tunes, know that it's more like this (click here).
We only have one day left of overdubs. We're hoping to get Sue Demel in for background vocals soon. I'll let you know when we do. We're so close to finishing, and I can't wait for you all to hear this record!
John's been busy mixing these last few weeks, and I just got back from a short vacation in the southeast, where I did a lot of fishing, beach-walking, and just having a really nice time with friends. I played on Islamorada last weekend. This was where my keyboard was set up. The 30+ hour drive was definitely worth it.
Driving back home through Georgia, Tennesse, and Kentucky, I did some work on the music video for title track of the album. The album artwork is underway, and this week, we add the last few instruments into the mix. Maria McCullough will be recording fiddle on Thursday, and Darren Garvey will be recording more vocals and percussion on Friday. I'm so anxious to get this collection of tunes to you... Em
John and I are taking the next couple of weeks to mix the album before adding a few last minute surprise guests to the tracks. And by "John and I are taking the next couple of weeks to mix the album," I mean for the next couple of weeks, I will be looking at John while he mixes, and once and a while, I'll add a few thoughts in between mouthfuls of New York Style Cheddar Kettle chips. It's a hard job, but somebody's gotta do it. Hope you're all enjoying your summer!!!
Friday night's show at The Skokie Theatre was great. Thanks to all of you who made it out, particularly The Fredericks, Al Curtis, Val Haller, Lynn Orman, Jim Blair, Annalee, Kevin, and Sara. I had a wonderful time playing, and the sound in the room was amazing. When they opened the front-of-the-house doors, I stuck out my camera from behind the curtains and snapped a shot to see what the stage looked like. Let me tell you; this is every musician's dream stage. A grand piano in a great room. Don't get no better.
It was fun hanging out with Chris and Lars, who played for Jann. Chris' cora playing stole the show. Here we all are playing on one of Jann's tunes at the end of the night.
Sunday night I went out and worked merch for dear friends Starlite Radio at their show at Schuba's with The Spares. If you haven't seen this band live, you are missing out. In addition to being some of the best musicians I know, they also happen to be some of the best people I know. Gotta love when that happens.
I'm in the studio tomorrow, mixing my new album with John. Can't wait for you to hear it. Hope you all are hanging in there after The Rapture that wasn't and the tornadoes that were.
Thanks for coming out to Groove Walk on Saturday night, folks. I had a great time playing for you. Biggest thanks goes to the Fredericks, Erin, and Tracy for being the awesome fans you are.
On Sunday night, I headed into WGN studios in downtown Chicago to talk with Steve and Johnnie and plug this Friday's Skokie Theatre show. After giving the night security guard a lot to laugh at, parking and re-parking several times, then scaling an embankment to get into the building, I finally made it in. Thanks to Craig for the fast tour and taking video. We all had a great time chatting, and I stayed a lot later than originally planned. We all decided to have a CD Release show on WGN when Long Lost Ghosts is finished. Speaking of which, I've got to get ready to head into the studio today. See you all soon.
Ok. So you guys have just been way too cool not to show off. I've had some pretty big gestures thrown my way recently, and I'm creating a photo album on my Facebook Fan page to brag about you. Because honestly, you're blowing me away. Check it out on Facebook.
In other news, last Friday's benefit show at the Swissotel in downtown Chicago was fun to play, and a lot of money was raised. I've never had so much good food in my life, and I'm sure Andrew, Lisa, and Jon will back me up on that claim.
John and I are just a couple days shy of being done with laying down bass and guitar tracks on "Long Lost Ghosts." Yesterday in the studio was really productive. We're going back in tomorrow and next week. Then we'll be bringing in the lovely Maria McCullough to lay down some fiddle. Stay tuned!
Yesterday was Cinco De Mayo and a great day. John's wife Anna got a starring role on Food Network's "24 Hour Restaurant Battle," which aired yesterday, so we both were in a great mood. Such good moods, in fact, that I was finally allowed to drink coffee out of John's prized Yankee's mug. I'm hoping I don't jinx the season.
We spent a while writing out guitar parts before we recorded John playing his Guild, finishing up "I Won't Tell A Soul" and "Hitchhikers." This is the first album in years that the acoustic guitar has played such a big role in, and I'm really loving it. I hope you do too...
I started the day with catching the sunrise at Lake Michigan with my dog Hank, as always. Today I brought my camera. Living in the city has its drawbacks, but considering I get to walk to the beach twice a day, I'd say things aren't too shabby.
John and I got a good jump on the day with the help of lots and lots of coffee. We have one more piano song to record, but seeing as Mike had just put a fresh layer of stain on the floor around it (picture below), we decided to get more of John's bass and guitar recorded. Today he played bowed and pizzicato bass on "Silent Conversations." He also played his Guild acoustic on a couple of tunes. The man does it all. We'll be right back in the studio next week, so check back soon. -Em
This past week, I played In The Round in Chicago with Darren Garvey and Lindsay Weinberg. The room sold-out, and we had a great time playing for you all. Thanks for coming out.
This week, I'm in the studio with John, who's getting busy recording upright bass tracks. Last night, after a long search for some rosin and a quick ProTools tutorial, I recorded him laying down some beautiful arco parts (aka double bass played with a bow). We finished up the title track ("Long Lost Ghosts"), and are working on more this week. Stay tuned...
This week, I headed out west to play a private party in St. George, Utah. I spent all day Friday hiking in Zion National Park. In this case, pictures will say it a lot better than I will with words. Click here to see them.
The show itself was awesome. Sonya rented me a brand new Yamaha piano to play in their venue, and the acoustics in the room were incredible. I can't thank you enough, Fredericks. But here I go again: THANK YOU.
Things I loved about Utah:
+The residents, particularly the ones born-and-raised with a lot of stories to tell. (On Saturday morning, I was informed which level of heaven I was going to by a very kind, eccentric Mormon).
+The bumbleberry pie
+The lizards lying on everything from porches to coffee tables
+The art inspired by the views
Looking forward to my next visit, and for this week in the studio. Can't wait.
Today in the studio, I got to leave my semi-permanent residence behind the microphone to sit at the Captain's chair and record John playing acoustic guitar on Long Lost Ghosts. And John's first instrument is not acoustic guitar. Maybe that's what made his playing all the more believable.
After John finished up with the guitar, I played a bunch ukulele tracks and sang several rounds of background vocals. Again, ukulele is certainly not my first instrument, nor am I truly the best person to sing backing vocals. We're choosing to role play a little bit to see if we can't capture the raw, teetering-on-the-edge, vibe that comes from being uncertain and unfamiliar with an instrument. Also, having limited use of an instrument can make the parts sound a little more simple and true, which is what we're going for. We finished up 3 tunes and are moving on to more tomorrow...
We're FINALLY done recording vocals for Long Lost Ghosts. I had moments wondering if it was going to happen. Top 10 favorite quotes from these vocal sessions:
10) Me: "John, what is my inspiration here?" John: "Neil Diamond. All the way. White sequins. No fear."
9) "I need food immediately. Very shortly, I will be somebody you don't want to be around."
8) "This time, sing it less like 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President.'"
7) "Drink more scotch then take it from the top."
6) "This album is complicated in its simplicity."
5) Me: "How am I supposed to rock?" John: "Like Pat Benetar, Em."
4) "This time, split the difference between despairing and hopeful."
3) "I don't know. It all still sounds like polka to me."
2) John: "Think 'campy.'" Me: "I never much cared for camp."
1) "Did you take that beer with you? Take the beer. Make sure you have the beer with you all the time. You need to be drinking beer in between takes. Beer will help. Trust me."
I drove home from our recording session by way of what little is left of Cabrini Green. It was a bittersweet sight. Most endings are, but I really lingered on Division today, watching pieces of the last complex crumble. If you're not from Chicago, let me just say that we are witnessing not only the end of an era, but the end of a community. It's a little strange in Goose Island right now.
I'm celebrating the end of vocal recording by delving right into arranging more instrument parts for the album. Not before a glass of wine of course. Can't wait for the next few weeks in the studio! Stay tuned.
John and I are still plugging away at recording vocals this week; I can't believe we're still at it. We have just 4 songs remaining that still need vocals, so we're hoping to move on to recording bass tracks soon. Lord knows I could use a change of scenery; this has been my view several hours a week. I'm pretty sure this mic and I are BFF...it knows everything about me at this point.
The show last night at the Millenium Center was great. I was surprised so many of you came out, with yet ANOTHER night of random snow and lousy weather. Thank you for that. I had never done a combined art/music show before, and having a good crowd made the experience pretty awesome. Pictured below is my display (thanks for the electricity/construction know-how, Mom & Dad).
Big thanks to Danny Lorden for helping to organize the night. Also thanks to his daughters (pictured below is Julia and me) and to my friend Kari McDonald for the day-of jewelry hook-up; find out more about Kari by clicking here.
I ended the night with Tracy and Erin at Octane, drinking wine and having an "everything is possible" kind of night. Good times, good people, good conversation. Today, I've got a day off before heading back into the studio to keep on a-singing. Until next time, readers, enjoy the beginning of April!
Gregg, Jordan, Aaron and I had a blast playing The Abbey on Wednesday. Despite the random snow and cold, the show was great. Sometimes, certain shows feel a lot more cathartic than others. This was one of them. If there are such things as demons, I'm sure they were all exorcised in The Abbey. Ghostbusters, we are.
I'm back in the studio this weekend with John. Vocals are taking a long time to record. This is the first time we've ever worked hours on end, just to get one clean, honest track. The pay-off is of course wonderful, but the time spent is intense. Hence the reason this bottle of Dalwhinnie has made its way into our sessions.
I feel continuously blessed to be able to pursue music as a career and thank all of you for helping me make that happen. I hope you're all well. I'm looking forward to sharing these new tunes with you. -Em
It seems like this week has been universally rough. Japan is suffering from one of the biggest natural disasters in its history. The economy is headed back down in the United States as gas prices rise due to more trouble in the Middle East. In Madison, WI, the city is still in full-on protest mode. I went up there this weekend.
In times like these, I try to reign in the urge to get intense. Lately, I've been doing that by painting. I did 3 paintings this weekend, including this one. I'm trying to get at least 10 done before my first art show in Rockford on April 1st.
Meanwhile, John and I have been hard at work in the studio. Piano and drums are done and we've moved onto vocals. We're still not sure exactly how I'm going to sing this album, but we're getting closer.
John took a video of me from the control room. Apparently, when I play the piano intensely, I do the revolving-chicken-pecking-its-head dance. Because I wouldn't want you to miss the chance to see how ridiculous it is, I'm posting it. Click here to see (it was cold in there, hence the winter coat). Until next time, I hope you're all well.
This week I'm back in the studio, and also working on some art pieces. Over the weekend, I finished up a painting I'm donating to the Old Town School of Folk Music for their annual fundraiser/auction. I'm pretty excited about Mardi Gras tomorrow and am already listening to The Dirty Dozen Brass Band in anticipation. Hope you have a great Monday!
February is behind us, and I think most Chicagoans just breathed a collective sigh of relief. I spent the last day of February in Kingsize studio with John Abbey recording piano tracks for "Long Lost Ghosts," where I did a lot of looking into the guts of this Howard grand. We're about half done recording, and it looks like I'll have the same view through the beginning of March.
When I'm not recording, I've been painting and playing live shows. Last weekend, my family and I headed up to our cabin for the annual extended family reunion in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I played, we danced, and shot-skis were done by all. (If you're unfamiliar with the "shot-ski," reference the picture below).
I picked up some exciting shows for the Spring, and I'll be in touch with details. In the mean time, enjoy the impending spring and your week!
February was a blur of songwriting, painting, and recording. Drums are finally done on Long Lost Ghosts with the help of Darren Garvey, and the whole project is coming along better than even we expected. I've been too busy to even write, but keep checking back to hear and see the progress. In the mean time, stay warm out there.
Day one in the studio recording Long Lost Ghosts. John and I recorded all the songs with uke/vocals as scratch tracks. The hunt for the perfect sound/musicians begins...
Today, Hank and I are holed up in the new apartment, booking shows for 2011. Actually, I'm doing all the show booking. Hank is just looking out the window, growling at all of the dogs wearing those supposedly functional dog coats. I can't blame him. I'm not much of a fan of them either.
The first show of 2011 is next week at Chicago's Uncommon Ground. You have to call ahead to make a reservation, so be sure to do that. 773-929-3680. I'm on at 9 or 9:30. Looking forward to seeing you there!!
Happy New Year! The holidays were awesome, and I'm gearing up for recording my next album and can't wait. I'll keep you posted on how it's going. In the mean time, here's what happened to me over winter break.
I made 1000+ cookies with a stellar team of bakers. Unreal.
I ended up recording in North Branch Studio with Barry Phipps and Ryan Neuschafer on their original holiday musical, Tacoma Elf Storage (based around a night photograph that Barry took in Tacoma, WA of a Tacoma Self Storage unit the the "s" light burned out on the word "self"...hence, Tacoma Elf Storage was born). I played the part of the lady elf who missed her lover elf. We all had a blast. The project included Jon Langford and his son Tommy, Mark Janka, Tim Joyce, Margaret, Darren, Chris, and a whole slew of others.
I partied with beautiful women in my life.
The band and I had a band inspirational outing to see Ok Go, Switchfoot, and CAKE at the Eagle in Milwaukee.
I got to make the food this Christmas on my Mom's Swedish side of the family. It was a killer smorgas. We now have 4 generations in our family, which made the season pretty amazing.
Finally, I got a new apartment in Andersonville in Chicago. It's going to take a while to make it livable, but it's fun painting and making a place your own. I'll be working on it while I'm making my next record. I'm happy to have turned a page and look forward to 2011. Onward.
We made your holiday gift this Tuesday morning at North Branch Studio in Chicago. First we fueled up. Aerin (drums, vocals) looks like she's saying grace in this picture, but I think she's just overwhelmed by the food.
We started soundcheck around 10 am. It doesn't take much work to make the lovely Maria (fiddle, vocals) sound awesome. I think her sound check was all of 30 seconds.
Ben showed up and set up his camera. In this pic, I think he's having an oh-dear-god moment as he takes in just how little space he has to make the video happen. It was close quarters.
Final sound tweaks from Ryan. Charles (bass, guitar, vibraphone) busts out some funky dance moves masquerading as stretches. And we're rolling.
We got the tune the way we wanted it on the third take. We were all ready to stop at the second take, but Lindsay (guitar, vocals) nixed it, saying, "I'm a big believer in third takes, guys." Girl had a point.
We listened back, made some overdubs, drank coffee, and decided it was good. I hope you enjoy the tune and your season.
ONE NATION UNDER SKIES
"I am a star with no constellation. I've been alone, but I'll draw a line
Straight to your heart with no hesitation. If you're alone, we ought to combine.
Let's take a walk without an occasion. Let's take a walk because we have crawled.
I see we got the same invitation, and we showed up in time for it all.
One day all of our lonely lives are gonna walk in threes and fours and fives
Until we've grown into the size of one nation, under skies."
"Hand me the hand that wants to be taken. I've been alone, but I'll draw a line
Straight to your heart with no fear of breaking. If you're alone, we ought to combine.
I was your friend before conversation. I was your friend because some are gone.
I see we got the same invitation. You are the best thing that's going on.
One day all of our lonely lives are gonna walk in threes and fours and fives
Until we've grown into the size of one nation, under skies."
"If you're a star with no constellation. I've been alone, but I'll draw a line
Being with you is no consolation. Take up with me, and shape what we shine.
One day all of our lonely lives are gonna walk in threes and fours and fives
Until we've grown into the size of one nation, under skies."
If you are on the mailing list, you will be getting your holiday gift soon. We will be wrapping it up this week! If you are not on the mailing list, sign up now!
We played an awesome double bill last night with our good friends Starlite Radio. Thanks to everyone who came out! We all pre-partied before the show, starting out the night right with beer, pizza, and some sniffs (it's all you need) of the high-octane fruit juice that was gifted to me in North Carolina.
We loaded in and took some time to hang out with old friends. Great to see you guys!!
Music went on for 4 hours of back-to-back sets. The personal highlight of my night was Starlite Radio's version of the Flight of the Conchords song, "You're So Beautiful," as well as their unbelievable original tunes (two words: Annie's Trouble. Look for it on their website).
As is tradition after Rockford Illinois shows, we had a big breakfast the next morning. This morning's short order chef was Mr. Jeremy Seymour, who cooked through a busted finger, not to mention an early morning.
Thanks for everything friends! We had a great time. See you soon!
This past weekend we had a great tour of North Carolina, culminating with a huge barn concert. We performed down in the holler of a beautiful region in Advance. We started driving out East at sun-up...
We pulled into Wendell and Jensina Burton's place, which was way back in the woods, a private hideaway...
Loaded our gear into our cabin; Hank the dog provided hours of entertainment. Unfortunately, he also ate a bunch of bass bow rosin. He didn't seem to mind. A little pine tar never hurt anybody...
We rode the Burton's Mule over to the barn to check out the set up.
Which was AWESOME.
We spent the night with my Uncle Dave, Aunt Cathy, and more family and friends at the Wake Forest Football Stadium. We had an amazing meal, and got to hang out after-hours by the field. We considered streaking, but then thought better...
The next morning, the guys started practicing, and I started baking pumpkin cookies for the shin-dig...
We then got a lesson in pistol and rifle shooting. I'd never shot a gun before in my life. Click here for a video of what that was like for me...
I then got a tour of Alva Erickson's art gallery/home...
Finally we got around to playing the show. David Reavis got some great photos of the night; you can view a few of them by clicking here. When the show was over, we signed guitars (hi Matthew!) and cds, drank a little moonshine, sang around the fire, and even talked our friend Wendell into grabbing his harp.
The dogs, donkeys, goats, and chickens saw us off, with a car-load of Carolina wine, vegetables, and beautiful J.B. pottery. We had a great weekend and can't wait to come back for Burton-Fest 2011. Thanks to all of our new and old friends in North Carolina!
Where have I been, you ask? Well, I've been writing songs for the new band album. I'm still keeping up the solo work, though, and will be releasing my solo piano/vocal album this Christmas. Stay tuned...
Thanks to everyone for coming out to the block party last night and for your patience in dealing with the rushed set-up. Special thanks to Chris at Kryptonite for taking a big chance on the block party, Kelly Steward and friends, all the vendors, Mayor Morrissey, the super fans who drove in from the Quad Cities for the show, Bruce and Dave for all the hard work despite circumstances, and the Klarens...I love you long time!
We had an amazing time play for you on Thursday! Thanks so much, and we hope to see you again! Check out the pics below taken by the amazing Nate Laffan. Note: the first pic is from before the show, where Jordan is teaching us the very effective de-stressing technique of pretending to be a giant balloon about to deflate.
Well, this has definitely been a summer of intense writing for me. I just got back from having spent the entire summer away from computers, televisions, and media in general in the interest of writing in a clear space. Best decision I've made in a while. Now I'm in Illinois practicing with the band for some upcoming shows. Here are a few pictures of my Top 10 memories of the summer of 2010 thus far:
10) Maryland Crabs, which I got in exchange for a CD
9) The Montauk Lighthouse in NY; I cried my eyes out at the Shipwreck Museum inside
8) Provincetown, MA, just in general, is an amazing place where strange ideas that could never work anywhere else in the world just seem to make sense.
7) Finding osprey nests...EVERYWHERE
6) Writing on the ocean
5) Walking the breakers of Cape Cod
4) Learning how to clam, then making chowders, steamers, etc.
3) Catching up with old friends; this is Sarah, who took me on my big kayak adventure.
Several friends have asked me in the past how I write songs. I've never been great at explaining it. I sit down with an instrument and play until a song falls out. Specific, no?
Having spent so much time writing this summer, I'm starting to understand the process a bit better. Here's the thing: to write a good song, you have to get a kick out of what you're doing. If you sit down with the intention of writing a song, that's all well and good. But don't commit to writing a tune until you've found a motif or phrase that you really really love. I mean really love. Like, you should chortle aloud to yourself at how much you enjoy that piece. Then use that piece to write the rest. Writing a song is like entering into a relationship: you have to find great joy in being with the tune initially before you'll naturally commit more of yourself to it. Nobody likes to spend hours with things they don't like, right? So. Find a good line, fall in love, and roll with it.
I'm staying at this motel in Buzzard's Bay. The guy who runs the place has a nephew who's a musician, and he and I got to talking about the music industry. He basically said that it's almost impossible to "make it" in music anymore. I left the lobby, a little crest fallen.
When I got back to my room, I read a blog from one of my favorite writers and businessmen, Derek Sivers, reminding all of his readers the importance of artists. I felt good.
Two minutes later I got a phone call from one of the labels I've been pursuing, telling me they weren't interested in buying "Daytime Fireflies;" it's just not the music they like. Feeling low.
I went to drown my sorrows in a bowl of hot soup from the Asian joint on the main drag. I got a fortune cookie. The paper inside said, "Stay determined, and you will get through this." I was on top of the world.
The moral of this story is: ignore what everybody says. Nothing will line up if you do, plus you'll get emotionally dizzy. When I got back to my motel last night, I turned off my phone, and wrote a great song. Sometimes it pays to be a bad listener.
I'm not sure what it is about being away that makes us more creative. But for whatever reasons, I've had an incredibly productive time songwriting on the East Coast these past few weeks. Maybe it's the salt air. Or the ocean views. Or how the people out here warsh their cahs over cahfee.
I finally got over my sickness and got to spend a good 4th of July with my friends Sarah, Britt, and David. Sarah and I got out on the Bass River kayaking, which was fairly death-defying considering the amount of boat traffic we saw. Still, we managed not to get hit by any drunk yacht-drivers, and we had a great 4-hour paddle. The kayak outfitters warned us that if we went too far, we would end up in Portugal. And oddly enough, that's exactly what happened. So here I am. Writing you from Portugal....no, no, not really. Did I have you going?
Yesterday I wrote all day and today is shaping up to be the same. I had lunch with my cousin Mike in Boston and now I'm back to ukulele land. Hope you are all staying cool and enjoying the summer.
Well, I'm sick and takin er easy in a hotel in Connecticut. Going to sleep before 8 pm; very rock and roll. Have a great holiday weekend!
My cousin Joan gave me just about the best stay in Long Island a person could ask for. She is one of the most spunky, warm, and beautiful people I've had the pleasure to meet, much less be related to. Joan, if you're reading this, thank you for everything; I had a beautiful and productive time.
I wrote a lot of songs in the last few days and spent yesterday getting a few recorded. I just can't seem to write enough. Off to write more...
I made it safe to Long Island to stay with my cousin Joan. Today's blog comes from Victoria Livers, age 9, who wrote into the editor of the Rockford Register Star on behalf of fireflies. I thought it was fitting to pass it on. My Mom forwarded the piece onto me:
I've got no time to blog, but I'm in Philadelphia, and I'm loving it. LOVING IT! The music, the people, the art...how have I not been here before???!!! There's a really cool sound coming out of Philly...kind of old school rhythms meeting new school production. More soon...
I left Princeton at 4:30 am for Saratoga Springs. I had a great radio spot with Chris McGill at WSPN, played some songs from "Fireflies" plus a few news ones, then we hit lunch. Later, I stopped in Woodstock (THE Woodstock) to check out some venues. It was a trip. Literally. I may dream in tie-dye.
I'm now curled up with the new Rolling Stone ("Top 500 songs of All Time" issue), writing music, and thinking I may fall asleep before I finish writing this. Until tomorrow...
I just played a quick set at the Princeton Arts Council. Thanks again to John Irving for keeping alive a great series (it's been going since the 1920's). I am now eating ice cream for dinner and am about to hit the hay early before driving to Saratoga Springs tomorrow morning. It's a beautiful drive; can't wait. Thanks for the memorable stay, New Jersey.
St. Michaels, Maryland is gorgeous. Last night Andru and I brought a banjo and a ukulele into a local pub and where a local rock cover band was playing. They let us play, and the crowd loved it. We are now major celebrities!...to about 15 people. But still!
Today I woke up, wrote 2 songs, and sat at the marina watching sailboats. A guy selling steamed blue crabs gave me some in exchange for a cd, and now I'm heading out to find a place to swim. Not a bad day off.
House concerts are still by far some of the greatest concerts to play. Last night's house concert (actually, it was a back porch concert) at Laura's house in Princeton was great. Think lightning bugs, grilled food, wine, kids and hoses, and lots of sing-a-longs. I heard the song "16 Tons" sung in Polish, "The Water Is Wide" sung by 3 adorable kids who learned it at piano camp, and "Scotch and Soda" from a talented gentleman who used to sing with the actual Kingston Trio. Little night of paradise.
Today, Andru and I woke up, drank coffee, and repaired things. Right now, Andru is tuning Laura's piano, and I just got done fixing the broken handle on his violin case with a lot of wire and patience. We were invited to stay in Laura's holiday get-a-way home in St. Michaels, Maryland, which is where we're headed this afternoon. I've never been, but I don't play another show until Saturday, so we'll be relaxing and songwriting in Maryland for the next 2 days...
I just got to Princeton. This place is fantastic. I'm stopping for a cup of tea before hitting a house concert at my friend Laura's house tonight. Andru Bemis will be there too. I expect this night to be wonderful.
Not having a car stereo has proven to be amazing for not only songwriting in the car but also for thinking things over with intention. I forget sometimes how much I do without intention. And listening to music doesn't need to be "background" to my thoughts; that doesn't respect the music or my thoughts. Having time without music in the background has made me listen to it a lot more carefully when it's in the forefront. Interesting how that works...
I love the Rosendale Cafe. Nuff said. Thank you to Wayne, Bob, Melissa, Tony, and all for a fun night and great wine. Also, check out Dina Peone and her sis Angie. Their band is called Coyote Remedy. I got to talk to Dina for a long time tonight. The girl has survived a massive burn (68% of her body), but is about as the most beautiful person I've come across in a while. Talk about perspective. You go, Dina.
I made it to Youngstown. I had stopped in Chicago this morning to get a cup of coffee with my friend Sara, which turned into tacos and beer at a really cool place called Big Star in the old Pontiac building. I took a fast walk around Erkhart park with my cousin Molly and then drove for the past 8 hours, playing my ukulele the whole time (remember I now have no car stereo).
Overall human interactions today were above average. This morning in Chicago, the barista at Starbucks and I got to talking. She told me she was a former band manager. So I clearly gave her a cd. She gave me coupons for 2 free Starbucks drinks. Are they allowed to do this at Starbucks? I don't know; I'm sure it happens all the time. But I'm going to pretend it was a huge anomaly and that the girl was breaking some major corporate rule, just for me.
Tomorrow I hit Rosendale...
I'm gearing up today for some shows on the East Coast over the next few weeks. I finally stepped away from the piano and am packing my bags at my parents' house, where I am tonight. Today is Father's Day, and so tonight Dad and I will probably eat ice cream for dinner. Hooray! I know we don't NEED holidays in order to celebrate, but it's sometimes nice to have an arbitrary reason.
This last big drive that I made across the country was absurd in so many ways. First off, I got pulled over in Nebraska by a state trooper for drinking and driving. True story. I made a huge batch of iced green tea before I left, and I couldn't fit all of it in my Nalgene bottle. The only other container I had was an empty bottle of red wine, so I got a funnel and poured the rest of the tea in the wine bottle. The cop had seen me slugging fluid directly out of the wine bottle as I passed him, and so he clearly pulled me over. Of course, I didn't get a ticket, but he did encourage me not to reuse empty alcohol bottles in the future. Amen, state trooper...amen.
Next, the car stereo blew out, unexpectedly. I know it's nice to have "quiet time," but 9 hours of silence in the car was brutal. I told my Dad about the broken radio, and he called Subaru, who said it would cost $500 to fix, so essentially, repairing the stereo is going to fall into the "notgonnahappenanytimesoon" category. Because I'm going to be in the car so much over the next few weeks, today Dad rigged up an old boom box in the passenger seat (this is why we celebrate Dads!). I may bust out a few of my old-school albums to take with me. Since I'll be rocking a boom box, it seems appropriate.
Back to the drive. Finally, there was the Weather (with a capital "W"). The sky turned green just before Des Moines and the clouds started looking like an impressionist painting of clouds. Without a radio, I had no way of knowing if the weather service was issuing any kind of storm warnings. But I actually found out soon enough. A couple of minutes later, I drove UNDERNEATH a funnel cloud. I've never seen anything quite like it. There was no where to pull over legitimately until I got to Little Amana in Iowa, where I waited out the storm at Wasserbahn, some crazy indoor waterpark. It was surreal to go from the actual storm outside to a bunch of soaking wet kids screaming and jumping from waterslides inside.
And thus begins my trip. What a way to start...
Folks I'm still just pouring myself into writing; I'll be back in touch once I come up for air.
Barely anytime to write...got to go with the creativity when it's there. See you soon!
Sorry for the long hiatus, readers. So much has happened over the last couple weeks, and I've been a little overwhelmed. Rest assured, I'm back on-line.
Top 3 interesting things that have happened in the last 2 weeks:
- I played a great show in Iowa; what fantastic artists there are at the Bucktown Center for the Arts in downtown Davenport. Thanks to my new bud Lojo Russo and the whole gang at Venus Envy for making that such a wonderful night.
- I am undergoing traction for my neck. The device they hook me up to is a little medieval. They essentially strap my head and chin and arms onto this table, then they pull apart my bones with 20 lbs of weight. Sounds torturous, but it is really helping to relieve the pain from the herniated disc.
- I bought a Yamaha Audio Gram that is going to help me do more demo work from home. I LOVE LOVE LOVE it. Plus it's just fun having a new gadget to figure out.
See you back here tomorrow!
Let me sum this up for you in pictures.
The day before the album was released, Jillian Hicks (fiddle, banjo, vocals) came down to practice and hang out. Between late night music, early morning saunas, mid-afternoon hard boiled eggs fests, and Christmas light decorating extravaganzas, we had an unbelievable time. Here she is when we went to get money for the show at the Chase bank, where I told her she blended right in.
We got over to the warehouse and started setting up chairs, stage, lights, etc.
Randy Lyttle ran sound and did an amazing job. Sound check happened in all of 5 minutes, and then we did a fast change while people took their seats.
Damion and Brent from Mana Kintorso did a nice job opening up the night. Really good writers.
We loved playing this show! The place was packed, and the crowd was fantastic.
Post show found us loopy and me continuing to be made fun of for purchasing corn relish as part of our green room snacks.
Ben Chandler took great video footage of the night that we'll post here soon. In the mean time, here is his nose.
Sara Watts and Kari McDonald ran a top-notch merch table. And they looked darn good doing it!
The end of the night wound down slowly. We had a slumber party that resulted in eating about 40 slices of pizza and killing the rest of the Bell's beer before hitting the hay.
Thank you for coming out! If you couldn't make it, we hope to see you next time!
Today's spot on Fearless Radio was great. I got to talk to Kris, one of the more personable, beautiful women I've come across. We spent more time talking about Rod Blagojevich than we did about my music, but that's the kind of interview I like. I'm going to hit the hay early to get ready for tomorrow, when one of my dearest friends, the lovely Jillian Hicks, comes into town to play some music with me. Can't wait!!
Last night's practice with Ben was great; stellar player, hell of a nice guy.
The closer I get to releasing this cd, the more fearful I become, because frankly, nothing has been going the way that I had originally planned. I'd tell you about all the little ways this is true, but sufficed to say, nothing has been happening the way I had hoped. But them's the breaks with everything. We plan and contrive and work to make everything fit our agenda, and then when the plan falls apart, we're flummoxed. If we can remove the agenda, though, it seems like everything still manages to fall into place, albeit not in the fashion we had hoped. Fancy that. Deep thoughts, by Emily Hurd.
Tomorrow (5/19) I'll be on Fearless Radio in Chicago at 5 pm CST. Listen by going to http://www.fearlessradio.com/cms/
I finally started reading The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron; my friend Anne O'Keefe and I are doing it together. The first page of text contains the quote, "Leap, and the net will appear." N-I-C-E. I'm going to walk around with that phrase in mind on Tuesday. I'll let you know how it goes on Tuesday night. Sleep tight.
Today I mailed out more cds to independent radio stations in the hopes of getting air-play. When I got finished, I headed to the grocery store to buy groceries for my friend Meaghan's birthday dinner tonight. Being low on funds, I strolled through the produce department, picking up a variety of discount citrus fruits and berries, before making my way to the fish department to see what they had on sale. When I got to the fish section, the guy working behind the counter and I had the following exchange:
FISH GUY: Can I help you?
ME: Not quite ready.
(Two Minutes Later)
FISH GUY: Are you ready?
ME: Still deliberating.
FISH GUY: Ooo. Big Word. Are you a lawyer?
ME: Nope, musician.
FISH GUY: Like, a singer/songwriter?
FISH GUY: So you mean, "unemployed."
Those of you who know me understand that I have a tendency to narrate my life to myself as I go along, so at this point in my exchange with the fish guy, I played out a little scenario in my mind, where I picked up one of my lemons and chucked it at his head. Satisfying reverie. Instead, I walked away, content with the mental lemon pelting I gave that guy.
If you're reading this and you're the kind of person who believes us singer/songwriter sorts to be unemployed, let me tell you: this is the hardest job I've ever had, and I've had a lot. I've been a teacher, a pastry chef, an events coordinator, and several other small jobs in between. No job has consumed more of my time and energy than this one. We may be getting paid squat, but that does not mean us songwriters are not working. Just something to consider.
I'm traveling tomorrow and the next day, so I may not be blogging through the weekend. If I don't, I'll catch you all on Monday.
I fired up the Weber last night for Meaghan's birthday and I grilled out an assortment of meats and vegetables. Grilling out never gets old for me. I paired yesterday's grill-out with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings' 2007 album "100 Days, 100 Nights." This album has everything I love about soul music: tight horn sections, big vintage grooves, and even bigger female vocals. Sharon Jones doesn't hold back; if she's singing, she's singing. It's a different kind of soul sound, Sharon's. She uses her voice not to seduce, but to proclaim. Her vocals are strong, defiant, bold, and independent, and her messages are so empowering. What Mahalia Jackson was to gospel, Sharon Jones is to indie rock. The way she sings elevates the message of of her music, giving new meaning to the genre as a whole. She's got a fresh album out: "I Learned The Hard Way." Give it a listen.
Well I'm considering doing some podcasts. That's right, podcasts....I figure it's time. So I joined a podcasting club, and I went to my first meeting tonight. I had no idea how many people were podcasting and how much there is to know about it. (Podcasters who are reading this blog are probably shaking their heads after reading that last sentence). I got a chance to talk to several people about their favorite mp3 recorders, microphones, headsets, and tracking software; God I love talking to audio people. Anyway, driving home from the meeting, I reflected on the night.
It's awesome to divert your attention, even for just an hour or two, on learning something new. That's an obvious statement, but it's a good reminder. When we're beating our heads against the wall at our day jobs, and when the hobbies that usually fulfill our creative needs cease to move us, why not change it up? The worst thing that could happen is that we decide the new activity isn't for us. But at least we've had a new experience, and that alone can fuel our happiness in our normal pursuits.
Today I made a flourless cake for my friend's birthday tomorrow, and I paired my baking experience with Rachael Davis' 2008 album "Antebellum Queens." This album is smooth, strong, and robust, but still captures the inherent sweetness of Rachael's personality, which comes blaring through in her vocal performance and lyrics. Rachael has been lumped into the "folk" genre for her songwriting style and instrumentation, but in all honesty, she could out-jazz the world's best soul singers vocally. She has so much finesse in her voice, which she plays almost like a bowed instrument, phrasing each line she sings in long, perfectly controlled segments of memorable melodies and tonalities. The timbre of her voice is unmistakably unique, a fact that is showcased heavily in her 2008 album. Check it out.
Today was all about press releases for Emily Hurd. Never has it been easy for Hurd to write about herself in the third person, so she is using her blog as practice. It always feels a little slimy and awkward to speak this way, since it's essentially just another form of self-promotion, and it's just uncomfortable. Plus it's so formal. What she wishes she could write if she were being honest is, "Emily Hurd thinks this album is really really original and awesome and she thinks you just gotta come to the show because it's going to be a super amazing time and you'll have so much fun!!!!!"
Instead, here are the first 2 paragraphs of what she came up with:
"Notorious across the U.S. for her signature soul music, Emily Hurd takes a genre-defying leap in her latest album Daytime Fireflies. The performing songwriter and Rockford native’s 6th album of original material revolves around rich string quartet arrangements, memorable piano motifs, and Hurd’s emotive vocals. She will release the album at the Brewhouse in downtown Rockford on Friday, May 21, 2010 at 7:30 pm.
Hurd is calling Fireflies a combination “chamber pop” and “indie rock” music. Produced and engineered by John Abbey in Chicago, the album features lo-fi mic techniques, precise percussion, melodic bass lines, dirty-sounding acoustic piano, and of course, the swelling string quartet, which gives the album its stirring and up-lifting vibe. Fireflies took over 3 years to complete, and Hurd and her band are extremely satisfied with the finished product. “We’re so proud of how we captured these songs,” Hurd says. “We can’t wait to share them.”"
Not as honest sounding, is it?
Today Emily made a cheap salad of black eyed peas, roasted corn, cilantro, onion, carrot, lime juice, and olive oil. A surprisingly harmonious blend of ingredients, she paired them with David Rawlings' 2009 album "A Friend Of A Friend." This album has harmonies so tight and in-tune that you almost forget there are 4 people singing at the same time; the parts become indistinguishable from each other. The songs are beautiful, but the arrangements steal the show. The tune "Ruby" has a gentle anthemic quality to it, and "Method Acting/Cortez The Killer" is a heart-breaking rendition of two of Rawlings' fellow songwriters' works, put together in a sweeping but paired down sonic landscape that just takes your breath away. Rawlings's vocal and guitar phrasing is as tasteful as it gets, and this album gets better every time Hurd hears it.
I blog a lot about all the different hats DIY musicians have to wear. After my doctor's appointment this morning, I headed into Chicago to hang posters announcing the album release. I started thinking about all the different jobs I've had this week, and my thoughts wandered onto Dick Van Dyke's character in Mary Poppins. You know, the guy who changes jobs a lot? Well anyway, he sings this song "Chim Chim Cheree" on the day he's a chimney sweep, and the first verse is something like, "Well today I'm a sweep, and as you can see, a sweep is as lucky, as lucky can be." Hell of a catchy melody. I found myself humming a lot to myself to the same tune, only the words were, "Well, today I'm my street team...."
If this is your first time reading my blog, you have at this point learned: I am not yet a rock star.
I may not get a chance to blog much over the next few days because I'll be in transit, but I'll see what I can do. Until then, I hope you're all enjoying whatever it is you are today.
Cinco de Mayo. The holiday that celebrates Mexico's defeat of the French in the 19th century, and the holiday that we use as an excuse to drink margaritas and rejoice in the overall heritage of everything Mexican, which, to many of us, is limited to what we order at the local Mexican restaurant.
I went out today and got a surprising amount done, and then grabbed a glass of wine with Sara. Tonight, my late night goal was to learn a little more about some of the historical figures of Mexico; I only know about 10 off the top of my head, and I found that to be a number much lower than I'd like it to be. Here are my top 10 favorite Mexican historical figures that I didn't know before tonight; click on their name to go to their corresponding Wikipedia page:
10) Diego Luna
4) La Malinche
3) Pita Amor
1) Mario Molina
If any of these people are new to you, happy learning. If not, sleep tight until tomorrow. I've got a big day and need some shut eye.
One of the features every musician has on-line access to--every day, all the time--is how "well" we are doing, statistically speaking. Lucky us...sort of. The general state of the Emily Hurd brand's value is called "band equity," which is given to me as a number. I am then given that number by various on-line companies daily. Let me tell you the exact definition of band equity as I've been given it by one of these services:
"This is an overall measurement of your influence as an Artist. Use it as a way to understand how your online marketing and promotions are performing. The Band Equity Score describes the relative value of your aggregate fan relationships at any given point in time. We measure the breadth (number of fan relationships), the depth (level of influence you have), and the access (ability to reach them) that you have as an Artist. It is important to note that the score is limited by how much we know about your fan relationships. Using more of our tools, like our free email system, Widgets, and Facebook applications, will give us a better visibility into your influence and a more accurate score."
Self-employed musicians are small business owners and entrepreneurs in their field, so I do understand--from the business standpoint--why this information is highly useful. When waging a marketing campaign, it's important to determine what work can be done in order to bolster the on-line connecting of potential customers to your product. You can see which marketing tools drive hits to your sites on any given day, and then learn how to better use those tools to reach more people. So from that standpoint, band equity information is useful.
But honestly, these numbers are not to be taken so to heart. If you're reading this and you're a musician who has ever struggled with being told you are or aren't keeping up your band equity, don't worry. Most of the services who are telling you how well you're doing on-line have no idea how well you're doing off-line, not to mention the fact that the majority of these on-line services won't be around in 5 years. If they can't keep themselves running, can you really believe everything they say about how you should run yourself? All these organizations really want is to make you feel like you will never be worth enough until you get their widgets. Bottom-line: if you're making some good music, making some money from it, and keeping/getting more fans, try not to let the numbers frighten you. It's taken me a few years to get here, but I can truly say the numbers mean less and less as time goes by.
Today, the value of the Emily Hurd brand (my band equity score) was at 66. I believe that to be low, which is strange, because today I was blogged about by a fellow musician (click here), drank my first Arnold Palmer of the season, had a great surprise encounter with my dear friend Anne O'Keefe, made $50 on CdBaby, visited my Grandma, played the piano for hours, walked the river bank smelling lilacs, came to my parents house to find the electricity out, which gave my dad and I a couple of hours of random conversation on the back porch. Oh and I had an perfectly ripe avocado for dinner. 66...my eye.
I haven't been able to cook much over the last few weeks, but today at lunch, I had a mess of crackers and dips, and I paired it with The Hold Steady's new album "Heaven Is Whenever." I liked the combo. This album is lyrically strong, and the songs are simple in a Bob Mould way and rocking in a Rolling Stones way and country in a Dwight Yoakam way. The band sounds raw for a seasoned group, a good sign that the fame isn't detracting from the way they view music. The album has a strong vibe that runs throughout, and the energy stays up without being false: a classic Hold Steady quality that I continue to admire.
"Squatting in the margin" is one of my Mom's favorite expressions; I think she coined it. I thought about it a lot driving home from band practice tonight.
Most Americans would probably say I lead a pretty marginal existence. I don't own very much; all of my furniture was free on Craigslist, and my cooking supplies were gifts from family and friends when I went to Culinary School. I don't own a television, or microwave, or cd player, or iPod. I'm transient enough that I don't really feel like any place is my specific "home" anymore; half of my year is spent traveling. Still, sometimes even I feel trapped. And restless. There is something both comforting and terrifying in owning things, in having career responsibilities, in keeping up relationships, in just about everything that makes us feel accountable. Today is one of those days of my year I wish I weren't accountable to anything. While I know there are few ways around our responsibilities, tonight is a night that I will be going to sleep thinking about what I would take off and do right now if I were responsible for nothing. Off the top of my head, I would commit to a year of:
1) Skippering a seafaring sail boat
2) Moving into a mountain town, a small one, and getting to know myself and my community
3) Learning Swedish...in Sweden
4) Studying music modes, instruments, and tunings in Asian countries
5) Getting a pilots license and working as a tour guide
6) Studying Eastern medicines and healing practices
7) Taking dance lessons from a hip-hop guru
8) Reading...anything I wanted...as much as I wanted
9) Researching under a marine biologist
10) Baking in a french patisserie
11) Performing music on streets in the UK
12) Working on the clean-up crew of a National Park
13) Building a soap box car
14) Acting as a ranch hand in North or South America
15) Hunting mushrooms
16) Harvesting orchard fruit
17) Acting in a traveling theatre company
18) Working as a podcaster in New York City
19) Arranging a symphony
20) Organizing the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Well that was a satisfying 10 minute day dream. Tomorrow morning I'll be back to the grind stone, but once in a while, it's nice to fantasize. Sleep tight.
My favorite fruit is the watermelon. Hands down. No contest. I could eat it everyday and not be sick of it. And yet, I don't expect to find watermelons at Sunflower Market in January. They aren't in season in January. And if I did get one in January, I know it wouldn't taste as delicious as a local melon that was allowed to sit out in the sun all summer long before it was picked and delivered to the store a few days later. The fact that I can't purchase watermelons in January doesn't change my loyalty to Sunflower Market. Not one bit. I just know that the store can only provide what's best at that season. And thank heavens for that, because I wouldn't want to get a product of inferior quality.
I'm getting a good deal of flack from fans about Daytime Fireflies, but here's the deal: I had to produce what was in season. Once I start forcing the creative process to fit the needs of others, I'm going to be making products of inferior quality. That's all there is to it. If I could grow beautifully crafted soul songs in my head every day to lovingly deliver to fans year-round, believe you me, I would. But the seeds I was given instead were to make fresh, ripe, indie chamber music, and so that's what I have to sell. Maybe the next growing season will yield a bombastic blues album, but until then, I have to go with what's natural.
Today I got up and walked outside for the first time all week. My neck is feeling slightly better after spending the whole week down, so I finally got around to making dinner for my Dad for his 65th birthday. I made seared duck with raspberry sauce, rosemary potatoes, and garlic arugula. I hummed my way through Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" album while cooking. This album is one of my favorites of all time, and I almost always have it in my head, particularly the riff from "Jesus, etc." This album is the quintessential example of a songwriter casting off the genre that defined his success in the interest of making something that moved him. The album feels complex, simple, sweet, sour, dark, and light all at the same time. I feel it is as complete as an album can be, and I love to revisit it. It pairs well with just about anything, but it felt particularly good to sing tonight.
Saturday night. Watching the Kentucky Derby, still pretty immobile. Can hardly wait to get back to the piano. I'm hoping I'm on the mend...
Muscle relaxers, Vicodin, and anti-inflammatories to the rescue! (Sort of...is it just me, or does Vicodin mess with your head?) Still down for the count, but keeping my spirits high.
I threw out my neck this morning...again. This afternoon's x-Rays have shown that I'm way out of alignment. Who knew musicianing was so high-risk...
A good friend of mine recently asked me to sign her petition, recommending that local politicians support their district's independent radio stations. Additionally, she asked me to write a short letter, explaining the value of independent radio to me. She provided me with some lovely sentences to use, in case I couldn't come up with anything on my own, but it wasn't necessary; I believe in the importance of independent radio.
If you're not on a label, it's next to impossible get on-air. Big businesses still control the majority of the air waves, particularly on the upper end of the dial. But what good does showcasing national bands do to promote the local underground scene, to help the talented musicians who actually NEED the exposure? Nothing, of course. Even though it would be nice to support the musician who needs the help and who is undiscovered, there's no money in it, so there's little point in bothering to spin their tunes until their band "breaks." Or at least there's no IMMEDIATE money.
Politicians who don't see the monetary benefit to supporting independent radio are as short-sighted as the major stations who won't take submissions from smaller acts. Media organizations who are forward-looking understand the correlation between having a vested interest in their city's long term economic and lifestyle vitality and supporting local arts organizations. Essentially, wise politicians and city planners make decisions that will appeal to the city's creative class (a term I first heard coined by Richard Florida). In the broadest sense, these are the individuals and organizations who will most inspire and sustain the city’s appeal, both today and into the future. The creative class is comprised of those people who are on the cutting edge of technology, education, and artistic movements. That means that they enjoy finding NEW music through whatever outlets they can. Cities with independent/college radio tend to retain their creative class, giving them access to the information and music that moves them. Cities that do away with that radio lose their creative class to more artistically tolerant and locally-minded areas, taking all their disposable income with them.
Just tonight I listened to my friend Chris McGarry, an unsigned Americana artist with old-time twang and new-time lyrics, on KGNU, a Colorado independent station. I was so excited to hear him on-air. There is something so powerful in a community's ability to showcase their local talent; it gives me hope that we are not as helpless as we appear in regards to our arts. I cooked while I listened to the program; I made a gigantic chard, cheddar, and egg omelet. It was a great food/music experience. Chris just released a new album "And The Weary Eyes Reply," and the songs are as salt of the earth as you can get. Hearty writing with simple instrumentation. The album has more than a touch of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle running through it, but the vocal delivery is all Chris. Big imagery, Chris's lyrics paint pictures so clear that I can almost see, smell, and hear the Wisconsin streets, bars, and rivers of his hometown. You can listen to him here.
I called Sara, one of my oldest, dearest, and best friends, to wish her a happy birthday. What started out as a 2 minute birthday serenade quickly became an hour's worth of talking. We can chat like there's no tomorrow. She's such a wonderful inspiration to me, and I feel damned lucky to know her. Big talent, big heart, big smile, and I'm her biggest fan. And so today's blog, I dedicate to her.
Sara and I met when we were kids, and then had the good fortune to go be in the same school program from 6th grade on. What made it even better was that in the summer of 7th grade, my family moved a few houses down from hers. It's every kid's dream to wind up living next to their best friend, and we were definitely living the dream. Endless hours of walking through dredged out ponds, sledding, ping-pong playing, TPing...what can I say: GOLDEN YEARS. Post-college found us both back in Chicago, armed with our dogs, who are, of course, best friends.
What really sets Sara apart from other folks is how easy she makes it for people to be themselves. She loved me for all the things I loved, and as a kid, that can make all the difference between confidence and awkwardness. Sara was like an ace up your sleeve when peer pressure got heavy. You played D&D? No worries; Sara was down with that. You wanted to pierce your butt cheeks? Cool by Sara. I loved cooking extravagant French meals, singing R&B and show tunes, working with wood and building furniture, dancing (horribly), and playing board games. Sara thought that was just ducky. And you know, she's never faltered in her ability to be supportive. Today, she was the very first person (that wasn't a blood relative) to take the time to truly say positive things about my new album.
Sara's starting a master's program next week, and I'm of course wildly proud of her. But the reasons I love her have little to do with her accomplishments, and more to do with what inspires her. She loves horses, devastatingly good wine, live theatre, dog parks, Dave Matthews, her family, God, and volleyball. The girl has always stayed true to what moves her, and that makes me remember the importance of being true to myself.
So happy birthday, you brilliant and beautiful lady. I'm so grateful to know you. Thanks for keeping us both true originals. Or as outsiders like to call us...."special."
It was obvious to everybody else in the audience at last night's Dr. Dog show that it was 4/20, which of course meant a celebration of all things marijuana. It didn't dawn on me until I was experiencing a contact high from all the pot-smokers in the balcony. What a Tuesday.
Dr. Dog puts on a great show. The band is about as high energy as they come (every one of those guys was dripping in sweat by the end of the night), but none of the musicality was lost. Very very inspiring. I listened to them all day today whilst mailing out CDs to music bloggers and radio stations. The 2008 "Fate" album was great, but I like their latest, "Shame Shame." Tonight I listened to this 2010 album, concurrently with making salmon patty melts (salmon burger, roasted garlic, spinach, melted cheese, toast). Such a great pairing. Atypical components with classic delivery, the record takes the band's 60's rock-influenced vibe and twists it into a hot, harmonious, crisp blend of sounds that are as alternative as it gets. With memorable vocals, fast hooks, and great grooves, this band is going to be one of the top festival bands of all times. Mark my words.
I woke up this morning a little late and took a radio shower (there's a radio in my shower with the dial set to NPR). The news was about Katie Spotz, the youngest person to ever row across the Atlantic Ocean. She's 22. Just loaded up her iPods and packed half a million calories worth of freeze dried food, and left. Oh, and she raised $70,000, which will be used to raise awareness on the importance of providing every human with fresh drinking water. U-N-B-E-L-I-E-V-E-A-B-L-E.
Stories like these are so inspiring. I think we often forget to be our own heroes. We watch people doing amazing things, and sometimes, we get up the gumption to be amazing to ourselves, but all too often, we leave the heroism to others. And that's all fine and well. But once in a while, it's us we should believe in, at least enough to go out on a limb and inspire ourselves. Armed with the fresh perspective, I've worked extra hard on my music career today, mailing cds, writing emails, and banging on the ol' 88.
Tonight, I'm boiling my dinner. Shrimp and whole potatoes were on sale at the grocery store, so I added some Old Bay Seasoning to a pot of water on the stove, and I'm going to town. I've always loved peeling shrimp, for as long as I can remember. I paired this whole experience with 2009's release of "The Very Best Of Mississippi John Hurt." With all the effects we add on music today to make it sound lo-fi and old-timey, it's great to listen to the real deal. The album features Hurt and his guitar, and the potency of that easy-going voice and that twangy guitar is remarkable. Songs like "Stack O' Lee" and "Spike Driver Blues" make me harken back to days I never lived through; that's how vivid the imagery and performance is. The whole collection feels like a hot summer day, complete with lazy winds, beads of sweat on foreheads, and dusty fields. I believe every word out of this man's mouth, and that's something I don't say often. Love these tunes.
This weekend, we went to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for a get-a-way. The hot springs and vapor caves wreak of sulphur, and I still smell a bit like a rotten egg, but I'm as mellow as ever. Other highlights of the weekend include Rio margaritas and a rick-shaw ride with my friends Scott and Meaghan, and a trip to Marble (population, 85). Hunter S. Thompson lived in Marble, and it's no wonder why: it's absolutely stunning, free of commercialism, and has all the charm and good heartedness of Cicely, Alaska (a la "Northern Exposure").
Today I'm riding the high of not being overly tied into the commercial aspects of the music business. The actual album came in last Thursday to my parents' house in Rockford, Illinois. Today, the albums are getting mailed out to the fan base who contributed to it. NOWHERE in the making of the album (or now in its distribution) have I had anyone tell me this album needs to be something that it isn't. Being dirt poor is rough, but not answering to anybody is bloody excellent.
This afternoon, I'm using my 3 nearly rotten bananas to make banana bread, and I'm baking to Vetiver's "Tight Knit" album from 2009. This album feels like I've heard it before, in a good way. The songs feel remarkably universal. Most tracks fall somewhere on the happy spectrum, from calm to exuberant. Beautiful from start to finish, the album sets a sweet mood, not unlike early Simon and Garfunkel. They call themselves a "folk" band, but the true genre seems to fall somewhere between indie rock and ambient roots music. Worth a listen.
Yesterday was spent at the piano; today, the ukulele. I still don't play the little bugger too well but I can write on it like no tomorrow. Tomorrow morning, it's undergoing a surgery. My friend Aaron is installing a pick-up. I thought I'd play it one last time before it officially becomes an electric/acoustic instrument.
Today my musical inspiration is Linda Lyndell's version of "What A Man," released in 1968 on Stax Records. I've been listening to it on repeat while making dinner, which is a mean crunchy salad made with all of my comfort vegetables: avocados, roasted corn, olives, etc. What a great combination. This woman has all the bite of the very best women in soul music, but she's got a hearty richness in her vocals that makes her presentation more inviting than showy. Like Susan Tedeschi, Linda takes soul music and gives it that "sing it with me now" spin, making listeners want to move with her. In short, she inspires others while she empowers herself, which is a wonderful quality in a musician.
After a long weekend of biking, I sat down (gingerly) at the piano this morning, and I didn't leave all day. I can't say that I wrote my most glorious music, but there's something good in the making of music, no matter the result.
Last night, I went to town on dinner. Whole trout stuffed with many kinds of sauteed mushrooms and onions then wrapped in parchment paper, served en papillote with dirty rice and young pea shoots. Killer. Paired it with Greg Brown's "In The Dark With You" album. Dear God, I love this album. If the Midwest were to choose a voice to represent its people, it would be Greg Brown. Equal parts homespun and worldly, "In The Dark With You" takes muddy subjects and wraps them up into clean, deeply moving tunes, easily accessible to just about anybody. This album is a reminder that it's the simple stuff that often makes up the most potent art.
So this morning I'm attempting to play along with Rodrigo y Gabriela's "11:11" album. I don't care what anybody says: the truth is, there's nothing better for getting your chops up than playing with people who are better than you. Because I highly doubt that Rodrigo y Gabriela will be asking me to go on tour with them anytime soon, I can only play along with their albums.
I'm pairing my imaginary jam session with roasted poblano peppers stuffed with barbecued chicken and goat cheese and topping it with tomatillo salsa and grilled corn kernels. This is such a fantastic music/food combo. 11:11 is a smoking hot album. Motifs and movements and textures tear through songs with intensity and flair and sensuality that are pretty rare in today's Western music scene. Perfect summer album.
Sometimes I really think I had my act entirely together when I first started writing music. I remember writing songs with my cousins about cheese and haystacks and moon-bound rockets. Why we didn't land a record deal with those tunes, I can't say. Regardless, music made sense, and it was fun. And I felt like we were the very best songwriters around.
Today, I wrote a new song on my ukulele, and I played through a lot of my old songs. It was probably the best way I could spend my time. It's amazing how the younger version of myself climbs out of the past once in a while to teach lessons to the me of today. I marvel at how much I "knew" back then, and I wonder what the song I wrote today will teach the me 10 years from now.
Tonight for dinner I'm eating dry matzah crackers dipped in olive oil and fresh cracked pepper, and I'm pairing it with Gil Scott-Heron's "I'm New Here" album, which is working out nicely. This album is as dry as it gets, with rhythms like rusted gears of some ancient machine and lyrics that are dripping with realism and irony. Somewhere is this album's mess of imagery and sonic grit is just an immense beauty. I have deep gratitude for this album, in the same way that I have gratitude for gravel roads in my hometown: the songs, while worn, are the ones that take you into the world's most interesting places.
And on a side note, Happy 65th Birthday, Dad.
Eleanor Roosevelt is famous for saying, "Do one things that scares you every day." Whether or not this is sage advice, I can't say. But I have been giving it a whirl lately. Today I contacted venues that I have basically no business contacting; I'm sure they host acts that are in some way above me. But I really don't care. No guts no glory. The worst they can say is no. (Well, actually I'm sure they could come up with worse...)
My rev-up food for courage is salted pumpkin seeds, and I'm pairing them with William Elliot Whitmore's "Animal's In The Dark" album. Great combo. Gritty, sweaty, crunchy sounding arrangements with vocals more earthy than most earth I've known. Stand out songs are "Mutiny" and "Hell or High Water." The album's got a historic vibe with unbelievably current relevance. Want a stronger backbone? Buy the album.
Just as I am sending off the Daytime Fireflies artwork to the manufacturer, I'm now onto the next bit of art. I have to design the holiday album ("Tins & Pins & Peppermints") that I'm trying to have completed by June. Since I'm only releasing the songs digitally, I only technically need an album cover. And with that in mind, I set to work.
I drew out images for the better part of the day today. They started out Norman Rockwell-esque. Then came a series of predictable cartoony drawings. Onto a few ornate ones. Then things got a bit darker, and plainer, and better. And I put on The Low Anthem's "Oh My God Charlie Darwin" album, and I paired it with a cup of white tea. And then the true creativity came for me, adding layers onto pre-existing public domain images. For this spurt of inspiration, I have to thank The Low Anthem and the tea. Warm, somber, true, haunting, healing. The album felt great this past winter, but it feels extremely calming on this overcast spring day. The melodies and the layers are equal parts soothing and stirring. Check out these guys. Here's the the video of their hit.
Sometimes the best kick in the pants a musician can give herself is to go on YouTube and watch other people merrily doing their thing. This morning I started out with a few Regina Spektor and Liz Longley's videos. Sure, maybe these ladies are having a rough morning. Maybe they're not out of their PJs yet and they're having writer's block. But on the screen, they're happy and beautiful and doing what they do best.
There are some days when the very best a person do to keep their spirits up is to remember we're not all that different from everybody else, that we're all struggling with the same things. Totally valid mindset, that is. But then there are other days where the cure for idle worry is to watch somebody else rocking it, to keep our chin up because somebody else is keeping theirs up. And that's where I am today.
I'm off to work a bit. This morning I'm drinking the perfect cup of coffee, and I'm pairing it with Regina's 2005 "Begin To Hope album." Jolt, zing, pow, and I'm ready to go. It's sweet, classy, quirky, and soulful, and I listen to this album at least once a month. Get it if you haven't and experience the buzz.
April Fools. The day to be lighthearted. I used to love this holiday as a kid. Pranking was my speciality; mischief was my middle name. I wonder if my parents shutter every year on this holiday, remembering how I exchanged the sugar for the salt, and other sophisticated antics.
Today I'm moving my act outside, spending my time on the computer, for the most part. Working next to crocuses is far more inspiring than working next to lampshades.
Believe it or not, I'm trying out YET ANOTHER "on-line resource" for musicians. Every time I swear never to pick up another one of these services, somebody from the company calls me and tells me to give it a shot. And so here I am. Today's is called "ArtistPr.com." From what I can tell, it's a fairly reputable service, and is managed by people with impressive resumes. The thing is, they offer (what seems to me to be) "fake fame." They tell you about how to instantly get "hits" to your Myspace page, website, etc. But they don't get PEOPLE to go to your site. They just make it LOOK like people are going to your site. I'm sure it looks good to have more hits, song plays, etc; truly, I understand fame perpetuates fame. But between you and me, I'd rather respond to emails from my actual fans all day than make it look like people care. Just saying.
Today I'm eating a variety of all the nuts, fruits, and cheeses in the house, drizzled in honey. I'm pairing it with Local Natives' "Gorilla Manor" album. There's just a lot going on in this album, but the overarching feel is an air of happiness, just in the presentation sense. The percussion parts are exciting, unexpected, and diverse. The harmonies are beautiful, without being predictable or drippy. The motifs are strong, and the lyrics are just uncomfortably honest. There's a reason these guys are getting a lot of buzz.
This has been such a busy month, and I'm finally back from all my travels. The album is moving along, although we're a few weeks behind. Thank you for your patience.
So I'm back to blogging regularly. Rather than write the longest blog ever, let me catch you up to speed by listing my Top 10 favorite things that have happened this month. Scroll down for pictures. See you back here tomorrow!
10. Vegas--surreal city; glad to say I've been.
9. Frozen Dead Guy Days--Nederland, Colorado's craziest festival. Pictured is the start of the hearse parade.
8. San Francisco--cable cars and music and coffee, oh my.
7. Pismo Beach--on my way to Santa Barbara to stay with the Barcelonas.
6. Great Salt Lake--stunning at sunset.
5. Birthdays with Friends--Illinois' #1 Birthday Club
4. Neko Case--back stage at Roots Fest; she rocks.
3. LA--working hard on licensing deals for a week.
2. Hiking Boulder--with my Mom and Dad.
1. Jake Shimabukuro--world's #1 ukulele player; he also rocks.
I'm on the home stretch of this album, and I'm too busy to blog for the next few days. Be back soon...
Yesterday, I went to take my dog Hank for a walk. On the way to the park, Hank saw an old piece of pizza in the middle of a busy street (mmm...road pizza....how delectable). Hank's a big dog, weighing in at 60+ lbs, so him lunging into the street means that I too am lunging into the street. Cars came to a screeching halt, and we some how both managed to survive, plus Hank got his road pizza. In his mind, I'm sure it was totally worth it.
On the way back from the park, I let Hank off leash. He's got incredible separation anxiety, so I really didn't have much fear that he would stay close; he always has. To my dismay, about halfway through the park, Hank started bolting towards the road, back to the spot where he found the pizza. I panicked and started running after him at full speed, which is sadly about half of Hank's speed. I reached him in the middle of the road. Once again, cars came to a screeching halt. Thank God for tolerant afternoon drivers. I collected Hank and walked back to the apartment, relieved.
It was when I was finished making dinner that I realized I didn't have my cell phone anymore. I looked all over the apartment, only to come to a very sad realization: I lost the dumb phone while I was running for Hank out in the park more than an hour ago. There are so many reasons this was bad. First, it was nearly dark, so finding it on the ground was out of the question. Second, it was gorgeous yesterday, and the park was packed with people. Likely, someone already pocketed it.
Regardless, I ran back to the park. I bumped into a few friends, and one of them offered to call my phone to see if we could hear it. No dice. We started combing the park. After a few minutes, a homeless many who usually hangs out under one of the pine trees came over to me. He said, "Are you looking for your phone?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Here it is." He handed it to me, and went back to the tree.
You can't judge a book by its cover. A person's economic state or appearance has nothing to do with their ability to be honest or kind. It's a good lesson to remember. Nothing is as it seems. Best to let your brain un-wire itself of its preconceived notions every time you get the chance.
Today I'm eating leftover pad thai that I made last night, and I'm pairing it with The Greencards album "Fascination." They play "folk" music, but they frequently use different modes, and I've rarely heard music that's such a mix of sweet and sour, smooth and tang, rigid and loose. Buy this album.
Today, I started writing personalized thank you notes for everybody who donated to the upcoming album. After writing two, I decided to type out a "general" note, print out copies, and just write a small personalized message at the bottom of each one. I'm too long-winded for personal notes to everyone who donated.
Then I realized, "Well, dang. I'm grateful to more people than just the ones who donated to this album." So I am now filling out albums for people who donated any of their time to play or film this album. Also those who took photos or helped with design.
But I then thought, "Actually, I'm pretty grateful to even more people than that." The folks who gave me a place to stay or a place to play while I was touring mean a lot to me too. And all those people who offered good advice. I'm so appreciative of them.
Once you start having gratitude for something, it's like a snowball rolling down a hill and gaining momentum. I'm now staring at a list of names so huge, I don't know how I could afford to get a thank you note to everybody. But the fact is, I can, and I will. There are very few things that are more important than expressing gratitude. So I'm in for it today.
I'm eating an early lunch of poor lady's cioppino, which is basically lots of different fishes in cans combined with garlic, tomatoes, and carrots. I'm pairing it with Madeleine Peyroux's "Careless Love" album. So easy, so warm, so rich and soulful. Her vocals play well against the long steamy draws of breath I take over tantalizing stews and soups. I could listen to this album all day.
Here it is, March 1st. The month "Daytime Fireflies" is dropping. On my list for today, I have "Place Yourself an Ad." Crazy.
One of the most common ways for musicians to "get out there" these days is to go buy an ad through Google AdWords, Facebook Ads, etc to reach new fans. These ads work by coming up on the side of the computer screen when somebody's information matches the words I choose to trigger the ad. Logically, I should use words like, "musician, piano, female, vocals, etc." But from a marketing standpoint, I could do whatever I wanted.
Let's say I wanted to reach a fan base of mostly young girls, age 14 to 18. Maybe I use "Miley Cyrus" in my list of words that triggered the ad. Or if I want a more international audience, maybe one of the words I choose is "Winter Olympics." I've read that this is technically "cheating," but that it's done all the time. I've come up with many lists of words today, but I've put my most creative one below:
"Tom Waits Diet Hangover Piano Record Women Dancing Rock Horoscope Free Vacation Ask a Nurse"
It's fun, actually. For lunch I'm eating some rice crackers with horseradish havarti cheese (it was in the bin marked, "Try Something New for Under $3" at the grocery store). I'm listening to "Shirt" by Peter Mulvey. What a great way to pass the afternoon with this lunch and this song. Enjoyably sparse, but still complex enough in its composition to be not only unique, but also memorable. Two components, man and his guitar, cracker and its cheese. Feeling good about the afternoon.
Dear Bad Week,
I see you are not going to let me get anything accomplished at all. I had such high hopes, and it seems you have dashed them. I was going to best you with my sense of humor and my positive attitude, but when you saw me get frustrated, you latched onto my irritation and magnified it times a million, making every dumb thing that could happen, happen. It is now Friday, and I can feel you smirking at me, knowing that you successfully had your way with me for days on end.
But it is me who will have the last laugh, bad week. Because our relationship didn't mean a thing to me, and next week, I will have left you for another week. What we had was a 7-day fling, and now it's over. And I will kindle my fire and give it to next week, who will surely be more compatible with me. Next week and I will fulfill each other in ways that you and I never could. And you will be stuck with my memory, while I will be in the throes of another relationship.
So soak in your final hours, week from hell. Oh, and one more thing: when I told you all those positive things, I didn't mean them--you were lousy.
Tonight I'm turning off my brain and writing addresses on all of the envelopes that I'm using to mail out the new cd, Daytime Fireflies, to all the people who donated money (you will be receiving it in less than a month...bout bloody time, I know). I suppose I could just print out labels on the computer, but frankly, I'm really not that impersonal. Never have been. And so here I go.
There is something to be said for mindless work, particularly the kind when you work with your hands. My family and I used to cut and split logs in the fall. It was pretty simple work, but there's nothing like looking back after hours of work at that big ol' pile of wood. Satisfying, infinitely. I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to looking back at my big pile of envelopes before turning in tonight.
I'm in the middle of making curried quinoa (not many ingredients in the house), and listening to Django Reinhardt's "Minor Swing." Great play of music against food. Intense, but not serious. True, but not cutting. Popping, but not cheeky. I love this tune. The fiddle steals the whole piece, drenching the crisp beat in heat, flavor, and fury. Lend it your ear sometime.
After a fast but thrilling weekend in Portland with friends Gordon & Char Mayer, Victoria Vox, James Hill, and Moe Dixon, I'm back to booking out gigs for 2010. Commence spending massive time in front of the computer and on the phone.
When I first started gigging, I had an extremely sophisticated touring strategy: I took any gig I could find. Didn't matter where. So long as I had the time and money to get there, I did. Any stage was a fine stage by me. There was only one small problem in this highly intelligent and formulaic booking system; not everybody wants to see me play.
Assuming you can show up in Milwaukee to a crowd of loyal fans, simply because you have a crowd of loyal fans in neighboring Chicago, is just plainly not all that smart. I've made that mistake one too many times. So this year, I asked my Facebook fans where I should play. I'll also be sending out at email to my mailing list, asking them where they'd like me to play. The beauty of having contact with your fans in this whole digital era is that fans can tell you what they need, and then you can give it to them. Everybody wins. Imagine that.
Tonight for dinner I made jasmine rice with black beans. I spiced it up with lime juice, cinnamon, butter, cayenne pepper...and Lyle Lovett's "Pontiac" record. Great combination of food and music. Lyle writes semi-basic stuff, but jazzed up with nuances, phrasings, other elements that originate in countries across the globe, the music become equal parts homey and international. Some would call it "fusion," but I think it can't be classified as anything except "real darn good."
Oh, the things we feel we have to do because we're afraid of what will happen if we don't. Commercials on tv advertise everything from nasal spray to carpet cleaner by telling you about all the micro-thingys that maybe just maybe are living in your midst. Car mechanics claim that if you don't replace your filters every month, your car won't last the year. And if you don't tighten your abs, forget about keeping your lover around too long.
Today I had another big thing to worry about. Reverbnation, an on-line music service that acts as one of my EPKs, let me know that if I don't place my widgets (on-line computer marketing accessories) in more places, I will lose a chart position. Saints preserve me.
For the love, life is flippin' short. If we're going to do things, let's do them because we believe it will have a positive outcome. Acting because something bad will happen if you don't leads to a fearful society. I, for one, am digging in my heals on this whole fear train, slowing it down, and getting off. And I'm going to drink some wine as I sit on my old carpet with my less-than-stellar abs. Thankyouverymuch.
Tonight for dinner I made fresh spring rolls with strange fillings, including red cabbage, carrots, red onion, beets, avocado, red pepper, and crab meat. I paired it with Okkervil River's "The Stand Ins" record, and it was a great compliment. It's crisp meets smooth meets spice in a genre-less yet all encompassing conglomeration of goodness. Healthy, satisfying, and deserving of the praise the band received from it.
What can I say; today we drank wine and ate early, and listened to brass band music all day. I'd report more, but I'm too full to. I hope you all had a great celebration.
I picked up a job freelance writing to help pay the bills. It's nothing glamorous, but it's writing, and I love writing, so I'm happy. There is always a fear, though, that perhaps writing all the time will take away from my ability to write music. I know several of my friends have shared this fear and told me about it. Comedians wonder whether being funny all day will take away from their ability to have funny, natural sounding banter at their shows. Painters wonder, if they paint all day, will they lose the desire to paint for themselves, just for art sake.
While I don't have the solution to the fear, I can say that I think it best to believe that our talents don't go away or diminish. Once we start believing we have given away our best song or delivered our best line or painted our best picture, we give up on ourselves. Why not believe the best is always ahead, and nothing can stop it from happening? At least there's no harm in thinking that, anyway.
I hope you all had a great Valentine's weekend. I snacked all afternoon yesterday on lemon flavored pistachios that I got from my friend Jessica for my birthday, and I paired them with Winton Marsalis' album "Marsalis plays Monk," which was a great combo. An unlikely take on the original, the tunes have a zing and pizzazz that captures the natural essence without distracting from it. The album is fun and exciting to experience and worth your time.
All of my clothes seem to disintegrate at the same time. Odd phenomenon. It can't be explained, really. But whatever the cause, the result is that I usually have to re-buy my whole wardrobe in one fell swoop. Granted, that's not a lot of clothes; I don't hoard t-shirts or anything. But it's still just enough that has to be purchased that I become madly irritated.
My dearest friend gave me a recommendation before I went shopping this last time: pretend like you're shopping for somebody else. I asked why. He said, "Well, you enjoy shopping for other people, right?" I said sure. He said, "Well, then, pretend you're getting things for a good friend of yours." Best advice I've gotten in weeks.
Why will we bend over backwards for our friends and family and so rarely for ourselves? I think it has something to do with liking to see other people's happiness, and knowing we're the source of it. Or maybe not. Whatever. The point is, it's a whole lot simpler, at least for me, to put my best foot forward for my loved ones. Bout time I learned to trick myself into being one of my loved ones.
Today I was once again faced with the task of having to spend all day long on my own endeavors: I had to update my "Booking" page. This literally took all day, and I was pretty tempted to half-ass it. But then I thought back to that advice and wondered, "If I had to make a booking page for a friend, would I half-ass it, or would I do the best job I could?" (Rhetorical question.) With that in mind, I set forth to try my hardest to make the stage plot, one sheet, etc up to snuff. Today, I worked as though I were my own best friend. Pathetic as that sounds, it did the bloody trick.
Tonight for dinner, I'm eating a quick meal of sauerkraut and turkey kielbasa, flash heated in a pan with butter. I'm pairing it with Fats Domino's song "Just Can't Get New Orleans Off My Mind," and it's a great duo. Quick, classic, steamy, and easy to anticipate the nuances, this tune quenches the need for savory bite and leaves you ready for a beer. I've always been a fan of Fats Domino; this tune just made me love him even more.
Today I fell back in love with my piano. I'm so happy to be back in good standing with it.
Relationships with instruments are like any other relationships; they have their highs and lows. Sometimes, they provide infinite satisfaction, and other times, they are destructive. The piano essentially cast me aside a couple of months ago, after it could tell that my heart wasn't really into it and that I had been having an affair with my ukulele. I don't know if I hurt its feelings or what, but I certainly wasn't getting any joy out of sitting down at it, and it definitely wasn't wanting anything to do with me when I laid my hands on it. I kept coming up dry when songwriting, and nothing was inspiring me.
I guess today, we forgave each other, because it finally let me find joy in it, and it in me, and together we made some great music. I love my relationships with my instruments and how we give each other a better voice than we have alone. L'amour.
Today for lunch I heated up one of those 3-minute packages of Thai Kitchen Rice Noodle Soups. Sure it's not glamorous, but it's 79 cents and it's hot and tasty, so there's that. I paired it with Bela Fleck's song "Angelina" from his Grammy award winning Africa Sessions. Simple components, strong flavors, accessible, but not in a Western way...in a human way. Warm, nurturing, and oddly full of gusto. Deserving of the Grammy and deserving of a listen.
Today I spent the better part of the day working on the website. Graphic design has never been my forte, and I move at a snail's pace. Maybe a rock's pace. Likely I will be seeking the help of a real web designer. Okay, I will be seeking the help of a real web designer...who will probably be redoing all of the work I did. Alright, they will abso-bloody-lutely be redoing all of it.
So basically today was a wash.
It's hard to find the meaning of days that yield absolutely no tangible or sustaining results. I honestly wonder why I even blog to tell you that today was a wash. I guess the point is to remind me, and you too, if you're reading, that we all have days like these. In hindsight, I wish I would have switched over tasks. But somewhere in the midst of fruitless and frustrating struggles, web design and me had a face-off. It became less about getting necessary work done, and more about me winning...winning the battle against web design. The result of turning work into a power play is always negative, but no matter how many times I've done it, I still haven't learned my lesson. Maybe you can learn from my mistake.
The one good thing I did today was to turn my red lentils into a curried lentil salad with currants and capers. Cheap but extravagant, I paired my meal with James Hill and Anne Davis' "True Love Don't Weep." The Canadian singers/songwriters/virtuosos write music that is beautiful, textured, balanced but on the brink. They take wholesome folk sounds and make them exotic and fetching; it's a lot to sink your teeth into. Listen to the album; you'll be glad you did.
I'll keep this one short since; I'm still in a fair bit of pain. So I made it up yesterday to the Ukulele Festival concert to sit in the audience and cheer on my friends. The neck injury made it a little hard to do more than sit up straight, but with my ears functioning at 100%, I had a great time. Hands down highlight of my night was getting to meet, hang out, and finally listen to Danielle Anderson, formally known as Danielle Ate The Sandwich, popular for her YouTube videos. This girl is a treasure. I have her cd, and I popped it in today to give it a listen. I thought I should listen to it while eating a sandwich, but that's just not the right compliment to Danielle. I opted for a Clementine Izze, and the two are a perfect match. Fun, fizzy, natural, quirky, and honest. Truly though, there is no better way to see Danielle other than live or on YouTube, so please do check her out.
Slow moving today. My brain feels better, but my body feels worse after the fall. I prefer it that way, though, to have at least have my wits back. I'm staying in a hotel so I can more easily be taken care of by the folks at the Ukulele Festival, which I hope to make it to today. I can't turn my head, but my legs work just fine, so I ambled downstairs to the continental breakfast, which I just missed. I did manage to score the last dregs from the coffee pot, so I took them. I brought the cup back to my room, and even though it didn't look like much, it was just the thing I needed. I paired my continental breakfast in a cup with the song "Time" off Tom Waits' Rain Dogs album. I liked the combination. No frills, no expense, nothing exquisite--it's a comfort when you're on a strange couch in a strange room made for passing through. And it's a slow, pensive way to wake up when you're body's a bit awkward. The whole album is a slow buzz in the morning and definitely worth more than a few listens.
Last night, my dear friends threw me a birthday party. Great musicians drinking and eating and having an all-in-all great time. At the end of the night, one of my friends gave me a giant bear hug that sent us both tumbling to the ground. Which is generally a great thing. Except I hit my head on a metal chair on the way down. Cut to the E.R...
Being in the E.R. on your birthday isn't such a bad thing. The nurses and doctors were surprisingly light-hearted considering we were there from midnight until after 5 this morning. The X-Rays showed that my neck was out of alignment, so they took a CT scan to be sure my neck wasn't broken. Turns out I just have whip lash and a concussion.
Today I'm laid up in bed and hoping it won't take too many days to heal. I've never been a patient healer. To help me along, I'm listening to Ben Soleil, who we listened to last night over a mighty nice, small birthday cake. Ben's music and that cake are a great pairing. Celebratory without being flamboyant, earnest without being serious, fun without being silly. Gorgeous music and definitely worth a listen.
are wonderful. And today is mine. 30 years of living; what a great thing. Going out for beers, more from me tomorrow!
1) Woke up at 4 am with chest pains. Ended up on the phone with Ask-a-Nurse, only to find that I had merely strained my muscles in yesterday's pilates class. Embarrassed.
2) Went to get hair and make-up done for a photo shoot today, and let the stylists have their way with me. Never happened before. Will probably happen again.
3) Drove to photo shoot. Was whistled at by 5 women, and no men. Took this as a hugely positive sign.
4) Had a dolled up photo shoot in a folk music school with my dear friend Scott McCormick.
5) Drank Negro Modelo in the afternoon whilst made up like a hussie.
6) Wrote a song in my head that then actually remembered it before I got home.
7) Met a kindred spirit in a kindly older gentleman named Matt whilst walking Hank. Greeted each other in the middle of a huge, un-lit field as though we'd been friends forever.
8) Ate chocolate for dinner.
9) Took an epsom salt bath.
10) Saw an actual cat fight in the alley...goooood night.
By far, one of the best musical steps I've taken to becoming a better songwriter was to get my ukulele. I'm this month's Featured Artist for the company who built my uke: Mya Moe. If you have any interest in becoming a better songwriter whilst having a blast, go buy one here: http://www.myamoeukuleles.com/
You can see the video of me playing my Mya Moe if you go here:
I watched the Grammys last night, much to the dismay of my indie music friends. In the indie-music world, it's assumed that we should ignore the industry-driven successes and accolades of the few who are making millions while the rest of us waste away on rice and beans. And I can understand that. But as long as artists like MGMT, Steve Earle, Adele, and Bela Fleck are being nominated, I don't see the need to turn my head just yet. Plus, I'm learning that it's just bad form to throw verbal sticks and stones at any musician for any reason, least of all because they're being honored.
Dad once gave me a piece of advice in the early days of my performing. I was complaining about my day job on stage, and after the show, Dad pulled me aside and said, "You know, you really shouldn't complain about office work. Half the people in your crowd tonight probably work in an office and were offended when you said that." I'll never forget that advice. It still rings true for me. Far be it for me to cast aspersions on musicians for any reason. It doesn't reflect well on the person firing the insults, and it's just a big waste of time. Instead of whining about the success of others, put in a few extra hours and figure out how to achieve your own success.
I was really glad Steve Earle won last night. Tonight, I'm fixing a whole chicken on the grill (that's right...it's February 1st, and I'm grilling out...impulses are only fun if you obey them), and listening to Steve Earle. The two are a perfect match. Simple-meets-summer-meets-fire-charred bits of timeless earthiness. His new album is sensational.
I'm taking the weekend off! Unless something extraordinary happens, I'll see you on Monday!
I'm thoroughly convinced that a huge part of getting through our day-to-day jobs is willing yourself to believe that you like what you're doing, even when the job itself is doing nothing for you. Today I had a lot of paper work and commissioned songwriting to do, and I really wasn't looking forward to it at all. I sat down at my desk (which also happens to be my keyboard), and I started. But my heart wasn't in it. And I was fairly unproductive. Until I finally thought, "Ok, I need to find some joy in all of this." Just like that, the switch was flipped, and I started working with a fervor I haven't had in a while. By the time I was finished with my work day, I was not only liking the work, but seriously loving it. Ah our brains; they are powerful things.
Tonight I look my leftover rice and butternut squash and turned it into butternut squash risotto. I was trying to figure out what music to pair with my cooking, and I decided on Alison Kraus and Union Station's Live album, which was a perfect fit for her. She's slow and steamy meet quick and bubbly and the end result should technically be exotic, but it goes down more like comfort food. Beautiful album.
You know you're starting to make waves when people start criticizing you. At least that's what I'm telling myself. I got an email today from a well wisher, passing on some constructive criticism of me in the hopes of bettering my live show. Of course, my first response to this email was to get defensive, and then my second response was, of course, that the person was right, and that's why it struck a nerve. This is what he wrote of my performance:
"I would humbly suggest that she dress up her piano playing with wider-ranging "voicing" choices, commonly
called "coloring". Get away from the simple "triad" chords to really inventive voicings that are tasteful and progressive. She obviously has had great training in music, somewhere, but to really reach that next level try the above techniques--in an original way; a natural, personal way."
I'm so grateful for the feedback. People taking the time to give you meaningful critique is one of the best gifts anybody can ask for. Today, I'm listening to Franz Nicolay, formerly of The Hold Steady. Great writing, great rock, reminds me of my first time eating a crunchy taco. Hard to swallow sometimes, juicy, messy, and always way too full of good stuff to consume neatly. If you like rock, give him a listen.
It was Scrooge McDuck that I first remember saying "Work smarter, not harder, laddie." I'm taking those words to heart this week. Taking the time to make one good contact is proving to be more useful than trying to make contact with everybody in the entire music industry who will hear me. I'm learning to assess all of the opportunities and gigs that are presented to me and figuring out how to see which ones are worth all of the time, energy, and money it will take me to perform. Essentially, I'm learning how not to waste time, which is a good thing.
Ok, the band to check out at the moment is Mixel Pixel. A fan on Facebook directed me to them (thanks!) Mixel Pixel is just great, and also really weird, kind of like goji berries. Quirky, unassuming, and mindlessly satisfying. They're cheeky and straight forward at the same time. Worth at least one listen.
Making it in music today relies heavily on finding a way to generate "the newest thing." This is remarkably hard for me, since most of the music that inspires me has, clearly, already been written and is no longer new.
I've learned that the majority of industry folks aren't looking for "the next Bob Dylan" or "the next Michael Jackson" or "the next Miley Cyrus." They're looking for the next person to deliver something totally original. And being original is getting harder. I thought it was pretty crazy when I started performing original hip-hop/disco ukulele tunes, but at this point, even that has been done.
Trail blazing is fun, but trend setting is difficult. With my latest album just one month away from completion, I can't stop thinking about what's going to make this album new, besides the fact that all the songs are new, the words are new, and the instrumentation is new. What's going to make it new in the industry? How am I going to make waves in the industry that other people will not only notice, but want to ride with me?
While I don't have the answers tonight, I'm taking a little comfort in listening to a band called The Books. My friend Colin gave me their record over the holidays and I'm just now getting around to listening to them. They're great, and they remind me of Himalayan pink salt. Noticeably different from other bands, but subtle for the genre, The Books are a great combination of soft earth and chemical metal. They take beautiful acoustic instruments, add in a little electronics, and just the right amount of production. Highly recommended.
Thank you to The Element for hosting a great show last night. We had an excellent time playing for The Artspace Project. Thanks to all the fans who came out and to Corey, Jason, and the crew for being so good to us. You rock.
I'm playing a benefit show tomorrow night at 9 pm at Krytonite in Rockford. Aaron and Jordan are playing with me, and it's a great cause. Stick around after the show and check out the other bands!
Today I got a two words of advice from my dearest friend: take risks. I've been thinking about that for the last few hours.
Most of the time, the risks I take are fairly small, and not, in fact, all that risky. I'll buy a strange t-shirt (whoa...that's living on the edge). I'll update my format driven website (crazy!), or try to book a few new gigs (ridiculous!), or maybe even try to write a song in 5/4 (be still by heart lest the danger overcome me!)
If I'm seriously going to give music a shot, it's time that I take some serious risks. I've been fairly contemplative today as I mull this over. I wonder, who do I know that takes risks? Can I pattern myself off someone? But then I think, well, the sheer fact that I want to pattern my riskiness off someone else's just goes to show how unrisky I truly am. Pathetic.
So no new music tonight. No surfing the web for ideas. No surrounding myself with others to try to get inspired. Tonight, I'm going to let my own thoughts run wild and see where they take me. Stay tuned.
I just got out of band practice and am checking out this photo my friend Scott took of me last week. Scroll down and click on "read more" to see it. It's a composite shot, where I'm everybody in the shot (in case you hadn't noticed). It's equal parts creepy and cool and just thought you might like to see this early glimpse of some of the art that will probably adorn the upcoming album. Needless to say, there were a lot of costume changes and cold hands in the making of this photo.
My friend and drummer introduced me to Fanfarlo tonight. They're a band that's really worth checking out. They remind of a mole sauce. All of their songs have so many overtones that you almost can't discern the components that make up each tune; they have a pinch of every spice in the cupboard. This band feels confident, addictive, and robust, and you can tell it took them a long time to make the music. Their orchestrations are fantastic, and the movements within every piece are gorgeous.
I am so tired I can barely keep my eyes open. We didn't finish up the album on Saturday as expected. We finished up tonight, Monday. It's either a really amazing album, or I'm just so deliriously exhausted that anything would sound amazing. Either way, G-O-O-D-N-I-G-H-T.
I really don't know where to start. First off, I apologize if you've been trying to leave comments on the blog and it hasn't been happening. I'm still learning how to operate the blog function; it should be working now.
Let me try explaining all of this as a stream of consciousness:
Wednesday: Preparing for a Thursday morning photo shoot for the Fireflies album. Looking through Mom's cedar chest for appropriate clothing, and stumble across an old doll of mine that used to give me hives when I was 5 years old. Rub the doll on my face. One hour later, I get severe hives on my face. The demon doll strikes again. Mom looks up old-timey remedies on-line. Decides an oatmeal paste is the answer. Smears me down with wet oatmeal. My dog Hank attempts to eat this remedy from my body as I try to lay still for half an hour. Go to sleep with hives at midnight.
Thursday: Wake up at 4:30 am for photo shoot. Hives are mostly gone, the rest are covered with make-up. Drive to meet Scott, the photographer. The photo is a composite, alter ego shot. Meaning, the camera stays still, and I dress up as all the characters in the shot. In this instance, I am all the people on a playground in the summer. I am the kids throwing baseball. I am the bicyclists. I am the sun tanners. However: it is January on Lake Michigan, so I am being photographed sun bathing in the snow in the 30 degree weather. Cannot feel feet or hands. Finish up at noon. Drive to Chicago just in time to meet John Abbey in the studio. Record piano/vocals for 3 songs. Finish late. Crash at my friend Beth's house.
Friday: Wake up early to Beth's cat batting at my face. Go to take shower. Because I changed from costume to costume outdoors yesterday, I consequently have residual leaves and wood chips in my hair and plastered to my bum. Take a shower, grab coffee. Back in the studio with John, recording more vocals, piano, and lap steel. Out at 10 pm. Crash literally and figuratively at friend Nick's house (I slip on his icy walkway, smash head on pavement, ice it down with package of frozen edamame). Asleep at midnight.
Today: Up at 6 am with headache. Damn ice. Write this blog. Get ready to go to friend's house for music meeting, then back in the studio to hopefully finish recording on Fireflies. Overarching theme of the last 3 days: out takes from the Lucille Ball show.
You know you spend too much time on the road when you have "favorite" rest stops. Yesterday I drove 14 hours to get to Chicago for tomorrow's recording. I realized that I have specific spots that I like to stop at along Interstate 80, and that is has taken dozens of times making the trip across the country to come up with my pit stop choices. I know exactly which stops have the cleanest bathrooms and the best string cheese (North Platte, BP/Subway, Nebraska). I know which ones generally sell gas for less money, and which ones have the best windshield stations/vacuums to clean the car (hands down, Council Bluffs, Madison Avenue, Iowa). I also know useless information about all of them, like which ones sell more hunting gear and movies than they do soda (Big Springs, Bosselman, Nebraska).
Yesterday's drive went smooth, but I didn't listen to much music. I spent most of the drive listening to the audio book version of Octavia E. Butler's book "Kindred," which is gripping and kind of disturbing. It's a good thing I knew which stop had the friendliest attendants (Kellogg, Phillips 66, Iowa) so I could shake myself back to reality once in a while.
Today I practiced all day before my big drive across country tomorrow (I may not get a blog in tomorrow). My epiphany of the days is on the power of 'wrong' notes. I worked for a long time coming up with piano motifs to use in the overdub process this week. And I came up with some semi-interesting lines. But it wasn't until my fingers got clumsy that I started hearing truly rememberable motifs.
Using logic in music generally produces predictable sounds. Sometimes it takes happenstance to make something truly, unforgettably unique. It's a good lesson to remember in life. If you're going for something original, it may help to kick reason to the curb, find what you're brain considers to be wrong, and then run with the wrongness. Florence & The Machine does a great job finding wrongness. Listening to her sing is like trying to pick out the main flavor in a pot of jambalaya. She takes a melody, and she lets her voice dance everywhere around it, never directly on it; it's fantastic. Check it out.
Well, I worked all day yesterday and into the morning today on the insert for the album. Not much remains to be done except to record the vocals and piano parts with John next week. And to stop biting my nails.
Daytime Fireflies is a complete musical departure for me. There is no trace of the bluesy/soul/roots music that I've been writing for so many years now, and I'm definitely feeling the uncomfortableness that accompanies change. Part of me wants to scrap the whole project and return to my safe Aretha Franklin sound. (I wonder how many other musicians have ever considered Aretha a safe sound). And the other part wants to run wild with the new sound. I've been trying to embrace the wild part. This week I dyed my hair blond and committed to wearing glasses full time. Sometimes changing our appearance in the easiest way to start embracing internal change, vain as that sounds.
I'm going to hit a yoga class and try not to work today. This morning I've been listening to David Bryne and Brian Eno's "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" record. I liken it to watching a piece of cheese toast being made in a toaster oven; experiencing this album is like watching what technology can do to enhance a simple combination of sounds. The production is gorgeous, and the songs are excellent, and I highly recommend listening to it from start to finish.
One of the very best ways to get inspired is to force ourselves out of our patterns, all of them.
I researched album design all morning and afternoon yesterday, and kept coming up dry. Nothing was striking me. So I switched it up. Here is the list of out-of-routine things I did yesterday:
- Moved my laptop to the floor and worked next to the fireplace
- Put my hair in pig tails and walked through record stores, tried on 2 men's t-shirts
- Flipped through a book on the Bauhaus movement
- Ate pizza topped with apricot jam, tarragon, olives, garlic, and brie
- Listened to Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" 3 times, got up and danced the last time.
- Attempted singing it in the shower
- Worked on booking gigs in a states I've never played in before
- Read through an on-line news source about environmental change in June, 2007
Somewhere in all of this mess I came up with a great idea for the cd insert, and I'm diving into that today. Can't wait. Incidentally, "Empire State of Mind" is awesome; it reminds me of "flying popcorn"--that process of being forced to catch a piece of popcorn that someone else throws at your mouth. As soon as the beat starts with that piano riff, you start moving, and you keep moving, involuntarily involved with it all until you're loving it.
With so many people buying music digitally these days (I know that's how I buy most music), it's a shame that musicians have to manufacture hard cds at all. I could press the upcoming record to vinyl--the sound is just so phenomenal--but that's out of my price range. So because I still need merch to sell at shows, the manufacturing of the compact disc goes on. Damn you, compact disc.
I've been compiling all of the liner notes and photos to give to my friend Kelly who's designing the album art. This is the current conundrum: do we include that little booklet that some cds offer (you know, that cute flimsy book with lyrics, extra photos, and strange factoids), or not? It does not add too much extra cost per unit, but does it really add that much to the enjoyment of the album? I asked my friend Charles whether or not I should include a lyric booklet, to which he responded, "you have to you have to you have to you have to," and he referred me to the fantastic insert in the Beatles' "Sgt. Peppers" album.
While I am still undecided about the booklet and will be researching inserts all day, the direction to the Sgt. Peppers record was a great call, and not just from the visual perspective. That album is like the perfect bowl of stir fry. You get into it, you don't look up, you can't stop, your thoughts go away, and you just want more. And when it's done, you zap back to reality and wonder what just happened for the last hour.
One day after deciding I would say yes to everything, a friend pointed me towards a job opportunity to score the music for a Chicago based musical. Of course, I said yes. Yes yes yes. I'm all about yes.
And so today, a day I was going to devote entirely to booking more gigs for 2010, I am reading through this musical and loving it. What a difference the word "yes" makes. It can completely change your path.
Tonight I'm working out the song order for Daytime Fireflies. The process of making a song order is long and filled with a lot of over-thinking and over-stressing, and so I intend to do it over a beer. Judging by the times I've put songs in order on previous records, I will likely end up with the same order I started with. It's kind of like rearranging a room of the house. Ultimately, you know what you want from the get-go. You just need to go through the process of moving things around to be sure you know what you know.
Last night I spent a long time listening to Windmill's "Puddle City Racing Lights" record. I liken it to peppermint bark. It's odd and cool and light and made of a lot of components that you don't believe should work together, and yet, they do. Check it out.
New Year's Resolutions (yep, I'm one of the masses who loves having the excuse to reassess where I'm at and appreciate where I'm going).
-Play instruments everyday, even if it's just the spoons.
-Say yes to every opportunity that is presented to me (within the realm of reason...and sometimes just outside the realm of reason)
-Focus less on submitting to Sonicbids gigs and focus more on connecting with actual people
-Perform heavily, starting in April
-Appreciate where I am
-Practice compassion for venue owners, whilst not getting screwed over
You can comment on the blog now...how about it!
This has been a crazy month for me, working harder than I thought I could. I've had the brightest of highlights, accompanied with more "throw in the towel" moments than a laundry hamper.
But I've made it through. The surprise holiday gift was mailed out on Tuesday, (Did you guys get it? What do you think?!), and I'm going back into the studio on Monday to work more on Fireflies. Somewhere in the middle of recording, arranging, designing, and manufacturing music, the holiday season started, and being short on money, I decided to make some of my gifts for my loved ones. Below is a painting I made for one of them. It's supposed to be the cover of Thelonious Monk's "Underground" record, done in the style of famous Bauhaus artist Vance Kirkland (aka, the guy who painted using a lot of dots).
This may very well be one of the worst art projects I've ever accomplished. Truly. But I'll tell you what I've learned from trying to do so much in such little time and with so few resources: attempt everything. There is magic in the effort. Make no small plans if you are a big dreamer. Figure out ways to make it happen, and do it. If it doesn't work out (see Thelonious picture above), who cares.
I'm getting in the holiday spirit by listening to Frank Sinatra's holiday record. Sure, he's an over-played crooner, but he's a classic. He's a brandied egg nog without the whipped cream, served in a snifter on a shiny platter. The album is called "The Sinatra Christmas Album," and it's worth listening to this time of year. Hope you're enjoying your season.
When I first started recording music, I was only interested in one person’s opinion: mine. Real nice, eh? The creative feedback and suggestions I would get from other players, sound engineers, and producers may as well have been in a foreign language. In my mind, I had the vision, and so it was my vision that would steer the project.
But a visionary who doesn’t see anybody else’s view generally comes down with a severe case of tunnel vision, and is, consequently, kind of pathetic.
So I decided to stop being pathetic.
The Daytime Fireflies record has taken on new life from the contributions of all the players and John Abbey. Jordan (bass) and Aaron (drums) and I practiced all last week for a recording session on Saturday. The parts the guys came up with…what can I say. Amazing. I didn’t agree with everything at first; but I got over that in short order. The stuff everybody else has made is better than anything I could have invented; thank heavens opinions don't always line up and we can push each other to actually get...better. The album is now far from being a snoozer. Sure, I can’t wait for it to be finished, but I’m also really enjoying the process. Beer and tacos and music making…mighty fine way to pass a day.
This week I’m taking a break from Fireflies to work on the annual surprise holiday gift for the mailing list, which we’ll announce on December 3rd. The album I’m listening to lately is Andrew Bird’s “Noble Beast,” which hits me like a mango bubble tea: one part strange, one part good for you, and ten parts fun. If you haven’t heard it yet, sign up for Lala and listen to it for free; I guarantee you’ll want to buy it.
Before settling in for the fall for massive arranging work, my friend Sara and I decided to take a road trip together. We've been friends for twenty years, and have never done it. T'was time. And so we set forth cross country, with my dog Hank, heading west from Illinois. What happened on the road trip, was, well...absurd. And awesome. But mostly absurd.
We left at 5 am, armed with the usual bag of tricks: OKE DOKE popcorn, Reeses, apples, and coffee. Illinois breezed by. We hit Iowa around 7 am. Sara needed a rest stop, so we pulled over. There was very little identifying the rest stop. Just a small gas station with a sign out front, advertising "16 Flavors of Ice Cream."
We forged on westward for a hundred miles until I needed to make a pit stop. I went in to buy some string cheese, and that's when it hit me: no wallet. I didn't have my dang wallet. Dang.
The last place I used my wallet was a hundred miles back at that nondescript gas station. But we had no idea where that was, except that it had "16 Flavors of Ice Cream." Sara has an iPhone, which was our only hope. She entered into Google the only information that we had: 16 flavors of ice cream, Iowa.
Low and behold, the first entry that came up was "Kellogg, Iowa: Phillips 66." Wonders never cease.
We called up the Phillips 66. The manager saw no sign of the wallet. Even though it was a long shot, we decided to drive back. Sure, we'd end up tacking on 3 extra hours to the day, but why not...just to be sure.
We sped back. Again, we asked the manager about the wallet. Nothing. And so we started to look. Everywhere. Ditches, fields, parking lots, garbage cans. No sign of the wallet. We gave up.
We got onto the on-ramp to get back on Highway 80. Pulled off onto the side of the road sat a car with its flashers on. I told Sara to roll down her window to make sure he was ok. But the happy looking guy, maybe 50 years old, smoking a cigarette, didn't seem in distress. In fact, he smiled and said, "I was just checking to make sure you girls were ok." We explained about the wallet. He said he was sorry to hear that, then drove away. We watched him get on Highway 80, at which point, he rolled down the window and gave us a thumbs up and then a wave before vanishing.
We put the car into gear. Just before we pulled back onto the road, we saw it. The wallet. Contents in tact. Laying on the side of the road where the man had been parked with his flashers on. We never would have found it if he wouldn't have been there. Which led us to believe that there was no other possible explanation for this event than this: that man was an angel, and apparently, angels are allowed to smoke cigarettes.
We celebrated at a Brew Pub. All was looking up.
Until I then lost my cell phone in a foot of snow whilst walking Hank. Never did find it. Apparently, smoking angels have a reserved number of miracles that they will perform in a week's time, and I had used up my limit.
I'm arranging this week and getting a lot of inspiration from Annie Lennox, whose music I like to one of those fancy salt-infused chocolates: her whole style relies on taking something sweet and adding richness, character, and depth. Re-listen to "Walking On Broken Glass" for a reminder of this woman's genius.
If this weekend didn't reinforce my trust in the talents of the pack I snarl with, I don't know what will. All weekend long, I was blown away by my friends and family. I was left having to do very little except my job, and let everybody else do theirs. Amazing how that works.
Starlite Radio had a great set opening up the Sara Watkins show on Friday. Bruce and Dave ran their usual terrific sound, and the audience was rambunctious and happy as hell, which made me, clearly, rambunctious and happy as hell. After Sara's show with her brother Sean, the band piled into the Cliffbreaker's limousine (which incidentally used to belong to Pavarati), and headed over to Cliffbreakers for the after party. I followed behind them, driving Sara's SUV.
Sara and Sean Watkins got up to do a set in the hotel dining room and asked me to sing one with them, which was, um, really REALLY cool. Above is us singing John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery." Afterwards, we hung out until we were all dead tired and turned in for the night. Thanks again to Philippe over at Cliffbreakers for all that late night food and hospitality (Photos by Jim Krebs).
The next day, I headed out to my Grandma's where my Uncle Al was going to take a few pictures of me to use for press/album art for the upcoming record. Above are some out-takes. With the help of the rest of my family, we were able to stage some photos of me biking around in the squishy yard across the street, carrying an old pickle jar and wearing a small dress on the first day it snowed in Illinois this season. Thanks for all the help, family. It really takes a village....to raise the village idiot.
Sunday was the day of reckoning in the studio. String arranging has taken such a long time for the upcoming record; we've been hard at work for what seems like months, all for just a few hours of playing/recording the quartet. But Cathy, Marla, Kim, and Tim did a great job with the score, and the ten songs they played on sound top notch. Ben came in to video everything while John engineered, and we were out by 9 pm.
I've been listening to Sara Watkins' new cd since her performance and really enjoying it. The whole record reminds me of chili coated dried mango (I love the stuff). There's a substance and a texture to Sara's music that at first seems made only of sweetness, until you listen a fews songs into the record, at which point, her driving fiddle licks hit you like a rush of heat your face. The new record, produced by John Paul Jones, is out now. Give it a listen.
It's been a busy month, largely spent arranging more music for a string quartet. Initially, I tried to score all of the music digitally using Sibelius 6, a software program designed to facilitate instrument arrangement. But after many failed attempts, I've returned to scoring by hand, spending late nights pouring over staff paper a la Vivaldi or Schubert. Even though it takes a long time, it's been a great process, like working on a giant math equation for weeks. Oddly gratifying. What I've come to realize is how analytical and calm this process has made me. Almost unemotional. From that quietude and introspection, along with the events of this day, I've been able to reflect on the relationship, or lack of relationship, between anger and creativity.
Every person employs creativity differently. Some use it to sell goods. Others use it to come up with technology, or maybe to make a meal. It seems to me that the creative spirit exists within everybody in some capacity. I happen to use it to make music, but I think this lesson that I've learned applies to most people. The inspiration that fuels us to "make" things takes many forms. My creativity is usually fueled by good stories, love, excitement, fear, and sadness; these emotions compel me to try to build something from them. But I've observed in both myself and others that when anger surfaces, creativity is lost. And that makes perfect sense, really. Creativity constructs, and anger destructs. They are each other's antithesis. Spiderman and the Green Goblin, if you will.
It's hard not to get angry, especially when somebody "does us wrong." Then, it feels empowering and almost justifiable to be angry. I was just in that place today, being unjustly yelled at by a venue owner in my hometown of Rockford, Illinois. This afternoon when I came home and sat down at the piano, all I could do was think about how angry I was at being disrespected by the owner. I had lost the peace of mind that I had for weeks while working on my string arrangements. I didn't want to "make" anything because in order to make something, I need to be in the present, physically connecting with my instrument. But anger had seized me, and anger does not operate from the present. It draws on the past and invades the present until our current reality is so skewed that we don't even see straight. Trying to create from that point for me is impossible. Anger trumps everything.
So how did I lose my anger and return to writing music and blogging tonight? Well, I employed the Achilles Heel of anger, its one weakness in an otherwise invulnerable emotion: laughter. Anger is a very sincere emotion, and it hates mocking and frivolity. For my fellow creators out there, if you find anger battling with your creativity, find a way to laugh at it, or at least laugh at something. Anger can't hold up to your amusement. Figure out what makes you laugh no matter what, and do that. Your creativity will resurface, and you'll be free to "make" once more.
Tonight, I'm listening to Vince Guaraldi for inspiration. Vince's jazz piano reminds me of a glass of champagne. It fizzes and pops and implies celebration. It makes us giddy and lightheaded and happy. Give him a listen if you need a positive jolt or a pick-me-up.
After a long run of shows, I finally gave myself a vacation. I've never seen the Oregon/California coast, and it was about bloody time to make it happen. The vacation started off by being gifted a handmade Mya Moe ukulele from good friends and instrument makers, Gordon and Char. Several great songs have already been written on this ukulele, dubbed "The Madame" because she gets passed around a lot and is really easy to love. Needless to say, the stay in White Salmon, Washington was amazing.
From there it was loads of waterfalls and body sledding down Mt. Hood, where folks still ski and snowboard in late August. The highlight of the time spent along the Columbia River Gorge was getting to pilot a small, four-seater Cessna. I generally have a fear of flying in small planes (the demise of so many talented musicians), but I can actually say that I enjoy it now and consider myself a bonafide aviatrix.
Portland proper has a great music scene, sure, but I can actually say that a better time was had checking out the adult soapbox derby in Mt Tabor Park, where the get-up of some of the drivers/builders was far more important than the speed of their vehicle.
The drive down the Pacific Coast from the top of Oregon to San Fran was spectacular and no picture can truly capture its magnitude. I was blown away completely by the views alone. The Redwood Forest was even more magical than I had read about, and the day on the dune buggy was scary and spectacular all at the same time.
Vacation finished off with a bang in the bay area, and then it was right back to Illinois to practice with Aaron Biby and Jordan McDonald for a big gig at this year's On The Waterfront. Thanks to all of you for coming out. We had a blast. Now I'm headed back to more string arranging for the Daytime Fireflies record. Stay tuned.
(Photo by Jamie Johannsen)
Every songwriter falls out of love with music from time to time. In those cases, it seems like the very best thing to do is to go watch somebody else play. And not only just another musician similar to you, but musicians doing something completely different. When I can't write folk, I listen to mariachi. When I can't write soul, I listen to polka. And when I can't write anything, I'll take whatever live music I can find.
On Friday, I played my uke on-air with Dean Ervin before heading out to find some music. Thanks, Beth and Dean, for an awesome time.
Afterwards, I went to the Boone County with friends, where we merrily chomped away at sweet corn and followed the Harmonicats around the fest. The wives of these guys pull them around with a golf cart, and they basically filled the fair with the happiest harmonica music I'd ever heard. They're worth checking out.
Then I headed over to Brio's beach to watch my friends Pat McDonald and Melanie Jane play as Purgatory Hill. Pat plays the cigar box guitar, and it's out of this world. The sound is vaguely reminiscent of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's "Raising Sand" record.
Saturday I was slated to play the Block 5 Block Party. While the music was good, this dance troupe seriously stole the show. Seriously.
Sunday, I played a fantastic show for the Green Communities Coalition, some of the best people I've had the opportunity to meet working for one of the best causes I've had the opportunity to support. Thanks to Jamie, Jim, and Philippe for their efforts in eco-awareness. I shared the show with Jim Hagerty, pictured above.
And now, I'm on vacation for two solid weeks. Enjoy the rest of summer. If you get a chance, check out Purgatory Hill. These guys are like cherry salsa. I use their music when I'm in a salty mood, but the trace of sweetness in it usually takes me to a reflectively invigorated place.
Where to start. The show at The Door County Outpost was great. Afterwards, Pat MacDonald and Melanie Jane and I went out to Pat's family bar, where I had a flaming (literally) coffee drink, called the Bayside Coffee. I went back to spend my last night at The Happiness Hotel, content.
As soon as I got back to Chicago, I wound up in the studio with John Abbey and Aaron Biby, laying down drum tracks for Daytime Fireflies. Aaron's tracks are outstanding, and we can hardly wait to get the strings in. As soon as we finished up in the studio, I headed into Rockford for a show at the Coronado Corner with SIDES, Starlite Radio, and Kelly Steward. The show was sensational, and I debuted my original ukulele tunes to a very nice crowd.
I'm back to work on songwriting/arranging and am pleasantly surprised to be deriving inspiration from Dave Matthews' early work. If I had to liken it to anything, it would be a Bayside Coffee: a blazing mess of goodness composed of a million ingredients that operate naturally together for the ultimate intoxicating experience.
For once, neither snow, nor concussion, nor arctic surges hindered me from playing Sheboygan last night. The Paradigm was fantastic, with the highlight being my friend Lani driving 3 hours from Rockford to listen to me play. Afterwards, Kate and I exchanged t-shirts, both of us being obvious bicycle dorks. Without knowing what I was getting myself into, I headed north for my first ever stay in Sturgeon Bay, where I was supposed to stay in "The Holiday Music Motel."
I rolled in to The Holiday Music Motel at midnight thirty on a Sunday night. The place looked unassuming from the front, and I walked inside to find it deserted. I walked to the lobby. Nobody. Suddenly, from outside, a gorgeous woman, who I now know to be called Anna, came into the lobby and said, "Oh, you're checking in! We're all out back." The rest is history.
I can only liken The Holiday Music Motel to Jim Henson's Happiness Hotel in "The Muppet Movie." Anna took me out back to a circle of people, mostly musicians, from across the globe, sitting in adirondack chairs and drinking Coors and Johnny Walker Red. When in Rome. So we sat around the fire, exchanging stories until I literally couldn't keep my eyes open. I spent my day songwriting, and tonight, we went to see our English friends-Chris Simmons and his bandmate Adam-play at Harbor's Landing. The pictures speak for themselves. Somehow, my camera started taking shots in an odd color that I haven't figured out how to adjust. Thanks to Adam, Anna, Melanie Jane, Pat, James, Laurel, Jeremy, Stephanie, Ellie, Vee, Finn, and any I may have missed for the awesome bowl of crawfish and the even awesomer company.
The Twin Cities are gorgeous. My Uncle Dave's friend, Bob, gave me the full tour this morning after a nice show last night at Gingko with Mike Felten. The highlight for me was the quick walk around Dinkytown in Minneapolis, looking in the old drug store that is now the Loring Pasta Bar, and up to room the upstairs where Bob Dylan stayed back in the day. The whole area is a musical hotbed and as dense with theatres and NYC. I was completely blown away. Of course, there is also no shortage of art paying homage to native Charles Schultz.
Today I drove down to Sheboygan. On the way, I wrote two songs on my ukulele, saw four rainbows, and hydroplaned twice. Now I'm sitting in Paradigm, gearing up for a long set. The next 3 nights, I'll be staying at the Holiday Music Motel. Stay tuned...
I keep a mental checklist of what to pack before I start a tour. Keyboard: check. CDs: check. Coupla chocolate bars: check check. Wallet/cell phone/keys: check check check. But darn it all; I never do remember to pack a mechanic.
The Subaru started overheating and smoking just outside of Oshkosh. So I did what any nerdy musician would do: I read the manual in the glove box. It was useless. Seriously useless. Good thing for me that at that moment, two pilots, Dave and Kramer, just happened to be right outside my car. Knowing about airplane engines, these two were able to use their wealth of engineering knowledge to detect the very complex problem plaguing my car: no coolant. Another mystery solved, and another songwriter humbled by knowing not one thing about automobiles.
I rolled into Oshkosh with just a little time to spare before the set at New Moon. I walked around town, checking out the local record store and comic shop (still a sucker for Calvin and Hobbes) and wound up taking my ukulele up the street and playing for kicks inside the Opera House for an audience of one. Great acoustics and a beautiful stage.
Aaron, Stacey, and the New Moon staff couldn't be much nicer. Some familiar faces came back to see me, which validates my whole reason for touring. Thanks so much to the crew that stuck around after my set and bought t-shirts! You guys are great! Stacey sent me on my way with tea and tiramisu, which I ate outside in the plaza, where the town was showing "Madagascar" on a big screen outside in the park. It was packed. I finished off the night, eating dessert and watching the movie with the rest of the great Oshkoshians that turned out. Tomorrow, I'm off to St. Paul. I've got my CD player all set up with my first selection of the day: Louis Jordan. Big, brazen, bold, there is nothing subtle about Louis; I liken him to a fountain soda. He's luxurious and commonplace all at the same time, and his music always brings back memories.
My friend, Kelly, is designing the art for my upcoming record. He needed some photos to use. Since the record is called "Daytime Fireflies," he recommended that I actually catch a few fireflies and photograph them. Which sounds great, except no matter how many hats I wear as a musician, the photography one just won't fit. Didn't stop me from trying, though. Tonight, I spent my last free Saturday night in weeks catching lightening bugs with Mom, then taking 267 photos of fireflies that looked more like anatomy pictures in a biology book from the 60's than they do like album art.
I've been adding to my musical family. In addition to the fantastic ancient ukulele that my cousin Joan gave me, Aaron Keim of the Boulder Acoustic Society built me this ukulele. I can't get enough of it. Aaron is an instrument maker based out of Broomfield, CO, and his company is Bean Sprout. I've never heard a ukulele project better, and the timbre of a Bean Sprout is unparalleled. If any of you want a stringed instrument that rocks, Aaron's your man. Check out his site: http://thebeansprout.com
I won't be playing shows again until late July, and I may not book too many more in 2009. I'm continuing to pour myself into the arrangement of my next album, which is taking up more of my days than I could imagine. But what a labor of love. I'm anxious to work on it everyday.
Wherever you are, Happy Father's Day, and enjoy summer. I'll be in touch soon!
A few friends have asked me to address this issue. This one's for you.
Years ago, when I first started playing out, most venues took interest in my music and were willing to give me a shot at playing their venue at least once. Booking a new act was risky for most clubs, but ultimately, it was important to do because of the implied I.O.U. between up-and-coming artists and venues: if you make it big, remember who gave you a start.
R.I.P., I.O.U. As time goes by, I've found that venues are growing less and less willing to take a chance on newbies, or what they like to call "baby bands." In my mind, there are two ways of rationalizing this transition. The first is simple: times are tough, and venues can't afford to invest in acts without a guaranteed draw. As much as they'd truly like to give you a shot, business is business, and money must be made in order to stay afloat.
The second is a little more cynical. To put it plainly, there is no shortage of competent indie bands today. With the advent of Myspace, Reverbnation, Sonicbids, etc., transforming a musician into a credible, legitimate artist is easier than ever. In fact, there are so many acts and so few venues, we have entered into an era of live music performance where the venues are seemingly holding the cards, if not the whole deck. The most obvious evidence of this phenomenon is in the aptly titled "pay to play" show.
For those of you who aren't familiar with paying to play, it's just what you'd expect; bands must draw a certain number of fans to a show. If that minimum is not reached, bands make up the difference in ticket sales out of their own pockets. These shows are more stress than they're worth. You end up buying any unsold tickets and hocking them on the street before the show. If you don't sell them all, you feel anxiety during your performance, hoping that enough people bought tickets at the door so that you don't have to give what could have been gas and food money to the venue.
Such "opportunities" just keep arising for us musicians. Yesterday, I got another offer to be a part of a high-profile compilation cd. In the contract, words like "amazing" and "successful" got tossed around more than a hacky sack. To the promoter's credit, it did sound enticing...up until the section that asked me for $295 to be involved. Look here, folks. I am an independent musician, and I'm not exactly rolling in cash. Most of the time on tour, I don't know when I'll get my next meal or where I'll be sleeping. Asking me to pay out money to be involved is like asking a bird to walk on all fours; I am not equipped to do it.
Declining any invitations that require me to pay money in advance was one of the smartest moves I ever made as a musician, so much so that I felt inclined to dedicate a full blog to it, not only to share my thoughts with other musicians, but also to inform non-musicians of the current market. Fellow artists, your talents are valid, and you should be paid what you are worth. Be mindful that you seize as many opportunities as you can to better your career, but not at the expense of your self esteem. If a venue won't take a chance on you without asking you for money, then don't take a chance on the venue. Our standards are pretty low as it is, and there's no need to let them drop to a ridiculous level.
While the artist and the venue are in a symbiotic relationship, it is the artist who has had to adapt and mutate into the role of agent/manager/producer/recording studio/street team/promoter/label/distributor/sound person. Why not tack on "venue-creator" to the list? If you can't find a venue in the town you need to play in, then make one. Get a friend to throw a house concert. Rent an empty hall, and ask a local band to share the show with you. Play in a restaurant that normally has no music; the regulars will be thrilled.
On a final note, if you are being asked to play a benefit concert, then well done; you've reached a level in your career where people believe in your talents. But if you are flat broke and being asked to play a benefit concert, there is no shame in either demanding to be able to sell your merch, or asking the promoter to find you a sponsor. If the point of the benefit is to raise money, and your talents are going to assist in the that effort, then ask to have money donated to your performance. Altruism is important, but not as important as your health. Being able to feed yourself and sleep with a roof over your head is a good cause, too.
New York City on foot is one of my favorite ways to spend the day. New York City in car is not. I drove down from Rosendale, and after a rough trip into Manhattan, I finally found a place to park. I covered up the keyboard to make it look like a pile of clothes, (albeit a perfectly rectangle semi-believable pile of clothes), shut the door, locked up, and blessedly left the car behind. The city has more gardens than I could imagine. Usually I spend my time in New York people watching, but this time I found myself nature watching. I stopped by the apartment of my old cooking buddy, Shea. We walked the streets of the Upper East Side, grabbed a bite, headed to the park, and checked out some of the classic buildings in the area, including John Lennon’s old digs.
The gig at Cornelia Street Café was great as always. I love to play their piano. The Soul of the Blues series that John runs draws a nice crowd, and the venue itself has a good vibe. Carol Thomas played after me, a blaring set that grooved. I didn’t stick around for Hot Monkey Love, but I hear they were fantastic.
I was lucky enough to spend the night with my cousin Joan in Long Island. After the show in The Village, I headed to her house. Her Swedish relatives were visiting, so Per, Rina, Joan, and I talked into the night, then woke up and stretched out the morning over coffee and eggs the way that you can only do with company you truly enjoy. Today, I’m looking forward to the rest of my days in the city. 89.9 fm is playing all Benny Goodman until early June, which should make any car time more tolerable. Benny Goodman is hands down my favorite clarinet player; his playing reminds me of fresh cracked pepper: it can find its part in just about any dish without taking away from it.
Home of Pete Seeger and other songwriting greats, the Hudson River Valley is a huge hub for live music. Or so I had heard. I saw for myself last night at The Rosendale Cafe in Rosendale, where I swear, half the town packed into this tiny little cafe to hear the music, any music. I've never seen a more appreciative crowd, and I mean that.
Mostly dominated by blues, roots, and Americana music, the vegetarian restaurant hummed with the songs of Zoe, Ratboy, Carl, Amy, and me; nobody received less than a full applause after a tune. Thanks to Wayne for hosting a great series and Mark for managing one of the best kept secrets in New York.
This morning I'm waking up to two herons standing outside my motel window with a cold rain falling lightly around them. I've got to dash into New York City for a show tonight and to see some old friends; I can't wait.
The difference between playing music and playing a show is the audience. Obviously. People give context to our talents. But sometimes this concept hits me hard, and Saturday night in Princeton, New Jersey was one of those times. I got into Princeton in the afternoon. My friend Andru Bemis had put me in touch with his friend Laura Jacobus, whom I had never met before, but who was going to put me up for the night. I pulled into Laura’s driveway. She smiled at me. And the rest is history.
Laura invited her close friends over to barbeque kielbasa and other sausages and to drink wine. It was hard to believe I had just met them. They were some of the kindest folks I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a night with; by the way, I think the dogs outnumbered the people that night, which was AWESOME.
I eventually left Laura’s to head over to the show at the Arts Council building downtown. Laura and all her friends came to show their support. Thanks to John Irving for hosting such a terrific series, for the sound team for caring about good sound, and for the audience who was so warm and made my night. Special thanks to Cami and Gabi for being the youngest fans sporting the new t-shirt.
Sunday morning, Laura, Agata, Ruby, Cora, and I walked around the Institute for Advanced Study where Einstein did most of his work in the states. It was amazing to be there. We walked along the path where George Washington marched his troops in January of 1777. It was remarkable. Today his Memorial Day, and though I am by nature anti-war, as most of us are, I find myself very grateful—more than usual—for the people who have made such sacrifices for the civilians they have never met.
I’m writing in a small café in South Norwalk Connecticut. I spent the night with my cousins Mike and Heather, grilling fajitas and catching up with two of my favorite people. The café owner is blaring some great music. I asked what it was. Turns out it’s Lupe Fiasco, a band with the buzz and energy of the grapefruit Italian sodas everyone is drinking on the street. Check out Lupe Fiasco.
My friend John told me that if I was going to Saratoga Springs, I needed to go to Yaddo, the gardens on the outskirts of town. And so, yesterday morning, I did. I was the only one there. It was equal parts creepy and magnificent. Before entering, you walk through an enormous pine grove. Then, you are out in an open field, surrounded by huge marble statues and fountains. Built in the late 1800’s, I imagine it would be breathtaking when it is full of flowers and on-lookers. As it was, I felt a bit like I was walking through the Narnia of a C.S. Lewis novel.
I went over to Caffe Lena for a quick sound check, and then grabbed a bite next door at Hattie’s. Famous for their fried chicken, I opted for the chicken livers with extra Panola. I believe I may be full until Tuesday.
I went back over to Caffe Lena and talked a bit to Geoff Muldaur, who gave two thumbs up to my choice of chicken livers for dinner. Geoff had the flu last night, so the concert producer for the night, Anne, asked if I could play a longer set. No problem, Anne. Awesome.
(Photo by Peter and Malinda Heeran)
The crowd at Caffe Lena couldn’t have been any kinder. Thanks to Sarah, Andre, Anne, Joe, all the volunteers, the audience, and everybody in the kitchen for offering me the endless supply of cookies. When I got finished with my set, Geoff proclaimed that I had “too much energy,” although as soon as he got warmed up on stage, he was pretty punchy himself. To my delight, his Mississippi Sheiks influence came blaring through his music, and it was all-in-all a great night. I finished up the night sharing a bottle of red with my friends Julia and Sean and their cat Alice in a beautiful house in Greenwich before collapsing.
I boogied to Princeton today, and now I’m headed over to Laura’s house for a barbecue before the show tonight. Until next time…
esterday afternoon in a tiny music shop in Boston, I picked up a copy of The Phoenix to see who was playing in town. Low and behold, right up the street at The Charles Hotel, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a New Orleans jazz band I’ve wanted to see live to for ages, was playing in just a few hours. Amazing. I headed up Brattle and over to The Charles Hotel. A woman in the lobby asked me what I was there for, so I said, “the show.” She directed me to the second floor, where there were hundreds of people milling. I assumed they were all waiting for “the show.” I went into a larger room. More people, one of which asked if I needed a glass of wine. Umm, sure. So there I was drinking, with my friends going to “the show.” Well, apparently I had gotten mixed up with a gala of some sort, talking to people who had no apparent notion of who the Dirty Dozen were. Still, the wine was lovely, and so was the company, and I moved on to find “the other show.”
Along the way, I found numerous covered grand pianos, the kind of phenomenon that only truly fancy hotels can afford to keep, I thought. I pulled off the cover on one and went to town on it, unable to resist. In tune, I was happy to hear. Nobody stopped me, and I played until doors opened in the Regattabar.
I bought my ticket and a glass of wine and took my seat. The house became packed in short order, and the show started with a punchy number showcasing the talents of Jake Eckert on guitar and Terrence Higgins on drums. I should mention that it was at this early point in the show that I remembered how much I love the sousaphone (tuba). True, the bass does a fine job laying a funky beat, but the sousaphone…that’s funky.
The show was loud and fun and bawdy and we all got up and danced for most of the show. They closed the night, with their signature tune, “Feet Can’t Fail Me Now,” which was just as good live as on the recordings I’d heard. Afterwards, I hung out with the guys for a bit before heading downstairs for some raw oysters and calling it a night.
Out East, there is a very common dish on most New England menus: lobster-mac-and-cheese. That’s the dish I could use to describe the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Flagrantly decadent and smooth, their tunes are like a great big helping of comfort food. Maybe it’s a little bad for you, but hey, it tastes good going down.
Last night, I swung by Club Passim in Cambridge to catch some quality music. This tiny venue has been running for 50 years, and some of my favorite musicians have played there. So I showed up in Harvard Square at 5:30 and found out there wasn't a show per say; it was their Open Mic night. Dang. Considering this some kind of odd coincidence, I decided to sign up. The place became packed quickly. After a random draw to see who-went-when, they announced the order: I was number 29 out of 29. I laughed out loud. What are the odds? I thought about leaving until I decided it was just too strange not to do. Besides, if the band that goes last is the "headliner," I technically headlined Club Passim last night...with 28 openers.
SIX HOURS LATER...I performed for my 10 minutes. I was so tired that I hardly remember belting out "Worry" and "Taxes," but I do recall that I needed to play something upbeat to keep me going. Exhausted, I drove out of Boston--the Land of "One-Hundred-Seventy-Dollars-A-Night-Are-You-Kidding-Me?!" hotels--and onto Bedford (BEHD-fud), MA. I found a cheap motel, and collapsed, only to wake up at 5 am to a new sensation: bed bugs. I could go into detail, but no need. I just started repeating in my head "BEHD-fud = BEHD-bug" as a pneumonic device to help me remember not to stop at any cheap motels there in the future.
I decided to get out of town to the intensely mottoed "Live Free or Die" state of New Hampshire, just to relax a bit before entering the fray again tonight. I'm sitting here in a bakery in Nashua, and this is my view from the corner where I'm typing. Nice.
My favorite performer last night was a girl by the name of Kristen Ford, KFO for short. She played her set, mesmerizing the crowd with her spunk. When she was done, she smacked the ass of the next guy taking the stage in a way I had only previously seen done by rugby and football players. Way to break the norms, KFO. I compare her to a sugar snap pea; sweet and crisp, she was the texture of last night's show.
One of the perks of having little means and also having to be on the road frequently is the compulsion to do absolutely everything that can be done within a town for free. Saratoga Springs, NY has no shortage of things to do that fall within the range of inexpensive to costless. Before I left to do the radio spot at WSPN on Sunday, I hit up The Last Vestige music store and browsed through their 25 cent record bin before taking a stroll through the park. While the Congress Park Carousel had nobody in line, Tom the operator still let me take a ride solo-style for 50 cents. Best 75 cent morning I've had in a while.
Chris McGill, the deejay at WSPN, seemed genuinely shocked when I came into the studio. It had been months since we last talked, and she didn't know if I'd remember to stop in. But how could I forget you, Chris? When the show was over, I asked her what I should do with the rest of the day in Saratoga Springs. She suggested I head over to Caffe Lena, since I was going to be playing there anyway, to catch Ellis Paul. And so I did.
Caffe Lena is a great venue on Phila Street. I was just as impressed with the crowd as I was with the performers. I shared a table with some nice locals right up front; I literally rested my boots on the stage. Thanks for the those chocolate chip cookies, Bob. They were top notch.
I'd never seen Ellis Paul live before, but he is a sensational performer, achieving the delicate balance between being witty and sincere. Both on the piano and guitar, his songs are honest and strong. I didn't realize he had written that tune The World Ain't Slowing Down from the "Me, Myself, and Irene" soundtrack. When he sang it, I got all gushy inside, which means it was outstanding.
I camped out last night and woke up this morning excited to have a day to off, a day that I was going to dedicate solely to listening to new music and being in New England, where I lived for 2 years way-back-when. So I got in the car and headed East. First stop: The Stone Church in Bristol. CLOSED MONDAYS. Second stop: The Newport Blues Cafe in Newport. CLOSED MONDAYS. Third stop: The Narrows Center For The Performing Arts in Fall River. Not only, CLOSED MONDAYS, but when I got out of the car, I got bombarded by large birds in a scary Hitchcock fashion. Literally, they came on swiftly and fierce, and I didn't have to use my zoom to get this picture. Taking this event to heart a bit, I gave up my hopes of catching music today.
I ended up driving back to Newport and counting my blessings that I'm alive and well. I scrounged up some food and stumbled upon a night ball game at Cardines Field. I think it was a high school game, which was fine by me: the more minor the league, the more major my enjoyment. I rooted indiscriminately for both teams, which seemed to irritate the rest of the moms and dads, but I had a nice time.
The best new music I've heard in the last few days was the opener for Ellis Paul: Chuck Costa. He's about my age and writes nice tunes, but it's the way he sings them that's striking. He has one of the sweetest voices I've heard. Like a bowl of hand-picked blackberries with cream, his songs are abundant in depth and careful in their composition. I recommend giving them a listen.
In the middle of my sound check last night, John Rosenbloom of Black Hole Music introduced me to Roger McGuinn. Roger smiled at me and shook my hand and said, "Have a great set." I smiled and said, "Thanks you too," hoping that he couldn't see through my words into my heart which was beating "I (badoom) LOVE (badoom) YOUR (badoom badoom) MUSIC (ba ba ba doom)." (photo by Kent and Mary Flodin)
I got changed and waited for about 20 minutes in the wings of the Rockford Theatre for the show to start, talking to a few fans about being on the road, telling stories, and sharing songs. It wasn't until later that I realized Roger had been standing behind me. Though I had originally hoped that he and I might get to talk about doing a song together at the end of the show, the conversation just didn't go that way. Instead, we spent our time talking about wood working, good smells, the Old Town School of Folk Music, Win Stracke, Frank Hamilton, and other greats. In retrospect, it was a perfect night. After a wonderful intro by Frank Schier and Jay Graham, I played my set to a fantastic crowd. After intermission I waited in the wings for Roger's set.
If it's possible, Roger's guitar playing has gotten even better as time has gone by. He is the quintessential performer, equal parts story teller and musician. And man has he got stories. From Bobby Darin to Bob Dylan, from Joan Baez to Odetta, the man has worked with just about everyone. My favorite story, though, was how he came up with the opening riff on his version of Mr Tambourine Man; he basically rearranged the theme of Ode To Joy. The man's smart and innovative. His show was great, with the highlight being a torn up version of Eight Miles High during his encore.
When the show was over, I expected Roger would dart off into his green room. Instead, he came right over, and before I could tell him how much "I (badoom) LOVE (badoom) YOUR (badoom badoom) MUSIC (ba ba ba doom)," he said, "I could hear you singing and stomping your boots on the stage from down stairs. I really like your sound. Great set." Thank you, Roger. I can die now.
Thanks to Bruce (below with my friend Lani) and Dave, for doing their usual amazing job with the sound. Thanks to Sara (below, rocking the new t-shirt!) and Hilary for selling my merch. Mostly, thanks to all of the audience for making the night so memorable.
Roger and I talked a bit more after the show about what it was like to be in the music industry when genre wasn't as important as it is today, a conversation I'll never forget. We hung out at the theatre for a while, then the family and fans old and new headed over to the Irish Rose for wine. Always a good way to end the night.
Today's Mother's Day. Wherever you are, I hope you're having a great Sunday. My whole family spent the day at my Grandma Ruth's house down by the Rock River, playing with the dogs and grilling out. My Uncle Al put on galoshes and trekked into the mud, having scored an empty barrel that washed up on-shore. This simple act made me remember yet again how great my family is. Awesome.
Somebody asked me to write a food review of Roger, so here you go: Roger McGuinn is rhubarb pie. The tunes Roger sings are basic, relevant, salt-of-the earth type melodies. But the arrangement, and all the added sweetness and character and care, is what makes his take on them a masterpiece: relevant, warmly accepted, and timeless.
What a week. I was commissioned by Dave Bastien at Musicians For A Cause to write a song for the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center in Colorado. BOEC is a non-profit organization that uses outdoor activities to enrich the lives of people with disabilities. This week was Soldier Spring Ski Week. Development Director Marci Sloan at the BOEC helped to raise $50,000 to give wounded soldiers and their families a week in Breckenridge, complete with ski, snowboard, and even fly fishing lessons. My job is to capture the mission of BOEC through music.
I was supposed to head up to the mountain early in the week, but I burned my hand on a coffee pot. Hotter than they look, those coffee pots. Anyway, I ended up with a skin infection that sent me to the hospital on Monday and Tuesday where I got IV antibiotics. Though I’m still a lame duck, I’m on the mend. Today, in the midst of a blizzard that shut down highway 70 and dumped 20 inches on Breckenridge, I skied with the troops, their families, and the more than 200 amazing volunteers that taught lessons.
When the day was over, I was told by Jen, Marci, Daniel, Joe, and Gene that my skis (purchased in the 80’s) were not only unfashionable, but also unsafe. So they made me a deal: leave them my old skis, and they would give me new ones. Now, had I not spent the day witnessing the graciousness of these folks, I would not have believed my good luck. But because I knew what I was dealing with, I could see that what seemed like a fantastic gesture to me was just a normal response to them. These people operate with great perspective and easy kindness. How refreshing. So with that: goodbye, neon turquoise K2s. Thanks for the good times.
Tonight, Bob and Bonnie Miller, Project Sanctuary, and the staff hosted a banquet at Beaver Run. BOEC played videos from the week, and Bob read a letter that Michelle Obama wrote to the participants of Soldier Spring Ski Week. We ate an amazing meal (hello, cherry cobbler) before the kids were let loose to play arcade games; it’s remarkable how close the military families had become over the course of the week. I’m currently snowed in up here in Breckenridge, staying at Beaver Run. I can’t think of a prettier place to be stuck. The snow is still falling on the pines outside my window.
Finally, I was just introduced to the unbelievable music of Jimmy Scott this week. Where have I been?! This man’s voice is unbelievable, just like that cherry cobbler: bold, sweet, distinct—it is exquisitely soulful. Check him out; you’ll be glad you did.
I joined a choir a few months ago, not to have a religious epiphany, but because I love to sing in large groups with harmonies. What can I say: it just feels good. This morning, we had our first performance. While the show itself went as planned, I was more blown away by the pre-show.
While people filed in, the pianist was playing old hymns on the piano without accompaniment. After about 5 songs, she began "The Old Rugged Cross." Without thinking twice, the audience, choir, staff, and guests literally started belting out the tune. Cool.
There is something very powerful about a "standard" song, secular or non-secular. You know the ones that do it for you. Those incredibly catchy numbers that, once you realize to yourself "I know that one!" you just start singing or mouthing the words to because you can't help it. For some of my close friends, it's "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)," for my parents, it's "The Ode To Billy Joe," and for a lot of my younger friends, it's "Hey There Delilah." I personally can't pass up the urge to bust out when Stevie Wonder sings "For Once In My Life" or "Signed, Sealed Delivered."
The power of a song like this is not that it is just good, or catchy, or meaningful. It's that it invites you to participate in it, not perhaps because you relate to it, but because something about that combination of notes and words stirs you up inside. These magic songs and the response that people have to them is what started me writing tunes in the first place, and I feel it's necessary to pay homage to them whenever I remember to, because really, that type of musical connection is what fuels almost everything I do as a musician. If it doesn't, then I need to take a step back, listen to Stevie again, and remember what I'm doing.
As long as we're talking Stevie Wonder, I'd like to liken him to a hot pan of frying bacon. His music cracks and explodes. The sheer thought of it is enough to get you out of bed in the morning.
Last year, the most I knew about Saginaw, MI was that it took Paul Simon "four days to hitchhike" from there in one of my favorite songs "America" off the Bookends album. Arriving there last night, I felt like I knew the city pretty well. I knew that the lawn outside the Saginaw County Governmental Center would be flooded with life size sculptures of bunnies, kind of like the cows that once covered the streets of Chicago. I knew that the people I encountered would be forthright and funny. And I knew that I would most likely buy some food from the local Save-a-Lot (where I did, in fact, save a lot).
It was a really nice show at the White Crow Conservatory. The town's favored basketball team was playing a pretty important tournament game last night, so a big thanks to everyone for sacrificing the game to watch us play music, especially Damon and Danielle and Jan and company. Mike Stephens and Siusan O'Rourke hosted the night. Ken Stead, Jamie Sue Seal, John Dillman, Bob Hausler, and I played until our voices turned to gravel, which generally means it was a good night.
Jamie Sue, Kirk, and I stayed up into the tiny hours drinking wine and catching up at the Eiseler house, and this morning they sent me on my way with good directions, kind words, and 3 lbs worth of venison summer sausage. Can't beat that. I was driving and singing along with some great Michigan radio for 2 hours before I realized that I had actually left my contact lenses back in Dewitt. Yes, yes. It's scary and ridiculous. My excuse is that touring is a bit like time travel: your perception of what you're doing, when you've done it, and when you're moving on gets completely skewed. I could have sworn I packed my contacts last night, but what I was actually remembering was having done it the night before last. Likewise, shows of the past become jumbled with shows that haven't happened yet. And people you've never met before play on your music so well that you assume that you've met them a long time ago. It's crazy. Luckily, I have linked this time relativity problem with the device below, which I found in the back of the Subaru. I'm sure its removal will greatly improve my condition.
I'm off to tickle the ivories before nodding off for the night. Have a great week.
I picked up Andru Bemis in Chicago, and we drove to beautiful South Haven for the show at Foundry Hall with Harvey Reid. I had forgotten about the time zone difference, so we showed up just in the nick. The show was completely sold out. I played my set and quickly darted over to Clementine's for a quick bite. The wait staff there is remarkable and strong...literally. The women have toned arms, not from hitting the gym, but from scooping rock hard Blue Bunny ice cream from huge containers and other such work all night long. I ordered the nachos, extra sour cream.
Harvey played 2 beautiful sets on his acoustic guitar, banjo, autoharp, and Chrysalis guitar. I have never seen anything like the Chrysalis; the neck completely detaches from the body, which resembles dragon fly wings. It's genuinely odd and great.
After the show and wishing Harvey safe travels, Andru and I hit The Depot down by the marina, grabbed some New Holland stout, and talked and drank until we could talk no more. This morning, Andru and I hit Captain Nemo's diner for a mighty fine breakfast. Later, I walked by the lake, then up Water Street. There are two disparate worlds inside of South Haven, the tourists, and the locals. Despite the different reasons for being there, both groups seem to exist quite happily along side each other. In fact, I would say that just about everyone I encountered seemed sincerely happy and almost proud to be there, from the men getting their shave-and-a-hair-cut at Combs Barber Shop to the families renting bicycles from Rock-n-Road bike shop.
I have a 3 hour drive ahead of me, and in the car, I am listening to Harvey Reid's collection of 2 chord songs. Last night, Harvey played a hilarious tune called "The E Chord," which he likened to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sure, you could add a lot of fruits and nuts and what-have-you to the sandwich, but it's really just perfect all on its own. I'd say that's a fairly accurate description of Harvey himself.
Home of the “Dairyland Surf Classic,” Sheboygan, WI is known as the Malibu of the Midwest. I can attest. Yesterday, I drove through yet another snow storm to Sheboygan and, with a little time to kill before my show at Paradigm, took myself on a tour of the town. I headed straight for Broughton to drive along the shore. I looked out to Lake Michigan. There, amidst the un-lake-like swells and crashing waves, in the middle of the snow, was a surfer. Surfing. Quite well, actually.
I watched the obviously insane surfer dude (or wahine) for a long time before heading back to 14th to get gas. I told the station attendant: “You’ll never believe what I just saw. There is somebody SURFING in this snow storm.” Without a trace of sarcasm, he replied: “Yeah, those waves are awesome today. I’d be out on them if I didn’t have to work.”
So there you have it. Sheboyganers are amazing. I had a great night in town, stopping to check out the Music Boxx music store, Fountain Park, and the remnants of the shipwrecked Lottie Cooper that went down in a storm in 1894. On the main drag, there is a life size statue of a chimney sweep (a la Mary Poppins) on top of one of the smoke stacks that threw me enough that I nearly drove off the road. The locals were hosting a brat fry (the whole frying bit seemed overkill, but hey, why not?), and I talked to them for a while, meeting their border collies, friends, and relatives, in that order.
Kate and the staff at Paradigm are great, and the show was a lot of fun. The lights were turned off from 8:30 to 9:30 to observe the earth hour event. To the die-hards that braved the elements and stayed through the whole lightless show, thank you; you made my night.
The Prairie Home Companion last night was being aired from nearby Appleton, WI, and the music that Keillor had on the show was great. I liked the Cool Waters Band. They’re a rock band that’s just plain good. I liken them to a great root beer: more substantial than the rest in the genre; classic, and never a bad choice.
There is a secret diversity about Wisconsin that few but those who have actually lived in the Midwest can appreciate. True, driving through the countryside, you can expect to see a fair amount of hand painted signs advertising “Labrador puppies” and “eggs-4-sale” and “go American,” as well as the familiar Cheese Haus and family run dairy farm. But Wisconsiners (Sconsies) are as unpredictable as they come. You are apt to hear a Sconsie whistling "76 Trombones" in the same breath as "Superstitious," drinking "a cold one" in February and talking about where to get some good french fries that won't spoil their dinner. I honestly haven’t met a Sconsie I didn’t like, and always seem to find an enclave of them whenever I’ve lived outside of the Midwest. You might be able to spot them by looking for the odd combination of characteristics, which I will lay out in the following equation: (Easy going – Pretention ) x (Prank loving + Cheerfulness)/Personal Ethics = Possible Sconsie *A Point Beer hat is also a good indicator. Needless to say, I had a great time driving to Oshkosh, stopping in Madison, one of my favorite places on earth. The town of Oshkosh has a great vibe. I checked out the Exclusive Company record store downtown before heading over to New Moon, where the crowd was great, and so was the staff. Thanks to Aaron for the place to play, Sam for the sound help, Jeff for driving from Green Bay, Bethany for being my very first credit card customer, and all the new friends I made. I would definitely like to stop in again. An unlikely snow storm had hit the area when the show got out, so I had a long white drive ahead of me. I listened to Nico on the way home. Beautiful for a snow shower and for reflection, she has a voice like warm cream being poured into tea. It swirls around so distinctly at first before completely enveloping everything with its lovely richness. I love it.
I had this quick idea back in 2008 that if I submitted one of my songs to the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, I could win the grand prize and miraculously be able to fund my next record. So I entered some tunes. And then forgot about it. Until this week. The folks at the John Lennon Songwriting Contest called on Wednesday to let me know that my song “Make a Bed” was a finalist in the R&B category in 2008. While I didn’t make enough money to fund the record, being in the Top 4 felt great. This has been a good week. I’ve learned many lessons in my career, but this is perhaps the most consistently relevant: being a performing songwriter, you really can’t expect to have your craft validated. At all. Not even a little. If you’re in it for some sort of glory, get out. You have to do it because you like it. Then if somebody comes along and lets you know they like your stuff, it’s just a bonus. I guess this is true for most walks of life. When I was a little kid of 5, I used to like jumping into water. Who knows why; it’s just a good time. Especially doing fancy dives. Loved those fancy dives. Then one day, Mom started watching me dive. I began asking her to rate my dives like in the Olympics. So she would. By the next summer, I almost didn’t want to dive unless Mom was there, rating me. Yikes. While ratings are exciting, I’ve had to use a lot of will power not to let them dictate my happiness. I struggle with it all the time. What’s amazing for me, though, is that if I’m finding a lot of joy in what I’m doing, the ratings sort of fall in line. When I wrote “Make A Bed,” the tune just sort of fell out of my fingers and throat. (Though I should give a few props to Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy, who I’d been listening to a lot that day). I was so happy with the song that I played it through at least a dozen times, which I normally never do. It was thrilling for me to put down on paper and then later to record with John Abbey. I guess it might follow that other people might pick up on the happiness that went into writing it. The band of the week for me has been The Felice Brothers, who write similar to Robbie Robertson and Isaac Brock. American, but not wholesome, I liken the Felice Brothers to a really perfect grilled cheese sandwich at a greasy spoon. Crisp, familiar parts, put together in a meaningful way. Check them out.
Sometimes, we have epiphanies so big that they change our lives forever. Or so I’m told. Mine don’t seem to last that long. A couple months, tops. Usually, that initial rush I receive upon being struck by a thought or idea fades from being an “EARTH SHATTERING BREAKTHROUGH!!!” into “that simple lesson I learned that one time,” as fast as you can say “ouch.” Suffering is a sure fire way to put a damper on any positive breakthroughs I have. A little hurt goes a long way, and my sense of well being—once so abundant with wisdom—is reduced to a fragile, sniveling young’n at the first sign of heart ache. Which is why it’s important for me to write down the epiphanies I have when I have them. So here’s the latest. If it’s too hard, let it be. (Doesn’t sound like much, but hear me out.) I’ve been knocking my head against the piano lately trying to get the bridge to this one song just right. I’ve invested hours. And it just wasn’t coming. So I played it through a moment ago with no bridge. Sounds decent. I’ve also been all over the place in terms of deciding what to do about album art for this next record. I’d been looking at public domain images on-line for weeks before talking to my friend and cd designer Kelly, who, with one word, came up with a concept that fell right into place. Who’da thunk it. I’ve also recently moved back to my hometown of Rockford, IL. The moment I got to this town, I was working diligently on how best to get back to living in Chicago…immediately. All to no avail. But since I’ve been here, amazing opportunities have been presenting themselves, the most exciting of them is being asked to sit of the Board of Directors of Charlotte’s Web of Rockford. In just a couple weeks, the jungle of obstacles and I had seen before me began to clear. And a pretty sweet path started opening up on its own, without me having to brandish my machete. Though there is a time and a place for action, there is also a time to sit back, and see. This week’s epiphany is brought to you by a fresh outlook on patience, a renewed desire to relinquish my overdeveloped sense of urgency, and Gevalia Coffee, which is lovely, and forces you to enjoy it slowly. The band of the week for me is Wilco, who I liken to a pomegranate: irregular, but natural. Unpredictable. Strange fruits, but not so exotic that they can’t be loved by all. Ancient civilizations used to believe eating pomegranates increased fertility, because of all their seeds. I too believe taking in a little Wilco makes my brain literally burst with fresh songwriting ideas.
Many things in my life are best dealt with by logic and reason. Others with will. And others, with time. The rest, my gut: that basic visceral or emotional part of the self. Most of the music I write comes from the gut. The music I have written using a logical process is fairly disingenuous. Seriously lousy. Lots of my friends write songs that take literally months to complete; their tunes are thoroughly thought out. And their songs are brilliant. But for me, if it doesn't hit me like a ton of bricks, it doesn't hit me at all. Many of you responded to my last blog. First, I appreciate you reading the blog. I had no idea how many of you were reading it. Thank you. Second, let me address your concern regarding my last entry. True, I replaced four of the original tunes with four new ones that I wrote in just a few hours. Not so much to cover up anything particularly bad, more to elevate something good. The four new songs came to me in a flash. Not just a flash, but a really powerfully happy flash. A "hot-dang-how'd-I-ever-think-of-something-like-that-thank-yooouu-God" flash. The tunes are a response to a lot of hopeful letters I received. And my gut response to it all was to make a swap: a few new lighter ones for a few old heavy ones. So let me say, yes, these songs are just as real as their counterparts, written in a flash, like all my best are. And no, I don't believe our dark arts (sounds very Harry Potter) should all be tucked away; my gut just led me to want to have a few bright spots in a fairly weighty project. More from me soon. I've been nursing the flu for a few days and don't want to write too much on a fever brain. In the mean time, be well, stay warm, and enjoy where you are.
Being a songwriter, I consider it my job to be as uncensored as possible when constructing tunes. Most of the beauty in writing comes at moments when both the melody and the wording are completely honest. No holds barred. If I don’t allow myself to be vulnerable enough to compose candidly, I really have no hope of creating something that is relatable to anybody. So I don’t ever feel like I can over-relate a feeling. Too much information? Them’s fighting words. However, I’ve had an epiphany this week . I’m going into North Branch studio on Monday to record a piano/vocal record. I’ve had all 14 songs picked out for a little while now. Solid songs, catchy and frank. But I just received a package in the mail last week that has given me some new perspective, and I’ve had to completely overhaul the whole project. It was a huge manila envelope full of letters from residents at The Abbott House in Chicago, explaining how much hope and confidence they’d derived from my music. I was touched. And then a bit freaked out. The album I’m about to record is full of songs about desperation and fear. And I thought to myself: what am I doing? I’m about to make something that reflects nothing but sadness for folks to hopefully purchase and then listen to…again and again. Really? No. No, that’s really not going to be good for anybody. So no. In a few hours, I wrote 4 equally honest songs that I think will hopefully inspire listeners to appreciate themselves and respect their intuitions. I am taking out 4 of the songs of misery and replacing them with these 4. Because even though I can play these truthful, somber melodies live, there’s really no immediate reason to have a collection of them for people to relate to over and over. Maybe sometimes it’s enough to write honestly, just for ourselves. The process feels good anyhow. Then, we can rifle through our best stuff, and actively choose what to disperse to the general public. At least for this record, I will. In the mean time, I’m off to give my dog Hank a bath because he just found a dead critter—probably coyote—in a neighboring soybean field and decided to roll around in it. Too much information? Likely. One of the new tunes I wrote has the same chord progression as Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.” I love this tune, popular as it is. Pachelbel’s music, to me, is like a bunch of ripe grapes off the vine. Very divine and beautiful, also simple and decadent without a trace of irony. Abundant and celebratory to witness, and equally glorious to take in.
In several places in Iowa, there is no audible NPR station. I know this to be true, because yesterday at 10:30 am, I was 250 miles into Iowa on Highway 80 when I lost every station except for the Christian and Country music ones. It was half an hour before President Obama would be giving his inaugural speech. Not knowing whether I would pick up a signal if I continued westward, I actually backtracked to Mile Marker 75 and listened to the speech on the side of the road, which definitely brought tears to my eyes. When it was over, I hopped back on the road and thought a lot about how I couldn't get national news in some spots in Iowa. Which made me contemplate exposure. What we are exposed to is one of the greatest determinants of who we become. I think there are so many trivial disputes and arguments that would never need to be had if, rather than find fault with another person's differing view point, we empathized and learned from the notion that the other person has seen vastly different things than we have. I considered this idea well into the evening as the stars appeared over the rural farm areas out west. I hadn't seen so many stars in a long time. It was so beautiful that I got out of the car to witness the sky. It's depth was both startling and calming. I was so mellow when I got back into the car, so captivated by the enormity and expanse of our universe. But when I drove into the city, immediately I could pick up on the stress of the people crossing the street, the worry on people's brows, the despair in their stride. And at first I thought, "What is the matter with these panicky fools?" And then immediately after this thought, I remembered: they hadn't just seen the stars. If a dog has been beaten by its owner since birth, it is reasonable to assume that the dog will be defensive. If a person has eaten only french fries, they would likely not immediately care for the taste of a boiled potato. If a palm tree has grown for millions of years in tropical climates, it follows that it may die from a cold front. And if a person is exposed to almost entirely country music, then it makes sense that the person will listen to country music exclusively. True, there are ways to obtain different food and music, but without knowing of the existence of other options, how could they even know to be curious? This thought really struck a chord with me and makes me think about how much more understanding I could be to people whose tastes, lifestyles, and habits differ so extremely from my own. Looking at people--and actually, everything--as an entity molded by unique exposure, the need to make something "right" or "wrong" goes away. We can be tolerant of everyone's various backgrounds that have no doubt exposed them to a variety of different things that are true to them. What we can also be is cautious with the things that we expose ourselves to that we know are damaging to our wellness: stressful situations, disturbing media, and angry dogma. Today, I'm going to expose myself to a little bit of The Foghorn String band. This bluegrass band is from the West Coast, but their music remind me of Louisiana hot sauce. All purpose. Tangy. Hot, but not too not to mask the flavor. It has a purpose, and it's purpose is to heat up what it touches.
On Saturday morning, in a perfect, Midwestern, white-out blizzard, I drove—white knuckled—from Chicago to Canton Township. My four hour trip turned into an eight hour one. I was in the ditch twice. And I was covered in leg bruises from falling on the ice while trying to haul around my new keyboard, which literally weighs more than I do. But knowing that things change, you hang in there. Onto the show with The Smokin Sleddog folks. Andre Villoch played a great set, and so did Zig and Siusan. JS, Greg and John showcased some new tunes that were fairly phenomenal, and Jason and Diana played an instrumental set that made my jaw drop a bit. More than a bit. Ok, I think my knees buckled too. Anyhow, the show ended with John and the Latini guys bringing down the house as only a band of relatives can do. When the show was over, I realized that my overnight plans of heading north made no sense, and so I should find a place to stay in the area. This took forever, and I was desperate for sleep. But I figured that things must change at some point, so I tried to hang in there. After an hour, I finally found a recycled motel. I call it recycled because these kinds of motels usually are called something like “America’s Cheapest Inn” and they have Super 8 faucets with Sheraton towels and Hampton Inn waste baskets. That’s cool by me. I figure I’m part of a conservation movement whenever I stay in places like that. So I checked in. But in the draining process of lugging my keyboard into the motel, I didn’t clear the corners of the hallways very well, and I ended up ripping off the moulding from the walls. It sounded like an iceberg splitting in two. So me and my keyboard and about 15 feet of plastic moulding—probably Marriott—collapsed on the bed. I got an instant bloody nose . Just then, I heard what I liked to believe was somebody dribbling a basketball in the room adjacent to mine. From the sound of it, the couple in the neighboring room was having a much better time than I was. The sound went on all night long, and while I applauded them for their stamina, I was dying for sleep. Life felt cruel. But somewhere in the back of my head, I kept trying to tell myself that it was just a moment, and it would end, and things would change. The events of Sunday went on like a comedy of errors. I don’t need to fill you in. But again, the lesson remains: things change. Today is Martin Luther King Day, and tomorrow, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the President of The U.S. I think often about why many of us advocate for Obama and King like we do. It is because everything about them represents that fundamental need to believe that pain will cease. I can’t imagine what would have happened had they and other great believers of change stopped believing in themselves. How would it be if we never hoped that there is more that can be done, that there is the wonderful world of the unknown beyond what is known that holds endless possibilities for a better way of life? How sad life would be without this. In times of my own personal strife, my dad—for as long as I can remember—has shot me the same phrase: this too shall pass. I used to hate when he said it. Now, I get it. As life goes on, you begin to see that things do change, and the series of moments that lead to disaster can lead to another series of moments that lead to hope. This wisdom is not permanent for me yet; I have to will myself to remember it. But I think this is one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves when times are difficult: the reminder that things can change. I have another long car trip tomorrow, and I’m packing tonight. I’m looking forward to listening to the inauguration address tomorrow. I’m also looking forward to more of the music of Cory Chisel and The Wandering Sons. These guys are great. Their music is like blueberry pie. Rustically assembled. Wild to the taste. Uncommon in its genre, but common in its accessibility. The delivery of these tunes is so familiar, but the depth of the content is anything but ordinary.
My tea bag this morning has a quote on the tab that reads, "Man is as vast as he acts." Thanks, tea bag. How fitting. I'm running on just a few hours of sleep after a great show at The Abbey. It was the kind of show that you were accutely aware of just how good the actions of the crowd/staff/musicians were. They were worth getting up even earlier to write a blog about it before heading to Michigan for the day. The cold didn't let up yesterday. Everyone who made it out did so in sub-zero temperatures. The turn-out was amazing and we could not have asked for a better crowd than the one we got. Steve Dawson (one of my very favorite songwriters), along with Diane, John, Frank, and Jason got the stage and the audience so hot that it was pretty simple to step up there by the time it was my turn to play. Thanks to Gregg, John, Frank, and Lindsay for being such fantastic company with me on stage. The night closed with Come Sunday bringing down the house with some truly earth-moving kind of gospel music I haven't heard...ever. Big thanks to Mike, Al, Alton, Lenny, Bill, Lindsay, and Sue for closing the night on the best note (or 7) that I can remember. Expect big things from these guys. You know it's a good night of music when you wouldn't dare to sit in the green room for the other bands' performances lest you miss out on the evening. Finally, thanks Sean and Enron and the rest of The Abbey staff for letting us throw a party in your space. And to those fans who danced away the night, what can I say: you are the kind of fans musicians dream of. No matter what anybody tells you, there is absolutely no substitute for good fans. (If a guitarist is playing a wicked solo in the woods, and nobody hears it, does it even make a sound?). You get the picture. Today I'm heading to Canton Township, MI for a reunion show with some old friends. I can't wait. It's a real treat when some of your favorite people to play with are some of your favorite people in general. Hope to see you there.
A friend recently told me the official name of my job: do-it-yourself musician. DIY musician, for short. My cohorts and I are given this name because we receive little help from the big businesses in the music industry. We write our tunes. We record them. We have them manufactured to sell at the shows that we book, which we promote by writing our own press releases, finding our own radio spots, making our own posters, and contacting newspapers, television, and magazines...by ourselves. I've been thinking about this DIY concept. Technically, everybody does everything by themselves. We all make our own life choices, no matter who we work for, big business or small business. And anyway, most big businesses started as small businesses. I'd say most everybody and every business is DIY at some point. However, there is one big difference between a DIY business and one that has become very large and successful: access. Access. We don't really have the access into the inner workings of most businesses these days. When I go to a Super Stop-N-Shop, I buy what's on the shelf. When my car is wrecked, and I take it to Crash-1-Auto, they tell me what they're going to do to fix my car, and I go along with it. When I take my posters to be copied at Kinko's, I put a card into a copy machine, and every time I press "Start," I am charged a nickel for a copy. When I want to purchase a keyboard at Guitar Center, they sell me the instrument and send me on my way. And I'm grateful to have some degree of access to these stores so that I can get what I need. But the access you have to a business while it is in a do-it-yourself stage is entirely different. If I go to Rockford's little 320 store on Court Street to buy groceries, and they don't carry what I'd like, I can actually just talk to the owner (his name is Dennis) to see if he could stock the item. A week later, my brand of yogurt is in their cooler. After having my car broken into, we took it to P&L Auto Body, a small business on Auburn, and the owner (his name is Dave) took us into the shop and explained the procedures he wanted to take. When I picked up the car this morning, he told me there was a chance the window may whistle, in which case, I should bring it back at my convenience so he could look at it again, because he'd really like to do the job right. He insisted. Minuteman Press on North Second made my last round of gig posters. Not only did they do a bang-up job, but when we printed a lot of posters that were unusable, there was no charge, and we worked together on re-designing them to get them done well. The woman who helped is named Teresa. I bought a keyboard on Monday from Randee's music. He (Randee himself) gave me a deal for having been a customer with him for a while. Also, he spent a long time at the computer making sure that everything was written up very accurately for insurance purposes. And he offered to talk to my insurance company if need be. Small, DIY businesses have the access and authority to make changes for their patrons as individuals with individual needs. The way I see it, every time I'm buying something, I'm "in business" with that establishment. And, while we do need big businesses for many things, I am less amazed by being in business with "Walgreens Co" than I am by the fact that I can be in business with "Dennis:" an actual person with an actual name who talks to his customers. Likewise, completely independent musicians are in a unique place to be accessible to their fan base. We can reach out to individual fans to help hang gig posters, and in turn, individual fans can ask us directly to sing at their weddings or bar mitzvahs. It's nothing short of remarkable. Now, if I were approached by a good manager/booking agency/record label, I would not say no. At some point, working by yourself becomes difficult, and you're ready for help. But during this time of being DIY, I am enjoying the inherent closeness you have to actual people. I appreciate you, folks. Today the show at the Paradigm was cancelled due to a weather phenomenon not dissimilar to an arctic surge. The owner--Kate--made the call, and we talked it through. I'm planning on staying in. Wherever you are, I hope you are warm and well. I may listen to some Cat Power today, who I can only liken to a hot toddy. The harmonies of these girls are so warm that you get the chills.
“Don’t quit your day job.” Basically, “Nice try, you stink.” We use this phrase to let someone know that they really aren’t doing something well enough to make a living at it. Fair enough. Not everybody can do everything. Still, there is something amazing in doing things that you know you won’t have success with, but running with it all the same. Today I made another round of gig posters. They may be the very worst ones yet. Nothing is centered. The words aren’t really legible against the color, and I doubt that they will grab anyone’s attention. Could I have used a professional? Yes. I’ve done it before. Should I have used a professional? Yes. I’ve needed help before. Do I think that, with time and practice, I could be a professional? No. Ha ha. Get out of town. No matter what you do, somebody will always be better at it than you. I think the sooner we come to grips with this, the better. The less seriously we take ourselves, the easier life becomes. And once you stop caring whether or not you’re the greatest, all you endeavor in can make you happy. The very best example of this is when your day job doesn’t fill your cup. For instance, today, I could not write another song. I wrung out my creativity like a sponge, and there was nothing else to squeeze out. What else could I do but delve into something I’m mediocre at doing? Really. I figure it’s better to keep in motion than to stand still. People who move generally move in interesting directions. My visual art is sloppy, but it has led me to contract the help of artists who have become dear friends. My woodworking is never flush, but the smell of fresh cut pine takes my senses into some paranormal state of pure bliss. I decorate cookies—to quote my friend Sara—“like a second grader,” but the jokes we make about them has led to some gut-busting laughter. Today, twenty more civilians were killed in Gaza, 14 of them children. I am considering what I can do. If I only stuck to what I was good at, my only option would be to write a song about it. In actuality, I can choose to do many things for them. Sometimes, whether or not you do the very best is of little consequence. Somebody could always help out better than I could. But the fruits of someone’s labors are still fruits that others could cherish, no matter how sloppy. I’m hoping in 2009 that I will go with the good intentions that move me and not to be deterred by my own ego. Keep on moving in 2009! That’s my goal. When I need help, I will listen to Daniel Lanois, who my friend Charles just introduced me to. Daniel is a cup of café au lait. Though he sings some songs in French and others in English, the feeling is consistent. Strong. Memorable. Perfectly imperfect. The music is real and requires no translation to have an effect.
A few days ago, my car was broken into in Chicago at the corner of St. Paul and Damen. Wicker Park at 3:15 pm is bustling with shoppers, and I have no idea how the thieves did it, but in brood daylight, they smashed my passenger side window and made off with my keyboard, my gps, a laptop, all of the songs I've written in the last five months, loads of clothes, as well as all of the handmade Christmas cards I made to give out to family. What can I say; they did a bang-up job. Blast. Today is Christmas, and I'm here with my folks in Rockford, celebrating Hurd-style with scotch and pickled fish and Anne Murray. Life goes on, and that's a good thing. Coffee is still a fine drink. Slippers still keep your feet warm. Cribbage still isn't my game, and Mom still rubs it in. How could I complain? I am just getting on-line to check my email, and at the top of my inbox is one miracle of a message. I got an email from a woman named Leticia. A couple of blocks from where my car was broken into, she found my Christmas cards. She took the time to look me up on-line, and she wanted to know how she could get them back to me. Leticia is what Christmas is all about (not sure that sentence has ever been typed before). I was so moved by her email. It made me think of Newton's third law: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." I know that this theory pertains to force and physics, but today it makes me think about the actions of humans. Today, the force is Leticia. (Again, I would wager that is a virgin sentence.) I'd like to believe that for every crime, someone is doing something kind. For every destruction, someone is rebuilding. For every loss, something is gained. And maybe it's not true, but today, it feels that way, and I'm rolling with it. This has been a real up and down sort of December. Many loved ones have passed. Many songs have been written. Many more snowstorms have dumped many more snowflakes than I can ever remember seeing around this time in the midwest. But all in all, what a great way to wrap up the year. The show at Severson Dells was awesome. Thanks to Brian Leaf and the gang for hosting an awesome night. The women who participated in "Women's Cookie Weekend, 2008" baked about a thousand cookies that have been enjoyed by folks all over Illinois now. And the weather got so cold that we were all stuck inside enjoying each other without feeling a lick of guilt. How bout it. Finally, Anne Murray, with her real gem of a voice, lasted us all day. She's a drink of soda water with bitters...that most refreshing of substances that makes it so easy to keep eating, drinking, and carrying on laughing like a pack of hyenas. Thanks, Anne for keeping us going.
Personal experiences are, frankly, personal. Still, when you see something amazing, you’d like other people to share in the amazement. You’d like to know that they believe in what happened to you. Sadly, when you see something wildly odd and you are the only one to witness it, no amount of convincing will make others truly believe. Mom and Aunt Ruthanne once saw a deer swimming down the Rock River, but nobody buys it. I remember clearly seeing a goat in an apple tree as a young girl, but why trust a kid’s eyes? I have friends who unabashedly admit to watching U.F.Os and ghosts in open air, but unless it happened to you, it’s simply not valid. Well here’s another one for you. I left the mountains of Colorado early Tuesday morning to drive home in the worst snow storm of the season. 30 mph was too fast to go, and the lanes were not at all discernable. I didn’t see anything but blustery snowfall until mile marker 123 in Nebraska, just west of Ogalalla. As soon as I hit marker 123, the skies opened, the sun burst through the clouds, and swooping down from the heavens and right in front of my car was a pelican. That’s right, a pelican. I know them well, as they are hands down my favorite bird. When I lived near the ocean, natives used to call them “dumpster ducks,” but I think they’re fantastic and have admired them for years. So there the ocean bird was, in the middle of Nebraska. I know what I saw, and I find it to be a powerfully good omen. Believe me? The rest of the trip was a bit scary. Roads in Iowa were covered in sheet ice with trucks and cars off the road everywhere. I stopped in Iowa City on Tuesday night and made it safely back to Illinois on Wednesday morning. I’m confident that my safe return had something to do with the pelican. Yesterday, I spent six hours at North Branch Studio in Chicago with Ryan engineering my very first holiday record; I’m mailing it as a gift to everyone who sent me blank cds. (If you’re reading this, and you didn’t, it’s not too late to mail yours in.) It’s crazy to think about how quickly a record can come together. I wrote 16 songs in less than a week. Then I chose the 14 I liked most. We recorded them, mixed them, and mastered them in a few hours, and now I’m currently burning them for everyone that contributed to the gigantic pile of mailed in cds on the counter. I’m mailing them out tomorrow. Tomorrow is the annual WCW (women’s cookie weekend) here at home, and then I’m heading over to Severson Dells—my old stomping ground—to play their luminary night. Tis the season. I hope you are all taking a nice holiday, and if you’re not, please take one at some point. May you hope for the very best this holiday. May you feel loved. And may you not immediately discredit anything astonishing. On the drive back east, I listened to a “best of” mix that I got from Jeff Holland in Boulder, CO. He djs at Radio 1190. My favorite group on the mix is Paper Bird, which is as lovely as orange marmalade. Classic, refined, sweet, and just bitter enough to be relatable, these female vocalists have the best harmonies I’ve heard all year, blending seamlessly and strong, but still feminine. Check them out.
It took a while, but I’ve finally recovered from touring and the concussion. Today is the first day I’ve had a chance to sit at the piano again. Ain’t that grand. As a kid, I remember my folks talking about how nice “downtime” is. I remember thinking: “what a strange concept, this ‘downtime’ they speak of. Why would anybody want time to be bored?” A few years later, and I can fully appreciate it. This week, I thought about the interesting role that dogs play in the U.S. today. My dog Hank is great, for the most part. On Friday, we had to take the car into the mechanic, who told me that my dog and I could wait in the waiting area. We waited for an hour and a half before being told it would be another hour and a half. Hank started to fidget and growl under his breath at an administrator there; I don’t think he trusted that guy’s hair-do. (In Hank’s defense, it was a bit like badger fur.) Regardless, the administrator told Hank to leave; he could not be there if he behaved that way. Reading between the lines, I could see that—unless the administrator had assumed Hank would take himself for a stroll, maybe grab a cup of coffee and a donut, and then swing by to meet me a bit later after the service was done—he meant for us BOTH to get the hell out of Dodge (or in this case, Subaru). Dogs are buffers. Talking to a dog is far easier than talking to a person. Also, making eye contact with a dog takes much less courage that human eye contact does. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been walking Hank when we’ll pass somebody and they’ll stoop down, pat Hank’s head, and look Hank in the eyes and say, “And what’s your name?” Though I’ve been tempted to say nothing and let the inquisitor stand there foolishly realizing that Hank is, in fact, not going to tell them, I always respectfully chime in, and from there, a conversation is born. Having a dog is sort of similar to having a child, I imagine. I can remember taking dance class as a little girl, and all the parents would watch us, talking through class. When I asked my teacher Miss Lou Ann what they were talking about, she usually said, “Oh, I’m sure they’re talking about you guys.” Same thing at dog parks. Unlike attending an uncomfortable party (where there is really no good way to walk into a group of strangers), moseying into a group of people at the dog park is easy. Just say, “Which one’s your’s?” and you’re in. It’s an instant icebreaker. I can talk a blue streak at a dog park. We all stand around, watching our dogs frolic to and fro, while we talk about life as a dog owner. I may never see any of these folks again, and I don’t know a thing about them, but I know exactly how many cups of food their dog takes a day, what time the dog wakes up in the morning, and what their dog did to their favorite pillow. Amazing. I think I am going to attempt not to use Hank as a buffer. Maybe I’ll walk into the dog park circle today and say, “Hi, I’m Emily. Who knows where to get a good Belgium beer around here?” It would be a good social experiment. Or maybe this dynamic of using dogs as a means to reach out to our neighbors is perfect, and I shouldn’t attempt to change it…. yeah. Actually, I think I’ll leave it be. True, it’s a surface level relationship, but if nothing else, why mess with such a funny way of relating to mankind? Hank’s favorite musician is Lyle Lovett. I know because he’s one of the few musicians that doesn’t make Hank leave the room. Lyle Lovett is like a grapefruit. Unmistakable. Perfectly crafted. The bitterness in his lyrics are perfectly sunny in their delivery. Truly Southern with all the charm but without a trace of unwarranted niceties, his music cuts deep in the very best of ways.
I got my first concussion yesterday. I was packing up my things in Rockford to drive to a show in Sheboygan, when I hit my head on my folks’ camper, immediately felt the need to toss my cookies, and was laid up for the rest of the day with a soreness that spread down my back and shoulders and into my tailbone. You would think the moral of this story is, “Take care of your noggin.” But I had a different revelation. The first thing I felt after my blow to the head was guilt. Guilt that I would miss my show. Guilt that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my dog. Guilt that I couldn’t pack up my own car and would need to rely on others. I mulled over this odd impulse and where it comes from for the better part of the day yesterday, and while I never did come up with a solid notion of where guilt comes from, I did manage to come up with something: guilt is a fairly useless emotion. I say “fairly” because a little guilt seems ok; it shows you care. A friend recently called me to let me know that she felt nervous that our friendship was slipping because contact had dwindled. I felt awful. So now I call more, and the relationship works well. She was right to let me know how she felt, because I saw that I probably could stand to change a bit for my own sake and for a better friendship. But guilt usually comes from feeling like we “should” do something, and then can’t, so instead, we feel bad. We don’t know if we can meet some set of internal or external standards, and so we experience guilt for our supposed failure. The response to guilt is rarely to change our attitude. We generally pick from a myriad of ridiculous defense mechanisms to cope: we lie, we lash out, or we say we never cared for the subject of our guilt to begin with. Little positive work is done by a guilt-ridden mind. One of the books-on-tape that I listened to on the way back from Portland was called “The Weather Makers” by Tim Flannery. I picked it up from the library because it deals with humanity’s impact on the environment. Generally speaking, I’ve felt a lot of guilt about my environmental contributions. Should I be doing better? Should I make bigger changes? Flannery’s book addresses these questions, but instead of inducing guilt, he provides hope for how to move toward a better way of life. Hope. The opposite of guilt. I pondered hope. Yes, I think that hope really can squelch just about any feeling of guilt. Hope looks to the future. Guilt looks backward. Hope lifts us up, and guilt puts us down. Obviously, hope is the way to go. Why would we ever choose guilt? The answer is, we learn it. And like anything that is learned, it can be unlearned. I’ve decided to work hard on unlearning guilt for a while. I’ll try to keep you posted on my progress. This Saturday is America Recycles Day. I hope you’ll consider seeing what events are happening in your town that educate the public on how to live greener at home and in the office. I hope you find something that interests you. But if not, I just sincerely hope that all’s well with you. I’m off to play a show at University of Wisconsin tonight, and I hope it’s great. In the car, I will listen to pre-season Christmas music, and not feel guilty about it. Likely, I will listen to Ed Ames, whose voice is blackstrap molasses: sweet, dark, viscous, heavy, smooth, thick, robust, and nourishing. Gingerbread has no flavor without molasses, and Christmas has no flavor without Ed Ames.
It is an amazing time to be alive in the United States. Last night, Jillian, Logan, and I watched Barack Obama become the next president on the television at Miss Delta on Mississippi in Portland, Oregon. The group huddled around the screen as though it were a fire and we were all trying to keep warm. When the screen first flashed that Barack Obama had won the election, we were all dead silent. No one would let themselves believe it; we were so weary and wary from years of supporting underdogs that we just couldn’t fathom it was actually happening. But when it was confirmed, the room was full of hilarity. A sense of community exploded inside the restaurant. Jillian ran around the block immediately like Paul Revere. Up and down the streets people were honking, banging pots and pans, playing musical instruments; it was Mardi Gras, minus the beads. What was so beautiful was to know that this was happening in cities all over the country, that we were part of a movement that we couldn’t even see, just feel. We were watching all of this in a predominantly African American part of Portland, and it was very meaningful to be beside them as they celebrated the victory for some of my reasons, as well as many reasons that are theirs alone. With the election of Obama, I feel the national mentality shifting. Under the Bush administration, we as people have been encouraged to spend as much as possible, to shore up the economy by obtaining personal wealth. Obama has asked us to bring about change by making personal sacrifice, turning off light switches, keeping air in the tires, and encouraging our children to read. He asks that we be our own ambassadors for the change we need. I am so hopeful, and this morning, despites the clouds, I can feel the clarity in people’s hearts. The gig at the White Eagle was good. I had dinner with Andy Pratt before the show. My cousin Jake came with his girlfriend Jackie, and we had a great night. Last night, I played at a small bar called The Mockcrest Tavern. Great little bar with good people and a great staff. It was odd to play on election day, but ultimately, I was happy. I was restless for most of the day while the ballots were being counted, wondering what I should be doing. Playing music was exactly what I needed. That’s something I can always do. Right now, Jillian and I are listening to Bach. Food review: Bach is honeycomb. Very mathematical, completely mysterious, and leaves you with a sense of a higher power. Precise. Beautiful. Fluid, but organized, drawing on a myriad of techniques like a bee drawing pollen from all the flowers in the field. Bees do a fancy dance to communicate with each other about the location of pollen. Bach writes and plays the fancy dance.
Oregon Trail is an educational computer game used in schools to teach kids about pioneer life in the 1800’s. As a player in the game, you are given several choices—like whether to spend money on food or supplies, whether to ford the river or wait for a bridge, whether to hunt or camp, etc—and you are then told your outcome based on your choices. You could hypothetically make it safely to Oregon and establish yourself, or you could lose all of your family and your oxen. You never know in this simulation game. Driving the Pacific Northwest in real life, 2008, is unbelievable. I left Denver and headed through Wyoming and Utah under rolling, pillow-like clouds, heavy with rain and sleet that dumped on my car in buckets. The wind blew so hard the crows couldn’t land. The sky was periwinkle most of the day over the high plains, which made the grass look the color of cooked egg yolks. Cows and deer and goats and sheep peppered the plains in the storm, seemingly unaware of the torrential rain. Beautiful wind turbines scattered the earth the further west I drove, past Idaho and finally into Oregon. I stayed last night in Baker City at The Oregon Trail Motel, where I made the choice to bed down and sleep, and the outcome was that I safely made it through the night and was able to hit the road this morning; no oxen were lost. Driving Route 84 through Oregon feels not dissimilar to being inside a model train set-up. You are absolutely miniature. Moving into Blalock Canyon and then beside the great river, I lost my sense of time and place for a while. The clouds drooped over the foothills of the mountains like pieces of lazy tulle allowed to drape over the landscape. The hills resembled giant dog paws, with towns and trees and purple brush wedged comfortably between the toes. I raced numerous trains with “Union Pacific” and “‘K’ Line” painted on the cars. I drove under gorges and then on top of them, and then finally beside them as I rolled into Portland, where I am now staying in Jillian Hicks’ apartment on magnificent Mississippi and can’t wait for the show tonight at The White Eagle. During this trip, I finished “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and took a break from books on tape to listen to David Gray’s “White Ladder.” Food review: David Gray is a carefully prepared breakfast sandwich that is meant to be consumed in the car. My favorite is fried egg on toast with avocado. That’s David: that buffer that brings your senses out of their dream state and comfortably into reality. The vocals are crisp. The content is warm. The effect is a savory delivery that induces self-reflection. The driving beats propel you forward while the legato counter-melodies lift you up. Alone in your car, you can be pensive and undisturbed while taking in the world, and in conjunction with David’s music, you awaken a bit.
“Rally: to unite; to muster for a common purpose; to rouse from depression or weakness.” Yesterday, we saw Barack Obama speak in Denver. People rallied near the capitol building. I’ve never been in such a huge crowd. I had to be picked up to actually get a look at Obama. It was a pretty amazing piece of history to witness. The crowd was diverse, and many people were holding signs that on one side read “Obama” and on the other, “Unity.” It’s very plain to see people rally for a cause when you are—in fact—at a rally. But it takes a lot more personal awareness to see how people in our lives rally for us on a day-to-day basis, bolstering our self-esteem and rousing us. On my last day in New York City, I became increasingly in tune with how many people were rallying for me, mustering my spirits and giving me hope. Traditionally, I’ve had a hard time accepting the gifts of others, but after a little soul-searching, I’ve come to terms with the fact that it makes others feel good to give, and actually, it feels just as good to be supported. The last gig of the tour was in the Bronx at An Beal Bocht, a real-deal Irish pub. The sense of community blew me away. From the moment I walked in to the second I left, I had people that were strangers just moments ago, now carrying my keyboard, cheering for me, offering me dinner or a place to stay, even giving me a $20 for gas money to drive back west. I drove through the night after this gig to Chicago, so I had ample time to reflect on just how much people rallied for me over the course of the week. I realized that I was able to stay with family and friends of family, who gladly took me in, baked me cookies, and left me warm coffee in the morning. Brothers of friends bought me a beer and lent me some of their time and wisdom. People brought friends to shows to bring higher energy to the room. Julie even sent me home with bits of her apartment that she hoped we might use. And of course, no one has rallied for me like my parents, in innumerable ways. Feeling so grateful, I listened to The Staple Singers on the way home. Food review: The Staple Singers are a crawfish boil. We used to have them out at my Grandma’s house when I was a kid. The food is there to evoke a sense of community. This is how I feel about The Staple Singers. The music’s message and tone are one of coming together, dipping from a common pot and sharing what we have. The music is strong and driving, but also easy to pick up on; it’s catchy and seems universal. There is a clear feeling in the air when I listen to their tunes: the fruits of the earth are meant to be celebrated with friends.
The pressure’s on. This is my last morning in Brooklyn. From Julie’s 12th floor apartment, I can see the Manhattan Bridge and most of Manhattan. There’s the city, and I only have one day left to see as much as I can. You never know what you’ll find walking down the streets of New York, so I may just get outside this morning and see what I stumble upon. I’ve learned a lot about New York City this week. Top 10 off the top of my head: 10) New Yorkers will help you get anywhere, as long as it doesn’t take too long. 9) Sing whilst walking down the sidewalk; you never know who might hear you. 8) Women’s fashion has declared that pants are unnecessary: leggings are sufficient. 7) Insert the word “underground” before your profession to make yourself sound hip. 6) New Yorkers use the subway to defrag. Don’t mess with this sacred time. 5) Be direct. Make eye contact. Lose the attitude. 4) Get in the cab before you tell the cabbie where you want to go. 3) Even though they have access to anything and everything, New Yorkers innovate. 2) Make no mistake: we’re all on this island together, so please—if you will—chin up. 1) Just because they’re moving fast doesn’t mean New Yorkers aren’t seeking the same inner peace as anybody else. Please don’t chock them up to their pace. The show last night at The Cornelia Street Café was the best of this tour. I shared the basement stage of this little Greenwich Village classic pub with Nhojj and The One and Nines, really talented local soul musicians. Thanks so much to musician Jon Sobel for hosting such a great series. Looking forward to coming back again. Julie and I listened to Seu Jorge on “The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions” last night. Food review: Seu Jorge is an avocado. Smooth. Rich. Simple and perfect on its own. Simultaneously all-purpose and exotic, his music is meant to be savored from start to finish. It cools any angst or fire you carry within.
The Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street is amazing. The museum provides guided tours through a tenement building that was built in 1863. Julie and I stopped into the area yesterday, having had a great time the night before with Ted Schenkelberg in Brooklyn, including a meditation class and a bite at Tavern on Dean. I had read about Manhattan’s Lower East Side immigration influxes, but the meaning changes when you’re standing there. In 1864, the 5th largest German city (by German population) was New York City. At one point, the area was averaging 700 people per square acre. The mental image of it is incredible. Picture that. On the tour, you are taken into the living quarters of 2 families. Needless to say, whatever your background, visit the museum; you will feel grateful for what you have and for the sacrifices of your ancestors, forced to live through the prejudices of an untrusting nation. Last night I picked up a last minute gig at a venue called The Village Lantern on Bleecker Street. Sometimes in life, it’s difficult to understand why we are where we are. You start to question the purpose of the experience. I felt like that last night for a bit, until I started talking to the folks at the bar. I played a shorter set than intended, and wound up chatting with the bartender, Joe. We ended up figuring out that we had the same hometown and that we may be distantly related. Crazy: the odds of somebody knowing Owen Township in Greenwich Village are small. The romanticism of finding common family ancestry hit me harder than usual from the day spent in the Tenement Museum. Joe introduced me to another man, John Jackson, who at 72, had a lot of wise things to say, and I appreciated the conversation. Upon leaving, I complimented John on his positive attitude. He said, “It ain’t an attitude, it’s a fact. Life’s good.” Nice. Downstairs on Bleecker, some folks were playing Sublime. Hadn’t heard so much of it since I was in high school. Food review: Sublime’s tunes are your favorite festival foods. Mine are soft pretzels and funnel cakes. The music is fun. It can instantly transform your environment. I always feel like I’m celebrating when I listen to Sublime, and I want to be experiencing it in conjunction with something else. Maybe while taking a stroll. Maybe while driving a bumper car. Maybe while walking through the house of mirrors. Regardless of your situation, Sublime entices you into action and makes you happy. My feet move when I hear it…every time.
Nobody is landlocked. We may be surrounded by land, but the “locked” part of that word implies a state of being trapped. Almost stuck. There is a kind of negativity about that word. In actuality, we are all somewhere in relation to brinks of larger canyons and rivers and continents and solar systems, some farther in distance than others. But perception is everything. And if we perceive ourselves stuck in our habitat, that same stuck feeling can translate into our jobs, our relationships, and our self-esteems. I think I have perceived myself lately to be very much bound by the fields and foothills in the Midwest. Tied down, even. But being near the ocean for this tour has done wonders for my feelings of internal and external freedom. I understand why people in “landlocked” states of the U.S. like to visit large bodies of water; it helps us to feel, in every way, limitless. Saturday, Mike and Heather and I walked the beaches of Norwalk, Connecticut. It was beautiful. I stopped on the way out of town at the grocery store of all grocery stores-Stew Leonard’s-before driving into the city where I met Julie Schenkelberg, dropped off my bags in her Brooklyn apartment, and played a show at Gizzi’s with Shiloh Andrews and Jacob Vanags, both talented musicians. Thanks to the owners for the attention to sound; that never goes unappreciated. The next morning, I left at 6 am for Saratoga Springs and a radio interview at WSPN with Chris Mcgill. There was frost on the ground, and the leaves were still on fire with color, so I really enjoyed the trip. The town was nice, and the radio show was fantastic. Chris is so supportive of independent musicians and of music in general. She was playing Eric Andersen and Rodney Crowell when I got to the studio, two of my favorites. She played 3 songs from my new record, and I played 3 on air live. Chris is an anomaly, and a breath of fresh air. Looking forward to seeing her again. I had lunch in town at The Olde Bryan Inn, and honestly, I would recommend that everybody visit that place at least once. It was established in 1773, and they keep the home fires burning for you…literally. Best bar chips ever. Driving home, I blasted Jonathan Edwards with the windows down, singing my guts out. Food review: listening to a Jonathan Edwards cd is like watching bread bake in a rotating deck oven. I used to love to do that in the bakeshop unit of culinary school. All of his songs have a regular, catchy motion to them, almost circular, if I could choose a shape. Each tune on his “Sunshine” record is full of heat and depth. When that song comes around again, it feels just as warm and good to your ear, but you notice a subtle difference in it each time you experience it. Also, there is a commonality about his songs, as if they were formed the same way. They strip you of your anxieties and replace them with joy.
The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue is remarkable. The entryway is very similar to the Spanish steps in Rome, Italy. New Yorkers sit on the steps, or on chairs at small tables, facing directly out to the street where they can unabashedly stare at the heterogeneous crowds of people walking on the sidewalk below. I thought it was refreshing. No television needed. It’s The New York City Channel all the time. I spent my day today roaming the halls of the library. Heavens, there is so much marble in there. The hugeness of it all made me want to scream out, a loud primal scream, or maybe just a few phrases of a Prince song. But I’m fairly certain I would have been immediately ejected, as the place is very well patrolled with security guards, so I refrained. Also, for every room that you can enter (my favorite was the U.S. Genealogy section), there are two more rooms that say “Staff Area Only.” Maybe I’ve read “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” too many times, but there was a strong pull from within me, a tugging from my inner adventure seeker, that wanted to sneak into one of those rooms and see what was behind those regal doors. Again…didn’t happen. (My inner child would kill me if she knew how safe I play it these days.) The McGraw Rotunda at the top of the building is just as stunning as any capitol building I’ve been in, maybe more. Along the walls are several pictures of old Yankees players in action. I didn’t want to get so engrossed in all of that, but hey, it happens. They’ve got a great photo of Mickey Mantle and Joe Dimaggio from the one season they played together, as well as photos of other greats down the line, like Reggie Jackson and Darryl Strawberry. Downstairs, there was an exhibit that showcased the Art Deco movement, adorned with placards explaining how the events that followed the stock market crash of 1929 made the Art Deco period seem a little frivolous. I was very struck by this. I wonder how music and art will change if the country finds itself in as hard of times as we had in the 1930’s. I checked out St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and it was, of course, breathtaking. But for my money (or spirit), I’d rather sit a spell in the Church of Our Savior on Park Avenue. There’s a big sign across the top of the pulpit that says “Lord it is good for us to be here.” I liked that. I tried to check out the Scandinavia House, figuring my inner Swede would be sated by the experience, but it was too rich for my blood, so I headed back to Grand Central Station to catch the train to East Norwalk. The oddest thing occurred to me as I was walking back to the train station. I heard a pub blasting the song “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” sung by Bonnie Tyler. And I’d heard her sing the same tune before, but it sounded completely different to me. I had a small revelation that music is situational and, in fact, seasonal. A song played on a cold winter’s day can evoke an entirely different emotion if it is played on a balmy summer night. This song felt better to me in New York than it ever had in the Midwest. Something about the buzz of New York must bring out the best in Bonnie. Food Review: Bonnie Tyler is bananas foster. Beautiful presentation. Inherently dramatic, still fiery and sweet. Her voice has substance, but her performance is equally substantial. She wows you at the same time as she delights you and makes you believe in more than just the practical parts of life. She’s fun, but intense.
When autumn leaves in a deciduous forest change color, they are the color of condiments. Tomatoes and mustard over relish and red onions with cheddar and celery salt. Autumn is my favorite dish. I drove east from Chicago on Monday morning, stopping Monday night at Cathy and Bill Annable's in Cleveland, city of light. Beautiful town. Tuesday morning found Cathy and I drinking tea at Cleveland's finest bakery-On The Rise-where I almost forgot I had to leave. I listened to the first part of "For Whom The Bell Tolls" on tape. The opening is by John Donne, but it is only an excerpt of a whole passage from him. I'm including the entire text below because I like it...a lot. "All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." More on this to come. Driving through Ohio and into Pennsylvania, I saw so many fall colors that it broke my heart a bit. I pulled over from Highway 80 onto Paint Boulevard (fitting name) and into the Allegheny National Forest Preserve, where the colors were so many that I even thought I caught some purple and turquoise. I hit the highway again, only to pull over just down the road a bit in the Poconos at the highest point east of the Mississipi, and my heart broke all over again. I'm such a sap. I drove through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and finally made it to New Jersey. I felt the trip had gone pretty seemlessly until I hit the Holland Tunnel area, which connects Jersey City to New York City. I didn't have to drive into the Holland Tunnel at all. But somehow, it sucked me in (Read: I am an abysmal city driver), and I was forced to pay the $8 fee. I finally decided to turn on the GPS unit that Dad had lent to me. I named the voice of the GPS Cornelia because she has an English accent. Well, she had me going back and forth under the Holland Tunnell four times before I finally found the venue in Jersey City. I shouldn't blame Cornelia, but it's just so easy to point fingers at a machine. I pondered Mr. Donne, and I started to wonder whether Cornelia's death would really diminish my own. I almost threw her out the window. Needless to say, she and I aren't good road buddies just yet. The show was small but nice, with my favorite part being the 10 week-old pitbull puppy on the bar named Meat Sauce. Thanks to James Dower for the place to play. From there I drove to Norwalk, Connecticut to stay with my cousin Mike and Heather, and it's a fine fall day that I can't wait to enjoy. The only music I listened to on this trip was some John Lennon. Here is my food review. John Lennon is the very finest stinky cheese. You either love it, or you don't. Me, I love it. The good stuff has spent time inside animals, and molding in caves, and still it is classy and memorable. There is a feeling of worldliness to his songs. They are distinct and possess a life within themselves, almost separate from their creator now. The lyrics show an awareness--a consciousness--of being part of life's processes. Lennon's music became more and more complex as he aged, but unlike wine or beer, his music does not intoxicate. It makes you feel its origins and reflect on your own. It is delectable. It perks up your senses, but not to over-stimulate, just to spark something inside of you.
The interesting thing about calling something the “best” is that the best is a very changing thing. The best moment in my musical career was once writing my very first song. Later, the best was releasing a record. Then I found out that a little girl was doing an ice-skating routine to one of my songs, and whoa—that was the best. Finally, I thought the best must have surely been when I had other respected songwriters coming to see my shows. Hands down…best. But my new best was Friday night’s cd release show in my hometown. What a way to start a tour. There is something very sentimental about playing for the town you grew up in; they have seen you through all your bests, and they watch the change. There would be too many people to thank if I wrote them all down, but let me just say I appreciated the whole audience, Ben Chandler for bringing in and making the music video, Charlotte’s Web and its volunteers, Snapshot Music, John Abbey, and especially Grandma Ruth, who at 93 still gets out to see concerts. After the show we headed out to the Irish Rose and hung out until we could hang out no longer. The next day, my friend Steve and I hit up Edward’s Apple Orchard (I usually patronize Curran’s Orchard as they use fewer pesticides). We rode the wagon out to pick the red delicious and goldens, had the cider, petted the goats—the whole shebang. Last night we celebrated Mom’s 60th, and today, I may make pies if Dad and I can make our way out of the workshop. I’m going as far as Ohio tomorrow and stopping in Cleveland. Along with a number of podcasts from the New Yorker Outloud, I have some Chuck E. Weiss music, which our friend Scott introduced us to. Chuck E. Weiss is a muskmelon. Upon inspection, you are certain of what you are looking at. There is no denying. But once you cut it, you realize that you had no idea what you were getting into. Each song is so different. Some are bitter and hard, as if they haven’t seen the sun for long enough. Others are sweet and nourishing and perfect, the product of a pleasant growing season. Still others are over ripe, almost rotten, with putrid seeds glistening fantastically in a way that you can’t help but examine. You expect surprises from him, just by his nature, and you applaud him for his candor and his ability to astonish.
Lanyards worn about the neck make people feel important. At least, this is what I gathered walking around the AMA conference. People wearing lanyards were looking at other people with lanyards, wondering whether or not the other person was “somebody.” I wonder if I shouldn’t make up my own set of lanyards and wear them around; I could feel like I always had a backstage pass to something. Actually, I was just discussing with my friend Leslie that everybody should have to wear a lanyard all the time that states their current afflictions. I would be better at approaching others empathetically if they had a sign around their neck that said, “STRESSING MONEY” or “GOING THROUGH A DIVORCE” or “HUNGRY.” Mom and I walked around Nashville on Friday morning looking for a diner, finally finding one on 4th. Later, she bought her first ever pair of cowboy boots at Boot Country, which was running a “Buy 1 Get 2 Free” deal. So Mom, Dad, and I now have “the family boot.” The show at 12th and Porter—a funky, aptly named bar at the corner of 12th and Porter—was a showcase for Smokin’ Sleddog Records. Jamie Sue, Greg, John, Jill, Chris, Sara, and I played until late in the evening. John (Latini) played a song called “Crowbar Hotel,” which was a personal highlight. Good night. Rough sound. Nice folks. Hot pizza. After we got finished, the stage was opened up as an Open Mic, and we headed back to the hotel. A shocking thing happened in Tennessee while we were there: the whole state ran out of gas. First time I’ve seen a thing like that happen. No gas anywhere. It was a real eye opening experience. Lucky for us we had enough to make it to Kentucky. We thought long and hard about what an oil embargo would do to the country. Everything would shut down. (Unless you are Amish, in which case, you wouldn’t miss a beat.) This concept fueled our conversation (ha) until we hit Chicago. I played a private gig on Saturday night in Chicago with Jimmy T, Gregg, and Eric down on Michigan Avenue at the north end of Grant Park. Wonderful to play outside with these guys again. Afterward, we strolled around, admiring The Bean and all the other wonders of Millennium Park. In the car driving home from Chicago and then out to Denver, I listened to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I wasn’t sure what food would best describe them, until our friend Kailin dropped off some pastries to our place last night, and I got my food review. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a piping hot croissant pulled from an oven. The energy pulses off this band in steamy waves in a meter defying but meter inspiring way. It’s a rich thing to experience. The layers are too many in number and too close together to try to break apart and analyze, so instead you experience it as a decadent whole. The harmonies are warm and inspire a kind of rejoicing. Used as a vessel for supporting another artist, it is also good. But on its own, it is a bit heavenly.
Mom and I left Rockford yesterday to go to Nashville for the AMA awards. We had gone about 2 hours south when we hit a big sign on the side of the road, that read something like this: “If you’re looking for peace, Be ready for war. Freedom isn’t free. Guns even the score.” The logic of this poem eludes me…but then again, I never was very good at poetry. The rest of the trip lacked these roadside pearls. We passed the time listening to Jonathan Edwards and NPR, trying desperately to find some string cheese in gas stations. We finally found some in Kentucky. After 9 hours in the car, we finally strolled into Nashville, Tennessee just in time to check into the Renaissance Hotel, meet up with the Smokin’ Sled Dog gang, burst into a spontaneous version of “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” grab and wolf down as many bags of potato chips as they would sell us at the Coney Island stand on Broadway, then walk into the AMA awards. The Americana Music Association’s award night was sensational. Mom and I got into the Ryman Auditorium just as the show started. Being there live was surreal. Performances included—but were not limited to—Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, Justin Townes Earle, James McMurtry, Chris Thile, Buddy Miller and Robert Plant, Ryan Bingham…I could go on. The biggest shocker for me was Billy Bob Thornton coming to present an award. The highlights of the night were Joan Baez, Levon Helm, and John Hiatt. Food Review for these 3: Joan Baez is a wild mountain strawberry; you cannot fathom your good luck in actually finding one. There are a million strawberries to be had in every supermarket at any time, but none that are so much the real deal as Joan Baez. She is not masquerading as anything. She is classy and natural and virile. She has a purpose that is so profound that you feel you are the recipient of serendipitous good fortune in her presence. Tonight she sang Tom Waits’ “The Day After Tomorrow.” The presentation was simple, but the meaning resonated all the more for it. Joan Baez made me want to sit up straight in my chair. So did Levon Helm. Tonight he sang solo with 2 female vocalists and a fiddle player. Levon Helm is a potato. A simple enough look. But an absolute staple for people everywhere. He feeds you. Sometimes he’s served up as elaborate as can be, and layered between many different textures, he’s downright elegant. Standing on his own, he is a product of the earth, of dirt and time. He is asymmetrical; his voice is not quite smooth, not quite hoarse. It’s multi-dimensional. He knows the ground, and he knows his roots. And from his eyes, new growth is born for both himself and for roots music as a whole. John Hiatt is an Arnold Palmer (lemonade and tea) on ice. First you drink it. It cools you. It relieves you. It makes you feel relaxed, you no longer have to worry about what oppresses you. It is a classic, and it makes you reminisce, deeply, but happily. It’s a kind of soul food. When you finish, you still crave it, so much that you bite into the ice at the bottom. Tonight, John played “Have a Little Faith In Me,” solo on the piano. I started off in a place of relaxation. By the time he finished, I had chills.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian artist of the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. He is classified as part of the Baroque movement , known for not only the radical naturalism employed in his paintings, but also for a lifestyle that is rumored to have been rebellious and brawling. He fell out of mass popularity in the art world until the 1950’s, when his work was re-examined and exonerated. His paintings would now go for millions of dollars. In his rising fame, art scholars of the 20th century began down the trail to discover one of Caravaggio’s lost paintings, “The Taking Of Christ.” Its whereabouts were unknown, though several copies had been made. In 1990, the original painting was discovered in Ireland (though I should note that some folks believe the original has been present all along in Odessa, where I understand it—or its replica—was stolen a few weeks ago). But just imagine: a search that lasted for decades finally comes to a close. A classic, priceless work of art that was lost indefinitely is recovered. The work of Caravaggio enthusiasts pays off in a real life treasure hunt! It’s the stuff movies are made of! And that’s all fabulous. That is, if you’re into fabulous. But I discovered my own lost treasure two nights ago. And I didn’t even have to work at it. I stumbled upon it without knowing it was lost. It was as easy as opening a basement door. I had 2 down days here in Rockford before heading to Nashville for the Americana Music Association showcase. While at my folks’ house, I happened upon a box of photos that Mom clearly had packed away long ago. There was no order to the photos; love that. I spent hours looking through family pictures, November 1985 back to back with February 1998 next to June 1989. There is something really heart-warming about stumbling upon old things (assuming they’re not dead animals, moldy clothes, you get the gist). I wouldn’t call the discovery of old objects in your house as thrilling as going on a quest for a lost object, but it is amazing nonetheless. I have been in a place of reflection for the last 48 hours, enjoying the concept of remembering what I didn’t remember until I remembered it. I’m really looking forward to songwriting about that feeling, the easy experience of recollection that accompanies finding old memories by accident. Funny how the meaning of life’s biggest events changes as time goes by. I listened to my go-to record yesterday, Solomon Burke’s “Please Don’t Give Up On Me.” Solomon Burke is the last call at the bar. He’s that drink that you order up because you’ve had a great night, and you want it to continue. You feel comfortable and happy. The mood has been set. The lights are still dim. Souls have been bared or at least shared. The beauty of Solomon Burke is that you don’t have to have gone through a whole night to feel mellow and comfortable. He makes you feel good from the first note he sings. You’re instantly at ease, a little drunken, slow, fluid, swaggering, larger than life, but soft in the heart. He puts me in a place of calm, of easy experiences and recollection without the work. (Look how that last sentence ties it all together…ha).
Mark Twain said, “Houseguests, like fish, begin to smell after the third day.” Having spent 3 days with Jamie Sue and Kirk, I didn’t know if my stench had become overwhelming. But if it had, they didn’t let on. Wonderful people, those two. Hotel Eiseler was the best stay I’ve had away from home. We played In The Round on Friday night with Jason Dennie, a solo flat picker that made me forget to think; he was that good. It rained gangbusters all night, but the show was fantastic. Thanks to Terry, Becky, Deb, Ven, Shelly, Corrina, Bryan, Bob, Beth, Sheyna, and Rachel for making that show so memorable. Afterwards, we headed to The Draft House for nachos and black and tans and talked music until the place closed. The rain hadn’t slept on Friday night, and on Saturday morning, it was still going strong. That didn’t stop JS and I from making the early, umbrellaless trip south to Coloma to hit up the Contessa winery (I bought a bottle of cherry wine) and the Chocolate Garden, where I ate 3 truffles that were so good that I could only show JS my approval by moaning; “nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen.” We got drenched running from place to place, and we showed up to the Foundry Hall in South Haven looking like we’d been floating at sea for days and had recently washed up on shore. This really would not have mattered at all had the showcase not included Andru Bemis. I’d seen Andru play before, and I’d heard him on records. When you meet someone you respect musically for the first time, you’d like to believe that you will act naturally. After all, people are just people. But wisdom is much easier in theory than in practice. And so I was a tongue-tied fool. The Round was the best we’d played, though. John Latini, Andru, JS, Greg, and I basically made fun of ourselves and the audience for a good long time. The songs last night were beautiful, and the energy of that hall was the real deal. No amps. No mics. Just air and wood and blood and bones and a lot of history. I drove home in the rain, happy. Food Review: Andru Bemis is a whole tea party. A hundred different cups of tea, all made the same way, but with different strengths and weaknesses and grit and bitterness and sweetness. It’s hard to make this sound reasonable, but Andru, oddly enough, is an individual that seems to feel a sense of community within himself. It comes through in his music, served up to everyone, excluding no one, proper, but not stuffy. He takes the topics of his choice, just as they are, and lets them steep exactly long enough to make something worth sharing and experiencing with just himself or with anyone else who cares to come to his table.
Chloe and Levi are Jamie Sue Seal and Kirk Eiseler's Dalmatians. They remind me a lot of some other dogs I've known, particularly one I met in a Crested Butte hotel last year that gave me the initial revelation. In this hotel, we were sitting around a breakfast table having a quiet if not somber complimentary breakfast with the other hotel guests when a beautiful husky came storming into the dining hall, wagging its tail ferociously, basically announcing its presence to the whole place, as if to say, "I'm here for you to love me!" Immediately, the whole energy of the room shifted. The dog came to every table, allowing itself to be patted on the head, belly scratched, and it even licked a few hands. I liked that dog. I wanted to be like that dog (not the licking hand bit, though). See, when performing, it's hard not to feel a little pompous, and I sometimes resort to being more serious and collected than is natural for me in order to let everyone, and myself, know that I'm not too into myself; the result is usually poorly executed, self-deprecating humor. But that generally doesn't make anyone happy. So I decided in that hotel that I would try to switch my performance style so that when I start playing, I would convey, plainly, "I'm here for you to love me!" Yesterday was September 11, and when I woke up, I was in a place of dark reflection, without even remembering the significance of the date at first. I felt heavy. I thought about the early morning radio spot I was about to play, and I thought about how serious I should sound. After washing my face, I headed downstairs, and there were Chloe and Levi, chomping at the bit to bowl me over and remind me that they were here for me to love them. And then the revelation returned. I wasn't going to make any more of a profound impact on anyone by being unnaturally grave; everybody already knows it's a day to pay some sort of homage. And so with my mantra ready, Jamie Sue and I headed to WLNZ. Karen and the staff at WLNZ in Lansing were great, and the show was upbeat. JS and I had an easy morning, ending with a free wine tasting at 11 am. The afternoon was spent talking over walnuts. Later, we picked up Greg and headed to the White Crow Conservatory in Saginaw were we played in the round with Mike Stephens. Thanks to Doug, Jan, Damon, and Kay for being so kind. Halfway through the show, we were all reminded of the date. The moment seized us, and I almost lost the mantra. But then it returned. And the show was good, with Mike singing about a girl he loved at 10 who kicked his shins, and JS singing about soda pop. Sometimes, the best thing you can do to take things seriously is to feel, what I like to call, the glee. Yesterday I listened to a few Greg Brown tunes. Greg Brown is gumbo. Hot steamy mixed up gumbo. It's a simple looking dish, but with as many ingredients as you can shake a stick at. Broken down, you don't understand how on earth the components form something so palatable. And yet, no matter what you add, you know it's gumbo because it's got that file powder, that special essence that remains. Greg Brown doesn't have a style so much as he has an essence that is at the root of all his music. He adds to it in a million ways with melody and words. His lyrics glisten like oil drops on the surface for you to experience immediately, but the substance below is implied. He is equal parts exotic and homespun. JS thinks that I should add a beverage to go with each musician review. We have decided that Greg Brown would go well with a good Gerwirtztraminer.
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It's one of the few places in our country where I feel as though I'm in an actual region. I've driven many roads this summer, roads that were designed by the urban developers of the area to follow a formula of "Walgreens, Wendy's, Walmart, repeat." The U.P. has a formula too. "Smoked fish, fudge, pasties, reinforce." I wouldn't chock up the whole U.P. to its notable tourist foods. But they're just too good not to mention. So are the people. I had a nice time at the Upfront and Company. Thanks to Dirk, Dennis, Tim, and Adrian for taking the time to talk to me. Also Chris the sound engineer who has a good ear and a good head connected to it. Also thanks to Debbie at Embrace for selling me that comb. This is the fifth comb I've had to buy in the last few months. Never can seem to remember to pack one. I've tried to improvise with other tools (most recently, a fast food spork), but I usually have to buy one, and so I have an accidental comb collection back home. After seeing all I could--most notably, the big ore dock in the harbor--I drove down to the other half of Michigan this afternoon. I stopped along the way in St. Ignace at the Mystery Spot. I felt the need to pull over because the sign advertising for it said the Spot would be "fun fun fun." Being a fan of "fun fun fun," I stopped in, but I didn't have time to take the full walk of the place, so I can't say for sure how fun fun fun it is. I learned a lot about the Great Lakes watershed. I also learned that driving over the Mackinac Bride makes you want to laugh and lose your lunch at the same time. By the time I got to Mt. Pleasant, I decided I had to cancel the show because I'm feeling sick in my throat and need to sleep it off. I stopped at Uncle John's Cider Mill and bought some cider and some tiny pea-sized blueberries that taste like actual blueberries...don't that beat all. Now I am at my friend Jamie Sue Seal's house, sleep-blogging. Today in the car I listened to a lot of Devil in a Woodpile. Food Review: Devil in a Woodpile is the world's most addictive bar mix. The kind where you think you may just have a few handfuls and order a meal, but then you end up deciding to make dinner out of it; your hand can't stop reaching into the bowl to get more. The best bar mix I've ever had was a basket of kettle cooked potato chips and peanuts. That's Devil. Not heavy, but once you take it in, it's more than enough to keep you coming back for more of the same. It's unassuming. It's good. It's fun fun fun. You like it, and there's nothing you can do about it.
The universe does not like us to overindulge our stressors. If we do succumb, then the universe has a chuckle at our expense. For example, if you are extremely short on cash, and let it stress you, then you absolutely will find some way to lose more of it; perhaps—in your rush to get to a bank—you’ll park your car hastily and get a parking ticket. Or if you have a really important event to plan for, and you panic, the panic will find a way to throw a kink in the plan; you may not sleep for days stressing, and wind up too sick to attend the dang thing. Me, I started my road trip from Colorado stressing gasoline. The prices are high and conservation is becoming more important, and this tour would burn a lot of gas. Still, I left Denver for Michigan yesterday, and I fueled up first in eastern Colorado. I took the gas nozzle from the pump, and set the handle to automatic so I could go in the station and buy some string cheese for Hank and me while fueling. There's just something about string cheese. Anyway, I had one hand in the cooler when I heard people in the station screaming. I looked outside to see what the fuss was. And there was the universe…laughing its guts out. A fountain of gasoline was erupting in Old Faithful-like fashion from the gas tank of my car. The little metal piece that was supposed to stop fueling when the gas tank was full had not stopped the flow of gas, and now, I was wasting gasoline absurdly and flamboyantly. There was a man standing another car over, holding a lit cigarette, looking justifiably petrified. With unpaid string cheese in my hand, I rushed into the fountain of fuel, drenching myself in gas like a heroic idiot. It was too late, though. In addition to my gas, I had purchased a $50 gas geyser for the viewing pleasure of the other folks at the station. Immediately, what came to mind was a new verse to that Flaming Lips song; one where the chorus is “She uses gaaaaasoline.” The rest of the road trip has been beautiful. With the help of lots of coffee, books-on-tape, and the rumble strip, I made it safely 16 hours to Illinois and then 8 up to Michigan. I just played on NMU’s radio station: WUPX. Christine, Chris, and David were great and let me play a long time. It’s gorgeous in Marquette, and I can’t wait to check out the city tomorrow. The color of the whole town is like wet red clay now. Clay colored buildings. Clay colored sidewalks. Clay colored leaves. Clay colored sweatshirts of people eating clay colored food. It must be autumn. While driving through Nebraska, I put Rachel Ries’ record “For You Only” in the stereo because she sings a song about Valentine, NE. Here’s my food review of Rachel: Rachel is your favorite candy you ate as a child. Dots. Crows. Chuckles. Necco Wafers. Mary Janes. You know your favorite. Mine is Mallo Cup. Opening up a package of Mallo Cup, I feel like saying, “Ah, hello old friend.” It’s so familiar, but so exciting, because you just don’t find it that often. That’s how I feel about Rachel. Every time I play this record, I feel a sense of return, a sense of comfort. I feel as though in time, others may try to take what Rachel is channeling and build upon her foundation. And they may succeed, but they would be hard-pressed to be as honest and charming as she is in this record. Sweet, but not saccharine. Plain, but not cute. Tasty, but not over-powering. Every song is a delight, and there are no fillers.
It's hard to walk the line between self-love and self-indulgence. Something about putting up a journal on-line has traditionally made me feel a little stuck on myself. But with some prodding from friends, I've decided not to take myself so seriously. So here I am...blogging. The new record is coming out in a month, and I'm tense as a wire. John Abbey and I (especially John: he's sort of the best) have worked pretty hard on it. The players were amazing, and so were all the other folks working on it. Still, I fret. I am a master fretter. Being a songwriter in your apartment is simple. Being a songwriter for a living is complex. Your success depends entirely on whether or not people buy your music, which essentially boils down to whether or not people like you. It's the ultimate popularity contest. I wonder what I should be doing here. Be aloof and mysterious? Will that make people intrigued? What if I wear my hipster clothes and hang with the right people? Will I be cool by association? Honestly, the inner child in me just wants to jump up and down and scream "Pick me! Pick me!" Regardless, I was thinking if this "songwriting for a living" bit doesn't work out for me, I might try to become the world's first "Music-As-Food Journalist." I will combine my two interests--food and music--and review my favorite musicians. For example, in the first ever installment of my column, I could review Randy Newman's "Sail Away" (which I am currently listening to): "Randy Newman is corn on the cob with melted butter, light salt, and none of the fixin's; he doesn't need them. His precise word choice and careful orchestral arrangements have substance enough to bite into, but subtle sweetness and honesty that endears you to him. He's got an unparalleled sense of dry irony that manifests itself as a slight bite, but it's the kind of bite you appreciate. His melodies linger in your mouth (or in his case, your teeth), and you feel like singing along after hearing his songs only once. Ultimately, taking in some Randy Newman doesn't feel "good" for you or "bad" for you; it just feels like the thing to do when you need him." Interesting right? Ok, maybe not. But hey, what a sweet plug for corn on the cob, right? I'll see if I can't develop this idea further before my next installment. In the mean time, be well.