"Something True"

Scroll down to read more about the story behind the song. Hear the song on Spotify (link below), or listen and buy from my "Music" page

Tell me something true—
a promise between me and you:
a lover’s first gaze,
broken-hearted clichés,
long, lonely Valentine days

Won’t you open your heart?
Open your heart
let me in

Tell me something real—
something only you feel:
how your heels clicked the floor
when you walked out that door
a silence that started to roar

But the words fly around
without making a sound
drawing near
with anger and fear
Then dry up in the air
in unspoken despair
like rain that never hits ground (Chorus)

Please tell me tonight
before I give up this fight
Tell me
something
true

Chris Rosser plays the piano for this recording on the "Play Me" cd (we played guitars on the version for the "Something True" EP). I have played the piano for much longer than the guitar, so I often hear songs on the piano first and adapt them for the guitar later (one reason why I recorded 5 of my songs in two different ways for "Something True" and "Play Me" cds. My background in music theatre is readily apparent in this version of the song. A fellow musician commented he could see the darkened stage with a soloist singing this song at a heightened moment of tension in a play. And I did get to sing this on a darkened stage (although not in a play...at least not yet...) for over 800 people at the Knight Theatre in Charlotte (you can watch the video along with the song introduction here). It was quite a moment. After watching the video you can scroll down on the same blog post for a description of the writing process.

"Keep on Talking"

Scroll down to read more about the story behind the song. Hear the song on Spotify (link below), or listen and buy from my "Music" page

You flash your power suit
flaunt your stacks of gold
You think the human heart
can be bartered and sold
Save all your bills
I won’t be one of your shills
You can keep on walking
‘cause I’m already gone

I hear you talk so big
always sneering a dig
You build yourself tall
by making others small
The sound of your voice
is music to your own ears
You can keep on talking
‘cause I’m already gone

Why don’t you play fair?
Why can’t you be nice?
Do you sell your soul
for any asking price?

You say I’ll stack the deck—
deal you in
buy you fortune and fame
(yeah you’re good at this game)
But when I’m burned by the flame
I’ll know who to blame
You can keep on talking
‘cause I’m already gone

Keep on talking
I’m gonna keep on walking
You can keep on talking
‘cause I’m already
gone

One of the biggest surprises for me as I have been on this crazy journey of learning how to write and record my own songs has been the generosity of fellow artists. The impetus for writing the song, “Keep on Talking” came from enjoying hearing Bob Malone play the piano at a Tosco Music Party. Bob played the piano with such full abandon, joy, and skill that it was exhilarating to watch. I joined his email list and began following his career. (He has a solo career as well as playing in John Fogerty’s band.) A year or two later, I had the chance to speak to him at a small concert. I told him I enjoyed his music so much that recently, when I was in the recording studio, I told the piano player (Chad Lawson, who is, stylistically almost at the opposite end of the spectrum but equally as enthralling) to “channel Bob Malone” and sent him some Youtube videos to listen to. Bob got a kick out of this story. A few weeks later Bob launched a kickstarter campaign to fund his most recent cd in which he offered to “play a track for your cd” for an astonishingly affordable amount. I bought it. But I had no idea what I wanted him to play. I was working on recording my first full cd of original songs and was a song or two short of a full cd, so I knew what I had to do. I needed to write a song for Bob to play.

I knew I wanted the song to allow Bob to show the range of his talent, so I hit upon the idea of making the piano a character in the song. The piano would be a show-off—an over-the-top, ego-centric scene-stealer. What better show-off than a bully? At the time (summer of 2015) it seemed that cyber-bullying and crass political dialogue (whether in social media or on tv) seemed to be reaching a crescendo. I tried to keep the description of the bully full of specific details but attached to neither gender nor specific traits (other than a bully). I wanted to rally the audience around the idea that we don’t have to feel helpless or retaliate when encountering a bully. We can use our commitment to respect and honor each other to take away the bully’s power. We can refuse to participate—refuse to give the bully the attention he or she craves.

Three years later I see the song in a different light. As a society we pretend to be offended by bullies, but in reality I think our individualistic, hero-worshipping culture secretly loves bullies. In the same way that I thrilled in Bob’s “over-the-top” playing style, we love the “over-the-top” nature of bullies. We love their brashness, their confidence, their “to hell with everyone else I’m going to get what I want” fortitude. Propelled by social media and the frenetic pace of our lives, it takes a lot to get our attention. Nothing leads to irrelevancy sooner than being boring; bullies are anything but boring. And (in Hollywood fashion) we love the story even more when a hero appears to swoop in to put the bully in his or her place. We love a good fight.

And so lately when I perform this song, I am aware of the thrill of swaggering with bravado: facing the bully and saying "I'm not afraid of you!" It's enacting a fantasy we all have of saying the perfect thing at the perfect moment: putting someone else in his or her own "place". So maybe the song isn't really a call for solidarity with others around respect but a fantasy of empowerment. But it sure is fun.

"Never Enough"

Scroll down to read more about the story behind the song. Hear the song on Spotify (link below), or listen and buy from my "Music" page

You used to save up words that I spoke
like pennies you found
lying lost on the ground
Roll me up in your arms
keep me safe from harm
then hold me up to the light
Now the days are all spent
Don’t know where the time went
and I feel so empty

It’s never enough, no it’s never enough, no it’s never enough
Would you stay for awhile?
It’s never enough, no it’s never enough, no it’s never enough
Would you please make me smile?

Sometimes when you look into the mirror
do you know who you see?
Are you who you should be?
Do you know where you’re going?
Do you like where you’ve been?
Do you wish you could start over again?
You got what you wanted
You thought you were free
Now you can’t get what you need (Chorus)

We’re spending our time
like there’s time to spare
We’re just now starting to care
that it’s never enough

To be alive is to be constantly striving. And for humans, who are conscious of our striving, the breadth and depth of our desire seems boundless. We want more of everything: more money, more love, more power, more success...above all, more time. We yearn for more from the moment we draw our first breath to the last—only intensifying the struggle (for all but the wisest of us) the more we are aware of our limits. At middle age we seem to suddenly recognize our own mortality and buck against it any way we can...usually by striving for more of what it is we think we want.

This song, “Never Enough,” went through several major rewrites—primarily, I think, because I had a hard time describing that sense of wanting more in a concrete way. I didn’t want to define a circumstance too narrowly but ended up with too broad a concept.  I’d play the song in a workshop and everyone would look at me quizzically at the end.

Although I think I finally got to an emotionally resonant song, it is interesting to me that people have interpreted that sense of “wanting more” from both sides of the equation. I was relating to the “wanting more”, but others were exasperated by the sense that no matter how much they do or give or try, it is never enough.

In the first verse a relationship that was once treasured is no longer deemed valuable. The currency of a relationship—words we speak to one another, time spent physically with another, or visually cherishing the other—is spent.  Why? It’s not clear. One partner wants more, the other has given all that can be given and it’s still “never enough.”

In the second verse, the listener confronts the dissatisfaction with self: “are you who you should be?” We set goals for ourselves and, even if we achieve those goals, we find it isn’t enough.  For some of us, perhaps we chose the wrong goals “can’t get what you need,” for others of us perhaps we haven’t learned to be content with what we have.

The (shortened) third verse is a reminder that no matter which part of the journey we are on (wanting more or giving more), our time is limited. There is no “time to spare.” At this point I hope the chorus has even more resonance: “stay for awhile” (learn how to be still), “make me smile” (practice gratitude). As the Buddhists remind us, we only have the current moment, so we should cherish it. Let the current moment teach us that now is enough in spite of—or perhaps even because of—our constant longing for more.

"Play Me"

Scroll down to read more about the story behind the song. Hear the song on Spotify (link below), or listen and buy from my "Music" page

I want to live in a song
so you can play me all night long
Pull my guitar right on out of her case
Strum my strings from the treble to the bass
I want to live in a song

I want to live in a vinyl 45
so you can make me spin and jive
Lay my record on the old turntable
Slip in my grooves if you’re willing and able
I want to live in a vinyl 45

I want to live in a drum
so you can make my skin thrum
Brush my high hat and stroke my cymbal
Play the whole kit if you’re feeling nimble
I want to live in a drum

Play me all night long—
I want to live in a song

Music provides a common language for people—no matter one’s ethnicity, age, race, gender, religion, or political views. No other art form can transport us to a shared emotional state so quickly and completely—mind, body and soul. And for musicians, the act of playing together creates a synchronicity that is rarely reached in any other human endeavor. Name the key, count off the beat, and we are off on a journey together. The math and geometry of music sketch a road map so that no one gets lost (or at least not for long because you can always return home to the tonic note—the first note of the scale—and the “1”—the downbeat, the first beat of a measure).

It took two years before this shy, people-pleasing introvert would even sing this song in public. Singing such a forward, suggestive song pushed me pretty far out of my comfort zone. But creative endeavors require vulnerability, so in the end I recorded this song not once but three times, made it the title song for my first full album, and rarely play a set without including this song. 

Knowing my music theatre past and my love of 20th century lyricists give the song some context. Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, and Cole Porter (to name a few of my favorites) used witty lyrics filled with metaphors, puns and double entendres to express forbidden feelings (Hart’s Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, Porter’s “You’re the Top”). Lyricists for music theatre (such as Stephen Sondheim) used clever rhymes, rhythm and word play to add layers of complexity to the drama. I also appreciate the way current hip hop and pop artists coin new phrases with multi-layered metaphors and word pattern and rhythm—conveying deep meaning in a go-down easy musical context.

Songs must be entertaining and at least partially understood upon a first listen. But I think the best songs contain clues and multiple meanings that only deepen upon repeated listening. That’s why I still love to sit down and listen to an artist’s cd with lyrics in hand.  Words can be so multi-layered. My favorite word in this song was “play”. Here’s a shortened list of meanings of the word play (all of which were intended in that one 4 letter word):

Play (verb): (acting): personify, impersonate;(beguile): deceive, fool, double-cross, seduce; make a sound with an instrument; make a visit, see; frolic, cavort, whoop it up; carouse, paint the town red; compete, challenge, grapple with; act-up, misbehave; amuse oneself, trifle, not be serious, flirt with; caress, cuddle, toy with; deal with, handle, cope with; manage, operate; depict, portray; exploit, make use of; feign, pretend, imagine; mess with, handle; fidget, squirm; field, handle, retrieve; finesse, bluff; frolic, dance; cut loose, raise hell, go on a tear; dare, gamble, put trust in, wager, defy; manage, take care of, utilize; interpret, translate....

Before I started performing the song for audiences, I was afraid my intent would be misinterpreted—that women would feel uncomfortable and men would feel empowered in ways I did not intend in their behavior toward me or other women. I have found the opposite to be true. It’s women who have felt empowered. As I perform the song, women tend to respond with laughter and clapping. I think women respond so strongly because we often experience the world as objects (especially of the “male gaze”) instead of as subjects. Objectification, the continued physical and mental abuse of women, and the political battleground of women’s bodies stunt women’s ability to speak and act and keep us from being whole human beings. A song that starts with a woman speaking in the nominative (not subjective) case with an active (not passive) verb (“I want”) flips the usual power dynamic—a woman in charge of her own body (including her sexuality). It’s thrilling and fun.

The slower-paced, jazzy version with more complex chord progressions is the original version, and thus the one I chose to include as the third song (often the anchoring song on an album). I wrote it from a very melancholic, lonely, and yearning space and so this version of the song is meant to evoke feelings of unrequited longing. Sometimes the world only makes sense when I am singing a song—especially if I am singing with another musician or singing for someone who is intently listening. The sound waves wash over me like a blessing, and I can almost reach out and touch the electrical charge connecting me to someone else. Most of us, I think, feel quite disconnected from each other. The latest tragedy, act of violence, or dehumanizing word or deed is so dispiriting, I want to wrap myself up in music and hide away. Enjoying music together is a glorious respite from the disconnectedness we feel in our families, friendships, communities, and countries. That impulse—wanting to live in a song—is at the heart of the song “Play Me” and why I made it the title song for my cd.

"Greenwich Mean Time"

Scroll down to read more about the story behind the song. Hear the song on Spotify (link below), or listen and buy from my "Music" page

Dear old friend, you’re my prime meridian
Grounded in space—no change of attitude
marking one place. While I travel the Latitudes
and broaden my views. But when I’m confused
you guide me along. You're my 0 and 360
My Greenwich Mean Time       
I can navigate a vessel,
but that don’t make me special
I only see my one piece of sky
And all the miles between
make it hard for us to see eye to eye.
But you can’t deny you were there in the beginning,
and you’ll be there till the end
You're my 0 and 360. My Greenwich Mean Time.                            
When the clouds block out the sun
and the moon refuses to shine. 
If you'll be my East and West,
 I’ll be your North and South. 
And together we’ll find our way
The length of my days is written in your hands
and the curve of your smile like that old brass line
calling me home. No matter how far I roam. No matter where I lay my head. 
It’s you, my dear oldest friend can set me back on Mean Time

We were sitting at the dinner table in Burlington, NC relaxing after all the wedding festivities were over. My parents and sister had flown across the country and another family had driven eleven hours—all to help friends of fifty years with a wedding in their home. Toward the end of the meal, the father of the bride looked around the table at all of us gathered there and exclaimed: “What is it about old friends?”

The three couples at the wedding have been friends since the 1960’s, and the friendship continues strong today. In the late 60s, my Dad began serving as pastor of a little church outside of Oxford, Mississippi. We lived in an asbestos-shingled house on a dirt road, complete with a cattle gap on the driveway. The second couple and their family lived about three miles away; they farmed cotton. When the third young couple and their family moved to the community a couple years later the friendships gelled for life. Whether for church events, weekday dinners, or neighborhood parties, my parents and their friends all worked together to grow, build, bake, or sew whatever needed doing—creating something grand and beautiful from meager resources.

I was 8 when we left Mississippi for South Carolina. My Dad subsequently pastored churches in Atlanta and Missoula, MT. The third family moved to NC where they worked in construction and organic farming. The cotton farmer eventually retired and lives in the same house that still looks almost exactly as I remember it from childhood; most of their children and grandchildren live just a few miles away with the exception of one grandchild who lives in England. My parents’ and their friends’ lives have diverged from each other over the past 45 years in almost every way imaginable, and yet the friendships have lasted.

It takes a lot of work and good intentions on both sides to be friends with those who are different from you. It seems these days that fewer and fewer people are willing to put in that hard work. The value of diversity and difference as a goal unto itself is being questioned and undermined at every turn. In fact, in almost every decision we make these days whether online (listening to music, reading an article, watching tv, buying goods or services) or in the physical world (buying a house, choosing a school for our children, or our jobs and social activities), we encounter forces (both active and passive) that funnel us into groups of people who are “like” us. It may make things easier in the day-to-day to habitually choose sameness (and it certainly makes it easier to get us to “click” and “buy”), but I think “sameness” causes us to lose our way—our sense of purpose and direction—both individually and collectively.

My answer to the question “What is it about old friends?” is the song “Greenwich Mean Time” (on my latest cd “Play Me”). Old friends (and family) orient us in our own lives. They help us understand who we are, and how we got here. We remember each other in childhood or youth and are reminded of choices we have made then and now. They are also the people we have potentially diverged from the most in our lives. And yet, if we are lucky, they still accept us as we are. I have a lot of fun in the song using the metaphors of time and measurement to explain friendship. My prior blog post of four years ago goes into more detail about Greenwich, England (the location of the “prime meridian”—or 0 degrees longitude) and some of the other metaphors I wrote into the song. One of the main points I make in the song is the importance of difference. We can’t know where we are in the world without two measurements: longitude and latitude. Those are very different kinds of measurements, but only lines at different angles can intersect. Parallel lines never converge. The intersecting and diverging lines of longitude and latitude help us learn where we came from, where we are, and where we are headed.

 

 

 

 

"When Dragons Were Real"

(Listen to the song on any streaming service or preview and buy from my "music" page)

"We were knights in armor of shining steel
fearless in battle on our noble steeds
When you scraped your knee
or got scared in the night,
you would run to me
and I’d make it all right
I could be brave
if you could believe
Back when unicorns danced
and dragons were real

Maybe one fine day we’ll be heroes again
standing proud and true on our own homeland
We will chase away monsters from under the bed
Find happy ever after in the lives we have led
We will believe
and we will recall
back when unicorns danced
and dragons were real

Now my armor’s rusted and paint’s begun to peel
There are bills to be paid and deadlines to meet
Words are our weapons
 we hurl in the abyss
Wounds from wars
don’t heal with a kiss
You don’t believe—
you don’t even recall
Back when unicorns danced
and dragons were real

Close your eyes
(just close your eyes)
Wish on a star
Don’t let this hard world
break your heart in two
Magic still lives
in you

I wrote the song "When Dragons Were Real" four years ago when my first child was about to leave home for college. During rehearsals with my bass player, Cheryl, we spent more and more time talking about how we were dreading our oldest children leaving for college. Finally she announced: “You have to write a song about this!” I had attended several songwriting workshops and started my own weekly songwriting group but had only written a few songs at that point. I told her I didn’t think I could do it. Nonetheless, every week she asked how her song was coming along. So I worked at it—and wrote terrible drafts with sappy lyrics. I wrote and rewrote lyrics about being happy to let my child go into the world and discover new adventures. But all my background notes and journaling were about how sad I was. As I reflected on my sadness, I knew I was dreading simply missing him. But mostly my sadness was about this part of my life being over. Part of the wonder of being a parent is getting to relive your own childhood (if you were lucky enough to have a happy childhood). You tell remembered stories, go back to forgotten places, act silly, and (at least pretend to) believe in magic. You get to be the hero in your own life. But now, with both of my children well into adolescence, the magic of childhood was over. Again

Fortunately I had two therapists in my song-writing group (thank you Mark Larson and DeWitt Crosby!). After the second time the song had been taken apart in critiques, Mark finally said “I don’t think you are writing a song about letting go. I think you want to hold on.” Aha. But the struggle didn’t end with the lyrics. I had to figure out how to play it on the guitar. I knew I wanted to create a “magic” sound in the musical riff. Nanci Griffith’s harmonic ping for the elevator at Woolworth’s in her song “Love at the 5 and Dime” was the perfect inspiration (see my youtube cover here). In order to get the harmonic ring sound with a chord, I knew I would need to write the song in open tuning. Although I only knew one song in open tuning at the time, fortunately, Nanci's was the song I knew.

Chris Rosser and I play guitars in the recording; however, I took the unusual step of crediting the piano player, Chad Lawson, in the song title because I was so moved by his interpretation of the song. Chad is a chart-topping classical musician who interprets classical and early 20th century composers as well as writing his own original compositions. His gift is creating magic in the silence between notes. He knows when to be restrained, and when to cut loose. I had hired him to record three other songs but not this one. When he said he’d worked on an arrangement, we went ahead and recorded him. I’ll never forget hearing him bring this song to life on the piano. The hairs on my arm stood up and tears ran down my face—a beautiful moment of creation for which I am so grateful.

After months and years of work, I am finally releasing this baby song into the world. You never know where something you create might end up—the ripples in other lives—but you hope for the best and let go.

 

Leaving the Nest

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photos by Jack Oates

My father recently photographed a family of robins in their nest—from the early days of tending the eggs, to indefatigably feeding the demanding chicks, to the chicks taking flight, and one final farewell (and snack) from the edge of the yard. Dad almost captured the moment when the last chick left, but the movement of his camera so startled the chick that she leapt off the nest, careened through the air and crash-landed on the opposite side of the yard.

In two days I take my second (and last) child to her freshman year in college (hopefully without the crash landing): the proverbial “empty nest”. I have the usual mix of emotions: relief (they launched!), fear (they launched!), liberty (a quiet house!), loneliness (a quiet house!), excitement (what’s next?), unmoored (what’s next?). As I enjoy Dad’s pictures, I’ve contemplated the empty nest—as in completely empty. You don’t see Mama and Papa Robin moping forlornly in the nest (or throwing a block party for that matter). They are gone, too. Life has it’s seasons, and this one has passed. Time to let go--leave the nest. And yet....

Whether one has children or not, there comes a point in middle age when you think: Is this all? What do I want to leave behind? Do I have unfulfilled dreams and how will I honor that impulse? Do I need to learn to accept life’s disappointments or risk a new challenge (even if I fail)? And the philosophers among us keep asking: Why am I here? What is all this living for? What does anything really mean in the face of decay and mortality?

I am grateful to have recently been introduced to a wonderful new podcast created by Mark Peres titled (aptly) “On Life and Meaning”.  He interviews people from disparate professions and cultures about what gives their life meaning—from the famous (Peter Reinhart, baker, writer, educator) to the not-so-famous (me). I reflect on my life and what propelled me into songwriting and performing again. I also play the two songs I dedicated to my children: “When Dragons Were Real” (coming out on cd soon!) and “Edge of a Hurricane”. Having children reconnected me to my own childhood—that sense of wonder, joy, and unbridled hope and love—only to lose it all over again when my children grew up. And now the specter of time and frailty looms, and the world seeming even darker and hate-filled than ever before. At times like these it seems even more important not to let go, but to hold on to that wonder and hope and love that still lives within us all.

You always remember your first time

February 1st, 2017, 11:30am in the birthplace of Bono and William Butler Yeats (Dublin, Ireland) my first radio airplay by Sean Brophy of 103.2 Dublin City FM. He mentions my name at the top of the show in a lineup with Fairport Convention (Sandy Denny) and the Oscar nominated song from La La Land (sung by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone). Esteemed company. Listen to Sean’s entire entertaining and diverse show by clicking the play button above or going to the mixcloud page here . Charlotte, NC and Bob Malone (who played piano) get a shout-out in the intro to my song “Keep on Talking” at 49:10.  Many thanks to Alexis Bruce (my manager), Chris Rosser (recorded and mixed the cd) and the folks at Gat3 studios for their work on the song. 

The Beauty We Create Together...

The "Something True EP Release Party" in December was a heart-warming reminder of how a community of people can support and encourage each other. Levin Chaskey captured the songs and the mood  in the video below, Cheryl Hoover sang backup, Chris Rosser (who recorded, mixed and played on the cd) contributed his talents, fellow songwriters, artists, poets, professors, family, and neighbors attended and celebrated with me. Many thanks to Alexis Bruce and Charlotte Star Room for hosting. (Don't miss the video shot of the sketch my neighbor—whom I've known since she was born—drew of me that evening!)

 

EP Concert with Chris Rosser: December 16 in Charlotte, NC

Singer/songwriter/producer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Rosser (who recorded my EP and a full cd of original songs premiering early next year) will be in town on December 16 to help launch my 5-song EP. Everyone on my email list is getting access to a free stream and download of the title track (available now) and a free EP (available next week). If you aren't already on my email list, sign up before December 16th and I will send you the link! Details of the concert are on my schedule page. Thank you so much for your support.

 Photo by Levin Chaskey, cd graphics and design by Matthew Fleming

Photo by Levin Chaskey, cd graphics and design by Matthew Fleming

Edge of a Hurricane

On the day hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina, I was up in Asheville (which just barely caught the edge of the storm). I was walking along the French Broad river in the Olivette neighborhood when I came across a couple getting married. It was just the two of them, the minister, and a photographer. I was so struck by their deciding to get married even in the middle of a storm; they seemed so frail but also strong--choosing love no matter what the sky might portend. I wanted to sing something for them, but I couldn't think of what I would sing, even though I have sung for many weddings over the years. Right then and there I decided to write a song about that moment. As I searched for ideas, the larger metaphor of how dangerous and frightening our world is today loomed larger and larger in my imagination. I recorded this demo at the end of October as I finished up writing, so I could have a record of the song in progress; flawed though it is, here on 11/9 (the day after the 2016 election) I thought it was important to send out some light. No matter who you voted for or what your political bent, I think we can agree that the level of anger and alienation in our country is frightening. It has made me question whether the political experiment of democracy as practiced in our diverse country (made up primarily of immigrants who have been here only a few hundred years or less) can survive. It is in our darkest storms that we have to shelter each other—choose love. My daughter just turned 18 and voted with me in this last election. As I prepare to send her out into this dangerous world, I dedicate this song to her—and to all those who are frightened and despairing.