Oh, my God, the font is a different color [yeah, yeah, yeah, meaning NOWADAYS “the category is set to ‘Heather'” – rob 12/27/17] – That could only mean one thing: Heather’s writing her first journal entry in about … forever. We went to a great open mic tonight and I was compelled to record the details I knew rob would glaze over.
I am sitting in Pittsburgh, sniffling alongside the perpetually sick cat, my companion in illness misery. When it looks over the top of the computer screen at me, it looks exactly like The Nothing staring out of the cave at Atreau … but very small, so not nearly as scary. Sort of a cute apocalyptic monster kitten.
But anyway, we’re traveling again, which always fills me with an intense dual sort of productive happiness and regular-sized-apocalyptic monster dread that stares at me from over the top of my computer. On the one hand, being out makes me feel like I’m doing something, like I’m on the brink of success …
And then I start thinking about what that success might mean.
I imagine it’s the dirty little unspoken secret of everyone doing well at one thing: You are terrified it will all work out. And where will you be then? Will you be the rockstar (so you can never be the journalist), the traveler (so you can never have a kitten), the constantly near-impoverished (so you can never buy the coffeeshop/bookstore/music venue you’ve always wanted or come up with some extra cash to help pay for your brother’s college education). Will you wear the label “touring musician” and nothing else, because nothing else will fit, and there’s no time to divert your energies to a mediocre poetry career, or drag racing career, or shitty artwork hobby?
Alright. Enough of my angst. What I was really writing to tell you about was the open mic tonight. You remember about the open mic tonight? 🙂 Jozart Studios is an incredible multi-media sort of arts hub tucked into the backstreets of a little east-coast college town with a big west-coast name: California. Down the street from the California University of Pennsylvania, Jozart is a sprawling loft in a building celebrating its centennial in 2004.
The proprietors, Bish and Jay, have just gotten the permits to maintain the place, which was a mercantile store for steel workers, etc. and later reincarnated as a five-and-dime and, rumor has it, as a roller rink, which explains the arcs etched into the matte wooden floor. I imagine during the day, the space is flooded with light, but for the night-time open mic, it is sparsely dotted with antique lamps. Into this space, Jay (who does Native American reproductions) and Bish (who Jay says can do ANYTHING) have squeezed a series of small design studios, a tattoo parlor, a kitchen, a stage, a projection wall for movies, and comfy couches to admire all of it. There’s even plans for a coffee counter in the corner. It’s the kind of space that just begs for a visionary mind and a weekend warrior’s do-it-yourself attitude. Rob and I are both instantly in love with it and its possibilities, and rob laments aloud that you can’t hijack a building. The bookstore/coffeeshop/music venue owner in me is incredibly jealous.
I’ve learned this week about another unspoken dirty little secret among all small-time touring musicians: that to be a touring musician is to turn being judgemental into a business tool. You don’t want to do it. You WANT to believe that people are different than they look, like different music than they look like they should like based on your preconceived notions of age, race, class, dress, geographic location or the simple choice of whether they opted to spend the night in a coffeehouse or a bar. But a smart business person winds up doing a quick mental demographic sweep of the room to determine the target audience and the most effective set and advertising strategy. The way the open mics tend to go is that you have to make a snap judgement about what these people probably like based on the only information you have about them, which is largely visual. Do we play a fast set or a slow one because bar patrons are less likely to be here for music than for their regular weeknight drinking hang-out and we need to show off and grab their attention? A more folky set because we’re in a coffeehouse or a rock set because we’re in a bar? Most of the people look like they are over 35, do we include “Locomotive Breath,” “Little Wing” or “White Rabbit” to appeal to them? We’re down the street from a college and these are mostly college kids, do we do the most indie stuff to appeal to them? The one heartening thing as I become so jaded, is that our judgements this week, and most of the time, are almost never completely right. Yay for the stereotype breakers
And I’m continued to be reminded of how much I Love my Life. Last night Aspinwall was just so spectacular, being reminded that I have sooo far to go with music – watching people who have been melding together musically for decades.
Tonight we headed back to Jozarts Studios. One of our favourite places. It’s so nice to go back there and have all of our positive memories reinforced. Everyone is just so amazingly friendly, and eager to hear from us and of us – Jozarts has these huge windows, and they were all open to the oncoming storm tonight, and the music from the open mic just echoes down the California streets. Apparently, while we were on stage, we were being blasted out powerfully enough to override a woman’s stereo as she was driving here… she turned down her radio and recognized our music and raced the rest of the way there.
I Love being Loved. So beautiful.
We’re crashing at Peter’s house – the host of the open mic – and Heather and he are trading stories of Peace Corps and midwest storms. He’s a professor at California University. He’s left his wife in Indiana, and she calls frequently, and he’s glad that she does… but he’s also glad to have his own place.
And I Love his voice. Love listening to them talk in the next room. It’s nice to be able to just sit here and type, interject when I please… Heather’s telling the story of “when I first heard my mother curse…” He reminds me of my mental image of Dr. Chandra, HAL’s creator in 2010…
The night was long and warm and moist and full of interruptions. The phone rings at 3.30am, and it’s a friend in need. It wakes us into an alien world full of half-constructed wooden skeletons and organic rustlings. We don’t become fully aware of how strange it all is until after the call is done. Heather talking, me listening…
We lapse into silence only to freesze at the sound of metal clankings in the kitchen. Barefoot and clad in boxers, we crept silently into the kitchen, Heather in a half crouch, slightly behind me. I’m expecting… raccoons? I don’t know what – armoured squirrels?
A tiny brown mouse darts from behind kitchen appliances and freezes, watching us. He has a long nose and quivering whiskers with which he makes a quick accounting of us before darting back beneath cutting boards and coffee makers.
Night slowly fades into dawn over the next couple of hours – too damp to sleep, too exhausted to remain conscious, we faded into morning in a daze, as someone slowly tuned the outdoor channel through different night rustlings to morning birds to strange clickings and whirrings and sleep.
I woke to Peter’s voice hours later, and we continue swapping stories until we are visited by a tiny rabbit (nothing but a kitten) on the porch, scratching at something, nibbling on something else. Good beesties in California.
Heather and I are tapping and typing to the sound of falling water. There’s a fountain in the corner of Jozarts Studio, and that, along with the cavernous interior and numerous plants, creates the illusion of being in a tiny jungle. Passing cars occassionally spoil the aesthetic, but they’re frequency is fading as night pushes on.
Heh. Strange – for someone who calls Baltimore home. I just jumped at the sound of a siren. I fall back in Love with California, PA very quickly.
It’s been a slow day. Almost idyllic. There has been tragedy, but I don’t own it, and can pretend the real world is on pause for a moment.
We couldn’t have asked for a better day to drive. Bright sunshine, setting in the west while driving almost but not quite into the sun. A little bit of squinting here and there, but mostly merely preening in the sunshine. My hair is being extra glossy.
I think we might stay an extra night, just to enjoy the drive back in sunshine too.
As we neared California, traffic slows onto smaller roads. There’s a moment of real contentment as I’m watching such Rockwellian scenes – a little blonde kid (in my more cynical moments, I’d have called her an Aryan child), maybe 11, grabbing a big sack-like cat and hauling him with both arms across the lawn. Children doing cartwheels. My mood is cemented as Richard Shindell sings of orange canaries. It’s a good day.
The new sound system at Jozarts is exquisite. The people are always Lovely. There was a moment that made things tense in my mind, ruined some of the beauty of it, but again, I can shut it out of my mind and relax into the sound of the fountain…
It’s a shame. I knew it was a mistake as soon as it was out of my mouth. I should’ve simply mentioned we were playing the Underground Cafe tomorrow – not “the Rainbow Festival”. That way I could’ve pretended about people’s attitudes. There’s nothing like hearing “that’s for queers and faggots” floating out of the audience to make me just want to shut down. Or shout. Chalk Pit feelings.
The next morning has me almost feeling stressed, almost worrying about my choice of words. I wonder if I’m too offensive, too obnoxious, and I worry slightly about the things we visibly support. Rainbow Festival’s make us unpopular with the majority of America, and my denouncement of people who think those thoughts make me even less popular sometimes. But what am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to be? I’m so tired of businessmen who might fund a cause but publicly speak out against it… politicians who are trying to please everyone… and in my more vulnerable moods I feel like my job; as a musician who’s fighting to not DROWN at the very bottom of the heap, falling between the cracks of genre and belief – I feel like my job combines a lot of the kiss-assery aspects of both of those professions.
And I hate it.
So, I offend some people because we have gay and lesbian friends? Or hate certain (huge) sides of the current administration, or APPROVE of certain (not quite as huge) aspects. Oh well, I suppose. I actually do edit myself heavily in here. My songs, we pick and choose sometimes, what’s appropriate and what’s not. But I don’t see why I’d want to be in a room where I’d have to lie about my beliefs. Downplay, perhaps. Not mention, if neccessary. But nod and smile in the context of conversation? I don’t think so. Sorry, but you’ve invited me into a dialogue. Hell, my music invites people into a dialogue. It’s personal, and it’s me. I can’t let the concern of whether or not I’ll make money off of it overwhelm me.
It’s funny, Ani writes about this sort of thing, but almost from the opposite perspective. She writes songs about how people just Love her because she screams “fuck” (Hell, I write songs about how people just Love her for yelling “fuck”) and she writes about how she knows how she plays up to it, and writes about fans her accuse her of having sold out for either dating a man, or wearing something that’s not offensive enough. Erf. Persevere, persevere… I Love my job but I hate working i
Waking up at Jozarts is a process of slowly being roused by clanking mechanical noises, the passage of trucks. People are quieter but the working day is louder. My paranoia never leaves me, and I get up to look at the car from our overhead vantage point, looking down to make sure everything’s okay. I sometimes fear I’m simply not relaxed enough to do this. Sometimes I worry I’m too relaxed. Hopefully, teetering in the middle means I’ve got it just right.
Trucks are arriving, dropping off loads of liquids to the local pizza shops and cafes. Our friend Brandy is due to meet us in a bit, so pants have been found, Heathers have been roused. But the clanking and whirring from outside sounds like the approach of a small Autobot army… or a towtruck, and again I’m peering at the window in the vague fear that age-old parking regulations are suddenly being enforced, despite everyone’s assurances. I’m a bundle of nerves this morning. Grey light filtering through the ceiling high windows – yesterday had such highs and lows, I’m still waiting to see where this one will go.
There’s simply something overwhelming about good music. I’m listening to my recording of the Dave Pahanish benefit from this weekend, and I’m struck once again by how good he is. I can’t even sing along to the recording with out tearing up – not in a bad way, but like with We’re About 9, I just find the emotions overwhelming – the word is “joy”, I suppose, where it’s not just happiness, but a mix of that and beauty and a bit of pain. It’s been a recurring theme for the past week.
I’m amazed by Dave as a performer. Nothing short of spectacular. I hope he’ll let me pass these recordings on. I actually prefer them to any of the studio stuff I’ve heard (which I’m sure I shouldn’t say).
Hell, how do any of us perform our Life stories? Dave is one of the few people I know who writes real songs about real things that have happened to him. Most of the singer/songwriters I know are – to be indelicate – liars. Most of them are making up stories and creating events out of books or inspirations or out of thin air. I used to have trouble performing because most of my songs are so direct from my own Life that I’d break down in the middle of them (Molotov Swell was particularly difficult) and even when I DID get through shows, it’d catch up with me afterwards. I remember crying my brains out in Heather’s old Ford Futura outside of Amy’s house, forcing myself to regain my composure before going in. I don’t break down like that a lot anymore, but I suppose it’s still in there somewhere. Threatening with people who write stuff that I can’t write.
I’m dreading getting to the part of this recording where I remember – there’s a song that Dave performed that made me think so strongly of my father that I was choking. I had a new friend sitting next to me, I remember her breath on my elbow, and I was just afraid she was going to look up and think “oh God, what a freak”.
Maybe it’s just my old mood swings coming back. My mom always told me that one day I’d simply HAVE to give in to taking drugs for my emotions. I’m still holding out.
Listening to Dave play Love songs hits hard, and I wonder how his wife feels – if they’re all about her? Are they about longings that were never realized? Old Loves – I don’t know, I almost feel like they must’ve been one of those lucky high-school romances that coalesced into a Life time. Watching We’re About 9 and watching Pat Klink’s girlfriend watch him – I wonder what that feels like.
The Beatles, “Let It Be,” just came on the satellite radio here at Perk, the first chord timed with my first keystroke and determining the subject of this entry. Rob brings up some really cool things about music and performance that I think are forgotten sometimes when you become a professional musician, about how music affects you, speaks to you as a listener. And I think when it becomes your means of meager survival, sometimes you even forget what you’re really giving of yourself when you get up there on stage.
My mother hates “Let It Be,” not because she is not a fan of the song, but because for her it is so intimately entwined with the documentary that showed the bitterness building into what would eventually be the crumble of The Beatles. I dated a boy who could not listen to Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting album (one of his favorites) for years because it was the soundtrack to a time in his life when he was getting drunk in mourning over a relationship. He was in said state when the lyric from “Joey” (“and if you’re somewhere drunk and passed out on the floor…”) came on, and it hit a little too close to home. His overwhelming negative reaction to the album was one of the things that made me pick it up secretly in an attempt to know him better, to be let in a little more into the mystery of all that came before me in his life.
The song you could not escape during one of my relationships was John Mayer’s “Your Body is a Wonderland,” which I kind of liked only because of that one part at the end of the song where he so earnestly just says, “Damn, baby.” I would always sing it in the car when we were together. My ex would later joke that he was so glad it had been that song out and not one he really liked, because he felt not the slightest guilt or frustration turning it off after we broke up, and sometimes he even smiled while he did it.
What’s fascinating about music is that it is such a multi-level experience. It can connect with us temporally as well as lyrically. Sometimes it’s just that our personal movie soundtrack was set to a certain tune at a certain time in our lives, and whether the contents applied or not, that song is now a part of that experience – A trigger as persuasive as the smell of fresh-cut grass or salt water or an old girlfriend’s special soap. And then again, a song written two decades before we were born can lay us low with a lyric that seems ripped specifically from our lives, or from every life that has ever been. Or without a single lyric, the mellow notes of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue can make you remember dancing in a candlelit room.
And the same songs can mean vastly different things to different people because of where, when and how you hear them. Those people on the late-night love song requests all sending out the same songs to different lovers for different reasons… I think that’s why you gotta give pop music credit sometimes … here is a medium that can apply uniquely and deeply to THAT many people over time. It might be the ONLY artform that can claim that complete, accessible and intimate an effect.
And then there are people who write and perform, who go on to appreciate a song for a million other reasons. We run our hands over the perfect joints of verses like appreciating a magnificent table built by another carpenter. Just because we know how to build doesn’t mean we can’t be constantly made to stand in awe of people who stopped merely building at some point and became “craftsmen” … the likes of which we aspire to be one day. I think that’s where rob and I and our divergent musical tastes definitely come together in appreciation of bands and writers like We’re About 9 and Richard Shindell. And it’s not the ornate writers … no, the real respect goes out to the rare and gifted who find magic in the most mundane … who manage to say something integral to the human experience simply and elegantly, and cut to the heart of that which you see and feel every day and could never quite explain yourself. As Brian Gundersdorf sings in is ode to the Sunday morning IHOP, “I always have the grilled cheese, but I always have the crisis.”
And then sometimes I like to listen to Britney Spears and I really admire the complex harmony line of an N-Sync song (“Girlfriend”).- THAT’s what’s great about the love of music and letting it affect you in whatever way it wants to. Sometimes it makes you sad, and you love it because you want something to find that part of you. Sometimes you want the perfect song to match your cross-country drive. Sometimes you want to put on some hip hop and dance with a hairbrush in your bedroom.
I forget that people care about how I write, how rob writes. That we are, for some other people, what those other songwriters are for us. Music makes us all equal, and we are all fans of SOMEBODY, no matter what tier we reach. Dylan is in awe of someone, Brian Gundersdorf is in awe of Richard Shindell, I am still in awe of rob, so it would follow that someone out there might be in awe of me. I have very little egotism about my songwriting, and my status as an “artist.” But recently I made of “present” of a detailed song explanation to one of the e-bay sponsors who bought my song. As a second-time sponsor, I felt like I should give her something, and she’d expressed how much the limited information about the song she had fascinated her and prompted her bid.
So without egotism, in case any of you are interested, a little bit about the history of my development as a songwriter. I went through a major growth process in the last few years. As a former journalist, I originally found it impossible to “lie” in my songs. I could only write about things that I had experienced, which is honest, but limiting. I think sometimes it’s crushing when you realize all you’re getting out of a performer is their imagination and creativity, and not being let in at all to their life. I think the more I tour, though, the more I am of the belief that it’s okay for me to give people my creativity and not my life. 🙂
Essentially, what I think you get out of a songwriter is a unique vision. Ideally, you get something interpreted by them as only they could have seen it, whether it was played out in their mind’s eye or right in front of them. And then you apply it to your own life if you want, if it speaks to you. You find your own message. I was faced with the fact that most of the songs I thought were the most amazingly written were not autobiographical. Sometimes in music, when you try to write what you know … you actually find you’re too close to the subject after all.
I consider my work as existing in four phases. The pre-rob years, the post-journalism years where I was exposed to a lot of very influencial songwriting, the bridge years between fact and poetic license, and where I am now. Songs that most of you have never heard fall into the first category: “Memory,” “Falling,” “Time to Go,” “Orion.” These songs were all directly ripped from my life. Every single line had happened to me, even if I was writing in a much more traditionally poetic way. My biggest influence at the time was the Indigo Girls.
Then when I met rob and was introduced to another way acoustic music could be written and performed, I started experimenting with lyric rhythm, off-kilter rhymes, new chords. I still could not make things up, though. “Matador,” “Pine,” “Sever,” and the unreleased “Embers” all fall into this time period. I was learning how to use my voice to sing original material, and finding my own style. My major influences were certainly Rob and Ani DiFranco.
The third phase is where most of the transition really happened. I started listening more to (not to sound too much like a fan girl) Richard Shindell and We’re about 9 much more intently as a songwriter deconstructing great work. I also started listening to the more unique storytelling aspects of folk music, and I started going to slams and writing slam poetry. Things that were drawn from my life – but gently doctored – started to come out. Save Berlin is all true and all the imagery is real, but the events are all speculative (incidentally this song is the most personal of all of mine and the one I feel the most uncomfortable playing, at times. It was a song that just came out, like a lyrical gag reflex or something. It’s what I had to write more than something I wanted to write.).
This led to the bigger step toward complete fiction: In the Water. If I had to pick a single song that marked the defining moment in my life as a songwriter, it would be that one. I set out for the first time to write about something completely outside of myself, from a completely fictional perspective, with completely invented imagery based only loosely on a real story heard through the mouth of a psychic on a talk show. And it was about more than the lyrics. I wrote the verses in a childish, sing-song fashion to mirror the subject matter. I began taking a much more holistic approach to my songwriting. Other songs like “Letters From the Front,” “Parallels” (a permanently in progress song written from the perspective of a parallel line in love with its unattainable counterpart) and ” Illinois is Overflowing” followed.
Nowadays, I take wild license with my songs. I’ve been writing a ton, and mostly they have come from interesting lines or interesting stories that I want to tell. I’ve written a song, in the polish phases, about a car repair shop called “God is in the Gears,” which is completely fictional and based solely off the real-life imagery of how much those crosses on the back of tow trucks look like crucifixes. Did I mention I’m Jewish?
In progress, is a “project” song, which arose from my found object jewelry with the same concept: people waste great lines that they just throw out in regular conversation. I’ve overheard some doosies in coffee shops. So I’m trying to write an entire song where not a single line is mine, forming connections between these otherwise disparate snatches of conversation. It’s not actually as hard as you might think. I already have one verse, complete with three different quotes made by as many different people, and part of a chorus. Human beings want to make connections. Week seek them whether they are there or not, and you find what you look for.
Finished and in performance recently is a song called, “Simile Blue,” written from a series of influences: Will playing us old recordings of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” rob’s father’s death, “Ghost in the Shell 2,” Will taking apart a dead bird, and my admiring of Dave Pahanish and Angie Aparo’s tendencies toward very simple, single-word, single-held-note choruses.
I’m also working on a country song, done except for the chorus, that is heavily influenced by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, borrows one of the found lines from my other project, and has a heavy dose of my Nashville visit mixed in. It’s about trains, and a fucked-up marriage. I am not married, and I have been one on round-trip train ride in my life.
I think my goals these days are lyrical power AND simplicity (John Darnielle is my teacher at the moment, along with the Kings of Convenience), vocal inflection, enunciation and a true use of some of the abandoned notes of my soprano range, and expanding my chord vocabulary so I can write music that is better than just what I CAN do, and more fitting with what the song DEMANDS. Just like the way those simple piano chords in “Let It Be,” love it or hate it, are almost a gospel song, almost a prayer, almost a funeral dirge. Or maybe they are that way because of the association my mother has for that song, and passed on to me.
Tag, you’re it, rob. How do you think you’re writing style has changed over time? What are your goals there? What are you aspiring to?