Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Elements of Music Style

Photo courtesy of The Constant Gatherer

I am looking for new material. I am spending hours tolling I-Tunes, You Tube, Music stores, artists’ websites, my own personal sheet music collection, bugging  all my song writer friends  and doing anything and everything it takes to hunt down material that’s just perfect. Finding a great song is an art unto itself, it’s sort of like being a museum curator. You have a number of wonderful possibilities in your collection but you have to pick just the right ones for the given moment. There have to be just enough to tell the story, but not so many that your audience is overwhelmed. They must work well together but each piece must be a gem in its own right able to stand on its own.  I make endless lists of songs when I’m on the prowl. To put together an hour of music which is somewhere between twelve and fifteen songs I will usually start out with a list of fifty to sixty songs. With my tendency to over prepare sometimes it gets close to a hundred.
Starting this process for the umpteenth time has me thinking about what it is that, for me, makes a great song. I think it really comes down to three basic things that have to be there, if a song doesn’t have these three elements then I don’t want to sing it. I can’t list them in order of importance because they are all equally important. Take away one and the other two are meaningless.
Emotional Resonance: A song has to reach me on a visceral level, and have emotional integrity. I look for emotional honesty, because it’s impossible for me to sing a lie. By that I don’t mean that I have to have actually experienced everything that happens in a song to be able to sing it (that’s where acting comes in) but there has to be a core of truth to the story. I really REALLY dislike songs that attempt to manipulate the listener into feeling a certain way. A great tune stays out of its own way and allows the listener to have their own emotional response without pre-programming it. 
Fantastic Lyrics: It doesn’t matter how honest a song is if the lyrics aren’t good then forget it. I’m looking for a complete story not endless repetition of a single thought.That is not to say that all songs have to tell a story in a traditional linear fashion, many don’t, but that the lyrics have to leave no doubt that there’s an entire emotional journey there.
Wonderful Melody: This isn’t just about how the song sounds, but how it feels too. A terrific song physically feels good to sing. The melody should support the story the lyrics are telling and not work against it. Melody can be seductive though.There have been times that I was so enamored of the melody that it took me a while to figure out that the lyrics weren’t up to snuff. In fairness, this has happened in reverse with lyrics catching my attention and the melody being subpar, but not as often.
Tempos, keys, arrangements, all these other things can be worked out if the bones are there. Truly, this is all it takes to make me a very happy girl, see how easy it is?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Monday Music

I woke up this morning with Born to Run playing in my head.  I am not a lifelong Springsteen fan, I’ve always like his music and thought he was a great songwriter, but I never quite understood what inspired such fervent admiration from his fans.  Well, I didn’t until I saw him live. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another performer who could establish a rapport with an audience so quickly and so (seemingly) effortlessly.  Bruce is not out there going through the motions, he’s present and engaging and obviously enjoying himself.  He has that rare ability to make a cavernous arena seem like an intimate space where it’s just him and you and the music. He’s made a believer out of me!
Being a woman of a certain name, Born to Run has a special place in my heart.  One of the first things my mother in law ever said to me was that I could never be president because my name was too girly. Musically, at least, she may actually have a point, if there’s a Wendy in a song most likely she’s going to be sweet, perky and picking up the Lost Boy’s dirty socks.  This is why I’m partial to Born to Run. Springsteen’s Wendy is an adventuress running off with the hot bad boy. She may never be president either, but I'm pretty sure she doesn't care.

I'm posting this version of the song because it has some great footage of Bruce interacting sax player Clarence Clemons who passed away June 18th following a stroke. His music will be sorely missed.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

I Could Read a Book

I’m not one for summer reading lists. I really think it’s sort of strange that summer is the declared “Season of Reading”. As a year round reader I see no need to restrict the pleasures of a good book to one part of the year.
There’s always a pile of books by my bed threatening to topple over upon me in the middle of night. The Kindle I got for Christmas this year has eased the clutter and threat of being crushed under an avalanche of literature, but hasn’t done much to calm my book buying frenzy. In fact, I think it’s made it worse. It’s so much easier to buy books with it. If I want a book, I have only to  open up my Kindle, go to the storefront and download it. Instant gratification at its finest.
There are currently a whole bunch of good things waiting to be read on my book pile. While I was out and about the other day I lucked into a wonderful sale and came home with a bagful of bios. I’m looking forward to spending time with several artists whose work I have always admired.

Ethel Merman: A Life by Brian Kellow
On the virtual pile in the Kindle are yet more biographies, some history, some fraud and  a really old conspiracy theory.
America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield

Sisters of Fortune: America’s Caton Sisters at Home & Abroad by Jehanne Wake

Of course, there’s also the distraction pile which includes my annual re-readings of Mary Kay Andrews’ novels, Ann B. Ross’ MissJulia Series, and Jennifer Crusie’s Maybe This Time.

These should keep me out of trouble for a few weeks at least…

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sweet Inspiration

Part of the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exibit at the Met's Costume Institute

I decided that I have spent way too much time with me, myself and I of late, and that it was time to get out into the world to search for fresh inspiration. I spent Monday tromping around a historic site in NJ (you know how I love a good ruin) the earliest parts of which dated back over three hundred years, which inspired the thought that my own constantly in need of attention eighty-three year old pile of bricks wasn’t so unmanageable.

On Tuesday I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Even though McQueen, who died last year at the age of forty-one, left school at  sixteen to apprentice to a Savile Row tailor and went on to become one of the most influential fashion designers in the world this is not an exhibit about clothes. This is an exhibit about how an artist takes disparate influences from nature, politics, art, culture, history, and even Darwin and uses them to create singular masterpieces. Each piece told a story, and the variety of materials used was mind boggling. In McQueen’s hands Razor- clam shells, painted medical slides, burlap and even etched glass become tools to express his vision.

And what a vision! The exhibit is filled with colors and textures that just beg to be touched. Although, I wouldn’t recommend this as there are large guards stationed throughout to prevent a hands on experience.

Beyond being a visionary McQueen was a superb craftsman. He spent his youth studying with master tailors, and costumers. He understood not just how clothes should look, but how they should be constructed and how they should move. Every piece in the Met’s show is impeccable.

There is a quote from McQueen used in the exhibit that I love, You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.  You don’t know what rules are worth breaking until you know what the rules are. Every good artist spends part of their early creative lives learning what the rules are so that they can make informed decisions later about what parts of tradition are worth holding on to and what parts don’t apply to them. This is where the fun is, every artist chooses to break different rules to come up with their own unique voice.

This was definitely a much needed jolt of inspiration for me this week. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of the importance of vision and craftsmanship, and making your voice heard. I am looking forward to going back to see it as much as I can before it closes on August 7th.

More images from the exhibit:


Friday, June 17, 2011

Good Morning Dolly

Photo by Ewing Galloway

Of course, the other sure fire cure for the Bad Day Blues is a good day at the salon. Yesterday as the colorist was troweling the goop onto my head I noticed he was wearing a button with letters BMW with a red slash through it. It was not, as I first thought, a protest against a certain motor company, it was a protest against Bitching, Moaning & Whining. I took it as a sign from the hair gods perhaps that it was time to shake off my grump and get on with it.

I woke up in a Dolly kind of mood this morning. It’s virtually impossible to be in a bad mood and listen to Dolly. Who needs Prozac when you’ve got Dolly, Amy Sedaris and Circus Couture?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bad Days & Baked Goods

Photo Courtesey of Shorpy Photo Archive
Yesterday was a bad day. A hide under your desk in the fetal position clutching your teddy bear B-A-D , bad day.  So bad that my normally attention hungry felines, Lucy & Ethel, were steering well clear of me by day’s end. Pages stayed blank, songs unsung and no brains were stormed despite hours of stewing and fretting and spinning in my chair.
So, what did I do? Did I forge bravely onward in the hopes that a breakthrough was just around the corner? Nope. I gave up. I gave up because sometimes knowing when to stop is the better part of valor. When the ideas aren’t flowing and I feel depleted walking away is the best thing I can do.

I needed to reset so I headed for my drugs of choice, a delicious Mary Kay Andrews novel and a sizable cupcake. It didn’t cure all my ills or cause a sudden flash of inspiration, but it gave me just enough space to escape. The mental time out gave me the energy and optimism to get back to work the next day.  After all, as Scarlett O’Hara would say, tomorrow is another day.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sweet Tooth

I'm off to the dentist this morning with this stuck in my head. Not the best thing for your inner DJ to be playing while someone is coming at you with needles and drills, but I suppose it's better than certain scenes from Marathon Man.

I absolutely adore Steve Martin's website. It'll be a great distraction while I'm waiting for the Novocaine to wear off!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Picture This

I always carry my camera with me but alas, it rarely leaves the confines of my purse. I have every intention of using it to document all the places I go, and the people I see, until I get so caught up in events and forget that it's there. Friday I was going through my camera and found the pictures from a family wedding we went to in Portland Oregon between Christmas and New Years. Actually, I should say picture because it was one picture of spouse taken at the end of the reception when he was falling asleep at our table. I can't even say for certain that I took that picture as I have absolutely no memory of doing so.

This leaves me to depend upon the kindness of strangers to snap and send me pictures so that I can remember the times of my life. My newly made half-year resolution is to try and do better in this area. In the meantime, here are a couple of snaps of recent events that have made their way to me.

Steve LaSpina, Wendy Lane Bailey, Rick Jensen, Laurel Masse' & Tex Arnold right before hitting the stage to perform for the Colleen Giblin Foundation's annual Humanitarian dinner. Thanks to BC Magazine for the photo.

Spouse, Me & Joe Piscopo at the 2011 New Jersey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.  Photo Courtesy of Michelle Oates.

Friday, June 10, 2011

To Sir With Love

There’s a lot to do in Beacon, NY. Shopping,great restaurants,the world class Dia Beacon Museum ,and on Saturday June 18th at the Howland Cultural Center our very own Laurel Massé. Since next Saturday also happens to be the birthday of Sir Paul McCartney she’s celebrating by calling the evening To Sir, With Love and performing some of his great tunes along with the songs of other writers whose work inspired him.  Laurel’s sister Babette will join her for a couple of numbers and, just to keep it in the family, her nephew Alex will be there on guitar. Tex Arnold, as usual, will be at the piano.

Advance reservations are strongly recommended and can be had here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mothers & Sons

Mother's Prayer Clip

When spawn was only a few months old he figured out he could get from place to place by rolling over and over and over until he had reached whatever it was that he wanted. I imagine that for an infant who has so little control over the world this sudden freedom of movement was a revelation.  For me it was sort of bittersweet. I was happy that he was reaching all the milestones that proved that he was a healthy child. On the other hand, I knew that rolling over leads to crawling which leads to walking which leads to running and so forth.
 As long as he was small and immobile I knew where he was every minute and I could make sure he had everything he needed and protect him. As he grew older and more independent (and being his mother’s child he was VERY independent) I had to let go and let him figure things out on his own. There have certainly been moments when I wanted to throw myself in front of the door and prevent him from ever leaving the house, but I know he has to learn to negotiate the world on his own terms.  Besides, how can I turn his bedroom into a closet if he never leaves home?

I love my son, but I also like him, and I’m profoundly grateful for that gift. He may make some questionable hairstyle choices (really, the Mohawk did make him look like My Little Pony) and mock my ignorance of Zombie culture, but he has grown into an intelligent and kind human being who makes me very proud.
Michele B. was the one who suggested that I record MelissaManchester’s Mother’s Prayer.  Michele is also a mother of sons and we often compare notes on motherhood. In fact, many of my performer friends happen to be parents as well, and we talk about our children as much as we talk about our work. You’d be surprised how often the two areas overlap. Having children affects the way we view the world which, in turn, affects how we see our work.  Melissa’s song is the perfect expression of the prayers we all send into the universe when we send our children into the world.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

More! More! More!

Jean-Honore Fragonard's painting The Swing

I am not a minimalist. I have tried, really I have. The other day I went to get ready for an event and I pulled out my oh, so chic and understated eggplant sheath dress, I added my not too large, not too sparkly stud earrings, and then it was time for shoes.  For about a millisecond my hand hovered over the classic black pumps with the not too high, not too low heel, and with a mind of its own passed right over them for the buttery yellow suede stilettos with the six inch heel. I eschewed the sensible cardigan and threw on my antique coral silk shawl embroidered with a garden’s worth of colorful flowers, and since the earrings seemed a trifle lonely, I topped it all with an engraved Indian cuff bracelet.  It was minimalism only by Liberace’s standards.
If you want to live in an all white room with bare windows and a black leather chair go for it. I don’t judge.  As for me, I need my books, and photos and curtains on the windows to keep the neighbors from viewing my clutter. My closet space runneth over and that’s just the way I like it.
Thanks be to Michele B. for writing an anthem for those of us who love wretched excess and irrational exuberance and letting me be the first person to record it. Sometimes more IS more.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject…I’m still looking for your stories of glorious excess. Click here for details and maybe even free chocolate!

Sometimes More is More

A sample of track three "Sometimes More is More".

Please Stand By

We've been experiencing some technichal difficulties with the service that allows us to post sound clips.This was a real problem since I wanted to give you a little taste of the first two tracks at the time I wrote about them. Happily the problem seems to have finally resolved itself, and so here are a few sound clips from the first two tracks of Breathing. The first clip is from track two which I wrote about on Monday, and the next two clips are from the track one guzinta of Breathing and So in Love. There will be more clips this week of the other tracks as I write about them. Enjoy!

Night Ride Home Clip

A little bit Track 2 of "Breathing" Joni Mitchell's "Night Ride Home".

So In Love Clip

A taste of Act II of the Breathing/So In Love Guzinta.


A sound clip from the title track.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Michele

Michele & Me at the Gardenia in LA

Working with Michele Brourman has been the greatest joy of the whole recording project. I first became aware of Michele through her song My Favorite Year. Not long after that I saw her in person for the first time. She was playing for Amanda McBroom at the Barns of Wolf Trap.  Out onto the stage came this tiny woman who sat down at the piano and morphed into a seven foot tall piano goddess. I knew right then that this was someone I wanted to work with one day.
Fast forward to a Sunday brunch on the Upper West Side of Manhattan not too long ago with me, Michele, Amanda and Laurel sitting around a table at Isabella’s sharing omelets and sweet potato fries. At one point in the conversation Amanda looks across the table at me and says “You have to come to LA and sing and Michele will play for you.” After a stunned second where I had to restrain myself from leaping into the air and shouting “YES! YES! YES!” I gathered my wits and said with all the sangfroid I could muster “I would like that very much”.  

Michele does many things well, she composes, she plays, she arranges, produces and has flawless musical taste. It would be easy to be intimidated by her, but she’s also one of the warmest most supportive presences I’ve ever met. This is not to say that she isn’t a tough taskmistress. She doesn’t coddle and she will push me until she’s gotten everything out of me that she knows I’m capable of and then some. Every singer should have a Michele in their corner.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Beach Music

Being a typical chick singer, I lean toward the dark side. Give me a rip your guts out love ‘em and leave ‘em ballad and I’m ecstatic. Left to my own devices I’d sing fifteen ballads and a comic song.  Luckily, I work with people who frequently remind me that singing a song of unrestrained joy is very satisfying.
My friend Laurel Massé brought me Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home. I spent my high school years in a beach town, and so I have always been certain that magical things can happen on a beach at night. Joni paints with lyrics the picture of the perfect night with the perfect person.

Michele B. suggested we make another guzinta by adding Anne Caldwell and Jerome Kern’s Once in a Blue Moon.  Written sixty-five years before night ride its wistful tone and hopeful lyrics feel every bit as contemporary. Our clothes, and cars and means of communication may change but our desire to connect with another person never does.

Together we have a story of how true love is rare and wonderful thing, and given enough time and faith it will arrive.  I think I may have been forever cured of my chick singer ballad bondage!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Thousand Words & Then Some

I married into a very creative family. My mother in law is a doll maker and illustrator, my sisters in law, Heather and Laura are fabric and home décor designers, and my brother in law Isaac happens to be a wonderful photographer and graphic designer. And there are several other siblings, spouses, offspring, and assorted cousins all of whom possess oodles of creative talent both visual and musical.  I knew when I started this project that Isaac was the man for the job of designing the packaging for the album. Not because we happen to be related.  In fact, working with your in laws can cause you to seriously doubt your sanity, but because I knew his work and I knew he could give me the look I wanted.

The vision that I had of the artwork for the album was of a feeling of faded grandeur. I am entranced by the idea of beauty in decay.  I was born in Louisiana, and raised between there, Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia. My very first memory is of my mother taking me on a tour of the old plantations along the Natchez Trace. TennesseeWilliams, Truman Capote and Harper Lee number among my favorite writers, and it’s long been my secret dream to play Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. I love nothing better than a brooding sky on a humid day and the overgrown ruin of a once magnificent structure.

Just up the road from my house are the remains of an old mental hospital. Many of the buildings have been torn down and the ones that remain have slid into a state of decline. I love this place, it reminds me of those places I knew growing up and I’ve always wanted to do a photo session there. When I told Isaac about it and about the feel I envisioned for the cover his eyes lit up and I knew for certain that I was in good hands.  He intuitively knew what I wanted and was just as determined as I that we get it. Even the weather saw fit to cooperate with us. Most people would not be enthused about an outdoor shoot in alternately rainy, Windy and icy thirty- eight degree weather, but I thought it was perfect.  

By the way, all the photos that have accompanied this series of virtual liner notes are by Isaac from that session. You can see more of his work here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Love and Breathing

The first track on the album is what Michele B. calls a guzinta: two songs sung in their entirety back to back so that one song guzinta the next.  This is different from medley which is bits of many songs (often far too many, but usually at least three) strung together into some sort of cohesive whole.  A guzinta is more like a two act play. Each song tells a different part of the same story that when put together becomes a seamless whole.

I’ve always thought of the Breathing (Amanda McBroom & Michele Brourman) and So in Love (Cole Porter) guzinta as a story of resistance and surrender. The first song is about resisting the pull of the one you cannot help but be drawn. Even though this is the last thing you want or need you are consumed by both the desire to let them in and keep them out at the same time. By the end of the song you are powerless to do anything but surrender. So in Love picks up where you have reached the place that no matter what happens you cannot be moved. The decision has been made and there is no going back now.

The honesty of the lyrics astounds me. There is no coyness, no flirtatiousness only (to steal a line from another famous Amanda McBroom song) endless aching need.  From Amanda & Michele's I breathe in and you are there as necessary as the air to Cole’s …taunt me, and hurt me, deceive me, desert me, I’m yours till I die a soul is laid bare before you.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What's in a Name?

Choosing a title for an album can be a bit tricky. I know, you’re reading this and thinking “How hard could it be? She just picked the very first song on the album and stuck it on there”. Actually, no. At first I thought I'd let the interwebs decide, but the more I looked at the list of possible names the more my eyes and heart kept coming back to Breathing.  

Breathing is the title of the wonderful song written by Michele Brourman and Amanda McBroom that starts off the album, but it’s a lot more than that. It is the most essential part of singing. The breath you take at the beginning of a song is the one that matters the most. It’s this intake of air that shows you the way in, which centers your mind and your body in the emotional space of the song. It’s just the tiniest of pauses but without it you feel unmoored, and as if you have forgotten something of great importance.

Life can be that way too. I tend to rush headlong into my day so determined to accomplish something that I forget to stop and breathe. It’s surprising how in such a small moment everything can become so clear. When I remember to breathe I remember to focus on what’s important and let go of the trivial.  Someone, no one seems to know exactly who, once said “Breath is spirit. The act of breathing is living.” Breathing brings me back to who I really am and all the possibilities of who I can be if I only allow myself to let go.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A First Day and a giveaway

 Breathing officially arrives today! To have your own copy, you don’t even have to leave the comfort of the chair in which you are currently sitting.  Just click on over to  CD baby  and you can download it, or get a copy of the CD with all its nifty artwork. Of course, if you’re looking for that personal touch, you can always drop me a note  and ask me to send your CD signed by yours truly.

The next week will be one of much celebration here on the blog. First of all, I’ll be doing a series of virtual liner notes for the album. As pleased as I am with the gorgeous packaging of the physical CD, there just wasn’t quite enough space for me to share some of my thoughts about the individual songs, or to give you a peek behind the scenes at some of the people who made this project happen.  For the next week or so I’ll be putting up a new post each day, devoted to the whos, whats, and whys that went into Breathing.

Ahh, but wait -  there’s more! I can’t very well bring out my first CD without doing a fantastic giveaway, can I? I thought not. So, here’s the deal: I am overjoyed to be the very first person ever to record  Michele Brourman’s ode to wretched excess, Sometimes More is More. I'm so overjoyed, in fact, that I’m making it the theme of my giveaway game.  Post your favorite story of wretched-over-the-top-extravagance (in two hundred words or less), and I’ll send to the writer of my favorite one a personally signed CD (or download card) AND a $25 gift card from one of my favorite places for sinfully excessive treats. I discovered The Meadow when I was visiting Portland, Oregon over the holidays, and was thrilled to learn they have an NYC location on Hudson St.  If ever there was an occasion that called for a decadent chocolate moment, the release of one’s debut recording is definitely it!
There are just a few little rules though. As I mentioned, the stories should be no longer than two hundred words, and they must be personal. I don’t want stories of Saddam’s palaces, Imelda’s shoes or Dolly’s wigs, I want YOUR story. It must involve you, someone you know, or something you have personally witnessed. No fair cribbing stories from The Enquirer et al. Also, let’s keep it clean, legal, and civil. We’re just not that kind of blog! All stories must be posted no later than Friday June 10th. Other than that, enjoy yourselves, and make me proud! Hey, you’ve got great tunes and good chocolate for motivation...Spill those tales!