Last weekend, I visited an ancient and important chapter in my life. Tucked back in the woods in rural Illinois, there is a little summer stock theatre called Timber Lake Playhouse. In 2001, right before the whole world changed on September 11th, I met my two best friends there. One of the many shows we performed was Grease. Laura played Jan. Jim played Eugene. I played Patty. We’re each still sort of negotiating the surreal architecture of those characters. 2001 was a chapter of running away, breaking rules and experimenting with our identities. That summer, we each discovered a piece of ourselves that we still hold dear fifteen years later.
Animal spirit cards are tokens that I love a lot. As a non-religious person who is prone to anxiety and depression, it gives me comfort to be guided by these little heralds. Lately, the energy in Boulder has been shifting dramatically. I started a new position at my job, one that actually allows me to stay off my computer most evenings and weekends. I’m practicing the accordion and piano every single day. We’re delving deeper into the orchestrations of the album. And, most profoundly, Justin and I have started to look toward the next chapter of our lives. We both feel like somehow this album is going to be a signal to us for how and where we go next. Boulder is a truly gorgeous place and has provided a fertile environment for us to get our financial lives, artistic visions and relationship with each other sorted. As we now trudge up the winding paths of creating this piece of art, it feels like we can almost see over the hill to the next valley. There are things I want out of life that I know Boulder is not able to give me – a house with a yard where we could build a recording studio, more diversity, old architecture, plentiful ethnic food… I think I’ve realized that I’m a city girl at heart and feel most at home in a more chaotic environment where I’m regularly bumping into different people and experiences.
Now, as we sit in Chris’ apartment and work through these pieces, I feel like I’m hearing sounds from my future. We’re looking deep inside to capture the sounds of who we are now and, at the same time, reaching far into the future to the dream of who we’ll become. The recording dates are set. The studio and engineer are booked. The musicians are almost all confirmed. This creation we’re making together feels like an auspicious piece that may indicate our next right steps. The working title is, “We Don’t Live There.” With any luck, it will be the fondest token we take with us into the next chapter, whatever/wherever that may be.
Back to the animal spirits… Justin read my cards the other night after a long day of work and a couple glasses of wine. My question was “How can I best manage my depression and anxiety?” Here’s what the cards said:
Past – Seagull – In the past, my anxiety and depression were signposts to lead me towards healing from my childhood wounds and seeking help. Therapy and yoga were the main tools of management. A summer in the woods doing musical theatre with my future best friends was another way of healing.
Present – Spider – Presently, I’m handling my emotional ups and downs by pouring myself into creativity and music in a very disciplined way. This is the purpose of my current chapter. My practice room at home is very often visited by these little spinners. They freak me out, but we never kill them.
Future – Panda – I’ll need to create a sacred space for myself in the future, where I can really do my work, be inspired and feel connected. This will calm my anxiety and depression. This is the next chapter that I’m yearning for.
Yoga, theatre and music all have taught me how to stay in the present. Presently, I’m living in Boulder, in an apartment that is populated by many spiders. I’ll be there until further notice, continuing to heal my woes with music and creativity, practicing the accordion and the piano, pouring my troubles into something I can take with me when the next chapter comes.
“Oh yeah,” says the lady on the opposite end of the phone line, “you guys are bringing in the choir, right?” I blurt out, “Yup that’s us,” as if I work with large choirs all the time. Then as I hang up the phone it hits me: we’re hoping to bring a full choir into the studio to sing on one of our tracks. Shit is starting to feel real.
I wrote the song that we want the choir to sing just over a year ago. We’ve played it live a few times but it’s never really found the right groove. In my brain it sounds huge, needing a lot more than our single piano and guitar have been able to offer. It started as a simple two-chord progression. There was nothing that special about it at first except for the fact that I enjoyed strumming back and forth between those particular chords. Thirty minutes later I had a solid progression, no melody and nothing really to write about. This is normally where songs die for me. There are at least a hundred songs on voice memos in my iTunes library that only made it this far. Maybe one day I’ll get my shit together and save a few of them from purgatory.
This progression didn’t die. For a few days, I kept returning to it every time I would pick up my guitar. Sometimes I’ll try to force a progression to live, stubbornly coming back to it time and time again for fear that if I don’t finish it I’ll never write anything else. These songs usually die as well or become crappy songs about “relationships” and “feelings”. Other times the progression will just fall out and look up to me from the page in a way that says, “Alright, that’s done. Deal with it.” This was one of those times. Next thing I know, a tiny chorus melody sneaks in there.
Now comes the hard part: substance. I suck at this. I’ll get through four sets of lyrics and realize that all I’m doing is concentrating on rhyming couplets that sound like a fucking Coldplay lyric. (Side note: I’m totally not a hater of Coldplay, I’ll leave that to Steph.) Are my lyrics perfect? Hell no. But I do want to try my best to avoid some kind of surface crap like, “Call it magic/call it true/I call it magic when I’m with you.”
I brought what I had to Steph. To be honest, this was probably the first time I brought her something this early. She gave it a listen, added another cool bit of melody and then said something to the effect of, “You should write this about your mom.” I fought this at first because I am pretty bad at writing about personal stuff. I always doubt the words I put to paper because they never seem honest enough. Sometimes they get clouded in too much metaphor, other times they are just akin to an 8th grade love letter. But then Steph sang my mother’s name, Joanne, to the tune of the melody and I was sold. Just the way my mother’s name sounded when attached to that line was all I needed. “Deal with it.” It took me about 15 minutes to get the rest of it out.
We’ve been wrestling with it ever since, trying to find the best way to really let it come alive. Chris heard it once and put it into contention to be on the album. After some back and forth, it has made the cut. We’ve done a few inspiring and collaborative orchestration sessions on it and I can hear it growing to something pretty special. We’ve got plans for a string quartet, a little accordion and… well… a choir. In the 15 years that I have been writing songs, this may be the closest I’ve been to hearing what the inside of my head sounds like on the outside.
Here’s hoping it doesn’t end up sounding like Coldplay. ;)
The last couple weeks have brought about a new way of working with The Fremonts that is proving to be really productive. Instead of meeting at Harmony Music House (where I teach piano lessons) for our production meetings, we've been meeting at my house where we can listen to demo takes of the songs, import them into Logic, and digitally re-arrange them as new ideas come along, all while drinking alcohol of course. Frankly I'm a little embarrassed I didn't have the idea to start doing this months ago because it's the exact same production process (minus the alcohol) that I had the opportunity of watching the artist Kimbra and her producer Mike Elizondo go through when I briefly stepped in as his intern a few years ago. The difference being that Mike and Kimbra had 12+ hours a day, every day, to work on music, probably $100,000 worth of instruments and audio equipment at their disposal, and many years of professional music making experience supporting them. However, despite our limited time together (a few hours every Wednesday night), we finished arranging a beautiful little demo for what will the most ambitious track of the album.. and of my career for that matter. A completely finished arrangement is a small but important goal that's been accomplished.
I believe in what the comedian Tim Minchin calls a "passionate pursuit of short term goals" as a means to achieving greatness. Thanks to Stephanie (the most organized client of all time) creating a detailed timeline of tasks that need to be finished, and what dates they should be finished by, I think we're well on our way to making the album that we want to make.