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Singer/songwriter Deborah Crooks’ dynamic new full length album Little Bird is very much a product of the unique Bay Area independent music community that she has been part of since releasing her debut EP 5 Acres in 2003. The eclectic, 11-track set — which ventures into everything from funk and reggae to rock and blues — reflect her expansive and eclectic tastes, and features musicians the singer has performed or recorded with over the past five years.
A follow-up to her 2010 EPs It’s All Up To You and Other Halves (which Crooks later packaged together and released as the full length 2010), Little Bird was produced Art Khu, a well-known composer/producer in San Francisco jazz circles who has played on several of Crooks’ past recordings. The two recorded the basics of the project with drummer Mike Stevens at his Lost Monkey Studio, and Ben Bernstein (who produced her first two albums) on bass. “We all know one another well and have a lot of musical respect and love of creating going on,” she says.
Crooks’ diverse, ever-evolving musical career has included playing countless Bay Area venues (including foundational Bay Area songwriter and band venues such as the Bazaar Café in the Richmond District, Berkeley’s Starry Plough and High Street Station in her current East Bay hometown) as well as periodic tours in Southern California, Oregon, Washington and to Austin. In addition to her solo career, she has enjoyed collaborating on a wide variety of tours and recordings. She toured the Northwest as part of “Indie Abundance Music, Money & Mindfulness” with two other artists; played throughout the Southwest with fellow songwriter and yogini Jean Mazzei on The Great Idea Tour; hosts one a monthly open mic at High Street Station; and has participated in an ongoing Bay Area Song Collective. She has also worked on projects by indie artists like B.Z. Lewis (Pop Tuna) and Alex Walsh and made prose and poetry contributions to the Deborah Slater Dance Theatre in San Francisco.
The Watsonville, California-born, Bay Area-raised performer earned a degree in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Colorado where she covered sports, studied writing in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and “got turned on” to the power and possibility of songwriting via seeing many great female songwriters including Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin. Despite a vast array of influences from genres across the board, she has long gravitated towards literate, roots-based songwriters who can rock ala Lucinda Williams, Alejandro Escovedo and Buddy & Julie Miller. Living in the Bay Area, she has enjoyed the continued inspiration from “talented spot-on songwriters who are too numerous to list and who routinely take me to school.”
Lyrically, the overriding themes on Little Bird (faith and spirituality, liberating the self from societal and personal limitations, going for love) reflect a perspective that has been shaped extensively by Crooks’ studies of creative writing and yoga, which she has practiced regularly for 15 years, including taking four extended trips to India deepen her studies. “Plus love and all its hope and vagaries are ever on my mind,” she adds.
The simmering, blues-influenced title track “Little Bird” offers a powerful metaphor for the freeing of one’s unconscious, which Crooks describes as “a bird in a cage in the darkest corner of the house.” She brings a lilting, country music vibe to “Little League,” which recounts a time when she was allowed to play on an otherwise all-boys team, but was not supported or encouraged to play her best; she draws on the experience to address the still-relevant issue of glass ceilings for women. On the more romantic side, she cleverly balances the exuberant hopefulness of “Looking Down the Road” (a spirited rocker) with “Bittersweet Valentine,” a whimsical look at a love that for whatever reason must remain unfulfilled.