I never get tired of exploring. New music, new trails, new fads, new shoes....well, shoe stores. New musicians, songwriters, and performers. I'm always amazed at the abilities within performance art. I sing. I don't swing guitars, or dance on stage--never have. (Well maybe not until recently.) In the beginning maybe if I had, it wouldn't have taken so long to manage stage fright and frozen guitar picking fingers. Through years of exploration in music and getting stranded here and there where I spent the time exploring more craftsmanship and beauty of the genres, I find that there is no music that I don't like. We used to be told by the songwriting publishers that our craft was "only as good as your last song", and if that was bad we were in trouble. Sure. Okay. As soon as I finish work at two different part time jobs, pick up the kids from school, cook supper, clean, and so on. After the kids were in bed I would write. Some nights when I was on to a particularly insistent melody and I would be singing it over and over again, my oldest son would yell "Mom! We're trying to sleep in here!" Those days are long gone but the methods haven't changed much. I still write whenever, wherever I can. Life is research and exploration and our experiences are the archives. No longer carrying a little SONY cassette recorder like we did in the beginning iPhones have taken their place. I don't terrify passengers by trying to write lyrics down as I pull over to the side of the road anymore. Or ask them to write them down for me. (My son--"You drive Mom, I'll write. Just talk.) Ahhhh, bluetooth. Aren't inventors wonderful? I can just sing in the car and it's being recorded. And kudos to the guy who invented the recording software for my device that made it look like a little cassette recorder. Lol! I am often embarrassed by my lack of skill in technology. I watch ten year olds with more tech savvy than I have. On the other hand I still play acoustic instruments, make bread from scratch and am still exploring. History, science fiction, fish skin rattles, hand-drum making and drum songs. Ah, life is good. Even if I have to get a child to clean up my iPhone.
Am I EVER glad 2017 is on its way out. I mean, really, on a personal level it just kicked my ___. I know I'm not alone as nearly everyone I talk to say something similar about the past year. I think the world just went crazy, and no one could really keep up. It was interesting reading on the social media sites as every opinion was stacked on top of a thousand others--if one had time to read them. Now that we're moving into midwinter, darkness, transformation and renewal, this gives me great hope for the next year. As always I put my mind toward the goals, tasks and dreams I've placed there. There's always something to look forward to in my future if I put it there. The rest is bonus. Happy New Year everyone. May yours blessed with peace, prosperity and love!
Holy Moly time flies when you're not paying attention! And most often even when you are...the presentation at OCADU was well-attended, Shelley Niro and I got to gab with a room full of people about our current Iroquois Arts project. Then fly to Richmond VA for the film festival, meet old friends, new friends and basically hang out in Careytown, an artsy section of the city in between watching the films. After all these years I still get the pre-stage jitters (I'm told I'm in good company with that one), made myself cry during my performance, and I left there inspired, inspired, inspired to write more, more and more. The time flies thing--well getting back home after a busy week felt like meeting myself at the door with all the still yet-to-do, unfinished, and new works to get busy at. Canvas covered on the easel, a 12-string itching to be played, and my poor mandolin had dust on it...yikes! So time out to write a quick blog because I'm terrible at social media--that's why you never hear from me--and then back to fun work of working out a chord progression on the mandolin. I tried to cheat once and use a capo (there's a picture of that somewhere) but it felt sacrilegious and actually kind of silly at the same time. (I thought of about 20 mandolin players who would give me what for). So I'm ignoring the christmas wrap that's trying to get my attention and move from one instrument to the next, and writing. I think that's what is keeping the paddles in the water....
As a member of the arts collective Iroquois Arts, I have been privileged to grow and learn as an artist through a myriad of projects, ideas, and presentations. So far, this most recent project is the one I find the most challenging. It's not only music, and yes I am creating as we go. There is history in art, and art in history and I find that I am challenged by the writings of early explorers. Looking for the facts in the journals of someone like John Smith for example, and his portrayal of the Powhatan and "Pocahontas" is difficult. The search for her story has taken us through many writers and it has taught me that any preconceived notions I have had about this woman have to be thrown out. No one really knows the truth because everyone has written their own version, or opinion of it. We look at history through Indigenous eyes and often believe we know the truth, but in fact we can only view it through our contemporary minds, our twenty-first century beliefs, bodies and lifestyles. I find that we too are guilty of romanticizing our own culture at times. No one really will ever know who Pocahontas or Matoaka was or the truth of her experiences with those early entrepreneurs. We know that she is probably one of the first abducted Native American women whose story has been pieced together by what was written by her abductors. As my Mum would say, "that's like asking the fox to guard the henhouse". The fox would look at you and think, "What chickens?" Right now I am sitting in the Toronto Pearson Airport waiting for a flight to London, England where the 400 year anniversary of Pocahontas' death is being acknowledged. I am taking all the filters off and hoping that my ability to be observant, discerning, and objective will be maintained. I will be performing a short 15 minute set for which I have written new songs that I hope projects my Indigenous perspective in such a way that honours the soul of a woman who died in the first wave of exploitation of sacred tobacco. This is an Indigenous woman whose life and name has been maligned and marginalized into a pile of romantic crap that has allowed those same entrepreneurs to continue to disrespect, devalue, oppress and destroy Native North American women today. Changing the words doesn't change the truth even if she is the only one who will ever really know what it is.
Sometimes creative ideas roll so fast around my mind I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz watching through the window of the flying house. Only instead of witches on brooms there are train cars full of my thoughts, plans and creative moments that have been put aside until later. Each time I finally bump into "later", it gives the train a great shove and it's off into another spin. I've been told by many artists that everyone has that train, everyone's biggest challenge is their own "monkey brain", and most generally feel like a fake. Regardless of the achievement, who rests on their laurels believing they've made it? What does that even mean? Oh, we all know what the industry professionals in whatever area of art you're in think that means, but in truth that small portion of the art world is the buyers perception. In terms of creativity, and as long as we're alive we continuously "make it". Each song, each painting, sculpture, or dance--whatever an artist has creatively completed brings such joy, contemplation and at times amazement ("I really did this!") that even through screaming muscles, cramped fingers, and hoarse throats you don't even question the whys or hows of being an artist. You just are. It was John Hiatt who said "whatever your hands find to do, you must do with all your heart." This is so true. As I work on a story of fiction trying to type as fast as the words fly through my mind, suddenly I pause, staring at my guitar. I wonder at the pull inside me to stop what I'm doing and pick it up, pluck the strings and feel the vibration through the wood into my soul. A sense of a song begins to percolate somewhere deep, and I wonder what will emerge. I stash canvases behind the sofa, and paints in boxes with colours so vibrant I can almost hear them crying to be let out to play. To dance on the clear surface like children in a splash pool. Creativity is perception without judgement. Why is it that in all the beautiful creativity swirling around in that train, that all I can think is the train is leaving without me? I suppose like red in the rainbow, we cannot see ourselves, and almost always will forget that it's our train. We are the engineer, and regardless of the station, track, or direction, we are still driving force of our own creativity.
Thunderstone Pictures new animated short "The Grandfather Drum" has been accepted for screening at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Congratulations Michelle, and thanks for allowing me to be a part of a great production team!
Most of my summer was spent writing, which is kind of opposite to what most other artists are doing. They're all out there performing as much as they can during the outdoor event season. I missed it, yes. A lot. However, there was something extremely nurturing about giving time to my craft, and allowing the words and music to drift about my life so completely I realize I'd forgotten what a powerful state of mind that is. Living it in a major music location like Nashville, New York, or Los Angeles, songwriters can't help but eat, sleep, dream and live songs. I've done it. Now I find I have to make that time elsewhere in order to get anything done. This past summer was my chosen time, and as it turns out was extremely productive. Since I chose a place other than my own home--the Banff Centre for the Arts--I think I couldn't help but be productive. (I applied for and got an independent artist residency thank goodness) With the woods, the Bow River and the town of Banff below me, and the great mountains at my back, I sat each day facing a large window and wrote. The wind, the rain, the ravens came and went as I wrote leaving me in the comfort of my own creation. I even composed about five songs on the piano which is a feat unto itself since I hardly play the piano. Setting down my guitar, and using the other instruments to play with the ideas worked, rekindling and stoking a fire that I occasionally wondered had it gone out? (Old songwriters never die, we just change the strings...) I noticed something else. That within hours of setting up the writing space, and getting to work I found myself operating almost as if I were back in a music city songwriter mode. Except without all the crazy roller-coaster days of writing, pitching, wondering, etc. This time, the intent was to create new material for a new project that will stretch my creativity beyond the edges of the envelope I have so safely kept my music in. Time, and a new production will tell. In the meantime, huge nia:weh thank you to the Indigenous Arts Program, Sandra Laronde and her team, and my road warriors who stopped and picked strawberries with me when it was time to take a driving break and never let their teenaged angst and boredom get in the way of having fun. Now on to the next great adventure! And I think....piano lessons?
I recently read a blog by the Gibson Brothers bluegrass group relating the information on a stolen guitar and musical equipment that belonged to a young player. They've published a detailed list, if you care to forward it on your media sites to help out in the search. I immediately remembered the long-ago loss of my Guild D35, and a few other instruments and valuables that were taken from my apartment in Nashville. People kept saying to me, "It's just a guitar, and at least you're okay. What if you were home at the time?" Who knows what would have happened? What I do know for that boy, for myself and I'm sure millions of other musicians--it isn't just a guitar. It's not the brand, the colour, the type of wood, or the kind of strings that are on it. All of those can be replicated. In fact when I sourced a dealer to get a price on replacing mine, as a struggling songwriter at that time I couldn't even afford to because it had appreciated so much value. However, I knew that wasn't really what I was looking for. Friends loaned me instruments while I searched, grieving the loss of that musical partner that had always settled into my arms like a trusting lover, that resonated with tones that struck places deep inside my soul, and had remained steady and true every time I played. I knew as soon as I played it that it was mine. It must have been a year or so later, having given up looking for an exact replacement, and miserable without my Guild, on a visit to family I ended up in the Cambridge Music Store (which no longer exists) in Ontario, Canada. I was looking through the variety of instruments not finding anything that I liked when one of the salesmen said he had something just in and maybe it was more to my liking. He brought out a Takamine EN-10 and handed it to me. I was pretty skeptical. It wasn't a Guild, it wasn't even a North American made guitar, but as soon as I pulled it into my lap I knew it was mine. It was beautiful, it resonated clear to my bones, and without hesitation I bought it. Thieves, in their own world, do not think of those attachments and responsibilities to objects. Their only consideration is the value of the object, the when and where they will get it by fencing the object that belongs to you. Your own shock and myriad of emotions mean nothing to them, let alone your responsibility to your job and the work of your craft. There is only monetary value to the pieces of equipment and instruments you have carefully acquired. And like any other loss you feel that shock, that empty space, and for awhile you wonder how you'll get along without. So what have I learned? I like having the choice of whether or not to let something go. We all do, and no one likes having anything taken away from them. That boy is hurt, but he'll grow and heal and move into his own future knowing that the universe is his. The thieves, however, will forever have nothing. By stealing the prosperity of others they will remain frozen in a paradigm of their own making, always circling, repeating the patterns and living in the past. It's kind of like holding a grudge. Thievery does not allow a future. Kind of like the quantum physics of "What goes around comes around." So whether it's corporate sized or small change, thieves abandon their honour and their future while hopefully we salvage ours and leave them behind. Yes, I'm glad I wasn't at home when thieves broke into my apartment all those years ago. Yes, I'm glad the Gibson Brother's young friend is safe and secure. But sometimes a guitar isn't just a guitar. Like Willy Nelson's "Trigger", sometimes, it really is a best friend.
I've been trying to catch a weekly jam session that happens around town, and lately I haven't been able to arrive until the night is nearly over. For about an hour I play along and listen. I find song choices, playing styles, and voices fascinating, and really enjoy, for even one hour, a small visit with the local musicians. Sometimes strings are out of tune, sounds clash, sometimes they blend, and everyone seems to have a great time. I know I smile a lot because people are interesting and funny, and regardless of the expertise they are passionate about their music. I love this. They are of all ages. Every time I go there I learn something new or remember a song I'd thought forgotten. The best of all is it makes me think "What songs do I know?". Then I think of old Flatt & Scruggs tunes like Rough and Rocky or I Still Miss Someone. I recalled my oldest brother belonged to the Capital Record club, and bought one of their albums and that's where I first heard bluegrass music. Funny. At the time (I was nine yrs old) I thought it was country music.
I don't very often play the song "Dreams Die Hard" in my sets. It's a slower tempo and a heavy topic as the lyrics are pretty straightforward about domestic violence. But the other night I was prompted to play it near the end of my show and for the first time realized something interesting. As I sang I noticed every single woman in the room sat up in her chair, remaining still and focused throughout the song. Some men leaned forward and listened while touching the woman they were with in some protective or comforting way. Realizing this I had a momentary panic in the middle of the chorus that I was upsetting someone--making them uncomfortable, and that maybe I shouldn't sing this song, and oh, what am I doing? I should've sung something else. On and on and on chastising thoughts rolled through my head as I continued through the chorus and into the next verse when suddenly all the self-doubting misery screeched to a halt. I noticed one man squirming in his seat, slouching lower, even putting his chin in his hand, not looking at me or anyone in particular. And I realized, seeing the angrily twisted look on his face that every single word I was singing was hitting on some truth inside of him. He did not like it. In that moment I also realized that I could easily cut the song short, slide out of the chorus and segue into another song saving him and everyone else from discomfort. The last thing I want to do is hurt someone especially if I'm supposed to be the entertainment! But I didn't. I managed to catch his eye and sang harder, sweeter and as clear as I possibly could while emoting every syllable of that song. He liked that even less. I put as much love into that three and a half minutes as I could muster for the women in that room and the men who accompanied them. For souls everywhere who love and live with violence. For this squirming, uncomfortable, angry audience member who stayed right where he was and listened. And for myself. For so long I know I've the habit of protecting others from their own discomforts and truths--perhaps so they don't reflect mine. Who knows? But in that short few minutes I saw healing happening right in front of me. For some it came in quiet tears leaking out the corners of half-closed eyes, for others in shifting and restless movements in their seats, for one man in the flashes of hurt, rage, and even fear across his face and for me the dropping of a burden on my heart. I couldn't feel sorry for him without feeling sorry for myself. I couldn't stop singing without stopping my own voice. I'm not willing to do either. Music is the voice of Creation. Wherever it goes, however it moves us whether to write it, to sing it, to hear it, to move to it, when the first note is sung it has moved beyond our control. When the last note rings into silence who knows where it goes or what it does. Music is medicine. As performers we always want to see happy faces in the audience, but I will always be grateful for those faces that reflect a great disturbance for only then do I know for sure that I've truly done my job.