How I Made Revelation

Blog Post #1 - How It Began 

    I have waited my whole life to make my debut album “Revelation.” I never had plans to make music, it just presented itself one day six years ago, abruptly introducing itself as a creative necessity. 

    I have been singing since I can remember. I remember as a young kid taking walks through my grandmother’s lush green garden on humid summer days hypnotized by an aimless and cathartic tune unraveling out of me. Then like many teenagers, I ended up in the inevitable school plays but I always sang solos. Singing felt like one of the few places in my young life when people saw and heard me. It also made me feel free. 

For a number of urgent reasons when I became a young adult, I had to stop singing for a long time and I did for about thirty years.  

    A few years ago, I was married and unknowingly uncertain of where my life was headed. I was straightening up the house one afternoon and I heard a voice that said: “If you never have kids then on your death bed you’ll probably be ok but if you don’t sing seriously in the world, you will regret it.”Fortunately for once, I had enough sense to know I had better at least consider what that voice had said since I usually ignored it. 

I wasn’t totally without musical tools so it wasn’t completely a cockamamie idea. I had been playing an amateurish guitar since I was 12. I had been writing my whole life, as a fiction writer and professionally as a visual arts writer. I didn’t need to learn how to write, but began learning the art of songwriting which like any art, is a lifelong journey. I had also been listening deeply to all kinds of music my whole life and knew what I thought good music sounded like.  

I grew up in southern Virginia where I felt and heard the sounds of Appalachian folk music. While I love music from many different places and times, that was and is the legacy of music I wake up in the morning to write and learn and play. At first, I overcame the tedium and humiliation of not knowing what I was doing because I was driven by a need to learn the cover Fort Worth Blues by Steve Earle which was way beyond my skill level. But I had to sing it, be one with it. It took me a year to learn the picking pattern. During that year, I also wrote some of my first songs. The very first, Heartbreak Garden, is on “Revelation.” 

    Five years since I heard that voice housecleaning, I have sung my way off a hilltop in Montana, gotten a divorce, moved back to the east coast to New York City where I had 30 years prior begun my life as a young adult just out of college. Finally called back to music, I feel I am doing the service I was put here to do however that manifests and whomever my voice and my songs may reach. Following my heart and knowing my purpose for the first time, life is much easier, calm and happier.  

    Today I am self-quarantined on Wolfe Island in Canada. I had no designs ever to move to an island in Ontario. It was fortuitous as I grew to love the island over the 12 months I recorded “Revelation” in 2018-19 with Hugh Christopher Brown at Wolfe Island Records. About a year ago in a last minute decision, I bought a home here.  

    In the coming weeks leading up to my album release in July, please join me as I share stories on how “Revelation” was created and what inspired the music. Music has transformed and healed me throughout my life. In these difficult times we bear, I believe music can be a powerful healer for us all. The connection of storytelling and music’s powerful medicine has changed my life and I hope I can compel you with my own.

Blog Post #2 - Coming Back Home

     Coming back to New York City to live after a twenty-year hiatus felt like being shot out of a wormhole. When I left the city, there were many forces that I had inspired to work against me. I was twenty-nine, precocious, stupid but too smart for my own good and running very low on “get out of jail free” cards. I probably only had a couple left and I had turned New York City into my jail. I knew I’d better use them and get out while the getting was good.  

    I went to live in the Southwestern desert of Arizona for about ten years, then moved to Los Angeles, then to Montana equaling about twenty years. There’s a lot I’m not including here that happened but that’s not why I’m telling this story.  

    When I left, I lived on West 10th street in the West Village off of Hudson Street. When I moved back, as sudden and unplanned as my departure, I was fleeing yet another bad situation I had helped create for myself, my marriage. I left Montana driving drove cross country to upstate New York to stay with my old friend and her family until I could get some footing. After a few weeks there, her friend’s basement studio apartment became available. It was on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, very close to where I had lived twenty years before.  

    I moved in as soon as I could. It was perfect. A whole family I knew, walking across floors above me but I was behind a door that locked, a fully furnished studio that opened onto a peaceful garden. I felt safe, not completely alone, but totally private.    

    My friends helped me move in on a Sunday. The three of us rushed back and forth from my car to cross the street, down the narrow stairs and into the back apartment, the blinking rhythm of my car’s hazard lights made me anxious. I only had a few duffel bags and my Martin 00-18. Moving in felt strange. I was admitting that a new life was coming only to see that the last life was irreparably broken.   

    When we were done we went to a thai restaurant in Union Square. Despite my life being utterly overturned, feeling safe started to grow in me for the first time in a long time. I was in Union Square where I had one of my first real jobs out of college. I was near the village, where I always felt most comfortable in New York City.  I was back on the east coast where I recognized the flora and the fauna.  

    When I missed this city, I realize it was not just the edginess that was like no other to me, I missed the trees. I missed the fall and how the trees slept and the flowers retired and it all became gray and brown for a few winter months. I missed the cobblestone streets, the large impersonal avenues, the rhythm of my body walking down the street. I missed the days when the sky sparkled bright blue in summer or winter in contrast to the city’s signature concrete sidewalks.  

    My friends left me standing on Union Square West as they caught a taxi to Grand Central to get the train back upstate. I wandered back to my studio apartment, my new refuge haven on the ground floor. It was never lost on me that it used to be David Byrne’s home studio when he owned the brownstone many years before. I chose to see that as a really good premonition of things to come. It was powerfully fortuitous that I would be connected to that kind of deep musical energy. Even if I never knew him, I’ve lived in his music for years and it was a comfort to sleep and live in the place where some of it had been made.  

    I was grateful that all the locks that were new to me turned and opened easily.  I walked into the apartment for the first time alone. For the first time alone in many years, in a room free of expectations or anticipation of anyone coming home. I sat on the strange mattress in silence. I shared the silence with no one, no partner. I was scared of leaving my marriage, my old life, but relieved to be in a very old building, on the familiar ground of Manhattan that knew me, that I realized then would receive me always if I let it. 

     I left to go grocery shopping. I locked all the doors, three to get in and out. Relieved again that they all worked easily. I walked up the narrow spiral stairs onto the sidewalk. The idyllic tree lined street looked surreal to me. Nothing appeared to have skipped a beat since I left all those years ago.  

    It was as if I had had a wild dream and woken up. Mercifully I was just home. 

Blog Post #3 - Canada

          I hadn’t planned on writing one of these blog entries about my music influences but as I near the release date, I realize that the music itself is a story. Not only did music guide me on my journey to creating “Revelation,” it magically has drawn me into my own life’s odyssey. 

          I have to begin with Canada. Some of the most important musicians of my life were born in Canada. From the music of my childhood like Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, The Band to when I was a teenager and obsessively listened to Neil Young as if my life depended on it, and at times it actually did. And Leonard Cohen, whose work to me is like ever shifting tectonic plates in my mind.  Literally being in this country and connecting my work to Wolfe Island Records for the public relations part of the album release has forced me to realize how Canadian folk music has been critical to my musical existence.  

        I had no designs to come to this country for any reason ever. I went to Montreal once when I was eighteen, an incidental trip. A long weekend with some friends from college in Vermont. I remember thinking it was a pretty city. Fast forward to a first meeting in NYC with my producer Chris Brown (Hugh Christopher Brown) I asked him where he lived in Canada, he answered: “I live on Wolfe island. It’s an island in a region called the Thousand Islands region of Canada, just off of Lake Ontario.” It was a moment where my eyes kind of rolled into the back of my head.  It sounded like a line from a dream or a song.   

       A place called Wolfe Island, an island among 999 other islands, all surrounded by lakes, streams and rivers. The Great Lakes, the lore of them. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” that song seared into my memory and child’s imagination when it came out in the 1970’s, played ad nauseum on the local FM station. When I think of the Great Lakes, I always think of the song with Gordon Lightfoot’s uncanny phrasing and velvety voice that turns that haunting tale in so many directions at once. It haunts me to fully understand its meaning as an adult, but how I embraced it as a child, the darkness of the music and his voice were a safe haven for me.  

       Wolfe Island is just off Lake Ontario, in the world’s largest estuary and to the east at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Although it’s not the Great Lake Lightfoot sings about, I still feel the shadow of his words here. I can feel the ancient forces of the waters around me. They feel safe and ominous at the same time, just like the song. 

       The second time I came to Canada in 2018 was to record with Chris for the first time on Wolfe Island at his Post Office studio.  Most of that first week in September it rained a lot, which makes me feel safe in the same way the Lightfoot song does. I was calm and delighted. I was also mortified. I had never recorded, I felt like I could barely play my songs on the guitar or had any mastery of anything musical and now it was high stakes. I was recording an album with a producer, who I barely knew and was staying with in his small house along with his brood of cats.  

       Here I was, on a small island, in the middle of so much water. It felt new and safe, gray and dark, fertile. It was like a bed feels, but as beds hold us safely, they also contain our nightmares. I could not anticipate which it was going to be.  I liked recording, I liked Chris, I liked the other musicians there, everything felt natural and easy. I returned about once a month for a week at a time over the next year. I can happily report that the project ended really well.  

     I think it’s no coincidence that I ended up in Canada because of music, but more powerfully and succinctly, to make music.  As I said, I had no designs on coming to Canada, but definitely never had designs to make music either. It is as if my subconscious brought me here when the time was right, found me a Canadian producer who works from the same folk music legacy I have always revered. A producer who could hear past my green-ness and shyness and hear potential.  I couldn’t have dreamed it up. 

     In March of 2019, my friend Martha, who I met through Chris, came over to his house and announced there was a home for sale nearby and would I be interested in looking at it. I definitely wasn’t looking to buy anything, especially not outside of the United States. I said it couldn’t hurt to look. But if buying was pain, I’ll take that kind of pain any day. I bought the 100 year old farmhouse with a massive barn and 3 acres soon after.  

    I have spent the three months of the pandemic here on the island in my home. The renovations had just finished when I came up for a week to check in when everything shut down. I couldn’t leave and then it was weird to return to the city. And really, I see now how it made sense that I got stuck here right before releasing my album instead of being in NYC. I had to reckon with how deeply I am connected to Canadian folk music. 

    I have come to experience that the universe has a plan for us and if we listen, even a little, it will place us where we need to be at the perfect time. My music journey began the first time I placed a needle down on vinyl as a child. Now I see that it was always going to lead me to Wolfe Island, Canada. 

          

           

         

BLOG POST #4 - VIRGINIA 

   Southern Virginia is where I was born, in a valley nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Roanoke is an old railroad town, its last heyday was when railroads ran the world, around the end of the nineteenth century. I grew up with that feeling, slow and once seen, worse than never being seen. It was there I learned that the ghosts of success are more oppressive than the ghosts of nothing at all.  

   There were many things I look back on that made me happy as a kid there. Lilac bushes in the summer, the heady heat, the blue-green mountains, cold winter and snow, sleigh riding. My neighborhood soda fountain, the same one my dad went to for cherry cokes and cheeseburgers when he was a kid. I climbed up on the same chrome stools.  

   My home growing up had three distinct musical sounds. One of the first I remember is lying in my bed at night and my mother playing piano in the room at the bottom of the stairs. It was soothing, a time when I trusted my mother. She played the sad Chopin over and over. Its gentleness put me to sleep. The second was the sounds of my brother’s rock music dominating, playing incessantly all day and night. (See my Spotify Playlist “Music My Brother Made Me Listen To”) Third was the sound of my father’s obsessive classical music, Bach, Mozart concertos and operas. Opera Opera Opera all weekend on speakers that were larger and taller than me until I was ten years old.  

   So understand what a shock it was to me when I picked up a dulcimer while making Revelation that it felt strangely natural. I had taken violin, guitar and piano lessons as a kid learning classical music.  

   I really wondered where the connection started. I kept seeing an annual summer arts and crafts festival downtown in a park next to the library. Local artisans from all the region’s small towns came to display and make their wares in their booths. They played music and danced, had face painting, balloons, cotton candy. I recall one year being very taken with seeing a dulcimer. It hung on display and then there was a young guy making another one. I remember noticing how absorbed he was, he wasn’t mean but he didn’t notice me as I got close to watch. He was just absorbed in his work, focused. He felt peaceful to me. I remember the blonde treated wood, the clamps, the sound of the sand paper, the little heart and bird symbols carved into the surface.  

  Dulcimers coming into my life and writing the song on the album “Snakes in the Snow” came simultaneously over the course of a month. Ron Browning, my voice coach had suggested my writing and singing with one. I had already been thinking about it. I am always hesitant to take up new instruments since I feel fortunate to be playing guitar with any facility at all, which in itself that is a miracle to me. Chris Brown soon after suggested playing a dulcimer  to me in our long and lingering year long discussion around music in regards to Revelation. He always brought up Joni Mitchell on Blue and Stephen Stills having her play a dulcimer. At that time, Chris challenged me to write an acapella song for the album.  

   So I did. It came to me like a gift from a bird that flew into my New York apartment, it just mostly popped out. I have always had an obsession with the archetypal myth of Persephone and Hades, and her bloody pomigranete seeds that take her back to the earth’s surface in the springtime. If you are interested read some Edith Hamilton in her book Mythology. It tells the tale. Ron told me to play it on the dulcimer which opened up to my voice and settled the lyrics. I brought it to Chris on guitar but he also suggested I play it on dulcimer. That’s how we recorded the song Snakes in the Snow. With the bagpipe drone of a dulcimer running through the gorgeous chaos Chris Brown and Kate Fenner and Jason Mercer and Pete Bowers made with their instruments.  

  I don’t pick up the dulcimer enough. Guitar is my daily injection. But when I do play it, it speaks to me with a deep and sweet conversation of the Old Time music. Music that I didn't hear in my immediate home but felt it all around me. Now I understand, that music was in the large trees I used to lay under, the transparent blue mountains I watched while my parents carpooled me, the rich smell of the green grass. It was everywhere. As I grow older, I notice I cleave to the things that brought me comfort as a child, maybe in an attempt to let the unfettered memory heal me. The Old Time music possesses that capacity.  Making music has made me understand how I have always been a part of it even though my life history would definitely show otherwise. Although I don't go back that much, the Appalachians, the Blue Ridge Mountains where I grew up, , the feeling of that place runs through my body. It makes me feel calm and contented, focused with a purpose, like that guy looked who I saw making dulcimers when I was a kid.