Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Coming up Friday: Alameda Songwriters Roundup, Friday, January 30, 2015, 7pm

Please join me this Friday in Alameda for night of original songwriters playing in the round, featuring some of my favorite Bay Area songwriters. 

Alex Walsh, Amy Obenski, Dan Seidel, Deborah Crooks, Johnny Nash and Paige Clem  LIVE 

1303 High St,
Alameda, CA 94501
$5-10 sliding scale. High St. offers a full dinner and beverage menu. Kids welcome. Call for a dinner reservation! 415 355-7888
Hear Alex's latest at his Blog

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Desert Postcard: Skywatching and songwriting

So yes, there was a lot of sky watching going on last week, and landscape viewing and generally lounging about. But also a lot of writing and  co-writing, the KCDC mash-up managing to complete 8 songs and counting. Time & space add up to somehow accessing the well a little better. It's a good feeling. KCDC has some lives shows coming up Feb. 20 in Alameda & March 8 in Modesto. Perhaps a new tune will get added to the mix!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Picking Up Good Vibrations at the Integratron

We've been doing quite a bit of songwriting on this semi-unplugged jaunt to the Joshua Tree. Still, with plenty of time to both play and create - Wow! Vacation! - we took the area up on it offers and spent much of Sunday soaking up the sounds of others. 
The desert of course, has long attracted artist and seekers of  all manner: homesteaders after free lands, outdoors-folk in search of a tricky rock problem, naturalists and scientists assembling clues, Mystics and madmen and one combination of many of the above, George Van Tassel (1920-1978), creator of the Integratron. Located in Landers, on an energetic vortex, the Integratron is a "one-of-a-kind 38-foot high, 55-foot diameter, all wood dome designed to be an electrostatic generator for the purpose of rejuvenation and time travel." 
It's composition is also "based on the design of Moses’ Tabernacle, the writings of Nikola Tesla and telepathic directions from extraterrestrials."
Uh, sign us up! 
The Integratron is open to the public a couple "no reservations weekends" a month, and fortunately for us, our timing worked. We drove up the road 20 minutes to the site, lucking into a just-added, earlier-than-scheduled sound bath at 10:30am, when the gates opened Sunday morning. Within minutes, we were laying on the floor with 40 other people in the top story of the domed building. After everyone got settled with their blankets and mats, a gentleman played large crystal bowls for 25 minutes, sending variously oscillating sound waves, in frequencies perceptible and beyond perception, pulsing through our bodies. I didn't see any aliens, but I can't say it wasn't great. After the last bowls sounds, Hearts of Space type music was played for the remainder of the hour in what became a sort of sound-induced savasana.  I felt better after than when I'd arrived, still cramped from the travel and sleeping in a new place, and emerged from the dome feeling as bemused as healed, an altogether good thing. 
The grounds of the site were an equally relaxing playground of general good vibes, complete with a hammock garden, cantina, a place to cast your dreams and water stations. Reminded me of Fairfax and Goa and Sedona rolled into one.

Still. we were up for more sound vibrations later in the day, albeit of a more traditional kind, and drove another 30 minutes to Pioneertown where Pappy & Harriets was hosting its Sunday evening Music Service. A weekly, well-curated jam led by a band composed of the venue's favorite musicians and guest artists, the service was a unabashed celebration of LA Country Rock. More than ably covering songs by the likes of Gram Parsons, Fleetwood Mac, Linda Rondstandt and Tom Petty, the musicians were hot and the crowd hungry. Noneother than Bay Area native Bart Davenport, in fine form, happened to be the week's musical guest, and more than rose to the challenge, rocking his telecaster and otherwise destroying every song he led. Good stuff. People dancing, people eating, another dose of high quality good vibrations. 

Then we saw aliens. Well, not really. As drove drove down the hill from Pioneertown, more of those impossible bright stars overhead, we did a double take, then pulled over to the side of a road to watch  as an (illicit?) group of folks were lighting large paper (?) lanterns and letting them go into the sky. As they ascended, the lanterns - luminarias? -  appeared much like those moon jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, languorously floating brightly through space, only in reverse and in the sky rather than water. It looked dangerous, but it was more beautiful, the lights rising, tumbling over one another before melting into the starry sky. Nice. 

Watching the sky, thinking of water

The preciousness of water is nowhere more apparent than in the desert. The air is dry, water bottles never seem to last very long, and every living thing is geared toward maximizing the resource. Last night, it rained a little bit, but by morning the sky was brilliantly clear, not a cloud in site. The ground, too, was dry. The ground, here, if not populated by cactus and tree, is sandy. (If we'd have shut our eyes during the last mile of a hike we did in JT National Park on Tuesday, we could have been walking on a beach!).  I thought maybe I'd been mistaken, then saw some holes in the sand were the water had dripped off the roof. I could be sure that ever plant in site had soaked up as much as possible.

I was very sad to read the news of birds washing up on the shores of Alameda (& Hayward & ) while I'm here in the desert. The bird sanctuaries and shores of the East Bay are what convinced me to call it home. And living on an island (albeit a little one) has brought me closer the the Bay waters than ever before. Now the Bay is my backyard, the water surface often my natural escape when I'm home in need of a little wildness, however vestigial.
I've been able to count I seeing a good number of avian life - scoters and coots, buffleheads and terns - when I venture outside. And then their are the mammals, Harbor Seals and even Bay Porpoises. The SF bay has recovered a lot of its natural history in recent years due to the efforts of groups like Save The Bay and Save Our Shores. It's also more heavily trafficked than ever, especially in recent weeks with the tankers getting backed up in anchorage as the longshoremen struck. Who knows what the cause is of this latest blight on the bay landscape, but it's a reminder how fragile things are, how even if there seems like a lot of clean water and a lot of birds, etc., the slightest disruption can be disastrous.
International Bird Rescue, one of the main organizations working on saving the contaminated birds, is looking more volunteers. If you're in the Bay Area, please consider giving them some love: bird-rescue.org

Monday, January 19, 2015

Songwriter Linda McRae Smooths Life's Roughest Edges with Song

Less than a verse into the first song Canadian-born, Nashville-based Linda McRae played at her 2014 FAR-West Showcase performance, my husband and I turned to each other and said 'oh yeah.' Playing a banjo and singing in a strong alto, McRae went on to offer a masterful and stirring set of songs. Songs with a capital S that took one on a sonic journey while steadily cracking open your heart. One, "Rough Edges & Ragged Hearts," the title track to her 2012 Cd, contained one of the best lines I've heard: "living is a dying art." Another song was based on the words of a Folsom Prison inmate she'd met through her involvement in the Arts and Corrections Program at California’s New Folsom Prison. By the end of her set, tears were streaming from our eyes.
As became evident upon further inquiry, McRae wasn't just a stellar artist, she was also a stellar person, both continually creating and giving back. McRae went solo in 1996, after a decade spent with the popular Canadian folk band, Spirit of the West, and has since released five CDs of her own work. Routinely charting in the top-10, performing in festivals throughout North America, she's collaborated, recorded and performed alongside a whose who of roots-based artists including Gurf Morlix, Neko Case and Bruce Cockburn. And the alliance with New Folsom led she and her husband, James Whitmire to start Express Yourself Writing Workshops for other disenfranchised communities in 2011, adding to an already full touring and recording schedule while further fueling her creativity.
Amid a month-long Escape to Create! residency in Florida that she was deservedly rewarded, McRae answered my questions about her work as an artist and teacher and all she'll be up to in 2015.
Q: Tell us about your upcoming year: Are you playing anywhere new? Any key dates or projects you're especially excited about
LM: 2015 is shaping up to be an incredibly exciting year. I’ll be touring all over North America in support of my new recording being released September 15th on my new label Borealis Records. I’m really excited to be working with Borealis. They have been incredibly supportive, and their promotional team was instrumental in my career retrospective, Fifty Shades of Red, hitting some “best of” lists for 2014. It was also # 5 Top Canadian Album on the Folk DJ Charts.
The label is currently working directly with my manager/agent/collaborator and husband (not necessarily in that order) James Whitmire on an October/November North American CD Release tour in support of the new recording. Those dates will be announced in the coming months. I also have a number of festivals I will be performing at this year including Artswells in BC where I will also be teaching a week-long songwriting course. Other festivals include South Country Fair in Alberta where I was made the honorary mayor last year, and a new festival in Ontario called the Kingsville Folk Music Festival. I’ve also just been asked to perform for the first time at Winterfolk in Toronto this Feb. 13-15/2015.
Q: Is this a first-time residency for you at Escape 2 Create? Do you have a 'typical'  writing process? Will you be writing material for the new recording on retreat? 
LM: The bulk of the material has already been written but there will definitely be some additions as a result of my Escape 2 Create residency. I guess my typical writing process usually involves juggling half a dozen things at the same time, i.e. touring, daily household activities, social networking, publicizing my performances, etc. which in itself is a full-time job. It is an incredible luxury for me to have an entire month in which to write new material and I am relishing every second of my time here. 
Escape 2 Create choses twelve interdisciplinary artists though a rigorous juried application process each year, six in January and six in February. Each artist’s private residence is donated by local Seaside, FL, community members and is tailored to each artist’s requirements. This is my first residency and having been chosen to participate has given me a sense of validation. I am also enjoying the fellowship and inspiration I am receiving from my fellow artists and the residents of Seaside. I have already finished four songs in the week I have been here.
Q: How do you know when you're ready to go back into the studio? You've worked with a lot of great producers: whose on deck for this next project? Any new sounds you'll be exploring or would like to? 
LM: I guess I know when I’m ready to go back into the studio when I have at least 15 songs that I feel are really strong. I usually like to record 12-15 and then put 10 or so on the finished release. I feel I have grown as a performing songwriter and each recording I think has illustrated that. Having the added perspective of collaborating with my husband and other co-writers has definitely helped me grow as a songwriter as well. Recording starts right after I finish my residency here. The timing couldn’t be more perfect as I will have plenty of time here to get to know the songs inside and out. I like to have them in my head and under my fingers before I record them. 
I have been fortunate when it comes to working with producers and great musicians. I’ve had wonderful experiences recording with each producer I have worked with, Colin Linden, Gurf Morlix and Marc L’Esperance. Each of them brought something new to the table and I am confident this one will continue in that same vein. 
This time, I’ve decided to work with my old friend, and award-winning producer and guitarist, Steve Dawson. I am really excited to be working with Steve on this project. We started pre-production before I left for my residency and he had some terrific arrangement ideas. We also did some co-writing together, and it just so happens one or two of those co-writes will be on the new CD. 
I’ve become really interested in acoustic blues styles and as he is well-acquainted with the idiom he’s a natural choice. I’m hoping to achieve a raw sound on this recording with real deep grooves you can drive a truck through. For me, it’s all about the groove. If the groove isn’t there you have nothing to build on. Start from the bottom up and away you go. I like to keep things pretty spare as well without a lot of unnecessary frills to clog things up. He’s a master and I know it’s going to be great. 
Q: You're a songwriter and writing facilitator/teacher. Can you discuss how you started Express Yourself Writing Workshops and how teaching/facilitating informs your own work?
LM: The idea for our writing workshop came from our involvement in the Arts and Corrections Program at California’s New Folsom Prison. My husband James and I were there for the first time in the fall of 2011, and we were so moved by the response to our visit that we decided to carry it through further with a focus on disenfranchised members of the communities I perform in. It has turned out to be a life-changing experience. In the past three years since our first visit to Folsom we have worked with approximately 1000 individuals in at-risk youth community facilities and correctional facilities. We have also worked with people in detox centers, veteran’s hospitals, and various adult correctional facilities with both male and female inmates. Our experiences talking and working with everyone involved has definitely had an influence on my writing. My new CD will include songs written as a direct result of some of these experiences, including a song I wrote with a New Folsom inmate who is serving life without parole. His name is Ken Blackburn and he is 73 years old. I think it is one of the best songs I have ever had the opportunity to be part of. Ken wrote the lyric and I wrote the music.
Q:What can listeners and fans expect after March 2015?
: I guess the biggest thing is my new CD coming out. I’ll also be doing some shows with two other wonderful artists in the DC area in May Mary Battiata (Little Pink is her band name) and Karen Collins. Mary and I were at a music camp this summer at the Augusta Heritage society and Karen was one of the instructors there. The name says it all: "Women on the Verge! A Night of Traditional and Alt Country."
You can find all my tour dates, music, epk and workshop information at http://lindamcrae.com

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Desert Mind

There is something primal and soothing and elemental about being in the desert. I'm not talking about experiencing it via an air-conditioned car or condo, but rather being right up against the sand and soil, cactus and yucca. 
Having been raised on the coast, I didn't understand how rich and subversively alive the desert really is until college, when a ornithology class trip called for going to the UC research station in the eastern Mojave. Our class drove south in our friend Mat's Ford Econoline van, heading relatively deep into the desert backcountry.
The Research Station (in my memory) was a fairly straightforward house, nestled among some boulders.  A couple of grad students were calling the main house home, and our teachers were given priority when it came to claiming the spare bedroom. We undergrad visitors could use the kitchen and bathrooms, but bedded down for the night outside with our Thermarests and multi-season sleeping bags, our mouths hanging open at the site of all those stars above, distracting us away from the lumpy earth surface until we fell asleep.
My friend Sam and I slept with our binoculars, so that in the morning we wouldn't miss a thing when birds started singing and flying at the first hint of sunrise. The desert, it turns out, is so very alive with animals who know how to utilize scarce water. We saw jackrabbit and deer, rattlesnake and Phainopepla, warbler and kingbird and more that trip, my inauguration into desert life wonder. 
Hundreds of bird species come through the desert, gleaning seeds, or haunting the sporadic springs that make it all livable. And of course, there are all the reptiles: king and rattlesnakes, lizards and tortoise. We saw  a Gila monster out back that research station house, and went out on late-night sidewinder tracking jaunts with one of the grad students, watching him expertly catch snakes to which he would affix small radio transmitters. Where do sidewinders really go at night? Now there's a question.
Thus began my sporadically consummated (but nonetheless avid) love affair with desert landscapes, adding to my list of mountain and coastline, island and river valley.
A few months after that first desert trip, some climber friends and I went to Joshua Tree in the southern reaches of the Mojave to camp and scramble and climb. I'd just had surgery for a thyroid issue, but I was determined to go, the stitches still tender in my neck at night as I slept in my tent, taking rest near the ground more healing to my mind and body than a sickbed. Which spells out my love of landscape in a nutshell: when in doubt, or at a loss or tired or otherwise not 100%,  get off the pavement and put my feet on tangible ground.
The subtler qualities of desert ground, the quiet and starkness, the life pulsing of activity at the edge of the stillness, is why, when given the chance to take a vacation, a real one, we opted for a week in Joshua Tree. Albeit,  the tent has been foregone for a refurbished 'homesteader cabin' 10 miles from town. It's winter, so the snakes and turtles are underground, but as usual, the desert is so very alive, doing it's at once spare and bold dance between hot and cold, smooth and sharp, still and active. Earth- colored and spindly plants, complex with multi-faceted seed pods and delicate flowers intersperse the sand. Kingbirds and hummingbirds and the shiny black Phainopepla are easy to sea, flying up washes. The stars at night are more plentiful that I remember, the sunrise and sunsets inspiring salutations. This morning I watched the sun do its slow, steady, turn on, the sky going gray, then blue, then pink, until the globe of white hit the horizon in a spill of bright light, a forgot, for a few minutes, about time.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Read.Eat.Listen: Mom

Today would have been my mom 80th birthday, which is as hard to believe as it is to think that she passed away more than a decade ago. I don't know there is a bigger 'life learning event' than a parent's death. Any notion of permanence goes out the window; an awareness of the hows and why's of one's attachments becomes abundantly clear and no matter how old you might feel, you realize more than ever that you're responsible for your own reactions. And as the years go by, you realize anew how much you owe to your parents.
Read: Sometimes, all I have time or inclination for is poetry. More from Jane Hirshfield:

For What Binds Us
By Jane Hirshfield
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they've been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
Eat: Mom, dear Phyllis Jane, wasn't much of a cook or baker, but she occasionally whipped out a killer angel food cake. I loved watching the whole process of her separating eggs and whipping the whites into a great soft mound of goodness to lift and leaven the batter. Plus licking the bowl of its sweet sugary residue after the cake was in the oven was as much a treat as the finished result. As an adult, I don't keep white sugar or white flour in the house, so I searched around for a healthier equivalent and found this raw vegan version from Real Raw Kitchen  (It sounds deliciously coconutty albeit is nothing like what my mom made); and this Gluten Free (but sugar-ful) version from Gluten Free Mommy. Bon appetit!
Listen: While my song"Adding Water to the Ashes" is about faith and lost love more than anything, it owes a ton to my love for my mom.  I've been playing this song for years but finally have some live footage from the show last week at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco.
"Adding Water to the Ashes" from the 2008 Cd of the same name.