Me and the outrageously talented Russ Pollock are doing a set of duets on July 11 in Alameda. With Wilson Wong and the Dudes and Graham Hill! Who are really songwriters. Our set is covers by…other songwriters.
The trip to Gryphon Strings was an eye-opener, likely an expensive one in the long run, although the only thing I actually bought that day was the Really Good Book of Standard Bluegrass Songs. I met a friend there, a wonderful guitarist who is experienced in matters of instrument shopping and who was the first to introduce me to the idea that “guitars are not like girlfriends; you can have more than one at a time.” It turns out having a friend help you shop for a guitar is a crucial additive that was nowhere on the many advice websites I’ve become obsessed with. I snagged a friendly staff person who was eating a hunk of banana bread and explained my mission: I’m shopping for an upgrade, I may not buy anything today but I’d like to try some instruments out if you don’t mind, kind sir. I told him my budget (about $1000) and said I was looking for a smaller-than-dreadnought size, I played chords but not melody, and I sang kind of high, so I liked the sound of lower instruments. The staffer swallowed his breakfast and set us up first with a Waterloo guitar made by Collings that cost twice as much as I could pay, which sounded just luscious although my friend pointed out that it was made to look like a cheap Gibson, with a tiger-striped pickguard and an orange sunburst finish. I pretended to be Mary Lou Lord for a few minutes, but I was never going to get serious about a guitar that cost almost a month’s salary. Maybe on the next upgrade.
We both tried out the obligatory Taylor that every guitar store seems to have a burning itch to get you to play, and then we indulged in some trash talk about Taylors (my friend said kindly that they do what they’re made to do very well, but what they do is not her favorite. I’d listen to her, since what a Taylor is apparently made to do is be played by an ace fingerstyle player like her. Me, I just don’t go for all that ringy soprano competition). I tried out a pretty Blueridge that was a near relative of the one I’d liked so much at Guitar Solo, and like all the other instruments I tried out, my friend played it too so I could hear how it sounded from the other side. That, together with the handy fact that my shopping companion was also a woman and so we had the guy who was helping us outnumbered, was the genius of not being alone in a music store. You’ve heard me go off about being a woman in a music store. It takes an added shot of attitude to get through that ordeal alone. My friend was even awesome enough to play with a pick, which she never does, to help me hear how I would sound. But this time the Blueridge sounded too much like the Taylor we had just been speaking so cruelly of, too bright and high where I wanted darkness and mellowness.
And that was how I discovered my Martin problem.
I’d been suspecting it was there all along. Having listened to a lot of good and less-good players (like me) play Martins, I loved the even sound and the dynamic range and what they embarrassingly call in opera the “good bottom.” I loved the way singers sounded with them, like their voice was buoyed up but they didn’t have to struggle. I’d been on the brink of asking more than one Martin owner if I could play their guitar; only my fear of an etiquette breach was stopping me. Some people, not all but you never know which ones, can be funny about other people asking to touch their guitars. And I’m already paranoid that my friends are talking about me.
I should confess here that while I claimed to be shopping for a used instrument that had already been broken in and “opened up,” I was secretly lusting for a guitar that was made before I was born. Things that have already survived beyond my lifetime give me a weird comfort. It’s like looking at the Milky Way. Somehow you know it’s all going to be okay no matter how long it takes. Plus, mostly, the folkies I know and love have Martins, and mostly, they and their instruments were around before I was. So there was already some reverence for that that musical family tree. But I could tell after not too many research clicks that I’d never be able to justify the cost of a vintage guitar. Maybe if I ever get the kind of book deal where, when people tell me to quit my day job, I can actually think about that as a real possibility.
So I got to play a few Martins at Gryphon. And I was ruined, I tell you. Probably for life. The banana bread guy (he had moved on to a burrito, which tells you how long we’d been there) was letting us use the back room, and I was merrily testing out all comers by singing the same way I would at home (not very quietly). I tried out the size I thought I would like, the OOO. It was light and cuddly to hold and my left hand didn’t feel as cramped as it does on my baby Taylor (which I do cherish despite the trash talk because it was a gift from my girl). And the voice was fuller than I’d hoped. But then I also tried out a dreadnought and that sound was even heavenlier, more muscular but with that same lovely balance and sweet lowness. And then my friend started hinting that bigger was better, and then I remembered my other ace fingerstyle friend saying he’d bought his smaller Martin for fingerstyle playing and how my mission was to find a guitar that would support my singing and sound good with my strumming and you will probably not find me transforming into an ace fingerstyle guitarist during this lifetime. And then I was getting that unpleasant buzzy feeling where I was no longer sure what I was looking for, and I didn’t want to give in to the pressure to buy something just to make it a successful day (even though I did go back to that lovely Road Series OOO Martin that already had electronics installed, more than once, I was conscious that I was being swayed by the faintly lower price). And by now my insides were complaining about the severe shortage of banana bread.
So I bought my songbook, and a handful of stickers (actually the clerk gave them to me for free) for my 9-year-old nephew who’s just started guitar lessons, and then we retreated to the café to be revived with sandwiches and cake. And then I had to be on the road home, but you should know that my friend went back to the store for another few minutes with that beguiling resonator she had been playing while I lost my head over the Martin collection. Which I point out with humble respect only to demonstrate the allure of Gryphon Strings.
I drove home trying to convince myself that I wouldn’t look like a dork with a nice Martin dreadnought if I don’t already look like one with my Yamaha, which is the same size but…it’ll always sound like a $100 Yamaha. It’s Kool Whip. That Martin D-16 I tried was crème fraîche.
Next tour stop: The used guitar listings on Craigslist!
So I kicked off the great guitar upgrade adventure recently. I’ve had my trusty Yamaha for almost 8 years, but I can tell the dear thing has its limitations. I’ve been dinking around on guitar all my life and practicing in earnest for 3 years, even though most of the time I’m still too mortified to play in front my Baby Boomer friends who bought their first guitars before I was born. I’m starting to appreciate that it’s not always just the skill of the player, it’s the quality of the instrument too. Or at least I don’t have as much of a string-buzzing problem on my baby Taylor, which is a fine creature but hurts my left arm too much to play regularly. The time seemed ripe to embark on the quest.
Plus I just got an advance for my new book, The Songbird Thief, coming out from Harmony Ink Press in 2016, yes that is the sound of SQUEEEE!! It seemed appropriate to celebrate with music, since the book is about a musician. Even though I know it would be prudent to reinvest the advance in promotion for the book. Or keep trying to recover from the 30% income tax hit that came from working as a music teacher for all of 2014. So, prudently, I went straight to Guitar Solo.
Let’s talk for ten seconds about being a girl in a guitar store. Back in the 90s when I was a newly minted adult let loose on my own in music stores, it was more accepted for the (always male) staff to actually say things like “So are you looking for something for your boyfriend/dad/brother?” Now I get the feeling they’re only thinking that as they look over my shoulder for my inevitable chaperone. Some places have gotten better. Guitar Center in Emeryville might deserve its reputation for not training their staff on acoustic instruments and only stocking mega-brands, but they do have a few female employees, and I’ve always been treated with the same hipster disdain as any male customer as far as I can tell. Bless the retail staff at Starland Music; they’re an all-woman crew of walking encyclopedias and most of them can play rings around you. But Starland mainly caters to students, and this is an upgrade quest.
Also, full disclosure, I am a chick singer who strums. I’ll never be an instrumentalist first. There’s a tired stereotype that singers are not musicians, that we just grope around by instinct and have no training or discipline while the rest of the band works hard to make us sound good. But that stereotype mainly comes from the fact that not as many women played instruments up until recent times. Nobody calls Bono a dude singer. I applaud the hell out of the Tom Tom Academy and the Girls Rock Camps. I’m sure I’m not the only one who replayed that scene with Tia Carrere playing the bass in Wayne’s World over and over or obsessed about Kim Gordon. But those are exceptions.
At any rate, I did not get the standard chick singer treatment at Guitar Solo, so thumbs up to them. The nice staff person asked me about my price range and the style of guitar I was looking for and then picked out a few instruments for me to try. It was lunchtime on a weekday and with 2 staff and 3 or 4 other customers, I was the only woman there, but that’s no surprise. Everyone left me to shop on my own, which is way better than asking if I was there to look for a guitarist (!!). I commandeered a handy bench and spent the next 45 minutes trying to compare instruments.
I followed the advice I got to play the same thing on every guitar for an honest side-by-side comparison. My choices were a G major scale, the melody to If I Needed You, and Pretty Saro with different chord shapes. Next time I’ll be bold enough to sing my song choice louder, since what I need is a guitar that can stand up to my singing.
I didn’t think I’d be able to hear a real difference, especially since I wasn’t the only one test-driving the stock right then, but I was wrong. I played a Larivee cutaway that was bigger than I wanted and I wasn’t especially looking for a cutaway, but it had a nice even voice (and I do love things made in Canada, ever since that adorable little Art & Lutherie guitar I rented at Acoustic Corner in Black Mountain, NC for the Swannanoa Gathering). And I tried out 3 Blueridges with different woods. One had a similar sound to the trusty Yamaha, a little too bright for me. One clearly had a bowed neck and I didn’t want to get into repairs before I even bought the thing.
And one was Goldilocks. It had rosewood back and sides, which gave it that warm counterweight sound I was looking for. It was narrower than my dreadnought, so it was lovely and comfortable to hold, but it didn’t sound too light. I tried the other ones and then went back to Goldilocks in between. The sales guy came by to offer me a discount on it. I only hesitated because a) this was my first stop on the quest and b) I was holding out hope for a used instrument I could afford. But I may just be back for that lovely thing.
Next stop on the shopping tour: Gryphon Strings!
Me and Douglas Closson are playing songs in our usual Irish/country/pirate style on Sat March 21. Plus a few ace musical guests who will blow you away. They definitely blow me away. There’s not enough practice time between now and the gig to ever be worthy.
High Street Station Cafe
Food, wine & beer available
I’m on the lineup!
Featuring Steve Witt, Yolanda Cazessus, David Kent, C, Graham Hill, & Skye Alexander
Friday, Feb 27, 7-9:30pm
High Street Station Café
Beer, wine and food available
I am amazed to announce that my CD is done. It took almost 2 years and several mini-identity crises, but it is done!
The album title is “EP” because it turned out to be 4 songs instead of the original 10. There is music laid down for the other 6 songs, but it was just saner to turn this big solo project into a snack-sized EP for now. There are reasons to do with mercy – does the world really need another recording of an obscure murder ballad that clocks in at over 5 minutes? I think no. The unreleased “Bonny Farday” will show up on Ebay one day, and that’s when I’ll know I’ve hit the big time.
My engineer James Boblak said sometime along the 2-year road that he was considering a career as a therapist since he already practically did the job, and boy, did that come true the day I “woke up” after another sleepless night to ask him to remix 2 wrong notes in one song even though I had already signed off on the master. I drove to Half Moon Bay that Sunday to drop off my newly remastered master with the lovely Rainier and Naomi of Sienna Digital on a fine foggy morning, listening to A Prairie Home Companion and driving out of radio reach the very second Karan Casey came on the show with Lúnasa, which has to be significant timing on some universe level. I spent a long night renewing my relationship with carpal tunnel as I put together my DIY packaging while I watched Twenty Feet From Stardom, which will, even if you’re not in the act of rubber-stamping your name in glitter ink on your own CD, make you cry.
The songs on the EP are with Douglas Closson on that guitar part that sounds so nice, Stacey Pelinka on flute, Elizabeth Vandervennet on cello, James Boblak on bass and Nora Martin on harmony vocals. And me on the other guitar part, which was a major accomplishment for lowly guitar hack me. They all know, but I’ll just tell you guys how awed I am that those great musicians were willing to become indelible on my project.
And because I didn’t do liner notes (the world moves too fast for liner notes now), I should say that each of my songs has a mountain of meaning. I learned “Harvest Gypsies” from Kris Drever’s album Black Water, which Nadja and I bought in a record store in Skye (the real Skye) on our honeymoon; 7 years later I’m still listening to it at least once a week. “Pretty Saro” was the song that inspired Julee Glaub Weems and Mark Weems’ band name, Little Windows, and when I spent a week with them at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina 2 years ago I knew I had to honor the way that place and that music just reached down into my soul and changed me. My friend David West gave me a book of songs collected in the Appalachian region by John Jacob Niles, mostly Child ballads that crossed the water and became uniquely American over generations, and that’s where I found this version of “The Mermaid.” And the wonderful singer and traditional music expert Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh taught me “I Once Loved A Lass” when she came here on tour in 2007 and I got to take a lesson with her. Mostly, folk musicians learn repertoire from recordings (I’m seriously considering that YouTube upgrade where you can skip the ads), so it’s pretty great to participate in the original tradition of singing a song that was given to me in person by another singer.
You can hear the songs on Bandcamp. Hand-stamped real CDs available!
So last weekend I figured out how creativity works.
On Saturday morning I was teaching my 7-year-old student like I do every Saturday morning. Her song at the moment is “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. She’d learned the melody and the words, so it was time for interpretation – injecting mood and story into the song, plus the dozens of other micro-decisions a singer makes about phrasing, timing, all that. Maybe we would add some gestures. Definitely we would build in dynamics. My friend Anne, who is a splendid singer, calls that process “inhabiting a song.” But sometimes when you’re 7, it helps to have some concrete suggestions, so to figure out the right mood for the song, I asked my student to imagine showing a friend something absolutely wonderful that would make their whole life better. I was about to add “like what if they had never tasted ice cream before?”
“Like singing?” she said.
I mean, this is a great kid anyway. She probably bubbles over with just as much enthusiasm when it’s her turn to wash the dishes. But to hear someone choose singing as the thing that opens up their world? Especially when I’m her music teacher? That just kills the sorrow. Just for a minute.
Then I went to the bluegrass slow jam like I do on Sundays whenever I can. I’ve been going for a few months, and I’ve gotten into a comfy groove of playing chords, singing harmony, and looking at my shoes whenever it was time for leads. I’ve learned a huge amount in that room about ensemble playing, harmony singing, the traditions attached to certain songs, and just the whole grand back catalogue of country music. In fact I’m in danger of going all fangirl and blowing what’s left of my cool whenever I talk about it. But there’s some extreme instrumental chops in that room, and I’m still new to guitar, so I never wanted to waste the real musicians’ time by trying to play a lead part until I saw other people push themselves to start picking leads there. I started pushing myself at home, and this week I finally stuck both feet in the water and played a lead on “I’ll Fly Away.” At the slowest tempo in history. And don’t get me wrong, I still suck. This isn’t The Karate Kid; I won’t be a bluegrass guitar blackbelt by Halloween. But still.
My friend Matt talked at writing group this week about the layers of learning a craft. At first there’s the difference between nothing and something – hey, I wrote my first story / picked my first lead / made my first pie crust. It might be a soggy blob of wet flour, but it’s a form, where there was nothingness before. Then we start refining our craft and our standards for ourselves shift upward and we go back and read that first story and want to file off our fingerprints and move to Nunavut where they don’t have Facebook so no one can find out we were ever beginners.
But that first time you create something where there was nothing before? If you’re lucky enough to try it in a room where no one will demolish you with shame? It will make you stupid with elation and people will ask if they can have a hit of whatever you’re on. For days you’ll be sneaking on YouTube at work to listen to every version of “Old Love Letters” and at home you can’t write because your guitar is sitting there smiling at you saying “let’s play.” It will make you feel like you can shake off the cold iron shackles on your feet. Or as I used to think it went, and this would prove my point even better, “gol-darn shackles.”
Douglas Closson and I are playing some of our Irish/pirate/country songs at the Harding Carnival on Sunday, Oct 5. We go on at 11, followed by many awesome carnival-y acts. I heard a rumor about Clowns Not Bombs … I LOVE Clowns Not Bombs.
When: 10/5/14, 11:00 AM
Where: Harding Field, Ashbury Ave at Fairmount Ave, El Cerrito
How much: Admission to the carnival is $5 or bring a cake, cookies or pie for 1 free admission (limit I baked good per family).
The first 2 tracks from my sometime-to-be-done album are done! They’re up over on the Music page.
I fell in love with Boo Hewerdine’s song Harvest Gypsies when I first heard Kris Drever’s version. This is Boo singing it.