August: looking back, looking ahead

Last month, I painted my toenails a bright orange-red and flew to the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico to celebrate my birthday in the company of a few people I love dearly. I drove (!) for the first time (!) in fifteen years(!) and ate lots and lots of chips and guacamole. After a dinner and overnight stay at Rancho de Chimayo, we traveled to Taos, where we stayed in a charming casita with brightly painted walls and Southwestern decor. We ate our breakfasts every morning at the little outdoor table in the backyard and grilled in the rain.

One highlight of the trip was touring Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, where she lived and worked, her life force and creativity undimmed, until her death at age 98. We saw the wall with a door that compelled O’Keeffe to spend fifteen years trying to buy the adobe house from the Catholic church and which later became the subject of many of O’Keeffe’s paintings. Among other things, we learned that O’Keeffe paid for the local kids’ Little League uniforms, and that while she was not a particularly good driver, she was a decidedly adventurous one. O’Keeffe also had a long standing tradition of exchanging practical jokes with her groundskeeper, whose grandson oversees the still-functioning garden to this day.

Scenes from Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu and yours truly, daring to drive.

Looking out across the vast landscape at Pedernal Mountain—the endless sky, dotted with clouds; the red earth; the dusty green sagebrush—I was awed by what O’Keeffe described as “…the unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding…the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.”

A few days later we took a much shorter trip to meet another fascinating woman: Millicent Rogers. An East Coast socialite by birth (her grandfather founded Standard Oil, for crying out loud), Rogers retreated to New Mexico in the early 1940s following a painful breakup with Clark Gable. She collected and designed Southwestern-style jewelry and championed Native American causes. Millicent Rogers suffered from fragile health her entire life–she died at just 50 years old from an aneurysm–but she left behind a vast collection of jewelry and art, much of which is housed in the intimate, welcoming museum that bears her name.

I enjoyed looking at the museum’s beautifully curated exhibitions and learning more about Millicent Rogers’s glamorous life and aesthetic gifts. But the most emotionally resonant piece at the museum, for me, came in the form of a letter Rogers wrote to her son shortly before her death. Generous, wise, and with more than a touch of mysticism, Rogers’s words continue to reverberate in my heart:

Did I ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the Earth, so that I felt the Sun on my Surface and the rain. I felt the Stars and the growth of the Moon, under me, rivers ran. And against me were the tides. The waters of rain sank into me. And I thought if I stretched out my hands they would be Earth and green would grow from me. And I knew that there was no reason to be lonely that one was everything, and Death was as easy as the rising sun and as calm and natural—that to be enfolded in Earth was not an end but part of oneself, part of every day and night that we lived, so that Being part of the Earth one was never alone. And all the fear went out of me—with a great, good stillness and strength.

If anything should happen to me now, ever, just remember all this. I want to be buried in Taos with the wide sky—Life has been marvelous, all the experiences good and bad I have enjoyed, even pain and illness because out of it so many things were discovered. One has so little time to be still, to lie still and look at the Earth and the changing colours and the Forest—and the voices of people and clouds and light on water, smells and sound and music and the taste of wood smoke in the air.

Life is absolutely beautiful if one will disassociate oneself from noise and talk and live according to one’s inner light. Don’t fool yourself more than you can help. Do what you want—do what you want knowingly. Anger is a curtain that people pull down over life so that they can only see through it dimly—missing all the savor, the instincts—the delight—they feel safe only when they can down someone.  And if one does that they end by being too many, more than one person, and life is dimmed—blotted and blurred!—I’ve had a most lovely life to myself—I’ve enjoyed it as thoroughly as it could be enjoyed. And when my time comes, no one is to feel that I have lost anything of it—or be too sorry—I’ve been in all of you—and will go on Being. So remember it peacefully—take all the good things that your life put there in your eyes—and they, your family, children, will see through your eyes. My love to all of you.

In August I…
Blogged about: July. Aretha Franklin.

Watched: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Blazing Saddles. Classic films, and fun to revisit as an adult. Also: Karen Allen! Madeline Kahn!

Read: The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker. An extremely funny, well written meditation on poetry and writer’s block. Women in Sunlight, by Frances Mayes. I wanted to love this book—I like Mayes’s literary voice and am always happy to read anything about a plucky heroine putting down roots in Italy—but this was nowhere near the caliber of her non-fiction writing. It was kind of like a Nancy Meyers film in book form.

Listened to: Chet Baker, It Could Happen to You. There is no separation whatsoever between Chet’s playing and his singing. Chris Flory, Chris Byars, and Neal Miner, live at Mezzrow. I had the honor of sitting in for a tune with this trio at my favorite club…but mostly I just sipped my cocktail and grinned while they played elegant, swinging renditions of beautiful standards. Long live live jazz!

Advertisements

The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen!

We all have superpower dreams once in a while. Some people dream of flying, others of breathing underwater or leaping buildings in a single bound. I once dreamt I could sing soaring, effortless high notes like Aretha Franklin and believe me, that sensation was more thrilling than anything Superman was ever capable of.

When I was twenty-five and newly arrived in New York City—perpetually broke and overwhelmed by the day-to-day rigors of waitressing, apartment-hunting, and trying to forge a singing career—I spent a couple hundred bucks I didn’t have on tickets to an Aretha Franklin concert at Radio City. 

The crowd that night was star-studded; I was seated behind Arif Marden and Cissy Houston, and Bette Midler was just a couple of rows ahead. Aretha was in fantastic voice and seemed to be giving a concert for her friends, singing whatever she damn well pleased. The set list was eclectic, spanning the full breadth of Aretha’s decades-long career: she sang “Won’t Be Long” and a few jazz standards, a nod to her earliest recordings on Columbia Records. She treated us to a medley of her biggest hits and even performed “Precious Memories,” from her 1972 live gospel album “Amazing Grace.”

The apex of the evening came when Aretha, resplendent in a Glinda-the-good-witch-of-the-North ball gown, chandelier earrings, and a silky blonde ponytail, sat down at the piano. She sighed. One of her earrings had fallen out at some point earlier in the evening, so she took the other one out, too, and set it on the piano. She turned to the audience and said, conspiratorially, “Imma let it all hang out tonight,” and she took off her ponytail and set it on the piano, too. Then she accompanied herself (she could have had a great career as a pianist even if she’d never sung a note) on a rendition of “Dr. Feelgood” that shook Radio City Music Hall—and the souls of everyone in it—to their very foundations.

In the 1980s, the state of Michigan officially declared Aretha Franklin’s voice a precious natural resource. As far as I’m concerned, she was one of the wonders of the world. In my life’s most exuberant moments of heart-spilling-over joy, I’ve turned to Aretha for release. In the darkest nights of my soul, hopeless and helpless, Aretha has given me faith in the tomorrows yet to come. She’s still doing that.

Right now I am listening to Aretha’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” because Aretha’s singing is the closest thing I have to a religion. “At the end of a storm,” she sings, “there’s a golden sky/and the sweet silver song of a lark.” Unimaginably, Aretha Franklin has departed this plane and gone to that golden sky but—hallelujah!—there is a sweet silver song and the song was Aretha, is Aretha, and will always be Aretha, for hers is the power and the glory.

Amen.

Amen.

Amen.

July: looking back, looking ahead

I’m overheated and currently without a working kitchen faucet, so this pretty much sums things up.

This heat. It’s undignified, really. I am sweaty and harried from the moment I emerge from the shower, and the city is never more pungent than in these dog days of summer. The fetid scents of garbage and urine and automobile exhaust hang in the air, suspended in the thick humidity, and throughout the day I find myself muttering things like, “Civilized people don’t live like this,” as I unwittingly step into yet another goddamn subway car without air conditioning.

Some of my testiness is also due to the fact that nearly everything in my home that could need repairing all of a sudden does need repairing, from the kitchen faucet to the fridge to the microwave to the hall light to the shower door. It’s always something. And don’t even talk to me about the Yankees getting swept by Boston last weekend.

But! Sunflowers (how I love their Italian name, girasole) are brightly standing at attention in a vase on my kitchen table. A beloved friend has emerged hale and optimistic from a recent medical crisis and we will meet for a cocktail next week. In a fit of pique, I recently removed all social media from my phone and computer’s bookmarks, and am reveling in the newfound mental peace and quiet afforded by the cessation of what Paul Simon described as “staccato signals of constant information.”

Yes, life has slowed down quite a bit in these first days of August, in part because of the heat, in larger part because I’m no longer mindlessly scrolling through various social media feeds every five minutes, and yes, in part because I have to fill my teakettle in the bathroom sink until our new faucet arrives later this week. I’m digging it. (August’s slower pace, that is. I hate not having a working faucet in the kitchen.)

Looking back, July went by in a flash, starting with a whirlwind jaunt to Miami for a wonderful evening of vocal/piano duets with my buddy Joe Alterman. The venue and hotel were gorgeous; the audience was warm and appreciative; the music was swinging and the vibes were good. It was a great way to kick off the month.

Miami, Minnesota, and quaint-as-can-be Orange City, Iowa: July gig travel.

A few weeks later, Duchess traveled to the midwest for a performance in Iowa. We stopped to see a 60-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota (I mean, why would we not do that?), then continued to Orange City, a small town so charming we felt as though we’d wandered onto a movie set. It’s rare that we are able to have any real down time when we’re on the road, so being able to relax a bit in such a picturesque town was a treat. Even more delightful? My aunt brought my grandmother and a couple of friends to come see our show. My grandmother loves music—she and my grandfather were marvelous swing dancers—and getting to dedicate an Andrews Sisters song to her from the stage was a joy and honor. After the show, we all laughed and talked well into the night.

A few happy moments from Iowa.

Closer to home, July also brought a bacchanal of wine and bivalves at the Grand Central Oyster Bar with a new friend, a windy day at Coney Island, my mother-in-law’s birthday celebration, a lakeside weekend in Connecticut, and a few fun gigs.

Looking ahead, a trip to Taos, New Mexico is on the horizon for my birthday, in the company of a dear friend (whose birthday falls the day before mine), my husband, and my parents. On the docket: trips to Abiquiu (where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked) and the Taos pueblo, a visit to the Millicent Rogers museum, some hiking, a day trip to Santa Fe, and mostly just spending time with people I love. I can’t wait.

In July, I…
Blogged about: June. The art of Jean Dufy.

Watched: Won’t You Be My Neighbor (tearjerker). Season 2 of G.L.O.W.; I, Tonya (unmitigated fun in the form of a little 1980s/90s nostalgia). Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale (terrifying and addictive dystopian drama).

Read: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, by Alice B. ToklasPerhaps most famous for its once-shocking recipe for hashish fudge, this cookbook is really a sort of memoir in disguise. I love Toklas’s writing style and her remembrances of life in France in both war- and peacetime. (I wouldn’t recommend actually cooking from this book; the recipes are incredibly involved, for the most part, and they require a staggering quantity of butter.)

Listened to: The Cool School, by Leo Sidran. Leo’s a friend and sometime colleague (in fact, I’m guesting at his show on September 6). I really dig his interpretations of songs by Michael Franks. The Rat Pack: Live at the Sands. Broad-shouldered, swaggering, relentlessly swinging bravado and camaraderie from three of the greatest entertainers ever. Amazing Grace, by Aretha Franklin. I’ve had this recording on CD for years and was delighted when my husband found a vinyl copy recently. This is, hands down, my all time favorite Aretha record.

Where it can be found

Jean Dufy, Joséphine Baker et le jazz band (1925)

I stumbled upon the art of Jean Dufy quite by accident: I follow a Twitter account that’s dedicated solely to posting images of art, and one day several of Dufy’s paintings popped up in my feed. I was immediately drawn to the vibrant, saturated colors—which reminded me of Chagall—and the themes of travel and music that recur in his work.

A site dedicated to Jean Dufy tells me he was one of eleven (!) children, born at the tail end of the 19th century. After a stint in the military, Dufy moved to Paris and by the 1920s was rubbing shoulders with luminaries from the worlds of painting, poetry, and music, including Picasso, Braque, Satie, Apollinaire, and Poulenc, not to mention his older brother, painter Raoul Dufy.

In the 1920s and 30s, Jean Dufy lived in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris and exhibited his work frequently. Throughout the 1950s he was a devoted traveler, painting scenes of Venice, Rome, Athens, and London. Dufy died in France at age 76, just two months after his wife passed away.

I have been looking online to see if any of Jean Dufy’s paintings are on display here in New York City and I’m not having much luck. Happily, thanks to the wonders of technology, we can feast our eyes on Dufy’s paintings in the virtual realm. I think it’s important to appreciate beauty where it can be found.

Jean Dufy, Venise

Jean Dufy, Spanish Steps, Rome ca. 1950-55

Jean Dufy, L’Andalouse

Jean Dufy, Venise, le palais des doges, ca. 1955-57

Jean Dufy, Paris, Montmartre

June: looking back, looking ahead

IMG_2253

Currently.

I am just beginning to emerge from the throes of a summer cold. The crystal clear blue skies and warm (okay, hot) weather in recent days added insult to injury as I huddled on my couch with the air conditioning off and clad in comfy sweats.

In my fantasy, summer is an unbroken stretch of lazy afternoons picnicking in the park, impromptu cocktail hours with friends, weekend barbecues, and trips to the ballpark. In my reality, summer is a smattering of all of those things interspersed with the same mundane errands and obligations that need tending to all year round. And this damned cold.

June marked the official kickoff of summer, and though there were a lot of very fun musical happenings (Amy Cervini’s CD release show and a tour with Duchess, to name a couple), some of the month’s loveliest moments happened off the bandstand.

My friend V., a public school music teacher, invited me to his students’ concert in the first week of June, and I was deeply moved by the students’ sweetness, openness, and sheer musicality. Kids who had been playing the piano for less than a year performed polished renditions of Chopin etudes as well as their own original compositions; their shyness gave way to personal expression as they sang musical theater pieces and spirituals and pop music covers. I held back tears as I remembered my own music teachers who, as Fred Rogers said, “loved [me] into being,” and my heart swelled with gratitude that people like V. are in the world. Hug a teacher, friends.

One Monday afternoon I met friends at Bosie Tea Parlor, a new-to-me place in the West Village. Afterward, abuzz from the lively conversation (okay, and the tea), I meandered through one of my favorite parts of New York City with no agenda, no deadline, and no destination—the nicest kind of walk. Later in the month, in the company of friends—one an extraordinary singer, the other a mensch and music writer—the most stunning rainbow I’ve ever seen appeared over Manhattan after a summer squall. We looked, we marveled, and we kept snacking and talking for hours.

I’ve had a fairly busy stretch of travel and gigs in recent weeks (I suspect this cold took hold on last week’s flight to a wonderful gig in Miami) and am feeling ready to settle into a more relaxed pace for the rest of the summer. There are performances sprinkled here and there, and I’ve got a trip to New Mexico on the horizon in August (a birthday vacation, huzzah), but looking ahead, I want to  s l o w  d o w n. Less social media, more writing. Less screen time, more reading. Less email, more one-on-one interactions with loved ones. Less “have-to” practicing, more “want-to” practicing. Less is more, right?

In June, I…
Blogged about: April and May. The closing of Caffe Vivaldi. Singer-friend Megan Hook.

Watched: Lots of baseball. Upstairs, Downstairs (only to be crushed to learn the show was canceled after only two seasons). Home Fires (again, only two seasons! That’ll teach me to emotionally invest in WWII-era British dramas on Amazon Prime).

Read: This op-ed. And this one. I found both pieces cathartic and upsetting. I’ll be reading less news this month, for sure.

Listened to: Les McCann, Pretty Lady. Les is (rightfully!) lauded for his grooving, soulful, churchy playing, but he also has such a beautiful way with a ballad, as evidenced on this record. Amy Cervini, No One Ever Tells You. Bluesy and eclectic. I’m proud of my singing sister!

Spotlight On…Megan Hook

It’s a bit disconcerting, really, to find myself saying things like, “I’ve known so-and-so for almost twenty years,” and still be talking about my adulthood. But here goes: I’ve known Megan Hook for almost twenty years. We met in the fall of 2000 at Seattle’s Café Campagne, where we were both working as servers. We became friends, sharing chocolate chip cookies from the bakery across the street in the Pike Place Market and talking about our respective paths as classically-trained singers with musically omnivorous appetites.

Megan eventually moved to Los Angeles and I moved to New York City, but we’ve kept in touch over the years. Megan works regularly as a songwriter and performing musician, singing operatic roles, debuting new music, and leading her band, The Bright Forever. She is also a sought-after educator: in addition to her private voice studio, Megan teaches mindfulness to K-12 students as well as to incarcerated populations.

Last summer, Megan and I met for a drink in Fort Greene, Brooklyn when she was visiting New York. We reminisced a little bit about those misty Seattle days and dug right into the deep stuff, marveling at life’s surprises, heartbreaks, and astonishing speed. That’s the thing about a friend like Megan; we always pick up right where we left off. I’m so thankful to her for sharing her wit and wisdom here on Ad Alta Voce. Thank you, Megan!

Who would you say is your biggest musical influence? Why and how does s/he inspire you?
Eek! There are so many influences: songwriters, singers, bands, lyricists. As far as songwriters go, I adore Bruce Springsteen, [Bob] Dylan, Abbey Lincoln, the great American Songbook guys, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead (for their wash of guitars and magic), Gillian Welch (for the stories she tells). For singers, I love the great ladies of jazz: Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Dianne Reeves…I like a singer whose voice you recognize in an instant. I also love a great rock and roll voice, like Van Morrison. And don’t tell anyone, but Liam Gallagher’s voice shoots up my spine every time I hear it; he’s just so brash, unapologetic, and rock-and-roll. Bono, Mark Kozelek, Robert Plant, Feist, Goldfrapp, and, of course, The Beatles are still unparalleled in my mind. Even after all these years, and on every front: songwriters, vision, singing.

Can you describe your practice routine? What are your biggest priorities when you practice?
I always warm-up before diving into songs. [I’ve] been singing the same warm-up forever, and yet new ones do sneak in. It’s good to keep it fresh. It amazes me that I never get bored singing the same warm-ups. I just think singing is so bottomless, in the sense of what there is to explore: timbre, resonance, placement, vibrato, no vibrato, whisper, shout, beauty, and non-beauty, if that’s the way to say it.

After singing opera for so long, I found it very freeing to not always focus on beauty. I’m inspired by singers like Nina Simone or Janis Joplin, who used the voice to express much more than just beauty. I find it very freeing and very real to explore the range of sounds my voice can make beyond a technical idea of what it should be. I do sing with the guitar and piano a lot when working on/writing songs and accompanying myself, but it is also good to work with recorded tracks when making a record, to isolate the singing. I am working on a new EP right now and I am currently doing a lot of practicing/rehearsing with the track I’ve already laid down. I also sing a cappella a lot when prepping material; I don’t really know a song completely until I can sing it a cappella.

If you had a time machine and could travel back in time to when you were first starting out, what advice would you give yourself about singing, life, and/or the music business in general?
I would have told myself to have more fun! Oh dear god, I took everything so seriously. I never realized how much of a marathon it is, not a sprint. And the world you live in—inside your head—creating stress, expectations, deadlines, metrics, can wear you down, or at least it wore me down until I found a better way to do it.

Right now I feel pretty focused on just making the music I want to hear and telling the stories I want to tell, and letting the chips fall where they may. I’ve become less and less “outwardly” success-oriented and more and more “inwardly” success-oriented. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but it feels more meaningful to me. [Ed. note: I’m right there with you, my friend, and it is SO. FREEING.]

We live in a DIY-era: in addition to performing and recording our music, we ALSO handle social media, book gigs, and perhaps juggle “side gigs” to keep the bills paid. In the face of all these obligations, time management can be hugely challenging. What are some of your favorite techniques for keeping everything in balance?
That’s a great question. I feel like I am always tweaking my system regarding all of this. It’s a work in progress. I’ve used the “Getting Things Done” method for years and it is a good one (book and method by David Allen). Right now I am focusing on doing (at least) one thing a day to move the record(s) forward. My mixing engineer, Jeff Jackson, has a tagline on his emails: “Music First.” For some reason, that really spoke to me the first time I saw it. Sadly, I realized how music definitely isn’t first for me many days when I am busy with so many other things. I am working on changing that.

I do find it intense to be promoting the new EP, recording the next one, working on writing new songs, teaching a ton to pay the bills, and also going into the studio to actually record. It’s like all of these things take a different skill set, and I’m constantly working on it all, simultaneously. Lately I’ve been making some music videos, too, because in the singer/songwriter/band world I’m in, that’s one way to get the music out. But talk about taking on a whole other art form: film, in order to promote the music. It’s a lot.

Finding good people to collaborate with helps a lot. At the same time, at the end of the day, I know I need to have the vision and momentum that is driving everything. That can feel exhilarating on good days and completely overwhelming on bad days.

Fun fact:
Hmmm, a guess a funny quirk is that I love children’s books. I have a beautiful collection and I am always on the lookout for a new gem. “The Want Monster” is a beautiful book by Chelo Manchego, whom I recently and unexpectedly met. Los Angeles is cool that way. I also love “We’re All Wonders” by R.J. Palacio. I also have a longtime meditation and mindfulness practice (over 20 years) that keeps me (mostly) sane.

Megan is currently documenting 100 days of her creative life over on her Instagram page. And you can listen to her band, The Bright Forever, here

The (Caffe) Vivaldi Requiem

“Nothing lasts forever,” the Buddha tells us, and that’s true of people, life, and certainly cities. I know that impermanence is the only thing we can be sure of, but when I spend time in Greenwich Village my heart beats out little prayers of gratitude for all the cafés and coffeehouses and jazz clubs that have held on through the years, keeping the flame of the Village’s bohemian character alight, however faintly.

True, lemmings are lined up outside [insert trendy dessert establishment du jour] for the chance to eat a cup of $10 fucking cookie dough or some other such nonsense, but in Washington Square Park one can still find bluegrass musicians, performance artists, protesters, families, and sentimental flaneurs and flaneuses like me who are contented simply to stroll slowly, taking everything in (preferably while eating a good old-fashioned ice cream cone, thankyouverymuch).

My favorite Village locales, from 55 bar to Corner Bistro to Mezzrow to Caffe Reggio, all share a certain timeless quality: if you squint a little, it’s easy to imagine you’re in Greenwich Village circa just about any decade from the 1930s to the present day. Caffe Vivaldi, a soft-spoken little haunt tucked away on Jones Street, is no exception.

A grand piano takes up most of the front of the room at Vivaldi. Portraits of various classical composers hang on the walls, watching over the patrons, who are a microcosm of Greenwich Village itself: an elderly couple in the far corner shares a bottle of wine and quietly discusses the play they’ve just seen at the Lucille Lortel Theater while a few NYU students rowdily talk politics over beers at their communal table; a lone tourist sits near the door nursing a cup of coffee and, brow furrowed, studies a subway map as (ahem) a jazz singer gets her music in order before her set. The café’s ember-glow light and the music being played inside—folk or jazz or classical or singer-songwriter—spill onto the sidewalk, causing passersby to stop and peer inside. “Let’s go in and have a drink,” they say, delighted to have (accidentally) “discovered” the place.

Proprietor Ishrat Ansari has presided over Caffe Vivaldi for thirty-five years. With the time-tested tools of food and wine, music, and hospitality, Ishrat has created much more than a café. He’s provided a haven for all of us who love Old New York and the culture of Greenwich Village.

Over the course of the past several years, Caffe Vivaldi has staved off a 400% rent increase and a heartbreaking litany of legal and financial attacks by a convicted felon whom the attorney general once called “the Bernie Madoff of landlords.” Ishrat suffered a stroke smack dab in the middle of this long and contentious battle and his recovery has impeded his ability to keep fighting. Enough was, eventually, enough. In a tale that has grown all too familiar, a(nother) beloved and vibrant institution is being shuttered thanks to greed and corruption.

As both patron and performer, I will miss Caffe Vivaldi and the Greenwich Village spirit it embodies. Before Caffe Vivaldi closes its doors on June 23, I plan to stop by, listen to some music, and raise a glass to Ishrat Ansari’s vision and steadfastness. I invite—nay, urge—you to do the same.