Closer to Authentic

51TKgMSTFwLA few months ago, I read The Dirty Life, a memoir by Kristin Kimball. Kimball was a successful writer living in Manhattan when she met her now-husband, Mark, whom she describes as “a wingnut farmer.” They moved to upstate New York and founded Essex Farm.

At first glance, the premise of Kimball’s memoir sounds like the setup for a rom-com: city slicker falls for country bumpkin, they start a farm together, hijinks ensue (picture falling face-down in the mud and chasing runaway cows), and they live happily every after. The Dirty Life does reveal Kimball’s deep love for both her husband and life on the farm, but it also describes her painful acclimation to backbreaking farm work, begun each day before dawn, and the financial anxiety of knowing that an early winter could mean losing their farm and home.

The difficulties and risks of farm life notwithstanding, Kimball and her husband persevered and do, indeed, appear to be living happily ever after. They have young children and Essex Farm is thriving as the world’s first full-diet CSA. Kristin Kimball is a thoughtful and vivid writer, and while her book reaffirmed that a life in the countryside is emphatically not for me, the following passage in The Dirty Life has continued to haunt me (emphasis mine):

The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices too bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it. I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing slowly closer to authentic.

In the passage above, Kimball is referring to the clarity she found while harnessing horses and carrying heavy loads as part of her day-to-day work on the farm, but her summation of what defines authenticity is elegant and universally applicable.  The narrower the gap between who we think we are and how we behave, the closer we get to authentic.

As an inveterate list-maker, I love the idea of putting two columns on a page: the first one being, “Who do you think you are?” and the second, “How do you behave?” The more overlap between the columns, the more authentic a life the list-maker can claim. Simple. But as I’ve mused here before, simple isn’t the same thing as easy. Sometimes, the distance between who I think I am (singer, writer, regular exerciser and healthy eater) and my daily routine (harried errand-runner, sporadic blogger, sunny day picnic enthusiast) feels much greater than I’d like.


Believe it or not, buying groceries paves the way for disciplined creativity. Caveat: I am never this pulled-together while running errands.

I’ll continue trying to narrow the gap between my self-perception and habits. Daily vocal exercises are one way of keeping my focus “on the ground,” as Kimball puts it. Even if those whoops, hollers, and scales feel effortless one day and arduous the next, they’re a powerful affirmation: I am a singer. 

But damn it, even the most tedious of errands must be run (oh, hi, DMV, what a pleasure to see you!), and even sporadic writing is still better than not writing at all. Buying groceries and straightening up the apartment are not necessarily identity-related tasks, but, like Kimball, when I’m doing them, I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I’m not one of those romantic artist types who flourishes amidst chaos; my creativity thrives in the security of a stocked fridge and tidy practice space.

As for finding some lazy hours in these halcyon late-summer days for languid lunches in the park—including wine and cheese, obviously—well, that’s the urban equivalent of “making hay while the sun shines.” And that feels like time authentically well spent.



Spotlight On…Nancy Harms

1044963_10151618354920415_970921141_nNancy Harms‘ singing embodies a quiet sort of mystery, a coolness that is reserved but always tinged with sweetness. We have met in person once or twice, but most of what I know about Nancy comes from the world of social media and, of course, her music.  Nancy’s most recent solo effort, Dreams in Apartments, was met with a warm critical reception: the Wall St. Journal’s Will Friedwald wrote, “…after hearing [Nancy] just once, you’ll never want to let her go.”

The success of Dreams in Apartments has taken Nancy to Copenhagen, Oslo, Paris, and Torino already this year, and her ongoing collaboration with pianist Jeremy Siskind will find her touring the western United States this spring.  We New Yorkers will have to keep an eye on Nancy’s calendar to find out when she’ll be performing here next.  Until then, a big thank-you to Nancy Harms for answering a few questions for the “Spotlight On…” series!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
Right out of college, I had a lovely job of teaching music to elementary-aged kids in a small town and I really enjoyed it.  But it wasn’t enough.  As great as it was, it left a hole and I felt like I was living someone else’s life.  I began to explore the world of jazz singing more and more, and as I did I felt as though I was getting closer and closer to home.  I have been singing in public since the age of four, but with little exposure to jazz and not many examples of professional artists in my community, it took me a while to find out exactly what was calling me out of my teaching life.  Figuring out how one goes about taking the leap into that wonderful, wild world of being a professional musician was no small task for me, but I knew that’s what I had to do.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
I have a pretty good ear in some respects and have tended to rely on that too much in my musical life…as a result, working on sight-reading and theory have not been the most attractive or easy things for me.  I’m a very intuitive person so I can easily get frustrated when I’m asked to break things down or name them…I just like to absorb the info in my own way and then put it to use and call it a day.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
Photographer.  I’m not that practiced or studied in photography, but I really love being behind a camera and capturing things through my own “eye.”  I also love to see other people’s photos…a glimpse into how they see the world/what attracts their eye…Shapes?  Colors?  Light?  Good stuff.

10999351_10152788199825415_3848357921430398608_nImagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Paul Chambers, Jeff “Tain” Watts.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
I have received so much incredible advice as I have a mentor (Arne Fogel) who has given me an embarrassment of riches in that category.  But something that is sticking out in my head now is the advice that another singer gave me on arranging tunes.  She said that she just spends some time with the lyric, maybe even just speaking it, and finds out what the lyric means to her and then tries to put that into sound.  This made so much sense to me…our brilliance lies in how true we are to ourselves. [Ed. Note: I added the emphasis to Nancy’s last sentence, here, because it resonated within me so powerfully.  What a succinct, beautiful truth.]

What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
I’m in love with the new Kate McGarry tune “Ten Little Indians” at the moment. So tender.

Fun Fact…
I have a surprising laugh that is often (lovingly) compared to the sweet song of the pterodactyl.

Keep up with Nancy’s touring schedule on her website.  You can also check out one of her original songs, “And It’s Beautiful,” below.


Spotlight On…Bess McCrary

10301503_921470471197751_4956422380118880592_nI love lippy dames, no-nonsense broads with a good sense of humor and a low bullshit threshold.  It makes perfect sense, then, that singer-songwriter Bess McCrary and I hit it off right away.  (We met in the ladies’ dressing room of a big band gig where we were both doing the “canary” thing, and within five minutes were cracking each other up.)

Her first album, “For Happy,” is made up entirely of Bess’s original songs, and is a tribute to her mother, who passed away in 2008 after a long battle with cancer.  Bess then faced a bout with cancer herself, and was unsure, in the wake of her treatment, if she’d be able to sing again.  Luckily for all of us, Bess (now healthy!) kept singing and writing, and her second album, “Resurrect Me,” is slated for release this year.

And so, without further ado, let’s kick off the first “Spotlight On…” post of 2015.  Thank you, Bess!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
My extended family was very musical.  My paternal grandmother could hear a song once and play it on multiple instruments.  Same goes for one of my first cousins.  My talents always seemed so small in comparison; they were untrained prodigies who seemed almost casual about their abilities.  My mom also loved to sing and filled the house with music from her diverse record collection.  She put me in acting classes at age four because I was, ummm, fibbing a lot.  I was taught to harmonize around age six by my dad and just fell in love with all things music and then, all things that involved a stage and then, on a good day, some clapping!! Oooooohhhh, the clapping!!  I remember the day it bit me and filled me with what felt like the best feeling EVER. [Ed. note: THANK YOU for being so candid about how much we performers crave (need?) applause!]

cd-cover-thumb1In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Naturally: Writing songs.  I put my first song down on paper when I was 13.  I learned very quickly that our culture loves a good song, and I could sing about anything, no matter how dark or terrible, if I just made that sh*t rhyme.

Challenging: Writing good songs.  Am I allowed to say, “Touché” to myself?

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
A neurologist who works in psychiatry. Humans (myself included) are all cuckoo.  It soothes me to know why, and I’m a neurology buff.  I believe F-MRI machines and other modern factors will lead medicine to conclusions about mental health and illness that will force us to remove the stigma and make [treating mental illness] a part of our general preventative health culture.  I think it would be an unbelievably fascinating, challenging, and rewarding profession that would accomplish some real change in the world.  Or I would like to be one of my cats.  Those two really have it good.

Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
OH.  Oh!  I can’t.  I don’t even.  Where would I start?  I’m going to be a cheesy cheater and say that I just love my regular band!!  I want to keep hiring them, and would certainly do so if I got this “gig of a lifetime” right now.  It’s true, so why not give them props, right?  David Cook, who is my killer MD and keys player (and oftentimes producer/arranger/co-writer).  Bill Campbell, who is my kick-ass drummer, Jeff Hanley, who plays the best bass for me, and Al Street, who matches my musical weirdness on guitar like nobody else.  We just got out of the studio for my second album and I can’t even explain the service these guys paid to the songs I wrote.

10427298_873240839354048_690003317356638886_nWhat’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Less talk, more do.

What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
While making production decisions for my upcoming album, I was obsessed with the production on Kimbra’s album, Vows, and also production on Sarah Blasko’s newest album.  For inspiration in songwriting, I’ve been turning to world music and of course and as always, the radio.

My next two genre-forays are into country and the wide world of musical theatre!!  I can’t tell you much about the latter because details are still falling into place but let’s just say…I’ve always wanted to write for the stage!  As for country music…I just keep writing country songs these days.  So there’s that.  I’m excited to hone my craft while increasing my catalogue!

Fun Fact…
I can dilate and constrict my pupils at will.  I taught myself when I was 14.  It’s probably my best parlor trick.  Probably!!

Bess is performing this Friday, January 9, at Rockwood Music Hall (Stage 3) at 7:00 pm.  She’s also been chosen as a 2015 artist-in-residence at the Serenbe Institute.  Look for her new album, “Resurrect Me,” this year.

Welcome back!

I’ve missed you.  It’s been a while.  Too long.  As I recover from a minor but frustrating recent bout of vocal un-health (a spate of hoarseness brought on by allergies and good old “singing-too-damn-much” syndrome), I’ve had to keep silent for days on end.  Prolonged silence gives a girl time to think, and over the past few weeks some uncomfortable realities have floated to the surface of my psyche.

To wit: writers write, and I haven’t been.  Writing, that is.

There’s also the fact that I’ve felt disconnected from my creativity and physicality lately, and too overwhelmed to do anything but fixate in uneasy wonder on my inertia.  Having lost a dear friend just a year ago to a swift and brutal illness, I am feeling strongly the need to celebrate and inhabit life more fully, but instead, a nondescript sort of paralysis seems to have taken hold.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of wonderful stuff on the horizon.  For one thing, my debut album, The Great City, has found a home on a great label and will be officially released before the end of the year, probably this fall.  In the meantime, this summer’s gigs will take me to North Carolina, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Seattle, the Oklahoma leg of historic Route 66, and rural Pennsylvania.  I’ll be guesting with a symphony, fronting a big band, bringing my best straight-tone to an Anglican choir and singing as one-third of a 1930s-inspired vocal trio called DUCHESS.  It’s going to be a busy time, and I’m looking forward to all of it.

GoyGoneWildThe thing is, though, I don’t just want to be busy.  I want to find more joy in the everyday, whether I’m puttering in the kitchen, teetering precariously in a yoga pose, chatting with a friend over a pot of tea, or warming up my voice before a practice session.  Writing, for me, has always had a way of creating momentum and focus, and so I suppose that the revitalization of this blog is an attempt to light a proverbial fire under my tuchis.

In the coming weeks, I’ll introduce a “Spotlight On…” interview series with some smart, funny musical friends and colleagues; I have no doubt that their wisdom and insights will prove inspiring.  Foodie Tuesdays will return.  There will also, in all likelihood, be talk of yoga, the subway, life in the city, life in the country, travels near and far, and there will definitely be posts about the aforementioned musical happenings.  I hope you’ll check in from time to time and perhaps even share your thoughts in the comments.  Ad Alta Voce means “out loud,” after all, so let’s raise our voices, shall we?

Thanks so much for stopping by.  Happy reading, and happy summer!

Words & Music #3

Venice!  Is there a name in all the languages of humanity that makes us dream more than that one?  It is pretty, besides, sonorous and sweet; all at once it calls to mind a dazzling procession of magnificent memories, a whole horizon of enchanting reveries.

Venice!  That single word seems to send an exaltation exploding in the soul, it excites everything poetic within us, it provokes all our faculties of admiration.  And when we arrive in this unique city, we inevitably study it with forewarned and ravished eyes, we look upon it with our dreams.  –Guy de Maupassant, Venice


Words & Music #2

First everything was gray and still.  The sky was gray, the grass was gray with dew, the light was gray, and the wind held its breath.

Then sharp streaks of green came into the eastern sky.  If there was a little cloud, it turned pink.  Laura and Mary sat on the damp, cold rock, hugging their chilly legs.  They rested their chins on their knees and watched…But they never could see when the sky first began to be pink.

The sky was very faintly pink, then it was pinker.  The color went higher up in the sky.  It grew brighter and deeper.  It blazed like fire, and suddenly the little cloud was glittering gold.  In the center of the blazing color, on the flat edge of the earth, a tiny sliver of sun appeared.  It was a short streak of white fire.  Suddenly the whole sun bounded up, round and huge, far bigger than the ordinary sun and throbbing with so much light that its roundness almost burst.

Laura couldn’t help blinking.  While she blinked just once, the sky turned blue, the golden cloud vanished.  The everyday sun shone over the prairie grasses where thousands of birds were flying and twittering.

–Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek

Words and Music #1

A sonata is not the passing of geese, it is not a stream’s noise, nor the sound of a nightingale.  A violin does not speak, does not  chatter.  The catastrophe of a symphony’s wild end is not a storm breaking upon land.  It is not the shuddering and sundering of a house.  But it is in part, she would say, the understanding of these things.  You must be brutal, terrible, but with great sympathy, sympathy for all things, and yet no mercy.  Was that why the government wanted no music?  Because music was the only thing with any religion to it?  –Jesse Ball, The Curfew