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A good summer for blackberries

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting family and other monsters on the Île d’Oléron.

When I spied these blackberries ripening defiantly in the cracks of the citadel wall, slightly above a hastily spray-painted English curse word, I felt something big. Was it recognition? Relief? Or something like hope? A mixture of all three, wrapped up in the joy of seeing an unarticulated notion taking physical form.

There are so many reasons to let expletives fly from our mouths. Inaction in the face of ecological breakdown. The amplification of discontent, unmediated by editorial thoughtfulness, and the interpersonal cruelties that criss-cross the globe, propelled by the algorithms of social media. The persistence of so many forms of oppression, as well as the allure and durability of ignorance.

A lot of things are breaking. We don’t know what will take their place. This is scary. So many of my songs are animated by this thrill of panic. As if Eden responds with a call to defiant action and the vitality of love, while also acknowledging the inevitability of death. Maple Seed is a gentler reply to the same fear of dissolution. Tender breezes – where might they come from? Where might they take us?

A breeze brought a blackberry pip to what might have seemed an inhospitable place, a crack in the face of a fortess wall. But it sprouted and grew of its own accord.

I, too, have new songs ripening in my mind. But they bristle at the thought of being rushed. They thrive on freedom and sunshine, which they are greedily soaking up this summer.

Sour or sweet, they never fail to surprise me.

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Let me introduce you to my cuatro

“What is that?” people often ask when I take it out of its case. The cuatro’s doubled set of steel strings sound somewhere between a mandolin and a twelve-string guitar. When I stumbled into one in a cluttered music shop on a grim Chicago afternoon, I was still reeling from the heavy anaesthetic of a root canal. I was smitten the moment I laid eyes upon its violin-like profile, imagining I might be able to make some pretty sounds were I to take it in my arms.

Having played mostly on nylon string classical or flamenco guitars for several years, the bright joy and assertiveness of its strummed chords were sheer delight. It reminded me of the richness of the steel-stringed Guild I had played as a young teenager, learning folk and pop guitar in the bucolic fields of Appel Farm from Joe Crookston. Playing steel with a pick was wonderfully familiar, and I realised how much I missed it. Yet the cuatro was also different: even though a guitarist could find her way on it pretty quickly, its quality of sound and its beautiful shape were like nothing I had heard or seen before. Emboldened by my anesthetized stupor and possession of a credit card (my father’s), I declared that cuatro mine. I took her home.

My technique on the instrument differs significantly from how it is normally played. The national instrument of Puerto Rico, its mandolin-like upper registers usually sing twinkling melodies which shimmer above the mix.

Go seven minutes and thirty-two seconds into this interview with a child prodigy on Puerto Rican television to see what I mean:

Fabiola Mendez went on to become the first cuatro player to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston–although it was she who taught the cuatro to her teacher, a guitarist. Listen to her all grown up:

This is wonderful stuff. But I am only now discovering it, though I’ve been playing my cuatro for a decade and a half.

My cuatro is a petite, harmony-laden rhythmic powerhouse. It’s not a top-of-the-line model. In fact, it took me a little while to conclude that the distance from the nut to the first fret is just a shade off, meaning that I get better intonation if I keep a capo on the first fret (or above). At the very top of the neck, again, the intonation gets a bit inconsistent.

I do my best to work around its idiosyncrasies, as I hope others would do for me. I know full well that I stumbled upon this strange treasure and fell in love, without research or deliberation. I even entertained the notion of a cosmic connection between my dental work and the molar-like profile of its tuning pegs. Far-fetched as that might be, I am glad I impulsively clung to this (un)familiar instrument. It has illuminated both my joys and my sorrows with a strength I have come to depend upon.

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Springing back to life

Oh my fine friends, it has been another trying winter. And we are still here! In a world that needs our creativity and playfulness more than ever.

I have been laying low, regaining strength and looking forward to reconnecting with friends, listeners and fellow makers as the frost begins to fade.

First stop is a housewarming hootenanny at the Oxford Poetry Library on 9 April at 7:30 pm.

Second stop is May Morning. I am overjoyed to be joining the Whirly Band to raucously welcome the rising sun on the steps of the Bodlean Library. This year the first falls on a Sunday, so there should be ample opportunity to nap later.

Both events are participatory, so dust off your poetry journal and your dancing shoes! Though if you are more comfortable watching quietly and just soaking in the energy, that is equally welcome.

Pandemic

More than a Vessel

When I met Jennifer Ling Datchuk on Zoom, all I knew about her was that she lived in Texas. We had been introduced to one another by the good people at Make Music Day, as part of The American Song project. They invited 50 songwriters to capture the stories of strangers from around the country and write a song about them in a single day.

Our conversation was pretty intense. Jennifer spoke frankly about her struggles and desires, as an artist and a woman during the pandemic. A major theme of the discussion was the heartbreaking process of trying to become a mother with help from IVF. After our conversation, I couldn’t get the image of a ceramic vessel out of my mind. I also had a sense of her as such a strong, creative, and vibrant soul, who was pretty exhasted with it all. After playing around with a few different ideas, I settled into a percussive, bluesy riff.

It was a busy day, and we had the time difference to contend with, but I did manage to write and perform the piece within 3 hours of our initial conversation – this after a full day of work. I am pretty proud of that.

I am sad to say that when I watch the video back, my first response is, “Ugh! I look like a tired, middle-aged woman, who could do with a bit more exercise!” But guess what? I am a tired, middle-aged woman, who could do with a bit more exercise. And that’s ok. (Right?)

Sometimes I have better lighting, and am more rested, and look a bit different than I do during this performance, which includes a few mistakes. But Jennifer’s heartfelt response to the song at the end makes it all worth it. Furthermore, I am a songwriter, not a fashion model. Harumph.

I encourage you to dive in and enjoy songs from the other 49 states, too. I was particularly blown away by Colorado and Indiana – the reception of the listener at least as much as the song itself.

Right. Now for a long walk by the river.  And then, perhaps, a nap.

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Silvester’s Primulas

Heavy as it is was with pandemic worry, my heart couldn’t keep from singing when I set eyes on the flamboyant blossoms in front of Silvester’s Stores on Magdalen Road. It is a real treasure of a shop, run by the son of the man who established it decades ago. A hodgepodge of birdseed, hardware, crockery, and other domestic items, its over-stuffed shelves harken to earlier times.

Some of the stock may be older than I am, but they also carry fine, fresh specimens for the garden. I usually just linger there on the pavement, soaking in the uproarious colour before going on about my day. But since my days have become increasingly circumscribed by the walls of my own home, last week I chose three lovely primulas to call my own. I couldn’t help but hum as I walked down the street with the plants in my arms.

As I arranged them on the window sill in our bathroom, a little ditty entered my head. The next day I put my phone on the music stand of our electric keyboard and pressed record. I then went back and took some more footage of the shop and its environs, watched some YouTube editing tutorials, and, over the course of a few days, stitched it all together into a teeny-tiny film which I released on Valentine’s Day.

I hope it captures some of the delight these flowers have brought to me on these dreary winter pandemic days. I like to imagine the wonder and vitality of their little blossoms careening through the ether, conspiring to connect us in spite of the lonliness of lockdown.