On Writing an Album in a Morally Distressing Year

It’s with great thanks to the Arts Fund of Waterloo Region, as well as the many friends and fellow musicians that worked on this album with me, that I released a new music baby this week!

“I’d Rather Be Your Friend” is my new EP, written and produced by me, and recorded with tons of support from my community. You can listen on Bandcamp or Soundcloud, and also order physical copies.

I received the grant to record this project in the weeks following the Trump election, when like so many people, I was walking around in an anxious haze of moral distress and hopelessness. Recording an album seemed futile to even think about. But I got to work, determined to write something that would have some relevance to the world around us, while also being rooted in my own experience – as an overall privileged Canadian-American who’s never really quite identified as an activist.

“I’d Rather Be Your Friend” is about trying to find common ground within difficult relationships in an increasingly polarized world. The album is bookended by reflections on the Trump presidency and the new era it has heralded, and tackles such gentle topics as climate change, sexual assault, and peaceful protest in between. The opening track, “Breeze Blows,” is about the moment when I learned that Leonard Cohen had died, the very same week as the US election. “Rainfall in December” is about one Christmas, two years ago, when the uncannily warm weather and unseasonal rain somehow made climate change terrifyingly real for me. “Dear Mister Ghomeshi” is a complicated, confused conversation between an abuse survivor and a man she once trusted. “January 20th 2017,” the day Trump was inaugurated, is an inward plea to stay rooted in love during a time of deep divide.

chillin’ with my new pretties

 None of this was easy to write, but I had help. Evan Pointner and I jammed out the songs months before I started recording, discussed production approaches at length, and he was there in the mixing room to offer his expert ears and assist with production (he also plays on “Ariel”). Rob Shiels workshopped tunes and lyrics with me via Skype, and lay down acoustic guitar tracks from his studio in Dublin. Ryan Coulter played fiddle and sang some sweet backup harmonies. Ryan Dugal lay down bass. Chris Colvin was the masterful engineer and generously played drums on a few tracks, and his recording space, Studio A, is a gem for local musicians. It was a treat to reconnect with Scott Rouse and have his infamously brilliant drumming on Track #3, engineered by Jeff Johnston all the way out in San Francisco. Gerima Harvey killed it on the djembe. Stephanie Rozek offered an extra set of ears during mixing sessions. Russell Jennison mastered the whole thing. Aldo Riello was thoughtfully musing on artwork the whole time, and his results are beautiful.

I’ll be performing these songs and other tunes, on January 19th in Waterloo, at an intimate house show venue with a small acoustic band. JoJo Worthington will also be performing a set and it should be an amazing night! You can message me for details.

Please support the arts by listening and sharing!! You can download for PWYC, stream online, and purchase physical copies. Looking to shop locally for Christmas? I’m happy to sell you some albums!

It’s been the loveliest feeling to be able to record this project – to hire my friends, to learn new skills, to hone a message and cultivate my sound. I’m truly grateful for the Waterloo Arts Fund and for the community of musicians I keep learning from. 

Three Simple Tricks for Moving Through Creative Blocks

source: bsnscb.com

One of my favourite books is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I think it’s one of the most useful and compassionate kick-in-the-proverbial-pants for any person who identifies as a creative. More a workbook and 12-week curriculum than a piece of non-fiction, The Artist’s Way provides a roadmap towards “creative recovery.” It’s a book for people who long to stretch a creative muscle they worry has atrophied, for professional artists who have hit a rut, for folks who feel too stuck in their perfectionism to take the plunge back into their art, and for those who don’t even identify as artists but are looking for permission to create.

I know that when I’m holding back on my own creative expression – be it through songwriting, writing, or just little fun projects around the house that satisfy an itch to make things – it’s usually a sign that something else is a bit off for me. Similarly, with my therapy clients, if we engage with their issues through creative modalities, the client may often come away with greater insights and also a much more hopeful outlook on them. My clients often report the benefits of returning to some kind of creative project between sessions, and often come to therapy in the first place because they are artists who are no longer creating.

If you identify on some level as a blocked creative (and in my opinion we are all, to some extent, blocked creatives), then I cannot recommend Cameron’s book enough. Meanwhile, here are three tips of my own that I offer to clients, and that I’ve found useful myself, for getting things moving during a creative (or just general life) rut.

  1. Write a poem-a-day. We don’t have to be writers to get something out of this one. In fact, it’s perhaps even more effective for folks who aren’t serious writers. Here’s how it works: for two weeks, commit to writing one poem a day. It does not have to be good. It just needs to be simple words put together to tell a story. You can take 5 minutes a day to do this, or labour over it for hours if you like. I recommend writing the poem by hand. I find this exercise effective because writing is such an inward creative activity, so if we’re feeling tender, it won’t expose us as much as, say, playing the French horn for half an hour every day. And yet, it does get our juices flowing, it gets us in a creative mentality, and it becomes a habit. When I’ve done this exercise, I’ve usually created my poem in the morning, and they’ve taken about 15 minutes to write. In some cases, I’ve created a blog where I’ve posted them at the end of each day, just to have some accountability. (I only shared the URL of the blog with three people who I trusted.) Most of the poems were either been about writing (so meta!), or about the smell of the coffee brewing while I wrote. The routine of it becomes like a sacrament. I recommend doing it daily for 2 weeks because it’s long enough to feel like a discipline, and long enough to feel a shift, but not so long that it’s overwhelming.
  2. Indulge in the dreamworld. Can you recall one thing from your dreams last night? One thing from your dreams in the past year? Carl Jung wrote that “dreams are the facts from which we must proceed.” Playing with our dream realm connects us with the place in ourselves where true creativity is born. For this exercise, pick one scene from a dream – as fresh as last night, or an old dream from years ago you still think about. Then take one action based on that dream: draw a picture from the dream; create a GIF about the dream; write a first-person narrative about the dream; or even act out something from the dream. An example of this: let’s say you dreamt about eating a cucumber sandwich on top of the Eiffel Tower. To act out some part of this dream, perhaps you can go grocery shopping to buy ingredients for the best cucumber sandwich imaginable (was it a crusty sourdough in the dream? Find that crusty sourdough!). Maybe, instead of heading to the Eiffel Tower to eat your sandwich, go to the base of your city’s great landmark (the CN tower for eg.), or maybe just put on a French beret and eat your sandwich at home.  If you can be as playful about your dreams in waking life, then you can be assured you can be playful in whatever creative pursuits you fancy.

    source: miriadne.com

  3. Listen to an album. But, really listen to it. It’s so rare in our busy culture to listen to a complete album. If you can, dig up something you’ve never heard before – either in the CD bin at your local thrift store, or on your Apple Music or Spotify account (please don’t listen to music for free on YouTube unless you really really have to). Try to listen to it in a way that it will get your full focus. If this means going for a long walk in the fall leaves, or fold your laundry, or do some mending. Consider drawing, or writing free-flowing words if you find that connects you best to the music. Avoid conversations with others while you listen, and use the best speakers or headphones you have. Let the music shift you.

A note: the goal of these exercises isn’t to make the best art. If you’re a novelist, I know your next novel won’t get written by your listening to an album or acting out a scene from your dream. Rather, these are exercises to massage our creative brains and get them excited to play. You won’t be writing your novel while listening to that album, but something in the album may spark an idea for a scene you want to write. While hunting down that perfect bread for the best cucumber sandwich, you may sort out a plot issue you were stuck on for months. By engaging in our creative world, we’re giving ourselves permission to play, which a simple human right, a source of endless delight, a mental health booster, and the bread (pardon the pun) and butter of good art.

May we all feel the magic spark of creativity throughout our days, and throughout our lives. <3

Dear Mister Ghomeshi

It will be three years next Thurday since Jian Ghomeshi was fired from the CBC. Though proven innocent in a controversial trial, Ghomeshi’s case had a similar impact on Canadian culture as Harvey Weinstein’s case is now. It awoke a sea of disclosures from people across the country about assault experiences they had lived through. It brought to light the way so many of these assaults had been normalized or silenced.

I’d planned to release this song today, months before the Harvey Weinstein story ripped through the news. And here we are, dealing with yet another public case of normalized sexual assault. Survivors are speaking up, voicing anger, solidarity, and calling the world to action. But I believe many survivors are quietly sitting back, trying to reconcile these very public cases with their own painful lived experiences.

I took the day off work when Jian Ghomeshi’s verdict came out. I knew I’d be a mess whatever the outcome, because a happy ending to this trial seemed impossible. The courts had proven themselves unwilling to comprehend the sheer messiness of how sexual assault usually emerges – which is so often in the midst of complex, caring relationships.

The results of Ghomeshi’s trial validated something that many survivors needed to hear: that it’s the most normal thing for an abuse survivor to reach out to their abuser. It validated this truth in a painful, confusing way, because it was these very natural reactions that invalidated the complainants’ testimonies. Like many Canadians, I believed the women who came out against Ghomeshi. The case reminded me, often excruciatingly, of my own lived experiences. And yet, I’d felt unable to hate him, unable to wish him ill. His not-guilty verdict was, for me, a guilty relief.

It almost seemed too easy to write Ghomeshi off as a monster. Throughout the trial, I yearned for a restorative circle justice approach, as practiced by many indigenous communities, rather than the horrendous and triggering process of a legal trial. In this restorative approach to justice, the community circles around the person who has transgressed, and doesn’t leave their side until they figure out, as a community, what went wrong.

I wonder if this approach would actually provide some semblance of healing for many survivors. I realize not all survivors will agree with me on this, and that every case has its own story. But when we’ve lived through abuse within complex relationships, we know first-hand that our abusers aren’t always mere monsters. They are human beings we know and often still care about, and their actions are shaped by the world we all live in.

Sexual violence is a systemic issue. In the wake of the #metoo hashtag, we know too well how much our culture perpetuates cycles of abuse; we are reminded of the gaslighting by abusers in positions in power; we are reminded of the silent enabling of people who “knew” but did nothing.  We are reminded of the near impossibility for survivors to report crimes safely and with dignity.

If sexual violence happens all the time, we cannot simply write all perpetrators off as monsters. These people are among us. They are often people we love and trust. Perhaps that was what was so painful for Canadians to make sense of during the Ghomeshi trial.

I’ve never met Jian Ghomeshi, and he’s never been convicted of a crime. I wish him well. It’s the stories his alleged victims told, the humiliation they endured by speaking out, and the overwhelming compassion I felt for him throughout the trial while still believing in his guilt, that has dredged up my own turmoil and distress, and strangely, become a source of healing and forgiveness.

This is the first single off my upcoming album, “I’d Rather Be Your Friend,” which I’ve been recording all year thanks to a grant from the Waterloo Arts Fund. It’s not an easy song to start with, but it’s also not been an easy year for digesting news of the world. It’s my hope that this album, and this song, can hold space for difficult conversations and offer reflection on how we live, and don’t live, in community with one another. Many thanks to all the musicians who played on this song: Robert Shiels, Gerima Harvey, and Ryan Coulter, to Chris Colvin for engineering, and to Evan Pointner and Steph Rozek for production assistance. This video was shot over a year ago, on a lovely evening stroll with Julia Gogoleva in St Jacobs, ON.

If it strikes a chord, please share this song in the places you reach people best! And make sure to sign up for my newsletter to hear the album when it drops!

Lyrics:

Dear Mister Ghomeshi, I have something to say
It would have broken my heart if they’d sent you off to jail
And I know this is messy, but I’d have rather been your friend
Who would not leave your side while you cried out your sins

Some tried to condemn you, read you the letter of the law
And those who gripped to the system, they hid from its flaws
But Mr Ghomeshi, what prison did they dream
could make something so messy become suddenly so clean?

Oh, Mr Ghomeshi, I’m still trying to find my way
Cuz I’m just one of the many, a survivor’s what we say
Yes Mr Ghomeshi, I know a thing or two
About when shit gets messy with people like you

But what kind of prison could heal such a system?
What kind of prison could solace the victim?
Oh I know this is messy, but I’d have rather stayed by your side
And not let you go til you apologized.

Well Mr Ghomeshi, here we stand
You in the corner, me reaching out my hand
Don’t run away dear, don’t turn your back on me
Or else some kind of prison will reach you eventually

I know this is messy, But stay with me Mr Ghomeshi
I won’t leave your side – you can cry and say sorry

Why My Voice Teacher Forbade me to Sing

One of the greatest things a voice teacher ever told me was to stop singing.

It was a turning point in the history of my saga-like relationship with my voice. I’m pretty open about my history of vocal issues, and here’s the Coles-notes version:

When I was thirteen and a budding soprano, out of nowhere one day, singing started to hurt. I went from getting solos and traveling the world with my wonderful children’s choir, to being unable to produce a sound without feeling tightness and pain in my throat. Overnight, singing made me miserable.

Losing my ability to sing comfortably was like having a tornado rip through my life and destroy everything I loved. Being a singer was my singular source of joy, and the cornerstone of my identity, and the choir that had once been my happy-place now felt like a place of shame and depression. I spent several years trying to find help through vocal lessons, but nothing worked.

As a teenager, I quietly shut down the part of myself that desperately missed singing. I did an English degree. I got good grades, I got involved in campus theatre to satisfy my stage-itch. Occasionally I’d open my mouth to sing, and it would hurt. So I would stop.

But when I finished my degree, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I travelled for a few months, I had crushing insomnia, and in the midst of spiritual turmoil, my lost identity as a musician came rushing back. Through a series of quite magical encounters, I got “forced” (that’s sort of what it felt like at the time) to rejoin a serious choir, and I found a voice teacher – an acting coach! – who could help me. We began working with my voice as not just a physiological entity, but as an extension of my soul.

It took simultaneous voice lessons and private therapy to begin to understand why my voice had shut down at age 13, and what I needed to let go of in order to sing again.

A year later, I started a music program in a college in Montreal, with a major in classical voice. The first few months were brutal. My voice was ready for serious training, but I wasn’t sure my heart was. I was so afraid of the vocal tightness coming back. I longed to be a “normal” overachiever like all my friends, who all were in either grad school or law school, rather than a college music program with classmates who were fresh out of high school. I wanted to quit, to run away, to give up once and for all on ever reclaiming what I’d lost at age 13.

This was exactly ten years ago. Early in my first term, seeing how terrified I was of my voice, my teacher gave me advice that would change me:
“just don’t sing for a couple of weeks.”

It was the most liberating thing I’d ever heard.

Listening through last week to Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast on creativity, Magic Lessons, I was reminded of what my voice teacher had told me a decade ago. In one podcast episode, Gilbert instructs Britta, a successful novelist who is feeling stuck writing her second book, to quit writing for a month. “You probably had all this sense of pressure…I want to prove to you that you have time.”

I felt a palpable sense of relief for Britta, upon hearing Elizabeth Gilbert command her not to write for four weeks. “Finally, you can just give yourself a break!” is what my heart said to her. “You can just be yourself.”

So, following my own teacher’s instructions ten years ago, I took a couple weeks off singing. My teacher still saw me for lessons those weeks, and we spent the hour making simple vocal noises that sounded nothing like music. I was free. For years I’d been grasping to reclaim something. Now I could just sit in silence and do nothing. It wasn’t like I’d given up, it was that I’d just stopped fighting so hard.

I realized I could give up the fight for my voice, if I wanted. I could make a solemn pact with the universe that I accepted that I may never sing again. I could ceremoniously say goodbye to the dream that one day I might just enjoy singing again. Because that’s all I wanted. I didn’t need to be famous, or even be known that much as a singer at this point. I just wanted to enjoy it. And I was ready to let that go.

These two weeks of not-singing were so meaningful to me that I even wrote a song about it at the time (which, in retrospect, means I must have cheated).

I recall those two weeks of not singing as some kind of sacred coming-of-age vision quest. When I emerged from the two weeks of vocal hiatus, I was ready to work. But not just nose-to-the-grind, capitalist-economy-work-ethic kind of work. I was ready to do my work of becoming the person I was meant to be. I could make a sacred, conscious commitment to the work.

This commitment saw me through the doubts that I should be in law school or grad school like my friends. It saw me through the fear that my voice was gone for good. It saw me through the daily practice required of music school, the sheer tedium of just having to show up and do the work.

Two years of music school gave me enough of a vocal technique foundation, that I could trust would carry me even if the old tightness came back some days. Completing the program took more courage than anything I’ve ever done. It still feels like a miracle that I did it.

I try to remember now, when I’m fighting extra-hard for something and spinning my wheels, to consider what it would be like to just step away. It seems counter-intuitive to impose a hiatus from the very thing we’re wanting to work on, but by stepping away, we can connect with the person who’s not anxiously striving for something that feels increasingly impossible. We can trust ourselves again, even love ourselves again. And then, with a full heart, we can go after what we really want, and probably get it.

Why I’m a therapist for (blocked) artists – and why we are all artists becoming unblocked!

Not long ago, when asked to describe my professional focuses, I wrote on a piece of sketch paper: “I am a therapist for blocked artists.” Then, quite quickly, crossed off the word “blocked.”

I sat there looking at the sketchpad, absorbing these words:

I am a therapist for blocked artists. 

While the whole sentence seemed accurate, the strikethrough felt profoundly important. A mere crossed-out word, this strikethrough reflected back to me the deeper meaning I find in my work.

Sure, in my private psychotherapy practice, I work with a lot of folks who identify as artists and wish they were making more art in their lives. We work on reclaiming the (often frightening) childlike joy of making things; we negotiate with inner critics, imposter syndromes, and perfectionism; we gently explore where blocks began, how doubts settled in, how self-hood became a scary thing to express.

But I don’t exclusively work with professional creators, let alone exclusively work with artists going through a dry spell.

And so I got to thinking: what made that crossed-out blocked feel so right? And I came up with the following four reasons why:

  1. All artists are blocked artists, to some extent, so to say I’m a therapist for “blocked artists” is redundant. I don’t know of any artist that never once doubted themselves, held themselves back, or felt that their muse was out of reach. Martha Graham famously said that “no artist is pleased,” and that we are all driven by a “divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching.” There’s always a deeper truth to mine, and no matter how wide open we are to inspiration, there is always something that feels out of reach, that “blessed unrest.”
  2. All humans are artists, and so while not all my clients are published authors, gigging musicians, or commissioned metal smiths, I relate to them as artists. To create is human. We are creating relationships, businesses, art projects, families. We are creating vegetable gardens, laundry piles, dinner parties, Insta posts. We are creating meaning, we are creating purpose. And because we are all artists, we are also all blocked artists to some extent (with the exception of folks who’ve achieved Enlightenment…congrats to you!). To doubt our creative powers is equally human. Many of us long to craft more meaningful lives, to create more intimate relationships, to sculpt difficult conversations, to chip away at unhealthy patterns. Many of us also secretly long to be “serious” artists – to publish a book, to record an album, to hang a painting on a gallery wall. We look for permission,  we offer excuses, and we dance with fear. This is all perfectly normal. The things that hold us back from expressing ourselves in creative arts are usually the same things that hold us back in other areas of our lives.
  3. The therapeutic process mirrors the artistic process. Most working artists will confirm that the path to creation is rife with doubts, fears, obstacles, and roadblocks, as well as moments of blissful flow. In other words, in the pursuit of truth and beauty, we encounter our basic human crap. We have to work with that crap if we want to become a fuller expression of ourselves. The very same could be said for most therapy journeys. Many of us work with therapists so that we can understand and free the blocks that keep us from being our fullest selves. Our lives are the art project. We want it to be great.
  4. We are all artists of our own lives. If your Instagram feed is anything like mine, you’re probably already bombarded with inspirational quotes from internet-famous life coaches reminding you that you create your own story and are the artist of your own life. It’s important to say that, when we are dealing with cripplingly serious mental health issues, we don’t usually feel like we have much power to create anything. I am regularly blown away by the courage shown by clients I work with who are transitioning out of being hospitalized from mental health issues. We celebrate even the teeniest bit of choice – choosing to get dressed, for example. The creative power of getting dressed in the morning can be as transformational as the creative power of painting a Renaissance fresco. As a strengths-based therapist, I vehemently believe in the creative power of the clients I work with – whether it be the power to make music together, or the power to create the lives they want to live – and it’s that life-force that drives the sessions.

I am a therapist for blocked artists, because to be human is to be a blocked artist, and therapy is (IMO) the process of unblocking our life-artistry. However, the power of using music in therapy is that we can engage instantly in the wellness-generating nature of creativity. We’re not just confronting our crap, we’re making something out of our crap. A song, perhaps. A drumbeat. A melodic line.

It is practically impossible to feel depressed when we are in the midst of creating something new. Sure, the depression may return the second we finish improvising that one line of a song, or writing that next verse of the poem, or sculpting that piece of clay. If we are in a depression, it may take all the energy we have that day to get to that moment of creation. But in the moment of creation, the life-force of creativity takes over.

It’s my job as a therapist to support clients to get to that moment – to feel, despite all the roadblocks and obstacles, moments of blissful flow. And once we leverage that moment, we can create new stories for ourselves. We can see new possibilities. We become unblocked artists of our lives.

*token Instagram inspirational quote about being an artist of life:

Not For Her

I’m home this morning after twelve days out of the country, and listening to the CBC for the first time in two weeks. And The Current is running a week-long special on the inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women. And I feel compelled to share this track off my new album, and to briefly tell this story.

A bit over a year ago I sat down at the piano to write an angry song about the patriarchy, and about my experience of trying to find space as a musician for my woman’s perspective. But as I started to write and play, I suddenly recalled this article I’d read months before.

I knew about the missing and murdered indigenous women of Canada, and I also didn’t. This article, written by Naomi Klein, had etched itself into my memory. On the day that a mentally ill man shot and tragically killed a soldier on Parliament Hill, and the whole country went into mourning over this national tragedy, all I could think of was this woman, and the hundreds of lost lives that sit silently under the radar of our national identity.

So very quickly my “angry song about the patriarchy” became a song about her, Bella Laboucan-McLean, and about how women’s stories so often get buried within larger narratives. I know embarrassingly little about Canada’s indigenous communities, and I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this. Rather, I feel haunted by the missing pieces of our country’s history, and haunted by the missing pieces of so many narratives that have systemically and, often with the best of intentions, excluded the stories of women.

Here’s the song.

New Music! Lone Pine Sessions

A couple of months ago, I returned from a week’s trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains with my brother and dad. California is a mythic place for me, and those mountains hold many stories not only for me, but for my brother and dad too. It was the sort of trip that seemed to tie together loose ends of personal karmic mysteries, and bring to consciousness what had been unconscious. I also spent much of the trip steeped, happily, in the indescribable feeling of deja-vu. It was as if those mountains were saying, “see? we hold a riddle that you will never solve.” I embraced the mythology of it all.

The night I returned I sat down at the piano, thinking “I should play for a few minutes, I haven’t made music in a week.” Then I accidentally wrote these seven songs. It was a significant session of improvised composition. I captured the whole jam on my iPhone, and knew as soon as I went to bed that night that I’d have my work cut out for me, hacking through that recording to make these improvisations replicable.

Last week, after two months of working through them, I recorded the seven-part song cycle in my living room. I feel a relief to have them off my plate and into the world, packaged up with images from this very special place!

Lone Pine CA is a haunting Wild West town with some amazing diners, wonderful ranchers, charming tacky gift shops, and a siren song blowing in the sage-filled breeze. That town was our main home base on the trip, and I suspect I’ll be back.

As for the recordings, here they be! 

A Soundtrack to Grief: a Journey Through a Sufjan Stevens Album

I wrote this post for the Room 217 Foundation’s blog, where our readers – many of them end-of-life professionals, have been commenting on the significance of finding music that reaches our souls in times of loss. 

In late 2015, I stumbled upon an album that struck a deep chord inside me. It was Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell,” released in the same year. Written about the death of his mother, the album has been critically acclaimed as Stevens’ finest, albeit one of his simplest, musical releases – which is lofty praise for this prolifically successful folk-rock songwriter. The album is an exquisite musical montage of one person’s raw, gentle surrender to grief. It is disturbingly beautiful.

Many music therapists and other care professionals use musical playlists and song selections as a means of externalizing challenging emotions. An end-of-life care specialist might support a family to make “life review” CD compilations that reflect the highs and lows of a person’s life through different songs. Loved ones might be supported to make playlists that send important messages of closure, like “I love you” or “goodbye.”

And we can all use music to process our own experiences of grief and to make sense of the world. Sometimes, the music that affects us the most is music that has been in our lives for many years. Sometimes, the music chooses us, coming into our lives at the right time and making an impact we weren’t expecting.

Anecdotally, I’ve met many people for whom this Sufjan Stevens album has been the soundtrack to their own grief. For me, this was a rare album that completely consumed me in the weeks after I first heard it. I would put it on casually while getting ready for work one morning, and then end up running late because I couldn’t tear myself away from the stereo. One night I wrote on Facebook how much this album was affecting me, and within minutes people were commenting on similar experiences with it. One person wrote: “I just had to cut myself off [from listening to it] after awhile. It got to be too much.”

This album seems to resonate with people in their grief. And while it will by no means resonate with all people, I will give a brief overview of how this album tells a grief story – how it can serve as an expression of different stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It also is an example of one artist’s vulnerable process of trying to understand a complex relationship with someone who has passed.

The album begins with what seems like an incantation, opening with the words: “spirit of my silence, I can hear you, and I want to be near you, and I don’t know where to begin.” Surrendering oneself to the totality of grief and the great mystery of loss, this opening track sets a tone for a journey that plunges one into grief.

The next track opens up the regret and doubt that can consume a loss. Titled “I Should Have Known Better,” regret and self-doubt drip off each line, deepened by unsettling chord progressions that don’t seem to ever resolve. “I should have wrote a letter, and grieve what I happen to grieve…I never trust my feelings…” The song concludes on a more hopeful musical progression, and the words turn to self-validation and resolve. “Don’t back down…there is nothing left….don’t back down…nothing can be changed…”

Songs that follow dip into nostalgia and memory, regret and sadness, and existential confusion about the relationship that continues to haunt the artist and that has been stopped cold by death. Songs like “All of Me Wants All of You,” “Drawn to the Blood,” and “The Only Thing” speak strongly to stages of grief that can plunge a person into remorse and self-loathing: bargaining, depression, denial. Anger, as has been noted by many critics, is curiously absent from this album.

In the middle of the album comes the track “Fourth of July,” which describes the moment death itself. The music is pulled back and repetitive, the lyrics both raw and childlike. It captures the breathless feeling of watching a person pass, where time seems to stop and our whole worldview tilts.

In the title track “Carrie and Lowell,” the artist creates a montage of memories of his mother. The lyrics capture the freeze-frame feeling of childhood memories that may haunt us for reasons we still don’t quite understand. The music has an unresolving repetitiveness to it. We get the sense he is trying to piece together some broken story. The song speaks to such a common need in grief to keep telling the same stories over and over again to make sense of what has been lost.

The album arcs towards a place of tentative acceptance in its final three songs. “John My Beloved” is a quiet meditation where the artist seems to be trying to make meaning, asking for grace and surrendering his own brokenness in the face of this loss.

The final track sounds like the small plea of a child asking to be loved. It is a quietly anguishing conclusion to a personal story of grief that doesn’t ever really find resolve.

Music can haunt us on non-verbal levels, and this is part of its transcendental power. However, I believe as a therapist that some healing can occur when we try to verbally process the transcendent emotional experience we feel with the music. It doesn’t unlock answers or solve any mysteries about the human condition, but it can help integrate our unconscious responses and make them conscious. It can help us be present with our emotions and move through them with greater acceptance.

While no album will ever affect two people the same way, this album has been yet another gateway for my own understanding of grief and loss, both my own and others. We probably all have albums like that. They reach us for a reason, and usually stay with us in our lives for years to come. I don’t doubt that “Carrie and Lowell” will stay with me for a long time.

 

I’m a firm advocate for buying albums from artists. This album is listenable on YouTube, and links have been provided above. However it is my suggestion that if you would like to connect more with the music, to consider purchasing the album from his website. This is how musicians get paid!

Why Silence Is Music

I just came across an old poem I wrote four years ago, in a journal I had forgotten was tucked deep in the back of my bedside table drawer:

Strip down the music – to one single note –
my left hand tires of rolling out arpeggios like dough.

land upon one single note, and let it, like a glass ball of light,
glow inward and contained, yet outward and alive.
Let the song become but tissue and breath,
muscles and fibres responding to the physics of sound.
Let that be enough – the light that grounds
the single note, let that be enough.
 
And from there, I believe, we will build our castles.

I don’t remember writing this poem, and it was just a scribble – a first-draft prior to any edits. The date tells me it’s from four years ago, when I was just at the half-way point through grad school.

This poem comes as a lovely reminder to me this morning about the role of simplicity and silence in music.

As a songwriter, I write like I speak – a mile a minute. My fingers itch to be busy. I typically compose from a place of excited expression, and a fury of sounds and words usually pour forth. It takes a lot of discipline – or alternatively, it takes me being in an uncharacteristic state of calm witchy wisdom – to compose music that is spacious.

As a therapist I’ve had to learn about silence. Verbal counselling needs space for a ton of silence, especially for those of us who love to talk. It’s in the silences that we can let things sink in, allow for new thoughts to naturally emerge, and to build trust that the therapeutic relationship won’t go poof when we’re sitting in the quiet and sometimes uncomfortable unknown together.

Music in therapy needs a lot of silence too, though not as a rule. When I’m working with a client who is in the midst of processing some trauma or loss, our music might be the opposite of silent. It may well be chaotic and cacophonous, cathartic, full of raw emotion, and splendidly busy.

But when we’re exploring a space of integration, acceptance, presence, and recognition of who we are and what we have become – those moments are truly held by music that is spacious and full of aesthetically-held silence.

Palliative bedside work has taught me to hold silence in music. The music I create at bedside is often full of long, deep breaths and generous rests between phrases. It is simple music, often small music, and sometimes it is barely even music so much as intentional sound (which, some might say, is the very definition of music).  It is music that is more about cultivating presence than about saying something. It’s music that says “I am here, you are here, here we are.” It’s music that, as Debra Salmon so eloquently defines, provides containment.

I’m learning to find silence in my songwriting too. As I grow as a human, and thus as an artist, it becomes easier sometimes to say more with less. If I find the discipline to rein in my fingers from going nuts, I can transmute that creative energy into something more focused and intentional. I find I’m composing more music that has lots of rests, space, and simplicity in the arrangement.

Not that it isn’t fun to talk a mile-a-minute musically. It’s just important to have the mastery to be able to choose busy-ness and to choose silence. It’s the contrast between silence and sound where the music might land on us the deepest. As in life, moments of silence are often moments of integration.

This contrast is something I speak about a lot with my music therapy students. We often discuss pacing, flow, and finding space in the music for silence and breath. We listen back to sessions with musicians’ ears, drawing on our aesthetic sensibilities to understand the therapeutic value of our improvisations.

More and more in my own playing, I’m unlearning habits. I’m inviting the discipline to play more simply. To wait, to pause, to rest. To allow for the next thing to come, and to trust that the music is held even in the silences. That sort of thing draws in audiences, and transforms therapeutic spaces.

Happening upon this poem this morning, I’m going to reflect more on the wisdom my younger self left me with – the idea of a single note being all we need. It never hurts to bring things back to basics, and explore the power of just one single note. It can, indeed, glow like a glass ball of light, inward and contained – and from that containment, shine outward, brightly alive. And how that ability to hold silence, when cultivated in all areas of our lives, generates wisdom, integration, and grace.

And from there, I believe, we can build our castles.

Why Singing Lessons Can Be Life Lessons  

In the last few months, I’ve been approached by a few friends for singing lessons. I love teaching voice but I’m not actively seeking students. However, when friends approach me, it’s a great delight to say yes. Teaching has since become a cool punctuation in my eclectic work-life schedule.

The people I’ve been teaching lately happen to be extremely body-aware. They are versed in mindfulness practices of one sort or another like yoga or movement meditation. They are curious about how their body-habits inform their mental habits, and vice-versa.

This has made teaching them a real treat.

It’s a treat, because we get to approach singing lessons as something more than just “learning to sound good” (personally, I’m not interested in, nor do I honestly know, what “sounding good” actually means). We get to approach singing lessons as a tool for deepening self-awareness, and expanding our capacity for free-flowing expression.

Doing voice work deepens our self-awareness, because we become conscious of habits that were unconscious. Most of us use our voices all day long in one capacity or another, bringing in habits – muscular, and mental – that reflect how we think of ourselves and how we want to be seen in the world. When we start unpacking technique, we start shedding light on the physical and psychological habits we’ve formed around our voice.

A student might discover they are terrified of flipping into their head voice because they might “lose control.” Another student might feel really weird accessing their chest voice because it makes them feel “powerful” in a way that’s uncomfortable.

As we build that consciousness, our capacity to freely express ourselves opens up. The more we can take that risk and be in our head voice, the more we can laugh at that funny feeling of sounding like a little child, the more likely we will be to bring that aspect of our voice spontaneously into our every-day uses of our lives. We build awareness of the different voice parts, and strengthen conscious mastery of our voices, so that we can let go and belt that Celine Dion when we’re driving on the 401, dammit, and LOVE IT.

For these body-aware students, singing lessons have also become a form of physical meditation. Just as doing sun salutations in yoga can be both physically and mentally centering and feel-good-generating, so can vocal exercises. When we stretch our vocal muscles in unfamiliar ways or start regularly sending resonant sound into parts of our body that don’t normally get to vibrate so much, we feel good. We release feel-good hormones. We start to miss it physically when we don’t do it.

(My two main physical practices are running and singing. If I go more than a day without doing either, I get twitchy. My legs want to move, and my voice-muscles want to stretch. It’s that simple.)

The main reason I became a therapist was because of the awesome ways that studying voice can be synonymous with studying the self. It was honestly through my own process of studying voice technique – which was no walk in the park – that I began to become interested and invested in more rigorous self-work. Practicing and studying my own voice continues to be a practice of self-reflection and expansion. My own voice lessons are also life-lessons.

So even when I’m wearing my teacher hat, my therapist hat is inevitably tucked in there somewhere.

One of the hardest hurdles to overcome when I’ve both taught and taken singing lessons was to let go of pre-conceived notions of what our voices should sound like. “Stop trying to make it sound good!” is the caution for when we’re doing vocal exercises. Whether we’re exploring our head voice, blending our chest voice, learning to use our soft-palate, or exploring nasal resonators, these exercises are like the chin-ups or leg presses a football player might undergo. It is completely different from the real performance.

It can be so hard to let go of our desire to sound pretty, or good, or manly or feminine, and just genuinely explore our voices.

In yoga, we can spend years mastering “Mountain Pose” – which is really, simply, just standing with our arms by our side. Most of us already know how to do this, yet through yoga, we explore layers upon layers of ways to hold mindfulness in our bodies so that our standing pose becomes rich, conscious, and full of physical/mental integrity.

Similarly, most people can at least kinda carry a tune. And those of us who have been performing as singers our whole lives feel quite confident about our identity as singers. In other words, we know how to stand up straight with our arms by our sides. It’s through building technique that our singing becomes a mountain pose.

It’s simple, and it’s complex, and it can be terribly fun. I’m grateful that voice-teaching has come back unexpectedly into my life, and that I get to reflect on these wonderful cross-overs between pedagogy and therapy, between shedding consciousness on our voice technique and shedding consciousness on our selves.

 

 

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© Copyright 2017 by Sarah Pearson