Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Fires

Our family spent last weekend in New York visiting my relatives, including my 102 year old grandmother. At the breakfast table, we heard about the attempt to bring down the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day. "Now they're not going to let people get up to go to the bathroom or have anything on their laps on international flights," commented my cousin, worried because his wife's family was schedule to visit from Central America later this month. I was reminded of a Saturday Night Live sketch from the early 90s called "We Ruined It For The Rest Of You," featuring, among others, the Guy Who Left the Fuel Pump Running So Now They Have To Disable All the Hold-Open Locks.

"Hold my hand tight, sweetie," I said to Elle as we navigated the city streets on the upper East Side. "The rules are different in New York."

An hour or so later, we were driving out of town on the FDR. I checked my email and found "Fire Alert" as the header from a neighbor I don't know well. That's how I learned about the strange rash of arson that hit our small town around three in the morning of last Sunday. The rules are different in Northampton now.

For those of you who don't know, eleven fires were lit in a time frame of under an hour and a half. Some of the fires were in homes within a half-mile radius, and some were in cars. Two people died, and several houses burned to the ground. Two car fires were in our neighborhood, just three blocks from here.

Our town has come together in a powerful way. We are connecting with each other through the internet (there's a Facebook page devoted to the topic, as well as regular emails circulating) but also in the old-fashioned ways: town meetings and the natural manner people connect around a shared tragedy. We're collecting clothes, food and the like for the victims, and a benefit concert is happening on Jan. 7--a tribute to Tom Petty. Meanwhile, we are keeping our porch lights on and listening in the night for strange sounds. Our neighbors' dogs, whose barks are not always so welcome, are standing vigilant along with George Harrison, alerting us to every passer by.

I don't like to live in fear. I don't like to have an enemy either, and when I shake off the fear thoughts, I remember that this person or persons who set these fires is or are sick; that they were and are someone's babies, loved the way my sweet babies are loved. I still want them caught so that they will stop hurting themselves and other people, but I stop hating them.

I was reminded today that one of the great evolutions in human thought is the understanding that, all evidence to the contrary, the world is round. We don't live in a flat world with two diametrically opposed sides. There is no good and bad in a round world; just perspective and dimensions. "And" is a much more helpful word that "but" or "or," and also more true. I hate the fires and I love the arsonist, and I hate the arsonist's behavior and I'm scared and I want to preserve my faith in humankind and a higher power. In a round world, with the word "and" as a highway, there's room for all those feelings. Fires destroy. Fires also warm and save lives at this coldest point in the year. Nothing can take the place of essential human goodness, the piece inside each of us that refrains from harm. It's part of the deal Prometheus made with us when he (illegally) gave us fire to begin with.

But I have a lot of questions, especially at two in the morning when the dogs wake me up and my heart is in my mouth and I listen for the breathing of my babies down the hall. Where is the line the arsonist crossed from impulse control to homicide? When does teenagers-having-fun turn deadly? When do you stop them? When do you take the car keys away? For that matter, where are the lines in the sand about free speech and racist thoughts? I am still troubled by the "White Power" graffiti mostly spray-painted over but still somewhat visible in my park. I run over it every day and think, "I'm going to sneak into the park one night and spray-paint over everything that's left!" only to pull back--it's illegal to spray paint anything at all, so I won't do it. But what about my dear relative who watches Fox News and repeats some of their racist nonsense about Barack Obama and Tiger Woods? That stuff is subtle and insidious and probably more damaging than the graffiti.

I keep coming back to love as the answer: keep softening the heart, even at 2am when I am sure that I heard a bump on the porch and am trying to figure out whether it would be better or worse to set up an escape ladder out of my daughter's window, which has bars on it so that she won't tumble out. We can't see beyond the flat world right now. All our energy is concentrated here, on our friends, children, neighbors. Someday more will be revealed, but for now we have to go on faith and trust. So I am going to ask to play in the tribute concert, we are going to bring over our bags of clothes and send in our donations and stop in the market and on the streets to connect with our neighbors and remind each other why we chose this dear town as our home. I choose it again.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Recording Day 5

Dec. 18. 2009
Dave Hower got here around 10:45 and set up his drums while I ate lunch and printed out the lyrics to "Good Times Are Here" and "Between Friends." Played through "Good Times" while sitting on my old amp and DH played along on his kit. He'd played it at Falcon Ridge last July, so it wasn't entirely new to him, but we reworked a few things. Decided to add a guitar solo. We got the song in 2 takes! We might even have a keeper vocal from Katryna. It's worked really well in the past to record with me on acoustic in one room, Dave H in the main room and Katryna in the vocal booth. Dave Chalfant said, through the talk-back, "We should be a rock band!"

Moving on to "Between Friends." It took 3 takes to get the feel right. Dave H, K and I all played at the same time again. I get to play on the futon in the control room which I love! All the yoga I've been doing is helping my shoulders not to tighten up when I'm hunched over the guitar. Come to think of it, my alignment is more conscious, so I'm not hunching as much.

We did "Which Side Are You On?" really easily, changing up DH's drums to muffle the bass. Added 8 measures for our surfer vocal extravaganza which we are plotting. Then Katryna left to pick up her kids. Dave H stayed to play on his knees with twigs for "More Than Enough."

Last we did "Can I Love You Too Much," which DH played fairly straight. All that song needs is bass and it is finished! Only four more basic tracks to go, but we won't get to them until 2010.


It's the winter solstice. I love this day so much. I am glad it's sunny. I have had very little sleep, which is a shame, since everything in my being wants to curl up and hibernate these days. Jay woke me up at 2am and I had the worst insomnia after he went back to sleep. Then Elle woke us both up at 5:45, though having my kids cuddling in bed with me is hardly something to complain about. So I won't.

What I did when I couldn't sleep was count my blessings. I am grateful that the weird hiccup in my heart turned out to be something benign. I am grateful that we have a Christmas tree that Jay hasn't (yet) pulled over onto himself. I am grateful that we get to make this CD, I love this time of year, and my body has finally adjusted to the cold. On Saturday, we went to see Amelia in A Christmas Carol at the Academy of Music. She was sensational as Belinda Cratchett, and the whole play was beautiful to behold. Tom and I guessed there would be a 20% chance that Elle would want to stay for the entire hour and twenty minutes of it, mid-afternoon without a nap, but she sat on my lap commenting on "the grouchy guy" and "the princess ghost" the entire time. She keeps making us tell and re-tell the story.

I am also working on our music book, All Together Singing in the Kitchen: the Musical Family. Today I was writing that for some of us (me) context and community is everything. I fell in love with the Beatles when I was nine years old, deeply, madly and permanently, but I will never know for sure how much of my love came from a pure affection for the music and how much came from the experience of listening to them with my best friend Leila Corcoran whom I adored and admired. Her enthusiasm for the Beatles was so huge and contagious, and it was so much fun loving them along with her. How much does my love of Pete Seeger and the Revels, and for that matter, my choice to be a folk musician, derive from the bond my parents forged with me as a baby onward through that shared love of a kind of music?

Speaking of music, I am so glad we get to sing Christmas carols. It's the best part of the whole event, if you ask me. Saturday morning, I pulled out my guitar and played "Here We Come A Wassailing," "Gloustershire Wassail" and "Jingle Bells for Elle and Jay who held hands and danced all over the music room. Jay can now sing "Twinkle Twinkle" perfectly on key, though his lyrics are "Dee do dee do dee doo DAH!" Tomorrow my aunt Elizabeth and her son, my cousin John Colonna who is at Berklee in Boston are coming for dinner, along with my parents, Katryna, Dave and their kids. We are having roast duck, yams, brussels sprouts with Tom's homemade biscotti dipped in hot chocolate for dessert. John C is an a amazing pianist, the best kind, meaning the kind who can play any Christmas Carol in any key and doesn't even mind.

Thank you.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Day 4 in Sackamusic

We've been here all day. Recording starts with Dave playing basic acoustic for "Can I Love You Too Much." I was late; negotiating snowpants and snowboots for the kids, and my own lost checkbook without which I couldn't pay the babysitter. Duncan Donuts has espresso shots, which is very unfortunate for those of us who want to eschew big corporations. But as Dave said, "At least now you are supporting an honestly compromised corporation instead of a hypocritical one."

We record two versions of "Can I Love You": the second slightly slower than the first. Katryna trying for a keeper voc. This is the easiest, most natural first go-round I've ever heard her do.

I am obsessed with Neutral Milk Hotel. Bought the entire CD (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea) last night on iTunes and listened to it on my run and commute. It's scary and sad and amazing: based on a loose idea that Anne Frank gets reincarnated and united with the singer. Somehow there's a two-headed boy involved as well. I still can't figure out how we never crossed paths in the 90s. I'm haunted by the fact that they were in the same scene as we were; and Jeff Mangus is haunted by Anne Frank.

Jay woke up at 3:40am.I nursed him back to sleep in our bed, but after about 90 minutes he woke up playful. I am tired.

Dave is getting Katryna to do several excellent versions of her lead vocal. This reminds me of recording at Ardent Studios in Memphis with John Hampton in 1995 and his 4 vocal takes. I have to check with Katryna and Dave; did he merge the vocal? Or did we just pick one?

Tomorrow we're going to Christamas Revels.

Katryna changed "Give this child roots" to "give the child roots."

I keep thinking about the the article in the NYTimes about marriage. Elizabeth Weil invoked Nikos Kasantzakas's "full catastrophe" phrase. She was brave to write that piece, but I kept thinking she should question her thoughts. This album's all about marriage, family, these choices we make at some point that create a demarcation in our lives; a place after which there is no return.

Katryna and Dave finished their parts and we broke for lunch. Meredith sent me a list of bands to check out. ("Neutral Milk Hotel is so, like 1999...") which I did, or started to. I like Imogen Heap. Not so keen on Sufjian Stevens, though Dave is. I also don't love Rilo Kiley, but I probably need more evidence. Like the rest of the zeitgeist, I am apparently shamelessly song driven. Someone said I must have a thing of nasal caterwauling. Well, I DO! But not just any nasal caterwauling.

I love Gillian Welch. Maybe she has something new.

Now back to "Can I Love You..." which is more Nashville, less indie rock. I did my lead voc on chorus and the bg vox. Now K is dong her bg on chorus. It feels so good to be finishing a track~
Sweet sweet harmonies. We're singing with a lot of sincerity which fits. After all, this is a song to our kids.
On to "Hakatai." Dave sets up the drums and gets sounds while I play "Ball & Biscuit" by the White Stripes on my iPhone speakers, Katryna says, "I find this chord progressions depressing and sad."

"Yes," I say. "It's the blues."

Then I play her "16 Military Wives" and "Sons and Daughters." She wants me to make her a mix and stop subjecting her to my crappy little iPhone speakers. Dave and Katryna and I do what's supposed to be an experiment--all of us playing at once, live-- but we like it so much we decide to keep the take and build on it. I punch out a spot where Dave wants to redo the drums. Katryna perfects a vocal. I want to hear how the bass will sound. (Also, I read David Pogues' NYTimes peice on Dragon Diction. I download it and send Tom an email.)

Katryna writes: I love singing in that vocal booth. The trees outside are swaying int he crazy freezing wind and they evoke just the right feeling for "Hakatai." Nerissa's singing the low vocal right now. I love love love how her voice sounds down there. It's like rich chocolate soup.

The hardest part is always lining our voices up exactly. It's also the coolest part. When it finally happens, if feels like magnets finding each other.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Day 3 in the Recording Studio

We record at Sackamusic in Conway, MA. This studio belongs to my brother-in-law, Katryna's husband Dave Chalfant. He is amazing, and unlike Katryna and me, not at all ADD. He has the ability to sit still and concentrate for hours at a time. His attention is exquisite. When I am meditating, or just generally trying to calm down, it is he I evoke.

Conway is beautiful, as you can see from the pictures of the snowfall I took in the last post. It is quiet, and at night, one can see a billion stars if it isn't cloudy. This evening, I drove away when Venus or maybe Jupiter was out, and the last quarter of the moon. I have missed the moon since becoming a parent; I find myself indoors when it is visible.

Today we just had two hours to work. We recorded my guitar for "More than Enough" and a scratch vocal. Then we explored "Can I Love You Too Much" in terms of an arrangement. And we listened to Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." This is my current favorite song, suggested to me on Facebook by my cousin's wife Courtney Nields. I am blown away. Also, apparently this band existed for the exact amount of time as the five piece incarnation of the Nields: roughly the decade of the 90s. NMH broke up in 1998. What do you know about them? l visited their website and it was like visiting a ghost town. Anyway, Dave and Katryna liked the song as much as I did, and I hope it will inform our entire recording. (Though we will abstain from the use of the theramin.) Tomorrow, maybe there will be drums.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Day 2 in the Studio

First snowfall of the year, en route to Conway.

Day two in the studio. In between sessions, Massachusetts had its first snow of the season. Katryna and her kids went to the circus in NYC, the Nields-Duffys had the distinction of coming in dead last in Northampton's Hot Chocolate Run, and also bought a Christmas tree.

We also went to church. "There is only one story," said Steve Philbrick. "The story of the year. It begins as a tender young thing; then becomes fruitful. It dies, is buried, goes underground. But Life does not die. It comes back to life in the spring again."

I can't decide whom to vote for in the election tomorrow. I initially loved Alan Khazei; then Mike Capuano because of his view on the health care bill. But it's awfully tempting to go with Coakley and have another woman in the Senate. We in MA are so lucky to have such great candidates. I will vote tomorrow. That much I know. And it won't be for the Boston Celtics owner.

I love the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss CD Raising Sand so much it hurts. Also, I have decided I like Journey. I know readers of How to Be an Adult will be shocked to hear this. I just realized life is too short to hold grudges. And "Don't Stop Believing" is just plain fun.

Elle and Jay have broken many of our Christmas tree ornaments already, and we haven't even started decorating the tree. Oh, dear.

Thank you for your music recommendations! One more question: Should I get Pandora or Rhapsody?

Here is a video of my attempt to record the guitar to the song "I Choose This Era." Though we ended up using a subsequent take, this officially documents the beginning of the recording of our new CD which we are tentatively calling "The Full Catastrophe," at the risk of getting some smug and mean reviews a la "Shark Sandwich/ Sh*t Sandwich."

Friday, December 04, 2009

Day One in the Studio

Driving up to Conway, I was filled with a momentary dread. These songs stink! I have no voice! I will be forced to be awake midday which is almost impossible for me to do without huge amounts of caffeine which will burn a hole in my stomach. Turn Back, O Woman!

Then I remembered: it's always like this. This is just resistance.

Today was pre-production: We played through all the songs and did some loose arrangements. "Full Catastrophe" got a new groove and some harmonies. "Back at the Fruit Tree" got a Beatles-esque "Getting Better" treatment; "Fear the Gap" got a new last verse, and we agreed to carry Tracy Grammer up the studio steps if need be to get her promised background vox on the tune ("Gap, gap, gap, gap, gap...") and perhaps some crazed fiddle, too, if she's willing. There are a couple of environmental tunes that I am excited about, songs I wrote two years ago that I'd almost forgotten about: "Hakatai," which is a sort of "Clementine" rip-off, a la Sister Holler, and "Last Train Home," which is the song I am the most excited about of all, at least for this five minutes. "I Am Half My Mother's Age" is pretty much ready to go, and I think we'll start with that one when we enter the studio on Sunday. (Today we only made it as far as Katryna's and Dave's music room; we decided to save the gas and not turn on the heat in the studio and instead record our experiments on Garage Band. What a great invention!)

I love love love love my band. I was saying to Katryna and Dave, "We are organic now. Back in the 90s, we were five people trying to compromise. Now we're just in service of the song and of that elusive person who is meant to hear it and have it mean something to him or her."

And we don't get to know who that person is. We could go all market driven on our audience and try to write and produce songs they will love and want, but that seems somewhat soul-killing. As much as I hated it when my artists took directions I didn't love when I was a passionate young music fan, I now get that artists have to follow the muse, not the dollars. Besides, following the dollars doesn't always work. I won't name names.

The point is to love what you do, what you sing, what you play. We are making this CD for ourselves and for the audience that will organically come to it. I hope that will spark a dialogue; I hope the songs will spark dialogues, inside and outside. I hope someone will see his or her journey and feel less alone, the way I did when I heard Joni Mitchell's "Case of You" when I was a miserably-in-love 21-year-old.

Also, I love to sing background vocals, to layer vocals, and that's the one musical direction I feel sure about on this CD. Lots and lots of vocals, please!

I bought the Robert Plant/ Alison Krauss CD. Delicious. This is more my speed than the White Stripes, though I am also enjoying Elephant. Also, the Decemberists' "16 Military Wives" and everything from Picaesque. YUM!!!! There's so much good music out there! Who knew? And it's so easy to get! I love iTunes! Keep on suggesting stuff to me, friends. I am loving it.

I am reading Sylvia Boorstein recently. I can't recommend her highly enough. She's a Buddhist meditation teacher and she writes anecdotally, short pieces perfect for before bedtime. I am also reading Kevin Henkes a lot. Elle prefers "Chrysanthemum." Jay likes "Moo Baa La La La." Tonight when I pulled it out pre-bedtime, he cackled and went, "La La La!"

Thursday, December 03, 2009

New Music

Katryna says we need to listen to some new music to get inspired for our recording (starting tomorrow, Friday, Dec. 4!!!!) the way Aimee Mann listened to The Zombies for Whatever (one of our all time faves.) So to that end, I bought The White Stripes Elephant and the Decemberists' Picaresque. I like both so far, but especially the latter band. What a drummer! I might have to buy more of their CDs. One of my writers suggested both bands recently (thanks, Melissa!) and another asked me to figure out the chords for "Eli the Barrow Boy" in 2004 or something. I should've gotten wise back then.

Please send me suggestions of artists and bands I might like! I am looking for good lyrics, rich acoustic sounds, post 2000.

This new song has nothing to do with these new sounds. It's just something I wrote for my kids.

Fear The Gap
Every evening about 6 o’clock
I fit the puzzle pieces, I organize the blocks
I put all the books back on the shelf
I lie down with you and we say:
All will be well, all will be well, all will be well

Some would say that it’s all about the seasons
There are times for amusement and teasing out the reasons
There are times when the fields
Are refusing to yield
And you feel like there’s no one to blame
There’s no one who feels the same
You fear the gap
You fear the gap
You fear the gap
You fear the gap

Every morning about 6 o’clock
You run down the hallway and I pick you up
You curl up and say, “What are we doing today?”
You seem like you’ve grown up overnight.
I fear the gap
I fear the gap
I fear the gap
I fear the gap

And one day I’ll be convinced it’s true
I’m alone with me, and you’re alone with you.

Every day at some point, I refuse to look
I get my hands busy, stick my face in a book
There’s somebody out there I don’t want to see
Someone needs my help, but there is not enough for me
I fortify excuses I toss them in the fire
I think of all the good I’ll do the day after I retire
And so it’s up to me to do it all
And instead of omnipotence
I feel so small.
I feel the gap x 4
Don’t fear the gap x 8

Nerissa Nields
Nov. 30-Dec. 3, 2009

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Dear Muse

Dear Muse,

First of all, I want to thank you. I take you for granted, I know I do. And after all we’ve been through in my lifetime, I should know better. Remember when the best you gave me was
Pegasus the Flying Horse
Flying over land and sea
Pegasus the Magic horse
The magic horse was he!

You’ve been steadfast and loyal. As one of my writers pointed out today, you are well-trained to show up when I beckon you and give me the goods, or at least goods enough.

So it feels greedy of me to ask for more. But I want more. I want my book to be better, muse. I want my writing to be funnier, wittier, filled with colossus content. I want wisdom to ooze off my fingers into the blank docs on my screen. I want lyrics to whip off my pen, dazzling me and bringing me to tears and gales of laughter.

Here’s what I get. I get that in order for you to perform at your best, I have to feed you. I can’t just read DuctTape marketing blogs and Patti Digh’s tweets. You were satisfied with a diet of The New Yorker and the New York Times for awhile, but I can’t seem even to manage that anymore. But if all I read is non-fiction—realistic, newsy non-fiction—then that’s all I’ll be able to write. You want the new John Irving. You want Sharon Olds poetry. You want songs by the White Stripes, the Decemberists and artists we haven’t even heard yet.

Yesterday I found an old mix on my iPod from 2004—a pre-mom mix. It was like a little window into my old life. I’ve been peeking into my old life a lot recently. My old clothes fit again, and putting them on is like stepping backwards in time. Can I really be a responsible mother in my old Levis with the black-eyed Susan patch? Can I still be a loving, good wife while listening to something beyond Dan Zanes and HooteNanny? Will sarcasm ever be allowed again?

As always, I defer to you. I know that we work as partners, that we are dependent on each other. I know that if I try to boss you around, all the gossamer you give me will end up cobwebbing up my hands. I have all sorts of ideas about the songs, books, essays, sermons, poems, blog posts I want to write this year. So I will do what works best; I’ll see what’s sparking your interest and follow your lead.

And I won’t forget to go for that daily run. I notice that you need that. Sometime about five minutes into the park, the ideas start poking up out of the ground, and my hardest task is to remember them when we get home.

Happy New Year.

Thank you.

Love, Nerissa