Introducing the Wood Stove Sessions - Make Some Room in the Circle

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Introducing the Wood Stove Sessions - Make Some Room in the Circle

My partner and I just moved into a new house in Baltimore; it feels good to be settled in a place we plan on being for a good long while.  I've dusted off our old SLR, and I'm going to start filming a series of videos next to our wood stove to share new songs and fun things I work on with friends. 

Here's the first one, with a little explanation below:


MAKE SOME ROOM IN THE CIRCLE

When he was a child he was always in the way
He fumbled the ball, too nervous to play
And after the game he had the wrong things to say
No room on the porch so he stood in the rain

Though he has grown up and his soul has grown old
He never shook the feeling that he never belonged
Watches from the doorway of every crowded room
Just waiting for someone to welcome him on

Make some room in the circle
For the one on the outside looking in
Pull up a chair to the table
It's no easy road where he's been

He was so busy pining to be on the inside
That he never noticed his chance to be kind
His shoulders were turned to the ones just behind
Who were waiting for someone to turn round and find

----
Recently I've been a part of several events featuring female artists, and whenever I'm asked to think hard about my womanhood, notions of inclusion and exclusion surface in my mind. Growing up as the only girl in a family of brothers on a street of boys, it wasn't uncommon for me to feel left out--I still powerfully remember the sinking feeling of being the last picked for capture the flag. Or watching the guys play video games for hours on end because I had died in the first round.

I think feeling left out is a pretty universal human experience. We all want to feel like we belong and are accepted for who we are. But still, when we find ourselves in the "in-crowd" it's so easy to forget that there's an "out-crowd" at all.  I always have to remind myself that in my desire to belong I should also be seeking to widen the circle a little bit for others to come in.

For example, it makes a lot of sense that women band together to commiserate and share power in the face of a society that leaves them undervalued, ignored, or otherwise "left out." And yet it's all too easy, in creating these spaces, to unintentionally exclude people from different racial and income backgrounds, or women who weren't born with parts that match their gender.

I started writing this song this summer, and was reminded of it on Sunday when I heard the story of a friend from elementary school talking about her journey to find her tribe.

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How to not be a huge bummer

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How to not be a huge bummer

Is it better for live shows to be an accurate reflection of my concerns, or is it better for people to have a good time?  These things aren’t fundamentally at odds with one another, and I always strive to strike the right balance, but I’m the first to admit that sometimes I miss the mark. At its heart it is a philosophical question that I have yet to answer; and it’s a spiritual question about how hopeful or fearful we are to be for the future.

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Early Country Music Week

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Early Country Music Week

singing buddies, photo compliments of Tim Kness

singing buddies, photo compliments of Tim Kness

I just returned from Early Country Music Week at Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, WV, which I would rate as a life-changing experience. The camp is mainly run by the esteemed singer Ginny Hawker, who has love pouring out of her with the force of a fire hose. The way that she and the other instructors would take such deep joy in the progress of their students, the way that people who watch from the shadows are welcomed into the sunlight, the way they revere those who have gone before, made me really think that they have the core musical goals of joy and connection at the center of their being. A lot of the world is set up to be competitive--including the music industry. Spaces that focus on sharing and collaboration rather than personal accomplishments are precious indeed.
 

Courtney and Ginny

Courtney and Ginny

Mr. Tim Kness and his lucky fiddles

Mr. Tim Kness and his lucky fiddles

"Don't spend your life beating up on yourself about pitch," said Ginny, in her singing class aptly named Do You Believe Me? Her co-leader Courtney Granger shared that if he can't connect emotionally to at least one line of the song, he won't sing it. They encourage you to "scratch" the place in yourself that feels the pain or joy the writer was experiencing when they wrote it. Both of them are known to cry during performances. 

Having never had any vocal training or voice lessons, I was somewhat surprised to discover that I do almost all of my singing from my "head voice," a grave sin as far as early country singing goes. To sing in this style I have to bring the key several steps down - for instance Rose of My Heart, which I normally sing in Eb, I bring down to Bb.  It's almost like discovering that I carry around with me an whole separate instrument that I can now try to learn how to play (a video is below to hear the difference).

I was touched by the overwhelming response to my last post about leaving my job and trying to set the right sort of intentions as a musician. Magically, getting those concerns off of my chest really liberated my spirit, and I feel much less burdened for this journey that I'm on.

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Why I Left My Job

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Why I Left My Job

What would you do if you already had all of the validation, attention, and money you ever wanted?  
It’s not that I already have these things, it’s that I want to align my goals as a musician with what’s most important.

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Staying Safe in Baltimore: Waking Up in a Sundown Town

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Staying Safe in Baltimore: Waking Up in a Sundown Town

Wanting to keep ourselves and our families safe is a basic human instinct, entirely natural and right and good.  And yet this instinct can also cause us to do, or at least to tolerate, unnecessary harm to other people. It can physically and emotionally distance us, furthering our lack of understanding and concern about the lives of people who come from different backgrounds.

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The War Against Indifference

The Concert for Fair Development at Benjamin Franklin High School in Curtis Bay.

The Concert for Fair Development at Benjamin Franklin High School in Curtis Bay.

Several weeks ago I was asked by United Workers to perform at a concert celebrating a recent victory. A high school group called Free Your Voice successfully convinced the public school system to cancel its contract with a company that planned to build a trash-burning incinerator less than a mile from their school--in a neighborhood already inundated by industrial pollutants. I'm really inspired by what they've achieved.

Their effort is part of a larger campaign that is pointing out how the city gives big tax breaks to developers who promise to enlarge the local economy by building luxury condos, casinos, hotels, etc--but in the end these tax dollars don't end up benefiting the people most in need. Many of the jobs created don't pay a living wage. In the case of the incinerator, sometimes the development actively hurts people by poisoning the air.  United Workers and others are instead calling for a fair development model -- working towards an economy designed to meet the needs of people who live here.  Instead of an incinerator, pursue clean, renewable energy, for instance.  We can shape our future instead of setting ourselves up for more inequality.

Here is the song that I wrote for their campaign. I wrote it before Freddie Gray's death so it's obviously not in response to it, but it still seems relevant.

(The words in this admittedly rough i-phone recording are slightly different from the final ones, below).

THE WAR AGAINST INDIFFERENCE

This is a tale, a tale of two cities
One fiddles while the other one burns
Though I've played the same tune since the day I was born
To fight fire, I'm trying to learn

You know what they say where there's fire there's smoke
And this smoke has become a disease
The air is so thick, it makes people sick
And you know our neighbors can't breathe

CHORUS
From their towers, they would watch all their ships coming in
And down by the harbor, the people watch 'em leave empty again
We're no angels, we're all sitting on some sort of fence
But pick one battle in the war against indifference

They come and make deals that the taxpayers feel
With the promise of a rising tide
But all that we get is deeper in debt
Left stranded up here high and dry

Don't need no casinos or luxury condos
What glitters is not often gold
Well all that I want is a home and a job
And a place where my babies grow old

CHORUS

You know we're in luck, cause we've got the sun 
and the wind who will lend us their power
The plan's underway, it pays living wage,
It becomes more real every hour

Oh say can you see away 'cross the sea
The sails on the horizon
A new world's on her way, she's due in today
We will welcome her in with a song

Free your voice
Let it ring
Let it sing

There is a lot that I'd like to say about Freddie Gray's death and the protests that have followed, but I think one of the most fundamental steps for us all to take is to listen.

For those who are feeling frustrated by the protests, or shaking heads at the windows smashed or the sports fans bothered downtown -- take some time to read about the incredible abuses that people have been experiencing at the hands of the police, like the 87 year old grandmother with a broken shoulder. Look at how long people have been trying to expose and to stop this, and how little has changed. Sandtown/Winchester, the neighborhood Freddie Gray was from, faces so many other simultaneous oppressions that feed into the dynamic between the police and the community. As a white person who grew up in places like Roland Park, Towson, and Lutherville--and even since I've lived in more diverse neighborhoods as an adult--I know that it's very easy to live a life mostly unaffected (or rather, not directly affected) and uninvolved in these struggles. That's the default setting that our segregated society has handed to us--but we can choose not to be indifferent to the pain of our neighbors. I'm still learning how to do this; really, it's the work of a lifetime.  Bmoreunited.org is one good place to start listening.

One could say that protesters should be more strategic in how their response to brutality--but if a person has been actively oppressed by our system for his whole life it's easy to understand how he wouldn't be interested in trying to patiently seek change within it. And it's not at all clear how to do that in the first place. Because of my privilege I've never experienced mistreatment by the police myself, but for others in our city this literally is a matter of life and death.  

 

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Parts & Labor

One month from today we release our album Parts & Labor at the Creative Alliance.

The songs are inspired by a handful of stories about of how our economy affects the people and places that we hold dear.   Our economy was created to meet human needs, but it seems to have grown out of our control, treating many communities as little more than parts and labor for its giant engine. When they are no longer of use, the machine thunders onward and leaves them in the dust.

Our spirits ache to escape this cycle.  Our lives are meant to be meaningful, beautiful, and full of love. How can we liberate more of our collective time, energy, and creativity from the rat race, and put it towards the goal of supporting everyone?

I’m no expert, but this has always been an intellectual interest of mine, studying globalization, labor, and human rights. The facts and figures and theories are important, and yet I also believe we must connect emotionally with what’s going on in the lives of the people around us. Stories are one way to do that.

I have had big fears and doubts about breaching this subject because a) it is so big that I could never really do it justice with an album b) there is always so much more that I could be doing as an activist, so there’s a good argument to be made that speaking on this topic makes me a hypocrite, and c) by and large I have been more of a benefactor than a victim of the unfairness of this system. My perspective only shows the tiniest sliver of the bigger picture. The stories that most need to be shared belong others, and yet as a songwriter I don’t want to put words into anyone's mouth. The jury is still very much out for me on what my role as a singer-songwriter coming from a position of certain privileges really should or should not be. I sincerely welcome your thoughts.

For the release show we are partnering with Kevin Griffin Moreno of Potluck Storytelling to bring the stories of Baltimoreans of many different walks of life to our show at the Creative Alliance.  He’s lined up a group of wonderful, insightful storytellers—I’m so excited to hear what they have to say.  I wish I could do more shows in this model, and I aspire to do more collaborations like this in the future. To be sure, there are many groups who have been helping the people most oppressed by our economy to share their own stories—for decades and counting. My hat is off to them and through this project I’ve learned a lot about how I’d like to support them in the future.

I’m asking you to hold this project in love, to have compassion for its shortcomings, to help me learn my blind spots, and to treat it as the beginning of a conversation, an invitation to consider your own piece of the bigger story. 

It has been such a blessing to work with William McKindley-Ward, David McKindley-Ward, and Tom Liddle in creating this album. Deep gratitude to those who have supported the project financially and emotionally, including the Pickett Endowment. We are so fortunate to have such a caring and thoughtful friendbase.* 

We’d be so pleased to see you at one of our release shows!

Friday Feb 27th – Baltimore  - Creative Alliance  - Get Tickets - RSVP on Facebook
Saturday Feb 28th – Washington, DC -  Gypsy Sally’s in Georgetown - Get tickets - RSVP on Facebook
Thursday March 5th – Brooklyn, NY – Bar Matchless
Friday March 6th – Boston, MA – Beacon Hill Friends House
Saturday, March 7th – TBA 
Sunday, March 8th – Philadelphia – house show – contact us for the deets

*I loathe the word fanbase.

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Some big time machine contraption

In reverse chronological order -

Photo stolen from someone on facebook.

Photo stolen from someone on facebook.

Last night I found myself at 1919, the Fells Point dive that has become so beloved by the country & Americana community in Baltimore. That place always makes me feel like I live in a small town, in a good way, and it feels like I have more license to talk to strangers while I elbow my way to the bar. Michael Patrick Flanagan Smith & his band played a great set. The beats are catchier than you'd expect from Americana, and it seems like a few more than three chords, but it's still most certainly the truth. And he bellows it with the kind of firey conviction that leaves a body hoarse and out of breath at the end of the night. Michael is in the process of writing a book about his experiences working in an oil boom town in North Dakota. Watch the kickstarter video, and perhaps like me you will wish the campaign weren't already closed.

Opening for him was Stephen Lee. As I recall, I met Stephen about a year ago when he came to a house concert at our place in Hamilton. Stephen recently decided to relocate from Northern Virginia to Baltimore (pat on back of approval) and is making himself home on the scene here. He's got a sweet voice and classic-sounding songs about heartbreak and redemption.

On Thursday we were scheduled to host the enchanting Kristin Andreassen at our home, but tragically she came down with laryngitis in the middle of a tour to promote her new album, Gondolier. We did hang out for a bit with her touring companion, multi-multi-multi instrumentalist Alec Spiegelman, who I'd seen perform before with Anais Mitchell (<3 <3 <3) and with experimental folk orchestra Cuddle Magic. Since the show was cancelled I headed to 1919 to catch Caleb Stine & the Brakemen, always a surefire good time. The Brakemen are rustling up the fodder for a new album, which they have plans to record at an undisclosed mountain hideaway in New England.  They are at 1919 every Thursday in January so go out and see them and throw some dollars in the tip bucket.

Ukulele Kaeley

Ukulele Kaeley

Last Sunday I made my first stop at the Treehouse Lounge in Washington, DC to catch the debut show of my friend Ukulele Kaeley.  Kaeley has a gorgeous voice & a solid command of it, and she writes songs about the heartbreaking work of peace and social justice. She threw in some Beyonce covers to keep it light, and her stage banter was so entertaining that the bar owner invited her back to do a comedy night later this month. This gal has many talents! The same evening we also heard from a fabulous guitar player named John Lewis. I'm not quite sure how to characterize the music of DC band The Moment -- but it was danceable and certainly a show I'd go to see again.

The Moment of Washington, DC.

The Moment of Washington, DC.

And last Friday, I was at the Common Ground on the Hill concert to see Bruce Molsky. I learned about his music a couple of years ago and I've been dying to see him ever since. Charm City Junction was there in their entirety, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the front row.  I have a growing taste for impressive instrumentals, especially fiddle music, but usually there's a certain point at which my eyes start to glaze over. Not so with Bruce. He clearly has the technical prowess to hang among the best, but he doesn't let his ability get in the way of the raw emotional power of his music.  And his voice--there is something about it that feels so unpretentious, natural, down-to-earth.

I think most of us who play ‘antique’ music feel like moving parts in some big time machine contraption that chugs along and will outlast us all.
— Bruce Molsky
Bruce Molsky

Bruce Molsky

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The Ottobar w Haint Blue, Laney Jones, & Tiny Timbers

Last night was our first time playing & headlining the Ottobar, where I have fond memories of Brit-Pop dance parties from days of yore. We had a great turnout (thanks in part to shout outs from Al Shipley of City Paper and Tyler DeBoer of Bmore Music Picks).

I am always amazed when people can hang around until 11:30 for us to go on--honestly I often have to resort to unwholesome things like Red Bull to keep going until that part of the evening. But the community of caring people who come out to enjoy folk music in this town has great stamina!

Tiny Timbers Warming Up Backstage

Tiny Timbers Warming Up Backstage

Our friends Tiny Timbers rounded out their opening set with a satisfying singalong of "Rye Whiskey" (I know better the Tim O'Brien version of "Jack of Diamonds/Drunkard's Hiccups").

Laney Jones & the Lively Spirits shared catchy songs that are complicated enough to be interesting but simple enough not to lose their sweetness. I love her voice, and clearly the spectacular musicians who were backing her up were having a great time.

 A blurry photo of Laney Jones & the Lively Spirits (sorry!)

 A blurry photo of Laney Jones & the Lively Spirits (sorry!)

Haint Blue's eight string-laden, harmonizing human beings brought considerable energy and emotion to the stage. The icing on the cake was Amirror & the Reflections, who came out to sing back-up for their final songs.  What a powerful voice and stage presence. I unfortunately didn't get any pictures and I coudn't find Amirror's website, but this video certainly gives an idea of their talent.

Haint Blue

Haint Blue

Our set had some technical difficulties, but all things considered not too bad. True to my new years' resolution, David and I started out the set with a new song called "Sweet Bay Magnolia."  If you weren't at the show, you'll have to learn what it's about at another one :).

Yours truly & the Bonafides.

Yours truly & the Bonafides.

Backstage we were flabbergasted by the unbelievable number of penises drawn on the walls in the green room, until we discovered the words "If you can't draw a crowd, draw a penis." I took some photos but I've been convinced it would be in poor taste to post them. Too bad!


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Hard lumps of clay

I'm writing this from my family's house on the Chesapeake Bay. There's a pot pie made from holiday leftovers in the oven, the sun is shining, and there is a lot to be grateful for.

I'm writing this from my family's house on the Chesapeake Bay. There's a pot pie made from holiday leftovers in the oven, the sun is shining, and there is a lot to be grateful for.

I was reading a book awhile ago that likened the process of opening our hearts to digging in the ground. First we hit hard rock, and chip away at it, feeling like nothing is happening. But after awhile we might notice a few droplets of water, then a tiny trickle, then as stream...and soon it is a rushing river that flows to an ocean.

And so I wrote this song & recorded it on my phone:


My soul is a field where love may grow
Though it hasn't in a long while
But I'll pick up my plough and I'll pick up my hoe
For the soil is rocky and dry

Oh, let me see sunshine
Oh, let me feel the rain
Let me remember in the leaner times
That I'll reap what I've sown once again

Let me find all the hard lumps of clay in my heart
Let me soften them with my own hands
Let me dig down a well to the water's source
Let it flow, and nourish the land

Let me take down the fences that keep others out
Let them come and take what they need
Let us sit at a table and eat our fill
And be grateful for tomorrow's seed

I recently identified a "hard lump of clay in my heart" for me to go to work on: competition.

I went to my high school reunion the other night. I'd been halfway dreading it, thinking that many of us would leave with the bitter taste of jealousy in our mouths. But once I got there I was surprised and so glad to see how folks have managed to piece together happy lives.   It made me realize how much our high school mindset is governed by explicit or unstated competition with one another -- in academics, in sports, in the social hierarchy, in the arts. An education system that is dead-set on ranking us, paired with the sudden onset of lord-of-the-flies hormones makes for a brutal cocktail that's difficult to resist. We all drink the Kool-Aid in one way or another, and in some dark corner of our minds we believe that our self worth is related to how we stack up in comparison to others.  But in real life, we aren't really in competition with one another, save for a few very specific circumstances. Others' successes don't take away from my own.  If anything, it's the opposite, and if I can learn to truly be happy for others, my joy is boundless.

Our modern economy also exploits a narrative of scarcity to drive us to believe we must compete to live. There's a fearful voice in my head that shouts that there isn't enough to go around, so I better get mine before someone else gets it.  It's a lot easier for someone like me to shout back at that voice, though. I've grown up with significant privileges--depending on how you measure it, I could be counted among the 1% on a global scale. There are billions worldwide who legitimately don't have any time or resources to do anything but try to provide for themselves and their families.

One could argue that historically, communities have depended much more on cooperation than competition.  What if we could somehow take a percentage of the energy that is spent competing with one another and instead turn that drive and creativity towards the goal of providing for everyone?  It's already happening, but so much more is needed--how do we reclaim even more of our time and inspiration from the rat race? And once we do, there's no telling what will happen. I'm no Bible thumper but I can't help but think of the loaves and fishes.

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