Day 22: The Nields Rehearse a New Song

Katryna and I sang “Tyrants Always Fall” yesterday at the Women’s March in Northampton. So many people, so many pink hats, so much courage and strength! 2018 is our year, people! We will take back the House and Senate! We will put a stop to the madness! We must act, and quickly.

So now, after all my griping and despair about the viability of the record album (what some call “CDs” and what young people have no word for anymore), I now appear to be writing one. Yes! YES!!! I think we might even record it this summer. We might title it Songs of Hope and Resistance (though Patty and Katryna will certainly veto that as being too obvious and Brechtian, though they will not say “Brechtian”). (It’s a terrible title. Come up with a better one). Here’s what we have so far:

Tyrants Always Fall
Gonna Build a Boat
America the Beautiful
Butterfly
Bicycle
Hudson

Six songs is halfway to 12, and I have so many ideas now! It’s so funny how you go from not thinking you can write anything to feeling like that muscle is just on, and that everything makes you think of a song.

Songs come in two ways, for me. One is through Katryna. I feel as though, at times, I am her giant blond writing pen. She gives me an idea, I start to write it, I come back to her, she coaches and encourages and supplies some more ideas. Voila!

The other way is when a song melody pops into my head after I wake up from a dream. These song starts sometimes contain a bit of lyric, and it is then my job to grab the thread and follow it through the labyrinth.

We, the Nields, are rehearsing for two upcoming shows. The first is this Saturday Jan 27 at Rockwood in NYC. We’re on at 7pm on Stage 2, and we will debut this new song called Bicycle, which I wrote over MLK weekend at my writing retreat. We debuted “Tyrants Always Fall” in the exact same space last year. And then we’ll bring our show home to the Iron Horse, where we’ll do our annual blowout on Feb. 3. Expect to see some special guests, including our children.

How lucky am I to still have my band after 27 years? A friend posted on Facebook about Tom Petty’s coroner’s report. My first thought was for his band. We are all so deeply interconnected, and I can’t help but think that Petty kept playing and performing over the intense pain in his hip in part because he belonged to so many others besides himself.

Here’s a video of us learning “Bicycle.” Lyrics below. Our first rehearsal ever at Norfolk Studios!

Bicycle

My daughter rides her bike to school
When it’s rainy, when it’s cold
It doesn’t matter, it’s her rule
And you could call her a feminist
Committed environmentalist
But I call her a girl.

My girl says she will not eat meat
It’s the carbon, it’s the cruelty;
She is voting with her feet
And you can call her inspiring
And sometimes a little tiring
But she just calls it obvious.

If there’s a God above
And if she’s a god of love
Give me the strength to follow that girl

I drive my mini van to work
It’s convenient, I’m a member of
A great progressive parent herd
And you can call me compromised
Overworked, ironic, civilized
But I call me asleep.

If there’s a God above
And if she’s a god of love
Please wake me up to follow that girl

Susan B Anthony salutes
All the girls on their bikes
Trading in their skirts for suits
And you can call it liberty
And why we should learn history
But my girl calls it the way to school.
She calls it the way to school.
She calls it the way to school.

There is a line of girls
That circles all around the world
And we will all follow that girl.

Nerissa Nields
Jan 14, 2018
© 2018 Peter Quince Publishing ASCAP All Rights Reserved

Day 19: Why Write Songs in the Age of Free Downloads?

My house is full of writers. I am sitting in Couchland North; two others are in Couchland South. Writers are at my dining room table, in my music parlor and in the front room where we gather to read (or sing) at 4pm. There’s a songwriter in my attic studio, and a songwriter in my office. My designated songwriting spot for the weekend is my own bedroom, which works very well for me; I’ve written some of my favorite songs on that bed. Last night’s goal was to find the song muscles, and while I didn’t write something I love or necessarily want to keep working on, I did feel the process start to work me. Results Girl went to bed in despair, but today, with the sun shining in my face and Hudson asleep next to my leg, I have new hope.

Writers’ feet + dog

One of the stumbling blocks is this: always before, when I’ve been in this drought, we’ve had a new album to create. As I’ve said before, we’ve seen our work, historically, as akin for that of an organic farmer. There are seasons to our work: the writing of the songs; then the recording of the songs; then the marketing, placing, ordering, shaping–what is this record about? Then the touring. A short dormant season, and then back to writing the next record. We have made 18 records. 19 if you count our greatest hits collection, which I don’t.

But in the age of Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and the like; more to the point, in the age of singles, of playlists rather than albums, of no-CD players-in-new-cars, why go through the mishigas of making a 12-song album? DJs play singles. Do newspapers review singles, or only albums? Would more people play our music if we had a new album? Would we get more bookings? I don’t really know the answers to these questions. I don’t know if anyone does. We have three new songs that feel of a piece so far, in terms of theme: “Tyrants Always Fall,” “Gonna Build a Boat” and our version of “America the Beautiful.” The ideas I have for new songs fit into the theme well enough. Do I really want to write 9 more songs, though? Aren’t there enough songs out there in the world? I think I’ve written at least 180 songs that have been published in some form or another. Isn’t that enough?

But this morning, I had a new thought, which emanated from last night’s experience trying to write a song. If I were writing a play/musical, or a soundtrack to a movie, I would not have any issue with songwriting. I just wrote a song I love for my dad’s 75th birthday. I do have the muscles. If I were writing songs for the characters in my novel The Big Idea, I would not have a problem. I am not saying the songs would come easily as if I were taking dictation from God, but I would have a focus, and I would write, and eventually the song would be good. That’s my experience, and I have no reason to doubt it.

So what if, instead of thinking, “I need to write another Nields album,” I thought,

“I am going to write a song to sing at West Cummington Church.”

“I am going to write a song for The Big Idea, because one day it will be a movie, or a Broadway musical, and it’s always great to have extra songs in the hopper for directors to chose from.”

“I am going to write a song for the chorus I want to start.”

“I am going to write a song for a YA novel I haven’t yet written.”

“I am going to write a song for the Nields. Maybe it will be a single. Maybe we will record an album.”

As I approach February Album Writing Month, I am going to think differently. I am going to dedicate that time every day for songwriting, but I am not going to rush to finish anything. I don’t think that’s the recipe for the best songs. I’ll let some ideas marinate, as Sarah McLaughlin says.

And now, I am going to try to write Katryna’s bicycle song.

****

Update on J: He is still coughing to the point of vomiting up the food he eats. He is fine, no fever, for long stretches of time within each day, and he appears perfectly healthy. Then at some point, usually 45 minutes after a meal, he coughs and coughs and coughs till he pukes. This can’t be normal. He has asthma, which we have been treating, of course, and he has had this reaction before, but never this long-lasting.

Also, point of order. Can people weigh in on whether or not small boys with asthma should be allowed to go outside on days when it’s flash-freezing wearing shorts and sneakers? I need allies, here, people. I know there is a school of thought that says being cold doesn’t cause colds and viruses, but what about common sense??????

Update on Little Blue: It’s beautiful, and I wish it were finished and that we were back there now. The guys couldn’t work on Friday because of the deluge, but I think they will be back to framing next week!

Little Blue’s western side. Framing the bedroom and bathroom!

 

Day 7-Abbey Road

The rest of the trip could have sucked, and because of this, I still would have been glad for every penny and pound we spent. We did NOT stop traffic, but we did wait for openings. Jan Sabach is a great photographer, as you can tell.

We made sure we had all the photos we wanted, and then I worshipped a bit at Abbey Road studios.

And then to a local Beatles gift shop where the owner was playing Revolver. I asked if he ever met Paul, and he said, “No, but he lives in the neighborhood.” And he gave me his address! It was a few blocks away. No, I did not go there.

Tom flirting with the performance artists at the V&A

After that, everything was pretty boring. At least to me. We took the tube to the V&A which none of the kids was into.

I managed to see some Rodin sculptures (my favorite), some stone Buddhas, and a clockmaker exhibit at the Science Museum. But basically I was ready for cafe-hopping earlier than usual. We ended up riding public transit around town, landing eventually on the top and front of a double decker driving through Islington.

We had a farewell dinner with the Sabachs at a lovely place recommended to us by our friend Molly Burnham, and said goodbye to our friends. A wonderful week. Hard to believe we still have one more to go!

Me and the Sarge Are Fifty!

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

-Mary Oliver, “Blackwater Woods”

On June 2, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turned fifty, and so did I. I’m not sure who made a bigger deal out of this anniversary, me or Apple Records, but a splendid time was had by all, so that’s good. My parents flew up from Virginia, and all four of my beloved aunts came to my gathering over the weekend. Tom got me tickets to see Sir Paul McCartney––a huge bucket list item, as I have never seen a Beatle perform live. Paul’s about to turn 75, just like my dad. No time to lose.

 

The other big present is a trip to London in July, which will include a side jog to Liverpool, where we hope to do some of the Magical History Tour or at least see the Beatles Museum. Katryna got me the fabulous new box set of Sgt. Pepper, and I have been listening to all the podcasts on Fresh Air (which I highly recommend!) Also, I learned “A Day in the Life” on piano. I made my musician friends play it with me on Saturday night, with Lila doing the entire orchestra part on her violin. Ben Demerath shook his head in wonder as the final E chord rang out, and he turned to my father and said, “Man! What did you THINK the first time you heard that ending?” And my father said, “Well…that was the first time I heard that ending. And I’m still trying to figure out what I think about it.”

I’m still trying to figure out what I think about turning 50. On the one hand, it’s no different from 49, or really 48. On the other, the actual number, especially when people write on birthday cards, “Welcome to your second half-century!” and such, freaks me out a bit. Me, 50? How did that happen? I got my passport photo taken at the CVS for our Britain trip, and I thought the woman in the tiny square they handed me looked like a “before” for a plastic surgery ad. There must be some mistake.

Who is this little old lady?

There also must be some mistake with the world. On the night of my birthday, someone mowed down a crowd on London Bridge–this just a few weeks after the Manchester bombing. Besides the now too-familiar grief for the lives lost, there’s a new, practical thought: Why am I taking my precious family abroad right now? What am I thinking? Can we even begin to enjoy ourselves in Europe (or anywhere) in this climate of fear and violence? Not to mention, will we have to disguise ourselves as Canadians, or make pins that say “I Was With Her; Don’t Blame Me”?

And yet, I have three beloveds right now who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. They are each living vigorously, snatching all they can out of life, understanding clearly that now’s the time to live. One of them is driving all the way across the country  to see the full eclipse in a desert to make sure clouds don’t cover their once-in-a-lifetime chance. They are teaching the rest of us well.

My son has quit the violin, finally and for good. He hasn’t played since February, and even though I bought him an old beater violin to busk with, he hands it back to me, shaking his head, and said on Monday, “Sorry, Mom. I just don’t like music.”

“That’s like saying you don’t like nature!” I screamed, and then I promptly burst into tears and said out loud the biggest fear I have been harboring for the past five years: “It’s my fault! It’s because I pushed you so hard! It’s because I am a Suzuki mom from Hell! I have ruined everything!” And I wailed, tears gushing from my eyes. I was driving. It was raining. It was really bad, not to mention dangerous. Both my kids tried to comfort me. Johnny said, “Cheer up, Mom. I’ll still sing in your chorus. I have to. All my friends are in it.” Lila said, “Yeah, Mom. Kids go through phases. And Johnny will have to choose an instrument anyway when he’s in Middle School Band.”
“Yeah,” agreed Johnny. “Maybe I’ll like music a little.”

I was part of a women’s circle recently where we discussed the role of ambition in our lives. We defined the word broadly: as in “what do you want your life to be versus where is the River guiding you?” The original Latin means “to go around” and usually in the context of “going around courting votes.” The English word had a pejorative connotation for most of its history; it’s only in recent times that we’ve seen it used more positively, nodding with approval as we say about our daughters, “She’s very ambitious.” I wondered aloud what the difference is between ambition and desire. Desire for something is certainly informs my ambition. These cravings in my soul, I have discovered in my half-century, need to be listened to. They don’t necessarily need to be indulged, but it’s always important for me to give them a fair hearing. Is it desire or ambition that pulls me to bring my family to England this July? I long for it. I longed to know the Beatles when I was nine and first heard them, and so I made a study of their music. That music still enchants and fascinates me, 41 years later. Ambition feels different; like too much strong coffee. It’s me exerting my will, going against the river. Desire is the river. The trick is to figure out how to align your inner desire to where the river is taking you.

On the way to my Nields rehearsal last night, Johnny said, “Can we listen to the Beatles?” and I programmed my phone to play a non-chronological mix, as we are both kind of sick of Pepper, which had been our car soundtrack for all of May. The algorithm chose “Ask Me Why,” “It’s Only a Northern Song,” “I’m a Loser,””She Loves You,” and “In My Life.”  Johnny announced who wrote and sang each song, and he was always right. I explained to him how George Martin played the piano solo on “In My Life” and how they doubled its speed to get it to sound the way they wanted. When “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” came on, he said, “Do they know yet what John played on this?” (The last time he’d asked, I’d posted on Facebook, and we’d discovered that this is a controversial mystery. Some say 6-string bass. Some say organ. Some say he missed the sessions altogether.) “Do you really think he’s not on it?” John is his favorite, natch.

“I don’t know,” I said, “But let’s look it up when we get home.”

I feared this birthday for the last half of my forties. My grandmother was 52 when I was born, and she was OLD! I had wanted to be a singer since the age of 7, but even as a teenager, I thought I’d be a musician for a couple of decades max and then move on to some other profession. Probably minister, or professor, or writer, or caterer. By 50 I would be deep into some other career. Still, I play. The rehearsal was with the full band, and shows both duo and band are lined up for the next year. We talked about recording a new CD last night. What does it mean to be a geriatric rocker? Many things. My heroes have taught me you never have to stop. We get to make the rules on this one.

Paul and Ringo at the 2014 Grammys

 

We got home and Johnny settled in with Tom and Lila, who were watching Bend It Like Beckham. I climbed up to my attic studio and pulled down Mark Lewisohn’s wonderful volume  The Beatles Recording Sessions and studied it. It truly isn’t clear. The last take he was definitely on was actually lead guitar, but we all know Eric Clapton ended up taking the honors there. Still, it’s hard to imagine John sitting around doing nothing! The only clue I had was George’s offhand comment later that Eric’s presence in the studio had the effect of making them all behave and play better. Isn’t that what we strive to do for each other? I looked up at my son, cuddled on his father’s lap, moving his body back and forth to the rhythms of bhangra, and I said, “Looks like guitar. Just what we’d suspected. He’s on it after all.”

“I knew it,” Johnny said.

 

 

Post-Iron Horse. Can I Sleep Now? Please?

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After our big 25th anniversary shows at the Iron Horse last weekend, I was so tired I thought I would never recover. As I age, it seems performing takes more and more out of me, or else it takes longer to mop me off the floor afterward. As my friend Steve Philbrick says, “My body tells the truth more these days.” At any rate, I have made a vow not to get up at 5 in the morning for a whole week. Maybe it will extend into a whole month. And then maybe into forever. Who knows?

It’s a strange pull I have to these 5 am wake up calls, a kind of love/hate fascination, sort of like my 7 year old son’s slightly disturbing obsession with Bellatrix LeStrange. At first, it seemed horrific to be woken at that hour. I am generally a fairly early riser—6am for almost 20 years. But last year when my writer friend Molly Burnham suggested I try getting up an hour early to make sure I got my writing time in every day, I balked. Wasn’t 6 early enough?

It turns out it wasn’t—not if I wanted to make sure I made progress on my novel, The Big Idea, a story of a family turned rock band turned family again. In order to pack in my requisite meditation, yoga, family time, violin practice with the kids, run around the park, tidying of the kitchen so that we’re not infested with fruit flies and rats, and then that little matter of earning a living, it seems I really do need to get up at 5. In the past year, I have gone from a hopeless collection of disconnected chapters to a cohesive draft of my 850 page book. It’s still not a Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, but it holds water. If I were to die tomorrow, it could be published, and it might even make sense to a handful of people.

I came to love my 5am writing time. I crept downstairs every weekday, made myself an espresso, opened my laptop and dove in. The house was quiet and peaceful, and my first thoughts poured into the manuscript. Best of all, it seemed to set my inner compass for the rest of the day, informing everything. The characters woke up with me, and I had them as company throughout the day. Most days, I had a second writing session later on, and this was when the best writing happened. But it couldn’t have happened without that 5am primer.

Recently, I have noticed, however, that my chronic lack of sleep is also informing my days. I have been irritable and just plain exhausted, and by about 8pm I am pretty much useless, sometimes verging on tears. And yet, even though my husband had on occasion begged me to sleep in, I am almost incapable of doing so. Even if I don’t set my alarm, my body rises at 5 now. And I let it, sneaking down to my writing spot like an alcoholic to the bar.

I have written extensively in this blog about my severely mixed feelings about the very fact of spending an hour or two a day working on this novel. On the one hand, it compels me. I feel strongly that I will not be happy if I don’t see this vision through, a vision I had while jogging down Sunset Boulevard in 1997 while recording Taxi Girl with Paul Fox at A&M Recording Studio. I have been working on the book and the accompanying soundtrack on and off since that time, though the bulk of the writing happened between 2001 and 2005, and then again between 2012 and the present day. The characters clamor to be heard; they speak to me as I do the dishes, as I pick the kids up from school, as I read other novels or listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. During the years when I wasn’t writing––2006 to 2012––I felt there was a hole in me.

But those weren’t exactly unhappy unfulfilled years. Instead of writing a novel, I wrote literally hundreds of songs, blog posts and two other (non-fiction) books. I wrote sermons, I made friends, I practiced yoga and I breastfed two babies. It would be just as true to say that in these past four years since I’ve hunkered down on The Big Idea (especially this last when I’ve been getting up at 5am) that I’ve had a hole in me because I haven’t gotten to do these things, at least not as much.

It turns out, as Tom and I keep saying to each other, you can’t do everything. Huh. We can’t do everything we want to do, be friends with everyone we want to be friends with, write everything we want to write, eat everything we want to eat, or look like a supermodel if we aren’t spending our entire time working out, eating watercress and tuna fish and drinking fourteen glasses of water a day, and in my case, being elongated on a medieval stretching device. I say this last thing because this came to mind last night as Tom and I were bewailing our mortal status and inability to excel in our careers while simultaneously have a social life, parent our kids the way we want to and also have fun hobbies and a lot of sex. It reminded me of how for more years than I cared to admit I tried to look like a supermodel. “Did you know,” someone finally told me—or perhaps I finally heard––“that those people are airbrushed? Those photos are not actually real people.”

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People really do win the Pulitzer Prize, just like there really was once a band called the Beatles who changed the face of cultural history and wrote 10 amazing albums in 8 years. There is now a musical on Broadway that is having a similarly transformative effect on culture. Every now and then, something comes along that blows us all away, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda. But by and large, even the Pulitzer prize winning novels get read, get their seals of approval, get bought and then end up on a dusty shelf and forgotten about.

 

What do you want to do with your one wild and precious life? Well, sometimes I want to write my book, write it as best I can possibly write it, put in it everything wise and wonderful I have been taught, make every sentence shine as brightly as possible. Other times I want to sleep. I want to lie on my back on the carpet and look out the window at a blue June sky and gaze at the fading roses along the fence and listen to my son as he takes a bath and tells me about Messi’s assist in the game against the US. I want to fold the laundry. I want to clean out a closet. I want to play the piano badly. I want to hear about my friend’s struggles and drink a can of seltzer. I want to smell the ocean. I want to make a pesto and goat cheese frittata. I want to sleep until my body wakes me up. I want to read an article in the New Yorker. I want to hold my daughter while she cries about her best friend going away to Europe and leaving her behind. I want to know where all the towels go. I want to toss my careful plan out the window and see what the day’s plan is for me. I want to go to bed at midnight and sleep till noon the way I did in summertime when I was a teenager. Maybe one day, I will. Or at least till 6am.

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