July 11, 2018
There was another start on a new album in 2016. I went to a nice studio in Phoenix, one used by a friend and which is an award winner. But, I had, and still have, a sound I am looking for, and although we recorded a few tracks, I was not able to make my self understood as to what that sound actually is. Surely, and without a doubt, that was my problem. I did not have the words, could not find the descriptors, didn't know the vernacular, in order to be understood. There is a good first lesson. Not only do you have to know what you want, you have to know how to ask for it or you are going to get blank looks.
So, I went back to the drawing board. Well, indirectly, anyway. I put it on the back burner figuring once again, it just was not the right time. And, rightly so. I was still very much involved in the dispute over Mom's estate and knew the reflection of that would become a part of anything I produced. How could it not? Focusing on the sewing shop, playing the Sunday Brunches at Monterey Court and a few gigs here and there, I was keeping my head low and trying to build a new life, a new direction, put my self before new and broader influences, and, recover. Allowing recovery to begin was necessary before anything else.
The "need" to make a new album was to establish a line in the sand to which I could point and say, "See that on the other side? That is who I was. This, on this side of the line, this is who I am now." Making a new album was a way to separate myself from an old life and herald in a new life. That is was I was telling myself, anyway. What I came to realize is that I did not even know who the "who I am now" was, other than a royal mess. I did not want to record a royal mess. I lost sight of any value in my writing other than to my self. I did not see anything in my writing which could be of value to others.
Having people in my life who were happy to answer questions, guide me, encourage and even co-write with me was the first biggest happening to show me the way to grow. I began to see a value once again in my writing and music. Now, I wanted to grow more, settle in to this new direction before I got serious about an album which would be for you.
Last summer, in 2017, I went to Cavern Studio in Tucson and recorded demos on 22 pieces. I knew before going in not all of those pieces were going to be on an album, but felt it a good idea to have them permanently archived in their current state. Just taking that step felt like progress. I went back to writing, and asking musicians who are light years better then me, "What do you think about this?", "Could you give me a hand here, show me where you think I am trying to go?". All I heard back was, "Of course.", "Come on over.", "Oh, you bet!".
In November of 2017 I got a call from Ted Ramirez and Ismael Barajas, asking me to be a part of their new label. When they described the mission of their label to me, all I could say was, "I am in."
And, so, the learning really begins. Begins anew, continues in another direction. I am so happy you are along for the learning!
Photo, Nancy Hernden
Recording began in December 2017 at Mi Casa Recording in Tucson. Ismael Barajas listened with me to the two disks of demo tracks and looked over the songs I had chosen for my new album. It was my first experience with a truly natural, gentle spirit as is Ismael. I had made good song choices, all of them strong, yet not every one of my choices would stay in the lineup. As we began recording, coloring out the story in each song, building the sound for each instrument, it became apparent a couple of songs were not for this project. They didn't fit in the story line. A new take on "murder your darlings" for certain. But, those songs were not murdered, merely set aside for another project.
When I first spoke with Ted and Ismael, I told them I wanted Hammered Dulcimer on at least three songs. Their response was, "Okay." Actually, it was better than just "okay". Ted is friends with Walt Michael, who was in town for a weekend in December, for Common Ground on the Border, a series of workshops in Tubac for music and the arts. Ted told me we would have to catch Walt as we could, but he was interested in my project and wanted to play on it. We caught up with him after a day of workshops and teaching and he played for Tall Tree, Thirty Some Miles and A Breath of Spring. I was mostly speechless, Walt probably thought I was strange. I was realizing I was beginning to experience my songs coming alive as I heard them when I wrote them. Even after this much time, when I hear those yet unfinished songs, the excitement of the session wells up, and I am anxious for you to experience it, too.
August 20, 2018 Monday
I write to explore. To learn who I am today, right now, who I am becoming and what my world is made of. To stay in my journey and find my direction in my journey, I have to write. I write to understand an experience, to lay it out on the paper, all blood, bones and guts, stir it around, re-arrange it again and see if it goes back together. And if it does, are they any extra parts leftover and what does that mean? I write to pare my mind down to the reality of the mystery, the next step, the next stop. I write with faith (faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen) that the writing is part of my journey, the map of my journey and a compass by which I am guided.
Mostly,I write for me. Because of all of the above and because of things I cannot explain but hope to, one day. Hope, here, is hope that is knowing without a doubt. Not a sickly, weak hope of "well, I hope so..." which has no hope at all and is just something to say.
But, do I write for you? No. I don't aim a word or a line or a song at any one person or group. If I write for you, we would both be disappointed because I would worry if you liked my writing or not and you would feel compelled to like or "like' my writing. Worst of all, that kind of writing feels mendacious to you and me. That kind of writing, worrying if you will "get it" or not, if you will understand my meaning, appreciate my twist of words and rhyme is not how I write. Letters are written to someone. Letters are where you make sure the other person knows what you mean.
Part of my writing journey is reading, a lot of reading. Reading other's works helps you find your own words, gives you new thoughts to process from, angles you have never considered. I have often said that if it were not for Libraries I would be broke and have no room in my house. I do keep a collection of favorite books, though. Even when I worked in the parks and spent time living in a small tent, I kept a shelf of books. It was actually a wooden crate turned on its side with the books on the lower shelf and my lantern and such on the top shelf. A book I have always had a copy of is "A Sorrow In Our Heart, The Life of Tecumseh" by Allen W. Eckert. "My Side of the Mountain" by Jean Craighead George is another, although I think it is with the one of the grand kids right now. That kinda worries me some. Both books read as though they were the author's exploration of their own curiosity. And that's what makes them exquisite. Who was this man, Tecumseh? Did he really love Rebecca Galloway? How far west did he travel with his predictions of a total eclipse and an earthquake that would change the course of a mighty river? What would happen if a boy lived in a tree with a Goshawk for a best friend and yearned to discover the land of his grandfather? How would he survive? How would he eat? Dare he make any friends ?
It was a rainy, foggy November morning and I was driving from Marysville, Tn. to Nashville on the back roads. I took a left off the highway onto River Fork Road, a winding country two lane that ran beside a river. Under the canopy of an Oak that had refused to give up its leaves for the winter, I thought someone was standing there in the mist. As I passed I looked back, but I had made a curve and the tree and its lingerer were out of sight. I started writing Cold Night In Nashville right there on the road.
"It was raining when he saw her down on River Fork Road, he pulled over said, "get in, you're looking wet and cold."
A duffel and guitar, she tossed in the back seat then she jumped into the front and took her wet sock off her feet.
He turned the heater up and they drove for several miles 'for she ever spoke a word, then, she turned to him and smiled.
'Thank you, it was a cold, cold night in Nashville. I left early in the morning, and if you hadn't stopped, I might still be standing there, I might have missed my rendezvous, I might have missed it'" ~ from A Cold Night in Nashville, Nancy Elliott 2014
While I will tell or hint at what inspired a song, I often tell a story indirectly related to or, having nothing at all to do with the song which follows it. I am always loath to say a song is about this or that, because I do not want to cause the listener to have a predisposed ear. The misty figure beneath a tree on a Tennessee two lane looks like you want her to look and the "songs he never sang" are, you fill in the blank. I believe that is story to song.
"Write what you know" seems as superficial at "don't tell them, show them". While I understand the concepts behind both statements, I find them both lacking in depth and inspiration. And, in my own search for how to explain being painfully honest on the page, writing from your life experiences, being willing to zip open your soul and let all the world look, I am probably doing no better than anyone else. So, I will lead you to a story. A story is always the best way.
"I Can Only Imagine", written by Bart Millard of the band Mercy Me, is a 3x platinum song. It is multi platinum for one reason only, it grabbed people by the souls of their hearts and never let go. The movie made about the song is by far the best example I know of story to song. " Imagine" was at the theater last March for a short run and I missed it, but found the DVD at Target. Put it in your library and keep it, watch it often and when you get over it, then you can watch it for the lesson in writing anything.
Back in the studio tomorrow.
September 4, 2018
It is not easy to create an album. But then, it is.
Songwriting, essay writing, writing poetry and writing my Spiritual Legacy is something I must do. I must to write to sort out my world. I have to be honest on the page, true to my self, or you the listener, the reader, will see right through the whole mess.
Some times the hard part is going back over what I wrote because I am not sure I want to let you in "there", but I know I have to. Most of the time, the hard part is putting pen to paper, and through that first writing, the editing and the writing again, that chiseling out process, I learn about me.
I hope through this, my process of writing, that you will learn about you, also. I hope to always leave room for a story to be your story, that I never clutter it up with so much stuff there is not a place for you, a gift for you. That is important because, although I would still have to write songs and stories, I could never stop writing even if you were not there to listen or read, ultimately the gift is for you.
When I first started writing songs I heard music beyond my guitar. I am not a schooled musician, but, I manage to get my point across with the music and have made efforts to grow and improve over the years in order to express my self more clearly and speak to you better. I have always hoped for an opportunity to have the musical compositions and arrangements of my songs be fulfilled as I hear them when I play them. I hear specific instruments, voices in harmony in particular places. Traditional instruments in traditional places in songs is not what I hear when writing or performing.
Some of the instruments on Tall Tree are what you might expect to hear, but not in "that place" in a song. Some of the instruments are ones you may have never heard of, or never thought of being played in this type of music. There are voices singing and speaking which are not what you might expect. I am thrilled and excited to surprise you! I am thrilled and excited to have a producer and engineer who is not a traditional thinker, who is creative and adventurous, who will take a risk with a "let's see what happens".
I created the South~Western Americana because while I can and do play Cowboy Music, I am not a Cowboy and have never claimed to be. While I can and do play Western, I am not a Western performer in the true sense of the word and have never claimed to be. Understanding one does not have to be a particular thing to write about it, neither were a good fit for where I believe my writing falls, which is nowhere in between and fairly far outside of those two genres, yet close enough I sometimes get invited to perform both genres of festival. They bill me as they want me billed. But, other venues want to know, "What kind of music do you play? How do we put you in the program?" Folk music was not quite the answer either. South~Western Americana is a combination of the terms I have heard often enough when audiences and followers attempt to describe what they are hearing. So, there you go.
Yesterday, I spent the day in studio with June Murphy, who is singing back up and harmony vocals for four songs on Tall Tree. I met June while attending a church in Mesa. June is the choir at Barrah Ministries. I invited her to go with me down to the Arizona Folklore Preserve and listen to Jon Messenger. She was very excited to go since she was new to the area and lost as far as where to go for music. It was a drive, but worth it all the way there and back as we learned about each other. When we got to the APF and the concert began, June could not contain herself and was humming harmonies softly under her breath on songs she had never heard before. Jon pinpointed her right away and smiled. When he sang Cohen's "Hallelujah", that was it, June broke out and Jon kissed her cheek, saying she could sing with him any time any where. You will hear June signing on Desert Motel(Tyson/McIntyre), A Horseman's Hands (Elliott/MacDougall), A Breath of Spring (Nancy Elliott) and My First Love (Nancy Elliott). Well, we spent the prior evening together working on the vocals while working on pizza and homemade spaghetti. So, when we got to Mi Casa, we had a good idea of where and what June was going to sing, though not how she would sing it. Ismael took her strong and sometimes unbridled signature voice in hand and the result is masterful. Bravado, an out and out cry, a sweet, sweet invitation, just some of the colors of June Murphy. Painting the songs on your heart.