Mary Lyn Maiscott

"Pink Balloons of Manchester"

 

After the horrific attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester on May 22, I read quite a bit about the victims and the bomber himself, as well as the courage of the people of that city in their response: they turned the image of pink balloons, which had been released at the end of the concert, into a symbol of joy. I then wrote and recorded--on my iPhone, playing my rudimentary piano--a song, "Pink Balloons of Manchester," in admiration for the people there and with the hope of a better common future for all of us. You can hear it on Soundcloud and see the video (again, simple, but including the lyrics) on YouTube. 

 

Tiny Desk Contest

 

 

In my apartment with Joan Chew and Graig Janssen, making a video of "Unrequited Love."

To enter NPR’s annual Tiny Desk Contest, you just need a video of an original song that includes a desk—some people have taken “tiny” literally and used a dollhouse version! This is my second year entering the contest. Last year I performed “Tiny Stars” (that “tiny” was just a happy coincidence) and this year “Unrequited Love,” with fabulous musicians Joan Chew, on keys, and Graig Janssen, on guitar. See our video, recorded by the redoubtable Susan Rasco, on the home page and some photos from the session, also by Susan, above and below. You might also want to view some of the other entries, many very inventive and all showing a great DIY spirit. You can vote each week for best video among several chosen around a theme (this week it's "Desks in the Wild"). 

Setting up beforehand. 

We did the video in my (rather cluttered) studio apartment in Soho, with my friend the filmmaker and actor C.G. Reeves on hand to help with visuals, and my husband, the writer Robert Rosen, there as well for general assistance, such as turning off a noisy radiator! (He also gave me, as a Christmas gift, the sequined cami I have on.) My cat, Oiseau, did her own thing and so upstaged me during one take—licking her paws, looking around, etc., while in the frame—that I couldn't use that version! Here are a couple more shots from the one we did use:

 

"I think of you..."

 

 

 

Thanks to everyone who helped out! Looking forward to next year... 

 

 

At the Sidewalk Cafe

 

How fabulous to play the Sidewalk Cafe in NYC last night for the first time, especially when accompanied by Joan Chew and Graig Janssenextraordinary musicians and human beings! We did some of my older tunes, such as "Madame Olenska" and "Time," as well as some brand-new ones, such as "Last Hurrah" and "Unrequited Love," along with "Angel Tattooed Ballerina," which I'm in the process of recording to release as a digital single, and the Prince song "Kiss" (a fun departure for me). Sidewalk's "alumnae" include Regina Spektor (check out the link for her funny story about wrangling a gig at the venue years ago) and the iconoclastic wonder Nellie McKay.

Many thanks to all who came out, with special gratitude to my husband Robert Rosen (and Joan for the use of her camera) and Susan Rasco for documenting the event. Thanks also to the Sidewalk, especially to Mark (sound person) and Somer (booking person)and to Mary P. Fox for the dress!

 

Joan, me, Graig, and our video selves! Photo by Susan Rasco.

 

Singing "Madame Olenska." Photo by Susan Rasco.

 

With Susan after the show. Photo by Laura Bell.



Skyped! Interview on "Louie B. Free"

 

This morning the redoubtable radio host Louie B. Free interviewed my husband, the writer Robert Rosen, and me on Skype, on the occasion of our recent 15th wedding anniversary. Louie had broadcast our City Hall wedding on his show (via Bob's brother's cell phone), on October 19, 2001, and wanted to speak to us about that, our experience on 9/11, and our various projects. 

 

Sunday in the Pub with Laura

 

Laura Cantrell with her band at Joe's Pub, NYC.

The lovely Laura Cantrell played a concert at Joe's Pub Sunday evening celebrating the 15th anniversary of her debut album, Not the Tremblin' Kind. (She explained that it's actually been 16 years, as it took her a while to pull the anniversary tour together, which I completely relate to.) That title song was a highlight of the show; its writer, George Usher, appeared as if by magic to sing it as a duet with Laura. He reminded me of Neil Younga deeper voice but with that compelling Youngian (maybe also Jungian?) energy, an interesting complement to Laura's serene quality, with her voice bringing to mind birds and bells. Other favorites of mine in the set were Laura's own songs "Queen of the Coast," inspired by country backup singer Bonnie Owens, and "Starry Skies," from her latest, excellent record No Way There from Here (though I missed hearing that album's "All the Girls Are Complicated"). Her songs are country but by way of NYC, where she's lived for a long timeshe described prowling the downtown music scene in the 90s. Laura and I had been in touch by e-mail through a publishing colleague of mine. It was great to finally meet her and to hear her in person. My friend the fantastic photographer Terry Bisbee, who loved the show, took this shot of us (and a few other pub- or theater-goers!) in the lobby of the Public Theater, which houses Joe's Pub. Laura's tour heads next to her hometown of Nashville. 

 

That Voice: Betty Buckley

 

 

Betty Buckley, currently playing—at gale force—Joe’s Pub. Photo by Scogin Mayo.

 

We might add to Betty Buckley’s other titles—singer, actress, teacher (all extraordinaire)—that of explorer, for she is a tireless explorer of life’s meaning. Her new show at Joe’s Pub, continuing through Sunday, is called “Story Songs,” but, with one notable, very amusing exception—Joe Iconis’s “Old Flame,” from a musical in development—these are not so much stories about individuals as the story of all of our lives.

That story will most likely include fear for a loved one (Radiohead’s “High and Dry,” suggested by actress Martha Plimpton); prejudice, whether our own or others’ (“You Have to Be Carefully Taught,” “Cassandra”); romantic love (“The Way You Look Tonight”); and old age (“September Song”). As she is an intrepid explorer, Betty doesn’t flinch from such topics but rather plumbs the depths of them, taking us along for a remarkable ride, and at the end encouraging us with Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up.” Her versatile band—Tony Marino on bass, Oz Noy on guitar (especially affecting on Emmylou Harris’s song “Prayer in Open D”), and Ben Perowsky on drums—is led by pianist Christian Jacob, who also played his moody and elegant theme for the film Sully.

My husband and I saw the show last night, along with the critic John Simon—whom Betty credited with being an early champion of her work—and Rachel York, the actress who has played Little Edie to Betty’s Big Edie in acclaimed productions of Grey Gardens in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and, recently, Los Angeles. On a personal note, it’s always great to see Betty when she’s in New York (she lives in Texas on a ranch with horses and many rescue dogs and cats). I was lucky enough to take a master class with her a couple of years ago and so learned something of the study—both practical and spiritual—and work that goes into her performances.

And I love Joe’s Pub, such a glamorous yet warm venue, a very appropriate spot for Betty, who spoke of working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Public Theater (home of the club) in the 80s. Doubtless then, as now, audiences were blown away by That Voice, an instrument so powerful that Betty occasionally moves the mike far away from her face. She did this when singing at gale force “Don’t leave me high/Don’t leave me dry.”

I think that this artist/explorer will never leave us high and dry; we will always have the wonderful songs she has selectively taken and made her own—and ours.

 

An Encounter with Edward Albee

 

Edward Albee, photographed by Michelle Memran in Montauk, N.Y.

Several years ago I was in line to sign in at a radiology center (I’d injured my foot) behind a frail-looking old man wearing a navy-blue Adidas sweatshirt and leaning on a cane. I couldn’t see his face very well, but when he finished at the sign-in sheet and it was my turn, I saw his printed name: E. Albee. He then settled into a chair in the waiting area next to the young man who was with him. Having admired Edward Albee for many years—for a time I studied playwriting, which I found very difficult—I took a seat nearby. Glancing at him in a way that I hoped wasn’t obvious, I noticed that his eye seemed bruised—had he fallen? Suddenly, the woman at the desk called out to him, “Mr. Albee?” He rose and walked to the desk. “Do you still have the AARP supplement for Medicare?” “I assume so,” he answered slowly. She asked if he had his card, and a little later he inquired as to whether he was going to have to take out his hearing aid (“Oh, no,” she answered).

Even this creator of the sublime had to deal with the mundane. I wrote in my notebook, “Something about being in the presence of a great man makes other things seem strange,” mentioning a woman outside the window flicking away a cigarette, and the song “(I've Had) The Time of My Life” wafting through our area. After about an hour, Albee, myself, and another woman were moved into a small room for another wait. I finally spoke to him—after a little hesitancy because I’d met him once before, at an event, and he’d seemed kind of cranky—saying I didn’t want to bother him but had so loved his work…  “Thank you,” he said, giving me a very nice smile (while our fellow patient looked back and forth at us, possibly trying to figure out who he was) and adding, “Aren’t you kind.” Then we fell silent, though a half-hour or so passed before he left the room for his test, after which I didn’t see him again.

Feeling unsettled by the experience, I wrote to my brother, another longtime Albee admirer (of course, we are legion), who wrote back, “That must have been a strange moment: to get to be in the same room with Edward Albee... yet while he was visibly sick…. I was struck that all of us do ultimately get sick and that death awaits everybody equally.” A hard truth that, as with many other hard truths, Albee did not shrink from—though I read it many years ago, I still recall the powerful bleakness of his one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith—yet his caustic, challenging, sometimes perplexing works have been served up with such artistry that they are also inspiring and even uplifting.

I was relieved in the next weeks and months to see no news of Albee’s health; maybe he too had just had a minor injury. And now, thinking about the jolt of seeing his signature and realizing who the elderly man with the matted grey hair and the cane was, I remember another association, one enveloped in an airier beauty than that of his plays. Back in the 90s, when my husband and I were driving to Montauk somewhat regularly, we would pass, on the gently undulating and curving Old Montauk Highway, a lovely oceanfront house that had a little mailbox clearly marked with a red (if memory serves) printed name: Albee. We watched for it every time.

Supreme Karaoke

 

Joe McGinty, the traditional tip jar, and me at Sid Gold's Request Room.

Thanks to keyboardist extraordinaire Joe McGinty (Psychedelic Furs, Losers Lounge) for his on-the-spot transposing of "Baby Love" the other night at his and Paul Devitt's club, Sid Gold's Request Room, in NYC. Great place for live piano karaoke! A big "mwah" also to the gang at Girlie Action for their beer & karaoke event (good combo) and Robert Rosen for the support and the photo.

Poem: "One World Trade"

 

As a freelance copy editor, I often work at the World Trade Center. Sometimes it feels like just an office, but a quick look out the window, if you happen to be facing the memorial park, can bring back not only the terrible loss but also the fears associated with 9/11. But in addition, the glass buildings surrounding 1WTC literally reflect such sights as the beautiful marina and the new Oculus transportation hub. I recently wrote this poem, inspired by both working in this unique building and my experience of 9/11. (Photos of the WTC and the Oculus appear below the poem.)

 

                      One World Trade

 

He speaks. He’s wearing a tie.

Waves rush a small boat across a glass skyscraper.

Someone answers him. Small talk.

The boat hits the edge and vanishes, part by part.

 

There’s a room full of orange sneakers,

Or was that a dream?

In the desk an emergency kit—

Whistle, mask, flashlight.

At sunset the Empire State Building will burst into flame.

 

I see a helicopter but can’t hear it.

Clouds are picking up.

There are cupcakes in the kitchen,

And down below dinosaur bones,

Bird wings, a white flapping skeleton

Sprouting from the ground.

Across the way it blooms anew:

Ghost of itself,

Glass spine.

 

                 —Mary Lyn Maiscott

 

             

One World Trade Center from the 9/11 memorial park; inside the Oculus.

 

 

 

Angelic Choir of One!

 

Worked on a new single, "Angel Tattooed Ballerina," at Mercy Studios yesterday with producer Nick Miller. Love those old-fashioned tape reels! My good friend Marty Linz, an opera singer, came along to add beautiful backgrounds with stratospheric notes to wonderful effect. Many thanks to Marty, and stay tuned for this ethereal sound...

 

 

 

 

We Can Do That

 

I've been singing the Beatles' "You Can't Do That" for some time, ever since my husband, Robert Rosen, and I heard an Italian band called the Plastic Lennon Band perform it in a club in the hip Roman district called Trastevere. I've sung it with HooP at the sadly now-defunct Ella Lounge in the East Village, accompanying myself at a rooftop party in Mallorca, and, most notably, with White Collar Crime at the publication party for Bob's John Lennon bio Nowhere Man. I also included a rehearsal version, with my friend Royce Flippin on guitar and backing vocals, as a track on my CD, Blue Lights.

And now comes a new version, with the fantastic musicians I've been working with lately: pianist/violinist Joan Chew and pianist/guitarist Graig Janssen. During a recent rehearsal, when we were about to try it out, Joan mentioned that she's been noticing violinists playing their instrument in unusual ways; this inspired her to do the strumming you see in the video (taken by Bob on my iPhone), with Graig providing some of those original guitar riffs. Since it was new to us, I apparently didn't feel comfortable trying that pink shaker in my hand, and we hadn't figured out backing vocals yet. We'll get that together before long, as I'm...

Looking forward to doing this live once again!

 

 

Prince: An Erotic Angel

 

Somehow, despite my actual raspberry beret and my love for "When Doves Cry" and "Kiss," I almost forgot that I had not only seen a Prince concert (with Lenny Kravitz making an appearance) but had also written a short piece about it for the hip-hop magazine Word Up! This was back in 1994, and it now seems odd that I pointed out that the crowd was "racially mixed"—another era. (Note that the phrase in the parenthetical should be "I don't think so.")

 

Wit and More: Alicia Witt

 

“Our daughter is the antichrist”: This is what I remember Cybill, a middle-aged actress played by Cybill Shepherd in the eponymously titled 90s sit-com, telling her ex-husband about the rebellious teenager Zoey, portrayed with insouciance by Alicia Witt (she of the red hair and porcelain skin).

But “antichrist” did not spring to mind last night at Rockwood Hall, where my friend Terry and I watched Witt perform her original songs, accompanying herself on piano with a three-piece band as backup—drums, bass, guitar. Witt, looking sweetly hippie-ish in a long flower-print skirt and white shrug, quickly invited the audience into “the circle of trust,” where she confided that she was hoarse and her voice might falter at times. Not to worry: she sounded great as she made her way through 70s-reminiscent songs of heartbreak and hope—some from her new Ben Folds–produced album, Revisionist History. She and Folds appear to share a love of piano-driven tunes, and her background as a classical pianist was very evident during the show; at one point her hands nearly blurred (from my vantage point) as they swept over the keys for “The Other Girl”—fitting for a song with the line “I wanna take you down like a tidal wave.”

Whether or not you’ve seen “Cybill,” you may be familiar with Witt as an actress in such shows as Nashville (didn’t know! Must catch up), The Walking Dead, and Justified. The latter’s theme-song writer, T.O.N.E.-z, showed up to rap on “Down,” which he co-wrote with Witt; she sounded passionate on the song’s chorus, her voice particularly rich.

Recently, Witt told an interviewer that she liked her tough Walking Dead character’s plain appearance, adding that she avoids mirrors when working because “I don’t like being in my head about all that [looking-beautiful] crap.” (That’s good, since the next question involved her character’s having her face eaten off!)

But at Rockwood, she was lovely indeed, in a very natural way—she said she felt at home, having recorded a Kickstarter-funded live album at the club a couple of years ago. Her endearing patter included a story about fainting after being kissed on a second date; after relating it, she did a gorgeous ballad called “Down She Goes” (fainting as metaphor).

I’m not much into zombies, but I’m very into female singers, and I look forward to checking out Witt’s country-star character, Autumn Chase, on Nashville and to listening to my new copy of Revisionist History (with its intriguing title), graciously signed by the artist after the show.

Photo by Terry Bisbee.

 

Cash-Rich

 

Waiting for Rosanne Cash. Photo by Barbara Guarino Lester.

In the middle of telling the audience about the “race music” of Memphis’s storied radio station WDIA, Rosanne Cash interrupted herself to say (I’m going from memory), “I can’t believe I’m talking about WDIA in Carnegie Hall!” Talk about storied—there she was on one of the most revered stages on the planet (Carnegie is celebrating its 125th anniversary), re-creating live her latest album, The River & the Thread. That Grammy-winning record too is saturated in history—the musical history of the South, wrapped around its social and political past, its swamps and delta and “sunken lands.”

Backdrop photo for the song "50,000 Watts."

With cotton fields, maps, trains, and other relevant images variously projected on the back wall, Cash—along with her musical director (and husband), John Leventhal, who co-wrote The River’s songs with her, and a fantastic band—worked her way through a vivid, ambitious, sometimes dark album, starting with the hopeful “A Feather’s Not a Bird” and ending with the poignant “Money Road,” with (as she explained) its ghosts of Emmett Till and bluesmen like B. B. King.

The poised and reflective Cash (aside from her many songs, she’s written fiction and a memoir) introduced each song, sometimes while the band riffed behind her. Besides being informative, she was very funny: for “Tell Heaven,” she explained that she had wanted to write a Gospel song “for agnostics,” which, judging by the knowing laughter, struck a chord with the NYC crowd.

Wearing a long gold-and-black fitted jacket over black pants, Cash looked both elegant and glamorous. (I didn’t remember her having red hair, but judging by The River’s cover and a T-shirt in the Carnegie gift shop, it now appears to be a signature trait.) Though she’s got some moves, with and without her guitar, the singer was self-possessed to the point of—occasionally—lacking a certain excitement; however, she was so affected when singing about her Civil War ancestors, in “When the Master Calls the Roll,” that she appeared on the verge of tears.

After intermission, Cash was able to let go of the exquisite weight of her southern heritage, and things got a little looser, with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy joining in on a couple of tunes, including her inevitable ending number, “Seven Year Ache,” which, she noted, he once covered. It’s a great song, as is the other original she did, “Blue Moon with Heartache” (cool title). I would have liked to have heard more of her own compositions—"I'll Change for You" as a duet with Tweedy?—but the choice of covers was interesting and of a piece with her musical lineage (a couple were from The List, her recording of a group of songs her dad considered superlative). The standout was Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” with its beautiful, eerie melody and mysterious narrative—which, as Rolling Stone recently pointed out, Gentry has never explained. Cash’s rich voice (which easily accommodates a sob or growl), coming through resonantly with the famous Carnegie acoustics, and expressive interpretation suited it perfectly.

To paraphrase a line from “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” a river runs through her, and Cash took us along on her evocative, poetic, deeply personal journey.

A light-bathed Rosanne Cash fields a standing ovation.

 

 

 

Tiny Desk and "Tiny Stars"

 

NPR is having its second annual Tiny Desk Contest, a spin-off from its Tiny Desk Concerts. Video entries had to be in by February 2, and I decided last weekend (three days before) to participate. Luckily, Joan Chew, the violinist on my song "Tiny Stars," was available. Sadly, Graig Janssen, the pianist on the track, wasn't, but Joan also plays keys, so we went with that (here's a situation where someone needs a clone--I did miss the violin!). My husband, Robert Rosen, was also available--as videographer and for general moral support. You can watch the video on YouTube. NPR is also posting entrants (mine's not up yet) and having theme-oriented voting events.

And here is Joan relaxing with my cat Oiseau (aka Wazzie) after we finished:

Listening (and Talking) to Louie

 

My recent interview with the ever interesting and interested Louie B. Free, whose Ohio radio talk show airs on vindy.com, is now on soundcloud! Listen as we explore my broadcast-by-cellphone wedding, performance vs. studio, the mysteries of tiny stars, etc.

By the way, Louie, animal lover, has bunnies on too! Here's an image from his Facebook page:

Unsilent Night

 

Singing with Graig Janssen, on guitar, top, and Joan Chew, on violin, above, at Caffe Vivaldi, NYC. Photos by Laura Bell.

What a great night at the storied Village coffeehouse Caffe Vivaldi, just a couple of nights before Christmas Eve. I did a set there with violinist/pianist Joan Chew and guitarist/pianist Graig Janssen, who both played on my new EP, “Tiny Stars.” We did the three songs from that recording, as well as selections from my EP “Crucified” and CD “Blue Lights” (the two Christmas songs). We also performed a couple of newish songs, including “Angel Tattooed Ballerina,” which I’m in the process of recording.

The cozy room was packed and the vibe was lovely. Many thanks to all those who came—during a busy week (not one but two people came on their birthday)—and made the evening so special!

Unfortunately we had a problem with our equipment and didn’t get a video of the whole show, but my friend Allyson Smith took a quick one, so here is the end of “Tiny Stars.”

 

Back to the (Village) Voice

 

My Dec. 22 show at Caffe Vivaldi (see my previous post) made the Village Voice listings, as well as mentions on their other pages online, most notably this one, where I'm right next to Mariah "All I Want for Christmas" Carey! I wrote short items for the Village Voice some years ago, so it's fun to be back in its pages.

 

 

Holiday Show in the Village

 

I'll be playing the cozy Village institution Caffe Vivaldi the Tuesday of Christmas week! Below are the deets, with my spectacular new EP cover, courtesy of the very talented C.G. Reeves, who is not only a graphic artist but also an actor, filmmaker, and wonderful friend.

A Hard Birthday's Night

 

On Friday, October 9, my husband, the writer Robert Rosen, released the first e-book version of his cult-classic bio, Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon—an enhanced 15th anniversary edition with new revelations and several bonus chapters. It was Lennon’s 75th birthday.

That night we went to hear the 60s British-invasion band the Zombies at, of all places, the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Along with a couple of newer members, the original band members Rod Argent, very fleet on keys, and singer Colin Blunstone—at 70, in remarkably rich voice—played early songs that included their hits “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season,” as well as tracks from their latest album, Still Got That Hunger. Yeah, we could tell, and the roar that regularly went up from the crowd in the small theater showed it.

I found Blunstone, despite his tallness, rather elfin (à la Will Ferrell)—surprisingly low-key and almost self-effacing for a 60s rocker who was more or less on a par with Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, and Roger Daltrey. Nearly every song was introduced by Blunstone or Argent with a charming story, such as getting permission at the last minute from Paul McCartney himself to use the line “I believe in yesterday” or Blunstone deciding to write songs after Argent, the band’s main writer, passed by in his Rolls Royce while Blunstone was traveling by bicycle (even if apocryphal, cute).

 

The original members of the Zombies reunited at New York Society for Ethical Culture: Hugh Grundy (left, on drums), Rod Argent (keys), Chris White (bass), and Colin Blunstone (next to White).

For their second set, the other original members, bassist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy, came out to help recreate the band’s 1968 tour de force record, Odessey and Oracle (purposely misspelled?), lending a special excitement and emotion to the ambitious work.

And, oh yeah, somewhere in the first set the group played “Hold Your Head Up,” the huge hit of the offshoot band Argent—extending it and letting us all sing along. My sister loves that song, and I always think of her when I hear it. But I learned something: Everybody should stop singing, “Hold your head up, whoa.” It should be “Hold your head up, wo-man.” (That’s straight from the horse’s mouth.)

In sum: Zombies walk among us, and we’re better off for it.

Candles frame a portrait of John Lennon at Strawberry Fields the night of October 9.

But the evening did not end there. After we left, Bob suggested we go to Strawberry Fields, so we walked the several blocks up to 72nd Street and into Central Park. As we followed the sound of singing, we passed a couple of police cars that were obviously there to protect the little group that had gathered. We got up close enough to see a bit of the glittering “Imagine” mosaic on the ground and the candles and flowers people had left. A few musicians were playing guitar, and we joined in singing “Eight Days a Week.” A couple of young women near us were getting into dancing and sometimes used their voices to add instrumental touches in the recording. After that—preceded by someone announcing the Mets-Dodgers score—came “Girl” and the intoxicating “Across the Universe.” At that point we walked out of the park, and I stared up for a moment at the Dakota.

 

Harper by Moonlight

 

Harper Maiscott, November 2007.

 

My nephew Sean's daughter, Harper, was born on Sept. 11, 2007, giving that date a new meaning for me, a New Yorker who lives about a mile from the World Trade Center. (I've previously posted about my experiences around the time of 9/11.) One night when Harper was a baby, her mom, Jenny, and I were out on their porch with her, looking at the moon. That inspired a song that I have just put up on soundcloud. I hope you can listen, and if this day is a hard one for you, I hope it brings a moment of glistening moonlight.

 

Harper, June 2015.

See Jane Rap!

 

Jane Lynch at Joe's Pub.

In “See Jane Sing!,” Jane Lynch’s show at the fabulous Joe’s Pub last week, Lynch played a character, but it was not the deliciously loathsome phys-ed teacher Sue Sylvester (Glee), her most famous role, or any of the other characters she’s portrayed in TV, film, and theatre. It was instead a clueless and somewhat pompous version of herself that was—partly because she never broke the fourth wall to show us the real Jane Lynch—consistently hilarious. With help from Kate Flannery (The Office) and Tim Davis (musical arranger for Glee), she sent up romantic ballads such as “It Must Be Him” (“I grew up with this bullshit”), tearjerker songs (“Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast”), folk songs (“Blood on the Coal,” from A Mighty Wind), psychedelic rock (“Go Ask Alice,” here referring to housekeeper Alice of The Brady Bunch—"Make your bed! Make your bed!"), and, fully in touch with her inner and outer Minaj, hip-hop (a tour-de-force “Anaconda”).

This might not have worked so well if the three singers hadn’t all been in fine form, especially Lynch. Backed up by the Tony Guerrero Quintet, which had its own quirky sense of humor (the band opened for her as well), she sounded great, from delicate to brassy to, um, fierce. See Jane come back to Joe's Pub? Hope so.

With Tim Davis and Kate Flannery.

Howard Fishman Collects Himself

 

Howard Fishman at Joe's Pub.

When Howard Fishman walked onstage at Joe’s Pub last week, I had two nearly simultaneous, somewhat opposing thoughts (indicating “first-rate intelligence”? Doublethink?). They were: 1) It doesn’t make sense for Howard—in a suit—to be wearing a cowboy hat. 2) That hat looks cool.

This says a lot about Howard, who is often described as “genre-bashing,” or something along those lines. The singer-songwriter—and superb guitarist—draws from country, folk, rock, and certainly New Orleans jazz, but the thread that runs through his work is a sublime musicality combined with a witty and literate sensibility.

Re the first: He knows how to put a hot band together. My friend the actress Laralu Smith, who went with me to the concert, commented on both the musicians’ technical skill and their abandon, saying that at times the music seemed to “stand alone in the air above them, as if they were just the facilitators.” Re the second: Even—especially?—a non-sports person such as myself could delight in the unexpected lyrics of “Baseball,” which ruminates in a rather existential way on the thought “I wonder why I hate the Red Sox/They really never did anything to me.” Other endearing and/or evocative lines included “Maybe one day I’ll seduce/A like-minded recluse,” from “When It Rains.”

Howard, whom I met a few years ago through the equally fascinating and unpredictable singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, was performing songs from his new CD, Uncollected Stories—13 tracks that had not made it onto his previous albums for want of space. Howard explained to the audience that he always stops at 13, as he has a thing for that number—going once again against the grain. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that the first song he did (and the first track on the CD) is called “Luck.” That one goes: “Your luck’s about to change/Everything’s about to go wrong.”

Could be. But at least we’ve got the guy in the white hat.

With Russell Farhang on violin, Nathan Peck on upright bass, Jordan Perlson (behind Howard) on drums, Etienne Charles on trumpet, and Scott Barkan on guitar.

Stars-in-Progress

 

I took this shot Thursday evening at Mercy studios as violinist extraordinaire Joan Chew, producer/engineer Nick Miller, and I were listening to the beautiful violin parts Joan had just laid down for my new song, "Tiny Stars." What a thrill to work with such talented people! They include Graig Janssen, who had earlier put down a piano track. I've already done the vocals, so it looks like we're almost finished!

Waiting for Her Essence: Lucinda Williams

 

That small figure with the blonde hair is Lucinda Williams, honest.

Well into Lucinda Williams’s set at Prospect Park in Brooklyn last Thursday, something happened that made me feel (helped along by a thermos of wine) as though I were having a hallucinatory experience. As Lucinda, our patron sinner—“Freedom means I can drink when I want, I can take drugs when I want” (or words to that effect), she had called out in preacherly tones—sang a line about fear while surrounded by purple lights, a few little girls in shorts started turning cartwheels. They were about midway between my group, sitting on blankets under a tree, and the far-off bandshell, with a fence between. There in the dark, as I listened to the sometime swamp rocker at her swampiest (in a different way), those cartwheels gave me a surge of, well, joy, an almost teary hope that these girls—girls everywhere; hell, boys too—could counter the fear, loneliness, heartbreak, and bitterness that Lucinda expresses only too well. (Even her song “Joy” is about losing that feeling.) During the concert, certain lines had seemed to hang in the night (“You managed to crawl inside my brain/You found a hole and in you came”), as though written by very knowing sparklers, reminding me that she’s the daughter of a poet. And her raw, unaffected but affecting voice made me think of the Frida Kahlo painting “The Two Fridas,” in which one exposed heart is linked to the other. The start was worrisome (sound problem? she had a cold?), but ultimately Lucinda put her heart out there, and, judging from the response, the crowd did the same. I know I did.

Making All the Music She Can Make

 

Kind of blue: Gabrielle Stravelli with Pat O'Leary. Photos by Terry Bisbee.

“Sing it high, sing it low,” urged the jazz/pop singer Gabrielle Stravelli in the first tune, “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” of her show at Café Noctambulo in NYC last weekend. She set a good example, with some rangy and surprising renditions of standards, show tunes, and a couple of re-purposed rock songs. I have a weakness for rock, and those were my favorites. Gabrielle did a few medleys (which I don’t have a weakness for!), including “Happy Talk,” from South Pacific, mixed with a heartfelt “Young Folks.” When slowed down, that song by the Swedish band Peter Bjorn and John took on a different, yearning quality, and Gabrielle’s rich, supple voice seemed to be inviting us into an intimate space (though we were already in a lovely one!).

Another high point was a bass-and-voice version of the Indigo Girls’ “Power of Two.” Pat O’Leary was great on the upright bass. The pianist, Art Hirahara, was also amazing, performing such a fleet solo on “It Might As Well Be Spring” that I could almost hear my music-loving dad, who died in 1997, sighing “Oh, man!” Gabrielle’s vocals were also impeccable on that one, which had what must have been a challenging arrangement.

In addition, among other songs, the quartet, rounded out by Eric Halvorson on drums, performed an unrecognizable and seductive “Oh Boy,” by Buddy Holly (mixed with a bit of Miles Davis's "So What"); the little-known “Where Is the Song?” by Bob Dorough, who also wrote the well-known “Conjunction Junction”; and the tear-jerker, originally recorded by Bonnie Raitt, “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” (Gabrielle, perhaps caught up in the emotion, forgot the lyrics to the last song at one point, endearingly calling out for help.)

My friend Terry Bisbee, who took the photos above and below, and I spoke briefly to Gabrielle afterward, and she was as warm as she appears in her show, even complimenting me on my Guatemalan earrings. She herself was wearing a beautiful muted-lilac short dress and silver heels that had prompted someone in the crowd to yell out, “I love your shoes!” Check out her videos (Terry mentioned that "there's something about her liveliness and fluid expressions that really works"), catch her at the Cornelia Street Café July 13, and/or watch for her new album in the fall to see what fascinating choices she’s made this time around.

Betty Buckley's Exquisite Blues

 

Joe's Pub, at NYC's Public Theater, recently featured Betty Buckley.

During Betty Buckley’s rendition of Joni Mitchell's “Both Sides Now” last Saturday at Joe’s Pub, I had a succinct thought about the legendary singer: She makes you feel your heart is full.

Among other glowing adjectives, her shows have been called “magical,” but what she does is not magic. It is instead so rooted in her being that she need only allow the branches to spin out and encircle her listeners. As she told me last fall when I interviewed her for VanityFair.com, Betty is a longtime practitioner of meditation, crediting it with giving her the means not only to navigate the extremes of Hollywood (one of her closest friends was John Belushi) but also to find both the focus and the abandon—informed abandon—that caused her career to take off.

Her choice of songs in this show, called “Dark Blue-Eyed Blues,” reflected both a playful personality (“Them There Eyes,” sung at warp speed by, as she said, a slow-talking Texan; “I Get a Kick out of You,” directed at a lucky audience member having a birthday) and a deep soul (“This Nearly Was Mine,” an elegant cri de coeur from South Pacific; “All the Pretty Horses,” in which she unearthed the sadness—what baby will ever have “all the pretty little horses”?—beneath the lullaby).

Other standout songs included the achingly beautiful “Too Many Memories” by her old friend the guitarist Stephen Bruton, who died in 2009. Introducing it, she revealed that she will be receiving the award named for Bruton at this year’s Lone Star Film Festival; it’s given to a musician who has also contributed to film (as Bruton did, helping to score Crazy Heart). I first became aware of Betty through a film—Tender Mercies, in which her tormented-country-star character tore the guts out of the song “Over You.”

During her set, Betty also brought out the pathos in Sting’s Last Ship song “Practical Arrangement,” the longing in the Leonard Cohen classic “Bird on the Wire” (holding on to that last word, “free”), and, invoking her “guardian angel” Elaine Stritch, the triumph of Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,” belting out those final resounding “here”s in a grinning, gritty, Stritchian way.

Last week the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, announced that Betty will be playing Big Edie to Rachel York’s Little Edie in Grey Gardens there in August. With the transcendent force that is Betty Buckley, any grey gardens in that musical are likely to suddenly burst into bloom.

Betty and I at Joe's Pub, underneath the "Restrooms" sign!

 

We Have All Been Here Before

 

Last night at the Crosby, Stills & Nash concert in Brooklyn, I suddenly remembered seeing the group—or was it only Crosby and Nash?—years ago at an outdoor concert in New York. A freakish thing had happened that night: I was sitting on a bench (I’d gone alone) toward the back, and a rowdy guy dropped a bottle of beer. It must have hit something hard because it shattered, and a piece of glass flew up and cut the bridge of my nose. No one seemed to notice that my face was bleeding, so I got up, made my way to the street, and hailed a cab. In the backseat of the taxi, I told the cabbie, a young guy, what had happened and started crying. He asked if he should take me to a hospital, but I said no. He proceeded, as he drove me home, to talk about how awful the city was. He meant well, but this wasn’t helpful, and anyway, I didn’t agree with him. I guess this incident took precedence in my mind because I barely remember the concert—maybe I wasn’t there long.

Luckily, I finally got a second chance to hear CSN, and no such incident occurred at the wonderfully rococo Kings Theatre in Ditmas Park—which is my husband Bob’s childhood neighborhood, though he says it was all just “Flatbush” then. The beer was safely encased in plastic, rowdiness seemed confined to yelling “I love you” to the band, and everyone had gone through airport-like security in the lobby. I’m sure some of the songs the band did were ones performed those many years before: “Carry On,” “Our House,” “Déjà Vu.” The three rockers were all in great voice (having read about David Crosby’s health issues arising from his notorious addictions, Bob was amazed by this). Stephen Stills hit a sustained high note in “Love the One You’re With,” a song I was hoping they’d do, that brought the crowd to their feet and Graham Nash, who, speaking of feet, was barefoot, over to him for a congratulatory gesture of some sort (honestly, I can’t remember exactly what—I had the large size of those plastic glasses of beer—though there was a lot of pointing at each other throughout among the three, as though to say, Wow, look what he just did).

After an intermission, Nash came out to play a couple of his new songs. He said that last fall he was going through “a million” personal changes and wrote 20 songs with the backing guitarist, Shane Fontayne, which the two then recorded in only eight days. In introducing his song “Myself at Last,” he spoke of how important it is for him, as a singer-songwriter, to continue to write, even though “it’s cool” to do the old songs as well. David Crosby later reinforced that idea, saying “it’s the stuff of life” to get a great reaction from the audience to a new song. In his case, that reaction was to “Somebody Home,” a gorgeous and moving ballad inspired by his wife of 28 years (“as of today,” he said), whose name, Jan, he added in the middle of the song. (Their son Django helps manage his dad’s tours, and Crosby’s son James Raymond is one of the keyboard players.)

But of course for the encore the group brought out two of their gems (and here I was thinking they’d already sung them all): “Teach Your Children” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” “Do-do-do-do-do” never sounded so good. I think they caught the sparrow.

 

Music in Montauk

 

Montauk prepares the Green for its annual music festival.

I’m sad to be missing the Montauk Music Festival, which was about to start just as I was leaving Montauk yesterday. The festival is in its sixth year but I’d never heard of it, even though I’ve been going out to Montauk periodically for a couple of decades. 

As you may know—especially if you live in New York or have watched the Showtime series The Affair—Montauk is a fishing village on the eastern tip of Long Island. Up until fairly recently (when the Surf Lodge club opened, drawing younger people and Hamptons spill-off), it was laid-back and low-key, despite the presence of some celebrity residents. Paul Simon has long had a house there (I picture it on the bluffs above the ocean, perhaps near Dick Cavett’s estate Tick Hall, but I don’t really know), and the Rolling Stones used to stay at Andy Warhol’s compound—there’s a funky motel right in town that inspired the Stones song “Memory Motel.”

The town was quiet this week when I was there—it’s still off-season—but now that about 100 acts have descended upon it (playing in venues ranging from a bakery shop to the aforementioned Surf Lodge), the tenor may have changed! As my husband, Bob, and I were checking out of our hotel, a man checking in spotted my travel guitar and said to his friend, “They’re probably here for the festival.” Hmm, maybe next year!

Starry, Starry Night

 

My friend Neil Wexler took this photo of me last evening in front of Mercy studios on E. 14 St., where I’d just laid down lead vocal tracks for my new song, a ballad. Neil and my husband, Robert Rosen, who are both writers, had surprised me by stopping by the studio. They'd run into each other at a bookstore and decided we should all get a drink together—which we did, after chatting with my engineer/producer Nick Miller about Blondie’s recent sojourn at Mercy (Nick said that Debbie Harry, whom I interviewed for Vanity Fair, always had her little dogs with her). We also discussed Mickey Leigh's book—Leigh lives in the neighborhood—about his brother Joey Ramone; Bob found it surprising that Joey had OCD. On the way to Rue B for drinks, I stopped at the Brazilian designer Geova's atelier after noticing a black skirt with a sort of tulle trim on the sale rack outside. I told Geova, a charmingly loquacious man, that I wasn't sure it would fit; he took the skirt by the ends of the waistband and circled my neck with it. "It'll fit," he declared, and it did!

I thought the T-shirt I was wearing—from the Groovy Blueberry in New Paltz, N.Y.—went with not only the newly purple exterior of Mercy’s building but also my new song, “Tiny Stars,” which deals with a swirl of thoughts to match a swirling winter’s-night sky. So far we just have, besides vocals, a lovely piano part played by Graig Janssen, but now we’re thinking violin, cello…

Nellie McKay Feels Free

 

Nellie McKay at 54 Below.

Deep into her set at 54 Below last night, Nellie McKay gave a clue, in the only original song she performed, as to why she’d chosen to do an album, the new My Weekly Reader, of 60s tunes. Seated at the piano, the outspoken animal activist sang about not wanting to sing about carriage horses and vivisection—she just wanted inner peace. Of course, inner (and outer) peace was the name of the game in the latter part of the 60s, with a little love and understanding on the side. (A subtle liquid light show pulsed behind Nellie, and incense wafted around the tables.)

Although Nellie heightened the effect with a flower-child kimono, and pronounced echo on her vocals, it was clear, ensconced in the glittery show-biz elegance of the club, that we were not at Woodstock (no rolling in mud would commence). And Nellie was hardly out of her element in this theater-oriented place; she appeared in Old Hats in 2013 and won a Theatre World Award for her performance in Threepenny Opera in 2006.

Some people have a career arc. Nellie’s is more of a career roller coaster, and wouldn’t it be fun to ride the wheels of her brain for a while and find out just why she makes the choices she does. After taking the music world by storm at 21 with her double album—the doubleness instigated a tussle with her label, Columbia, for Nellie does not shy away from tussles—Get Away from Me (note the subversive humor already asserting itself), she went on to, aside from performing in the Broadway shows mentioned above, play both conservationist Rachel Carson and Billy Tipton, a female musician who passed for male, in bio-concerts she conceived herself (the latter also at 54 Below).

And along with the periodic albums of her own expert and genre-defying songs (e.g., “I Wanna Get Married,” “The Dog Song,”  “Zombie,” the gorgeous “Bruise on the Sky”), she performed on the quirky public-radio show A Prairie Home Companion and recorded a tribute album of the songs of Doris Day—whom she invariably called “Miss Day” when I interviewed her for Vanity Fair’s website a few years ago. (Her pit bulls, Bessie and Hank, appeared with her on the cover of the album. I once got to play indoor fetch with Bessie with an extremely slobbered-upon green ball.)

So now: the 60s. Right-up-her-alley protest songs included Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” with updated lyrics (“Don’t ask me, I don’t give a frack/Next stop will be Iraq”) and introduced with the famous Woodstock cheer (“Gimme an F, gimme a U…”). These were counterbalanced by such tender works as Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” and John Lennon’s “If I Fell.” She was backed by the fabulous Cosmic X-Rays: guitarist Cary Park, drummer Kenneth Salters, and bassist Alexi David. They supplied some nice harmonies, but you need to listen to My Weekly Reader to hear Nellie’s shimmering harmonies with herself, as on “Quicksilver Girl.”

During the set, she switched from piano to ukulele and back again, with the occasional harmonica riff. She added a Hammond organ to atmospheric effect on Eugene McDaniels’ “Compared to What,” which, unfortunately, is not on the new album. Neither is Cream’s “I Feel Free,” in which her ethereal voice took on some grit as she stood at the mic. Even her tambourine seemed to vibrate with purpose.

As I was Googling “I Feel Free,” Nicki Minaj’s song of that title came up, so I checked out the lyrics to both songs. Minaj’s have swagger: “We just bought the bar/…She know I’m a star.” Cream’s have transcendence: “Dance floor is like the sea/…You shine on me.” It’s not taking anything away from the resplendently fierce Nicki to say that this contrast would make me understand, if I did not already, Nellie’s pull toward the 60s. But whatever decade or style her crazy ride might take her to, I feel sure that she will continue to shine on us.

On a personal note, it was lovely to see Nellie again. Her kimono reminded me of the colorful caftan and Dolly Parton–esque wig she'd worn at the release party for her beautiful and biting album Home Sweet Mobile Home. Not surprisingly, besides being wickedly talented, she's wickedly funny.

This Idiot's Delight

 

Especially if you live in the New York area, you've probably heard that the great free-form radio DJ Vin Scelsa, currently of the equally great radio station WFUV, has announced his retirement, beginning May 2. When I was working for the website New Media Music in 2000, I decided to write a piece about Vin. I’d been listening to him for years and especially liked his interviews of artists. I can recall, among other moments, Rosanne Cash telling him she still loved her ex Rodney Crowell (though she didn’t seem to be implying she was pining for him) and the poignant Vin pause that followed; Sheryl Crow abashedly quoting Bob Dylan on the "licks" guitar god Eric Clapton, her then boyfriend, must be teaching her; Vin reading a criticism of himself as having a weakness for such attractive female singers and then laughing and saying something to the effect of, “I guess he’s got my number.”

In the course of working on the article, I watched Vin work—or maybe play is the word—both during his show Idiot’s Delight, which was on WNEW at that time, and an online show he was doing from his home. Here is my article about that experience. (You may need to enlarge the scan; New Media Music folded in 2001 and my columns are no longer online.) By the way, the "message board" Vin used to keep up with his online listeners' preferences seems positively quaint in the age of Twitter and Facebook!

Rickie en Français

 

Photo by Ian McCrudden.

I just came across this French translation of my 2011 VanityFair.com interview with Rickie Lee Jones on a site called devildog666! In the interview Rickie talks about living in Paris years ago--an excerpt, en anglais: "There was a ballerina who worked at the record company who helped me find a place on the Invalides. It was a tiny pad like you’d have in a movie and I bought a coffeepot and I had my little calico cat, and she’d run out over the rooftops." I am French on my father's side and love the language. Though I'm hardly fluent, perhaps I won't find this too difficult to read, for obvious reasons! Magnifique!

Savage Beauty

 

In honor of the opening this weekend of "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I've put my song "Alexander/Isabella" on YouTube.

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN: one of a kind

 

The cover of the Metropolitan Museum publication Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

 

This morning I remembered that the extraordinary fashion designer Alexander McQueen died five years ago this month. When I looked it up, I saw that his funeral was exactly five years ago today, February 25, 2010 (he died on February 11), at St. Paul’s Church in London.

I do editorial work for Vanity Fair (including the occasional music piece for its website), which over the course of several years ran major articles on the lives—ending in suicide in both cases—of McQueen and his close friend and fellow Brit Isabella Blow, a fashion icon in her own right. Reading these, I became fascinated by this scintillating but troubled pair. (I was helped along by my cubicle mate’s print of the David LaChapelle photo, called “Burning Down the House,” that accompanied one of the Vanity Fair articles.) Isabella, who was married to Detmar Blow, one of those British aristocrats who seem to be wealthy and poor at the same time, had a rather amorphous role in the fashion world. Though she had a couple of “regular” jobs at magazines, she was known more for her flamboyant style and for discovering Philip Treacy, he of the wildly imaginative, sometimes towering hats, and McQueen himself—she bought out his entire first collection. Sadly, when McQueen’s success did not translate into the same for Blow, she became bitter and their relationship suffered.

In 2011, I attended (along with hordes of others) the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit “Savage Beauty,” a stunning display of McQueen’s genius. What he did went well beyond clothing, upending ideas about what fashion shows should be and exploring disturbing themes. I took a lot of notes (a horned coat! Kate Moss as hologram!) and eventually wrote my song “Alexander/Isabella,” which Vanity Fair linked to in a slide show about the two friends. The maverick designer and the iconoclastic muse continue to inspire.

 

 

 

Déjà Vu

 

I’ve been working on a new song and played it the other night right after my husband, Bob, returned from his daily five-mile walk. He had gone straight to his computer but I was hoping he was listening.

“What do you think?” I said, turning toward him from the piano bench.

He said in a meditative, almost dazed way, “I like it. It has that classic...I feel like I’ve heard it before. The melody? The chord changes?” Uh-oh, someone else’s song? One of my own songs? “What’s that bridges?” he continued, nonsensically (it seemed).

I thought he must be talking about the song’s bridge and that maybe that was what sounded familiar to him, but before I could ask about this, he said, “That Bridges in the movie about the saloon singer?”

I immediately thought of The Fabulous Baker Boys, with Beau and Jeff Bridges. “Oh, the Bridges brothers, where one plays the piano

He said, “No, the guy that plays the dive bars."

Crazy Heart, you mean. Jeff Bridges."

“Jeff Bridges! He’s playing a song for someone, and she says, it sounds like I've heard it before. And he says, that's when you know you have a great song, when people think it's always been around.”

Bob then decided to look for the movie dialogue (less confusing than our own!), between Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, on imdb:

     Bad Blake: [...strumming guitar lightly] You know that song? Hmm?

     Jean Craddock: I can't remember who did it.

     Bad Blake: That's the way it is with the good ones, you're sure you've heard them before.

     Jean Craddock: You wrote that?

     Bad Blake: Yes ma'am, just now.

I did not remember this at all, but what a great thing to say (by Bob, I mean, but Bad Blake too)!

Madame Olenska Redux

 

My producer Nick Miller working with the high harmonies I'd just recorded yesterday for "Madame Olenska." Mercy Studios, NYC. We're very close to finishing!

The Freewheelin' Barb Jungr

 

Dee Burton, Barb Jungr, and myself at 54 Below.

 

Last night I went with my friend Dee Burton and her friend Bob Goldberg to see the cabaret singer Barb Jungr (winner of numerous Time Out and other awards), accompanied by Tracy Stark on piano and Mike Lunoe on percussion, at 54 Below, a downstairs club in the old Studio 54 building. (Appropriately enough, the Broadway show Cabaret is playing upstairs.) Widely praised for her sensitive and unusual interpretation of material by such songwriters as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell, the British Jungr drew a crowd that included fellow chanteuse Karen Akers and actress Laila Robins (who appeared recently in Homeland).

Jungr’s new CD, Hard Rain—which, hooray!, I just received for Christmas—focuses on material by Dylan and Cohen, but this show, though it had a theme of “no regrets,” was more freewheeling (although I almost forgot that Dylan is himself freewheelin’!) and included Hank Williams’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” (an emotional, almost harrowing version), and Paul McCartney's “The Night Before.” Her comic side came out in the between-song patter and occasionally within the songs themselves, especially “Lay Lady Lay,” somehow conveyed from the woman’s point of view. But I was most struck by Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light” and Barry Gibb’s “Woman in Love” (performed by Barbra Streisand on her CD with Gibb, Guilty.) In both cases, a second before I realized what she was singing, Jungr’s caressing tone and meticulous mining of the words had me wondering: what beautiful song is this?

If you’re not familiar with Jungr, I hope you’ll check out her music, and if you get a chance to see her live (she’s got one more NYC show tonight), by all means grab it!

 

 

Behind "Blue Lights"

 

 

The back cover of my CD, "Blue Lights," with pictures of Edgar and Floy Lyn Maiscott. Design by Nancy C. Sampson.

 

My song “Blue Lights,” which Ohio radio host Louie B. Free has kindly called “a new Christmas classic,” is about my parents, who met during wartime. When I was little, my mother, Floy Lyn, told me that before they had children, she and my dad, Edgar, put only blue lights on their Christmas tree. I found this very romantic (though I did appreciate the multicolored lights they thought my brother, sister, and I would prefer). My parents are gone now, but I have many sweet memories of our family Christmases, with the white star that topped the tree (my dad standing on a ladder to affix it to a branch), the ancient—it seemed to us kids—knitted parachute tree decoration from my dad’s childhood, and the equally ancient toy elephant, Jumbo, on rickety metal wheels, who had a special place under the tree. Another holiday talisman also spoke to a time early on in my parents’ marriage: a plaster Santa that my father won in a bar game when out with his buddies. He came home, put the two-foot-high Santa on the porch, rang the bell, and hid behind the car to watch my mom laugh when she opened the door. Isn’t it strange that a life can contain the horrors of war mixed with tender, at times mundane, moments? My dad didn’t talk much about the war, but thoughts of my mother must have helped him through—blue lights calling him home.

 

Live from Buenos Aires

 

 

Octavio Cavalli and Robert Rosen at Cafe Reggio, NYC, 2014.

 

“Do you know Mary Lyn Maiscott?” Octavio Cavalli asked my husband, Robert Rosen, tonight during an interview on his Buenos Aires podcast, Lennoncast. It was a joke, of course, and then Octavio surprised me by playing my version of “You Can’t Do That,” from my Blue Lights CD. He’d been talking to Bob via Skype for nearly an hour about Bob’s book Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, conducting the interview in English but with immediate Spanish translations for his Latin American audience. Octavio, who has also written a bio of John, Bendito Lennon, punctuated their conversation with a few Lennon songs—as Octavio explained something in Spanish, I suddenly heard the definitely English words “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.”  

It was an honor to have my Beatles cover end their segment, especially appropriate since I sang the song at the publication party for Bob’s book in 2000. Latin America loves John Lennon and also Bob and his book—we’ve been there a few times and have always gotten a gracious and enthusiastic reception. Luckily for me, as people there embraced Bob, they did the same to me, with Guillermo Henry in Mexico City playing Blue Lights in its entirety for his Radio Etiopía show in 2007. So gracias to Octavio and everyone who listened or will listen to the interview and the song (Episode 3, which will be up within a few days)!

Grammy Nominations

 

I just read the long list of Grammy nominees (damn, there are a lot of categories) and was pleased to see that among the obvious—the bedazzling Beyoncé, the can’t-shake-her-off Taylor, the soulful Sam—were a couple of longtime favorites of mine, Rosanne Cash and Eliza Gilkyson.

Cash is nominated twice for the fantastic song “A Feather’s Not a Bird” (best American roots performance and song) and once for the recording it’s on, The River & the Thread (best Americana album). I also especially liked the unusual track “Modern Blue.” Cash drew on her country beginnings for this album (a lot of the lyrics involve traveling in the South), and she wrote all the songs with her husband, John Leventhal, who also produced. Her voice sounds as rich as it did on Seven Year Ache, from 1981.

I haven’t kept up as well with Gilkyson. I first heard her music a long time ago when I was on a trip to L.A., also a first, happily driving those infamous highways and listening to a station billing itself as “The Wave.” Soon after, back in New York, I went to see her at the Bottom Line; she played an acoustic set with just her guitar, a tall, blond, captivating woman. More recently, her album Beautiful World fell into my hands, on loan. I resisted copying it but never downloaded it—OK, I’m going to do that—but remember in particular “Emerald Street” and “The Party’s Over.” She has both a sweetness and a knowingness, and I bet they come across on her new recording, The Nocturne Diaries (best folk album). Hey, how about a “best title” category?

I’m also happy about Beck, Ryan Adams, Sia, and Meghan Trainor—because she took her bass and ran with it.  

Girlie Karaoke

 

 

Thursday night Joan Chew, who played violin on my single "Alexander/Isabella," went with me to the 20th-anniversary party of the music PR company Girlie Action. The exuberant Girlies had arranged for the fantastic keyboardist Joe McGinty, of Psychedelic Furs and Losers Lounge fame, to host the karaoke portion of the event, so here I am (photo courtesy of Joan) singing "You Send Me" with Joe. I'd never done karaoke--accustomed as I am to preparing material and having it in my key!--but who could resist in this situation?

 

Spotify, Taylor Swift, and Me (Representing the Little Guy)

 

         VERSUS                         

 

As you probably know, Taylor Swift has pulled her music from the streaming service Spotify, causing all kinds of headlines and apoplexy. ASCAP, of which I am a member, has already advised me to follow her lead and to stop, for god’s sake, giving my music away—putting it on YouTube, my website, etc. (And don’t even get them started on Pandora.) From others I’ve gotten the advice, Just get your songs out there and forget about the money (not, however, from my tax accountant). When I distribute my music through CDBaby, I can choose what sites and services I want to put it on. So far, I’ve done most of them, going ahead with free streaming but stopping short of free downloads.

Yesterday in the New York Times business section, Spotify’s chief executive talked of all the royalties the company—which sees itself as an alternative to piracy—pays, saying that a “top artist” like Swift might make more than $6 million a year; however, the company admits to going as low as “0.6 cents per stream.” I was pretty sure I had some that had gone even lower, so I checked my earnings page for Spotify. Here are the first few numbers under “Payable”: $0.01757333, $0.00040180, $0.02647063. Why they vary, I don’t know, but you get the idea—it takes a lot of streams to make the 90 cents I’d get from a download of a single.

I don’t know that we can climb out of a rabbit hole where music is so readily available—for free! However, I’m glad Swift has at least brought attention to the problem, telling Yahoo, “I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music.”

Postscript: I downloaded Spotify not long ago so I could check on my music there. I was horrified to see that not only were they offering songs I’d put on CDBaby but also a snippet from a rehearsal originally recorded on Garageband! This recording, which I’d called “Canals/Toxic” as shorthand for the two songs, must have been grabbed from my iTunes library. I’ve checked my settings to make sure I’m not going public with such not-ready-for-prime-time material, but should you come across that “song,” consider it toxic.

Madame Olenska

 

Book covers of The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton.

 

Nick Miller, a producer at Mercy Studios, and I will be putting the finishing touches—or perhaps the penultimate touches, to be realistic about it!—on “Madame Olenska” today. (The track will be on a forthcoming EP, Stories.) Of course all my songs are close to my heart, but this one has special meaning. I just re-read the passage in The Age of Innocence in which Newland Archer goes for the first time to Ellen Olenska’s house, scandalously “far down West Twenty-third Street," in New York City, where she lives near “small dress-makers, bird-stuffers, and ‘people who wrote.’” (Today she’d be living near trendy art galleries and her house, if still standing, would be worth millions and would be the envy of many a writer!) In case you haven’t read the book—or seen the movie, in which Madame Olenska is portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer and Newland Archer by Daniel Day-Lewis—Archer is drawn to the countess, who’s come back to New York after living in Europe (and leaving her abusive husband), because of her independence. She tells him, “I’ve never been in a city where there seems to be such a feeling against living in des quartiers excentriques. What does it matter where one lives?” He tells her that her street is not fashionable, and she replies, “Fashionable! Do you all think so much of that? Why not make one’s own fashions?” Good question (and still relevant)! Yet she soon says, “I want to do what you all do—I want to be cared for and safe.” Like Newland Archer, I love her complexity and find her both very scintillating and very touching. At the moment I can’t think of a literary creation I feel more of an affinity for. Thank you, Edith Wharton, for the inspiration.

 

In the Studio

 

Yesterday I worked on a recording of my song "Madame Olenska" with Nick Miller, of Mercy Studios. Here he is working on the mix; the purple and blue waveforms at the bottom are lead vocals, two takes, and that's the lyric sheet on the board for reference. I kind of wish I could live in the studio; it seems like an enchanted place. A book, of course, can be like that too--"Madame Olenska" was inspired by Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. I loved that book so much I wanted to be in it--specifically, in Madame Olenska's fire-lit parlor in Chelsea, talking to a kindred soul. So that's what I did in my song.

Meeting Betty Buckley

 

Photo by Robert Rosen.

When I spoke to Betty Buckley for the VanityFair.com interview (see my 9/25 post), we discussed our middle names, as hers is the same as mine except for an extra “n.” (Her mom is Betty Bob and her dad is Ernest Lynn; my aunt is Mary Emma and my mom is Floy Lyn. These are all Texans!) Betty was delightful to talk to—candid and down-to-earth, with a joie de vivre always kind of bubbling beneath. After the interview, she kindly invited me to come to one of her October Joe’s Pub shows in New York.

My husband, Robert Rosen, and I went to the show last Wednesday. We were lucky to be sitting at one of the tables close to the stage; I could see the emotional play on Betty’s face as she sang—she is both a consummate actress and singer. She did mostly songs from her new CD, Ghostlight, and I was especially moved by her live renditions of “Throw It Away,” by Abbey Lincoln, and “If You Go Away,” by Jacques Brel with English lyrics by Rod McKuen. Bob loved her interpretation of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come On, Come On,” which Betty said was her favorite of all songs (quite a tribute to Ms. Carpenter!). Betty, who is teaching a master class at the T. Schreiber Studio this week, credits meditation for helping her in life and in her work, and it’s not only her powerful voice that’s so affecting when you hear her sing but also her tremendous depth. When her hand clutched her abdomen, her “gut,” you almost felt she was digging for more, turning herself inside-out for the audience.

And then I got to meet her! Bob and I joined her and her friends at the Library, the restaurant at the Public Theater, which houses Joe’s Pub. We also met her assistant, Cathy Brighenti, and her “Cats” castmates from more than 30 years ago, Donna King and Bob Hoshour, the Bombalurina and Tumblebrutus to her Grizabella (of “Memory” fame). At one point Donna mentioned that the Sam Smith song coming over the restaurant speakers was written and produced by her son, adding that her daughter is both a math “brainiac” and a standup comedian. Interesting crowd! Betty and Cathy spoke of the 17 rescue animals living on Betty’s Texas ranch, including a one-eyed dog they seemed especially fond of. (Betty loves horses and has won cutting-horse competitions.) Betty asked Bob (Rosen, that is) about his latest book, Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography—she seemed intrigued! She also expressed dismay at the cake icing that had gotten on her shirt when she walked through the crowd to take the stage (“And I was so proud of my pink shirt!”).

What an elegant, lovely person. And a true singer’s singer. (I’ve said that about Linda Ronstadt too, whom I interviewed around this time last year; both she and Betty have given much thought and devotion to the craft and the art of singing.)

A PS for singers: Even Betty Buckley makes mistakes, starting in the wrong key for “Bewitched” during her show. Charmingly, referring to the previous song, Marty Balin’s “Comin’ Back to Me,” she explained, “I was so into the rock ‘n‘ roll!” Nevertheless, she smoothly performed the subtle modulation between the intro and the first verse in her bewitching version of “Bewitched.”

Back to the 80s...

 

The New York Times says the mullet's back! I rather liked that style on me! And here's (part of) my one stint at the fabled CBGB's. (Sorry about that dead 26 seconds at the beginning but it passes quickly--in, um, 26 seconds!)

Betty Buckley

 

 

Photo by Victory Tischler-Blue.

My interview with the great singer Betty Buckley, star of Cats, Sunset Boulevard, Tender Mercies, and Eight Is Enough (!), went up on Vanity Fair’s website today! Find out how her TV-show producers didn’t believe she could sing, how a horse brought her back to Texas, and how Grizabella lives on—and not just in our memory. And, oh yeah, she talks too about her new album, Ghostlight, produced by her childhood pal T Bone Burnett. What a thrill!

Rickie Lee Jones

 

Rickie Lee Jones posted this on Facebook today: "Cat Stevens, recent RocknRoll hall of fame inductee, (as if there is any hall but the one in your own heart,) is going on tour again. could be good. I was at the rock n roll hall of fame once. the waiter took my speech from my place at my table. i needed that speech. then the paper complained about me meandering. I sang poorly with Sting, but I danced soarly with Ray Davies. Pete Townsend and Phil Spector were the only people who talked to me." I love her candor and philosophical bent (the hall in your heart). I interviewed Rickie a few years ago, for Vanity Fair's website, at Cafe Henri in the Village. When she spoke about becoming suddenly famous, I noticed the young woman at the table next to us look over to see who this was; I'm not sure she knew. I'd lost sight of Rickie myself for a long time and was glad to find out she was still making music, still sounding great, still rocking the boat. (At her concert a few nights before, I'd seen her fiery response to a heckler.) She's now in the process of making a new record, using PledgeMusic to fund it. I got in touch with her when I was going to L.A. a few months ago--we'd communicated briefly after the interview, during which she'd suddenly and sweetly said, "Your eyes remind me of my mother’s eyes"--and she wrote back that she's now living in New Orleans, ending with "let me know if you come back this way love to say hello." Hey, that's reason enough to go to New Orleans, isn't it?

9/11: Distinguishing Characteristics

 

Below, Part I, is an unfinished piece I wrote shortly after 9/11.

Part I

Dental implants. Old burn scar covering entire right knee. Gold tooth.

My idea at first was to write a poem about the distinguishing marks, which were at once lyrical and heartbreaking and overwhelming. To this end I carried a spiral notebook up to the armory. People gathered there to register their missing, and the walls outside were plastered with hundreds of flyers showing pictures, giving descriptions of their relatives and their clothing, telling where they were last seen. This is when we were calling them missing.

I also carried a cheap automatic camera that my credit-card company had given me as a gift (I found out why when I developed the pictures, which were hardly worth keeping). I took only a few pictures. The first was of a bride (at first I wrote “a bridge”; this seems significant) and groom in Madison Square Park. I’d always been leery of the whole institution of marriage, but something about the delicacy of the short tulle veil—lifting as the bride ran a little, smiling, her new husband right behind her, both of them of a dark-skinned extraction that would not help them in the coming days—tugged at something inside me, made me want to cry as so many things did.

I also took a couple of pictures of the flyers, which were ubiquitous, well before I got to the armory; they were on lampposts, on windows, on fences. I stopped so many times to read about this person, that person, to take notes, to stare at their faces, that by the time I got to the armory the light was getting very dim. One of the posters that stopped me cold—it was scotch-taped to a store wall—showed a photo of a thirtyish man with his family. That family now begged him, “Please come home!” This made me—inexplicably, guiltily—furious. Of course he would come home if he could! As though it were up to him whether he was dead or alive. And of course he was dead—didn’t they know?

Birthmark on hand in the shape of Puerto Rico.

In the shape of Puerto Rico? What shape was that? I had to look at an atlas. It’s not like Texas or Florida, not a really distinctive shape. Kind of an oblong island with a curl or a twist here or there. But this island danced every day on the man’s hand, or anyway his loved ones wanted to think so, even while he negotiated the mind-boggling island of Manhattan.
            
That morning I’d gotten an e-mail, among the flurry of e-mails sent in those days, that asked the receiver to add an item to a list of things about Manhattan to love. The woman who’d sent it to me—an old friend who’d moved to Colorado—had written something about bagels. I thought about writing in the Chrysler Building or the sunset from Hudson River Park but never did. It was odd in a way to remind ourselves; could we possibly have forgotten? It came to me, though, that everyone in New York who loves New York (and of course there are those who don’t) thinks secretly that no one loves the city the way they do. If I’m thinking that—even with the occasional fantasy of escaping to a less target-rich, as the military might say, place, some remote corner of Vermont maybe—then so are millions of other people. Which is fine, because otherwise how would we survive here?

Tattoo on left shoulder of whale/dolphins surrounded by starfish. Butterfly tattoo on lower back.

There were many, many tattoos. Imagine someone sitting in a tattoo parlor enduring the pain of that big needle for their own whale, their own dolphin, their own unique butterfly or rose or heart (one of these in the webbed area between the thumb and index finger). They are not thinking, here’s a good way to identify my body when I am crushed or burned to death. There were scars too, which are rather like tattoos that nobody asked for—an appendectomy scar, facial chicken-pox marks, a “bite mark on the chest.”
            
On the way home I passed by the Gramercy Park Hotel. My husband (domestic partner then) was staying in New Jersey, visiting relatives. It occurred to me to check into the hotel, even though my apartment was only a twenty-minute walk away. I wanted to forget everything, even who I was. To be somewhere clean and stark. I thought of the woman in the novel The Hours who checks into a hotel just so she can read. I didn’t have to be anywhere the next day because my office, like my home, was in the “frozen zone” below 14th Street. That meant no cars, no people who weren’t residents, and very little business going on. I had to show my ID twice to get home, at 14th Street and at Houston Street.

At 14th, I passed through Union Square Park. Amid the flowers, candles, and taped-up signs—“Osama bin Laden, look out,” but also “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” …

Part II

I thought then that my idea for a poem—or, rather, a compilation in poem form—had not worked out, but when I recently looked back at what I had, I decided to finish it.

A birthmark in the shape of Puerto Rico

on his hand.

Scar between eyebrows.

A heart tattoo on her right hand,

between the thumb and the index finger.

Gold necklace with jade pig.

Mole at jawbone near right ear.

(Young man:) tattoo of tiger on right shoulder;

(his sister:) gold chain with key charm.

A circular beauty mark

on his right wrist.

Tattoos: dolphin on foot,

turkey on hip.

Right-hand ring finger severely bent;

gold neck chain with cross.

Yellow rose tattoo on right ankle;

orange-and-white sneakers;

two earrings in each ear.

Bite mark on his chest

just below left shoulder.

Appendectomy scar,

birthmark on one of his shoulders,

and a small dark mole in the center

of his back.

Black mole on each cheek,

black spots on his neck.

Has a Florida tan.

Chews tobacco, so first fingers

on his right hand may be stained.

Wearing a gold rope chain on his neck,

with a rectangular charm that says

“Jesus Is Lord.”

Faint birthmark on back of neck

under his hair

(may need to look real hard for it

since very faint).

Has thick hair on his chest,

a very hairy man.

A scar which extends from the

upper right side of forehead to the eyebrow,

which appears to be an upside-down V;

scar on left arm has a black tattoo

one-inch in width

that bands around left bicep.

Two gold bangles and one gold bracelet.

Wearing a wood cross.

Tattoos lower back tribal (dark green),

upper right heart and rose with initials LER.

Has on a silver fossil watch.

Has a French manicure on both her hands

and her feet.

No scars or tattoos.

Brown spot, right shin;

scar from hip surgery;

hammer toes.

Chicken pox scars on cheek.

Gold tooth.

Tattoo on left shoulder of whale/dolphins

surrounded by starfish.

Butterfly tattoo on lower back.

Skin tag on neck;

small scar on chin;

cast on right hand.

Tattoo of Puerto Rican flag

on right arm.

Dental implants.

Old burn scar covering entire right knee.

White gold ring with the letter C

in diamonds.

Alexander McQueen: Evolution

 

I love it that the people behind the book Alexander McQueen: Evolution have discovered my song "Alexander/Isabella" and posted about it on August 29.

Sia VMA Nomination

 

Sia’s “Chandelier” has been nominated for a VMA. The little girl who dances with abandon in this video is captivating (reminding me of my sister, Cecilia, at that age). Her Sia wig struck me as perhaps a bit creepy but also funny—and is, of course, a nod to Sia’s famous camera-shyness. I did an interview with the singer several years ago for VanityFair.com, after her performance at the Tribeca Film Festival’s music lounge (note the real Sia bob in the photo I took that day). I loved talking to her—she was funny and down-to-earth.

The Mac Wire

 

The Mac Wire announces the release of "Alexander/Isabella"! The brains behind the Mac Wire is (belong to?) M.A. Cassata—a veteran entertainment editor and writer who has interviewed Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and many other major artists, and has written books about such luminaries as Cher, Elton John, and Ariana Grande. And I can personally attest that she is a kind and down-to-earth person who simply loves music and getting the word out.

CD Baby article

 

I've found CD Baby to be great for music distribution--fantastic customer service and now site hosting. It enables people to do a lot with their own music, and The New York Times has noticed, with an article the other day calling it an "anti-label" that's "a potent but quiet and thus frequently overlooked force."

My New Single

 

Click here to download my new single!

RSS feed