Meg Hutchinson Comes Up Full

megh
Photo Credit - Desdemona Burgin

It’s an axiom of songwriting: suffering begets art.  Personal struggle at the heart of so much great music makes one wonder if some troubadours wouldn’t be happy without misery.

Do they will their sorrow and heartbreak simply to feed the muse?

“Oh God, I sure don’t will it to happen,” laughs Meg Hutchinson.  “If I had a choice….”

The Boston-based folksinger’s own bouts with depression yielded “Come Up Full,” one of the year’s most fully realized albums.  With unflinching honesty, Hutchinson explores “the dull roar of loss” that led to moments of “one girl in a hospital bed” trying to recall the words to “Over the Rainbow” as she plunges into darkness.

“The nights can take so long,” she sings.

“At the core, it’s a very personal journey and those are the songs that are the most honest and at times the most difficult to sing, that I may ever write,” says Hutchinson.

But the record, Hutchinson’s fourth since her eponymous 1996 debut, doesn’t dwell on her difficulties. Rather, “Come Up Full” celebrates the journey back.

It’s an album Nick Drake might have made if he’d managed to beat his demons.

“Most of these songs came out of the toughest years,” Meg says, “and really recognizing this huge spectrum of emotion in my life, and hitting rock bottom – then coming through it kind of like a small death.

“But the record does celebrate coming through the other side of it.  That’s the biggest feeling that I’m left with.”

Indeed, from the opening song, which proclaims “I belong to the day now,” to the pronouncement, “if you look real close you might see scars/but me, I’m only seeing stars,” it’s ultimately a very positive work.

Hutchinson balances self-effacing introspection with compassion for the weary on “Home.” “I won’t tell you where I’ve been,” she begins, “only that it’s so good to be back home,”

She ends with words of encouragement for the sad and lonely: “Let me offer I’ve been there/and one day that darkness ends.”

“I do feel like I’m a very optimistic person, and that was tested to the core,” she says.  “I think that test is in there in those songs.  But overall, I am a very hopeful person.

“Someone once told me something about songwriting that really stuck with me.  Every love song has a hint of what you might lose,” she says.  “Every song about a breakup has some glimmer of a fond memory, if it’s to be true to our experience.”

In that spirit, the title track depicts thin hope as an empty net cast into the water – with happy outcomes: “Just when you swear it off, those nets are gonna come up full.”

Hutchinson says it’s a song she “kind of wrote before I needed it, and then I really needed it and it kind of saw me through that rough time.  It gave me a sense of get up and show up for work, and at some point things will change, and those nets will come up full.”

Some of her strongest work has nothing to do with her own struggles.  “Song for Jeffrey Lucey” tells the true story of a young Iraq War veteran, haunted by his experiences,  who committed suicide.

“Memory was a cancer that you could not live without,” observes Hutchinson, “But you could not live with it.”

“America,” written at the outset of war in 2003, powerfully employs images in nature to portray the bipolarity of political discourse.

“I was trying to write a song that explored this lack of moderation in our country, and the way when we go to an extreme it almost turns into its opposite,” she says,

“I was staying in a little cabin up in Maine on a lake and it was late winter and the ice was just starting to break up. It can make those incredibly loud rumblings and poppings.  All night I just lay there listening to it.  It just sounded like gunfire, and I thought here I am in this beautiful setting and across the world this is going on.”

The song reflects, she says, “this huge love for the country but this confusion.  For me it’s really a sad anthem.”

Hutchinson says she found another idea for the song when she spotted “a helium balloon, just to the point of being deflated.  The ribbon was touching the lake and it was kind of skating around in the middle of the pond and it wasn’t sinking and it wasn’t’ floating off.

“I thought, here’s an image of moderation. If only we can find that kind of balance.”

For her own equilibrium, says Hutchinson, “lately I’ve been singing ‘America The Beautiful’ just to offset that song – because I’m feeling very hopeful.”

Hutchinson was born and raised in the Berkshires, and moved to Boston in 2002.  Since then she’s become a steady force in the area folk scene, and was recently nominated for her second Boston Music Award.  Does the rich array of local talent shape her own work?

“I often ask myself that,” she replies.  “How can you not be influenced when you’re surrounded by so many great artists? That being said, I look back at the records I made before moving there and with the exception of having hopefully honed my craft a little bit and having the opportunity to work with Crit Harmon in the studio, I don’t see a huge difference in the way I’ve been writing prior to moving out there and meeting everyone.”

Harmon (Lori McKenna, Martin Sexton, Mary Gauthier) produced “Come Up Full” and 2004’s “The Crossing.” Hutchinson says he’s taught her a lot about song structure.

“I didn’t have a good sense for the layout of a song.  That can make structure really challenging.  If you don’t do the bridge at the right moment, or repeat the chorus enough, it can be difficult to know how to bring the instruments in.  That’s what I really learned from Crit.”

Even while living in bustling Somerville, Meg remains a country girl.  “I still manage to get out in the woods when I’m not touring, just about every day with the dog, and even to a point where I don’t hear the traffic.  I get lost in the woods,” she says.

Meg Hutchinson w/ Chris Pureka
Friday, December 5, 7:30 PM
Boccelli’s on the Canal, Bellows Falls
Tickets $12/advance, $14/door

Jenee Halstead – Old Time, Internet Time

In a cavernous living room lit with the glow of 24 candles, Jenee Halstead and her band start to play. There are no wires, spotlights or microphones, simply a half circle of four musicians standing in a corner. The scene brings to mind a Depression-era campfire, not a suburban house concert a few miles south of Boston, with well-to-do guests nibbling catered barbeque and sipping wine from long-stemmed glasses.

The near-absence of light makes such a mental leap more possible. The group’s strumming forms are mere shadows; the hazy darkness punctuated by fiddle salvos, deft guitar and mandolin runs, and Halstead’s quivering, sweetly crooning voice.

Though the music is deep and distant, the story behind its creation is as modern as an iPhone. Using MySpace, Facebook and other technology tools of the independent music trade, talents were verified, reputations vetted and friendships cemented days, even weeks before anyone met face to face to play songs that would make Woody Guthrie smile in approval.

Or even George Clinton, as Halstead’s rapidly assembled network of bluegrass purists, an old school producer, his song doctor wife and some electronica-affected friends combined to make “The River Grace,” a pitch perfect blend of traditional picking and modern tweaking.

Old time, meet Internet time.

“It happened really quickly,” Halstead says. Soon after arriving in Boston in mid-2006, she created a MySpace page. “I had some recordings I’d done right before I left Seattle. Within literally 2 or 3 days, I got a comment from Matt Smith at Club Passim.”

Smith, who manages the venerable Cambridge folk institution, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, told Halstead he liked her stuff and to keep in touch. He also mentioned her to some of his friends.

Meanwhile, Jenee placed an ad on the Craig’s List web site, with an eye towards putting together a band in the spirit of Crooked Still. “I always wanted to do bluegrass, but didn’t think I could because I wasn’t schooled in it.” Of her reservations about seeking out seasoned pickers, she says, “it was like walking on sacred ground.”

Guitarist Andy Cambria answered the ad. “I heard her stuff and knew right away that she could be in front of a band,” he says.

Five weeks and a flurry of e-mails later, they were playing together.

Halstead divided her time between building a name in Boston and recording an album in Pennsylvania. The solo acoustic project collapsed in a cloud of romantic confusion with the record’s producer. “Trying to decide if we were going to be a couple … got too difficult,” she says. “It was disheartening to lose all that work, all those hours.”

“Out of the blue, I got an email from Evan Brubaker, saying Matt Smith told me to check you out.” Though she had long lived in the same city as the producer, Smith’s e-mail was their first introduction.

“I’m totally horrified that you lived in Seattle for nine years and I never knew about you,” wrote Brubaker to Halstead.

“I was instantly drawn to her mixture of old time and poetry,” says Brubaker. “I let her know that if she ever needed to do some recording, I would be honored.”

Halstead’s songs are at once beautiful and tinged with night-sweat inducing dread – Appalachian gothic tales of fear, suffering and salvation. Things aren’t simple, meanings are never quite clear.

Though she describes herself as “non-religious but spiritual,” themes of heaven and hell abound. Death is a constant companion.

If Flannery O’Connor were raised in Spokane, Washington, listening to her father’s Led Zeppelin albums, she might have sounded like this.

On the title track from “The River Grace,” a woman struggles to live in a time of war. When, at the song’s bridge, she implores, “embrace the undertow/take me home,” it’s not certain whether she’s praying to be carried across the waves or beneath them.

A crime spree at the heart of “Darkest Day” echoes Robert Earl Keen’s “Road Goes on Forever,” but the tragedy at song’s end is more palpable, the heroine’s devastation permanent.

Then there’s “Dusty Rose,” a song that seems lifted from Loretta Lynn’s Jack White sessions. It’s either a murder ballad or the final sad chapter of “Stand By Your Man” – the singer won’t tell.

Halstead – her first name rhymes with Renee – says her songs are “stories of people’s lives that came to me subconsciously.” Whether the narrator of “Dusty Rose” is a killer or a grieving widow is something she emphatically doesn’t know.

“These are not my stories,” she says. “There’s some woman out there who owns that song. I don’t know who she is.”

“It’s a healing thing to let them go,” she continues, and let others decide their meaning.

That’s a sentiment she shares with another songwriter, Patty Griffin, who once likened her songs to children set free in the world.

The first Velvet Underground record didn’t sell a lot of copies, but (so the legend goes) everyone who bought one started a band. The same is probably true of Patty Griffin. Not a lot of people heard “Living With Ghosts” when it came out, but many young women – including Jenee Halstead – did, and were inspired to buy a guitar and a notepad.

“I don’t think I started writing songs because of her,” Jenee says, “but I think she gave me the impetus to really get on my guitar and try to do some emotional mining.

Evan Brubaker is also a fan – he even named his recording studio “Forgiveness,” after a Patty Griffin song. “’Living With Ghosts’ is the chick singer bible,” he said recently. “The songs are simple but brilliant and universal. I don’t know how many copies of that record I have given away.”

Before coming to Seattle to work on the record, Halstead and Brubaker had long phone conversations about the “old timey” record she hoped to make. “I really trusted Evan,” she says. “Who he was at his core and his vision of music and why he’s doing it lined up with everything.”

A couple of things, however, gave her pause.

Songwriting, says Halstead, “is like entering a pitch black room, and the light may never go on. And to be honest, I don’t know if I want it to.”

Opening up such a dark and solitary process to another writer was a challenge. Megan Peters is both an accomplished lyricist and Evan Brubaker’s wife. She is also, says the producer, “one of the best co-writers in existence.”

But for Halstead, letting go was a challenge. “It was very hard at first to work with Megan,” she says. “She is a tour de force, so I was a little bit intimidated by her.”

“She is truly a master of the craft,” she continues. Peters has an ability to “look at it from all angles or take a song in a direction you would never have thought about in a million years.”

Brubaker’s biggest idea of all was perhaps the one that took the most getting used to.

Hearing that keyboard player Steve Moore would be available for a few days, Brubaker says, “I got a flash of how it would all come together.”

“Steve is brilliant. He has a collection of 80’s Casio keyboards, a bunch of guitar pedals, a little amp and a Fender Rhodes. He plays free jazz, hardcore, singer-songwriter…the guy is game for anything.”

“I couldn’t imagine how keyboards fit into the old-time sound,” countered Halstead.

“We started messing around with live drum samples for fun,” she says. “I said, ‘slam a crazy (Roots drummer) Questlove beat behind “Before I Go”’ – just as a joke.”

“I loved it. Over the course of the next 24 hours it opened my mind.”

Co-mingling beat samples with mandolins, dreamy organ excursions and Dobro flourishes is, to say the least, unconventional. But it infuses “The River Grace” with adventure and irreverence, transforming it from a merely good folk album to a pivotal record that comes along once in a generation to invent a new musical language.

Photo Credits: (1 & 2) Gretjen Helene Hargesheimer 2007

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Download “Deep Dark Sea” from Jenee Halstead’s “The River Grace

Townes Van Zandt – John Kruth’s Biography

tvzbio.jpgTo Live’s To Fly

The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt

by John Kruth

Townes Van Zandt died young at 52, but he was lucky to have made it past 30. The subtitle of John Kruth’s biography refers to a 1973 album, “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt,” which got its’ title from the time in 1972 that the singer clinically died – twice – after a heroin overdose.

“Many thought Townes’ excessive behavior was deliberate,” writes Kruth, but the Texas songwriter “believed he couldn’t write with validity without firsthand experience … it was hypocritical to sing the blues if you haven’t lived them.”

Through the recollections of Van Zandt’s friends and acquaintances, John Kruth’s biography paints a vivid portrait of a troubled, gifted artist who never achieved the level of personal success he deserved. His songs, said one friend, “stick in your mind like burned beans to a Crock-Pot.”

“If you say Buddy Holly is the father of Texas rock,” says Michael Murphey, “the you have to say that Townes is the father of Texas folk.”

Sadly, Van Zandt’s own records didn’t sell well, a fact Kruth attributes to poor management and the singer’s lack of creative control in the studio. Over the course of his career, Van Zandt re-recorded many of his best songs, both live and in the studio, trying and failing to get the perfect take. Often, says Kruth, excellent work was obliterated by overdubbing.

It wasn’t until tunes like “Poncho and Lefty,” “Tecumseh Valley” and “If I Needed You” were covered by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris to Bob Dylan that the world outside Texas began to notice Townes Van Zandt. In death, his reputation as the best songwriter to ever come out of Texas is undisputed.

Kruth’s book is hamstrung a bit by its’ hagiographic nature, conflicting memories and the absence of some key voices. Susannah Clark is working on her own book, so the author had to rely on a few quotes from other sources to communicate her close friendship with Van Zandt.

Some of Van Zandt’s close friends were reluctant to speak with Kruth, a fact used to entertaining effect in an exchange with Guy Clark (married to Susannah). Before agreeing to talk, the songwriter grills him mercilessly, phoning Ramblin’ Jack Elliot in an attempt to call his bluff. “Jack, I got this little Yankee journalist here who says he knows you,” sneers Clark, then hands the phone to Kruth.

There are festering rivalries between many of the principles that leave the reader wondering about the real stories at the heart of the book. Longtime manager Kevin Eggers and Townes’ third wife Jeanene Van Zandt, for example, had a bitter relationship before and after the singer’s death.

Often, each reports a different version of events, forcing intermediaries to provide clarity for certain incidents. Engineer Eric Paul stood between the two while trying to mix a 1990 session using a group of backing vocalists that Jeanene termed “cheesy” and Eggers likened to Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires.

“I did my best!” says the exasperated Paul, who claims that Van Zandt was “quite proud” of the finished work..

The author attempts to solve the problem of multiple recollections by introducing an abundance of voices to Van Zandt’s narrative. This is a problem. As Kruth notest early on, “Townes was everyone’s best friend.” Often, the telling of a single story resembles a gaggle of hung-over drunks trying to explain the events at last night’s party.

That’s a challenging task for the best of writers, let alone an unabashed fan who’s given the singer’s widow “my guarantee that I wasn’t out to lionize her husband for all the wrong reasons.” Any honest biography would suffer from such stipulations.

Still, “To Live’s To Fly” managers to ably gather the threads of Townes’ Van Zandt’s life. But Kruth can’t avoid, as he puts it, “glorifying tragedy.” He’s writing about a subject whose best work was at times utterly morbid, and who wrote lines like “the end is coming soon it’s plain/and a warm bed just ain’t worth the pain (“Tower Song”).

“Townes was a sad soul,” says friend Eric Anderson. “You know how Rolling Stone rates new albums with stars? Well, if a song was really depressing, we’d give it ten razor blades.”

It’s hard to find the silver lining in those words . Says Kevin Eggers, Townes Van Zandt “worked at being a tragedy. That was his full-time occupation.”

 

David Mallett – Still In Search of the New

dave-mallett.gifDavid Mallett brings folk music with a northern perspective to the Claremont Opera House this Saturday, but listeners would be surprised at where the Maine native goes for inspiration.

“I don’t have time to listen to anything I’ve already heard, I just want to hear new stuff,” he says.  He’s a big fan of  the Link, a music video outlet that shows  “stuff from Russia, India, Brazil – it’s really cool to watch that stuff.” 

This eclecticism extends to Mallett’s family.  HIs son fronts Lab Seven, a Portland-based hip-hop band that’s built a strong regional fan base.   You’d expect a folkie who cites the Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash and Stephen Foster as influences to run screaming from  the room at this, but not Mallett. 

“I’m very excited by it,” he says.  “In a way, rap is  the folk music of the current generation.  This is where they get their words out, you know what I mean?  When I was a kid folk was for young people,  Nobody understood it.”

Mallett thinks Woody Guthrie would approve of this urban sound, which he terms “a modern take on the Dust Bowl ballads.  The rappers and hip hop guys are simply describing their own experience, their own Dust Bowl.”

David Mallett’s own musical journey began as a teenager, when he and his brother performed as the Mallet Brothers and made music inspired by the family team of Don and Phil Everly.  They recorded a few 45s, and hosted a variety show on a Bangor television station. 

“It’s  nice to have your own TV show when you’re 16,” laughs Mallett. “It kind of spoils you for the rest of your life.”

Mallett befriended Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame in the mid-70’s, and made his mark  with “The Garden  Song,” a tune that’s been covered no less than 150 times, by everyone from Arlo Guthrie to the Muppets. 

“It was amazing,” Mallett says of the song’s success.  “ I wrote it in 1975, mostly just as a way to pass the time.   I was working in the garden with my father, and it came up as sort of a little work song.”

Over the years, it’s been used to sell garden equipment in Spain, fertilizer in Ireland, and it’s also a regular on the Today show, which uses it for a recurring gardening segment.

“It came from this land I live on and from my father teaching me how to plant corn,” he says.  “It came from very little effort, and those are the best kind of songs.  They just sort of say ‘I’m here.’”

Mallett spent 10 years in Nashville among a songwriter’s clique that included  Lyle Lovett and  Nanci Griffith (who recorded some of his songs).  He co-wrote a few successful country tunes with Hal Ketchum, and had a small hit with “This Town” in 1993.  But as soon as his kids reached high school age, he headed back to Maine.

“If you can go to Nashville and adjust your perspective to make it a little more southern, they really like that,” says Mallett, but “country music is addressed to the working class of the south and the west.  I’m such a Yankee I had a hard time adjusting.”

“My turf is New England, it’s my own little backyard,” he says.

His home state acknowledged this in 1999, naming him one of Maine’s key figures of the 20th century. 

“That was pretty mind blowing,” he says.  “Being a musician is a fragile way to lead your life, You don’t know where the next song is coming from or the next gig, but to have something like that in your backpack is pretty nice.”

Mallett’s amassed quite a catalog of songs over the years, but as his personal tastes suggest, he’s always looking forward.  Asked to name his favorite song, he says simply that “it’s always been the next one, the one I haven’t written yet.”

Mallett expects to showcase a few of his new songs Saturday night.  No doubt he’ll also be watching in the wings when Harvard valedictorian and rising country singer/guitarist Liz Carlisle opens the show.  Carlisle made a strong impression opening for Hal Ketchum in October, so fans should welcome her return to the Opera House stage.