Well I've been back home in the cold arms of Mother Minnesota for about a year and when people ask what I've been up to I slightly sheepishly tell them about my latest music project, Bye Bye Banshee, which takes on the topic of death from a decidedly female perspective. I've been surprised to find a very welcome reception to the ideas I've been exploring through this project.
In the past several years I've done a lot of moving (Austin, San Antonio, Seattle, Minneapolis/St. Paul) and a lot of writing and drawing. A lot of grieving. Very little performing.
But still I've been bubbling over with creative energy, honing my song craft. And getting ready to hit the stage again...and my first UK show at the Death & the Maiden Conference is on the horizon.
My curious fear and fascination of death started when I was a small child. Blame my Catholic childhood. My Pentecostal puberty. My fear of hell. My natural inclination towards the dark and mysterious.
But I've come to look at death as a spectrum with many colors. That's what Bye Bye Banshee is all about. The dark. The light. All the curious shades in between. I believe that the fear of death, that (often) unspoken dread, causing suffering and evil. For me, writing this music is part of the cure.
In less than two weeks, I'll be back in the studio, this time recording the first EP for Bye Bye Banshee. It's been a deeply spiritual experience and I've chosen people who I believe will take that soul approach to my project, including Twin Cities jazz composers Chris Bates (Red 5, Atlantis Quartet) and JT Bates (Andrew Bird,Trampled by Turtles) on upright bass and drums, Aaron Kerr (Swallows) on cello and my good friend Jeff Crandall (J.Briozo, Swallows) as co-producer. Minneapolis legend Tom Garneau will be recording and mixing.
I'll be posting some stuff from the studio soon. But in the meantime, you can hear early, crude at-home recordings of some songs at the new Bye Bye Banshee site here.
This summer, I’ve been connecting more with my roots—I grew up in rural Minnesota on 45 acres—and am being pulled back to the country life little by little. This summer has included several visits to Wisconsin, including playing a lovely barn show at an organic farm near Dane.
Today I’m heading back to Spring Green, WI to see my first show at the Shitty Barn. Two eclectic Americana artists are on the bill: Paul Fonfara (Painted Saints, Brass Messengers) and Jim White.
I have yet to see Paul Fonfara perform since I’ve moved back to MN; I prefer songwriters who are a bit odd (or even really odd) and have a dark and/or quirky sound, so I appreciate his music. He’s an alumni of Denver greats DeVotchKa, 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, and an incredibly talented composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist in his own right. Why he’s not a huge star in the new folk genre mystifies me. Maybe because Fonfara choses to live in Minnesota. At any rate, we’re really lucky to have him (Check out 'Company Town' live from Cedar Cultural Center).
And then there’s songwriter, producer and artist Jim White, who rarely graces the north with his unique blend of roots music and philosophical (often sardonic) lyrics. Pitchfork had an apt description: “all the comparisons that can be made to Tom Waits, Lambchop, Grandaddy and Vic Chesnutt will only tell a small part of the story. What all these disparate elements that White pulls together add up to is White's alone, a style with no real name, American as barbecue sauce on apple pie.” (Watch a live version of 'If Jesus Drove a Motorhome')
Several years ago, as a brand-new songwriter, I came across this independent music documentary by White called, 'Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus'. Admittedly, it sounds trite to say it changed my life, but it did change the course of my music. The movie is a travelogue of sorts, dark folk song vignettes interspersed with eerie scenery and interviews of life in the south. The film—and its soundtrack—introduced me to artists that have had a profound impact on my sound and songwriting: 16 Horsepower, The Handsome Family, Johnny Dowd and Jim White himself.
White’s film was a portal for me. It was C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe, Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole. One intriguing artist from the film led to another, who led to another, who led to another and so on. Somehow it tied me back to my country, Pentecostal upbringing in a way I struggle to explain. I saw how music—and life—could be married to the dark and light and all the grays in between.
Live music is powerful magic. It has transformative, healing powers. And I need to be transformed. Tonight my church is barn in southern Wisconsin, where I can listen and learn and be moved by the spirit.
P.S. Wanna see what I've been working on? Check out my new folk-psych music project, Bye Bye Banshee.
Death is all around us. Mostly in America, we avoid it. For some reason, it's comforting to acknowledge Lady Death and make peace with her.
When I write a song that confronts my fears...when I sing and breathe out that fear, that ominous presence--a kind of exorcism happens. And the fear is banished. Or at least slinks away sullenly into a dark corner somewhere.
That's what happened with this song: healing magic. (Also, it's kind of badass, as acoustic songs go.)
A recurring nightmare.
A nightmare no more.
This odd-shaped box holds many secrets
Some spill out too readily
Some aren't mine to tell
Some I hold too dearly
Some I lose indefinitely
Some I lose permanently
(which is probably for the best)
Once we were children of the light…
And the darkness was our maker and mover
Lurking in the trees
Hiding behind shady motives
Pushing us onward
With that voice.
That voice like Velvet.
Like Velvet that someone got whiskey-sick on
and now it's all crunchy
but still manages to be...
pretty fucking cool.
Album: Phantom Radio
Artist: Mark Langegan Band
Purchased gently used at: Jive Time Records in Seattle
**************************************Listening on my vintage Airline console (circa 1962?)
which resides in my illegal-yet-overpriced apartment somewhere in West Seattle.
Quick Bible Quiz: name a time or place when Jesus judged or condemned a woman for ANYTHING.
I grew up reading the Bible and not a single incident comes to mind.
So, would Jesus stand outside an abortion clinic and harass or threaten or do violence to women? HELLLLLLLLNO. To those who claim they are "pro-life" for religious reasons ("Christian"), I encourage you to learn about--and follow--your own religion. You know, the religion you claim is true and you seem to think everyone else should follow.
Jesus taught peace, love and empathy. But like the ruling classes of Europe before them, American Republicans and the so-called Christian Right have rebranded Jesus, bastardized him for their own gain. Someone's profiting from this rebranding effort, and it's not the poor, the sick or the homeless.
The Jesus evangelical Christians follow is a total asshole, pretty much the opposite of Jesus from the Bible. Jesus has been drastically rebranded from hero to villain. From olive-skinned peace-loving teacher to white, violently religious douchebag.
In the scriptures, Jesus is an incredibly compassionate person, NOT one who denies basic human rights such as food, clothing and shelter to those who need it most. NOT a god who withholds medicine to the sick, one who prefers to let people die to boost profits. (He did say "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's"--yes, the Jesus of the Bible told his followers to pay their taxes). NOT one who loudly condemns women in public for so-called wrongdoing. NOT one who is in favor of humiliating or killing women for "justice".
Jesus was mostly pure love. But you know what made him really pissed him off? It wasn't women. It was judgmental men--hypocrites. And men who made a profit off religion. Men who used religion for their own gains.
P.S. Want to get your very own re-branded Jesus doll in time for Christmas? Capitalism is the reason for the Season!
Masters of Performance: Chris Cornell, Part 2
Note: I just woke up this morning to find out about Chris Cornell's death. He was a music hero to me, mostly because of his phenomenal, expressive singing voice and partly because Soundgarden was one of my all-time favorite rock bands. RIP, Chris Cornell. The world won't be the same without you. 5/18/17 -JJ
7 live performance moves you should steal from Chris Cornell:
Create a Conversation.
One of the great things about watching Chris Cornell perform in Seattle was watching the ongoing, natural conversation that was happening between him and thousands of fans. While making that kind of connection with total strangers is more challenging, engaging the audience—asking them questions, answering their questions or just bantering like you would with a friend—makes a show personal and memorable. Janis Joplin was brilliant at inviting the audience to converse with her, as was Townes Van Zandt. When you listen to their respective live recordings, you feel like you’re part of something…instead of just listening to something.
Perform with Emotion.
One of the biggest gifts a performer can give the audience is to share their emotions in a genuine and raw way. I see this so rarely; Chris Cornell is pretty great at it. It doesn’t hurt to start out with a gorgeous voice, but plenty of great singers fail to move me emotionally. Conveying true emotion—and bringing the crowd along to feel it with you—is harder to do then most people think. It means vulnerability, letting go of ego so you can really ‘feel’ what you’re singing/playing. It also means letting go of self-consciousness and the need for perfection.
Perfection is not terribly interesting, especially if the song or performance lacks emotion. Some roughness is absolutely essential.
Provide some eye candy.
Cornell had an understated but beautiful set and visually it set the mood for the evening. Humans don’t just hear things with our ears, we “hear” with our eyes, too. I love it when smaller bands or individuals take the time to do this—it really adds magic to a performance.
Sure, it takes a little extra effort to create a backdrop or add a few stage props, some lighting effects, etc. but it helps your audience get (and stay) in the mood and feel more like they’re at a show, and less like they’re just watching some random band.
P.S. unless you’re as recognizable as Chris Cornell, you should probably have your band/artist name displayed on stage during your set. This is helpful for getting new fans to know who you are and for them to reference when they're sharing pics/videos of your show. If you’re looking for DIY backdrop ideas there are some excellent tips here.
Use effective transitions to tie songs together.
I think many artists (especially ones who perform solo) struggle with how to tie the songs together and keep momentum going as they switch instruments, tune, etc. This was one of my favorite parts of the Higher Truth show: I absolutely loved the transitions between songs. In addition to conversing with the crowd, Cornell had a record player on stage and his tech played snippets of vinyl sometimes between the live songs. In addition, Cornell used a loop pedal sparingly but effectively during some transitions and as a swelling cacophony at the end of the show. It really got the crowd pumped for the encore.
Invite a guest or two—living or dead—to join you on stage.
For this tour, Chris Cornell played mostly solo and acoustic.But he had an excellent cellist, Bryan Gibson, who joined him for several songs throughout the evening; he was absolutely stellar and gathered his own applause during the show. Cornell also told a very hilarious—but clearly fictitious—tale of how they met “back in the day”. In addition, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined him onstage for a couple of songs, much to the delight of the crowd.
But one of the appearances that impressed me the most was Cornell’s former backing pianist—and songwriter in her own right—Natasha Shneider, who died of cancer in 2008. Cornell had recorded her piano part years earlier and put it on vinyl. He explained this as he set the needle on the record; as her beautiful playing filled the auditorium, Cornell and Gibson rounded out the trio. It was a really lovely song and a fitting tribute to his friend.
Change things up. Frequently.
Honestly, when I first saw the stage before the show, I’ll admit I did a teeny tiny eye roll at the 7…8…9? guitars on stage. For a SOLO acoustic show, mind you. But it made sense during the show—Cornell kept the performance interesting by changing things up frequently. In addition to some of the things I mentioned earlier—such as musical guests and good transitions—he changed instruments (different tunings, different sounds, harmonica) regularly throughout the set. The show had a lot of variety, considering he was on stage by himself for most of the 3 hours he performed.
Oh, and wow: kudos to his hard-working guitar tech who barely stood still the entire show.
- Steal a clever idea from a master performer.
At some point in the show I realized that Cornell was wearing a harmonica rack around his neck—sans harmonica—and that he was actually singing into it, instead of a headset mic. I marveled over this clever idea before he explained how he saw Neil Young do it; Cornell stole the idea from him.
I hope some of these ideas are helpful. Please let me know if you have some additional advice for people looking to improve their live show.
The way some men objectify women publicly on the street has been pissing me off for years. It's bullshit and it needs to stop, pronto.
In San Antonio street harassment was constant and scary. Any time I tried to walk somewhere, guys whistled at me, followed me in their cars, propositioned me when I was walking my dogs, told me to get into their cars at the bus stop; I almost never felt safe walking around that town.
Now that I'm in Seattle it's so much better. But even in a city with significantly more gender equality, street harassment happens, especially when a woman passes a group of younger men on the street after dark. Last night it happened twice to me in about 10 minutes as I was walking around downtown before a show.
Both times it happened like this...
*one guy looks me up and down*
Guy: "I would hit THAT" / "I'd do THAT"
*other guys laugh*
I knew they were talking to me because both times I was the only woman around. I can't tell you how terrible it is to be called an OBJECT--not 'her' but 'it' or 'that'--but when it happens in public it's even worse.
Are you purposely trying to dehumanize me?
Were you raised by misogynistic wolves?
Or perhaps you're just a shitty excuse for a human being?
It's obvious that we're still a far cry from gender equality because street harassment still happens. A LOT. And to all kinds of women of all shapes and sizes, young and old.
Saying you'd have sex with someone so they can hear you on the street is sexual harassment, pure and simple. And dehumanizing the woman by calling her 'it' or 'that' adds insult to injury. But the intent is clear. Make a woman feel small. Make a man seem big.
Men: if you thoughtlessly engage in calling women "THAT" or "IT" (even in "jest"), please fucking check yourselves. And if your mates do it, call them out. All you have to say is "DUDE" in a disapproving voice or roll your eyes. Signify in some way that this is not cool. It's not that hard to do. Literally referring to a person as an object has never been right and I think most of us can agree that harassing any human being on the street is repugnant.
If all us--both men and women--express our disgust when demeaning sexual comments are made about a woman, the behavior will die out. Organizations like Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment are making people aware of the issue and helping women speak out. And if you haven't experienced street harassment, check out the viral video 10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman.
To the next man who says "I'd hit THAT" (in front of me):
I won't pretend I didn't hear your douchebag comment, they way I usually do.
Next time I'm going to call your shitty ass out, right there on the street in front of your friends. I'm going to shame you publicly for sexually harassing me.
I'll make you think twice about making that kind of comment to another woman.
The WOMAN you would 'do'
P.S. kudos to the amazing men who are enlightened enough to tackle this issue and do something about it. Aziz Ansari's Netflix series 'Master of None' has an amazing episode on sexual harassment entitled Ladies & Gentleman (Episode 7) that deals with men being kind of oblivious to the harassment women experience on a daily basis. And blogger Nate Pyle explains how he will teach his son to see women as more than just bodies. The post is really amazing and worth a read.
Tired of being harassed...or want to read more about the issue? Here are some good resources:
10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman
Hollaback! A movement to help end street harassment
Stop Street Harassment A non-profit org dedicated to documenting and stopping gender-based harassment worldwide
6 Things Men Can Do to Stop Street Harassment
Oh, goodie! The High Times horoscope is out. Here's mine, with FULL COMMENTARY by yours truly (ME).
Capricorn - Squeezing Through the Cracks (AKA SQUEEZING INTO MY PANTS, AS I HAVEN'T SHED MY TEXAS WEIGHT YET.)
In contemplating two attractive options, Capricorn, you might be able to create a superior third of your own. (DUH.) With a cluster of earth planets in your fellow earth sign, Virgo, you might be reconsidering certain choices, to accommodate your increasingly specific tastes. (YES, I'M MOVING. AGAIN, GODDAMN IT.) What used to work just doesn’t seem to do the trick anymore (MEN), but some new passion is around the corner. (WOMEN?) True satisfaction is at hand, settle for nothing less. (MY PROBLEM, IN A NUTSHELL.) Indica: Berry White (THX, DUDE.)
Disappointed that the rapture didn't happen...again?
Watch Post-Rapture Blues