Category Archives: music

Reading the Lyrics: Thoughts on a Perfect Concert

In the fall, I wrote about Over the Rhine’s latest album and the way their work has influenced me as a person since college.  In December, my dad sent me an email with a link to a concert: Mary Chapin Carpenter, my first singer-songwriter love, was going to play a selection of songs from her throughout her career with the New York Philharmonic.  I bought tickets immediately and began revisiting all of the songs that have spoken deeply into my understanding of the world since I was twelve.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t experience the ache of beauty and have vivid memories of laying on the brown carpet of my childhood bedroom listening to music for hours, often rewinding the same song repeatedly.  Mary Chapin Carpenter wasn’t on my radar, though, until I was about 12–the stage when I began to try to really make sense of the world around me.  I had recently started listening to country music (which was where she was initially marketed).  While my future husband was an hour and a half away the exploring the early nineties rap he would later perform for me, I was requesting Trisha Yearwood and Blackhawk CDs for my birthday, and of course expanding my collections member of BMG music club.  Somehow Come On, Come On made its way into my collection and I don’t think I ever fully recovered–and as I sat last Saturday at Lincoln Center I was simply stunned by the beauty of hearing the most important songs of my adolescence played with a full orchestra.  And this is what Carpenter is able to do: craft lyrics that tap into what it feels to be human that can layer within memory and experience and take on new meaning as the years go by.

Unfortunately I was not given a singing voice, but what  listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s songs and poring over the beautifully crafted lyrics did for me was make me want to write.  I was lucky enough to have the same amazing ELA teacher for all three years of middle school and she pushed me to pursue writing stories and poems, which I did with the kind of adolescent passion I wish I could conjure up now.  I dreamed of crafting lyrics that told the kinds of stories she did–ones that noticed the details other people skipped over like in “Only a Dream” and like John Doe #24, which she wrote after reading a newspaper article about a young black man who was deaf, mute, and later blind who ended up in the Illinois mental health care system in the 1940s.  She made me want to look at the world in a different way, and she still does.

My dad and I have always shared a love a music and my childhood weekend memories are colored by the music he played from the room below my bedroom.  I was obsessed with and fascinated by his record collection that spanned at least ten feet across one of our closets, convinced that each album had some kind of story attached to it.  In third grade I got my own stereo for my bedroom, the first of my friends, and got into the habit of leaving it on when I left.  It drove him crazy, so he would always change the station to country when he passed as my consequence (you remember how hard it was to get the station exactly right before everything went digital, right?).  Unfortunately for him, that tactic stopped working when I was in middle school, but it opened the door to our shared love of country and his ongoing claim that he “was country when country wasn’t cool.” This is true, and in fact Gene Autry was one of his childhood heroes (and one of my and my brother’s favorite Christmas albums).  As Mary Chapin Carpenter became a mainstay in my music rotation, my dad grew to love her work as well, especially 1994’s Stones in the Road.  Listening closely to the lyrics, he said the title song captured his demographic’s generation.  We went to see her at Wright State’s Nutter Center that spring and one of his hero moments was when he talked the guard into letting us sit in two second or third row seats, which remained open during the opening act.  That was twenty years ago. It was magical.

Sitting at Lincoln Center last Saturday, that is exactly how her music felt, and even more so.  In all of the songs she played I saw roots of the ideas and philosophies I still hold dear.  In the  “Notes on the Program,” Rebecca Winzenried writes that the songs played (which were recorded on her latest album Songs from the Movie) included “titles culled from the span of Carpenter’s career, rather than being limited to her better-known hits, and presents those lyrics that demand a listener’s attention.” The entire show was curated like a journey.  Vince Mendoza arranged the orchestral music and said “the key to this project was finding the meaning of the song and “painting” it with the orchestra…I had to deconstruct Mary Chapin’s lyrics to find the underlying emotional thread that opened up a whole world of dramatic possibilities with the orchestra. Nature. Love. Loss.  Remembering. Dreams. Summer in our hometown. Pure humanity.”

So, again, I am left with the reminder that the right words and music are one of the best guides for the road.  I am so thankful for writers (and parents and teachers) who narrate the way for me and push me into my own writing and reflecting.

Feeling September-ish. Or, how Over the Rhine reinvigorated my life last weekend.

This post switched directions a number of times as I wrote it this morning.  There are just a lot of big ideas swirling in my brain this week about music and art and words.  The short version is that music and lyrics breathe life into us.  If you want to take the long way around, read on.

Perfection, to me, often involves traveling with the right kind of music.  In college, I drove on State Route 73 in southwest Ohio at least three times a week.  Most of the time it was early evening when the light softens or at night–and out there you can see so many stars because Oxford, Ohio is surrounded by farmland.  Since I was in Oxford from September-May, these drives often were accompanied by open windows and the heat on my feet.  And of course, the right kind of playlist.  My car became a sanctuary of sorts that allowed me to have time and space to think by myself and my music–the 5 inch binder of CD options–was what spoke to me.  I’m realizing looking back just how important those moments of listening to music and lyrics was to my mental and emotional health.  Those were the days when music like Over The Rhine and Ryan Adams and Patty Griffin were brand new to me.  I heard Bela Fleck’s Big Country for the first time.  The Dixie Chicks threw some attitude into my country music and Nickel Creek pulled me into bluegrass.

Since moving to New York ten years ago, my rhythms with music have changed considerably, mostly because one can’t take the subway and look out on farmland at the same time.  Ten falls ago I walked with my tea to the Hudson River at Riverside Park seeking healing from homesickness and took the music that felt like home, namely the OTR’s Ohio album.  When I moved downtown my river walks and runs changed me along with Iron and Wine and Sufjan Stevens and of course Drunkard’s Prayer.  When I moved to Brooklyn, I commuted by foot and rotated The Head and the Heart, Fleet Foxes, Alicia Keys, Miranda Lambert through the streets of my neighborhood, along with a heavy dose of The Long Surrender.

Last March I moved out of the apartment I lived in by myself into one a stone’s throw from work. It took me five months to realize that music wasn’t playing in the way it once was.  Luckily, this realization came right before a new school year started, and therefore is helping to set the tone for this new season of my life.  September is essentially my new years, after all.  I was lucky enough to escape to Cape Cod during the four days before school started and poetically, Over the Rhine just released their latest album. I knew that to appreciate it fully I needed to hear it not just while doing dishes in my apartment, but away from the city.  I had just read an article about their writing process and learned that my life-line song on their last album was inspired by one of my favorite poets, Adam Zagajewski.  I also read how one of the new songs was inspired by Anne Lamott.  It all seemed too perfect a way to start a new year of teaching reading and writing–and to be reflective and writerly along the way.

So, I was with kindred music listeners.   We put it on as soon as we got past anything that felt like city life, and my ability to breathe deeply coincided with Karin Berquist’s voice and Linford Detweiler’s piano and the rapid increase in trees outside my window.  That was when I was reminded of driving on 73 in my home state–where the music and the lyrics hit you right where they need to and your lungs can fill with air again.

So all weekend, on near empty beaches, with coffee and Bailey’s, and in a hooded sweatshirt I listened to Meet Me At the Edge of the World and felt whole and at home.

the art and psychology of mixed tapes and belonging.

I first read The Perks of Being a Wallflower at the end of college.  It is written as a series of letters to an unknown recipient from a Charlie, a sophomore in high school.  He is the “wallflower” mentioned in the title, whose new friend claims “You see things.  You keeps quiet about them. And you understand.” Charlie’s earnest voice gives names and narrative to the essence of late adolescence. 

I loved it, but didn’t connect with the characters the way high school readers did because I felt like I was a life-stage ahead of them…the characters were in the act of figuring out who they were and I felt like I was already there.  Of course, those are the kinds of cringe-inducing, arrogant things that 22 year olds think.  Reading it now, ten years later, I found myself relating to Charlie’s desire to be connected to the world around him and belong to something greater.  

He collects songs and makes mixed tapes.  He collects books.  He collects moments with his writing.  And he curates them in an attempt to make sense of existence.

I hope it’s the kind of second side that he can listen to whenever he drives alone and feel like he belongs to something whenever he’s sad.  I hope it can be that for him.” 

“I had an amazing feeling when I finally held up the tape in my hand.  I just thought to myself that in the palm of my hand, there was this one tape that had all of these memories and feelings and great joy and sadness.  Right there in my hand. And I thought about how many people have loved these songs. And how many people got through a lot of bad times because of those songs.  And how much those songs really mean.” 

“And all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. and that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing ‘unity.” 

“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.

I’ve been thinking about what my current mixed tape would be (and what would I call it, and how would I design the cover) and which books I would pull off my shelf and hand to the world in an attempt to explain who I am? What stories do I need to write down? 

Because I think there is still, beyond the angst of the teenage years, the collecting and gathering of things that are beautiful and throwing them out into the world.  There is still the hope that someone will catch them and understand the way life’s vignettes of beauty and pain have woven together an existence.  I have come to realize that my 22 year old self was the sophomoric one: the searching and desire to be known and to belong never really goes away.  And though as I’ve gotten older and have some truths to stand on, the mysteries seem to just get wider and taller–and that is when I need my songs and books and stories for some hope along the way.  And, perhaps, a fall adventure to frolic and feel infinite.  At almost 32. And maybe these imagined tapes and anthologies are as much for understanding myself as asking the world to understand me.    


{photo from Anthony Priestas}

There are days when I miss rhythms of home, even though I have lived in New York City for nine years and even though my parents moved out of the house I grew up in six years ago.  I miss when I used to jump in the car before dinner and find a cornfield to watch the sunset.  I miss the way the air smells when I lived in the updraft of the woods and a creek.  I miss drives through the country of southwest Ohio, especially the odd poetry of it being just south of industrial dinosaur bones.  There are some days that I want to cut down the wall leading onto my fire escape and make a porch.  Gah. It can hurt.

So, I thought I would make a round up of my favorite ways that Ohio has inspired song.  I love that even though not everyone who writes about my homestate loves it like I do (though, thank you, thank you Over the Rhine for understanding), but it inspires nonetheless. And, I don’t have plans to move back, but there is no where else I wish I was from.

Ohio/Over the Rhine
Bloodbuzz Ohio/The National
Ohio/Damien Jurado
Carry Me Ohio/Sun Kil Moon
Look at Miss Ohio/Gillian Welch
Ohio/The Black Keys
To Ohio/The Low Anthem

{oh, barns}

{the best friends from high school i could ask for}

{this mixes with Brooklyn, right?}

The Good and the True. Nostalgia and Longing.

Sometimes. Most of the time. I forget. I make life out to be so so complicated. I’m not quite sure what it was that made me start laughing at myself tonight, but it has been one of those evenings where I’ve remembered all that makes my cup over. I will attempt to bring you through the narrative of my current state mostly because I have to have some kind of outlet for the overflow.

First, the Good: Mary Chapin Carpenter’s alto voice. The toy piano sound in Sufjan Steven’s “Lo, Er a Rose is Blooming.” The classical bass in Trinity Grace’s version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” that cuts. right. to. my. heart.

The True: My pastor this weekend talked about how the season of advent and its waiting are meant to wean us away from that which is instant. I’m not sure if it’s my ipod, my netflix or lack of dependents, but I have gotten pretty used to doing what I want when I want…and this is not a good thing. I would please like my life to be simple, organized, physically and emotionally healthy and productive. Today. Aye. I think I am finally truly learning that life can not always be neat, packaged and well designed; and that it is probably better that way.

The Good: following my mom’s recipe for chocolate chip cookies and listening to Christmas music. Laughing (and dancing) to Sufjan’s “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance” (especially the line: your sister’s bangs, she cut them herself).

The True: Today my school had two speakers come and talk to our kids about social action. Both are individuals who had completely different, but difficult stories: one from a broken, broken family in the U.S. and one a former child soldier from the Congo. Their passion ignited my homeroom…they all came back to class as if they had finally woken up, and it was impossible not to be teary at their earnestness. Talking with 13 year olds about how life is not about the stuff that we own is pretty powerful.

The Good: sitting and listening to Christmas music with old, good friends at Rockwood Music Hall and the Gregory Brothers’ rendition of “The Gift of the Magi” and Sarah Fullen singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

The Nostalgia: I’m not quite sure what can account for my deep longings lately. But my heart was aching for England, so I looked through my pictures and just sat and remembered. And this was good for my soul. How is it even possible to become so mindless that we forget the good and the true? I’m not sure, except that I do it all the time. But. I’m happy to report that I’m feeling like myself. And full. And thankful.