Ragdale Residency

For the past two weeks I have been in residency at Ragdale (the late, great Howard Shaw's compound) composing songs for a new album (tentatively entitled HUSK) and working on my first musical (I got three songs into an adaptation of Monica Byrne's "What Every Girl Should Know" only to realize there wasn't nearly enough action to build a musical - now looking at Jose Rivera's "Marisol"- stay tuned.)


It's been great. The home is built on a beautiful prairie that I get to spend a lot of time in; My room has everything I could possibly need (keyboard/bathroom/patio/lots of light/lots of work space etc) and the other artists in residence are wonderful people-mostly writers (novelists, poets) who are always up for helping me weave more effective narratives around my work and help me understand what it is that I am trying to say. I sort of verbal vomit then they repeat back to me, in full sentences, what I might be trying to say. It's a wonderful, magical translation system.

I've played silly songwriting games getting me to write as many as 8 songs in two hours and have spent three days editing one line of a song... Ive read a lot about the dirty 30s (my desired setting for the post apocalyptic world the main character in my concept album will live in-more on that later!) and watched hours of musicals and documentaries on musicals. Ive listened to a dozen new songwriters and sightread work from my favorite composers (my current binder is a bizarre combo of Debussy, Copeland, Tori Amos and Sam Cooke).

I have unwound from the tightly coiled, bloated ball of stress-which is the form I arrived in- into a more meditative, less anxious, clearer thinker who is not in a constant fight or flight mode (but still with the normal anxieties of "I just want a finished product of something so I can have something to share/sell and see the fruits of my labor and ring the bell and feel the relaxing pride of a devoted worker bee whose mission has been accomplished!"-alas no amount of finished product has ever made me feel this way.... But I still hope!

This residency has been a hibernation for licking wounds in many ways. Straight out of school (as if school wasn't enough of a tsunami) I threw myself into the roles of performer/producer and composer, running a company and dreaming up large scale projects and blasting the world with my biggest-craziest dreams to decimate any thoughts that would follow me out of conservatory of not being good enough/smart enough/talented enough to do blah blah blah -snore but true-. 

Although I accomplished many of my goals, I was often so far over my head that.... I don't even know... So many bashings and hard knocks. So much miscommunication filling up the cracks of an insanely busy career that lead to tragically broken relationships with people I love and care about... Just because I was not available to put silly rumors to rest or comfort people when they were scared that they had followed me onto a race track or be still long enough to hear my own guidance system teach me how to protect myself against the many many many attacks that artists who put themselves out there-to lead and to be part of the conversation-receive. 

I was certainly not prepared for the last two years but I don't think anyone is ever prepared and I don't intend to spend the rest of my life waiting until I'm ready...

Anyhow, as this residency comes to an end, I cant help but think that gratitude doesn't even begin to cover it. So many people were involved in me being here, now, "chicken scratching for my mortality" (long live JONI!), reading, score study, writing, recording into the night, discussing art and the humanities, building large scale dreams of lyrical narrative that could open up new worlds of feeling and compassion of myself to myself, of myself for my people and of my people for myself and on and on. As a performer and composer, I face myself every day-its a stark, terrifying feeling. There is no where to hide when your escapist form of storytelling depends on being entirely present and staring intensely at your soul, your feelings, your intentions and beliefs until you collapse from overwhelm. That being said, it's a beautiful privilege and I wouldn't trade it for the world. 

Im going through my songs today and mercilessly editing and trashing nonworkable material as I slowly form the concept around my album and create a rough draft playlist. So far Im going with a songwriter who lives in post apocalyptic Chicago and is relearning how to negotiate boundaries with her people and environment. Must word vomit more on my fellow fiction writers to help me fill out this concept. 

Oh how I have missed narrative! Who are we without a story?

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