Nina Simone Video
Hi All -
Hope this finds you well. It's been a while.
Will try to keep longwinded rambling to a minimum. Promise. But, well, you know...
For starters, let's just say we're noticing a bit of "flow" and progress in some recent songwriting efforts. Where I hazarded to worry that "it's been a long, cold, and lonely winter" (nods to George) - a kind that had me altogether sapped of any significant creativity, much less new material - some recent traction and work suggest otherwise. I think a few of the current songs I'm playing with would work well together as an EP, but the jury's still out on that, & we'll keep you posted when we know more (if you'd like)...
In the meantime: We made a video.
You can watch it here. &/or down below, too.
Song/Video Bio: We did a Winter 2015 "Hope, Alaska" promo here in Anchorage some weeks ago, and in addition to meeting and engaging with a few new listeners, this promotional presented an opportunity to film a video with CA/AK filmmaker, Tom Trainor.
We decided to pitch the song to NPR's "Tiny Desk Concert" contest (deadline tomorrow), hence the occasional cuts to Clover Severin's dollhouse roll top desk at my feet.
The album version of 'Nina Simone' remains one of my personal favorites on the record, & so it feels/felt a little risky to present this alternate version of it. However, as a fan of alt. versions and b-side cuts of some of my favorite-ever tracks, I'm also delighted to have a different version of the song out there for listening/viewing. (See "The Weight," Wilco's "Hummingbird"...Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series Vol. 1 - infinitum...)
I continue to love how atmospheric & "wintry" Evan, James, Kat, Aaron, and the rest of us could make the album version of the tune. When Evan sent me the rough mix in 2013, I was seated in a coffee shop too early in the day, the pitch black winter morning outside the window. The rare occasion that I felt like, overly identified w/ that song's troubled, grieving narrator. Evan's production reached to the song's emotional core in such a way that I could practically hear the December frost coming off the breath, steel, and keys in my headphones. And I still love that.
Taking the song into a bar or live setting, however, is another animal altogether, and so I've also come to love how Aaron, Marty, and Cameron (& also Tom Bargelski, not present for this shoot) have helped shape it into a ghost story told on a long, dark, lonesome highway drive. I like to think of it as a weary "last call" in the saloon, or - as songwriter Bill Mallonee once said - "going out with a whimper."
Tiny Desk might be a long shot - god, the talent there is though the roof(!) - but watching/listening to this version of the song is not. Go check it out - share it, like it, pan it, or whatever else people do on YT now besides rant about politics and insult each other. Most of all: Enjoy. This was a song written specifically for an art exhibit wedding paintings with poetic riffs for titles a few years ago. Songwriters were challenged to write songs around specific paintings and titles in the exhibit & I was invited to take part. From a painting that looked like an Alaskan ghost story set at 5am in mid-November - and one line, "a dream that's not a dream" - 'Nina Simone' was born. I share that only to say, again: Enjoy. I enjoyed the process and opportunity of this song, after all, more than many other endeavors and undertakings. There's perhaps no more fulfilling joy than song work and listening, and it'd be the bee's knees if more Comments fields - YT and everywhere - affectionately testified to that, no?
Be well & stay tuned -
from the friendship fire,
A few days ago, the folks at Kickstarter emailed me a kind note, the subject line of which read “Happy Anniversary!” Kudos to them for reminding me that one year ago my “Hope, Alaska” crowdsourcing effort was successfully funded. I thought this merited correspondence of one form or another.
How are you? And where are you?
Some have dropped a line, or inquiries via social media, inquisitive emails, maybe even a smoke signal or two over the past year: Are you touring? Writing more songs? When’s the next record? How about coming to ‘insert city here’?
It’s (always) good to hear from you.
And, hmmm. Good questions.
Have you ever heard of tasseography? Of course you have. (Also known - I discovered last night - as “tasseomancy” or “tassology.” Yeah: Wikipedia.) It’s just the high falutin', $5 word for divining the future by reading tea leaves.
I’ve always loved when a character who can do that shows up in a story, book, or film. Some rest easier knowing the future’s written into the lines of their own palms and go track down the right oracle to read these to them. Others want a gypsy to reveal what’s coming their way by describing the hazy scenes drifting through a crystal ball. For my money, I think I could appreciate quietly, calmly relaxing into a cup of tea, after which the divining channel across from me eyes the spent leaves and shares what he or she sees. I think part of why I would prefer this method is because a cup of tea would make any good news all the better, and would doubly soften the blow of even the worst imaginable doomsday prophecy.
And what if I could read tea leaves? What a vocation! But I can’t. Rather, I’ve never tried, and not because I’m not curious, but mostly because some things you just intuitively understand about yourself early in life, and other things you come to more thoroughly accept as you age and grow into your soul.
Things like: These damn melodies don’t stop following me around. Along, too - like Pooh Bear, or some wild-haired Doctor Seuss character - with puzzling arrangements of words and lines. And they turn up most frequently - over the last few years - in autumn. Why is this? How is it that for the past few years, summer can feel like a terrifying, bone dry creativity drought, and then with the shrinking sunlight, the shock of yellow across the birch trees, and the arrival of the morning frost, I suddenly find myself flush in a cascade of…flow? But I have to watch what I say when I say “flow,” because I don’t know if it resembles “Flow” in the way that the-expert-on-Flow-whose-name-I-can’t-pronounce-or-find-it-in-me-to-look-up-right-now means it. (Maybe?)
Whatever it is, or whatever it has become - something about that nip on the fall air, and the sucker punch of those colors in the trees, and then the darkening of the sky (heavier clouds, darker mornings) - something in the swell of it all, along with rumors of winter, taps into some reserve of…hunger, of hot-blooded longing. I don’t know, a more practical human would probably go wrestle a moose to the death and take it home for the family to survive on moose burgers and steaks all winter. To the contrary, each fall, I incline towards the works of Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver. I comb the coastline in the rain, kick up leaves on the nearest trails during my lunch hour, drag the kids on aimless expeditions outside after school…to turn up who knows what, at who knows where. And wonder if some elusive something wants to show up. Or not.
I’ve started to wonder if it’s my own version of, well, not exactly tasseography, but something like it…Tasseography, that is, only if it allowed for reading the underside of the fall leaves you at random kick up or turn over in your romps through the woods.
Occasionally, in the act of romping and puzzling, Surprise lurks around the corner. Such as when, a few years ago, this came to mind during a walk in the woods:
She leaves me strawberry tops
And rose hip seeds
And gold birch leaves
I don’t remember now what compelled me in those lines, but I know when they showed up - in the midst of play, of Not Working - that I liked them more than things I was sitting down at my desk and Trying, Endeavoring to Write and Do and Make. Something about the shadowy, secret, uncertain location in which those lines were hiding struck me as a way more curious and interesting place than the bustling, mildly-anxious, and uninspired landscapes where too many chunks of my time are spent.
(Those lines eventually found a place in a song that became “The Victim Well,” the fourth track on 2012’s but so beautiful EP.)
A couple years later, not in any kind of place (for a variety of reasons) to consider or begin constructing, producing, or investing in the lengthy, time-consuming process of making an album, other lines showed up and tugged on me:
The wind whips up the leaves
And a shiver dances through me
And I shake till I freeze
But then I burn like a star through the evening
( - “Olena”)
And these, too:
Creek side – a holy communion
Your blue eyes and the midnight sun
A red wine sky bathed the horizon
While the mountains
Walked along with us in song
( - “Book of Consolation”)
And then others, arriving at the eleventh hour - well after I had relented, caved to the idea of recording another album. These (who knew?) became a title track:
Northern Lights on the sea
Shooting stars through the bay
Nothing left to want or be
When everything becomes me…
( - “Hope, AK”)
(This is not to brag. I'm not always thrilled with these lines, or the songs in which they rest. I'm only trying to speak to...a process? To lessons learned? And to...places I've found wherein my blood runs a little warmer, heart beats faster...without "Trying" as hard, as relentlessly as I'm otherwise accustomed to doing.)
Many artists are well served by - and rightfully make a good case for - honoring their craft through ritual, through making intentional dates and times with the/a Muse. I can only advocate for such a practice. By giving one’s art form “office hours” - a prescribed, specific window of time, kind of the way a professor opens his or her doors to students at specific times of day - these individuals prove better suited for productivity, and ultimately - by some measure, their measure - “success.” In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s those individuals - the steadfast, scheduled, ritualistic creative types - who, as one memorable boss long ago presumed, “are making all the big bucks.”
Meanwhile, I think what I’m doing here is a long, rambling attempt to gather under one big umbrella the variety of good questions I’ve received this past year, though into a (albeit barely-) cohesive narrative. To address, in the form of a letter, everything from how it’s going to…gee, Bower, when/where’s the next record? The world tour? And more.
Here’s what I got:
It’s autumn again. In Alaska, the paper birch are already mostly bare. The coffee tastes best from now through March. The boys are in second and sixth grades. I left my midtown apartment this summer and we moved across town, back to the neighborhood where my 11 year-old was born in 2004. For now, for the time, single parenting puts a little cramp on touring out of state…and sometimes also in-state, too. I have a few ideas in the works for future prospects in the lower 48, but nothing firmed up yet.
But I’ve also rarely, if ever, fancied myself “an entertainer” - not in the way some friends and family members have made it their bread and butter, cash cow, etc. I do love a good room - even more so, an engaged and friendly crowd. I prefer small spaces. Houses even more so. I favor house concerts and the conversation that comes during these. And yet, I'll play almost anywhere I'm invited, too. Every room, like every soul, rests easier with a little music...
When it's all said and done, one of my favorite places in the world is a (home) recording studio. On its best days, a recording studio space offers all the "Beginner's" joy of an art classroom. Remember what it was like to paint or draw when you were in preschool? I don't. But in a recording studio, I'm convinced that it was a lot like that. And - from what I've seen of my own kids and their classmates in that setting - that's a way to be in the world that boasts good, soulful returns. Likewise, the recording studio reliably - over the making of these last two records - has revealed an essential, elemental truth about my life that (as you can see by now) is extremely difficult to put into words. Something about joy (even if the songs aren't always joyful), and about playing (versus Striving and Working), and feeling a hum, a low vibration in the heart stuff that for a moment tells you you're at home in your life.
In the meantime…It’s autumn. I’m hugging the coastline when and while I can. Every day, a new sky hangs over the ocean. I’m ducking into the bare trees, kicking up leaves, humming melodies.
On good days, I’m “a bear of very little brain” again. Sometimes I’m that lucky.
(I have two - no, three(!) - new songs that I like a lot. Fragments of a couple others that I’m not very crazy about - at least not yet…)
Meanwhile, you never answered my question:
How are you?
Drop a line.
And go kick up some leaves. Tell me what you see. Or don’t see.
Tell me what you hear.
Tell me what makes you sing...
nothing left to want or be,
"When that sun passes by & leaves a crushed cranberry sky..."
- Welcome the Night
Last night, from a 2nd floor bedroom window on W. 24th...
This time of year, I think of Alaska as a monastery coming out of its annual, winter-long silent retreat. Many of us have endured the long, dark quiet spell (& others reveled in it) - its peaks and valleys and unexpected moments of grace and terror. The bell sounds, we bow and move our stiff, sore limbs & the other parts of ourselves that nearly atrophied in hibernation.
And though you can strive to remain in the rhythm of your breath as you wake to the world again, I find there's a moment each spring in the Great North when I step outside, or - as pictured here - into my bedroom with a view, and am instantly walloped all over again by the beauty of a world on the cusp of full bloom...
Heart stopping. Breathtaking....
This weekend, Jack Tobin at AK's KONR informed me that Welcome the Night, from last year's "Hope, Alaska" album currently sits in its top ten. Means a lot, as it remains my favorite song on the album. I started writing it in 2008 - I had "Moon River" stuck in my head when I began drafting it - and I kept working on it till I thought it was ready to record in 2013. I've long thought of it as a sort-of hymn to/for the Spenard neighborhood in Anchorage, where I first lived when I moved to AK in 2003. I was glad to learn it's getting airplay and that - from the sound of things - a few people appreciate the tune...
Hope you've emerged from your own den by now, welcomed spring, toasted those blushing night skies in your own way. Here's to also hoping we can meet over music and all other things good in the not-distant future.
it's all wrapped up in beauty, JJB
Who Made the Song?
Somehow, it’s again that time of year up here – Thanksgiving’s nearly within arm’s reach, we’re careening towards final exams at the university, and, in Alaska, the sun’s rising later and setting (for my East coast sensibilities) entirely too early. The darker hours arrive packed with a little bit of extra weight, so that I catch myself humming or murmuring Take a load off, Fanny with added oomph. I hunker down, turn on the low lights, spin the Nina Simone and Bach and John Prine records – those are my vitamins – and dig into one of the long novels comprising my never-ending list.
This then also means it’s the time of year that I pitch a curve ball to my students, pull out Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” and propose we engage in some variation of, initiate a rigorous spin on the questions she asks herself. (“The Summer Day?’ Really? Professor Bower, I coasted on black ice the whole way to class tonight. The sun went down at 4pm. I have frost inside my Subaru.”)
Please come along with me a moment. Trust me. I promise. No, I insist:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean…
And then of course there’s the wonderful query that concludes the poem. I’m tempted to include it above, but something begs me to hold off. Only in the hopes that if you’ve never read the poem, you’ll go find it and do the work of reading it all the way through – top to bottom, beginning to end – and experience the satisfaction of earning that last line. Her last question.
The point of the exercise is pretty straightforward – hardly complicated:
I wonder what questions draw you back to life again and then again through the days? Do you utter them aloud to no one in private? Does your dog cock its head, wag its tail when you do? Do you bashfully whisper them to someone in the dark, maybe slightly embarrassed, even though you know he or she will respond with an affectionate smile? Do they nearly hum, do they practically glow inside you?
Here are a few of my questions. Some days, they seem like hulking ravens I carry around in me, and during these mornings that I manage to rise early, I set them free, cast them towards the visible stars, those flecks of undying light glittering across the ink-black dark of 6am:
Who made the song?
Who crafted the impulse to sing?
Where did (the) music come from? What causes a song to evoke tears, goose bumps, and shivers? What song has my six-year-old been singing all year long – besides that annoying one from Frozen? The other one, the unceasing song he sings that changes melody throughout the day, that never repeats the same words twice; the one that if he catches you listening he’ll stop singing until he’s alone again?
Any day now, or one evening soon – in a Walgreen’s, a low-lit church, or in my living room – I’m going to hear the grave, opening bars of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and I’ll be seven-years-old again.
Second grade. Candlelight everywhere I turn my gaze within the cavernous church. Christmas Eve. The overflow of guests spill into the Narthex, pack the balcony, and even flood into the choir’s designated pews at the sides of the church. (The choir remained in their loft at the front of the sanctuary those holiday evenings.)
This must be where my affection for minor keys and shadowy, tear-stained tunings and chords came to life in me. I still recall the way the low end of the church organ seemed to dig deeper that evening, to plow under something rooted even below the bottom of me, and unearthed maybe a light, or at least a source that seemed to then spring and rapidly wend through and ripple along the entire length of me. Unremarkable, on one hand – easy for others to ignore, maybe like a homeless, unwed teenager giving birth in a stable – but also unlike anything I’d ever experienced or witnessed. Let’s hazard a guess that on that night, a music lover was born. In one organ’s lingering, unfathomable vibration…
Whatever it was – whether the dirge-like melancholy of the music set to this Whoever-Isaiah guy’s mysterious, mournful words, or the sensual and terrifying soup of sounds and reverberations issuing from the fierce cage of that instrument, and/or the collective croons and groans of a church in overflow that single night of the year: I shook. For a moment, True North quivered and pulsed. Felt it first under and then on, all over my skin. I certainly found it hard to remain still, and I fought to contain myself. I may have looked like I needed to pee.
Did they feel it, too? Looking up and around at the congregation, I studied faces for signs. (In my memory – and so I’ll allow that I could be wrong, but – this space forever remains a rigidly somber, deadly serious room. A place where a Holy Spirit could’ve done cartwheels, a son of God could have performed miracles in a clown suit and not roused an emotion or evoked a single fevered passion from the gathered crowd.)
Say what you will any old way about church, religion, and what all, but you gotta admit, “who mourns in lowly exile” is a pretty badass, enviable line…
How do you, following a song like that, manage to stagger to the podium to read from the text? And in a tone that imitates reverence no less? How are you not wracked with sobs, or babbling incoherently, or stupid giddy in the bewildering comedy? Never mind finding any nerve to confidently or blithely or humbly offer a homily after an organ shook the earth off its axis? Why didn’t they hand out glasses of water? Call the Red Cross? A boy was on fire. Call Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson – someone notify Levon Helm…He’d know what to do.
Not too long following that Christmas Eve, I woke late in an evening. Or maybe I never fell asleep. I was a terribly anxious child, and never more so than at nighttime. I left my bed, and proceeded to the living room, walked into the light and sound of the television. There I found my mom watching Simon & Garfunkel’s Central Park reunion concert on PBS. I think it was “The Boxer” – maybe “The Sounds of Silence” – but perhaps the specifics don’t matter now. Except that while I didn’t know who these men were, I wanted to – I wanted nothing else – and that night I had no idea if I would ever see or hear them again. I was a boy. The world blew away each night and miraculously began all over again every new morning. These two might have only proven briskly passing characters in the running dream that was waking life. So, I only recall that, seated there beside my mom on the couch, True North quivered again. (Once more, with feeling…)
I wanted that. But what specifically? A record? To sing? A guitar? All of it? The compelling glow, the vibration again rippling across the skin?
I guess I’ve never stopped asking those questions. Never stopped being wracked with wonder, going to a kind-of school boy crush inside, becoming slack-jawed, jumbled, terror-stricken towards that one marvelous, mysterious object of affection that my life, with knees knocking, has shyly never stopped courting:
And why is that light inside – the one brought to life by music, the arts – the only thing I’ve ever truly trusted? How, why has nothing else ever aroused so much of my affection or wonder as the perilous, redemptive journey you can undertake in a single song? (Granted, this love affair has come with costs, debts that I hope my kids never incur…)
I hear there’s now a science to this; that the scientists can capably, rationally explain what I’m describing. But I’m not ready to abandon the mystery. Not yet. The mystery – the longing, the affection, the universe within the reverberations of a single, melancholy minor chord – draws me again and again to court something I’m tempted to call Love, but that might rather prove Tomfoolery, Naïve, Impractical, Self-Destructive, Temporarily Insane. A Fool’s Errand…or, All the Above & Then Some.
Note: Twice during the recording of Hope, Alaska someone approached me – on two separate occasions – and asked me if I had embarked on a new relationship, assumed there was a new woman in my life. Something about the way I carried myself. Something in my face suggested new love. I smiled – did I blush, too? “It’s the songs,” I told one friend. I laughed. And I couldn’t say more than that. “Just” the songs.
Thank you for your kind assistance during my journey this year.
And apologies on the delayed arrival of these rewards. Numerous times throughout the Kickstarter campaign, I heard people inform me that the learning curve is substantial, and that once you embark on your first Kickstarter, you’ll know how to run one better the next time around. (You mean to tell me people launch multiple Kickstarter campaigns? And live to tell the tale?) People also informed me that the people backing your campaign really want to see you succeed in your effort, and so they will understand when, say, you return to work after a month of album-promotion to hundreds of neglected emails, they’ll empathize when you return to the classroom and your students ask if you’re really a professor of this discipline or a poorly trained actor, and they’ll remain patient if you fall a little behind in getting things out as quickly after the campaign as you imagined you would.
Continued, large-hearted thanks (without end) for your support. I still can’t wrap my head around the way it’s all played. All you folks were/are/remain incredible. It’s as much your album as mine in many ways.
There’s a Thanksgiving holiday around the corner from this letter, and it perhaps goes without saying (but shouldn’t) that I’ll lift a glass to all of you that evening, and likely during the rest of the celebrating and many toasts that follow throughout this holiday season and into the New Year.
Happy Holidays, all of you, without whom…
Nothing left to want or be,
Jonathan J. Bower
I've been haunted the last few years by a line in The National's song, "Bloodbuzz, Ohio" where lead singer Matt Berninger half-growls/-whimpers, "The floors are falling out from everybody I know..."
It's seemed that way at times, frankly - so much so that when my own floor was falling out from under me, I couldn't contain myself any longer and I broke down in songs/lamentations aimed at trying to sort out what I was going through and what I saw others going through on (seemingly, at times) all sides around me. The couples that you imagined were rooted in bedrock 'suddenly' divorce, the cancer diagnoses of dear friends some days seem to roll in like fish counts in AK each summer, ailing and aging parents and siblings, and then our children, too, all haunting us with the truth of our own swiftly accelerating speed through life. And then, too, what happened to so and so? Where is that friend that meant the world to me and my journey my junior year of college? He/She's not even on Facebook? What's happened? How'd I get here? Where is everybody? Where's my tribe?
I don't mean to sound morose. Am I alone here? I don't think so. I'm 42, and when I do go out with friends in my "demographic" - at this "stage of life" - we frequently talk about dad or mom's cancer, the (marriage) counseling session, the court date, a favorite teacher's passing, our kids' wounds - the scraped knee to the broken heart.
I'm trying to tell you the condition under which a heart - mine, maybe yours - becomes primed, rests wide open, yawning a space that only art can reach or attempt to fill. It's days like these - in the midst of heart-pounding bewilderment and a gnawing sense of life's hastening and perhaps-unsustainable pace - that I recently collided with and encountered my "long-ago" friend Amy Meissner's return to her first love, the visual arts, specifically in textiles. (I've hyperlinked her name, above, in the hopes you will steer yourself towards her work, pronto.) Is she winning awards for her recent work? Yes. Do I love that her work's being recognized and wildly, warmly received right now? I sure do. But if it weren't receiving the accolades, the grant money, and the museum showings, and I stumbled on it as I first did - through the curious, algorithmic miracle of social media - would I still find myself quietly awed and amazed by what she's doing right now? Yes, yes, and yes.
Amy's not such a "long ago" or distant friend, really. We both live nearby, in Anchorage, Alaska. However, as with so many good friends appearing throughout critical junctures of my life, until very recently, it'd been a little time since we'd last been in contact. Let's blame the constant striving to do right by our children and families, while then also, somehow doing right by ourselves in the process of our arts pursuits. There are only so many hours in the day.
A little over a decade ago - well before my recent return to music, and hers to textiles - we were passionately driven to try our hands at the writing craft and found ourselves in an MFA program, both studying Creative Nonfiction and mixing and mingling with the same crowd of friends outside of the classroom. I knew she had an arts background - she was illustrating children's books when we met, and I probably oozed or wore music on my sleeve even then - but not until recently did I realize the full breadth of her tremendous skills and talent.
It's been incredible to witness - seemingly, for me, out of nowhere - this (renewed or reimagined) creativity emerge from someone you once thought you knew, or did once know in one way. The surprise of learning the passions and skills and imaginations that reside inside a single person (- and to know the person! bonus! -) and to see what they can birth to life through their craft also proves one more reason I - as a fellow aspiring, working artist - feel inspired to pursue what I do. It's encouraging to know people engaged in a creative pursuit, plain and simple. It informs and nourishes your own search and attempts to clarify your own artistic vision, and ultimately you want to give and share in the process in the way your fellow artists do so generously with you.
Speaking of which. A couple weeks ago, Amy was invited to participate in a "Blog Hop" - something I admit I've never heard of until recently. She was passed four questions about the creative process, and she was to answer these in light of her own process, and then pass the questions onto a couple of her fellow artists. You can read her Blog Hop post and see selections of her work here.
Amy then invited me to this Blog Hop thingamajigger, and I readily accepted. I teach Creative Writing each fall at the University of Alaska, and this fall I am also preparing for the release of my second album, titled, Hope, Alaska. The creative process, and the role it serves in my life - and the life of my students and fellow music listeners and supporters - has seemed to be a running, ongoing discussion in my day-to-day these last couple months.
Sleep deprivation has been a running order in my weeks' menus, too. And caffeine. A lot of - too much - caffeine. My music career, as it stands, is a mostly one-man operation. And right now is "critical mass" and "hit the ground running" time. For another week or two.
So, under other circumstances, would I prove such a blabbermouth - answer these questions like I'm a barreling runaway train? Maybe. Not sure. Talking and "nerding out" about the creative process is a long held passion of mine. I loved creative writing workshops for the time we gathered and discussed material - each other's, and that of authors more widely known, loved, published than us. And I loved the craft side - hearing about what distinctly drew each of us to pursue this mysterious writing thing, how we struggled with it, reveled in it, wished it would go away, wanted it to conjure miracles of the first order. Now, I'm having another go at this "Music Thing," and Amy, her textiles. But a creative process is a process, and what follows in my response to these questions is a ramble exploring elements of my process. (And if I've written entirely too much and you can't commit to the length, please just scroll to the bottom to see who I've pitched the Blog Hop at next. Hint, cousin Dot & friend Brian. )
What am I working on?
In the strictest sense of the definition, the last few months have felt more like work than any other part of the Hope, Alaska production process. While my albums feature a full band and a lot of talent, all the musicians contributing to my records play in other well-established, full-time acts and aren’t part of a larger “JJB” team. So, I operate entirely as a solo artist, and have to work as my own manager, booking agent, etc.
Since mid-August, I’ve been fairly consumed with the behind the scenes, busy work that proves easy to overlook when you’re enjoying a great concert performance, or listening to a favorite record: Finalizing proofs for album artwork, sending the masters off to be replicated, booking album release shows, staging photo shoots, hiring a backing band, juggling schedules for rehearsals, ordering posters, postcards, t-shirts, stickers et al. Somewhere in all that, a friend and I also produced a short video and launched a successful Kickstarter campaign. I hope I don’t sound like I’m complaining. I love this album in so many ways, and wouldn’t lean so heavily into this piece of the post-production process if I didn’t feel like the work warranted it.
The songwriting process and the laboratory of a recording studio are part of the work, too, but they never feel that way to me. In recent weeks, for instance, I’ve started work on three new songs, and these absolutely thrill me right now. Watching a song unfold can feel a little like watching baby birds or chicks hatch from their eggs – there’s a lot of suspense and wide-eyed wonder accompanying the unfolding process – and at least two of those songs feel that way right now. In that way, the writing and recording stage of the work feels a lot more like play, and also a little like the thrilling early stages of a new relationship.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
That’s a tough call. Music, especially in my preferred genres – Americana, pop, rock, and folk – seems one ongoing “tip of the hat” or tribute to everything that’s influenced or impacted your songwriting efforts. When people hear my music for the first time, for instance, it’s not uncommon for them to liken it or compare my sound to someone better known or more established in the field. And that’s fine. I appreciate those points of reference.
I guess my MFA and my work as a professor in Creative Writing serve to distinguish my songs from many songwriters. For starters, many of my songs have grown out of or been influenced by works of literature I’m reading. Then, too, a number of fellow musicians and mentors in Alaska, and in Philadelphia – where I grew up – have noted that they appreciate my attention to lyrics, and I’ve no doubt that’s due to my lifelong love affair with literature and poetry. In fact, while recording my last two albums up here in AK, some of the guys began jokingly referring to me as “the professor” and humorously referencing my love of poetry. I fall on poetry religiously when I’m watching a song come to life. The imagery, the way language serves a deeper function than mere telling…I could run through each of the songs on Hope, Alaska and tell you what I was reading when I wrote that song, and what informed the way I went at one or another tune.
Related to this, I also hear a lot of albums and songs where I wish I could assist songwriters at the lyric end of their projects. Rather than be a solo artist front man, I'd much rather serve as a collaborator with a strong, gutsy female vocalist, for example, or some mind blowing guitar or piano player. I think the perfect job would be working as a Bernie Taupin to someone’s Elton John.
Why do I do what I do?
(I love this question…Consider yourself warned. And please forgive my lengthy response...)
Well, first off, I’ve tried not doing this work. I've tried to not write songs, have ignored or shrugged off my creative impulses (for a variety of reasons) and have failed miserably at suppressing or restraining myself in what otherwise feels like a natural, joy-strewn, lifelong impulse to engage with the creative process.
I imagine nearly every artist over the millennia has endured the age-old question of how you’re going to support yourself while engaging with this or another craft. I think very little has changed in the universal (or Western?) attitude towards an artist pursuing one’s vocation with any degree of conviction or intention. Your family, neighbors, community, and complete, utter strangers will let you know how impractical and fool-headed you’re being. By going at this otherwise undeniable natural impulse to create, you’ve inevitably consigned yourself to a life of poverty and sickness, a la John Keats or Rilke, or one of emotional and psychological turmoil, as per Van Gogh or Nietzche.
And yet, as any working or aspiring artist knows, regardless of how many people try to convince you that you’ve embarked on a fool’s errand, or have purchased a one-way pass to the poorhouse, their anxious, neurotic assessment of your future is nothing – absolutely nothing – compared to the hell you’ll live in if you spend your life possessed by the need to create and don't afford yourself time in your day or week to honor it on some level. I imagine I’d have saved a heap of cash in therapeutic counseling costs if I’d had enough courage to put the kibosh on all the voices and individuals who ever met my love for the songwriting craft, for example, with their rampant and bewildering anxieties, red flags, or sarcasm.
At 42, however, Life has in the last few years staged a stunning series of “Big Life” events and impasses revealing to me that if any one thing ever proved a secure, reliable, nurturing and loving source or Center in my life, it was this impulse to “make things,” to try and lean in and make a go at song(s) and prose writing. Meanwhile, the careers, the relationships, the lifestyles, and all the institutions I was instructed to pursue or work in the service of have proven the most structurally unsound fortresses – unreliable and irreparably flawed in a few cases. To even have to pretend to engage with any illusion of security in, for example, an employment situation, now strikes me as absolutely mad.
Finally, I think I do what I do in music because music seems the most primitive, natural, and “wild” creative art form accessible to our species. My work as a writer, for example, required an education.
And while you are or can be taught, and should school yourself in music, too, I think music…Well, let me end this ramble with a story:
I was battling a terrible bronchial infection for a couple weeks this past summer and my illness overlapped with a bug my six-year-old contracted during that time. So, I was home from work with him for a number of days as we both battled illnesses. During one of those weeks, I realized, though not for the first time, that my youngest is singing constantly. I forget this, because it all becomes like white noise after a while, but he’s always got a song going – whether humming, rambling words, mumbling, or some combination of all of it. Sometimes I’ll ask him, “Matt, what are you singing?” And he’ll answer, “Oh. I don’t know…” And I’ll walk out of the room, or give him his distance, and in no time, without thought, he’ll just start up all over again.
I also follow along close behind Matt when he’s in his songs because it constantly brings me back to my natural impulse with songwriting. His effortless, unthinking song reminds me to simply let music and song flow, to honor it – wherever it springs from, however it comes, whenever it comes. And to welcome the shape it takes. That’s where the real work begins, and – I hope I’ve accurately revealed this – it’s a work that strikes me as one of the deepest, oldest forms of play than most anything I can imagine…
How does my process work?
Messily. A buckshot spray of words and indiscernible vocalizings towards my bedroom window or wall as I strum my guitar. Sometimes the strumming reveals a melody, other times the strumming is an exercise in seeking - trying to clarify a melody I stumbled upon while engaged in a "Winnie-the-Pooh-" or Matt-like lollygag around town, a trail, or the nearby creek.
A more accurate way to describe the songwriting process might be to flip the question over: The process works me. It chooses or finds me where I am and won't leave me alone until I give it attention. Which can be bothersome, terribly inconvenient on any given day, but I'm not complaining. I do love being caught up (or down) "in it." I find the level of focus I can achieve over one "simple" song refreshing and nourishing well beyond any physical longing or craving.
There’s a great old Bruce Springsteen line in his song, “Spare Parts” where he shouts, “She cried till she prayed.” I think in the earliest stages of songwriting, I’m vocalizing until the words start to come. The chords and melody help cultivate the ground from which the song will grow lyrics and unearth a unified theme. Domestic duties are incredible resources, tools for helping me find my way to a lyric that will compliment the melody and/or chords. I'm not someone who can sit down and strum my guitar and sing a few lines and say, "Oh, this'll work here, and this will be the second verse," and sing some more, write down lyrics, and come up with a song that way. I have and I envy friends who sit down with a pad and pen and get to it. With a melody or a chord structure looping around my in my head as I go about my day, my body prefers to lean into some rote or mundane task, some physical work, while my mind and barely-discernible mumblings/murmurings and hums begin beseeching, reaching towards, groping recklessly for lyrics. The dishes, folding laundry, running the vacuum, or ironing a shirt for work are perfect for pitching words and lines at the void, for finding what lines will welcome the melody consuming my attention. It's the complete opposite of Zen practice - of, say, cleaning the toilet or dishes to simply/only clean the toilet or dishes. I'm a domestic-duty opportunist. After the task serves its function and I have a lead on the song, the dishes will again go unwashed for a few days, the stove will look like my kids are being raised by gorillas, and the laundry will go unwashed or unfolded until I'm haunted or pursued by a new melody.
In the meantime, I keep notebooks lying around - in my backpack, my glove compartment, my back pocket, my work desk, on the kitchen table and/or living room coffee table, and I scribble ideas into them as they come. Most lines are unusable.
In recent years, the process has elected to work me while I'm running (exercising) or hiking around in or outside of Anchorage. I keep trying to remember to take a pen and scrap of paper along with me in my pocket, but oftentimes forget. For one reason or another, pen&paper or none, I find myself getting a few miles out on the coastal trail here, for example, and am hit with a line that seems will work great in the song I left at home a half hour ago. Sometimes the line becomes my mantra while I race home. Sometimes the line changes a little or a lot on the run or walk home. Sometimes I forget it and am singing a pale or limp version of the thing I was singing three miles earlier, which proves frustrating.
In any case, I forget when I started doing this, but in the last year or two I started hanging large white pieces of drafting or presentation paper on my bedroom and living room walls. I must have read about somebody who does or recommends this? I can't recall how I stumbled into this practice. But it's changed everything for me.
I keep Sharpies around the apartment on bookcases and other surfaces and in drawers. Some days, I blow in from a run, or after sitting in rush hour traffic while a line marinated in my head - or also while in the midst of doing dishes or laundry - and I race to the wall, grab the Sharpie and scribble the line or a few words on one of the sheets. I don't know why exactly, but this has become my favorite part of the songwriting process. Perhaps it's because my notebooks, and my phone, and my computer screen are pretty small, and always involve sitting still and (squinting &) honing or zeroing in on something. But this process is so freeing. I can't describe the joy that comes with scribbling big, widely and madly and with no thought of penmanship - it's like brush strokes with a painting. That's what it's most like: Painting. (I entered college as an Art major, but switched to Creative Writing.) I've warned some friends before they come over or when they arrive to consider themselves warned, that it looks like a crazy man is having a mental breakdown on the living room/bedroom walls. One friend took a look and agreed. Another friend saw it and expressed a lot of joy about the whole mess.
My songs "Olena," "Joan Didion," and "Book of Consolation" - all on my new album - were written this way. Big, sloppy, loopy lines or words scattered, buckshot spray against blank white. When a few lines began to form or resemble verses on those two songs, I hung a new sheet up and scribbled those lines out all loopy and sloppy as verses. Eventually, as the song come together, there might be two or three big papers hung on the wall. At some point - usually 3 verses, a chorus and a bridge in - I'll type them into an MSWord doc and print that and when it plays through in a way I can live with - even if it still needs a little tweaking - then I'll tear the papers down off the wall so I can make room for a new song when it comes.
The past summer, I also started combing through my notebooks and ripping out the pages featuring stronger lines than others, and then taping or pinning those little snatches or snapshots of songs to the large white papers, too, and hanging a blank sheet alongside those and then beginning the verse/chorus for a couple new songs that way. Starting a song - something that will eventually prove very structured and detail oriented - all big and sloppy like that - really opened a window for me in my recent re-immersion in the songwriting process, and I'm not sure why exactly. And aside from describing the way it happens or works, I really have no interest in the "why" it works this way. It does for now, and it's a helluva lot of fun and so I'm rolling along with this means of getting where I need to go. Out of nowhere, there proved something wildly and undeniably satisfying about engaging the process this way, and it made the path by which the songs and I pursue each other so much more exciting and full of life.
And now...Boy, did I write a lot! It's been a busy few weeks here at my end as I prepare album release shows and details, and while on any given day I feel like I'm running on fumes, it's done nothing to restrain my capacity for rambling non-stop about music, the creative process, and my goals as a working songwriter. But let's turn our attention elsewhere now, shall we?
Up Next in the Blog Hop:
Got a minute? Well, a few?
Settle in. I need to tell you a story.
One evening late last summer, at autumn’s threshold, I turned onto a 17-mile stretch of road that dead ends in a town called Hope, and I heard a poem.
But let me first share that I sat then on what seemed at best a stalled, and maybe wandering-lost recording project. I had by this point in 2013 nearly convinced myself that by picking up the guitar some months earlier in Anchorage, leaning again into an impulse to write and record more songs, I’d embarked on what only amounted to a fool’s errand. (Perhaps engaging the creative process is always a fool’s errand on some level, but you probably understand what I’m trying to say.)
While we had the rough skeletal outlines of eight or nine songs in place, something still came up missing in the batch. I had two or three others we could record or try to make fit with the others, but something in them didn't hold up. In short, they fell too easily into the groove of my 2012 album, But So Beautiful, and I was frankly tired, a little burned out on the tone and mood of that record. However, nothing in the songs we had culled together and tooled around with served a nucleus function for the rest; none magnetically drew all the other songs towards any glowing, electric center of the work, if there was one. (And some of us exhaust ourselves trying to achieve or find that.) There was no North Star, and so we were stumbling, aimless, no compass…
Evan and I had also hit numerous scheduling conflicts in the seven months since we’d started the project, and so – while I can’t speak for him – I carried in the back of my mind an ever-expanding feeling that I held at most only a limp batch of songs without an identity, the loose threads of a project without a shape or a name.
My sons, Sam and Matt, had a few days earlier returned from Russia with their mom, where they spent the summer, and we had some catching up to do, and a new school year around the corner. For my part, the past couple months had been riddled with compounding challenges: The day before the boys left for Russia a couple months earlier, their mom and I had finalized our divorce – a process that continued to bewilder me even two months following the court's dissolution. My father had spent a lot of the spring and summer hospitalized back East, where I’m from, addressing a health matter, and my distance from the situation left me uneasy and distressed. My employer in Anchorage, meanwhile, had recently declared bankruptcy, and our Board tasked a ragtag group of us with trying to keep our mental health social service agency afloat, to salvage it, to keep the organization from capsizing.
The best of times – after all, although it was slow going and at a stand still, there was music, and it was summer in Alaska – but it also seemed the worst of times in many ways, too.
On this particular evening, the boys and I got a late start leaving Anchorage. Late enough that nearly an hour from our destination, my five year-old, Matt, fell asleep under a blanket in the back seat, mouth agape and face smashed on a pillow against his window. But it was not so late that Alaska’s summertime midnight sun was gone. Fading, yes, and quickly, as it starts doing every August, but the landscape blushed, and Alaska’s evening light played paintbrush on the mountains and trees and highway and cast unexpected splashes of color all over the horizon. The mountains and valleys would glimmer given one bend of light and then in other moments duck into the lengthening shadows as we hurtled towards Hope.
Nearly a half hour from our sleepy little destination, Sam, then nine, announced that he, too, couldn’t stay awake any longer and disappeared under a pile of sleeping bags and pillows.
To bide the time, and ward off drowsiness, I put a CD in the stereo that a friend gave me a couple years earlier, that I had until then never considered listening to, but the subject matter of which seemed suddenly relevant. It was a talk, a lecture about engaging with poetry during periods of difficulty and challenge in our lives, particularly as we veer towards (or collide with) “midlife.” It’s the kind of thing close friends of mine will tell you I’m the target audience for, the ideal demographic.
We were turning onto that 17-mile stretch of road when the lecturer read a poem. Does it matter which poem? It might. It mattered to me, of course. (There's a picture of the poem below here & I imagine I’ll also post a photograph of the poem at the Jonathan J Bower Music page on Facebook, and probably also on twitter and Instagram. In other words, you’re welcome to read it at any of those outlets. You know where to find me.)
The author/speaker on the disc read Derek Walcott’s “Love after Love,” and given where I was at the time, it met me in a place, an inner-room where the blood pulses a little quicker, warmer - a space that seems to glow with a hot white light - a place mostly reserved my entire life for music, poetry, laughter with good friends, sleeping somewhere in the open air under the stars and, if I’m lucky, with the sound of a river, creek, ocean, or stream singing nearby.
That's an admittedly awkward attempt to try and note or pinpoint where the poem went inside me – where it reached, or how it traveled through me. Anyway, I don’t know what to make of what we term “conversion experiences” most of the time, but when I heard it, something in me noticeably shifted. I don’t know and can’t say exactly what shifted. And I don’t feel like I need to know just now either.
Another poet, Charles Wright, in his poem “October, Mon Amour” writes:
…Whatever untwisted your heart
is what you will leave behind.
When I heard Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love” that evening, it seemed a critical untwisting occurred. Or began to occur. Did it? Can I say for sure? How to know?
We weren’t far along the winding road leading us into Hope, when I played it again, stunned and slack-jawed after that first listen, and perhaps wanting to try and absorb it even more than I did that first time. Or maybe I simply wanted to revel in it and ponder it some more as the language, the rhythms of the lines drifted through the speakers. And it was then that Sam came up from under the amassed pile of his sleeping bag and pillow in the back seat, and wearily asked me, “Pop? Do you think you can write that poem down so we can read it when we’re at home, too?”
Out of the mouths of babes.
I’ve gone long. And you’ve been so gracious already. But we’re nearly there. Scout’s honor.
I won’t walk you through the weekend that followed. The song, ‘Hope, AK,’ plays around in that weekend a little bit, with snapshots of other moments occurring in my life during that period, too.
A few days later, with the rough sketch of some lyrics and a melody, I recorded a rough draft of a song titled, ‘Becomes Me,’ on my laptop and sent the demo to Evan. It was me pitching a kind of nearly-desperate, “Here’s this. But I don’t know what to make of it or anything right now.” His enthusiasm on the heels of my email took me entirely by surprise. In fact, I’ve never had a rough draft of anything I’ve written more readily or enthusiastically affirmed or “believed in” than the early sketch of that song.
A couple weeks later, playing back the first mixes of "Becomes Me" in Evan’s Wolverine Den studio, we stood watching his monitor play through our afternoon’s studio work and an idea flashed to mind. I told him, “Let’s title this one ‘Hope, Alaska.’” The words were barely out of my mouth and a part of me squirmed inside. So, what, now the boy from Philly was going to stake a claim in Alaska? Evan was quiet, didn't immediately respond. A noticeable but silent beat hung in the air, and then Evan said, “You should title your album ‘Hope, Alaska.’”
I wasn't looking at him when he said it, but I bit my lip, because I was fighting back the queen mother of all smiles. (On a related note: I've found it's hard to be homesick, to miss family when I'm working with Evan. Mostly because he's come to feel like family in many ways. Also, if you ever find yourself homesick or a little beside yourself alone in Alaska, strike up a conversation with his parents, Margaret and Steve. You'll feel like you just reunited with a long lost aunt and uncle, the distant family that long ago left Wherever, USA, to pioneer and adventure in the Great Frozen North.)
A couple days after recording ‘Hope, AK’, the photographer, Michael Wilson, posted to Facebook a photo album documenting his recent trip to Alaska. I wish I could say I’m one of my Michael’s biggest fans, but I don’t see how that’s remotely possible. Everyone I meet who knows, discovers, talks with, or works with Michael strikes me as his biggest fan. He and his work are easy to love, and I have followed and been smitten by his photography for over two decades. (This past summer, Over the Rhine paid Michael what may prove the greatest tribute an artist could pay another when Linford Detweiler called Michael Wilson Over the Rhine’s single greatest musical influence.)
It seems that not long after I combed through Michael Wilson’s Alaska photo album (and hastily emailed him), things really took off. Over the next couple months, nothing less than a cascade of remarkable moments and minor miracles followed.
Not a bad way to spend the otherwise darkest months of the year in our Northern climes.
Rilke wasn’t kidding: Patience is everything. Or, as those wise young women in the band First Aid Kit sing, “Things don’t grow if you don’t bless them with your patience.” (‘Emmylou’)
At the same time, it seems I’m forever fated to learn and understand those truths only through my daily, wildly spectacular bouts with impatience and restlessness. But that’s another story.
I’ve said a lot here, but in the end, there really are no words to properly convey my thanks to you for your part in actualizing this project - in bringing it the last, critical steps needed to launch the record into the world.
You’ve supported a work that on one hand tested every inch of my faith in the creative process and in what bewildering notions I possess re: the songwriting vocation. As someone who’s only ever known how to honor and enjoy his time on earth by trying to “make things,” each of you have nearly done ‘the impossible’ – or, at least more than I grew up ever knowing was possible – and supported one man’s effort and intention to craft and then release into the world a thing aspiring towards beauty. Music has, as far back as I can remember, been my favorite thing to make; and songs, my favorite thing to write, though I enjoy writing in other forms, too (such as drafting lengthy "open" correspondence to friends, family, fellow working artists, former classmates, complete strangers, and gracious patrons of the arts).
My heart is full, which I've said time and again through the campaign. Full with gratitude, for starters, and more. We trust you’ll enjoy the record and all the other things accompanying it. I’d say, “We Hope” you’ll enjoy it (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), but there’s a ‘knowing’ accompanying this album that reaches beyond hopes. I’m proud of this effort. I know everyone appearing on the album brought the best they had to offer to the sessions leading to the finished recording and, given that, I know it stands, it holds up.
Finally, I know this, too, because you all threw your full-hearted support behind it. For which there truly aren’t enough words…
So, to each of you, without whom…
P.S. Derek Walcott's 'Love after Love':
You're walking past the Seaview in Hope one recent Saturday and it's perfection in all directions there that morning, 'postcard perfection' - the sun on mountains and grass, the sound of the nearby creek running towards open water, children laughing and running. The windows are up at the Seaview and they are preparing to open, and you are walking with your six-year-old when you hear a song you first heard in Philadelphia on the World Cafe over 20 years ago, & haven't heard in at least 10, maybe 15, and you Realize - you Realize 'so hard', with such import that you have to sit down on a bench outside the Seaview, and you do - you sit down - so that your son asks why you're sitting down, says "Come on, Pop. Let's go" but you can't, in part because you aren't there, you aren't anywhere in that moment - you are only Aware there then as you never could have been at any other moment in your life, of its quiet, wending, and noninvasive Influence on your life. You remember there was a war when you first heard it, and you had questions, you remember the questions, and as with so many of the questions you carried throughout your life the answers only loaned to a deepening sense of isolation, flung your heart further from itself when you tried to smash it through the square pegs of others' consolations and/or resolutions. You had no idea who sang this song. In fact, you were entirely unfamiliar with that extreme end of the radio dial, and can't remember what led you there (88.5 WXPN), but you heard that voice, that baritone - strong and aged as old oak, a calming and stirring presence running entirely counter to the fevered pace of the music you played on the stereo. Here, in Hope, now, you are watching years slip away - no, you are watching distances trip and close in on each other, converge, merge and then vanish. You are in the song, as you were the first time you heard it, alone then, and you are recognizing that the Gypsy Life of which he sings...You took the song at face value - you lived into it. You took it on. You did that. You are seeing and reuniting and embracing the song in ways you never could have imagined you one day would all those years ago - it's an old, distant friend - or a photograph that falls out of a paperback book you nearly donated to the thrift store that draws instant tears. You had not thought of the song in years, not until meeting it again here in Hope, AK - which at this point is an "of course" footnote in your biography, a "Where else?"
So much has changed. And not much at all. Wars and rumors of wars. Ebola (remember reading The Hot Zone behind the cash register at the bookstore job?), Russia and the U.S...
And but we're here.
You might like the gypsy life
Judge your progress by the phases of the moon
Get your compass and your sharpest knife
Cause people love you when they know you're leaving soon
Note On/For Kat Moore
At the risk of being presumptuous, I think I speak for a lot of Kat Moore's wide net of Alaskan friends, fans, and fellow musicians when I share that word that her upcoming "vocal rest" retreat/sabbatical (doctor's orders, to treat a "prohibitive" form of "chronic laryngitis) may feel a lot like news that one of your dear friends or family members is being quarantined in a bubble to treat a mystery diagnosis. Or that it's almost like said family member or friend suddenly receiving word that a company's yanking the beloved matriarch from the community and shipping her off to some undisclosed office job in a remote overseas location for an undetermined spell.
But those analogies imply a certain eeriness around something that Kat has otherwise been entirely forthright and straightforwardly open in discussing, and I have no interest in fostering or instilling any false anxiety about a matter and a message that's entirely hers to own and manage.
I refer to it in those terms, however, only to reflect in my limited way on the deep well of affection and admiration that rests at the heart of this town for Kat, and to share what it means on some level that her AK fan base will soon, albeit temporarily, have to contend with a "Kat-sized hole" in their hearts and in the local music scene's offerings over the next few months. I'm not alone here, right? Friday or Saturday night rolls around, and your heart lifts, or swells three times its average size when you see the poster at the Roadhouse, or the announcement in the Anchorage Press announcing a Super Saturated Sugar Strings show on the horizon. Given the relatively young age of the band, and the uniqueness of their sound, it's no exaggeration to note the feeling that springs to life with that news entirely relates and exclusively belongs to the SSSS. It's separate from all your feelings about other good news and things you look forward to because the SSSS - and by extension, Kat Moore - have done what every artist or band of musicians longs to do: created a sound and atmosphere that is entirely theirs, that conjures a force greater than the sum of its parts. All the while, however, the SSSS IS the sum of its parts and it's incredibly challenging to picture or imagine an SSSS missing one of its valuable components on any given night. And, given the focus of this piece, I'm going to be forthright enough to say, "Not the least of which proves Exhibit A, Kat Moore." For many of us, reaching the end of the work week, or leaving town life behind and heading to a festival has been made that much more a sigh of relief, an Event to look forward to on the simple knowledge that there's a Kat Moore playing piano (or the what all else she pulls from her bag of tricks) and/or singing there at the location of your destination.
I am tempted to offer a disclaimer here, to say, "Well, at least I see it that way." But telling by so many of the people I see flooding SSSS shows, or - even better, for self-absorbed me - when I see the reactions on people's faces when I share word that Kat Moore played on four tracks on my new album, I don't think what I'm sharing or indulging in here suggests I'm going out on a limb here. At all.
So let me go one step further. And, to go here, I will make an obligatory 'disclaimer' of sorts: "Speaking only for myself," in the couple years that I've come to know and adore her and have seen her perform around the state, I can truly think of no other musician who proves more "synonymous" with Music than Kat. I know a lot of musicians in and out of state, and I know many who have dedicated their lives to performing, producing, making records, and touring - I know friends and loved ones winning awards, who feature on the front cover of major magazines, friends and family who will never stop touring or chasing the dream (and they shouldn't), but, for what it's worth - and this is not said to in any way diminish any other musician's output or efforts - no musician that I know EMBODIES or more affectionately proves a poster child - no, an ambassador - for Music and the life of spirit and wonder and gratitude that it affords to its devotees than Kat Moore. In that, allow me then to be bold enough to offer that on more than one occasion I've witnessed Kat's performances and watched three little words coalesce in my gray matter from my seat in the wings: Kat is Music. Have I wondered this about many/any other musician that I know? Not in my memory. But about how many musicians can we even occasionally make that analogy and not think it true on at least some level? Again, speaking only for myself, not many...
The joy, the affection, the wholeheartedness, and abandon with which Kat embraces both her time onstage and off - the way she lends focus to her fans and friends vying for attention or a word between sets, before, or after a show time and again staggers me. ("Me": a guy who holes up in a green room with a Jr.High-level of bashfulness and self-consciousness at shows, who can't construct a complete or coherent sentence an hour or two before showtime.) For my money, and as a father, friend, and fan constantly seeking good models and influences, friendships in which I may learn, be challenged, and receive a dose of inspiration and spirit, Kat brings all that and more to her outpourings, building and contributing to a body of work that regularly attracts and draws musicians and non-musicians to the places where we'll find or be able to hear her perform.
Kat poured so much of herself into the songs she contributed to on 'Hope, Alaska' that there was no way we couldn't also offer her "co-production" credits on those as well. As with any album-recording process there were peaks and valleys, hiccups, and detours in the production of this record that on multiple occasions led me to wonder what fool's errand I'd embarked upon in pursuing this effort. I can say, however, that I experienced none of these anxieties in Evan Phillips's Wolverine Den studio the days and nights Kat came on board. In fact, given my day job and parenting duties, there were nights that I would need to leave the Den well ahead of Kat and Evan, to leave them at it now and then, and I can only say that the peace of mind and heart I possessed - and the knowledge that these songs were not just in good hand, but the best capable hands - was on par with that old Biblical notion of "the peace that passes understanding."
I wrote a simple little song in early 2013 - the first song that would make it to the album - that Evan and I went on to title "Friendship Fire" some months later, after laying down the basic tracks. Though the lyric and melody don't suggest nearly as much, 'Friendship Fire' was written in response to some awful things happening in the place I worked, and during the run up to finalizing a divorce process begun in 2011, and thinking on Grand Scheme levels about what truly mattered in my life, all while (or due to) also recognizing it was the one-year anniversary of my father's heart attack (the news of which I learned one evening during the recording of but so beautiful), and it was then suddenly also time for us to support him with news of another medical matter that would need to be immediately addressed and dealt with. In response to a lot of downright shitty circumstances - circumstances leading to my employer's bankruptcy, and forcing a CEO and CFO to resign, among other less-than-fun, ulcer-inducing messes - I found myself contemplating what kind of life (& in some ways, world) I want or wish I could hope into being for my kids. But my grandiose dreams and goals, admittedly were then (and sometimes still prove) a bit deflated, or perhaps adequately exhausted. And so unconsciously, inwardly I knew, without then feeling like I knew a thing, honestly, it was time to go back to the drawing board, to take shelter for a period, and to learn to think small again. I had to try and become a beginner. Well, "try" implies a conscious choice in the matter, and I have to confess that I really didn't feel like I did possess anything resembling as much right then. All my efforts and goals until then - those, rather, that took place or were staged in hopes or dreams I might categorize as "Big Time" - crusted with Ambition and Drive - were proving or had proven an absolute bust. And, frankly, "Big Time" ambitions or drives were not the kind of thing my admittedly wiser-than-me boys ever required or expected of me anyway, or would even grasp if I tried to force on them. What kind of understandings did, can, or would translate so that my true friends and loved ones would relate or understand I wanted to have framed simply and in such a way that there'd be no question about their source. What signposts can/could I erect now to offer, instead of a longstanding argument or sense of being jilted or wronged (admittedly, like a "good" little songwriter schooled in the 80's and 90's learned to do, and had done in spades over the years,), that - without being preachy or dogmatic - conveyed or revealed values or - also without being preachy, or overly/embarrassingly explicit - what messages could I hand my boys, for example, with which to frame a future discussion or understanding of what I found most meaningful during our time spent on this messy, complicated, and beautiful planet?
Perhaps to my surprise more than anyone, that first effort - the leaping off point that soon began to snowball and eventually became 'Hope, Alaska' - became a love song. While it struck me as odd at the time, the first words to offer consolation to me during the windstorm of things going around me was Pablo Neruda's book of love poems, The Captain's Verses. So seismic was the effect of stumbling upon and then rereading this book (after many years away from it) in the midst of so much interpersonal chaos that not only did I pore myself into this "love song writing" process, but - by album's end - we'd also recorded an instrumental dedicated to the Chilean Captain, titled appropriately enough, The Captain's Verses. (That's another story.) I'll only share here that returning to Neruda, after so many years away from his work, proved a journey worth all the weight of the circumstances his work had mysteriously arrived to counter, offering much longed-for relief and consolation in the midst of upset and anxiety.
I knew I needed a woman to sing with me on Friendship Fire and name-dropped Kat repeatedly as Evan and I considered the best fit for the song. We already had her on board for piano and some other instrumental work. Eventually, we knew there was no better person to compliment the tune and I could rest assured knowing my simple, fragile little love song would receive the care it required.
Shortly before leaving for the Wolverine Den one Sunday morning, I learned that Lou Reed had died a few hours earlier on the East coast. The wash of memories of discovery and awkward young adulthood when I fell so hard for him - the repeated attempts over the years that I've gone into recordings wanting to - in addition to every other influence of mine - to also somehow pay a tribute, or to nod intentionally towards the Velvets and Lou. The knowledge for years that I don't have the strongest voice, the humbling recognition that I love words/lyrics first and am not a guitar virtuoso or sought after musician has frequently only been consoled by a conscious striving to lean in on "my instrument(s)" all the more intentionally because of musician/vocalists like Lou Reed (often one of my first "go-to" writer/vocalists), along with Dylan (of course), Neil, Michael Stipe, and one or two others. I had a lot to think about on that drive to the Wolverine Den that morning, and was flooded with nostalgia, thanks, and of course a little sadness (he had lived a good life, was ill, and I heard from friends & others that his performances in recent years revealed signs that he might not be long for the rigorous demands of the profession).
When I arrived to the Wolverine Den, Kat was setting up her glockenspiel, which we would be recording for its role in Friendship Fire. In the moments after she set it up and began practicing, I was flooded with the memory and tears of youth - the memory of the first time I heard 'Sunday Morning' - & then making the connection that Lou had died on a Sunday morning (numerous writers would cite this later). I was also reminded there of the time I had run into Lou on the streets of New York. Not run into - not literally. I was in the West Village, walking towards the bookstore at which I worked on Bleeker street, and Lou was walking towards me. I stopped in my tracks and he passed. Perhaps the lone musician/celebrity that I've never made awkward demands of, or tried to manipulate into an autograph or conversation. I just watched, gaping and wide-eyed, as the master passed by and continued walking, and I let him keep walking.
The instrument on the Velvet's 'Sunday Morning' is not a glockenspiel as I for years mistakenly assumed it was, but a celesta - which I had to then research and learn about in order to clarify the distinctions. (I've heard I'm not alone in that mistaken assumption.) Nevertheless, Kat played her glockenspiel, and of course she nailed it that day, and then the vocal part, too - it's beautiful, I love it - her vocal is beyond a shred of doubt one of my personal highlights and favorite moments on the album - and she then proceeded to nail every single piano part on the songs for which I so badly wanted and needed her.
And of course she nailed them, right? Of course Kat Moore attended and brought her entire, full-hearted focus to those songs and gave to them every last thing the song needed. Not what Evan or I wanted - but what the song needed. I can say "of course" Kat did that because you know she did, just as you know she would do the same on your songs, too. Because that's what Kat does - and if, in addition to some of the larger than life personal matters and concerns that I hear wending and flowing under the surface of 'Hope, Alaska', my kids or my friends and family walked away from that album hearing not just me hoping to share some thoughts or convey some ideas in the form of lyrics, but also heard or more clearly felt or possessed some portion of the Light and Heart and Soul that Kat Moore and others brought to this project, then that's more than satisfactory to me, and it's already a successful record in my book.
I've heard that John Cale heard a celesta once and knew he needed to find a way to use it with the Velvets. For some reason, when I read that, I thought of Kat Moore playing one. I'm not saying no other musician I know would hear one - or any other under-used or "far out" or uncommon instrument - and find a way to put it to use, seek out a way to honor its intended purpose and then intentionally set out to respectfully learn it and then implement it in the recording or performance process. I'm happy to say I know a lot of musicians who would do so.
I'm saying that when I read that John Cale heard a celesta and knew he needed to find a way to use it with the Velvets, in my mind I pictured Kat Moore employing, playing, utilizing one. She's the first one I pictured, and it's no leap of the imagination to imagine that because I'm certain we all know she could/would be just the kind of musician to do that.
As tribute to Kat - and a prayer and wish for her speedy recovery - I'm uploading 'Friendship Fire' to the Listening Booth tab of the website today. Consider it another preview of the new album, too, an album that's going to admittedly, probably play a lot different live in release show mode without her in AK to lend the songs her gracious and larger than life Spirit.
Get well soon, Kat. Rest. Heal! You well know by now how deep runs the love and respect for your craft, your heart, and your many talents throughout the Far North. Consider this one more fan's and musical coconspirator's notes hoping to share and convey a fraction as much.
Jonathan J Bower
Musician, writer, father, son, & seeker; sometime-professor, eternal student...