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songsisters
by kelle olwyler

“I wish you’d kiss me like you missed me, melt me down  Hold me like you’re not whole when I’m not around  Turn off the t.v. And look me in the eyes  Tell me you love me  Tell me you love me tonight.”
~Sara Kim Wilde, Embers (1997 Evening Star Record Productions, Inc./Nik Venet).

How many people in the world wouldn’t know the feeling evoked by these words by Sarah Kim Wilde on her CD Embers? Who wouldn’t recognize the longing that comes when love has begun to turn ordinary, to lose the quality of breathlessness and the heart cries for it again? That is the beauty of song writing. The words and melodies that pour out of a songwriter elicit recognition in the hearts and minds of those who listen. Imagination is changed and healed when addressed in its own language, and music is the language of imagination. In a world that is often complicated and confusing, songs ease the shared experience of heartbreak and pain. More and more venues that are safe places for songwriters to take wing are sprouting. Songsisters, Asheville’s new women’s song writing group, is one of them. It is a place to come to discover the voice of the Self transforming its longings into sound.

The brainchild of Amy Rae Stupka, a much-loved voice teacher in the area and lead singer in the Amy Rae Band and Tuxedo Junction, Songsisters took seed while Amy attended the 2004 Swannanoa Gathering, a yearly music camp for adults. Amy realized she wanted on a regular basis what she was getting at the Gathering. “It was so powerful to experience the high of being with groups of musicians and songwriters who support your work and who really get what you’re doing on an innermost level.”

She spoke with three other local women she met at the Gathering, and together they became the cornerstone of Songsisters. “I’ve always felt so supported by Allen Hayes who has been a big influence in the Asheville song writing world and is a driving force behind GASM, a song writing group that showcases local performers monthly at Karmasonics. While it’s important to continue supporting Allen and the venue GASM provides, it’s also important for women to help each other in their song writing endeavors!”

Why an all-women song writing group? For Amy, when it comes to creating, she feels a comfort level with women that she doesn’t in mixed groups. “It’s easy to feel very vulnerable when you are creating songs.” The name of the group, Songsisters, reflects the “sister” connection she was longing for and found in this group.

Kara Nash, another founding member of Songsisters, is the only “techie” in the group so far. She remembers recording the neighborhood kids that played instruments on an old 8-track player in her basement when she was just 12. She was involved with the music industry as an adult, managing and doing live sound for bands on tour, and has a music industry degree from Appalachian. She loves any kind of gear. “I started song writing in 1998, but didn’t have a good concept of the structure of songs until I went to the Swannanoa Gathering. Their song-writing classes gave me the boundaries to work within that I needed.” Kara admits she was nervous about coming in at a lower level of experience and knowledge. Used to being the only woman among men who were generally more experienced as musicians and songwriters, she often felt self-conscious. “The guys were more likely to say, ‘Here, let me have your guitar and I’ll show you something,’ and I wouldn’t see it again for half an hour.” At the first Songsisters meeting she felt supported, heard, not judged, and appreciated for exactly where she was at.

Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.
~E.Y. Harburg (Edgar Yipsel) (1898 - 1981)

Sarah Kim Wilde, also a founding member, is a professional singer/songwriter who now concentrates her life on songwriting and raising children. She began musical stage work at 12 and had been singing on stage for many years before she ever thought of doing it playing a guitar and singing her own songs. “My husband, Steve, was taking a songwriting workshop in Los Angeles with Nik Venet, the producer who discovered the Beach boys, Linda Ronstadt, and Jim Croce. Steve had to stop for a few weeks to work on the play, “Assassins,” and I took his place in the workshop. Nik loved what I did and asked me to stay on once Steve returned.” Nik then produced Kim’s first CD, Embers.

A natural introvert, Kim was a bit nervous about the idea of a songwriting group. But because an artist’s life can be so solitary, she also liked the idea of people coming together to support each other in any kind of artistic endeavor. After the group met for the first time, Kim “ . . . left with such a feeling of buoyancy, of heading toward the future with something that would keep me on track. I can be a tremendous procrastinator, so this is very helpful to me in terms of inspiration and forward movement.”

By the fourth Songsisters meeting, other professional and nonprofessional singer/songwriters were coming to meetings, among them Peggy Ratusz and Sharon LaMotte. Peggy sang her way through Arizona and Texas, and is now an Asheville resident. She started delving into songwriting when she lived in Tucson, and then in Austin, Texas, a town known to be really big on original music. “Asheville is also a wonderful place for original music,” says Peggy, “and when I heard about Songsisters, I was all for it. It was the right time for me.” She didn’t think much about it being an all women’s group until she got there. “As soon as I walked through the door, it was loving eye contact, a sense of equality along with a real interest in each other, and so much enthusiasm. They opened their arms, and I dropped into them!” Peggy considers herself in the infant stages of where she wants to be with her songwriting, and finds the feedback, offered with such intelligence and love, invaluable. Peggy and her band, Daddy Longlegs, heat up the blues and Motown sounds in the local Asheville pubs and nightclubs, and soon, they will be adding more of her original music to their repertoire.

Sharon LaMotte, local jazz singer and owner of booking agency callthatjazz.com, had the desire to have some kind of support system in her life with women and music. When Amy Rae spoke to her about Songsisters, she knew she wanted to be involved. Sharon has written her first lyrics, a fun, humorous version of “Santa Baby,” and is excited about writing more. She didn’t begin pursuing singing, her very first dream, until five years ago, when she began taking voice lessons from Amy Rae. “It wasn’t until I was facing the end of my marriage and the business partnership I had with my husband that I reevaluated my life and asked myself what I really wanted to be doing.” She realized she wanted to sing. With Amy’s help, she discovered she did indeed have a voice. After five years of voice training and continued coaching from NYC teachers Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan, Sharon has become a regular, appearing weekly at the Café on the Square with her band, Sharon LaMotte and the Bill Gerhardt Quartet.

Sharon’s passionate interest in jazz extends over into keeping jazz thriving in America. She is President of the Jazz Composers Forum (jazzcomposersforum.org), whose purpose is to present and document original instrumental jazz music. The organization creates a listening room at the Café on the Square and other regional locations where people pay a very reasonable $10 to hear original music, to quietly listen and show respect for the musicians who’ve not only spent time and energy creating and writing music, but who actually create music on the spot. “You can actually witness music being born if you’re at one of these concerts,” says Sharon, her eyes shining. “To me, that’s so very exciting!”

Every meeting, more women show up, bringing forth their songs and a willingness to peel down another layer of vulnerability. “That’s invaluable,” believes Kim, “especially when doing things so close to your heart. This is a very smart, creative group of women, and a very vibrant thing to experience.” The format that has evolved so far is one that seems to work for everyone. Before a song is shared, the author of the song asks for what she wants from the group, from “just listen,” to “pay particular attention to a section and give feedback afterwards,” to “give me a tough critique!” And to a person, they all agree that Songsisters has inspired their songwriting and gently pushed them forward.

The founding members of Songsisters, and the women who’ve joined them, vary in age, lifestyle, songwriting experience and music style. They are single, in relationship and divorced. They do different things with their time, have different spiritual practices or none at all, and yet they are drawn by two commonalities: being women with understandings only women can have, and being songwriters. That they vary in experience and length of time doing it doesn’t matter. They learn from each other, they laugh, cry, hoot and howl. And they are making things happen. Members are already claiming their participation in Songsisters has helped them make notable strides in their songwriting.

Songsisters plans on hosting a continuing series of educational events for songwriters in the Asheville area. The first songwriting workshop the group will sponsor will take place April 30-May 1, and features Craig Carothers, a well-known, funny and poignant songwriter (email songsisters@mac.com for more information). They have a fall workshop scheduled with Steve Seskin, who has written seven number one songs, including Grammy-nominated “Grown Men Don’t Cry,“ recorded by Tim McGraw, and “Don’t Laugh at Me,“ winning NSAI Song of the Year and Music Row Magazine Song of the Year in 1999. Prices are extremely reasonable, and you don’t need experience to attend Songsisters sponsored events, just a desire to explore writing songs.
For more information about Songsisters or sponsored events, call Kelle at 828-254-8049.

Kelle Olwyler, the fourth member of the original cornerstone of Songsisters, is a writer and songwriter. Writing songs with her father since she was 6, she feels she has just now come into her own. She claims success as a songwriter because her life-dream has finally come true: “I never wanted to perform. It’s not my thing. I always wanted to walk into a club or be driving down the road with the radio on . . . and hear a song I wrote being belted out by someone else. That finally happened!” Songsisters has been the catalyst for a jump in the quality and breadth of her songwriting.

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