Women Making Music: Peggy’s Profound Inspirations
By Peggy Ratusz
As a vocal coach, I find the most challenging thing for many singers to realize is their ability to locate, tap into and invoke their own interpretations of songs they choose to cover. Consequently, we end up talking about personal experiences as they relate, and as a way to help them connect. I invite them to observe themselves in the mirror when they rehearse at home. Learning what it feels like, what they look like and what it takes to truly allow their inner troubadour to come through while pretending the mirror is 100 faces looking back at them on stage, helps the lot of them begin to get used to and feel comfortable in their own skin. Through imagery for instance, they can at once conjure up those real-life experiences and if they allow it, veritable emotions reflect back at them. It takes practice to reveal oneself.
Another way I espouse to inspire them is by showing them my favorite live performance videos on YouTube. Ella Fitzgerald, for instance often clutched a handkerchief on stage because she perspired under the lights. The glistening of her skin adds to the uncanny depth she displays, immersing herself in the delivery of Georgia on My Mind from a concert in Sweden in 1963. From the first note, she is committed to the melancholy sentiment of this iconic tune. She even sings the wrong lyrics but we don’t care because her tone, the shear emotion, her phrasing and the runs she executes are authentic. Her aim is true. Eyes closed through most of the piece, she still draws us in with an impeccable rendition.
In November of 2007, my husband and I were watching David Letterman on our bedroom TV, as we often do before calling it a day. Propping up our pillows sitting up in bed, we had no idea the performance we were about to spectate that chilly night in late autumn would, note for note, bring on more chills of the warming kind. Mariza, a Fado singer from Portugal sung in her native language, a song from her Concerto em Lisboa release. People, it’s as stunning as anything you’ll ever hear or see and it brought us to tears. We both agreed it was the closest we’d come to the proverbial first-time at the opera. This footage I share with students is a study in fearless desire from the artist and her amazing trio of acoustic players, to unite a room.
The Dirty Loops are a power trio from Sweden who were discovered in part on Facebook and YouTube. They twist pop music in a way that’s never been done before and their rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a funked out, uniquely arranged, re-harmonized phenomenal sampling of their abilities. I show this footage to my students as a way to expose them to a band whose love for each other and commitment to their sound and vision has paid off in ways these three young souls imagined and then made real.
Like many people, I believe inspiration is really the only means to create something original or to make something familiar sound fresh and unique. Inspiration is personal while at the same time, universal in its essence. For singers who are also songwriters or aspiring songwriters, I create a playlist of songs I deem to possess potent lyrical content and where the instrumentation, arrangements and style interrelate with the message. I share my favorites with them in the hope and even with the expectation a lot of time that it’s going to absolutely inspire them! These are poignant, sultry, joyful, heart breaking, healing, humorous or celebratory songs in nature. If in the short run, the songs on the playlist don’t particularly inspire them as I hoped they would, then I’ve at least posed the question. What then, does inspire you?
Not all my inspiration for songwriting or living life comes from songs of course. I maintain a list of books, prose, single words or phrases, poems and quotes. I save links to art and photography and fashion photography, I keep a dream diary and a list of my favorite movies. Like you, my personal space is filled with knick knacks and patty whacks, scented this and that, framed stuff, handmade or hand-painted plates and vases; Colors on my bedspread and chair pillows, food in my fridgedare; all sharing space with the inspirations of my lover-roommate-husband-friend and all his knick knack and patty whacks.
Here’s a sample of songs I share and why:
Slaid Cleaves’ release Unsung, compiles 13 tracks written by largely unknown songwriters. Two of the many standouts on it are Everett, written by Steve Brooks and Lydia, written by Karen Poston. While the entire lyrical content of both are compelling, the instrumentation is equally persuasive. Everett pays tribute to the character and life of a dead, bar-stool bard: ‘Oh, Everett, he never had a square meal in thirty years, but men don’t live by bread alone, and you could find him any time, slouched up on his high chair, drinking scotch, and staring at his crotch.’
Then a verse later the bridge: ‘Who was the man behind the mask? None of us ever dared to ask. Poetry was Everett’s shield and sword. Despair could be its own reward, when despair was polished hard, until it shone like a precious stone, for all the pain to sparkle through … cause that’s what poets do.’
Karen Poston’s Lydia tells the mournful tale of a woman who has just lost her son in a coal mining accident some years after losing her husband to the same fate. The first few words bring tears to my eyes every single time I hear them: ‘Lydia lit a cigarette today; ancient fumbling fingers in her way, from a 40-year-old coffee cup she sipped a bit of gin, she closed her eyes and let the memories in …’
Two selections by one of the most prolific song-poets of our time, Jackson Browne, that draw me in are Looking East and Too Many Angels. The live version of Looking East, originally released on an album of the same name in 1996, appears also on Solo Acoustic Live Vol. 1 from a few years ago. It’s a fine example of his expertise in writing music and lyrics that document his vision, of and for, humanity and justice. As we witness his revelation about our continuing struggle, this song is hopeful while it feels at times shameful too. Here’s a chunk of it that I find particularly substantive: ‘…the search for the truth is conducted with a wink and a nod, and where power and position are equated with the grace of God, these times are famine for the soul while for the senses it’s a feast, from the edge of my country, as far as I see, looking east … How long have I left my mind to the powers that be? How long will it take to find, the higher power moving in me? Power in the insect power in the sea power in the snow falling silently power in the blossom power in the stone power in the song being sung alone power in the wheat field power in the rain power in the sunlight and the hurricane power in the silence power in the flame power in the sound of a lover’s name. The power of the sunrise and the power of a prayer released, on the edge of my country, I pray for the ones with the least.’
In Browne’s song, “Too Many Angels” you can’t help but see in your mind’s eye the room, decorated by a recently departed loved one (maybe), in which he’s left sitting alone: ‘There’s an angel on a ribbon hanging from the armoire door, there’s a Cupid with his feet crossed on the bird cage by the door, there’s a baby angel drummer his eyes are open wide, and two more tiny cherubs on the mantle side by side…Too many angels have seen me crying, too many angels, have heard you lying. There are photographs of children all in their silver frames on the window sills and tabletops, lit by candle flames, and upon their angel faces, life’s expectations climb where the moment has preserved them from the ravages of time. Too many angels …’
Gosh I could truly go on and on. There’s Great Gig in the Sky with vocals by Liz Torey from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and Sylvie Lewis’s amusing tune, “Promises of Paris” with the most incredible, stratospheric backing vocals I’ve ever heard. Instrumental versions of the Great American Songbook by Miles Davis and John Coltrane or guitar greats like Albert Collins, Chet Atkins, Derek Trucks and Marty Stuart. There’s thousands upon thousands of great orchestra pieces from Pop, Swing, Classical and Jazz like The Mystic Moods Orchestra, the Dorsey brothers, Cab Calloway, Louis Prima, Duke Ellington and Tchaikovsky’s “Overture of 1812.” Every winter when the radio stations relentlessly play Boston Pops’ instrumental of “Sleigh Ride,” it brings me joy every single time I hear it during the holiday season.
So as we embark on another winter in Western North Carolina, I encourage you to make a fresh pot of coffee, drink a cup, get in the car and get out and support all the local women and men who don’t stop making inspirational music, just because it’s cold outside!
Those of us who make music for a living encourage those of you who don’t, to brave the winter wind (not the icy roads!) and we’ll promise to warm you up when you get to wherever we’re playing.
Peggy Ratusz’ Suggestions for Holiday music listening:
On Mondays it’s Hank West and the Smokin’ Hots at 5 Walnut and on Tuesdays there’s a huge array of places to go hear live music like the Blues Jam at Westville Pub, or the late night Funk Jam at Asheville Music Hall, or the earlier evening Acoustic night at Tressa’s with Lyric or the open mic night at Altamont Brewing with Chris O’Neill. Every other Tuesday, there’s the Singer Songwriter in the Round at Jack of the Wood and every other Monday, there’s one at Jack of Hearts in Weaverville. On Wednesdays it’s Live Jazz at Tressa’s or the Old Time Jam at Jack of the Wood, Every Thursday there’s a killer Jazz jam at Barley’s downtown as well as the Westsound Soul Review at Tressa’s. On Sundays there’s the Bluegrass Brunch at Asheville Music Hall, the Irish Sessions at Jack of the Wood, and the Sunday Night Jazz showcases at Isis Restaurant and Music Hall!