Northwestern Music Memories

There was a blurb about my music in the recent Northwestern Alumni newsletter, next to the listings of other alums’ promotions and marriages and births. It got me thinking about my music presence back in college, and what it was like when I was starting out — so much energy and enthusiasm, so little experience or contacts. So much engagement and possibility, so little plan.

I lived at Jones, a residential college with its own theatre, practice rooms with pianos, dance rehearsal space, and a Steinway. There were always plays and shows and Friday night performance series, where people would get up and do something new for the artsy crowd in my dorm. I enjoyed Jones, and the got a great kick out of the eccentric and talented community of people I lived with. The Friday night series created a constant opportunity to try out new songs, or to collaborate with other people in a low stress but respectful environment. The song “Birches” from my first album Something Real came out of a beautiful collaboration with Gabi and Shauna. I had been reading Robert Frost for a poetry class and we decided to have me write a song and bring in flute and dance as part of the performance. I’d never done anything like it, and haven’t since. And it was absolutely lovely.

It was at Jones that I scored my first show, a Sam Sheperd play called “Lie of the Mind.” The director didn’t want to give me any forceful direction as far as the music — he wanted me to find it myself through metaphors. I still remember his words: “If this music were a bird, its song would make you cringe. If this music were a dog, it would have three legs. Your MOTHER would not like this music.” Which sounds kind of weird, but actually helped. In honor of the metaphor, we named the pit band “Three-Legged Dog.” From that project I learned to work within the environment at hand, meaning: if someone wants to create unusual parameters for a project, just go with it. Consider the possibility that every limitation or guidance is a game created to help you grow or be more unique in your response to the puzzles of our creative lives.

I played a lot in a duo with a great guy named Drew Merrill. Drew was a dreamy, deadhead guitarist who had a beautiful, mellow voice (and always a beautiful, mellow girlfriend swaying in the audience somewhere). We’d play at Norris Student Center, or at Tommy Nevin’s Pub, and people were really supportive of our little guitar/keyboard/harmony thing. I used to get really freaked-out nervous before shows; Drew’s laid-back vibe taught me a lot about just being relaxed and enjoying yourself during shows. And his talent always shone, whether he was with me or playing with his main band, a huge campus favorite called “Left on Red” that played pretty big gigs and pulled a great crowd. I was a little bit in love with Drew for some of that year, which possibly helped the music a little, and I was enamoured with the feeling of my life at the time. Everything seemed so charged with sensuality and energy and possibility — and it was! It was as if life was especially taut with potential and vibrancy, ready to spring me into connection, distance, or tears, or rapture, or discovery. Around every corner could be my soulmate, or a phrase that would guide my next song, or an earth-shattering concept I’d never considered, or a mystical experience.

Every morning I’d wake up and head down to the Unicorn Cafe, a comfy place that earnestly began introducing espresso drinks to the community. Can you even imagine life without these?! It was a revelation! Coffee that tasted the delicious way it smelled — wow! I got to know the owner a little bit and asked if I could do a few shows there, and I did! The Unicorn had a funky upright piano, which was cool, and people sat and listened, which was great. My friend Mary came up to me after my first show there (really my first solo show in college) and said, “I hope you’re going to do this for your life…you could, you know.” I was so thankful for that generous comment. It gave me some confidence when I really needed it. Playing at the Unicorn made me feel that I could do it by myself if I needed to. Sometimes I think we hesitate from sharing our responses with fellow musicians or artists, thinkingour comments wouldn’t matter to them, or “oh, they know already” or “there are too many people around, I’ll mention it later” or whatever, but it really matters to me when people share their feelings about a show or song, and so I try to make that effort too. (The feedback, btw, isn’t always good, but it is always illuminating — at that same show at the Unicorn, another dear friend told me I looked tortured and wasn’t I having a good time? Why yes, I was, so I worked on making sure I looked as happy as I was feeling so that the audience wouldn’t worry about me, which is something I try to remember even now).

Occasionally I’d stretch a little and play shows at nearby places, like the Heartland Cafe, a funky organic restaurant and cafe in Rogers Park, or No Exit, a cool spot under the El tracks. So scary! to play even a few miles from the insular campus community. But always fun, always interesting, definitely good for me. And the organic food was a huge plus. And I’ve come across people who remember those shows, which is astonishing!  I barely remember those shows! A bit daunting to think about, really. Ripples in the pond and all that.

Senior year I scored a play called “The Floatplane Notebooks” that my roommates, Jason Moore and Paul Fitzgerald, had adapted from a Clyde Edgerton novel of the same name. It was an incredible production and I felt the power of music in such a real way. My Dad, whose back bothers him and who is not a big theatre-goer, couldn’t stop talking about the play afterward, which says quite a lot by our family culture. It was powerful and moving, and a thrill to create the music for it. Jason and Paul had worked incredibly hard on this project and had brought it to life. I felt the pressure of their intentions for the piece and really needed to live up to that, which asked me to work through very bad procrastinating habits and time-management crap. Or to start to, anyway.

There was an annual program called “The Niteskool Project” which gave selected students a chance to record their songs professionally for inclusion on a compilation album. My demos were pretty sucky (and my songwriting was a lot younger too), so I never made the cut for the album, which was incredibly disappointing.  But I pulled it together and volunteered to help out at the sessions (usually very late-night deals revolving around insane amounts of caffeine and sugar).  I learned a lot.  I embarrassed myself a few times while learning how studio sessions work (stories for another blog, I think).  I realized how much time it takes sometimes to get the sound you want.  And watched how musicians can get in their own way.  And by the end of my time at school, I’d recorded some tracks at a friend’s home studio and was thrilled with the result.  Bit by bit the pieces had started coming together.

I look back at my early days of creating and performing music at NU, and my feelings about it now are much more gentle on myself than they were then.  I felt like everyone was ahead of me and more together — sending out press kits, getting gigs, opening for cool bands that came to campus, on their way to a big record deal and fame and fortune, and I was still struggling along just playing little cafes.  But maybe things unfold the way they do for a reason.  And maybe each step in the journey has been one that gave me foundation, or nudged me along quietly, or pushed me hard when I needed it.  I’m thankful that I got to spend time at a place where there were so many opportunities to play and be heard and grow.  I mean, really… what else can we ask of our lives?

Wherever you are in your life, your creative work, I hope that you can find that balance between working your ass off and allowing life’s opportunities to announce themselves on their own schedule.  The world is changing every day, moment to moment, and our jobs as creative spirits is just to find our place in it and discover what we’re meant to contribute.  I look forward to experiencing all of your contributions, and I thank you for sharing mine.

5 Things I’m Thankful For Today:
1. The great show last weekend in Evanston, Wyoming. Thank you good folks who came out! I’ll be back!
2. Brownies hot from the oven.
3. The fun music/pub crawl where I’ll be playing tonight.
4. That we’ll get to hang out with our families next week
5. For the pretty snow over the last few days

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