Last year I put a lot of my time into helping to write a musical for the Columbia Marionette Theatre here in Columbia, SC.
Working with artist/puppeteer Lyon Hill is always a thrill for me. I have a great deal of respect for his vision. I wrote numerous songs for the show, which was our take on the Russian fairytale “The Frog Princess,” and I had the fun of seeking out talented friends to fill the various roles. Here is a quiet moment from the show, which, in the recorded soundtrack, is sung by the luminous Stefanie Santana (do please check out her songs, which make me cry, they are so beautiful and she is so frank and real, which is why I wanted her to play the young heroine). For the purposes of my ol’ blog, though, I sang the song live with Mitra Salehi puppeteering Vasilisa in frog form.
I hoped, through this song, to communicate something not only about Vasilisa’s specific plight but also a more universal idea of feeling sometimes like your body is interfering with your ability to be truly “seen.” So, yes, wistful stuff? And, in a show about a curse, the song serves as a bit of a counter-spell.
We will soon have the entire production available for viewing on youtube. I’ll include a link as soon as that is the case.
For two summers in Charleston, SC, I worked at an independent donut shop. Circus Donuts. It used to be a Burger King. But it was transformed by vintage circus posters, an offbeat couple of donutologists (as they called themselves), and enough donuts to leave me smelling like them each day when I came home and hugged my mom. In the mornings, the place was humming with business and a crew of workers, but in the afternoons I was often left to run the place by myself. And, as is my style, I took it personally. I had heard my boss say, “When there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean,” and I took it to heart. The booths sparkled. The coffee (that I loved to smell but hated to taste) never ran out and the little diner mugs were stacked and ready should a busload of old folks suddenly descend upon me. Times like that, it was *my* donut shop. And when my good friend Jennifer would stop by, I would always conspiratorially place an extra donut on her tray, calling it the friend donut. The one you get for being my friend.
“Friend Donut” is a love song to a friend. It’s about giving your friend the royal treatment. In an imagined future donut shop. Jennifer and I continued to refer to the “friend donut” for years to come. It came to mean “that extra thing you get because you are my friend.”
In recent years I have made a friend named Aaron in my current home of Columbia, SC. He is unusual in his extraordinary appreciation for both friends and donuts. He writes memorable, singable songs of family and friendship for his band Those Lavender Whales. He puts out his friends’ records on a label called Fork and Spoon that he runs with…his friends. He daydreams about opening his own donut shop. He goes for donuts in a nearby town where I once discovered donuts that were surprisingly, emotionally reminiscent of those I once sold at Circus Donuts years ago. So today I offer you this simple version of “Friend Donut,” with cheers and love to friends old and new…and to the royal treatment.
P.S. You can download the audio at my Soundcloud page.
A lot of us are intense about music, whether or not we make music ourselves (there are so many ways to build your life around it). You meet people and, when they tell you what albums they love, their taste speaks volumes, right? It’s shorthand. We feel love and loyalty towards our favorite artists and experience a genuine, powerful sense of loss when they are gone.
Through my life as a musician, I have been drawn to fellow songwriters as friends, and it has been our songs that did the introducing, providing that very same shorthand. And one night, when I was up past any hour that would be appropriate to make a phone call, I realized I could go over to my stereo and put on something by one of my friends. And everything got better. Voilà. So this is a love song to records and the people who make them.
Here’s a song from the Lunch Money album Original Friend. Most of the lyrics come from my memory of a day from my childhood when a light dusting of snow got us all sent home from school. Snow was, and still is, so rare in South Carolina. That day my brother and I just started walking home. I don’t even think our mom was notified that school was closing. Even the old guy who served as a crossing guard on the highway was not at his post yet, and we hesitated for a second and then shrugged and navigated it on our own. We made our way the couple of miles to our house, surrounded by miraculous snowflakes. I remember being confused that it could actually snow when all I had brought that day was a red sweatshirt! For me, this song is about the beauty of snow and also about the exhilarating freedom to be kids wandering home in it.
My brother now lives in Massachusetts, where snow is not as rare. I was visiting him one October and it started snowing. I was so moved by this unexpected bonus and, on a whim, I lay down on the ground and looked up. When I did that, I was astonished by how different the world seemed from that perspective. It was suddenly quiet and thick flakes were floating right towards my face for as far as I could see. It was one of the most surprising sensations I have ever experienced.
Feel free to download this mp3 at my Soundcloud page.
There is a teenaged boy who walks around my neighborhood. I see him in the day and in the evening. He usually has an iPod and is always alone. And when I see him I feel a pang because I remember being about his age and being alone a lot. Walking home from the movie theater, where I would go by myself. Taking my dog down the beach past all civilization, or silently through festivals and crowds, or around my neighborhood at night. I remember the feeling of passing houses full of activity and feeling so close and distant at the same time. By some mixture of chance and awkwardness, I went for years without having any real friends my age. It was music that both kept me company and eventually would be my bridge to finding people I could connect with. This song is about those nighttime walks and about the belief that a friend would eventually be found. There’s a nod to a much-loved friend who once told me she was so over-worked she felt like “a shell.”
Russell was coming over to say goodbye. He plays trombone with us, and was moving to New Orleans, where, really, a young trombonist belongs, don’t you think? But, don’t worry, kids…we’re going to KEEP him. He’s willing to fly around and keep playing some shows with us. That’s a huge relief because we LOVE him. Anyway, he came over and I asked him to join me on “Umbrella” with a whistling solo. Watch his expression when he finishes the lengthy solo. My kids and I laugh every time because it looks like he’s going to faint. I appreciate people who give it their all.
As I said in my last post, I often wind up writing a song for a special occasion. Several years ago, my library asked us to perform at the annual summer ice cream party for the Junior Volunteers. We were happy to oblige, and I thought it might be nice to write a song just for the event. When I asked the volunteer coordinator to tell me more about the junior volunteers, I was soon grinning and scribbling away with my pencil as she listed off things like windexing sticky books, cutting out nametags, putting out the little pencils and slips of paper by each computer. And their time commitment, for me, was the cherry on top: one hour a week. Oh yes, I was going to enjoy writing this anthem. Here is the song that resulted:
Sometimes I write a song in trade, or on a dare, or in support of a cause, or to salute something or other. This song “Smokey” was written in trade. An artist friend offered to swap a painting of my son for a song about her dog. I went over and spent a few hours chatting about Smokey, hearing about her photo being used in a giant ad in Times Square, her growing understanding of Japanese, her ability to swear at the neighbors, her various quirks, likes (peanut butter) and dislikes (other dogs), and her life together with cat-friend Banjo and her favorite human, Leslie. Here is the song that emerged:
OK, I’m cheating a little here in the efforts to get a defibrillator on my song blog. Sorry to be away so long. My good buddy/husband/drummer/former bassist/web designer/personal chef/mechanic/studio engineer Jay started a blog. It’s very neat and nerdy, just like Jay. He made a post about finding an old mic at the flea market and fixing it. He even got me to sing into it for his blog, so I am putting a link to that here.
I write songs. But not as often as I should. So maybe I can do this a little more? Every day? Whoa, let's not get crazy. Still, I am going to start posting video performances of songs. Some old, some new. Eventually all new. I have been in two bands, The Verna Cannon and Lunch Money. There might be a third band one day. I put out Lunch Money CDs on my little record label called Squirrel Mechanic Records.