lonesome figure horizon sun set blue landscape solitude tree

Livings In Los Angeles – Ma Solitude

lonesome figure horizon sun set blue landscape solitude tree
Alphonse Osbert, Solitude du Christ, 1897

Los Angeles, December 24, 2017

Dear Visitor, dear Readers and Listeners,

I am writing this blog post shortly after the release of my new single, the French chanson Ma Solitude. I have known and loved this song since I was in junior art college, where I also studied French (read more about those influences in my post French Chansons). Ma Solitude was written in the 1960’s by the singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki (1934-2013), who became famed in France for his repertoire of simple romantic ballads, one of them being Édith Piaf’s hit song “Milord”.

Although it’s been in my repertoire for quite a while now, I only recently decided to make a recording. My motivation was on the one hand, that my connection with this beautiful tune had deepened naturally after having performed it so many times. On the other hand, it was almost as if I had to learn what the song really meant before recording it. Ma Solitude came to mark the end of a very painful journey both emotionally and geographically. It stands for a time during which I felt utterly alone but somehow transitioned into a state of solitude, which in contrast to loneliness, offers a special value to those who learn to cherish their own inner worlds. This is after all, exactly what the songs describes. It has therefore been emotionally very cathartic to sing.

Ma Solitude is such a beautifully crafted melancholic song but it is not sad. While you listen to my new recording you can read the French lyrics and an English translation by clicking here.

Available for streaming and downloading:

 

2016 – A Year of Many Losses

The years 2016/17 were for me personally completely traumatic. After months of stressful arguments, debates, break-ups and reconciliations, my husband moved out in May. It was so hard to adjust to being on my own again and the challenge of trying to be survive as an artist in one of the world’s most expensive cities seemed almost impossible. I somehow managed. But then, in the autumn, I was given notice on the house we had been living in for over eight years – a house that had been our home and that, in midst of all of the change, at least was a familiar staple. Unsettling for me, as was for many, was then the shocking outcome of the US election in November. It became apparent that more people in America – more than most had ever imagined –, had voted for a misogynistic, narcissistic, reality-TV creator, simply an autocrat: for Donald Trump.

It verified for me a complete decline of society, which ironically felt like an epitome of my life.

I was “hanging in” as they say, until completely out of the blue, on December 16, my beloved dog Ginji died. I surrendered to a paralyzed state of utter grief and shock. Ginji was a beautiful, mischievous Whippet-Basenji mix who I had named after one of my favourite jazz tunes Dindi. I have since then been unable to sing that song live. My other dog, a small rescue called Leonora, was similarly shocked and visibly grief stricken. For weeks she would run out of the door into the garden and then stop, look behind her and – wait, wait for Ginji to join her.

Meanwhile, I still had to face the task of packing up a decade’s worth of married life, of hopes and dreams – many, that never came to be. I had no clue where I would move to or what I would do. My small family had diminished within a few months from four to three, and then suddenly to two members. And although “It Never Rains in Southern California”, those were the months with the most rainfall in years. So last year I spent Christmas in utter loneliness, grieving. It was the first year of not creating a warm and festive family Christmas – for us, his sons, their partners, and random orphan friends.

 

Months of Restless and Relentless Moving…

I was so distraught by January from all of the losses, that I felt more than paralyzed by all of the decisions I had to make. Would I even stay in Los Angeles? Would it be better to move back to Europe? Maybe I needed to get away from the political climate, away from all the heartbreak? Do a “geographical” as they say. I felt too heartbroken to think clearly. In addition, the housing market in Los Angeles was, and still is, in a total crisis. So to find an affordable, clean and dog-friendly apartment anywhere, was more than daunting.

The packing of endless boxes, the wrapping of furniture in old blankets and discarded sheets felt sheer overwhelming. What would I keep, what would I even need in the future? Where and what was my future? I managed to cram everything into a mobile storage container that was picked up by a huge truck and hauled off to Compton. What followed was quite an odyssey. I spent five fairly unhappy and cold but also eye-opening weeks in Berlin but then returned to L.A. in April. I was determined to find an apartment and refocus on my music and writing. While apartment hunting however, I had to couch-surf here and there, constantly looking for new places to stay for as little money as possible. It was distressing for both my little dog and I.

But a few weeks later, in May, I finally  found a new home! So I thought. My luck didn’t last. After two days I started to get throbbing headaches and flu-like symptoms. But I had no fever. It dawned on me that I was having a severe allergic reaction. That something was wrong with the apartment. It had smelled musty when I moved in but I thought it was just lack of being aired out properly. After talking to the neighbours and doing some research it became apparent that it was toxic! There had been water damage, which had never been properly tended to and behind the walls the building was full of hidden mold!

 

Not Being Able To Function on Many Levels

Feeling absolutely awful, desperate, heartbroken and sick, I knew that if I didn’t move out again, I would never be able to function again, let alone sing. So in June, I was forced to pack everything up again and put it into storage. After that second move I basically collapsed and fell incredibly ill for six weeks. I had such a painful and hacking cough, that I had to use an asthma inhaler. An ex-ray of my lungs showed that at least it wasn’t anything like the valley fever, a fungal pneumonia that can lead to hospitalizations. But I was unable to earn much money, so yet again, I bunked with friends. Some of these “friends” I had never met before. I learned very quickly who stepped up and who couldn’t be bothered. On August 6, still searching and in full-on crisis mode, I was taking a break, sitting on a park bench, poking around in some greasy, store-bought salad in a plastic container, and wrote in my journal,

“I watch the homeless thinking, I feel you – I’m one favour away…”

During that time I definitely gained empathy for people whose lives, sometimes through a simple turn of fate, unravel. The sight of hundreds of homeless encampments thereafter, has become more and more unbearable.

 

One Year Later – Full Circle

Then finally, in September, I was able to move into a proper home in L.A. again. It felt as if years had gone by – around the world in 90 days – and emotionally they had. Despite still feeling all of the losses in my bones, this Christmas, I am spending my alone time reflecting in solitude but not in loneliness. And this is exactly what the lyrics of Ma Solitude illustrate so perfectly and why I wanted to record the song before the year was over, so to also mark a full circle. The chorus alone is a beautiful and clever oxymoron:

“Non, je ne suis jamais seule / avec ma solitude”

which means, in a very existentialistic way, “No, I am never alone / with my solitude”.

Being in solitude implies being on your own but Moustaki cleverly personifies this “quality time” in one of the verses as if it were time spent with a lover. And the third verse always brings a smile to my face:

“Quand elle est au creux de mon lit
Elle prend toute la place
Et nous passons de longues nuits
Tous les deux face à face”

The intimate scene of two people sleeping in a bed together makes me think of my little rescue dog Leonora. She felt the loss of Ginji, who was like a mother to her, as much as I did. Leonora now seeks solace by hopping onto my bed at night and curling up into a little fur ball – in that dip in the middle of bed, that “creux de mon lit” and indeed, “elle prend toute la place”!

To reflect this kind of intimacy of the song is why I ultimately decided to record the song with a very intimate ensemble, consisting of voice, guitar and double bass. Another meaningful factor was the release date I chose, the 16th of December, marking the anniversary of Ginji’s sudden death.

 

Solitude versus Loneliness

After sharing these very personal experiences and my motivation to record Ma Solitude I would like to bring the following to anyone reading this:

Obviously, solitude can only be productive if we don’t feel excluded, hurt or punished.[1] But in tranquil times it offers an intimate connection, a realm of solace, like with a lover. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared on a similar note: “My solitude doesn’t depend on the presence or absence of people; on the contrary, I hate he who steals my solitude without, in exchange, offering me true company.” The French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre even wrote, “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”

Ma Solitude has always so poignantly illustrated the beauty one can find in alone time. It’s a deep connection with oneself. But this connection can obviously also get severed in times of deep grief and trauma when our brains are stuck in a state of terror and operate in pure survival mode. Sadly, not everyone is capable of this inner connection or willing to let go to this sometimes almost meditative state. I was quite shocked to recently read about a study at the University of Virginia in which several participants – a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men – chose to subject themselves to electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts.[2]

On the other hand, it seems as if in our hyper-connected, social-media driven and extremely competitive society, alone time or solitude is more devalued than it has been in a long time. The author Ray Williams writes in an essay published in Psychology Now, “all current meanings of ‘alone’ imply a lack of something. Invariably, a desire for solitude is viewed by others as a sign there is something wrong. Even worse, people associate going it alone with antisocial pursuits and unnecessary risk taking, like jumping off cliffs. And when we see photos of people sitting alone by a lake on a mountain top, many of us might wonder if that person is lonely or even depressed.”[3]

For me solitude is about consciousness. It’s about asking the – sometimes uncomfortable – questions, how deeply am I feeling myself when I’m feeling lonely? Am I feeling disconnected and if so, where is it stemming from? Are we comparing other people’s outsides with our complicated insides? Especially social media can have that effect. On Facebook we only see glossy versions of our “friends’”. We see their feats but seldom their failures illustrated by carefully curated glamour-selfies. During this outer and inner journey I was forced to embark upon, my inner world has shifted from grief and loneliness to solitude. In the process I discovered who my real friends were – one of them being myself.

Button image to buy the single Ma Solitude by Frances Livings on Bandcamp

Click on the picture to stream the song on Spotify or download the recording from Bandcamp or from iTunes.

Click here to read the French lyrics and an English translation.

Did you like this post? If so, why not…

Also, keep an eye out for my next blog post on inspiring art depicting the topics loneliness and/or solitude.

May you also find some inspiration in the following books:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_________________________________

[1] Brent Crane, “The Virtues of Isolation”, in The Atlantic, posted March 30, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/03/the-virtues-of-isolation/521100/

[2] ibid.  [see also Matthew Hutson, „People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts”, in The Atlantic, posted July 3, 2014 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/people-prefer-electric-shocks-to-being-alone-with-their-thoughts/373936/.

[3] Ray Williams, “Why Solitude Is Good and Loneliness Is Bad. Loneliness is becoming an epidemic but the value of solitude is unappreciated”, in: Psychology Today, posted Oct 31, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201710/why-solitude-is-good-and-loneliness-is-bad.

Pablo-Picasso-Girl-Before-A Mirror-1932-Aganju

Aganjú ~ Music and Spirituality

 

Pablo-Picasso-Girl-Before-A Mirror-1932-Aganju
Pablo Picasso, Girl Before A Mirror, 1932

Aganjú was the last song I worked on yesterday in the studio for my new album Ipanema Lounge. I had actually gone through a bit a of a crisis with it and I think this was our third studio session working on the song.

The rhythm section, Sandro Feliciano (percussion) and Isaias Elpes (electric bass), both from Brazil, had created some amazing grooves and my vocal track was in a complementary, nicely contrasting sultry style. I was aiming for a similar style like on In The Still of the Night, a groovy nujazz version of the Cole Porter classic, which features my voice.

But I still thought Aganjú was – how can I say – ummm, boring. And that we didn’t “own” the song.

I was actually close to taking the song off the record…

I had first heard the song Aganjú on Bebel Gilberto’s album Tanto Tempo. It was written by the Brazilian musician, songwriter and record producer Carlinhos Brown, whose musical style blends tropicália, reggae, and traditional Brazilian percussion. Later, especially the Latin remix by Thievery Corporation, caught my attention. It expresses my love of a Brazilian and European Nu jazz style that never quite took a foothold in America the way it did in Europe. It was a movement derived from drum & bass that started in the early 1990’s.

Always seeking new material and ideas, I thought Aganjú would be a nice tune to play live, which we still do. Even with a very sparse instrumentation as a trio; with voice, bass and guitar, it works very well as a groovy, atmospheric lounge style song.

When it comes to recording a song that has already been recorded before, you have to make it your own. I absolutely did not want it to sound like a cover version. Or, like Billie Holiday said,

You can’t copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music.

I had already contemplated horn arrangements but thought it would be too costly and time consuming. But then I thought of simply asking one of my favourite saxophone and flute players to add some movement and interest with some horn tracks in a very last recording session. I booked a three hour session, which was supposed to give us enough time for recording horns, an additional vocal track, some last mixes and mastering. I admit, I did wonder whether it was a bit daunting with so little time…

Veteran jazz musicians

Robert Kyle, a multi-instrumentalist and composer, who also just released a new album himself, came in to the studio. I was thrilled with my co-producer’s idea of creating some friction and dissonances, which was ultimately the direction in which I had planned on going with the vocals. Robert played and improvised multiple amazing tracks on tenor and soprano saxophone and some beautiful and haunting parts on the alto flute that you will recognize in the intro of the song. I added another vocal track, the mix was done – et voilà! The track became a wonderful conversation between the vocals and the wood winds over a very infectious Nu jazz groove.

 

Listen and download the track here:

This is exactly where not only excellent players, who can sight read and improvise on the spot, but a production team like Greg and Nolan Shaheed are crucial for any record to sound as good as Ipanema Lounge simply does. Nolan, whose studio I have been recording in for years, is a veteran trumpet player who has toured with greats like Stevie Wonder and recorded with many others. You can hear him on two songs of the album too. He played Flügelhorn on One Note Samba and on Sway you can hear his sassy trumpet ad libs that add a flair very reminiscent of Cuban Mambo bands of the 1950’s.

Magical Connections

Suddenly, sitting there in the studio, while the end mix was being done, my thoughts started to drift. I think the fact that Nolan is also a world class, medal-winning runner made me think of the current 2016 summer Olympics. They were being held in Rio de Janeiro – the very place the song Aganjú stems from. Athletes, like any performer won’t survive if he or she is not dedicated to their craft by striving for continuous improvement and stamina. It occurred to me that this was occurring at the same time we were recording those last fragments. It all seemed magically connected and suddenly I realized, that’s exactly what the song is about.

Despite the Portuguese lyrics being really hard to translate, the essence of the song and the name “Aganjú” is that of the African deity of volcanoes and deserts, who spreads magic and protection from Brazil, whose religious culture was originally brought to the country by the African slaves. In an interview Bebel Gilberto, said about the phrase:

‘Aganjú’ ‘Aganjú’ is everywhere, in San Francisco, in New York. People get so hypnotized by this song, so maybe that is a good thing, they see the religion in my music.

Music has always had a place in the history and practice of all religions of the world through the meditative use of chant and hymns during liturgical celebrations. In his book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, the British neurologist Oliver Sacks underscores the power of music to console, nourish and even save us from despair. Both Aganjú’s lyrics and in its trance like mood – which was ultimately, what I was looking to reinterpret – are expressed as devotion to the saints for protection, good health and a better life.

aganju

I suddenly remembered another interesting link. The origins of the Olympic games in ancient Greece were deeply rooted in mythology, and attributed to the gods. The athletes believed their training honoured these gods, and that victory was a sign of favour from a deity.

Musical Dedication & Inspiration

I finally felt it was all coming together but not only musically. I was suddenly so aware of the principle of dedication and inspiration. Of how deeply connected they are. That one doesn’t exist without the other.

While olympians were performing at their highest skill level in Rio de Janeiro, after decades of practice, determination, and sacrifice, we as musicians were the same way. And during that very recording session, the god Aganjú had seemed to have blessed us with that magical spark that even, when the most virtuous musicians record or play together, can sometimes be missing.

That magical spark, the essence of spirituality was created for that song, that very link that connects us humans to music and something larger, divinity.

 

DOWNLOAD your copy of Aganjú here

 

Or – if you liked this post, why not simply…

Saxophonist Zane Musa Songs of the Soul Frances Livings Poet

Songs of the Soul ~ In Memory of Zane Musa (1979 – 2015)

 

Zane Musa – the first time I saw him play was at a small, hole in the wall jazz joint. It was the summer of 2005. I was on one of my first visits to Los Angeles from Germany, where the guitarist Greg Porée and I had met. We had been working together at a small theatre in Hamburg. Drink in hand, we sat down, shortly before the show was to begin. So here we were on a date at this – dump.  Secretly, I was thinking very dismissively,

“What is all of this? This is not a proper city! This is not a proper jazz club! L.A. is so ugly. It’s like a barren, flat and never ending suburb, punctuated every now and then by strip malls, like this thing here…”

But Greg swore, these were really good players.

Whenever I had attended jazz concerts in Germany, the venues in which they were held were mostly historical theatres, lovely outdoor venues, like parks or on the waterfront. They always mirrored the anticipated beauty and specialness of the music. I therefore simply didn’t expect much walking in to that dumpy little bar.

The small stage was only dimly lit. My eyes fell on this lanky, dark haired, good-looking guy. I watched him as he just stood there, swaying almost unnoticeably to the venue’s background music – or to his own? His horn hung around his neck and cupping its bow, he lightly cradled his instrument. He seemed oddly detached and lost, clutching his saxophone.

The Saxophone in Jazz

The saxophone is obviously a staple in jazz music. I personally however, associated the sound of this instrument with the sickly sweet and whiney notes of players like Kenny G. dwindling annoyingly from supermarket and car radios. Having gained most of my listening experiences in the eighties and the nineties, a saxophone was the epitome of elevator jazz. But then the band started and this disinterested seeming guy started hitting his first notes; delving deeper and deeper into the music, spiralling into almost delirious solos – my jaw hit the floor. Zane Musa was the most brilliant, moving saxophonist I had ever heard live.

BANNER_Songs-of-the-Soul-Zane-Musa-without words

After the performance, on the way out, I grabbed some of these square, flimsy paper napkins from the bar and in the car I just dotted down every thought, rushing through my head. In the following weeks the poem Songs of the Soul evolved. I only told my husband that Zane inspired the piece. Nobody else. I was somewhat embarrassed by the impact he had made on me –

I had a musical crush on him.

Once the poem was completed, I felt as if I needed to deepen its intensity. I had only just started a new project recording some of my poetry. Nervously I contemplated asking Zane to play on “his” poem. I wouldn’t tell him of course that it was about him. My goal was to recite the piece and ask him to respond in a duet, as if he was at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot. I wanted to capture a complete performance –also of my reading– rather than the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks for overdubbing and editing.

The Recording Session of Songs of the Soul

A few weeks later, I arranged a session with Nolan Shaheed at his studio in Pasadena, an environment that has now, over the years, grown into a very “safe” place to record. There I stood, in the vocal booth, Zane opposite to me in another one. We were connected by sight, large earphones and the piece and separated by the thick studio glass of the individual chambers. I didn’t read the poem out to him before we were ready to record. I wanted his reaction to be spontaneous.

So in dialogue with my recital of the poem, Zane played his musical interpretation of Songs of the Soul. The atmosphere was electric and invariably I achieved my concept in only two magical takes. The first recording was wonderful, very soft, sensitive and flowing but the second take had a lot of passion. That was the one we then mixed and mastered. Even in the somewhat disconnected and sterile environment of a recording studio, I experienced Zane as inventive and daring. He would blend Middle Eastern quarter notes with American jazz. I was impressed by his ability of delving into the music like into the depths of an indigo coloured lake that lied within him.

In the Recording Studio again…

A few years later in 2013, I was recording my first solo album, The World I Am Livings In, with eleven of my original songs. I couldn’t resist asking him to play a solo on my song Only Time Will Tell. It’s a very sad piece about fearing your loved-one will one day emotionally leave your once passionate relationship. So I needed some melancholic magic. I booked a session at Nolan’s studio and Zane played a short but very moving solo on soprano saxophone. While he was still in the recording booth, Nolan whispered to me that his older brother, the tap dancer Chance Taylor had only just committed suicide – the day before. Songs-of-the-Soul-Cover-tree-with-lightening-Frances-Livings-Musical-Poetry

My feelings shifted like waves. I went from being very moved by Zane’s playing over incredible empathy for such a loss to total disbelief that he had even showed up for the session. It seemed like too much! How was that possible, despite the pain, the shock and the anguish? At the same time I knew that sometimes that’s the very thing you have to do.

You show up and play, you sing, you write your heart out in order to not collapse. You keep going.

It was such an emotional situation because at the same time, I was also grateful for the fact that sometimes, when playing music, it’s like being handed a piece of that other person’s soul. It’s a very delicate and precious moment and I wanted to thank Zane and give him a piece in return. Greg and Nolan knew it but I had never made it public that Zane had inspired me to write Songs of the Soul.

So ever so slightly bashful, I told him that morning. His head was bent down, his eyes cast to the ground. Slowly, he lifted his gaze and through those tinted glasses he often wore, he looked at me almost with the eyes of a child, his heavy eyelids framed by dark eyelashes, batting slowly two, three times. Everyone who knows Zane will know the look. I will never know to date whether he had sensed this anyway that the poem was basically about him. I didn’t know what he thought at all – he wasn’t exactly an open book when it came to words.

What I do know is that Zane didn’t care about compliments; you couldn’t charm, bribe or seduce him into niceties. He poured himself into his music because he wanted to, rather, had to. So I didn’t judge or ask. But I had wanted to give him something back after he had given me these two heart-wrenching improvisations on his instrument and after the devastating loss of his brother. I wanted to simply say – I care.

That Night When Others Played Their Hearts Out…

And ironically, sadly and magically, that’s exactly what his fellow musicians did for him almost exactly two years later: They played their hearts out, hoping to give Zane back a piece of their souls:

On Monday, February 2nd, 2015 the jazz community received the incomprehensible and devastating news that Zane Musa had passed away. He had been on tour in Florida with the trumpeter Arturo Sandoval who himself had been a protégée of no one less than Dizzy Gilesby. At first the whole incident was perceived as a freak accident. But later we learned that tragically, Zane had taken his own life by jumping from the top of a park deck. He was only 36.

Two weeks later, on Monday, February 16, 2015, we celebrated Zane’s life: Organized by his family and three of his closest friends, the keyboarder Dennis Hamm, the bassist Ryan Cross and the drummer Tony Austin. I was asked if the recording of “Songs of the Soul” could be played and whether I could say a few words about how it developed. Of course I was more than honoured that I could contribute something.

For years, the Sofitel Hotel on Beverly Boulevard has been a slightly more glamorous venue for Monday night jazz sessions that Zane had often attended. Generously, the management once again supplied their venue, this time for Zane’s memorial service.

The large conference room was packed. Some of the guests had to stand in the back. I can only guess that there were at least five hundred people attending. Zane’s sister, his mentors and close friends shared very personal stories. Pictures of him growing up, tap dancing and playing his instrument were shown, and Zane’s peers and close friends played live music. Zane’s brother Chance, an award winning tap dancer was also commemorated. A slide show that Dennis had compiled, with pictures of Zane playing, illustrated Songs of the Soul. It marked the end of the well over three hour memorial. Finally, a brass band led the attendees downstairs to the piano bar. A lively jam session started to take place until closing out at 2 am in the morning.

I don’t want to speculate at this point why Zane ultimately made the decision to end his own life. It seems so much like such a contradiction of his brilliance and success. Moreover, he wasn’t some unpopular nerd, shunned and bullied. His family, friends and peers loved, respected and revered him. Couldn’t he get professional help, one may be temped to ask. But we know of others, whose idea of suicide has risen to loom over them like a black sun. We know of others, whose yearning to cease corporal existence will more often than not, lead them to their final definite act.

Your Elusive Creative Genius

I would rather more like to end this excursion on honouring Zane with someone else’s words. This is an excerpt from a talk in February 2009 by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert on “Your elusive creative genius”:

Centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dance and music that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn. They were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals and they were terrific […] But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen, and one of these performers would actually become transcendent. […] time would stop, and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal and he wasn’t doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before, but everything would align. And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human. He would be lit from within, and lit from below and all lit up on fire with divinity.

[…] And when this happened, back then, people knew it for what it was, you know, they called it by its name. They would put their hands together and they would start to chant, “Allah, Allah, Allah, God, God, God.” That’s God, you know. […] Incomprehensible, there it is — a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that.

But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it’s Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he’s no longer a glimpse of God. He’s just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he’s never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God’s name again as he spins, and what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.

When I first came to Los Angeles –which is now almost ten years ago– the experience of such incredible talent and level of musicianship moved me profoundly. I knew, there was likely no return. To that date, I had only heard on recordings by the very best, the amount of brilliance as I then did and continue to hear live. I felt in awe, and as an artist myself inspired, challenged and frightened. In some way, Zane epitomized a lot of these feelings and conflicts. I have always highly respected his talent, passion and hard work. When he played, he invested everything – including his torment, which was what I saw that very first evening with such intuition I suppose, because it mirrored in a way some of my own. But did I have that courage?

Rest peacefully, Zane.

L. A. Jazz Scene Reels from Untimely Death of Zane Musa, by Tom Meek in LA Weekly, Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Zane Musa Memorial and Celebration of Life, event page with many comments and eulogies on Facebook

An interesting, older article praising the talent of a young Zane Musa appeared in 1996 in The Los Angeles Times: “They’re Young, Gifted and Gigging: Zane Musa, a Name to Remember, Opens New Jazz Talent Series” by Don Heckman in The L.A. Times, April 4, 1996.

 

DOWNLOAD Songs of the Soul here:

 

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Elliot-Erwill-Paris-Rain-French-Chansons

Frances Livings’ Ipanema Lounge Repertoire. French Chansons

Elliot-Erwill-Paris-Rain-French-Chansons man leaping couple hugging umbrellas eifel tower tour eifel
© Elliot Erwill, Paris 1989 (100-year jubilee of the Eiffel Tower)

 

I have always loved French chansons which definitely derives from my strong affinity with the French culture – and I am not only referring to the delicious food. I was thrilled to start learning French at middle school and very excited about being able to count to ten, say bonjour, merci, oui and non after a couple of lessons. My emotional bond with French music however, developed later in junior art college, where I had a very Francophile teacher. He spent (probably) all of his holidays in France and often came to class wearing the typical black beret. So often, instead of bending our heads over books, like the children’s (and adult’s) classic Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry we were supposed to be reading at the time, he would bring his acoustic guitar and we pour our hearts into singing French chansons.

Apart from loving to sing I always felt that these songs were very special, very pensive and always very poetic. One of my favourite lines was from the song Ma Solitude by Georges Moustaki. I thought it was just so beautifully melancholic and at the same time a clever play with words: “Non, je ne suis jamais seul / Avec ma solitude” (No, I am never alone / with my loneliness). I have, in the meantime recorded the song. You can read about my thoughts and inspiration here and listen to it embedded in a beautiful Spotify playlist while you read this blog post…

Years later, my mother’s second husband bought and renovated an old French farmhouse in Perigord, the southwest of France. I was very lucky to be able to spend so much time there before he sadly passed away unexpectedly. The property stood slightly elevated on a small mound and was surrounded by a beautiful soft and green, hilly landscape. It was a whitewashed house with a huge, heavy oak barn door and Bordeaux-red window shutters. A low, irregular, old mossy stone wall, next to which luscious bushes of red roses and lavender grew, semi-enclosed it. There was no telephone, internet or TV. It was perfect for either relaxing or being creative. I wrote and sang a lot and sometimes listened to the radio, which was always very inspiring because of the large amount of French songs they played.

While searching for material and writing my own songs to continuously expand my repertoire, these songs have always been in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until compiling the music for my multi-lingual Ipanema Lounge project, and playing some regular gigs at some of L.A.’s best French restaurants, The Little Door, and Le Petit Paris, that they resurfaced and I started learning some of them, gradually adding more and more. So after a friend of mine asked me for the lyrics of the ones I had been singing live, I thought I would just upload them here for anyone who is interested. I have uploaded the following medley and added our recording of the songs with some background information.

Jardin d’Hiver

Years ago, a friend of mine compiled these lovely mixed tapes for me. One of them included a very cute and amusing song Jardin d’Hiver, written by the French-Israeli songwriter Keren Ann. Later I learnt that the most well-known recording, the one I listened to over and over again from that tape, is by Henri Salvador. He was French but originally born in Guyana, and virtually an institution in France from the 1930s until his death in 2008. This song is from his 2000 comeback album, Chambre Avec Vue that he recorded at the ripe age of 83!

My recording of this song borrows from the Beguine and the Cha Cha Cha. The tempo is 126 bpm and the backing track consists of various percussion instruments (Sandro Feliciano), nylon guitar (Greg Porée), double bass, bandonéon, synthesizer string pads and piano.

Listen to and download the song here:

Jardin d’Hiver

Je voudrais du soleil vert
Des dentelles et des théières
Des photos de bord de mer
Dans mon jardin d’hiver

Je voudrais de la lumière
Comme en Nouvelle-Angleterre
Je veux changer d’atmosphère
Dans mon jardin d’hiver

Ma robe à fleurs sous la pluie de novembre
Tes mains qui courent, je n’en peux plus de t’attendre
Les années passent, qu’il est loin l’âge tendre
Nul ne peut nous entendre

Je voudrais du Fred Astaire
Revoir un Latécoère
Je voudrais toujours te plaire
Dans mon jardin d’hiver

Je veux déjeuner par terre
Comme au long des golfes clairs
T’embrasser les yeux ouverts
Dans mon jardin d’hiver

Ma robe à fleurs sous la pluie de novembre
Tes mains qui courent, je n’en peux plus de t’attendre
Les années passent, qu’il est loin l’âge tendre
Nul ne peut nous entendre

 

Pour te Plaire

The song Pour Te Plaire was written in French by Maxime Le Forestier and was first released by the chanson singer Julien Clerc in 2003. It was adapted from the famous American jazz standard That’s All (Bob Haymes, Alan Brandt) that was written in 1952 and made popular by Nat King Cole. To be completely honest, I like the lyrics better in French than in English. I absolutely adore the line, “Que toujours et plus encore” which means basically for longer than forever – isn’t that romantic?

My recording of the song features three of Los Angeles most wonderful studio musicians: Greg Porée on guitar, Trey Henry on upright bass and Jeff Colella on piano – just wait until you hear the short and sensitive, most romantic solo. Remember, this is a serious love song… Also, when we did the premix I wanted the song to have a special guitar sound. I was inspired by Jeff Buckley’s recording of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Paul Simon’s use of very atmospherical, spherical sounding electric guitars. The sound credit here goes out to Greg Porée and the sound engineer Nolan Shaheed.

Stream the song here:

Pour Te Plaire

Je te donne seulement l’amour pour la vie entière,
La promesse de me trouver à tes genoux,
Aussitôt que tu m’appelles,
Rester toujours fidèle,
C’est tout. C’est tout.

Je te donne tous mes printemps, mes étés de mer,
mes automnes quand les feuilles tombent partout.
Si ce n’est pas une bonne affaire,
Je te donne tous mes hivers,
C’est tout, C’est tout.

De ces choses qu’on t’a dites pour te plaire
Ces promesses avancent pour séduire
Il y en a-t-il de meilleur que l’on puisse faire,
un amour que rien ne peut détruire.

Si tu veux savoir quoi me donner pour ma peine
Rassures-toi je ne veux presque rien du tout
Que toujours et plus encore,
Je soit la seule que tu adores,
C’est tout, c’est tout.

De ces choses qu’on t’a dites pour te plaire,
ces promesses avancent pour séduire
il y en a-t-il de meilleur que l’on puisse faire
un amour que rien ne peut détruire

Si tu veux savoir quoi me donner pour ma peine,
Rassures-toi je ne veux presque rien du tout
Que toujours et plus encore,
Je sois la seule que tu adores,
C’est tout, c’est tout.

Que toujours et plus encore,
Je sois la seule que tu adores,
C’est tout, c’est tout.

 

Ne Me Quitte Pas

“Ne Me Quitte Pas” (English: “Don’t Leave Me”) is a song I frequently sing live, ideally with the full band but I haven’t recorded it yet. It was written and recorded in 1959 by the Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel. Considered by some as Brel’s ultimate classic, it has since then been translated into over 20 different languages! Brel wrote the song after his mistress “Zizou” (Suzanne Gabriello) ended their affair. Zizou was pregnant with Brel’s child but Brel refused to acknowledge it as his own which resulted in her having an abortion.

The lyrics “Moi, je t’offrirai des perles de pluie venues de pays où il ne pleut pas” (“I’m offering you rain pearls from countries where it does not rain”) are sung to a theme that Brel borrowed from the second part, Lassan (Andante), of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 by the composer Franz Liszt.

For me as a woman it has an overly dramatic component in which the man is persuasive and almost intrusive. Sting’s hit song Every Breath You Take speaks similarly of an obsession to the extent of stalking someone (“I’ll be watching you…”). Sting’s lyrics however, are void of any romantic or poetic, high-flying promises. Unlike Brel who makes offerings or maybe bribes like rain made of pearls or light and gold to cover her body; he will be king, she will be queen in a world ruled with love… The French film “Le Chambre Bleue” (2014) deals with the topic of love in a similar way. Its female protagonist reminded me very much of the obsessive character (Brel) of this song.

To lift the slightly triste and melodramatic atmosphere of the song, I like playing it live as a teasing Tango –

Ne Me Quitte Pas

Ne me quitte pas
Il faut oublier
Tout peut s’oublier
Qui s’enfuit déjà
Oublier le temps
Des malentendus –
et le temps perdu
A savoir comment
Oublier ces heures
Qui tuaient parfois
A coups de pourquoi
Le cœur du bonheur

Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas

Moi je t’offrirai
Des perles de pluie
Venues de pays
Où – il ne pleut pas
Je creuserai la terre
Jusqu’après ma mort
Pour couvrir ton corps
D’or et de (la) lumière
Je ferai un domaine
Où l’amour sera roi
Où l’amour sera loi
Où tu seras reine

Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas !

Ne me quitte pas
Je t’inventerai
Des mots insensés
Que tu comprendras
Je te parlerai
De ces amants là
Qui ont vu deux fois
Leurs coeurs s’embraser
Je te racont’rai
L’histoire de ce roi
Mort de n’avoir pas
Pu te rencontrer

Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas

On a vu souvent
Rejaillir le feu
De l’ancien volcan
Qu’on croyait trop vieux
Il est paraît-il
Des terres brûlées
Donnant plus de blé
Qu’un meilleur Avril
Et quand vient le soir
Pour qu’un ciel flamboie
Le rouge et le noir
Ne s’épousent-ils pas?

Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas

Ne me quitte pas
Je ne vais plus pleurer
Je ne vais plus parler
Je me cacherai là
A te regarder
Danser, danser!
Et à t’écouter
Chanter et puis rire
Laisse-moi devenir
L’ombre de ton ombre
L’ombre de ta main
L’ombre de ton chien

Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas

Ne me quitte pas !

 

Dansez Maintenant

This song was originally composed by Glen Miller as the theme for his orchestra and is usually known with English lyrics as Moonlight Serenade. I recorded it as a swung-ballad with French lyrics. The track is very true to how it would have been performed in the 1940’s. It’s such a cheerful tune about the summer holidays. The tempo is 90 BPM and is backed by electric piano, double bass, electric guitar and a brush snare. It is frequently one of my most popular tunes on Spotify.

Listen to and download the song here:

Dansez Maintenant

Dansez maintenant,
tout l’été les pieds nus dans le sable
Dansez maintenant
Et jetez vos ennuis dans les vagues
Qui dansent, balancent, au gré du vent sale

Dansez maintenant
Tout l’été aimez-vous sur le sable
Dansez maintenant
Tout l’été vous serez des cigales
Qui dansent, balancent, au gré du vent léger

Quand l’hiver sera venu vous
prendre au dépourvu
Vous danserez main dans la main
En attendant l’été prochain

Dansez maintenant
Tout l’été aimez-vous sur le sable
Dansez maintenant
Tout l’été vous serez des cigales
Qui dansent, balancent, au gré du vent léger

Quand l’hiver sera venu vous
prendre au dépourvu
Vous danserez main dans la main
En attendant l’été prochain

Dansez maintenant
Tout l’été les pieds nus dans le sable
Dansez maintenant
Et jetez vos ennuis dans les vagues
Qui dansent, balancent, au gré du vent salé

 

Caravane

Caravan (Caravane) is a jazz standard composed by Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington, and was first performed by Ellington in 1936. Irving Mills wrote lyrics that were however, seldomly performed. It is more known as an instrumental. Its exotic sound interested musicians; Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and Gordon Jenkins all covered it.

The French lyrics were written by the chansonier Philippe Elan and first recorded in 2007 by the Dutch jazz artist Laura Fygi. I haven’t made a recording yet but am burning to…! It’s a great song to play even in a trio.

Woody Allen used the song in two of his films, Alice and Sweet and Lowdown. The song is also heavily featured in the 2014 film Whiplash as an important plot element. The Mills Brothers recorded an a cappella version, making the instruments’ sounds with their voices, and Johnny Mathis recorded the song in 1956. There are more than 350 recordings of this song by Duke Ellington’s orchestra, the great majority of them now in the public domain.

Caravane

Nuit – s’aimer d’étoiles
Qui pris si fort
Le mystère de reflet d’or
Aimer de notre caravane

D’or – sur mon épaule
Tout en rampon
Dans le vent le sable mouvant
Souvenir de notre caravane

Tout semble possible
Tu es irrésistible
Blotti dans mes bras
Je subi
Ton mystérieux charme

Oh, toi,
Si près de moi,
Sous le ciel roi
Mon rêve se réalisera
Au cœur de notre caravane

 

The Ultimate French Chanson: Ma Solitude

The writer of this poetic piece is Georges Moustaki, an Egyptian-born French singer-songwriter who became famed for his repertoire of simple romantic ballads. In his obituary in 2013, The Irish Times called him a “troubadour of love, tenderness and anti-racism [who] gave France some of its best-loved music.” Ma Solitude was first recorded in 1967 by the Italian-born French singer and actor Serge Reggiani. Two years later, in 1969, Moustaki released it himself. His version has been so far the most popular one. Read about what inspired me to record this beautiful ballad here.

Listen to and download the song here:


Ma solitude

Pour avoir si souvent dormi
Avec ma solitude
Je m’en suis faite presque une amie
Une douce habitude

Elle ne me quitte pas d’un pas
Fidèle comme une ombre
Elle m’a suivi çà et là
Aux quatre coins du monde

Non, je ne suis jamais seul
Avec ma solitude

Quand elle est au creux de mon lit
Elle prend toute la place
Et nous passons de longues nuits
Tous les deux face à face

Je ne sais vraiment pas jusqu’où
Ira cette complice
Faudra-t-il que j’y prenne goût
Ou, que je réagisse ?

Non, je ne suis jamais seul
Avec ma solitude

Par elle, j’ai autant appris
Que j’ai versé de larmes
Si parfois je la répudie
Jamais elle ne désarme

Et, si je préférais l’amour
D’une autre courtisane
Elle sera à mon dernier jour
Ma dernière compagne

Non, je ne suis jamais seul
Avec ma solitude
Non, je ne suis jamais seul
Avec ma solitude

English translation:

My Solitude

After having slept so often
with my loneliness
I have almost made it to my friend
like a sweet habit

She doesn’t leave my side
Faithful like a shadow
She has followed me here and there
to all four corners of the world

No I’m never alone
With my loneliness

When she’s in the crater of my bed
She takes up all the space
And we spend long nights together
Both of us, face to face

I really don’t know how far it will go
with this accomplice
Will I have to take a fancy
Or will I react?

No I’m never alone
With my loneliness

Through her, I have learned so much
that I have cried tears
If sometimes I reject that
She never disarms me

And If I preferred the love
of another courtesan
She will be on my last day,
My last companion

No I’m never alone
With my loneliness
No I’m never alone
With my loneliness

Did you enjoy this post? If so, why not…

 

For some more French chansons sung by female artists, follow me on Spotify and subscribe to my playlist!

…merci et à bientôt!kiss_small

Still Lifes ~ The Art of Tranquillity

 

It was just one of these mornings. Lying there in bed, I felt as if my life was washing over me like a big grey wave. The murky waters were draining off, revealing bit of useless debris. My music and my writing, appeared like mere fragments. Projects scattered everywhere; unfinished poems, unsold CDs, unwritten essays. And ideas were just flying around in my head like annoying flies. There were no neat stacks of achievements piled up like thick, leather bound books with gilded letters spelling out that phrase, “a successful career”. There was no linear path steadily leading up to a golden throne – let alone camping stool – on which I could rest and observe my “kingdom”: a well sorted archive full of publications and releases, of awards and chronologically ordered press clippings.

I felt messy, insecure, depressed, a bit lonely but most of all irrelevant.

I was spending a few days in solitude at my mother’s house in the countryside. The peacefulness was very soothing but my mind can be overactive and therefore stressful at times. It was still early, so I went for a run, which always makes me feel better. Taking in the soft, luscious countryside bursting with green buds and concentrating on my repetitive breathing soothed me. Back home I had more espresso with hot milk, some toast with honey and promised myself to write for an hour before going on a little Sunday outing to the local art museum.

I drove into the village and parked the car just far enough away to enjoy a brief walk up the cobble-stoned street. The weather was beautiful; there was a light breeze, an abundance of fresh air and the sun was warming some wind-shaded spots. Cheerful little puffy white clouds hurried along a light blue sky that created a nice backdrop to the red brick of the expressionistic buildings and the dark green of the fir trees.

Out of my Head: Into the Museum

I entered the museum and my first cursory glance caught some paintings I automatically expected to be 17th century Dutch church interiors. Upon entering the exhibition however, I was astounded to see that these pictures, a few more interiors but mostly still lifes, dated from around 1968 to 2009. They were by a contemporary Dutch painter Henk Helmantel and the exhibition was to commemorate his 70th birthday.

Helmantel-Roman-glass-still-ilfe

 

What struck me wandering around, was how tranquil, focussed and simple most of the pictures were. They were mostly fairly large in format. As a viewer I had the feeling that the artist was consciously showing these objects to me, rather than permitting an intimate view of something otherwise quite private. These works were therefore less intimate than their much earlier Dutch predecessors. But the choice of objects depicted were very similar. They were all simple household items, bits of fruit and vegetables, mostly locally grown like asparagus or chestnuts. There were simple boxes, bowls and glass vases, some antique, but displayed in a consciously chosen space, in a balanced and symmetrical way and whose clear and clean lines reminded me of Danish art that emerged around the beginning of the 19th century.

IMG_7185

Many items depicted stemmed from the artist’s collection. But there was no highly precious or prestigious aura surrounding them. There were no exotic features or valuable items. Their value was based upon, so it seemed, on shape and colour, or their proportions. A bowl on a narrow rim, with an even cream glaze, which Helmantel had painted holding nine eggs (see above) was displayed in a glass show case what accentuated its simplicity and serenity.

IMG_7187

The Artist Henk Helmantel

Born in 1945 in Westeremden in Holland, which lies North of Groningen, Helmantel was raised as one of five children. His parents owned a nursery and the children helped selling their plants and flowers at the traditional local markets, like in Groningen. The story goes that on one of these trips Helmantel made his very first visits to a museum and was overly impressed by Rembrandt. From then on he collected any snippets and pictures from newspapers and magazines he could find. He was determined to become a painter, later attending the art academy in Groningen.

It became obvious to me that he was a diligent and meticulous worker, dedicated to depicting these serene objects in the most naturalistic way possible. He was obviously interested in the unique surfaces of the objects, like in the irregular iridescent glass of his collection of Roman vessels (see picture above). But at the same time, he wasn’t taking any liberties by letting a single brush stroke stand out or have an expressionistic or impressionistic character, let alone by being textural. Each stroke serves the depiction of the object in the most naturalistic and realistic way possible.

Personally, I love texture and abstraction in painting. I only recently saw a quite impressive exhibition of William Turner‘s work at the Getty museum in Los Angeles. But that afternoon, it was the clarity and focus in Helmantel’s paintings that inspired me. Even his more involved paintings are evenly and thoughtfully grouped objects. There are no coincidences. Everything is consciously arranged, which also means that each object is taken seriously within its own unique value. I told myself:

Take every piece, each poem you write, every song you sing seriously, take it for what it is!

I could feel the jumble in my head and the doubtfulness that tortures every artist more or less frequently being soothed. I kept thinking,

Stick to what you do, and do it with dedication, clarity and consciousness!

 

Simplify and focus!

 

Henk Helmantel

IMG_7188 IMG_7191 IMG_7198

(c) Frances Livings, 2015

 

Here’s a playlist for a more uplifting mood:

Did you like this post? If so, why not…

Frances Livings’ Ipanema Lounge ~ New Album Out Soon!

Ipanema-Lounge-Project_550px

Frances Livings’ Ipanema Lounge

I am very excited to announce that we have almost finished recording a new 12-song world jazz album called “Ipanema Lounge”. The songs range from dramatic and emotional, melancholic, to up-tempo, fun and groovy. Atmospherically, the recordings create a blend of Southern European sounding music and Latin jazz – I have not only sung in English but also in French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Co-produced with the guitarist, arranger, composer and producer Greg Porée, I feel very fortunate that we have been able to attract not only the best musicians in Los Angeles but also a great diversity. Please look at a list of the credits down below. We are hoping to have the album mixed and completed as a physical CD by the end of May 2015. I will be presenting the demo album at the internationally attended Jazzahead conference in Bremen, Germany this April 2015 to gain some support with booking, management and promotion.

Ipanema Lounge has grown as a project in an interesting way over the last few months. The project evolved from being a tribute to Antônio Carlos Jobim to becoming a repertoire of very unique and interesting, international songs. Originally, Greg Porée and I were seeking for some music that would allow us to perform together. Greg’s music is instrumental and guitar-oriented and mine is more piano based and rarely features the guitar. So I started searching for songs that would not only feature both the voice and the classical guitar but also represent some kind of special theme.

Suddenly I found myself emerged in a lot of music in foreign languages. For reasons I cannot explain, I felt very connected to songs in these romance languages, to their different sounds and colourings. This suddenly – being the word and language lover I am – became another new and exciting avenue to explore. One of the best compliments I recently received after one of our shows was someone saying that she had felt transported to all these different countries, as if she had just been on holiday.

Some of these songs were new discoveries but others I have been cherishing now for quite a long time. Like “La Puerta”, one of my all time favourite ballads. It was originally written by the Mexican songwriter Luis Demetrio (1931-2007) and made popular in Europe by the Dutch singer Laura Fygi. I later discovered that Demetrio co-wrote another favourite song of mine, “Sway” with the bandleader Pablo Beltran Ruiz (1915-2008) which is also on the album, half in English and half in Spanish. The English lyrics are by Norman Gimbel who became famous through his English lyrics of “The Girl From Ipanema”, an Antônio Carlos Jobim song I also sometimes sing live.

Greg Porée, who has worked for countless international artists, was also the lead guitarist in the orchestra of the BBC hit show Dancing with the Stars for eight years. The repertoire ranged from rap to classical. Greg’s spectrum of musicality therefore stems from so many areas. Live and on these recordings he delivers not only the harmonious tones of the classical guitar but also the inventive arrangements and creative grooves that make the recordings so unique. Our recording of the famous Jobim song, Waters of March stands in a way for Greg’s inventiveness. By creating a harp-like arpeggiated guitar figure, the notion of a flowing river was created.

I am a jazz vocalist with a background in pop, electronica and nujazz. It was therefore natural for both Greg and me to applied a creative fusion-approach with soul and pop influences to the songs. The infectious grooves on the fun and up-tempo songs, like Sway and Aganjú, are typical for Latin jazz and is very much coined by our drummer and percussionist. This world-jazz approach has already garnered us in Los Angeles a loyal audience of both jazz enthusiasts and those who have never considered themselves jazz fans.

Credits:

Frances Livings – vocals

Greg Porée – guitar

Jeff Colella – piano & keyboards

Darrell Diaz – keyboards

Trey Henry – upright bass

Isaias Elpes – electric bass

Joe Ayoub – upright bass

Joey Heredia – drums & percussion

Sandro Feliciano – percussion

Nolan Shaheed – trumpet

Mariano Dugatkin – bandoneon

Recorded at Nolan Shaheed’s in Pasadena, produced by Frances Livings & Greg Porée 2015

The Ipanema Lounge project gives you the sweet sounds of Brazilian music that are sure to please. ~ Paul Anderson, KJAZZ 91.5 

Creative Influences ~ Sneezles by A. A. Milne on Record-A-Poem

When a couple of weeks ago, I was asked to pick a children’s piece to record as a segment for a voice-over demo, a cute little poem came to mind – something with sneezing. Via Dr. Google it was quickly retrieved on the internet. Here are the first lines:

Christopher Robinsneezles_1
Had wheezles
And sneezles,
They bundled him
Into
His bed.
They gave him what goes
With a cold in the nose,
And some more for a cold
In the head…

Sneezles is from The Complete Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh. It is such a quirky, melodically rhyming get-well-soon poem by the English author and poet A. A. Milne. The poem captures some of the advantages of being a sick child, which is (for some) being the center of attention. Especially the last line is in that sense very amusing. You can listen to my reading of the poem down below.

Milne was best known for his books about the teddy bear Winnie-the-Pooh and for various other children’s poems. He wrote Sneezles as a children’s poem for and about his son, Christopher Robin Milne, whose name – abbreviated to Christopher Robin – was the basis for the character in all of the Pooh books and poems. The character Winnie-the-Pooh was named after a teddy bear owned by Christopher, whose toys actually lent their names to most of the other characters in the Pooh books, except for Owl and Rabbit.

Above is an illustration for Sneezles by E. H. Shepard, the English artist and book illustrator who coined the appearances of all of Milne’s characters and which were equally popular to Milne’s writings.

EH Shepard's ink drawing of Winnie the Pooh playing Poohsticks with Piglet and Christopher Robin.
E. H. Shepard, ink drawing of Winnie the Pooh playing Poohsticks with Piglet and Christopher Robin. Photo: AFP / SOTHEBY’S LONDON

One of E. H. Shephard’s most famous images of Winnie the Pooh actually just sold for £314,500 at auction, at three times its estimate. It formed part of Sotheby’s sale of children’s books: An ink drawing of the bear playing Poohsticks with Piglet and Christopher Robin, published in 1928. The illustration was featured in A. A. Milne’s second book, The House At Pooh Corner, and had been in a private collection since the 1970s.

All of Shephard’s illustrations are very quiet and intimate. They depict scenes of introverted characters, ones that are thoughtful and philosophical. They reflect the subtlety of Milne’s writings, which are amongst adults as quotes still hugely popular. One of my personal favourites is:

People who don’t think probably don’t have brains; rather, they have grey fluff that’s blown into their heads by mistake. ― Winnie the Pooh

Sadly, Disney adapted the Pooh stories into a series of features that became one of its most successful franchises. I personally, like these ink drawings so much better than the popularized Disney animations which have turned the airy, vulnerable and whimsically sketched characters into teletub-like, plump and one-dimentional, in-your-face characters. It actually pains me to think that some children will never get to see the original drawings.

Not that these works per se lack popularity; there’s even a annual National Awareness (or bearness?) Day for Winnie the Pooh, which was two days ago, on January 18.

So far, I haven’t gotten any work out of the demo so instead of letting it dwindle into forgottenness, I sent the recording to Record-A-Poem a poetry group initiated by the Poetry Foundation. Their poetry blog Harriet has been inviting people to post audio recordings of their favourite poems on their Soundcloud stream. The Poetry Foundation, the publisher of Poetry magazine, defines itself as “an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.”

Happily, my reading of Sneezles was added to their collection and can now be heard in their Soundcloud stream and through the widget posted below.

 

Creative Influences ~ Poetry. Sun at Midnight

BLOOD Moon

I had first come across the sonnet Midnight Sun a few years ago. It was around the time of the first studio recording of my song Mr. Moon, a jazz tune, which is centred around the various characteristics of the moon with its magical and comforting but also seductive elements. I had been singing it a lot live but on one tranquil Sunday afternoon, I started doing some research; curious to see what poets had written about the moon. That’s when I came across Joseph Mary Plunkett’s Sun at Midnight, which is known as a deep meditation on the love of God.

Sun at Midnight                             

by Joseph Mary Plunkett and Frances Livings

I saw the sun at midnight, rising red,
Deep-hued yet glowing, heavy with the stain
Of blood-compassion, and I saw it gain
Swiftly in size and growing till It spread
Over the stars; the heavens bowed their head
As from its heart slow dripped a crimson rain,
Then a great tremor shook it, as of pain—
The night fell, moaning, as It hung there dead. [1]

Before the day could claim me
I had awoken from this dream
limbs heavy from humidity, languid from this scene
as pearls of sweat, trickled like raindrops from my brow
the earth creaked and ached, again the heavens bowed
and from my heart slow dripped a crimson rain
A great tremor shook me – in agony, in pain—
from my sun at midnight bled the last drop of you.

(The night fell, moaning, and life claimed me back again)

© Frances Livings

[1] by Joseph Mary Plunkett circa 1900

I felt inspired by what I perceived as a very beautiful and mystical poem and had freely swapped out his last verse[2] with mine, changing the whole direction from God to a loved one. I was going through a very difficult separation at the time so I took the blood red moon as a metaphor for deep but very intense, painful and sometimes inexplicable feelings. Besides, love to me, whether towards a mortal being or a heavenly figure, like a God, will always stay a quite mystical phenomenon.

The mysterious allure of the moon goes back to the beginning of human history. And despite man having now even set foot on it, it still has that effect on us. Like many, I am always fascinated by the moon. Most of all I find its transitions wondrous. It can change so vastly in size and shape, growing from the slightest sliver of a crescent moon – with as little as 1% of its surface illuminated – to a full round globe.

Depending on the light, its colour and texture can also dramatically vary: A low hanging, fat harvest moon will look welcoming and generous when in October, it takes on a golden, orangey-yellow glow. In the winter, a small bluish-silvery moon can seem like a distant reminder of magical, outer worldly spheres, unknown and intangible, so far away in the sky.

So this past Monday, on April 14 2014, just two days after my birthday, I was sitting out in the garden, letting the pictures of a wonderful weekend glide by, sipping some wine and simply enjoying the mild night. I was mindlessly gazing into the sky when I spotted the full moon. I suddenly remembered that we were approaching a total lunar eclipse which made it even more special.

Later I learnt, that it was the first in more than three years to be visible and uninterrupted by sunrise. I also didn’t know that when a total lunar eclipse occurs, dispersed light from all the Earth’s sunrises and sunsets falls on the face of the moon at mid-eclipse which gives it a reddish hue and has coined the name “blood moon”. So a few nights ago, the moon had yet again undergone a transformation when after midnight it turned into an amazing, coppery red blood moon.

The moon will glow red three more times in the next 18 months, scientists say. It’s part of a lunar eclipse “tetrad”; a series of four consecutive total lunar eclipses that happen at about six-month intervals. The moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, and will begin to appear bright orange or red because of the way sunlight bends through the Earth’s atmosphere. The sunset hue can last up to an hour. According to the NASA, the next one is due October 8, 2014, followed by blood moons April 4, 2015 and September 28, 2015.

I hadn’t though about Plunkett’s poem in a long time but the next morning I searched in my files and retrieved it again and posted it here in my blog. I am now sure that if I found a moon calendar of the late 19th or early 20th century, Plunkett’s night of inspiration, his sighting of a blood moon could be pin pointed. I find that quite amazing and symbolic: The cosmos – all elements of nature – will autonomously and relentlessly pursue their cycles. Which shows yet again in a very beautiful and haunting way that on earth we are all just visitors. On the other hand, for thousands of years, man- and womenfolk have made these very same experiences, have been in awe or threatened by nature’s moods and spectacles, gazed at the same moon, sun and stars. This means we are all connected which makes the poem and that night indeed a very spiritual one.

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[1] Comprising 390 poems by 162 authors, this unique anthology strings together “such poems as contain intimations of a consciousness wider and deeper than the normal.” Spanning five centuries, every era of the great spiritualists is represented: from the Metaphysical Poets, like Donne and Traherne, to the Romantics, including Tennyson and Browning, to the Moderns, such as Yeats and Noyes. The Irish poet, journalist and author of Sun At Midnight, Joseph Mary Plunkett (1879-1916) was born in Dublin and educated at Catholic University School, Belvedere College and Stonyhurst College. His study of the mystics, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila and Francis de Sales was discernible in his poetry. However, as one of the signers of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, he was imprisoned by the English army and executed in 1916 at the age of only 28.

[2] Plunkett’s last verse is: O Sun, O Christ, O bleeding Heart of flame! / Thou givest Thine agony as our life’s worth, / And makest it infinite, lest we have dearth / Of rights wherewith to call upon Thy Name; / Thou pawnest Heaven as a pledge for Earth / And for our glory sufferest all shame. His sonnet, I Saw the Sun at Midnight, Rising Red, which is the original title, was published in Plunkett’s first poetry volume “The Circle and the Sword” in 1911. Another volume of his poetry, “Occulta” was published posthumously. A year after his death Sun at Midnight was also included in “The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse”[1], by D. H. S. Nicholson and A. H. E. Lee, The Clarendon Press, Oxford 1917. An online edition was published November 2000 by Bartleby.com.

 

Midnight Sun by Sarah Vaughan (Pablo Records 1978)

Creative Influences ~ Poems I Read. ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann

 

Desiderata by Max Ehrmann (1927)

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on September 16, 1872 to German immigrant parents. In 1894 he graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle. Later Ehrmann studied law and philosophy at Harvard University. He returned to Terre Haute where he practiced law. When he began writing, he devoted every day to his work. Ehrmann wrote many poems, but his most famous poems are ‘Desiderata’ (1927) and ‘A Prayer (1906)’.

‘Desiderata’ means in Latin: “desired things”. Largely unknown in the author’s lifetime, the text became widely known after its use in a devotional, subsequently being found at Adlai Stevenson’s deathbed in 1965, and after spoken-word recordings in 1971 and 1972.

It is not always possible to be cheerful. Life brings many unexpected fates and losses which all deserve to be digested in the quiet rooms of grief. So, “be gentle with yourself”.

Pawel- Kopczynski-photographer_migrating-cranes- Moon-with-flying-bird-silhouettes

unknown-photographer_escape

 

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. If you find joy and inspiration in my words, and would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a coffee and a nice dinner. It will be deeply appreciated.

Wonderful Review of “The World I Am Livings In”

The World I am Livings In

Frances Livings

Moontraxx Records – MXFL2013-014

Available from Frances Livings’s Bandcamp page.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker
(progdawg@hotmail.com)

Following the release of a half-dozen singles and EPs, Frances Livings has published her first long-form CD, The World I am Livings In (clever title!), and her voice is mindful of Martha Velez, Carole King, and Helen Reddy with a bit of Rita Coolidge and Elkie Brooks thrown in, but her milieu is much closer to Lisa Kirchner’s Umbrellas in Mint (here) in that it’s an unusual blend of the cabaretic, folk moderne, surreal (the earthy lyrics in Eating the Darkness alone are on par with Dory Previn), classically oriented jazz, and then that odd twilight world that in recent generations has spelled a whole new landscape of sonic delights I firmly aver presages an onrushing era unlike any antecedents.

What first really caught my brainworks in the disc was I’ll be Leaving Soon, a dark-ish pensée executed in semi-stream-of-consciousness illuminated by beautifully understated chamber strains (arranged by Livings’ husband Greg Poree) exalting a weary soul encanting verses of departure and hopeful renewal. Think of William Lyall or the Penguin Cafe Orchestra sitting in, but it’s really Livings’ writing that’s entrancing, and she penned almost everything on the CD, then chose some really good sessioneers, including Jeff Colella, whose piano work is a central aural motif, along with several superb strings-raspers.

More than anything, The World comes across as a half-lit stage presentation for post-Beat hipsters grown weary of all the blare and squall of an overdriven mainstream, looking for literate but unorthodox fare and a chance to once again think while immersing in moody atmospherics. Not coincidentally, then, the smirking satire of comedienne Sara Bernhard finds its way into the mix here and there, beefing up the outside-the-box metier all the more. Poree jumps into the mix again, this time with a well blended guitar, and scenes miasmically shift and flow as the twisting narrative wends its path, but the inclusion of the 1:19Pebbles in my Hand was a piece of brilliance, and I’m damned if I can quite figure out why—though it’s probably the track’s status as a rarely found act of interscript between movements. Ya just can’t locate that in music any more, y’all. In sum, this is actually more a piece of art than it is music, but of an ilk belonging with Carla Bley, Annette Peacock, and of course the aforementioned Kirchner, among others, including Janis Ian at her best; thus, don’t do anything else once you’ve tossed the disc on, or you’ll miss more than you ever guessed was there.

Track List:

  • Don’t Ask Me If I Miss You
  • When Love Falls Apart (Greg Poree)
  • It Will Never Be the Same
  • I’ll Be Leaving Soon
  • Eating and Darkness
  • Pebbles in My Hand
  • White Angel’s Café
  • True Colors (Steinberg / Kelly)
  • Candy’s Caravan
  • Lonely in the Night
  • Only Time Will Tell
  • Please Close Your Eyes
All songs written by Frances Livings except as noted.

Edited by: David N. Pyles
(dnpyles@acousticmusic.com)

Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. If you find joy and inspiration in my words, and would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a coffee and a nice dinner. It will be deeply appreciated.