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:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[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.

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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Livings in Los Angeles. Closet Stories – The Hollywood Uniform

Clifford Coffin, American Vogue, June 1949 – © Condé Nast
Clifford Coffin, American Vogue, June 1949 – © Condé Nast

 

It’s true. Most transplants here in Los Angeles are quite obsessed with detecting and pointing out how different things are. I belong to them. One of the things that struck me immediately on my first visit to L.A. in 2006 was fashion – rather, the lack thereof. Despite fashion apparel being L.A.’s third biggest industry, quantity seems to dominate over quality. There are small pockets in this vast place where individuals may purchase and flaunt unique styles and internationally televised events like the Academy Awards showcase an array of always quite spectacular designer evening gowns, but unlike any other metropolis I know of, this is generally speaking a fashion desert.

In most parts of the world clothes were originally and primarily needed as a form of protection against shame, danger, cold or heat. But humans have also always had the desire to decorate themselves and to dress in a variety of ways according to their sex, age, socioeconomic status, culture, geographic area and historical era. Clothes are frequently an expression of a person’s personality. But in Los Angeles it seems as though most people do not have that desire and default to one outfit.

 

Valley “Girls” & Valley Moms

Especially the people who live in the so-called Valley – a topographical basin in which the desert heat is captured like in a casserole – wear, what I would like to call the “Hollywood uniform” almost all year round. This area, once the home of vast orange groves, has been since the 1950’s mostly populated by so called WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon protestant) in cheap housing made of wood and stucco.

The “young” women, whose biological age can sometimes be difficult to determine, casually dress in flip flops or flat sandals, designer sunglasses, colourful maxi sundresses or skirts and frequently streaked, bleached and ironed hair. About two or three years ago super short shorts had a revival – cut off jeans with the frayed, white, cotton insides of the front pockets hanging out like two handkerchiefs. Another L.A. fashion phenomenon is wearing hippy-ish scarves with tassels and boots all year round.

Another thing that soon struck me was that the monotony of this “style” is even mirrored in a speech pattern called “Valleyspeak” [1]. One common characteristic of Valleyspeak is the frequent and very annoying use of high rising intonation, causing statements and normal declarative language to sound interrogative. The actual term was coined after the release of Frank Zappa’s 1982 hit single entitled “Valley Girl”, on which his then fourteen-year-old daughter Moon Unit (yes, that’s her real name) delivered intermittent random monologues behind the music, littered with the quotative word “like”. “Like” is applied to preface statements or used as a word substitute as in “Last night we went like, like – you know?” Eavesdropping, you automatically say in your head, “No, I don’t know. But whateverrrrr…” The word “whatever” with a long drawled R at the end being another favoured term of the American Generation Y.

There is another typical outfit for the so-called Mom, especially when “running errands” – which means driving half a mile from their cardboard home to the drive-through post office, to the drive-through dry cleaners and then to the gym to then pick up a triple soy latte at drive-through Starbucks only to be stuck in traffic for most of the time. Moms will have wriggled into a pair of vanity sized skinny NYDJ’s (these are not your daughter’s jeans), pulled on an overpriced Banana Republic or J Crew T-shirt, perhaps some flats and a pair of designer shades. On that note, skinny is a very popular word here, the skinny latte, the skinny jeans. Unlike in Europe, if someone in L.A. says to you, “Wow, you’re looking skinny”, that’s a compliment.

Sadly, the males’ fashion statements are hardly worth mentioning – which is probably why frequently tall French men occupy the Valley-Mom’s dreams of desire. The “dudes” mostly slop around in stained, over-sized t-shirts, sporting some banal bumper sticker slogan or the name of a college, crumpled Bermuda shorts, trainers and faded baseball caps. Alas, after seven years of residency in L.A., I still dearly miss the imagination and inventiveness in clothing and dress-style New Yorkers or Parisians, Londoners or Romans of both genders have to offer and are readily to flaunt. I miss sitting in a café and admiring the passers by.

So, if everyone defaults to sundresses and shorts, it must be down to the lack of seasons. Because there are basically only two seasons that range in temperature from mild to hot, instead of four ranging from below zero to hot. Interesting fashion accessories like leather gloves, fur collars, hats and cashmere coats are therefore superfluous. So partly, the weather is to blame. However, generally occasional and seasonal clothing does not seem to ring a bell with most people here. I don’t even think that people rotate their wardrobe. It is firstly not really necessary and secondly, most houses and apartments have large walk in closets – perhaps not like Carrie’s in Sex and the City but larger than a normal European wardrobe.

I personally have the need to mark things, not only in my calendar but visually and tactically by wearing certain pieces of clothing at specific events (take the grand British example of the Ascot hat). Especially here, the sense of ritual and rotation gives me a sense of security in an otherwise seemingly same place in which even the vegetation barely changes all year round. Besides, putting on a flowery, strapless sundress in January – even if the weather permits it – makes me feel as if I’m on permanent holiday with no hope of escape and getting anything productive done. I’m stranded on an island, ahead of me lie lazy Technicolor skies and an ever glaring sun.

This French short film on Los Angeles from 1969 is very mesmerizing and picks up some of these subjects, Los Angeles’ weirdness quite poetically and poignantly with a touch of Jacques Brel…

I do miss the feeling of urgency, a bustling city life you only partially find in Downtown L.A. Is really everyone on Xanax, like a friend of mine suggested? But why am I surprised, in a country in which even children are simply medicated if their behaviour isn’t within the norm. Most doctors seem shocked at my answer to the routine question, “What medications do you take?” which is “None.”  I have already been to two doctors who have wordlessly handed me prescriptions for Xanax. And yes, I did toy with them. Also wondering if perhaps I could “make a buck” (as one says here) only to discard them in the end. I’m sticking to red wine. Try rushing up an escalator in Los Angeles where left and right the face-down generation stands like statues, pre-, re- and post-confirming appointments on their mobile phones to their stylist/agent/manager/mother/shrink/real-estate agent/yogi.

Especially the Beverly Center, a five story shopping centre is spiked with zoned out space cadets, oblivious of what is going on around them. I miss the click-clack-click of a business woman’s Prada heels while she purposefully strides to her next meeting. I miss people who actually look as if they have got a goal. This is not a theatrical city like Rome or Paris but one that seems to perfectly mirror and accommodate exactly what it was created for – for the film industry. For dreams and illusions that are pieced together from different segments. It’s the big wait – for the make-up artists to be done, for the actress to get her lines right, the lighting to be fixed. So everyone just slops and slips and slurs around in the meantime in whatever-land; spray tanned and hairless-lasered stick legs in pink Ugg boots treating even fancy restaurants like craft’s services on set.

That said, there are, especially along Melrose, arrays of shops which carry quite a spectacular choice of clothing items – but these cater mainly to Chinese tourists and to the pop music industry. It is surprising to me that fashion is so neglected because Los Angeles is such a materialistic city. It finds its expression however, in other objects of desire and prestige: the facelift de luxe, the million dollar hair transplant, and – the Los Angelino’s most prized possession – the automobile.

And that’s exactly where the problem lies: Most metropolises’ have a boulevard, an agora – some kind of an urban catwalk for pedestrians. Here in Los Angeles, the public eye can only bear witness to fashion if it’s a visually publicized image via mass media. Even if you’re clad in Channel from head to toe, no one will see you sitting in your car. People don’t walk and mostly can’t walk in Los Angeles unless they are walking to or from their car, walking their dog or, clad in sportswear, walking for exercise. Two friends of mine were exploring in Beverly Hills by strolling around in a residential area and a police car started following them, then stopped and questioned them. Forget the term public transportation.

This is why a mobile prestige object like a car, helicopter or private jet (if they’re bullet proof, even better) is the perfect showcase. They cover more territory than a pedestrian in a much shorter amount of time. There are just barely spaces to flaunt your latest designer piece in public. Downtown L.A. is now being resurrected from the dead – like hopefully soon the L.A. River that lies there mostly water-less in a concrete corset – so I will be curious to see whether a more urban environment will encourage more conscious and expressive street and high fashion.

That said, Los Angeles has recently received a new agora – a place where you see people strolling, talking, drinking wine, enjoying art and talking and flaunting fashionable attire! LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum) is situated between 6th street and Wilshire Boulevard, flanked to the east/west by the open spaces of the La Brea Tar Pits. Because LAMCA consists of five(?) individual buildings it has many open spaces, some paved, other areas are covered with gravel or grass. There are plenty of seating areas and -possibilities like low walls and steps; which always seem like an open invitation to the public to utilize the space, even for small picnics. Special events at the weekends have become hugely popular so it has also attracted a larger diversity of people in terms of age, gender and race.

Unlike the Grove, a shopping and entertainment centre which lies only half a mile away but whose sole purpose it is to lure consumers into purchasing more items they don’t really need with elevator jazz and animated water fountains. This open roofed shopping plaza, with a multiplex movie theatre, over-priced cooperate restaurants and chain stores is completely enclosed by Disneyfied pseudo-historical façade architecture and an artistically completely irrelevant bronze centre statue. “The Spirit of Los Angeles” depicts a male and a female angel soaring skyward, “an enduring symbol of the limitless opportunities Los Angeles offers”, like the tourist information at the Grove states on their homepage.[2] Like a corny reminder of bygone transportation, a trolley drives a six minute route of not even a mile to and fro.

During the Christmas shopping season, fake snow is produced periodically during the night. In mid-November, the Grove Christmas Tree goes up. At a competitive 110 feet, it is the tallest Christmas tree in the city of Los Angeles. I got a “parking ticket” once because I had chained my bicycle to a lamp post. It was obvious that bicycles don’t fit into the Grove’s very controlled “aesthetical” concept which merely imitates a public space. I have to park my bike at the neighbouring Farmer’s Market which allows for a more bohemian atmosphere. The Grove is an extremely controlled and cooperate environment that does not attract customers who possess unique tastes or any sense of style but mainly sun-burned and dehydrated tourists (whose uniform is a whole other story) and WASPs in their Hollywood uniforms.

This uniform in its nothingness does therefore somewhat possess a deeper meaning. It signalizes membership to an extremely entertainment hungry, materialistically motivated group. Because let’s face it, Los Angeles is a very cooperate town. It is not highly creative or avant-garde. It has small hidden pockets of artists’ communities but mainly it is ruled, moreover controlled by the movie and pop music industry, like Disney. Some call it Mouseschwitz. Fashion here looks laissez-faire but it isn’t a true expression of a person’s unique sense of fun or casualness. It copies what is portrayed as fun and casual in the American media, especially TV – or like the narrator says in the film clip, they’re “people who try out their existence and then pass on to another one, like actors that pass from one role to the next”.

 


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valspeak

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.

The Pomegranate ~ On Finding Poetry

 

Pomegranates open and still closed pomegranate seeds costume woman sitting old painting

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.

~ John F. Kennedy

In the quiet of a virgin morning, it feels right to sit with feet in warm slippers and a cup of hot steamy coffee in hand, and languidly let memories and fragments of ideas drift through the labyrinths of my brain. These are golden times, namely, when my monkey-mind is still asleep – maybe simply exhausted from so much chattering, poking and teasing. I can experience the same state of mind in the still of a night, when the dogs, like the day, are curled up to little furry donuts, quietly snoring away.

This is why I find that being in the flow of concentrated and productive writing is a lot like meditation.

As a musical poet and as a songwriter, I very much favour writing short pieces, like lyrics, poems or short stories. They allow me to zoom in on very concise experiences or emotions. Anaïs Nin, the French-born novelist, passionate eroticist and short story writer, who gained international fame with her journals stated:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

A lot of the time this is true; no matter in which genre. A painter will experience a landscape by looking at it and re-experience it though his interpretation of it. I would like to add however, that writing also enables me to experience things I didn’t know had impacted me – any Freudian oriented analyst will like this statement because it illustrates how much slumbers in the sub-conscience.

The American Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Levine uses poetry as an elevating medium:

I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.

Foreign Findings like Fallen Fruit…

Whenever I allow myself the quiet time of reflexion, the results are sometimes unexpected: Foreign findings lying there like fallen fruit; ripened, unharvested pomegranates ready to be picked up, weighed in ones hand; their shape, colour, texture inspected, broken open and their inner jewels eventually coaxed into essays, songs or poems. The American poet Robert Frost described his process of writing poetry in a similar way: He said that a poem […] begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” This process is what I would like to call finding poetry.

Golden-Pomegranate-by-Illumne-gleaming-Isla-candle-square
Pomegranate candle in brass vessel by Ilume for Anthropologie, 2014

In terms of its reception, the Literature Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz claims that a poem not only demands this utmost focus from the writer but also from the reader – “reading a poem is, after all, always an exercise in attention” he writes. Alas, these moments are rare. Especially with the omnipresence of social media, the constant flood of mostly irrelevant emails and endless to-do lists, it is often very difficult to achieve the amount of necessary focus. Without even leaving our work space we become the distracted virtual flâneur, scrambling and scrolling through endless pages, filling our minds with digital clutter.

But secretly, we all know that often these emails, messages, pages and social media sites offer a convenient escape from the tormenting, growing pains of a piece and to some extent much needed social contact. Because it is definitely not a myth that writing is a very lonely and sometimes frustrating process. Often, towards the afternoon my head often starts to resemble a scrap yard filled with piles of debris of the day – admittedly to some extent self-inflicted.

Most writers write because they have to write. But it takes courage to follow your own musings, to hope for the pomegranate in meditation. Discipline to sit through the editing process is another necessity. Which is why the American writer Ernest Hemingway recommends bluntly: “Write drunk and edit sober”.

I have always written, but at the beginning, when I started dedicating more and more time and energy to my personal writing I would ask myself in dark moments, which purpose did it really serve? My education was in academic writing which always gave me something exterior to focus on and therefore to hold on to – whether it was a painting or a building. These were functional pieces of writing that served exhibitions or guided tours. But starring at a pomegranate doesn’t always feel like the most useful, economically wise, socially valuable or practical thing to do. Which is why dedicating oneself to these seemingly superfluous musings can be scary for multiple reasons.

What happens when we surrender to these doubts of “usefulness” and abandon these creative musings? The Novelist Hubert Selby Jr. writes in his foreword to Requiem for a Dream “Certainly not everyone will experience this torment but enough do and have no idea what is wrong.” Furthermore he asks:

What happens if I turn my back on my Vision and spend my time and my energy getting the stuff of the American Dream? I become agitated, uncomfortable in my own skin, because the guilt of abandoning my Self/self, of deserting my Vision, forces me to apologize for my existence, to need to prove myself by approaching life as if it’s a competition. I have to keep getting stuff in an attempt to appease and satisfy that vague sense of discontent that worms its way through me.

It takes courage to be an artist. According to the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, artists, “are committed to a completely ‘unpractical’ activity.” Czeslav Milosz writes: “Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still life […] they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artists, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.”

Art is mostly free of purpose when it comes directly from the heart. This is basically what the French expression ‘l’art pour l’art‘ means. It expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function. So to dedicate time and energy to my musical poetry or to a whole solo album with my own song material meant to dedicate time to myself. To see and describe my interior as the “painting” or a building and to deeply examine these constructions of thoughts and emotions – it was to take myself seriously, my inner truth.

Frances Livings © 2013

How to Cut a Pomegranate by Imtiaz Dharker

I wanted to share this poem by another writer, Imtiaz Dharker, because it so beautifully illustrates why historically many cultures have been enamoured by this fruit. Pomegranates are texturally quite wondrous when broken open because of their contrasting insides and outside. They have juicy, jewel-like, and very vulnerable seeds inside a hard and protective husk. The piece also has many references to its long and lasting cultural history and symbolism, like fertility. Imtiaz Dharker is a Pakistan-born British poet, artist and documentary filmmaker. She has won the Queen’s Gold Medal for her English poetry. Dharker was born in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan to Pakistani parents.

‘Never,’ said my father,
‘Never cut a pomegranate
through the heart. It will weep blood.
Treat it delicately, with respect.

Just slit the upper skin across four quarters.
This is a magic fruit,
so when you split it open, be prepared
for the jewels of the world to tumble out,
more precious than garnets,
more lustrous than rubies,
lit as if from inside.
Each jewel contains a living seed.
Separate one crystal.
Hold it up to catch the light.
Inside is a whole universe.
No common jewel can give you this.’

Afterwards, I tried to make necklaces
of pomegranate seeds.
The juice spurted out, bright crimson,
and stained my fingers, then my mouth.

I didn’t mind. The juice tasted of gardens
I had never seen, voluptuous
with myrtle, lemon, jasmine,
and alive with parrots’ wings.

The pomegranate reminded me
that somewhere I had another home.

 

© Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009
Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009

 

© Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006
Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006

 

Indulge in some of my poetry recordings here:

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.

Or, if you liked this post, why not 

Coffe cup laptop tablecloth with leaf pattern darkness
@ Frances Livings

May You Shine…

 

A while ago I was quite moved by the line “We are more afraid of our light than the dark”. It inspired my piece Cast In Bronze, which I have just completed and posted here on the website.

Today I did a little bit of research and found the original source. It is a paragraph from the book A Return to Love by the American best-selling author, spiritual leader, and political activist Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It’s our Light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented or fabulous?

The material bronze came to my mind because it is on the one hand so strong but so easily tarnishes and becomes dull. Like we do when we are depressed. We feel tainted – shamed – and withdraw. But how easily is bronze polished to a lustrous gleam? Sometimes we just can’t seem to let that happen.

A new year lies ahead of us. May your light shine!

Photographer-unknown_Woman-holding-flame-in-cupped-hands

Frances-Livings_Have-an-electric-New-Year-2013-Pianokeys-Sparks-Champagne

Read the poem Cast In Bronze

 

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.

 

Morning Has Broken…

I came across this gorgeous picture of a dandelion at daybreak this morning. It reminded me of how, as a child I deeply connected with the song “Morning has Broken“. Most of us know the version by the British folk singer-songwriter Cat Stevens, who now calls himself Yusuf Islam and is now also an educator, philanthropist, and prominent convert to Islam. It is not unusual that songs are accredited to the artist who made them popular.

Most people don’t realize however, that the beautiful words to “Morning Has Broken” were penned by the English author Eleanor Farjeon who wrote children’s and fantasy stories and was both popular with children and adults. In 1931 she was commissioned by a local vicar who was compiling a new edition of the hymnbook “Songs of Praise. He asked Farjeon to write a poem to the melody of a traditional Gaelic tune, known as “Bunessan“composed in the Scottish Highlands. It actually shares the melody with the 19th century Christmas Carol “Child in the Manger”. The vicar wanted a hymn about creation, but not necessarily specifically Christian.

Here are her original lyrics:

Morning has Broken

Morning has broken,
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird;
Praise for the singing,
Praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing
Fresh from the Word.

Sweet the rain’s new fall,
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall
On the first grass;
Praise for the sweetness,
Of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness
Where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight,
Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light
Eden saw play;
Praise with elation,
Praise every morning,
God’s re-creation
Of the new day.

With its rich imagery of rain, dewfall, sunlight, blackbirds, grass and “the wet garden”, the focus of the three verses is not so much the Creation as the Garden of Eden. I think that’s why so many people of different cultures connect with the song. It has a spiritual and uplifting message that is centered around gratitude that lies in praising the little things, the small wonders and beauty.

Cat Stevens recording of the song –that was included on his 1971 album Teaser and the Firecat – reached number six on the US pop chart and number one on the US easy listening chart in 1972. He has obviously always been a spiritual (and now religious person) which is perhaps why he was able to convey it emotionally so well and why the song became identified with Stevens.

Here are the lyrics to his version the song:

Morning Has Broken

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word.

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day

Since I was raised Methodist and attended a Quaker nursery, I can’t remember which version I heard first – the traditional hymn that is often sung in children’s services or the interpretation by Cat Stevens. I just remember lying on my bed in London, early in the morning with the song going around in my head and wishing that one day I would be able to write a song that would touch someone in a similar way that song always touched me.

We’ll see. My album The World I Am Livings In is so close to being finished and all of the songs are very personal. I just hope, one or the other tune will move you…

© Sharon Johnstone, Macro Dew Drops

Here’s a very personal playlist inspired by Morning has Broken

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. And 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 $3 coffee and a nice dinner. I will deeply appreciate it.

songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

When Love Falls Apart ~ The Beauty of Melancholy

 

A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.”  ― Percy Bysshe Shelley

Songwriting about something painful can be cathartic but it also means revisiting pain. After the initial spark for the song When Love Falls Apart, it felt odd, even paradoxical, to want to write something beautiful about something so sad. Which is however, ultimately, what melancholy is all about and that was the core emotion I wanted to express. After all, When Love Falls apart is about a break up, which was very difficult and painful at the time. To this date, the song is still very emotional for me to sing. It can be like being transported back in time. So writing the song became quite a process.

How Co-writing Became A Way To Unburdening Pain

I had almost completed the lyrics. I had a hook and was pleased with my melody for the chorus. But the verses were still incomplete. I was obviously procrastinating, trying to avoid getting in too deep. That’s exactly why I needed some support, some structure to build on. I needed to unburden myself from some of the pain. So I asked the classical guitarist and jazz composer Greg Porée for help.

Greg came up with some lovely additional chords. So using them as a base to lean upon, I wrote the rest of the melody. Rather, it then just wrote itself. Suddenly, the song was finished. Ironically, however, the song marked both an end and a beginning: “When Love Falls Apart” was the very first song Greg and I wrote together.

The next step was therefore to notate everything in a chart. Here’s a copy of the original:

songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

The Magic of Handwritten Charts

Handwritten charts are per se something very personal and are frequently of sentimental value for songwriters. I always keep an original, handwritten manuscript of all of my songs, whether it’s one by a co-writer or one of my own. It’s like keeping a baby picture of your child although it’s already grown up. For me, a song has “grown up” when it has been professionally recorded. Once the song is on Spotify or iTunes that kid has basically moved out and has started a life of its own.

Collections of Music Scores and Charts

If you’re interested in music notation, I found a lovely visual collection of other composer’s music scores. The Morgan Library & Museum in New York houses one of the finest collections of music manuscripts in the United States. In addition to a large collection of musicians’ letters and first editions of scores and librettos, its collection of manuscripts (by classical composers like Mahler, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Mozart, Schubert, and Richard Strauss) spans six centuries and many countries.

There are many other archives and libraries with collections of original scores worldwide but also some that have been scanned digitally and are available online.

Hand-writing music has been a tradition in jazz for many, many years. With Finale, a powerful and involved music notation software, a handwritten look using special fonts can even be emulated! Have a look at this article, which explains the principle.

Recording When Love Falls Apart

But I digressed slightly. The next step was to record the track as a demo, with voice and guitar. That’s where I kind of left it. It wasn’t until playing an unplugged show at the famous singer-songwriter venue Genghis Cohen in Los Angeles, that I felt I needed to also release it. Maybe because that evening, accompanying me on classical guitar, was my co-writer. We performed the ballad for the first time live.

The way the song came to life and people connected to it, motivated me to record it as a single to just “get it out there”. Although I was already working on songs for my solo album it just felt right to release that version as a single – just with voice and classical guitar.songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

After recording it in the studio, I started designing the cover. I felt very much inspired by a very tender and touching quote by Virginia Woolf.

“The melancholy river bears us on. When the moon comes through the trailing willow boughs, I see your face, I hear your voice and the bird singing as we pass the osier bed. What are you whispering? Sorrow, sorrow. Joy, joy. Woven together, like reeds in moonlight.” – Virginia Woolf

Melancholy is one theme that runs rampant through her writing. Her image of a singing bird amidst a moonscape depicts this pensive emotion so well. It is interwoven with both sorrow and joy, profoundness and beauty – which is exactly what I had attempted to create in the song.

My ballad “When Love Falls Apart” grew out of exactly these feelings of deep sadness, which via beauty, gave way to melancholy.

Listen to and purchase an mp3 of When Love Falls Apart here:

 

Donating = Loving

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

 

Or, why not 

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room abandoned building naked floorboards self-portrait

Eating the Darkness. Francesca Woodman’s Wallpaper

 

This morning, browsing through the New York Times, I reconnected with an American photographer, whose work I had only recently discovered. The article grabbed my attention and touched me because one of her pictures titled Vanishing Act, a nude half covering herself with peeling wallpaper (see below) had helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness. To learn that over 120 of her works are being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York felt really exciting. The artist is Francesca Woodman, whose oeuvre mainly consists of quite unusual photographic self-portraits.

I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the internet like the library of Babel for pictures. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists, a lot of them in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.

Sometimes I use these images to illustrate – or should I say underline my poema and songs – always taking great care of naming the artist. I agree with the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who in the context of creating The Clock, stated:

“If you make something good and interesting and not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Vanishing Act (Space2) 1976

These collections of images trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic, which has already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. They act like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium. Often ekphrastic writing is rhetorical in nature and symbolic of a greater meaning.

Inspiration for Conveying Feelings into Song Lyrics

In this particular situation it must have all run together and I was both deeply touched and inspired by a photograph of Woodman’s which not only helped me to get unstuck but ended up delivering a (poetic) line for a song. I had been playing around on the piano and working on a song called “Eating the Darkness” (click on the title to read the lyrics). I wanted to capture feelings of loneliness and despair,  staged in the isolation of an apartment or room. These are the first verses and the beginning of a chorus:

I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.

Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight

Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. It’s like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, it dies.

How to Convey the Gnawing Emotion of Feeling Invisible?

Alas, in the chorus I felt there was a strong image missing. I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that the song per se was strong and authentic because it had emerged very spontaneously out of the depth of my guts like from a dark turquoise deep sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in that room. How could I convey  that sometimes gnawing emotion of not being relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder. “Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:

And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I am fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor apartment number two-o-three

Who Is Francesca Woodman?

Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. Of course her name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed writing the song, that I suddenly wondered where and in which stage of her life I would find her. I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to share my work but also thank her for the inspiration.

It only took a few seconds on Google and I was starring at the ugly word – suicide. Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.

After this initial shock I knew that my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that picture. Which is ultimately, exactly why my writing had become fluent again. But all the same, suddenly questions started rolling in. Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir with nothing left to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she was able to express these feelings so well, which many people fighting depression are plagued by, because she suffered too? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?

But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life?

I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close to the topic, almost intrusive like a voyeur so I began to reclaim my song, take it for what it was and record it.

Images Full of Self-expression, Texture and Sense of Composition

Weeks later and after seeing the article in the newspaper I finally went online to look at more of Woodman’s work. A lot of it I hadn’t seen before and am in awe of her self-expression, use of textural elements and sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism maybe “girlish”, like some critics say, but it is also very exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram with which I photograph and experiment almost daily. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. After all at 22 she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind.

Like the American photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman, whose work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, depicting herself in many different contexts and as various imagined characters, Woodman used herself as a model. I love the anecdote that when she was asked by a friend why she obsessively photographed herself, (who perhaps found it oddly narcissistic), she replied:

It’s a matter of convenience, I am always available.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper fireplace empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, House #4 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman polka dot dress peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman body print black shoes woman floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Untitled 1976

Eating the Darkness. Desolate & Abandoned Interiors

And indeed, some images have got the features of a self-portrait. But what strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. They are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. Frequently, the interiors are empty rooms, decaying with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster and flaking paintwork.

The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall.  ~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house woman self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, 1976

These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment. They are very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.

Wandering rooms like in quarantine
I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time
brain waves flickering, mercury mind
like a black’n white TV in 1969

Perhaps that was exactly why I had distanced myself after the initial encounter. I had peeped in to then virtually slam the book shut again. It was just too painful to see her body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover fearless easiness and eagerness, revealing a form of self-exploration, stand out against the ugly environment. I didn’t want anyone else to have experienced this ugliness of depression. I had felt protective and at the same time helpless!

Another sensation that arose however, is gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture through my own story. Not though a biographical prism – the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. It can sometimes be difficult to push past these layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice. Especially in an era of information overload, fake news even, and constant accessibility per Dr. Google.

Only when “absorbing” art in an almost meditative state, is it possible to retrieve what lies beneath these layers and connect with our own authentic thoughts and feelings.

This is exactly what I feel she did in her work, she tried to expose herself and be literally as naked as possible. We will never know whether this specific image, the wallpaper  was created to express a loss of self-worth. That may have been what I personally projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist gave me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve? We want to touch or inspire someone and almost live on through our work. Francesca Woodman definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper.

Thank you for reading!

You are welcome to share any thoughts in the comment box below.

– Frances Livings

Buy your copy of Eating The Darkness here:

 

If you found joy or inspiration in this post  

 

You can also watch The Documentary The Woodmans here:

"black and white photo" "gloves"

I Just Lost It

 

I couldn’t find it anywhere. “What? Is it this size?” my husband asks, holding his hands about two inches apart. “Nooooo – much bigger! It’s more like six, seven inches…, leather, it’s thick and heavy and worn, you’ve seen it – or not!!??”

I start searching, yes speed-searching through knicker-drawers, magazine-piles, food-stocks, bed-clothes; I look in the laundry pile, in the dryer, under the dog food, behind the fridge, in the freezer. In total frustration I ring up my girl-friend, who is very sympathetic about the whole situation and recommends staying calm. I cannot stay calm. Yes, I admit, I have hidden things before; things in quite unusual places; keys, money, jewellery, letters, gloves, anger, thoughts and feelings, even memories – mostly from others, sometimes from myself. But this is serious. Where is my diary?

I have lost my diary.

Mentally too overwhelmed to think clearly, I let myself sink into our thick velvety sofa, grabbing a cushion to hug, for comfort. I try to think back: Diary! Where are you? I almost feel guilty, like a bad parent whose child has been kidnapped: Have I neglected you that badly?  Is it all my fault? Oh, forgive me! Pleeeease! Where are you!

I slump back, my neck is killing me. I close my eyes and try to focus: I suppose, I have been overspending lately – to be honest, almost daily. Perhaps I just haven’t had enough verbal supplies left for you. Am I some kind of verbal traitor, spending my daily female allowance of forty thousand words whining away in the isolated scope of a therapist’s womb? What a fool I am! Who am I to think it would matter – just a slot in someone’s appointment book? I’ve spent far too much time blah-blahing, swirling thoughts through mid-air. Truthful, thoughtful and agitated words that have nevertheless been aimlessly drifting, only to be sucked up by the greedy grey vents of a rattling air-conditioner!

I should have known better! I should have known that only with you my thoughts can thrive! That with you, whiney and superfluous midget thoughts just shrivel away to make space for grand and thriving musings laid out in proper order, ready to become valuable memories. That one by one, in proper sentences, on clean and crisp white pages, row by row…. bound in soft leather, embossed with my name… my thoughts are something – just because of you! I am so sorry. I should have trusted you. Although, I do have to admit to myself, that lately, there haven’t been many neat rows of carefully composed words and symmetrically stacked paragraphs. I know, I should have confided in you.

There haven’t been that many neatly composed words lately because of my anger. Dear diary, I know… I have bruised your pages with this anger. My pen has been in rages, chicken feet scraping and scaring your delicate white skin, leaving blue tattoos with bleeding and blustering edges. Like those of criminals, rudimentary and raw, crude jail-house tattoos. I am sorry. I have hurt you; I have hurled you up and slammed you down. I have grabbed you, opening you up like the legs of a whore, bending your spine with a vicious crack.

Perhaps you have just had enough. Have you walked out on me? Diary, have you left me?

I cast the cushion aside and get up from my velvet enclave and start pacing again: What if it is just gone, I debate with myself – as in lost and someone finds it…?! A whole tsunami-worth of panic suddenly grips me, rides me and holds me hostage, stuffing my knickers into my gaping mouth. Then a deep feeling of shame rises from my crotch through my stomach, flushing my cheeks on the way. Shame ferociously spreads over my skull that has turned into a blowfish, only to perch like a goblin behind my ears, making them ring like bakelite telephones. The thought is so unbearable; similar to the memory of unexpectedly bumping into that guy you had really bad sex with. But now he is the one who doesn’t remember you; at all.

Where are you, diary?

My husband joins the action again. He is tired and has already shifted into twilight mode. He lifts a somewhat guided hand, half in limbo like a dangly puppet – or rather like a circus seal: “Perhaps in the dining room…”, right hand flap-flap signals. “Perhaps in the bookshelf…”, left hand flap-flap signals. Of course not! Books sit in bookshelves, ready to be read! Books have a cover, an index… As if, as if – it’s literature. “It’s my diary” I mumble, exhausted.

I realize; he really doesn’t have a clue – neither of what my diary looks like nor of the painstaking logistical manoeuvres I get involved in to hide these very private thoughts from anyone. And yet, I have been careless at times, have left you, diary vulnerable and exposed to the eyes of any intruder. But was I really worried that he had sneaked a peak or was I secretly disappointed that he hadn’t?

It hits me like a dump truck, that perhaps, my diary isn’t just gone as in absent or misplaced, but that it has actually left, as in never-coming-back-again. Suddenly, I feel as if I am walking with naked feet and wobbly knees through deep snow, so icy cold that my toes have turned from a deep beetroot red to corpse-blue and are going to drop off like plump raisins left for the ravens. In my mind the scene is playing in slow motion: I turn my head and look back and realize – after a brief moment of dizzying shock – that there are no imprints. I haven’t left a single footprint, no marks. Nothing. I am a nonentity. But like in a bad floaty-type drugged-out dream, I then stare down at my open hands, at the swirls of my fingertips which are blank and flat like molten wax.

© Frances Livings 2012. All Rights Reserved.

(c) The Morgan Library and Museum, 2011