My Spanish Repertoire

Víctor Meléndez, Poster design for National     Hispanic Heritage Month, 2019

I recently performed with my Latin jazz band, Frances Livings’ Ipanema Lounge at the West Covina library in California in honour of National Hispanic Heritage month, which is celebrated each year, from September 15 to October 15. For me it was a welcome occasion to dig a little deeper into my Spanish repertoire. In this blog post I would like to share my love of some of these often highly romantic and rhythmically enticing songs and some of their backgrounds.

During National Hispanic Heritage month the focus is on the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Especially significant is hereby, the 15th of September because it is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September 18, respectively. Also, Columbus Day or Día de la Raza, which is October 12, falls within this 30-day period.

I always love the process of searching for new songs to explore and interpret. So I spent a fair amount of time searching for new material and came across some beautiful songs to add to my Spanish repertoire ­– some written by contemporary songwriters, others deemed meanwhile almost classic. Since the venue I performed at was a library, a place of knowledge with most likely, information hungry patrons, I thought it would be nice to also provide some background information to some of the songs and music styles – which would ultimately, also honour the specialness of these Latin compositions for the occasion.

La Puerta by Luis Demetrio

Long before I even imagined that one day, I would develop such a passion for singing jazz songs in foreign languages, I fell in love with “La Puerta”. It is a slow, heart-felt ballad that was written by the Mexican singer and songwriter Luis Demetrio (1931-2007). I haven’t been able to find out when it was exactly written or recorded for the very first time but in 1957 “La Puerta” was placed among the great favorites of the Spanish-speaking public, interpreted by the famous Chilean singer Lucho Gatica. It has since then been made popular by contemporary singers like Luis Miguel and Laura Fygi. For a very long time it was the only Spanish song I had in my repertoire – but that was before I moved to Los Angeles…

I later discovered that Demetrio co-wrote another favourite song of mine, “¿Quién será?”, a bolero-mambo better known to the English speaking world as “Sway”. Like often falsely assumed however, Demetrio didn’t co-write the song with his fellow songwriter Pablo Beltrán Ruiz (1915 – 2008) but sold the rights to him. Beltrán recorded the song for the first time with his orchestra in 1953 as an instrumental cha-cha-chá. Dean Martin’s 1954 tongue-in-cheek recording with the Dick Stabile orchestra in English was then the first version to achieve considerable success in the United States. Norman Gimbel (1927 – 2018) who in the 1960’s became famous through his lyrics for “The Girl From Ipanema”, which is probably the most famous Antônio Carlos Jobim song, wrote the English lyrics for “Sway”. I recorded both “La Puerta” and “Sway” on my 2016 album, inspired by Dean Martin and the Mexican pop-singer Kalimba, I recorded it half in English, switching to the Spanish lyrics in the first chorus.

Hoy by Gian Marco

Another song really wanted to introduce at the library performance – and that I simply love singing live (ideally, with a minimal instrumentation of guitar, bass and percussion) –, is “Hoy” (which means in Spanish “today”). This contemporary ballad, written by the Peruvian singer-songwriter Gian Marco Zignago, known as “Gian Marco”, became popular after Gloria Estefan recorded the song on her Spanish album, “Amor y Suerte”. Estefan is the original Latin crossover international star. First as lead singer of Miami Sound Machine and then as a soloist, she has achieved success in both languages, English and Spanish.

Especially for the occasion of Hispanic Heritage Month I thought it would be interesting and relevant to introduce “Hoy” because it addresses the topic of being an immigrant, of your heart belonging somewhere else. Gian Marco wrote the song, after immigrating to the United States. Its lyrics, carried along by a beautifully crafted flowing melody, sounds like a love letter to a person with many beautiful metaphors, but is ultimately a love letter to his home country Peru that he left when he moved to Florida to pursue his music career. “Un camino empinado” (a steep path) for instance, is a reference to the Andes that are the longest continental mountain range in the world, and extend from north to south through seven South American countries: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. The line “tengo el mar del otro lado” means as much as, I have the sea on the other side, which refers to when he lived in Miami, saying in an interview that his ocean is “the Pacific, not the Atlantic”.

In his official video for the song he even integrated some of Peru’s traditional instruments: towards the middle, you can listen to and watch traditional Peruvian music and dancers. His musicians are playing a small guitar called the “Charango”, which is a native Peruvian instrument. A charango is a relatively small string instrument, around 65 cm long, similar to the size of a ukulele. It typically has ten strings in five courses of two strings each, but many other variations exist. Traditionally, they were made of armadillo shell, today superseded by wooden parts. Some designs however, still imitate the patterns of armadillos on the rounded back. Interestingly, and somewhat serendipitous (why it caught my attention maybe), is that as a spiritual animal totem, the armadillo symbolizes that it is time to define your own boundaries and space. It also symbolizes trust, peace, pacifism, balance, complexity, and compassion.

 

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

 

Frances Livings performing live with jazz band Ipanema Lounge at Genghis Cohen 2016-07-05

Genghis Cohen ~ L.A.’s Legendary Singer-Songwriter Venue

 

 

Genghis Cohen

I love playing concerts with the full band at one of my favourite music venues in Los Angeles – the famous singer-songwriter club Genghis Cohen. It is primarily a Chinese restaurant but it has a lovely, separate music room with a stage, lighting and a backline. I usually perform there every two months and often try out new songs, like in February, I presented my new single, Ma Solitude. Naturally, I always play songs from my latest album, Ipanema Lounge (2016) and a include a few from The World I Am Livings In (2013).

Genghis Cohen is a Hollywood staple and has now been around for 35 years. That’s a long time for the fast-moving and ever-evolving restaurant scene but also for a music club. I always look forward to being there. The atmosphere is very artist friendly and some of my favourite sound people work there. Over the years, I have played there with different musicians and in various constellations. And sometimes, mostly by chance, I have even met stars like Jackson Browne, Stevie Wonder and most recently Annie Lennox, who was there to see her daughter, Lola Lennox perform.

The “Original” Genghis Cohen

The original owner, Allan Rinde, opened Genghis Cohen in 1983. He was Jewish, hence the “Cohen”. He had been a staple in the music industry for decades. I luckily got to meet him on many an occasion, occasionally dropping in even after he sold the restaurant 15 years later.

Allan was a former publicist, a journalist, the West Coast Editor of Cashbox. He sadly passed away suddenly on December 16, 2012. Allan was head of West Coast A&R at Columbia, where he was behind Billy Joel’s first hit, “Piano Man,” and he was the man who helped break the Jesus Christ Superstar album.

A close friend and colleague, the songwriter and producer Artie Wayne, who had over 250 covers recorded by such artists as Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Tony Orlando wrote a wonderful blog post here, covering years of insider stories in and around Genghis Cohen, their years in the music industry and of course many celebrity encounters.

In 1998 Allan sold the restaurant to Raymond Kiu, who had been a waiter at the restaurant for 14 years. After his death, his son Denis Kiu took over, who however, died prematurely, at the age of only 43 of a heart attack. A lot has changed in the last few years but that said, atmospherically, not that much.

That is why this article from 1998 in the L.A. Times still, in a way, rings true and names some of the reasons why I still love playing there: “The Cantina [the music room] is configured like a church, with benches functioning as pews, and a stage functioning as the altar. The room is warm and inviting and manages to make both the performers and guests feel at ease. In fact, they are. Too many clubs are set up to incite little interaction between audience and performer, but the family-like comfort of the Cantina inspires a bit of camaraderie.”

The music room is only one part of the complex that consists of the restaurant, the bar area and the closed off music room. The restaurant section sports red leather booths, dim lighting, red accent walls. There’s a bit of Old Hollywood charm, along with self-conscious kitsch — that has however, slightly diminished since the most recent restauranteurs took over in 2015.

 

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.

Livings in Los Angeles. Whole Foods and the Terror of Me. Now!

 

It’s Tuesday, so-called “Taco Tuesday” to be precise. Beaming at everyone with a Californian sunshine smile, a young “dude” with a white cap and the gestures of a 1920’s hotel bellboy is handing out samples. I’m in a hurry and shake my head to decline. “It’s vegan!” he says quickly, as if that would be the ultimate selling point, passing me a small paper cup with a barely bite sized nibble. I thank him. It looks a bit like shriveled up cat food so I tip the contents into my mouth and chew… it tastes ok – for cat food.

Throughout the store the cool air is permeated with the sickly smell of freshly pressed wheat grass, mingled with the heavy aromas of roasted, fair trade coffee beans and hot, free range lemon chickens. Take-out dinners galore are flying off the shelves: golden slices of freshly baked truffle pizza, extravagantly shaped bottles of pomegranate juice, barley-spinach salad, curry tofu, eggplant hummus and rainbow sushi – you name it. The choices are overwhelming and the prices astronomical.

I am at Whole Foods, one of Los Angeles’ most popular health food supermarkets. Only half jokingly, people also call it Whole Paycheck. Founded in 1980 in Austin Texas, and beginning its expansion only four years later – to California in 1989 and to the UK in 2007. This one is located just behind the popular Farmer’s Market and The Grove on Third Street. The location has always struck me as odd. It’s wedged between the drugstore CVS, a row of cheap boutiques with discount clothes from China, bargain wig shops and Kmart.

All of these stores share the same huge parking lot: an asphalt arena sporting two anorexic palm trees that heats up unbearably from the permanent glare of the sun. This definitely isn’t quite the setting you would normally think of when purchasing organic Deep Breathe Tea, fair trade organic quinoa and Yoga mats made from recycled plastic water bottles. Because this is also where regularly verbal fights, vicious glares, dirty hand signs and other mostly empty threats over parking spaces are exchanged. Especially when temperatures around noon start rising and the pressure of shopping for certain holidays, mostly equated with food, are approaching. Parking around Thanksgiving? Forget. It. A while ago a rapper even recoded a video titled “Whole Foods Parking Lot”.

Generally, in Los Angeles parking is not only a problem but a phenomenon – unlike in any other city I have ever visited. Whatever you attend in Los Angeles, the first question will be: “What’s parking like?” or “Where did you park?”. When posting events to mailing list subscribers or sending out invitations to private parties, some people will even boast about “great parking” or even “free parking!!!!!!!!!!!!” In which case I should add a row of exclamation marks too, because at Whole Foods parking is FREEEEE!!!!! (and your mattress is too but that’s a whole other story….).

For Los Angeles this is indeed very unusual because most of the time it can be quite aggravating and expensive to find a parking spot which was why driving services like Lyft and Uber have become so successful. Usually, if you didn’t want to risk a parking ticket, or drive in circles for hours, you would have to surrender to paying between $5 and $10 for valet parking. That was something I had never heard of before visiting Los Angeles for the very first time in June 2005 and something that seemed so endlessly posh and extravagant at the time for someone like me, so used to taking public transportation or going by bike. That is however, in Los Angeles, something only people do who clearly couldn’t afford a car.

But that’s exactly one of Los Angeles’ main attributes, a deep divide between social groups which is strangely epitomized in that very cluster of stores: Whole Foods’ lunching and munching impulse-shoppers and fussy label-readers couldn’t be more opposed to the coupon-clipping, bargain hunting low-income families that frequent American superstores like K-Mart. These poor, frequently obese consumers you will find eating a GMO-laden corn dog (or two, or three) before they head back to their beaten up Chevy with their jumbo, jam-packed shopping cart, drinking out of oversized plastic beakers sporting words like “BIG GULP”.

The average crowd at Whole Foods has most likely got a BMI of 23 and is ethnically an unbalanced mix of generally youngish, Silver Lake’ish, white Caucasians. Then there are of course the celebrities I never recognize and brigades of mostly South American housekeepers and nannies filling up shopping carts. There are always a few street people roaming the aisles, seeking for samples, clueless tourists wandering around mostly looking to quench their thirst and soothe their sunburn and security guards languidly eyeing everyone but mostly their iPhones.

It’s lunchtime and like so often, it is absolutely packed. I have been darting through the isles like a slalom skier at the Winter Olympics but have successfully been able to avoid confrontation with other shoppers. Now finally, feeling relieved but highly agitated, I have reached the check-out queue, shopping basket in hand, well-knowing that my three and a half items will cost at least thirty dollars.

To add to this slightly frantic atmosphere, disco music is blaring out of the loud speakers, interrupted every now and then by someone mumbling incomprehensible slogans. I only catch fragments, “grass fed…organic…Taco Tuesday” Then the sound of Donna Summer’s Bad Girls picks up again. I suddenly realize that, behind two turntables, set up between the vitamins and cereals isles, there is a DJ juggling vinyl records. Dressed in the obligatory hipsters’ uniform; a large woolly hat, black framed glasses and a full sleeve tattoo, he knowingly nods his head to the beat. I wonder how long it takes him to comb his beard in the mornings and whether he has strange hobbies like competitive wood chopping.

Suddenly, to my horror, I realize that I have of course chosen the wrong queue. Other shoppers have already begun flocking towards the alternative ones and a bored looking Asian guy is now standing behind me with a very reluctant look on his face. It’s too late now to change queues. And it’s Murphy’s law somehow, that whichever one you switch to, your original lane will suddenly speed up and you’ll take even longer to check out. But now I’m stuck behind a short blonde, clad in expensive looking yoga wear, frantically trying to discuss lunch choices with her two-year old.

With an annoyingly high-pitched Valley girl voice she lists organic macaroni and lactose free cheese, versus gluten free spaghetti with vegan meat sauce. She isn’t paying any real attention to her frustrated child who is simply overwhelmed by the complexity of these choices. Tears are already welling in his big eyes and it’s obvious that he is dangerously close to throwing a tantrum. Annoyingly, she’s not taking any notice of the cashier either, who is looking to check out her items that she is still waving in front of her child. But the bored looking dude at the check-out is either just far too patient or has taken too much Xanax to care. Then the blonde woman’s mobile phone makes a “ding!” sound and her focus is immediately drawn to a text message she hastily starts responding to. I indulge in one last eye-roll and turn away.

Standing there in one of Los Angeles’ most iconic take-out food temples, I realize once again, how this overindulgent and lavish lifestyle, that at the same time, is so disconnected and distracted sometimes, really depresses me. Every neuroticism is pandered to, guaranteeing the fulfillment of every food fad or first-world hysteria, whether gluten free, vegan or organic. I watch the blonde mother virtually stress her young child by trying to project her own neuroticisms and neediness onto a child that simply needs food, a simple lunch, as nourishment. But it’s not about him, not really. It’s about her. Which is exactly what sometimes so bothers me, being so frequently witness to people’s narcissism.

Waiting there in that queue I feel as if I’m drowning in this extremely high concentration of the Me! society that pollutes the air in most of L.A. Not only at Whole Foods but in so many other places, in relationship to food, you hear these high pitched voices nauseatingly screeching, “OMG. I so need to eat!” which means, “Go run! Now! P.A./assistant/other slave-like person and fetch me a highly complicated list of goods and ingredients to show how well I care for myself and how much I love and embrace my needy little inner child, like my therapist and yoga teacher told me to: “Panini – only roasted for two minutes, one side only, no cheese, extra onions, coleslaw on the side (extra plate and extra pickles), triple mocha latte (soy milk)…” You would think if someone can be bothered to give out all of these meticulous instructions, they could as well make it themselves…

But this is why Whole Foods, with its seeming endless variety of products, is the ultimate supplier and why its popularity reaches its peak at meals times. It crawls with customers who, like spoilt little children, are on a constant search to claim their uniqueness and exclusivity even in their selection of prepared lunches, carrying with them an air of entitlement – to special favours, to special treatment. I watch this disconnect, that keeps the aspiring narcissist neatly tucked into their cushion of grandiosity, with much discomfort. It sadly also seems so be representative of a culture that feeds and grooms the me-generation with the terror of now! The strain and the demand of instant supply and therefore instant gratification. It is deeply connected to the terror of busy. I’m so busy, have no time to prepare food I am therefore important. I therefore am. So even food consumption, like most of the city itself, has become a huge, self-inflating and promoting production. What happened to the good old cheese sandwich, a boiled egg and an apple?

Are You Smelling the Roses?

 

Like almost every morning, I took the dogs to the park for a good, over an hour walk. While they were enthusiastically hunting and chasing squirrels, I discovered this beautiful clean and completely intact pine cone. I thought of a brief chat I had had with a very friendly Korean woman, a few weeks ago, who, in her broken English, had shown me how she uses simple objects from nature, like pine cones, or the rough bark of a tree to massage parts of the body. The principle being that of traditional acupressure.

So I picked the cone up and carried it with me, alternatively clenching it in each hand for a few minutes, the opened, flexible scales giving way in the process, massaging the palm of my hand and strengthening my fingers. I am very much a practical, hands-on person who loves writing and playing the piano. So I like to keep my hands and fingers strong and nimble. I also believe, that being in touch, so actually touching something from nature is per se healing. My favourite yoga teacher mentioned the other day that walking barefoot, also known as “earthing”, is actually a scientifically-researched practice with a number of remarkable health advantages that stem from the relationship between our bodies and the electrons in the earth. The planet has its own natural charge, and we seem to benefit greatly when we’re in direct contact with it.

img_8539Walking my rounds with the dogs, pine cone in hand, I passed one of the homeless people who occupies the same park bench every morning at around 8am. My best guess is that he is schizophrenic because sometimes you can hear him angrily shouting obscenities from the other side of the park. But then, when he has his “lucid” moments, he is a very chatty, well educated and friendly gentleman who always has his belongings stacked very neatly and tidily next to him and a handkerchief on his lap when eating his breakfast.

In passing, I greeted him and he immediately asked, “What’s that? A pine cone?” I said, “Yes, I’m massaging my hands with it and later, I’ll take it home…” He interrupted and said, yes, you can decorate the table with them at Thanksgiving.” We immediately struck up a conversation about all of the things you can do with pinecones, smell them, eat the pine seeds, burn them (the sap ignites fires very well) and I mentioned how beautiful they are in their perfect symmetry, and he added, “like everything God creates”. I replied that sadly, many people don’t see these beautiful things that surround them anymore. No, he said, “They don’t stop to smell the roses, they’re too busy cutting them”.

I thought his point was well taken. I think that today, most people are fixated on “owning” things, as in having a collection to show off to others that is as vast as possible. This collection of images serves to then quasi adorn a virtual online persona for others to admire. Objects are taken into possession via photographs on Facebook and Instagram but only hastily and superfluously consumed and accessorized but not emotionally absorbed. Historically, a photo acted as a substitute, a token, a memento. Now it seems to have replaced the actual experience. When the image is then shared there’s no authentic contact with the actual object, the full experience is kept out of range, not only visually but also tactually. It’s a way of distancing oneself from an authentic experience in quite a detached and guarded but also very possessive way.

And you, have you stopped to smell the roses today? Or are you too busy cutting them?

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Press Release: New Album Frances Livings’ Ipanema Lounge

 

 : : FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE : : MOONTRAXX, LOS ANGELES, SEP. 2016 : :

Capturing a rich atmosphere of cultural diversity, this sensual, multi-lingual world jazz album, with songs in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese, guarantees to carry you along on an emotional journey.

Moontraxx Records & Music Productions proudly presents the release of Frances Livings’ new album, Ipanema Lounge. The official release party and live show will take place on Thursday, September 15, 2016 at 7pm at Genghis Cohen, Los Angeles. If you are a member of the press please contact us here to receive a free copy and a VIP spot on the guest list.

                      Whenever I meet a new song, I fall madly in love with it. I think, why haven’t I met you before?

                                                                                                ~ Frances Livings

The multi-lingual world-jazz album Ipanema Lounge, produced by the artist Frances Livings in collaboration with the composer, arranger and guitarist Greg Porée for Moontraxx Records Los Angeles, captures a rich atmosphere of cultural diversity.

As a vocalist and a songwriter, Frances Livings has always been drawn to the unique crafting of a song, to its rhythm, melody, texture, linguistics and story. Frances discovered early in her career that you don’t have to be a native of any country to become attached to its culture. Another source of inspiration were her travels, like extensive stays in Southern Europe, and from having lived and worked in the multi-ethnic melting pot Los Angeles for the last decade. Bringing to this album even more than her deep love of these cultures, she choose a foreign language repertoire. She selected songs written by artists native to countries such as France, Mexico and Peru, whose tunes with their unique phonetical sounds evoke a very classy and lush atmosphere.

The cello is considered to be one of the most expressive and satisfying instruments to listen to. Its ability to speak beautifully whether in a low or high register makes it a joy for composers to write for. Frances’ alto voice resonates in the same manner. With her richness of overtones, she brings a wide range of emotion and passion to each song, truly a gift for the listeners.

COVER_Ipanema Lounge Frances 600x600The album’s thirteen songs, in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese, guarantee to carry you along on this emotional journey. With each new melody, you are immersed into a new locale, yet never fully leave the last one. They will transport you to the contemporary bars and lounges of urban metropolises, where French art house chansons, soulful American standards and groovy Brazilian music have had their undeniable impact on today’s global music and art culture.

The musical ensemble succeeds in bringing out the colours of these tunes, which range from contemporary to classical – the oldest song being from 1946. The jazz standard One Note Samba is a perfect example of the musical imagination and refreshing engagement that was brought to the production.

On Corcovado, Waters of March, Aganjú and One Note Samba, Greg Porée re-harmonized and restructured their arrangements, giving a brand new perspective to these familiar songs. Joey Heredia created an enticing drum pattern that possesses the dramatic nuances of a New Orleans march and that compliments Trey Henry’s moody bass in the intro and his syncopated patterns in the verse and bridge. These killer grooves Greg contrasted with steel string acoustics that were used to create dissonant pads for Frances’ playful vocal.

Rhythmically, Sandro Feliciano (percussion) and Isaias Elpes (electric bass), originally from Brazil, contributed very fresh cultural perspectives in developing their parts: On Jardin d’Hiver they were playful and danceable, on Aganjú and Come Closer the percussion and bass underpinnings were in a contemporary, sultry and passionate Nu Jazz style, and on Hoy they captured the flavours of Peru and Mexico. The exotic flairs of Argentina and Paris were brought to Hoy and Jardin d’Hiver by Mariano Dugatkin with his bandoneon.

On the ballads Dansez Maintenant, La Puerta and Pour te Plaire, the accompaniment for Frances’ intuitive vocal delivery required the highest level of experience, technical skill and sensitivity. The jazz veterans Jeff Colella on piano and Trey Henry again on double bass, along with Frances’ vocals, took these ballads way past the generic renditions one normally hears. Joe Ayoub played with similar musical insight on double bass on Sway and Waters of March. Darrell Diaz, a Los Angeles veteran, went way beyond the norm with his creative solos in Tell Me All About It and Waters of March, including his tasteful keyboard support on Jardin d’Hiver, Come Closer, Hoy and Sway.

For Dindi, Waters of March, Hoy and Corcovado Greg Porée created signature parts on the classical guitar that are elegantly cohesive in nature and especially impactful on Waters of March. Instrumentally, this set the stage for Frances’ and the band’s superb performance. On Dindi her beautifully crafted vocal was complimented by the linear sounds of an almost whimsical archtop guitar. For Dansez Maintenant and Pour the Plaire the atmosphere was the intimate, late night jazz club that also suited the sound of that guitar.

One of the four guest soloists was Paul Cartwright on violin who added an imaginative and atmospheric solo to the already haunting track Come Closer. John Nau did the same on electric piano for Corcovado. The studio veteran Nolan Shaheed’s trumpet ad libs on Sway take you right back to Cuba of the 1950’s, and when faced with the challenge of playing a solo over completely new chord changes for One Note Samba, Nolan rose to the occasion and took the song to new heights. On Aganjú, the interplay between Robert Kyle’s multi-layered flute and saxophone tracks and Frances Livings’ vocals brought a unique sensuality and Nu Jazz feel not previously heard on this Latin hit song.

The song sequence reflects the cycle and harmony of a day. Its moods flow through us as we awake, engage, dance, mourn and love. Some songs convey a playful attitude, like the staccato romance of possibility of Jardin d’Hiver that opens the morning. As the hours count noon, the poetic Waters of March followed by Dansez Maintenant meander us into the afternoon. Aganjú transports us into evening with its sultry tone. Come Closer, penned by Frances and the German bassist and songwriter Volker Schwanke, captures the intensity of longing and never attaining. The Portuguese ballad La Puerta exhibits a sensual flare for the dramatic and Corcovado evokes the serenity of dusk.

Sway, originally written by a Mexican composer and made famous by Dean Martin, is a flirtatious invitation for more. We transcend twilight with Pour te Plaire, an adaption of Glenn Miller’s famous jazz standard Moonlight Serenade. This French version is a perfect example of Frances Livings’ vision – how shifting language alters atmosphere, meaning and scenery. Passion flares our senses as we lay exposed, open to the magic of the night.

Each language is like a beautiful musical composition, made up of its own unique melody, rhythm and form.

                                                                                                ~ Frances Livings

PRESS CONTACT: by email Moontraxx@icloud.com by mobile phone (1) 323 719-0747

COMPANY WEBSITE: http://www.moontraxx.com

ARTIST’S WEBSITE: https://franceslivings.com

 

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

Livings in Los Angeles – Ant Man, Teddy and Rabbit. Thoughts on the Artist Mike Kelley

One afternoon, on one of my frequent outings to the Galerie der Gegenwart (gallery of contemporary art) in Hamburg, I found myself transfixed by eight very unusual portrait photographs. Individually depicted were seven cuddly toys. Their stitched-on fabric or glass button eyes, some loose and lopsided, seemed to be starring at me, wanting urgently to capture my attention. One photograph however, was of a stern looking younger man who I assumed, was of the artist himself. The portraits were all displayed in a very simple frame and hung as a group in two rows of four. They looked like mug shots.

That was in the mid nineties when I was a junior student of art history and first discovered the work of the contemporary American artist Mike Kelley and immediately, it clicked. I didn’t know anything about his background, but again and again I couldn’t help thinking about these colour photographs, which soon found their way into music culture when Kelley created the artwork for Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty, using Ant Man’s “portrait” on the album cover. In addition to being a renowned visual artist, Kelley was also a musician. He was a founding member of the proto-punk Detroit band Destroy All Monsters, who earned a cult following with their experimental performance art. By the 1990’s his art career was blooming.

Mike Kelley, “Ahh…Youth!” 1991, set of 8 Cibachrome photographs, 24 x 20 in. each; one at 24 x 18 in. Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

On a cursory glance, the ensemble looked like an advertising campaign for an innocent and happy childhood. But it conjured up a completely different meaning: The features of its relicts, the stuffed animals, were stiff and unhappy looking. These were tatty creatures with dirty, worn and clumped fur, limp limbs and a blank stare. They were after all, visual tokens of having been thrown, kicked, punched, spat, cried and vomited upon. In the presence of a male adult however, they seemed to stand for a collective memory of child abuse and therefore seemed to almost immediately epitomize trauma. Were Ant Man, Teddy and Rabbit physical witnesses to something horrible that was inflicted upon them? Or did they stand – their images physically enclosed and kept in tyrannical order by a strict, linear picture frame – for something that was kept secret within the walls of a children’s nursery?

On the other hand, these individual portraits were like a collection of mug shots depicting cuddly toys more like perpetrators on the stand. From that perspective they seemed to suddenly stand for shame and guilt but how could stuffed animals be guilty of anything? But that’s exactly what was triggering and made the artwork so memorable. In society nurseries are considered to be safe, childhoods happy and parents loving – which is why ultimately, abuse is so crazy making. This is also why there are still so many moral conflicts with challenging these ideas; any notion that would disrupt these stereotypes and clichés are easier being denied, which is why at that point in my life, just intuitively, I found his work compelling and courageous.

*

My second very intense encounter with the artist wasn’t until I was living in Los Angeles almost two decades later. On a fairly uneventful day, cup of coffee in hand, I was flicking through the L.A. Times when I read that he had committed suicide. I was shocked. He was only 57 and had by then established himself as an artist internationally. Online I read in further articles that only around four hours after confirmation of his death, an unofficial, makeshift memorial had started to appear in an abandoned carport, a few blocks from Kelley’s home in the Farley Building in Highland Park. Built from stuffed toys, wax candles, Afghans and dried corn, mourners began replicating his assemblage More Love Hours and Wages of Sin, two paired installations Kelley had exhibited in the Whitney’s 1989 Biennial. I also learned that The Mike Kelley Foundation was organizing a memorial that was to be held at his studio in Eagle Rock/Highland Park.

I felt he deserved my tribute too. He had shown courage touching upon subjects that are still – thirty years later – socially somewhat taboo. As a child you mostly have no alley when being abused or mistreated, ignored, neglected by a parent. He epitomized these complicated and highly problematic emotions.

So on one of these for Los Angeles typical, far too mild February evenings, my husband drove through dimly lit streets to Kelley’s former residence. We parked on a side street lined with old gnarly oak trees, spiked with well-kept 19th century craftsman bungalows, typical for South Pasadena. Like many areas of Los Angeles, it felt very insular, especially because of the isolating pockets of dim lighting. I walked up to the main road towards the building in which the memorial was taking place. Its concrete steps led up to a very somber looking entrance where a handful of people stood, collectively nodding as if to acknowledge our arrival. I felt a slight wave of guilt wash over me for being curious in a weirdly voyeuristic way. I had never met this man and yet I was showing up at a memorial – like a grief tourist?

Approximate another 100 people and I wandered around aimlessly through this vast space, which had been, only days prior to his death, his studio. Plastic cup in hand, filled with cheap red wine, I explored a maze of small administrative looking side-rooms, watching sometimes only for minutes films that Kelley had created. The main space, his studio, where more art installations were displayed and further screenings took place, reminded me of a large airplane hangar.

I was not really interested in speculating about why precisely he killed himself. From the press I later learned that he suffered from depression – quelle surprise. Looking at his body of work, one may interpret his works of art, like described above, as a result of trauma, translated into the many quite disturbing images he produced. But I wasn’t interested in asking whether this ensemble of abused looking creatures gave the observer biographical information.

Probably like a lot of other people, I asked myself, why would he end his own life? Unlike many artists he was successful and popular. Being a struggling artist myself, it actually made me a bit angry. How dare he? How selfish. I suddenly felt very strongly that every artist, whether writer, painter or musician carries a responsibility towards their creations, to ensure the future delivery of such. Without them their art will not be created and the commercial art world takes over. How can therefore someone give up on him- or herself without giving up on their art? Suicide is the conscious choice to depart from one’s life. Most artists are controlling. They have to be. I know from my own work that once I envision something and have a precise idea of what and how I want to create something, I am very adamant about its execution. I will explore, search, uncover, unravel, shuffle and experiment but once I get close to what I was meant to create I don’t dither or question. Interwoven with this notion is the question, where does art end and where does the artist start?

 

Livings In Los Angeles. Public Parks and Gardens and their Impact on Mental Health and the Creative Mind

 

The title of my poem Evaporated may not suggest it, but I drew its imagery draws the different contrasting botanical areas at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino. It has been one of my favourite place to visit ever since I first came to Southern California in 2005. The 207 acres of space, of which 120 acres are landscaped, showcase a variety of botanical areas. One of the most fascinating ones – probably for any European or East-coaster – is the ten acre large desert garden which features more than 5,000 species of succulents and desert plants.

The Huntington Desert Gardens

Succulents have always fascinated me, their shapes and characteristics and their ability to survive on so little and yet be able to bloom and flourish in the most extraordinary ways. As a teenager I had a small collection of cacti: My room faced South so out of thin planks of wood I constructed swing-like benches for the large window for them to sit on and relish the sun rays. They were small and very common species but they sometimes even bloomed. But never did I expect to see such alien monstrosities or small insect-like clusters of cacti like I did at the Huntington gardens years later.

After having completed the poem I started to think about how, throughout my life, the experience of different landscapes and topographies has influenced my perception and awareness of my surroundings. Especially when living in a city, visits to gardens and urban parks have not only sometimes saved my sanity but also influenced my work as an artist and writer. The following piece for instance, which I recorded on my first solo album, I wrote after a visit to the beach in Santa Barbara. It’s short and melancholic, almost like a tone poem:

Listen to Pebbles in my Hand here:

My personal experience is that nature, even in contrived areas like in parks, can evoke emotions in us that are often not released otherwise. And it is a wide-spread and well researched fact that nature leads to increased mental health and psychological development.

It was only after I had moved to Los Angeles that I became aware of how vastly different not only cityscapes but also landscapes can be, how much the climate can hinder or support certain activities. On the whole, I realized, I had been lucky to have spent the first three decades of my life in very green, fertile and geographically non-threatening environments – no black widow spiders, earthquakes, mud slides or mountain lions. But I can also see that not everyone in this city is able to make these choices and therefore experiences.

In most parts of the city of Los Angeles there is no alternative to street culture. The city has paid little attention to small urban green spaces that should be available for all members of society, either in walking distance or at all times fully accessible by public transportation and an integral part of daily life. Some studies even show that “there is an obvious correlation between poverty, food access and lack of open space” like stated in a blog entry posing the question “Is the lack of recreational space making us fatter?”.

Having grown up in England as a child, the long history and culture of the English garden and park and my family’s interest in their natural surroundings influenced my relationship with and awareness for nature, whether in a natural or a contrived state. With my parents we visited some of the most interesting estates, strange sculpture gardens and vast parks, like the famous Hyde Park in London. My Nanna was a passionate gardener and cook, who made jam from her home-grown black currants and pies from her apples and even managed to grow some figs and tobacco on her large allotment in Suffolk.

After I was literally “deported” to Germany as a pre-teen, I felt that the flat and boring landscape, dotted with stoic, grass-munching cows, was a hard contrast to the hilly and lush countryside of East Anglia. I have tried to convey some of these emotions in a yet unfinished piece ‘Wasteland’, playing with these landscape features as synonyms for my interior landscapes. Nevertheless, nature was accessible and if it hadn’t been for the trauma of being moved away from my family, it would have been a theoretically non-threatening experience.

As a student I then moved to the city of Hamburg. Perhaps it was a mere coincidence that Hamburg ranks as one of the top ten greenest cities in Germany and was awarded The by the European commission in 2011. But I truly enjoyed the fact that even although it rains a lot of the time (which can be depressing on another level and obviously helps the vegetation to flourish) there are so many green spaces, rivers and canals accessible from all parts of town, mostly in walking distance.

Los Angeles’ National Parks

During my time here in Los Angeles I have therefore sought out many of the parks the County has to offer, like Griffith Park, situated in the Eastern Santa Monica Mountain range, in the north-eastern part of the city.

Native Oak Trees in Griffith Park, CA

With over 4,210 acres of both natural Chaparral-covered terrain and landscaped parkland and picnic areas, it is the largest municipal park with urban wilderness area in the United States. Two famous landmarks are the recently restored observatory, opened to the public in 1935 and the Greek theatre, the famous music venue.

Represented in Griffith Park – in a similar way to Topanga State Park in Pacific Palisades – are California native plants and in small quantities even some threatened species.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had already seen the health benefits of national parks and became an energetic supporter as president. He wrote:

There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and the wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of the great human principle.

He obviously also had a strong nationalistic agenda: Even in the midst of the Depression, national parks were being dramatically improved by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and highly publicized and therefore politicized. I doubt whether the city of Los Angeles is currently really interested in designing and financing green urban spaces in low income zones.

King’s Road Park in West Hollywood, CA

In middle-class neighbourhoods, like West Hollywood public parks, if existent, are tiny and still rare – like a small oasis nearby out home on King’s Road (very much the opposite of King’s Road in London…).

It features a beautiful small waterfall (I doubt whether from a natural water source), a Gingko tree and tropical shrubbery, like banana plants and Bird of Paradise. It would, at the most, hold 50 people, tightly seated attending a one-woman flute concert. But on my almost daily dog walks it is a small oasis where I often sit down on one of the park benches, switch my iPod off and can find tranquility.

Historical Parks and Gardens

Other communities that have long histories of parks surround Pasadena, a small college city about twenty miles north-west of Los Angeles that is famous for the annual Rose Parade, its craftsman houses, like the Gamble house by the architects Greene and Greene and the Millard house by Frank Lloyd Wright from 1923.

Nearby, in La Canada Flintridge are the Descanso Gardens which are well worth a visit throughout the year, but especially in January and February when the Camellias are in bloom.

The Arboretum in Arcadia, CA

Located in the city of Arcadia, the Arboretum is home to plant collections from all over the world, including many rare and endangered species. The Arboretum also houses some interesting outdoor historical landmarks, like a Victorian Queen Anne cottage, representative of the major phases of California history. And like mentioned above the Huntington in San Marino whose desert gardens I am so fascinated by.

But unless you live in San Marino, ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 63rd most expensive area to live in the United States and where the median list price of a single family home is almost 2 million US dollars you will always require private transportation to these places (unless you can afford a taxi).

These national parks and historical gardens are exclusive and excluding suburban oasis. There is no train and hardly any busses. The entrance fee per adult (without an annual membership) is at the Huntington’s a staggering $20. So especially with a family these trips involve a steep budget, planning well ahead and/or making reservations for the one free day of the week.

“It Never Rains in California”. The Problem with Urban Heat Islands

Most people tend to perceive the Southern Californian climate as extremely friendly. They think of the beaches, of blonde and bronzed surfer dudes, of a place where it never rains. How often do you see tourists in an open tour bus without sunscreen and a hat – we all know that they’ll be close to a sunstroke by the time they’ve passed the 28th villa in Beverly Hills in which Barbara Streisand is supposed to have lived.

‘Sun Screen’ (c) Mark Boster printed in the L.A. Times, Sep. 9, 2011

Being here all year round has made me realize that the sun can be very cruel and relentless. In August and September I find it almost impossible to walk anywhere – it is desert sun.

Unlike residential areas close to places like Griffith Park or the Huntington Gardens, the poorer parts of the city, like Compton or Torrance, offer hardly any escape from the desert-hot sun or relief from every day problems and anxieties in a rejuvenating environment.

Not only green areas are missing but a large part of the Los Angeles’ inner cityscape doesn’t even deliver much shade. Partly because a lot of areas lack trees with foliage (palm trees grow best) and, because of earthquake danger, the buildings are mainly low-rise complexes and strip-malls. The wide streets are barren and dry, dusty and often excruciatingly un-embracing, uninspiring and insular.

Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

When the sun most violently smacks down on the dark asphalt and heats up its environment up to four degrees Fahrenheit more than in green areas, so-called urban heat islands are created.

Urban heat islands not only decrease the air quality but have an impact on nearby water bodies. But not only does Los Angeles lack public green areas that could be integrated into our daily lives and routines, but sources of water.

The only  canals I know of are in Venice beach, surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate. The L.A. river is less picturesque with its concrete beds which act as water basins for melting snow gushing down the mountains in the spring. In the hot summer months they are mostly dry.

Unlike in places like London with the river Thames or Paris with the romantic Seine, these areas are also not offered as spaces of contemplation or restoration in the middle of the city, mainly because they completely lack natural vegetation or wildlife.

It is a known fact that enclosing shrubbery and foliage of trees in parks can foster crime which is why some city planners have argued against them. The Central Park in New York has (perhaps falsely) become a synonym for heinous acts of crime, like often depicted on TV. But studies have also proven the opposite: Next to the urban study departments of many Universities, the APA, the American Planning Association, an independent, educational non-profit organization has conducted research programmes that show:

Time spent in natural surroundings relieves mental fatigue, which in turn relieves inattentiveness, irritability, and impulsivity, recognized by psychologists as precursors to violence. Green spaces also support frequent, casual contact among neighbors. This leads to the formation of neighborhood social ties, the building blocks of strong, secure neighborhoods where people tend to support, care about, and protect one another.

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

 

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