Thursday, May 3, 2012

Outrageous Older Woman

Liz Zelvin

All my life I’ve been what a friend calls a “Renaissance soul” (nonsexist language for what used to be “Renaissance man”): interested in a lot of different subjects and activities and moving them around on the metaphoric stove from back to front burner and front to back as life has provided and removed opportunities.
I’ve played a lot of different roles. At the moment, I’m a mystery writer, therapist, and singer-songwriter with a new book and a CD out. I’ve worn the writer hat from the age of seven, but the music hat is almost as venerable, and the release of my album, Outrageous Older Woman, the realization of a lifelong dream.

As the bio on my music website tells my story (very different from my story as a writer and my mental health professional c.v.), I spent my childhood singing along on songs as diverse as morbid traditional murder ballads, old union and Spanish Civil War songs, and the gloriously sentimental harmonies of Girl Scout campfire songs. After a few uninspired years of piano lessons and a short career as a cellist in junior high and high school, I learned to play guitar at the age of thirteen and carried one with me everywhere for the next couple of decades.
I wrote a song or two in college during the Sixties and several more as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. I wrote and performed more songs while publishing two books of poetry and launching a midlife career as a psychotherapist and addiction treatment professional. For a while, I put music on the back burner, but then I encountered a trio of musical mentors whose influence and support helped extend my reach as both songwriter and vocalist. Through them, I had the pleasure of jamming with quite a few accomplished musicians and singers. While honing my skills as a songwriter, I realized that in terms of performance, happiness was having great backup.

Now, there’s a difference between mystery writing and making music. It takes a village to turn a manuscript into a book and send it out into the world. But the creation and perfecting of a mystery is a lonely process compared with a song’s journey. I wrote just about all of my more recent songs with the stimulus of a musical community. One of the mentors I mentioned was contemporary folk legend Jimmie Dale Gilmore, whose songwriting workshops I attended for several years at Omega, a New Age intentional community (or “dude ranch for space cadets,” as one of my characters calls its fictional incarnation in a so-far-unpublished novella).

Jimmie believes that the collaborative process mimics the creative process. Or as he put it, when you write alone, the voices saying, “That’s brilliant!” “No, that’s stupid!” are inside your head; when you write with others, your collaborators say the same things. The group songwriting sparked individual songwriting, with music as well as lyrics springing up from that same mysterious inner place as the characters that talk in the fiction writer’s head. And musicians, whether or not they are also writers, spend a lot of time making music. (I wish I could say that writers spend their time together telling stories. But they don’t—unless it’s stories about their struggles with agents, editors, and the literary marketplace.)

When I wanted the album to take my songs beyond the limitations of my singing voice and skill on the guitar, I was able to add the gifts of amazingly accomplished instrumentalists and harmony vocalists track by track: three more guitars in a wide range of styles; bass; keyboards, through the magic of digital technology, sounding at times like a concert grand, a honky tonk piano, accordion, organ, concertina, harp, tuba, and sitar; fiddle, cello, and banjo; clarinet, flute, and penny whistle; and drums and percussion. You’ll hear a klezmer band, a gospel choir, and a crowd of 100,000 at a demonstration, even though my co-producer and I never had more than one other person in the recording studio with us. (The sole exception is the klezmer song, for which our keyboard player brought along his exceptionally talented 16-year-old son to provide a mellow and witty clarinet track.)

I can’t tell you what a kick I got out of it when, late in the process of editing what we’d recorded, my co-producer and recording engineer started referring to the existing tracks as “the band.” (“Do you want to solo your vocal track or play it with the band?”) It would be heavenly to perform live with all ten of them together, instrumentalists and singers. It won’t happen, but I will have two of them along when I perform live in New York City on May 19 (You’re invited, details on my music website at Two musicians: guitar, banjo, flute, fiddle, piano, and vocal harmonies.) But you can hear them all yourself. Listen to previews of all the songs. Better yet, buy the CD or download the album in mp3 format. Happy listening!

Liz Zelvin: Outrageous Older Woman


Judy Alter said...

Liz, I'm excited for you that you did this, and, yes, I plan to order the CD.

Julia Buckley said...

Wouldn't it be cool if you could also tour with "the band?" :)

I'd come to your Chicago show!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

It would, Julia. Music tours are like book tours, though--often more $ goes in than comes out. In fact, I just spent 3 hours in my living room rehearsing with ONE of my band members who's going to perform with me on May 19. Gina Tlamsa played flute and pennywhistle on the album and will also play fiddle and sing harmony vocals in the show. And when we finished, she was off to a rehearsal of a group in which she plays Renaissance music. These musicians are all amazingly versatile and accomplished and work very hard.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Bless you, Judy. I'm grateful to everyone who orders the CD (or downloads the album), and I do think you'll enjoy it. :)

Nancy Adams said...

I love the cover, Liz! This is so cool!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Nancy. :)