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.
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.
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community (or “dude ranch for space cadets,” as one of my characters calls its fictional incarnation in a so-far-unpublished novella).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 lizzelvin.com. 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!