MUSIC FROM THE INSIDE PT 2: LETTING YOUR BELLY HANG OUT

Last week it was my great fortune again to spend the day with the blues women of Montréal when the Femmes en Blues 2014 show hit the road for the first time. We spent the day in a small town remotely located in Quebec, well known for its biker organizations and fondness for blues.

I left the farm early in the morning planning on taking my time, unsure of what a full day without my band, and with a group of women who are really considered to be the some of the cream of the crop of musicians and singers, not only in Montreal but across the country.

I arrived early because I am by nature nervous and being around a group of people for an entire day when you are someone like me who spends all day with horses and goats, can present a challenge. Women have been traditionally challenging for me to have relationships with. There always seems to be an undercurrent of competition, a desire for besting one another – I know this sounds very high school but it is what it is. I was going to spend a day with 20 women I didn’t know very well outside of the fact that we are in direct competition for the same jobs most of the time.

We all meet early afternoon – an empty bar, beautiful stage and a talented sound tech. here is what lays in front of the next three or six hours for us at the Marina bar in Sorel.

Sounds check goes on for a while – these women are really professional and want their sound to be optimal. I walk around listening to the requests each musician is making of the sound tech; what do they want to hear in their front monitors? Are they able to communicate with the rest of the band? Can they hear their voice enough? Are they getting the drums properly? There is allot to consider even when what you may see as a final product of impromptu soulful music.

Then there are conversations all day by the bar…

“When I don’t sing I get a little bitchy”, said Ysabel Gagnon as we sit together on stools.

“I spent so much time ignoring God, I didn’t hear Him telling me this is what I should be doing”, continues Ria Reece, another great diva of the blues scene.

“Can you imagine us in an office? ” I ask

No, they all agree. AH how times have changed.

Singing is not a “choice”  – not if we are going to be happy anyways. Music is a call from the soul, a call from God, a call from something higher and bigger and stronger than us. The only choice we have to make is whether or not to follow it.

I don’t know how long I will be a singer for. It could be another day a week or a month or decade. This is a funny business, contingent on many factors and I plan on enjoying every single breath and moment of it.

I began singing with my sisters in a choir when I was young. I remember they called me one of “the Bells” – meaning I was placed in the front with other sopranos. We sang songs like “Fly Little White Dove Fly” and “Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man’; I stood in the front learning one of maybe 3 or four harmony parts, my sisters behind me helping me keep on track. At night the dishes were always done in two or three part harmony as additional practice.

I learn others have had similar histories to me. This never happens and I enjoy the feeling of reliability. The exchange of stories and travel tales come quick. There is much laughter and empathetic sounds for some of the more outlandish tales I heard.

Would you want to be famous? I ask them.

This sparks a great debate.

Late nights, crazy drunk people, driving home at four a.m., doing it three or four nights in a row, singing for bikers, crappy pay, breaking down without gas, small towns, scary hotel rooms, inconsiderate bar owners. Then smaller, funny but also relatable issues – make up, bra (or no bra), shoes (or no shoes) dealing with relationships while you are on stage.

Singing is not like any other occupation – you can’t fake it for very long like you could another job or even another instrument…or even mediocre sex 🙂  Singing a song well, connecting with the audience and feeling like you have brought something to the music comes from a place that is not controllable by human means – more by soulful invitation. When you are in the middle of a great song, you are moved, your band is all doing what they are best at, everyone is happy and into the song and thoughts have been suspended for the time – this is the magic of the music – the ultimate payoff for the hard work and the bonus that no amount of money could equate. In my band, SoulFusion we call it our “Happy Bubble”.

In the first part of Music from the Inside I started exploring and experiencing the fellowship that occurs between musicians. While on the road with my singing sisters in blues I really discovered something special with the women I am privileged to be associating with in the music world. They have incredible stories. No one gets to where they are without some serious happenings in life. Their stories remind me that it’s not always an easy job and sometimes it’s even quite dangerous.

ImageYsabel Gagnon of Mama Groove fame recounts her experiences with an unruly drunk bar fan who head butted her after a show and she found herself with a concussion and permanent sight impairment a result. Another singer talks about needing body guards because of a riotous overly enthusiastic blues audience. Even a small public life is a challenge.

What do you think of Facebook?

Moans of annoyance echo around me.

“It’s a necessary evil, but I feel too public.”

Yes, we all agree. The “public” aspect of our lives can be a little uncomfortable.

“God, people know when I go to the dentist! Who cares about my life?” continues Barb Diab, another great Montreal blues legend. “I love to sing – Just come hear me sing. That’ll tell you all you need to know.” she smiles vibrantly. The women around her nod in agreement. Yes – everything you need to know about us can be heard in 3 short minutes.

It is almost show time. We finish dinner and return to the dressing room where we all squish inside and =begin to outfit ourselves for the theme of the party. I feel a little “out of it” in this case. I have never been a stage dresser – most of the time my band is excited if I have brushed my hair.

But here I see hair and makeup a beautiful clothes and shoes that would kill me. We are supposed to have a fifties theme, an era which I am particularly averse to, being a dedicated hippie. I ask Ria for help It seems to be our tradition that when I need to dress up, Ria saves me. She poufs my hair doing some fancy spinning thing, I have a leather jacket and greaser I shall be! I feel pretty after she is finished untangling my mane of hair.

Ria herself looks like Billy Holiday – perfect hair, flowers, stunning clingy dress that made every man in the room step back an take a breath. The rooms filled with laughter, we practice “Oh happy Day” with Ria singing in front, the rest of us her gospel choir.Image

If the show sounds as good as the dressing room – we are going to be ok, I think to myself.

We all go for dinner, amicably gathering around a big table. The restaurant next door gives us a discount we take gratefully – there is not allot of money involved n this happiness project J 

We order our food, singers reticent to fill their bellies before show time but after 5 hours of rehearsing and sound check, we are starving. I sit with new friends and old. The conversation is easy and relatable. We talk about singer things” like breathing techniques, funny stories about shows or touching experiences we have had.

I love this sharing! It feels like finally, after a lifetime of feeling like everyone else had gotten a copy of “How to live Life” The Manual for dummies – I had finally found my own book!

I’m not so naïve or self centered to believe that I am the only one that has felt like I am “outside of the box” of normal in this world, I realize. But the joy at finding this kinship was almost overwhelming.

In this group of women, I can let my belly hang out, like I would say to my sisters.

Women you let your belly hang out with are rare an beautiful. For these people I can just be myself, nothing fancy, nothing made-up, nothing contrived – just me. Happy=, sad, sacred, fat skinny, good hair bad hair – just me. And they adore me as much as I do them! Imagine that. So let’s see, I get the best career in the world, the opportunity to make people happy and be creative, I get a “club” of fellow singers who I know beyond the shadow of a doubt always has my back as I do theirs (this is better than a union for sure!).

 

I have been so busy talking to everyone and helping sound check, I never did my rehearsal I realize.

Stage fright. Tightening in my gut.

I am going to tank. Oh lord.

I have picked a particularly difficult song. We each have four or five, but mine is the one everyone is waiting for. It’s a “different” kind of tune by Alabama Shakes called “Hold On”. My recent quitting smoking has made my voice very strong and I have not yet tested it on this challenging long note song.

Ria is first Barb is second then me to close the first set.

I’m not nervous. I feel so fully supported and accepted protected and loved by these women. The incredible on stage rock and blues guitarist bassist drummer keyboard player- such talent. No fear.

Ria knocks them dead, opening with a roaring rendition of This Is A Man’s world – gravelly and powerfully female – the audience explodes joyfully encouraging.

Barb come up after her, with her incredible stage presence and ability to bring the band together, she has the audience on their feet. I m videotaping an taking pictures – no time be nervous.

I hear Ysabel introduce me and I am up. Three songs and I am having an incredible time. My guitar slung on my shoulder, playing with Christine Denfer, my favourite blue guitarist in Quebec – we look at each other and smile. This is what we are waiting for. The Bubble.

I am on stage looking at the audience. The roaring of clapping has died down, our first three songs were probably the best I have ever heard or done and I am filled with an irrepressible joy.

I think about my mom – how proud she would be and so so happy to see me feeling strong and supported and alive like this…

“I’d like to dedicate this next song to my mom – I miss her so much and I know she is here”.

The girls gather around the side of the stage. I can feel them. Everyone knows about how hard losing my mother has been – thanks for Facebook. I don’t mind this. I could not have survived with that amount of pain alone and I am glad they understand.

I begin the song…

“bless my heart, bless my soul – I didn’t think make it to 42 years old”…I wink. The song rally says 22 – but I am way past that.

You got to holllllllld…on.

I hear them now – all their voices around me like some incredible 5 part harmony.

I resolve not to cry on stage but I have no choice.

We sing all of us there together and it feels like the choir, it feels like summer time in my kitchen at home doing the dishes with my sisters – I close my eyes and for the first time in so very long… it feels like home.

I finish the song, get off stage and breathe. Incredible.

My gratitude spills over my eyes. It looks like tears but not really – tears are for when you are sd. This is more like a necessary Soul Cleansing.

 

“so when your worlds a little funny now – you got to hold on

When times are real tough – you got to hold on

When you feeling alone – you got to hold on.

 

Oh yeah.

Namaste Sisters 🙂

Image

 

 

Butterflies For Ranger

ImageI could see my husband cringe when I dashed out of the barn with my old cat drooping in my arms.

“We’re going to the vet”, I breathed without missing a stride heading to the house.

His light little body hung limply in my arms, his nose covered in blood.

He smells like death. I thought to myself.  I know the smell of death and I am not so happy to be reacquainted with it so soon after my mother’s death.  She was a twin, he is a twin – this is too much.

I walk to the back window in the kitchen and stand in a ray of strong sunlight letting it warm us both. It’s quiet now…the panic of my mind slowed to a dull hum of just watching. I look down at him and hear his purr begin – his strong reliable purr. I could feel his breath and slowing and his heart tentative, but the purr was reliable as ever.

A rushing of keys boots, stomping, jackets rustle. The truck with half missing tail pipe begins and my husband shows up behind me;

“Ok let’s go”, He says.

I don’t want to.

I think somewhere my mind is still working it out.

He was fine yesterday. Should I be seeking treatment?

I lift the towel I have him wrapped in and look at the motionless old body. Apparently at nearly 20 Ranger has outlived us at with over 95 people years under his belt.

I climb into the truck and focus on his purr – the same one I have been listening to since I was in my 20’s. I see a flash memory of my son, small and chubby legged. He learned how to walk very young – maybe at 9 months old. It was Ranger the cat that kept him busy and chasing. As he grew, Ranger was his cat, claimed by him, loved and cherished.

He came with us when I divorced my first husband. He was there when I bought my first house, met my second husband, raised my seven kids and then finally, he was my most reliable barn cat – ensuring that no mouse ever got a taste of grain.

We are rushing to the vet, but I tell him to slow down.  I hold the cat and feel his life leaving.

“He’s going to die before we even get there”, I said softly.

Slow down.

John looks at me quizzically. Maybe I see death differently, but gauging by my experience with my mother, which has still not allowed me a full night’s reprieve from nightmares and sadness, this somehow feels gentle and calm and good.

We arrive; he goes in to check with the desk, yes there is room.

We come in and begin doing the registration process. I am ushered into an examination room. The Vet tech with the sunny smile and the bright hopeful eyes indicates to me to put him on the scale.

No”, I say simply and shortly. “He is 20. There will be no poking prodding weighing opening of the mouth or stretching of his limbs.  His body is finished.”  I smile at her hoping she doesn’t think I am cruel.

“Let’s go into another room then”, she says with an understanding smile.

We go down a white hallway to the last door to the left to the room meant for euthanasia.

“It’s just like the palliative care place for people”, I gasp as we walk in.  I wasn’t ready for that. Luckily I don’t think she understands that I am nearly angry about how adorably furnished this “euthanasia room” is.   I feel my heart tighten. I have been here or at least in a place like this much too recently to be in a place like this again this soon. It is small and cozy with two beautiful chairs, a couple of nice credenza’s and a sweet looking little table on which to do the job that room is meant for.  Why do all rooms for comforting people who are about to experience death look like this? Why the nice chairs? I almost feel a sense of anger at the chairs…stupid chairs.

She leaves me alone to consider whether or not I want a vet to poke at him or not. I hold him in my arms, he feels like one of my children when they were just newborn.  I begin to panic – second thoughts. What am I doing?  Shouldn’t we try and hydrate him, put him on special food. Maybe we can save him.

The tech returns covering the table in a comfy green cloth.

He lays in my arms, purring, not moving. Not arguing, not meowing- just happy. My questions melt away and I am filled with sureness about what the most loving action is.

I tell them to get the vet and go ahead.  Some more time passes to just be with him.  I think about all the things I didn’t do, all the time I should have spent with him. All the normal pre-death regrets I am becoming too familiar with.  I feel the shade of calm numb fall over me and we rise to complete the task that lay before us.

We are doing “the next right thing”.

She fails to find a vein in his back leg. He makes a small protesting noise, but not much. He is happy, purring drooling like old cats do.

She finds the vein and says something about going to a place with butterflies.  I could tell she used this line often and with good intention to console the humans letting their animals friends go.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that he would be enjoying any poor butterflies that entered his purview as this was his favourite snack food.

There is a stillness that is distinctly a feeling of death. It is like a leaving of life energy. You don’t have to be psychic or believe in anything to feel the difference of when something is alive and when its aliveness has left the body. As his body became still I took a moment to feel the difference between the aliveness and the emptiness that accompanies death and then I took a breath.

A deep alive breath filled with gratitude and deep sadness.  I missed all of my dead loved ones at once. My dogs, cats, horses, parents, grandparents. Mostly I missed my mother because she would be on the receiving end to help him, but selfishly I could have really used her here with me today, and yesterday…and the day before.

I say a prayer in the hopes that everyone I love is somehow together somewhere just waiting for me laughing and happy around a giant picnic table a red and white checkered print table cloth and delicious food in a field with apple trees and delicious green grass.  All our animals since forever in the field grazing, running,  playing –  happy and free…with one funny little grey cat busy eating up all of heaven’s butterflies.

THIS OLD TREE

TREEThere is a dead tree outside my window where I write. I watch it each day. For something that has probably been dead longer than it was alive, it’s a very busy place.

I have watched this tree now for more than half a decade and it only amazes me more each season. Happily I have now placed my writing desk at the window and face it each day. It gives me continuous inspiration or just an interesting place to look. This tree, which seems to be standing against all odds is a focal point for new life around here.  Each year quite reliably, different creatures take their places in the tree and begin a new season of aliveness. Although the center is now blackened with rot, it teems with insects that feed on its fermenting flesh and grow healthy. This in turn feeds the three kinds of woodpeckers I have seen. They only come out of hiding when the sun stays in the sky longer, so seeing them is a really good sign after a long hard winter.

There is a nearly indescribable feeling of aliveness to the spring in Canada. The kind if freshness that doesn’t exist in tropical climates where plant life and greenery get a “used up” look from constant exposure to the blazing hot sun. Here, everything gets  a period of rest – quiet; a natural downtime. The, when the sun finds its equinox and starts to extend the days you can feel everything around yawning and stretching after the most amazing rejuvenating nap. I love spring. Hope is fresh in the air, like a wonderful perfume you want to just pour all over yourself.  Something longed for is being shaken loose and it is a great relief to know it will come finally.

In my world it is that dead tree that I wait for every year.  The one that my husband has threatened to cut down now for three years but knows that I would have to chain myself to if he does. I have watched how the dead bark and concave rotted trunk, knotted and blackened with age, changes shapes creating a new story to add-on to every year. In march it begins quickly and continues to erupt all summer in a splendid display of life. It is better than T.V. when you’re sitting on my front porch and it is as reliable as anything can possibly be every year no matter how hard the winter is.

Squirrels live in the hole on the right; the deep one where they can nest their babies safely not needing to risk them falling from a tree in the vapid spring winds.  They seem to usually have 2-3 babies. Chipmunks use it as a launching pad to get to the oak tree whose branches are too high for their little legs to reach. Plus with all of our talented mousing cats, no chipmunk wants to find himself on the ground as a moving buffet.

A couple of years ago I noticed that amazingly a brand new tree has somehow managed to grow and entwine itself within the center of the old dead tree, completed embedded, like an arboreal soul-mate I suppose. It seems to be giving it new life, new purpose and a reason to stay standing. A good reminder of the continuity of life for me in any season.

The tree has only three large main branches reaching. One standing straight up from the middle like the upturned face of a norse god. Then two branches that look like arms extending outwards like a scarecrow reaching right and left with fingers outstretched.  Chipped white at the edges from the constant chiseling of the woodpeckers that delight in the millions of bugs that have taken refuge in the soft white wood. We think it may have been a maple at one time.   On close inspection of the white wood, you can see the artistic impacts that the woodpeckers beaks have made, in shapes of beautiful intricate random mazes and lines all interlaced with the markings of the red ants that like to nest in an orderly and fastidious fashion. It is natural art.

The Blue Jays also come in the early spring eager to take the highest branch position.  Perched high atop the rest of the inhabitants of the tree, they are naturally “top-dog” (please excuse the inappropriate metaphor – dogs would fall out of the tree.) In this way, the evil little birds are able to see, pick and choose, plan and connive whatever they would like on their menus for the day. Small birds, sweet little field mice or baby moles are all fodder for their cannibalistic menu. They remind me of  our politicians.    They are voracious predators and are my least favourite visitors. I call them  terrorists of the bird world.

When I was about twelve years old Blue jays gave me my first experience of death. As I rode in a riding lesson in a cold damp arena one spring, two screeching Blue Jays swooped in the big open back door of the arena, causing our horses to stop suddenly and pay attention. I watched helplessly as they flew to a small sparrows nest and landed pecking at the new babies within. I watched the frantic sparrow mother diving in again and again to try to save her babies but was forcefully rebuked by the large beaked bright blue birds. The nest fell to the ground from the roof of the arena and the babies were launched to the soft sandy ground almost featherless and so still. I dismounted and held my breath. I kept expecting them to move. My coach told me that it was better that they were dead – they would not have survived without their mother and she would abandon the nest now that it had been invaded. I never thought about death until this first experience and I don’t think I have really stopped since.

I have a project idea for my dead tree. I always imagined a faerie door in the big rotted knot at the bottom of the stumpy old tree. It is shaped perfectly and would be like a small Hobbit door, with a rounded top and a small window so the light can come in.  Faeries don’t like living in the dark all the time, you know.  I would paint it green and blue with gold glitter just in case they like that sort of thing.  I think making your house hospitable for Faeries to come and protect your children, animals and garden is a very wise idea, don’t you?  It wasn’t my idea of course – I am only following the lead of thousands of cultures and centuries of stories and myths that came before even this old tree.

Anyways, what can it hurt?

After all this introspection I notice something amazing and new!  Somehow over the winter the bottom of the tree has eroded away into the shape of an angel; her sideways view, looking down almost reverently at the ground, as though blessing it in some way – or maybe pondering it?tree angel

If we give something our full attention isn’t that the same thing as blessing it – in a way?

I notice her sweet little wing is perched atop her shoulders like a leaf, and her hands are at her sides, resting peacefully.

I imagine that she is waiting for the time when the squirrels will come to have their babies and the Blue Jays will take their place in the beautiful mess of it all.

MUSIC FROM THE INSIDE – PART 1

ImageInternational Women’s Day came in a flurry of activity for many talented Monteral female musicians yesterday with the celebration of women’s blues music at bistro a Jojo on St. Denis street.

It was a nostalgic night for me and my band SoulFusion. I couldn’t help but reflect on our 14 years as a band and how we have come from playing the legion in lake of Two Mountains with a bunch of friends to 14 years later standing on a (small) but well known stage – in the legendary House of Blues of Montreal.  I guess everyone has certain benchmarks that let them know they are accomplishing something or moving forward in the work that they do, and Jojo’s was really that for me. 

Maybe I was naïve but I had no idea that the music scene was so difficult for women to break into until I really made the “big decision” to make creating music my life’s work a few years ago after completing my first job of raising my kids.  This is admittedly questionable act of sanity for anyone because we all well know that making a living as a musician is what gave the world the saying “starving artist”. 

Musicians come in all different forms;  We are housewives and executives, young and old, male and female, and doctors and lawyers.  Our reasons for playing all stem from the same place – a musician is not happy unless they are making music.

There are several tiers of entry into the music community the way I see it:

 First – you have an obsessive passion for it from childhood.  This is a requisite.  I have yet to meet someone that says they picked it up at 30 and just really liked music. Nope…musicians are born that way.

The second level is going through your early years and doing everthing else BUT music.  Most of our parents were quick to let us know that music could be a avocation that lends itself to pleasant weekend forways into the world of riffs and pedals, but it couldn’t be the thing you do Monday to Friday.  Not in the “real world”.

After you stop listening to your parents and If you’re lucky, you hook up with people who have a serious concern for the quality of music. This I believe is the secret to success – the absolute love and determination to make amazing music.  I have met other musicians who try and focus on money (ironic since there is so little of it), marketing image,  the bookings, the business, the logo,the presentation, the make up – the outside.  But what separates the men from the boys (and women from girls :))  is their ability to expose their guts every time they play. Pursuing an artistic career demands a deeper concern – an inward vision.  Not surprisingly,  the ones that last – the ones that make an impression and stick around forever and become the essence of blues –  are the musicians who put the music first and who recognize that at the end of the day, with a light pocket and a smile on their face if they made good music that night and people felt good, it was all worth it.

Being a good music isn’t enough though.  To be a real success in music – you need friends.  The people who come to watch your band regularly become like an extended family.  This is a really awesome thing – they come out in snow storms and rainy days, they drive far and wide to make sure they are there for you, camera ready front row. They are the loving faces you concentrate on when the night is hard and the room feels like its full of angry strangers.  Occassionally we invite folks up to sing with us, and the smiles and feeling of good that comes from making dreams like that cmoe true is just beyond explanation.

The final entry point is when you start competing for gigs with other worthy and talented musicians. You are the “new kid on the block…and the block is really small. And as much as we may all be a ‘family” once all the entry level requirements are completed… if you are new to the circuit, it takes a complete pushing aside of your personal ego and agenda – again staying focused on making the best music possible. A little bit of “trial by fire…” I’d say. But again, it’s all part of the game and even that part is not so bad if you’re smart about it and stay focused on the quality of your music.

I had an “old timer” tell me once;

“Montreal is a small pond with allot fo little fish. You’re a little fish”. 

 At that moment I must admit I felt like a minnow…

But even with a punctured ego – a musician is more interested in playing music than in winning friends.

The best day comes when you start contacting potential gigs in places like reknown blues houses and establishements where the lovers of music (our favourite people) come together to share and exchange this passion and they want you because they heard you make good music – I must admit there is no better pay check than this.

The music world extends far and cuts through many different artistic talents and I have to give credit to our artistic cousins the photographers that join us, very often taking photos for free to encourage the musicians and be part of that community of fellowship. The videographers, managers, bookers, waitresses, bartenders and sound technicians are all an integral part of the community created around a band; what a wonderful job we have.

 Maybe in other business there is some kind of sense of fellowship. I lived in “that world” for a long time working in sales as a mom, a high school teacher and University for many years.  I can assure you that in no other business will you find a fierce surrounding of each other and protectiveness and a sincere love for what we each bring to the stage no matter our professional differences. When you play music with someone there is an intimacy and an exchange of somethign very difficult to describe. It is like raw sex –  and is at its very essence substantially human. 

 Since my mother died in the fall I have experienced waves of tremendous grief. Music has become so much more to me than a hobby or a job. Of course, life had to go on but unlike other jobs, when you are having a “bad day at work”  and you are a musician, you are having a bad day in front of 200 people.  As grief tends to go, sometimes I would pass through twelve different emotions at a time. Even though confusion and sadness marred my ability to do many things in my life, music was the one thing that kept my feet down and moving forward.  Because I am a singer when I perform it’s almost like a meditaton for me. I become centered and focused and I know that whereever my voice takes me, my band will be there to catch the end and bring me ack to the song.  There is no thinking or analysis or planning to this – it’s what good musicians do. I cannot express my gratitude enough for this in my life.

Music is my work, passion, therapy, community and family.

Thank you montreal musicians for letting me share your world. My life is magical because of you.

 Peace

 

Josee

Image