The Process, Community, and Themes of My New Record
Over the past couple years I’ve been busy working on my first full length solo album tentatively titled “Breaking Shadows”. This piece is a bit about my process, the themes of the record, and the community that has developed around the project in both the USA and in Europe.
MY SONGWRITING & RECORDING PROCESS
The creative process is not linear, yet it does occur in linear time. For me, it begins in deep solitude but is manifested in community. It is a chaos of personal alchemy; a kaleidoscope of ideas, emotions, and sounds twisting through societal context. Once the mosaic of that kaleidoscope comes into focus, I assess if the manifested material is simply exercise for my creative endurance or if it is worthy of outside ears and eyes: if it is actually a work of art. If it is worthy of bringing to the public I will take it out of my cocoon of creative solitude where I crack open and into the space of creative community, onto the stage and into the recording studio where the material becomes a conversation.
Almost every morning I free write, sing, play guitar or keys, and practice dance or yoga. I share some of this daily practice on social media through my #MorningPages which I’m grateful to know have become meaningful to many people. My morning creative practice is in artistic craft, and keeps me polished for sure, but in many ways it is also my spiritual practice. It helps me to be a healthy, balanced person; to be a positive member of society when I walk out my door. At night I often pick up an instrument and either practice songs, both my own and covers, or compose new ones. Rarely do I sit down and write something from a mental place. I mostly let the themes of songs pursue me, then open myself to articulating the poetry and sounds that are stirred to the surface. Sometimes the process of articulation is complete in a couple of hours. Often I spend days, or even months, contemplating the themes and lyrics in the background of my life before a song feels fully finished. Some songs tell me how to complete them years after their inception. Over the last few years I’ve written increasing vulnerable songs about my experiences of complex relationships —both societal and personal— of betrayal, violation, longing, addiction and self realization. The result is my first full-length solo album tentatively titled BREAKING SHADOWS.
THE TIME LINE
In late 2015 I invested in a sample drum pad. At the time I had about a dozen new songs that were fully written, but I wanted to arrange them with more than a guitar, so I’d know how to move forward with recording them properly. The sample pad was the final piece of gear I needed to have all the basic instruments of a band packed into my small apartment in Koreatown in Los Angeles. I started playing around with a bunch of new melodic and rhythmic ideas. It’s important to me that my music can be played stripped down on one instrument and without electricity, but I in their full articulation I hear my arrangements with a full band and sound design. My goal in tinkering around in my home lab was to get good enough on all these instruments to fully articulate my musical ideas to musicians and producers before going into the studio to record my next project. While recording my first EP “Deeper Than Skin,” I learned that studio time is expensive and having a clear roadmap both saves time and creates clarity for musical ideas.
cocoon of creative solitude
where I crack open….
My composer’s ear is rather particular. In the spirit of my jazz training I want to leave space for the magic of impulses that arise from skilled musicians, but I also know what I hear in my inner ear and I want to hear that on the outside as well. It’s a very kinesthetic thing for me, probably because I grew up dancing professionally. A melody or a rhythm will develop from an impulse in my body before it articulates in sound. Sometimes I’m conscious of finding the route from impulse to sound, other times it’s more organic and I am only made aware of it when I feel a sound, melody, or movement is missing. I’ve been known to lay down small instrumental parts that were on my original demos even after sessions with a full band, to make sure that all the pieces of the composition I feel in my body are present in the final arrangement. Accomplished musicians always bring elevated dimensions to a composition, but they don’t always latch onto the same melodic ideas that I feel are imperative for the feeling and meaning of a song to be complete.
In 2016 I was deep in my feelings and super anti-social. I was meditating on misogyny, racism, religion, and the complexities of romance with sensitive men who themselves confront these historical demons, though often simultaneously run from them. I became pretty reclusive. After long shifts as a massage therapist at two different wellness centers, I would come home and pick up conversations with instruments and lyric. I began demoing and arranging a mess of songs. A few were older tunes, many were brand new. I recorded in the program Logic and played all the instruments; guitar, vocals, keys, bass, drum pad and digital horns.
As is common with my work the themes were centered around resisting toxic patriarchy; on the politics of love and systems of power. But there was a deeper vulnerability and directness in this collection. For the first time many of my songs actually fit together as a cohesive project, as an album. A number of songs did not make the cut for BREAKING SHADOWS. Some were more “process songs” than pieces worthy of public conversation. Others didn’t fit the vibe or themes of the project. A couple songs on the album developed out of lyric ideas that needed to be present on the record to complete the themes and messages.
During my demo process I met drummer Ivan Edwards at the House Of Vibe jam session who recommended I work with producer and studio owner Lynne Earls. Lynne and I met up in early 2017 and planned to start working together that summer. Lynne has been an engineer and producer for many years and has a solid network of amazing musicians. She called in some wonderful session players. We started with two songs, but it soon turned into four. Working with Lynne was extremely rewarding. It’s unusual and exhilarating to work with an accomplished woman in the studio, but more than that, Lynne’s skills and experience taught me a ton about effective ways to work in the studio and to realize my vision. Working with her has made me a better artist and co-producer of my music.
“Working with Lynne was extremely rewarding.
It’s unusual and exhilarating to work with an accomplished woman in the studio.”
photos: me warming up, Shaunte Palmer recording pocket trombone, Lynne controlling her board.
In spring of 2017, before working with Lynne, I traveled to England to do a short run of my solo theater show HOMELESS IN HOMELAND. Afterwards I headed to Berlin, where I did a small poetry-music performance at Berlin Spoken Word booked by E. Amato, a former producer of my theater show. I was struck by the arts and music culture in Berlin, by the strong yet ever shifting community. By groups like Berlin Writers who support each other’s projects and process with enthusiasm and potlucks. It was encouraging to realize the ease of booking shows in Europe, coupled with the deep appreciation audiences give to artists. In particular I was excited by the fairly new live music scene; specifically the jazz-soul-hip hop scene and the revival of klezmer —eastern European Jewish music. Bringing together the vibes of soul and hip-hop with klezmer overtones had been a reoccurring theme in my compositions. Honoring both my studied influences and my inherited roots is really important to me. But finding the right musicians in Los Angeles to create this fusion had been a challenge. So I planned to return to Berlin.
In early 2018, after finishing the first four songs of BREAKING SHADOWS with Lynne, I returned to Berlin to play a few small concerts and explore some possibilities for future work. I managed to pull together some great musicians from THE SWAG Jam—a weekly hip hop/R&B cypher with a live band—and Klezmer Sessions Neukölln, to record one of my previously demoed songs. We recorded at a studio and co-working/event space called Noize Fabrik who’s staff became a new artistic family for me. It was there that I met Rita Senhor, a young artist and producer from Porto Portugal who I started working with on another one of my songs. I also developed a friendship with the Berlin based poet/rapper Cedric Till, who introduced me to recording and mixing engineer Andy Schlegel. Andy and I have been developing a strong working relationship and I plan to return to finish a few more songs in Berlin.
Recording at Noize Fabrik with THE SWAG & Christian Dawid from Klezmer Sessions Neukölln.
I’m extremely grateful for the music community I’ve started building as a result of this project, in Berlin, Portugal and also back in Los Angeles. As a result of the work I did in Berlin —coupled with my friendship with Brooklyn based hip hop artist Dyalekt— I’ve deepened relationships with musicians in Los Angeles who will be part of the next stage of this recording process. I also plan to return to Berlin and Porto to finish collaborations in those cities. One of the personal lessons of this project has been to stay in motion, both creatively and physically. This project has taken me to deeper places of creative vulnerability and skill, across oceans, and into new positions of leadership. It has made me both a stronger artist and a better human being, a better friend. It has made me a stronger community builder. I’m starting to think that creating music is as much about building community as it is about the music itself.
“…creating music is as much about building community as it is about the music itself.”
Rita Senhor & I hanging & building in Porto Portugal.
In fall 2017 the Me Too movement hit hard, like an invisible train had smashed into a freshly polished wall of white male entitlement, and suddenly the train and the carnage from the crash were made tangible. I was not surprised. I was relieved, and like many women I was plunged into processing my own old traumas mixed with a disappointment that many people seemed stunned by the size of the train, by the number of women coming forward. And I was disappointed it took such a toxic political environment for our voices to finally be heard. A poet friend, AK Toney, asked for my thoughts on the movement. After a month of contemplating I wrote a six minute long spoken word piece called “Our Voices” in response. I released it as a video shot by Ira McAliley. Through writing that piece and having conversations with AK, I realized the album I’d been working on was about a woman’s experience of toxic patriarchy. The whole album started to come into clearer focus, the order, the necessary interludes, etc. Again, it was through community that I came to understand what I was creating.
“the Me Too movement hit hard, like an
invisible train had smashed into a freshly polished wall of white male entitlement… I was relieved and disappointed it took such a toxic political environment for our voices to finally be heard.”
The title BREAKING SHADOWS comes from my own experiences of breaking away from toxic relationships, and from fear of my own vulnerability. It incorporates my reflections on society as we slowly shake off the shadows of imbalanced patriarchy. On a personal level, I am moving past my own dark demons and into a place of fierce action, while continuously choosing joy. On a societal level I observe that humans, particularly in my birth country of the USA, are looking our demons in the face: racism, sexism, classism, the disparities of capitalism to name a few. Are we making choices on how to deal with them? Will we succumb to these grotesque shadows or will we shake them off and reveal a light of equality, creativity, and coexistence? And when is it time to hit pause on the fight and revel in the blessings of life? These are some of the questions I’ve been reflecting on.
I’m excited to finally give this music and lyric to the world. Being an artist is an offering and I am ready to offer up this material. I have recorded multiple demos of the twelve songs for this album, plus a few poetic interludes. After recording official versions of half the songs, working out of multiple studios, and doing research into proper marketing strategies, I now understand how to properly complete this project and what the costs will be. I’m delighted and encouraged by the community of musicians, friends, and fans that has formed around the project and look forward to finish recording —and do some performing— in Los Angeles, Berlin, and Portugal.
Until now, all the production costs have come out of my personal finances. I am now preparing to ask my extended community to support this work, to help cover the final recording costs and additional funds for promotion, by pre-ordering the album along with other perks offered by artists and healers in my close community. The crowdfunding campaign will launch in January 2019. During the campaign some of the material will be made available to sample. I’m super excited, nervous, and ready to move into a new stage of the journey. I do hope you will join me.
Photos by: Sadiyya Ameena, Hal Masonberg, Lynne Earls, Me, Rita Senhor, Clément Balina, Ira McAliley
Special Thanks: Jason Seigel