Somewhere in the middle of a story well told, you begin to feel seen. Like someone has heard the secrets you locked away deep in the dark. You are seen. Known.
I love the act of bringing things to life. I love the idea that something I had a hand in creating could have the potential to make others feel they way I have felt. Seen. Known.
But why wait to feel that way until the song is finished? Couldn’t we feel that way throughout the process, if we work alongside each other to create it? Let’s see, I thought. Maybe we can learn something about that in 2020, the Year of Collaboration. And thus this blog, and the Virtu-Haiku Milieu concert, were born.
Rachel Drew wrote a beautiful song for the 4/24 Virtu-Haiku Milieu: https://youtu.be/mbhPt4BnEYE.
I met Rachel over the course of years through fellow artists and mutual friends, first around The Old Town School of Folk Music. She was hard to miss: her voice, her presence, her sense of humor.
Fast forward to today. She has many projects worthy of your attention: The Rachel Drew Band, Dowd and Drew, and The Imperial Sound, just to name a few. She subbed in with Naomi and me at a Zimmerman show that happened this time last year, when I took this photo of her at FitzGerald's.
Her adventurousness is legendary. She collaborates with the best of the best in live performance. There’s no genre she hasn’t mastered, no venue she’s left unexplored, and best of all…no boundaries around the topics she’s tapped for songwriting. In just one example, she tossed off a song a few years ago about losing her cell phone that was brilliant. Brilliant, and TOSSED OFF. Though she barely remembers it, it lives in my imagination.
I have loved hearing her talk about her songwriting process, and hope you enjoy her thoughts on collaboration. She says some very nice things about me at the top, which you can skip past. Or not. Either way, I am blushing. :)
With no further ado, Rachel Drew:
“I think no one can deny that Jenny Bienemann is a very special human. I've overheard more than one person casually comparing Jenny to various divine creatures, and it's never a surprise or too much. I think we all wonder if Jenny is actually magical. I know I wonder. Whatever the case, she truly makes the world a better place with her creativity, generosity, depth and dedication as an artist. She's as graceful and powerful in her community building and friendship. [Editor: blush.]
When Jenny wrote in January revealing the nature of the next Haiku Milieu show, asking whether I would want to be part of it, I honestly was not sure how to approach writing in collaboration. I'd written songs to the poetry of dead poets, or had my lyrics set to melodies by other songwriters, but I'd never written WITH someone.
For me, writing is a very solitary thing. Melodies and music spring into my head or a feeling wells up in such a way that it's clear that a song is coming, or occasionally, a phrase drops or hits in such a way that I am compelled to write it down, and this leads to more--and then I'll seek the quietest and most alone place I can, to work out as much as I can before the feeling ends, or until the song is done. But always alone.
Jenny asked whether I'd be interested specifically in writing a song with Jodi Pulick Walker. I love Jodi, love her voice and music, and really loved the idea of it, the spirit of it, but I honestly worried whether I'm a person that would be able to write with anyone, particularly someone with whom I'd not worked much. How would we know how to work together? Eventually I realized that trying was the point. Expanding what I do and how I do it could only be good. But I still didn't know if I could.
Jodi and I planned to get together. I had a lot of gigs (which feels so eerie to type at this point, two months into quarantine...I look at gigs from a year ago and wonder how any of that was possible), then got very sick at the end of January, and very busy in February. Finally, at the very end of February, on the very last day of this leap year, we got together.
The truth is, I had not been writing much as of late. I have never been one to sit down and write when I'm not inspired to start. I used to just bump into songs hanging in the air. That's how it felt, anyway. They'd come faster than I could write them down. I'd be doing something, get up, and walk smack-dab into a cloud where a song lived. Then I'd scoop the song out of the air into my hands. But I've been too busy, and I haven't been hearing my own thoughts as loudly. So beyond writing with Jodi or collaborating with anyone, and beyond writing for this show, a part of me was really wondering how I would ever get back to writing in a regular way.
That last day of February, I drove over to Jodi's house a bit nervous, gripping my guitar and Haiku Milieu book. Jodi is wonderful. She beams life and hope and goodness. She's a hands-on healer. I'm going to quote from Jodi's bio now. "Jodi is a speech-language pathologist and certified orofacial myologist with 25 years of experience working with children and adults. She is certified yoga instructor." So on a daily basis, Jodi helps folks that are experiencing issues with communication. I hadn't considered that Jodi's day job as a healer would be a factor in the ease of working with her, but I think it was.
There we were in Jodi's therapy room surrounded by therapeutic kid art. It all felt really safe. It was clear that no matter what happened, it would all be ok. She may have even said that. We decided to compare which of Jenny's haikus we were thinking about picking for inspiration. Jodi suggested a few. I suggested one, but I really wasn't attached to doing that one. We then decided to free-write to a couple of her picks and my one, one by one. Separately but side by side. Jodi set a timer for the three sessions. After each free-write session, we traded notebooks and read what the other one wrote, using highlighters to mark what stood out to us. I should add that I forgot to bring paper or pen, which perhaps says a lot about my actual unreadiness. Jodi offered many pens and gave me one of her daughter's old school notebooks, half-filled with social studies notes, which also felt incredibly safe...like there was no way to mess up the notebook.
As we sat and wrote, I was trying to not think critically about what I wrote. I was only trying to just keep the pen moving. I could hear Jodi's pen moving, our breathing, and somehow words began pouring out. As we traded notebooks to read the other's writing, I did worry each time that what I wrote was drivel, but it wasn't like that. We each wrote thoughts that could easily turn into lyrics, with phrases that stood out. What surprised me was how words do pour out in a musical way, even without a distinct musical inspiration. Could I do this every day? I've always thought music was the easy part, the thing that starts it all, and that lyrics are hard for me. This session helped me to let go of some of that.
Of course Jodi and I would still need to whittle down to one haiku as inspiration, put ideas together, and set it to music. We decided to meet again soon. By the time we were ready to get together again, quarantine was beginning in earnest. We talked about finishing via zoom, but things got more hectic as we adjusted to quarantine (doing our jobs remotely and home-schooling our kids, finding tp, etc), and then I got sick. We wound up finishing our songs separately, but to the same haiku.
I truly don't remember which of us picked this one, but it doesn't matter. It spoke to us both. What we began together became two separate songs, and I am so grateful for the journey. I've been writing much more easily in quarantine, hearing songs faster than I can write them, and the exercise of writing with Jodi was so helpful in getting going. It was exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it.
Here's the haiku:
Some doors need to close
No matter how much you wish
They could stay open
It is hard to let go of what we have and where we are. I write this on Mother's Day. I have two sons and recall that both times I was pregnant, the experience was so intense and all-encompassing, it was hard to imagine not being pregnant. Intellectually, I knew it would end. But I felt that my very being was pregnant, and that I would somehow always be in that state.
But these things do end. When I am not pregnant, it's very hard to imagine that I ever was. Everything is like that. It's hard to imagine my kids not being around ALL THE TIME right now, though I know that someday, and not long from now, they'll both be off on their own. Sometimes we don't want things to end, and even when we do want a situation to end, when it is intensely present, it's hard to imagine how it can end.
Friends, this situation we're in right now would have been impossible to imagine last year. Right now, it's so hard to imagine "normal times." We are IN IT right now. But someday, and hopefully soon (but not unreasonably soon), this current situation will be hard to imagine, too. Good or bad, it all ends. Sending so much love to you and yours.” – Rachel Drew