Category Archives: The Ragbirds

Songwriting With a Baby On My Knee

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IMG_4179My five-month-old baby, Aviva keeps me busy every moment. She also keeps me entertained, inspired, awe-struck, and speechless. I am a songwriter, learning who I am all over again now in the light of having become a mother. Still I am no less a songwriter now than I ever was. So I am learning how to write songs all over again, in tiny increments of time, dipping my toes in the stream of inspiration without the luxury of diving in, splashing around and soaking in it. The stream is still there for me and I have developed a new appreciation for every drop of water that I draw from it, every 10-minute-nap-sized sip. Now with 5 months of practice under my belt, I am by no means an expert, but I thought I’d share a bit about what I’ve learned.

  • 1.) Much of the songwriting process requires no instrument at all. To start, all you need is an open ear, a soft heart and a way to record your ideas (like old-school pen and paper and/or a recording device like an iPhone). I’m learning to listen in silence to find the tune and to think through what I’m really trying to say. I like to start the day with a journal entry while I nurse the baby to check in and see where my heart wants to go. Often my mood and subject of focus will direct me to work on a particular song. While I’m rocking, nursing, diapering, whatever, I can be thinking, dreaming, humming, imagining. . . (always recording each step because my memory is a little looser than it used to be ; )
  • 2.) Singing acapella makes your melody really strong, because you are not burying or masking it with instrumental riffs, chord changes, and musical tricks. When it’s bare you can tell if you really love to sing it. That’s when you know you are on to something great.
  • 3.) Babies love to be sung to. Writing songs is a natural daily occurrence for even the least musically-inclined new mom. There is something instinctual about singing to a baby in those private, cuddly-babbly moments, and there are always reasons to sing: good morning songs (yes, even though it’s 6am), bath-time songs, fifth-outfit-change-of-the-day songs, desperate lullabies, etc. Nonsense words work as good as any real ones and you have the most captive and appreciate audience you will ever have. I’m not saying that the songs you sing about stinky-pants are going to become hits, but the songwriting wheels are greased and rolling. Now you just have to get your mind out of goo-goo-ga-ga and remember what your own heart wants to really say. (see #1)
  • 4.) Great achievements can be accomplished in small increments. (Just look at all the exercise DVDs marketed to busy moms that boast an enviable body in only 10 minutes a day.) It’s the same principle here, really. Flex those songwriting muscles often, stretch your rhyme legs, keep your vocals loose and light. It’s much easier to give yourself 10 minutes for a free-writing exercise than to wait till you have a few hours alone in a quiet room (which may never happen again in your life). Learning to use those small increments wisely is the part that takes discipline and creativity.
  • 5.) Write like it’s your job. Songwriting is often the first thing to be bumped off my to-do list. (If this sounds like you too, I highly recommend the book “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield) The trick is to keep bringing your mind back to the song throughout the day and not just be distracted by the endless laundry, “urgent” emails and the always-available electronic candy all around (Facebook, television, etc). Do what needs to be done, but keep coming back to the song.
  • 6.) Seek out inspiration for a kick-start. As I mentioned in #2, babies love music. So put on some great music and listen deeply while you dance around with the baby. (this is a good way to get you that enviable body mentioned in #4 too) Listen to songwriters who inspire you to write, and who set the bar high, who blow your mind with great lyrics and make your heart ache with their melodies. Challenge yourself to improve your artistry by surrounding yourself with great art.
  • 7.) Give baby full and focused attention first so she’s happy, then she will be more likely to let you work for a few minutes here and there because she feels secure and loved. (We like to do mommy and baby yoga together which is a win-win because it puts me in the right head-space to write and makes her feel like I am wrapped around her finger, which I am.)

Songwriter moms and dads, please feel free to add your own tips and discoveries in the comments section!

If you’re in the Ann Arbor area and you’d like to explore the songwriting process with me, sign up for my upcoming class – Mondays in March at Oz’s Music Environment.  For info:  https://www.facebook.com/events/516746251757894/

Mother-In-Training

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I’ve been a mother-in-training my whole life.

Of course much of what I’ve learned about motherhood comes from my own mother.  (that’s her, pictured above, at my baby shower)  She is the angelic type – self-sacrificing, gentle, humble (almost to a fault) – wise and always seeking wisdom from higher sources. (She is a prayer-warrior and like me, she’s a self-professed “self-help junkie”)  She’s hacked her way through a pretty straight and upright path, which I find my own feet wanting to follow, however more clumsily and meandering.

Over the last 9 months I’ve gotten so much parenting advice from friends, family, in-laws, strangers.  Pets are like “parenting 101” and nieces/nephews are like “dress rehearsal”.  But I believe we are often taught our most important lessons in the most unexpected places – like the Karate Kid learning to wax cars.  I was talking with a friend recently about motherhood and I kept going back to this thought – there are so many things I’ve learned on tour with my band that I believe were actually disguised lessons in motherhood.

Here’s a list of some of them:

-The show must go on.  (The great cliché of a performer’s life.)  This one may be obvious, but I have truly had to power through some ridiculously difficult situations over the years– and not just get through – but put on a show regardless. I’ve had to smile and perform through physical ailments (bronchitis, strep-throat, many sinus infections, a killer hangover or two, PMS, and most recently: pregnancy), practical distractions (major sound problems, bug-swallowing, inclement weather), and the deepest kinds of challenges (emotional train-wrecks, worrisome news, and even the death of a loved-one).  Each experience gave me a glimpse into my own well to see just how deep it goes.  I have no doubt that I will have to draw deeply from this well many times as a mother and trust that I will have the resources I need to get through any trials that will inevitably come.

-Never fight in front of the audience.  Believe it or not, relationships are not always easy to manage when you’re sharing a tiny space with lots of people for long, uncomfortable periods of time, often with less then ideal sleep and nutrition.  (That actually sounds like it might have been practice for the first few weeks with a newborn!)  But whatever comes up, the rule is that arguments have to stay in the green room.  Once you hit the stage, the switches must flip to “show” mode.  I am grateful that my parents did not fight in front of my brothers and I, so I am determined to keep any grown-up disagreements back-stage as well.

Make a set list, but feel out the crowd.  When stepping onto the stage you have to have a plan, but you can’t hold too tightly too it.  A live performance is full of living, shifting energy; the dynamic of the night is unpredictable.  A performer has to be ready to add or cut songs with a swift decision and change gears based on the crowd’s reaction (or lack of reaction). It seems that planning my daily life with a babe in arms will require a similar willingness and ability to turn on a dime.  Learning to read and respond to the mood and needs of my baby will require these same skills: keen observation and quick decisions.

-Be prepared to improvise.  In general, this may be the most important lesson I’ve learned:  how to be flexible.  Growing up I was painfully shy – a Type-A planner; a classically trained, eyes-glued-to-the-music performer.  I liked rules and schedules.  While I’m no free-jazz artist now, my very nature has changed to become more liquid because of the life I have chosen. Improvisation requires you to be caught up completely in the moment, responding to the chord changes and beat, ever shifting, creating, and listening.  In the bridge of the song I wrote for my mother (Tomorrow River) I wrote: “There is a way a mother bends to take any necessary shape” – This is the flexibility that is required for motherhood. The music itself has taught me both how to trust and how to surrender.

-A smile and a dance can distract from many a mistake.  I’m talking about putting on a show – creating memories, having fun.  When you stand at the microphone you have the power to set the tone of the night.  A mother can set the mood of the whole house – good or bad.  A smile is contagious. I always have to remind myself that this is not about perfection – no one is counting the wrong notes, the missed cues, the questionable decisions.  Kids and audiences alike want to be distracted.  They want to believe in the magic of the show, the healing power of a kiss to their “boo boo” – they want to know that they are in good hands and everything will be ok.

-It takes a team.  I’ve learned to truly count on my band mates, manager, booking agency, interns, merch attendants and street teamers – not because they don’t ever let me down, but because I need them.  We need each other.  Putting together a traveling show, running a pop-up marketplace and marketing a small business is a lot of work.  I don’t know why it took me so long to learn to delegate, but I’m glad I’ve finally figured it out.  I’m glad that I am getting better at asking for help and also better at trusting people to do their jobs so I can just focus on my own.  Sometimes that means letting those tasks get accomplished with less of the finer details.  I think of parents letting their kids “help” with chores around the house, mothers letting their husbands do the laundry (at the risk of a few shrunken sweaters)  The key to this whole system working is letting go.

All of this is not to say that I feel prepared to be a mother exactly.  Though my childless days are numbered (likely down to the single-digits), I can’t help but feel that my training isn’t going to end the moment I hear my baby’s cry.   Instead, I’m certain that I have much yet to learn, and I welcome those lessons wherever they come from.

Planning the Un-plannable

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There is a black hole on my calendar where there once were lines and numbers.  The neat little boxes continue marching forward on the other side, innocently numbered and penciled with plans.  Each day pushes me one day closer to that gaping mystery between here and the rest of my life.  I have come to the edge of something new: two blank white months that can’t be predicted or planned, and a life beyond it that will be forever different.

This life that I have come to know and understand is quite unlike most lifestyles.  To be on the road for a living is to be a professional improvisational artist.  You have to roll with the punches, read between the lines, work hard through illness, storm and trouble and sleep whenever and wherever you can get it.  But there is a shape and a rhythm to it, and every day has a schedule.  Dates are booked, contracts drawn, maps consulted.

After today, there is only one more show booked before the break we’re calling a “maternity leave”.  I’ve come to the last rung on the monkey bars and there’s nothing to do but drop.  And wait.

During this “maternity leave” I have lots of ideas about what to do with my time while I’m waiting for the baby to be born.  I am not worried about being bored.  My intentions include songwriting, practicing, quilt-making, cleaning and organizing, self-nurturing, spending time alone with my husband, visiting family, and hanging out with friends. It’s exciting and terrifying to have time on my hands, just as it’s exciting and terrifying that this baby can choose to arrive at any time.

It’s those dates that march forward beyond the baby’s birthday in a never-ending line – those days ahead when I will forget what life was like before this new person arrived in my world – days full of learning and constant wonder and love deeper than I have ever known – those are the days that I can’t comprehend from my current position.  Yet, I am required to fill them in with my dumb little pencil as if I know anything.  Everybody asks me – what are you going to do?  So, I am making plans.  I am planning the days based on the only life I know, knowing that I am either choosing wisely or laying traps for my future self to learn from the pitfalls.  With prayer and humility, together with our band mates, management and booking agency, my husband and I are planning our “Brave New Baby” tour.

The plan requires something we don’t yet have, which is a vehicle to get there.  We have been searching for a long time, but haven’t been able to afford the kind of wheels we really need to make this traveling family lifestyle work in a safe and environmentally-friendly way.  So we are casting our line of hope out into the world with a new Kickstarter campaign (from now till August 18th) to help us raise money to buy what we need for those un-plannable days ahead.  We’re exercising our muscles of faith and trust.  We’re giving up the reigns, believing that good things are ahead, a good God is watching over us and good people are willing to help.  It would be harder to believe if it hadn’t been the story of our lives so far.

Ragbirds Halloween Tour Video

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In celebration of Halloween this year, The Ragbirds played three shows in costumes that I made out of mostly recycled materials.  Drawing from childhood nostalgia, the band chose Fraggle Rock as the costume theme.  I started with a thrift store spree, buying fuzzy pillows, scarves, bathrobes, blankets and 6 baseball helmets.  Then I visited my favorite Ann Arbor craft store The Scrap Box, for fabric remnants and various details (like eyeballs, felt and yarn).  Piecing the heads together by eye, the Fraggles took shape.

I put together this video to highlight the first two weeks of our 2012 Fall Tour “The Halloween Leg”.  Enjoy!

Slip Sliding “Happiness Project” #10

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We crawled up the fat belly of the Ozarks at twilight, listening to the reckless, stompy singalongs of native sons, Mountain Sprout, just to catch the mood. The fog thickened as the winding road took us higher and closer to Yonder Mountain Harvest Fest.

I was wrestling my own heart and having a hard time taking my own advice. (“two minds made up, both belong to me…”) Upon arriving, the rain had already turned every step to thick mud and I was stuck in it from the start, spinning my wheels. (this happened both literally and figuratively). My inner vision was as foggy as the horizon.

Moments like this always make me wonder – am I mimicking the environment or is it mimicking me? Am I manifesting this weather or is the weather stirring up my personal storm? Or is it all unrelated? The winds began to pick up and I shivered as I passed a car with the radio on. Paul Simon crooned, “You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away…”

So on one of the great old mountains, surrounded by ominous clouds and banjo music, I found myself slipping.
It wasn’t the weather, but I will spare you the details, as I always do when it comes to the specifics of my pity party.

Walking like a ghost, I stumbled on a young band of boys playing in a tent. I listened and I heard some wisdom carried by a warm voice, so I stayed. A lyric needled through my fog – “It’s not where you are, it’s what you find.” I felt a little lift, a sip of fresh air, and started looking outward instead of inward. Maybe I will find something.

I held on to this thought but the weather persisted. Later I was backstage (in a larger tent) getting ready to sit in with some friends. I heard the announcement that things were shutting down. The storm was gonna hit hard and fast; “40-60 mph winds”, they said; “take shelter in your vehicles”, they said. “we’re gonna have to evacuate this tent”, they said. I had no vehicle nearby and I overheard my friends discussing how they didn’t have room in their vehicles for all the “extra” people that were there. (I was one of those “extra” people). Splosh! My heart sank.

In hindsight, it was ridiculous for me to feel so scared and lonely. It was the slip sliding that made me forget to look up and around me. God had not suddenly abandoned me to be carried away in a storm! My friends were not about to close their doors saying, “sorry! No room for you!”. How did I go from enlightened, trusting, brave and unshakable to this quivering, cowardly, frail little thing? Slip sliding.

My friend Amberlee (who was dressed up like a bee and who also didn’t have a vehicle) called me over to sit beside her on a tarp on the ground. She put her arms around me. I said, “where are we gonna go?”. She looked at me thoughtfully and said “Just be.”. I took a breath, and a moment later I realized her joke. (she said “Just BEE.”) and we both started laughing out loud. For such a cheesy pun I probably laughed too hard, but it felt good. And that’s what shook me out of my funk.

My husband Randall, drummer Loren and our friend Ryan suddenly showed up (“we found you!!”), a kind fella let us all into his RV, the storm came and passed (nothing compared to the threat), the lights came back on and the music started back up again.

I said something in my first “Happiness Project” entry about being more consistent in my practices. But consistency isn’t truly possible. The practices build a strong core that draws me back into balance when I’m out of whack. But I get by with a little help from my friends.

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-This is Amberlee, Andrew (from Wookiefoot) and I, waiting for the storm

Carrying God With Me “Happiness Project” #9

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(Day 1 of a five week long tour/ Month 2 of my “Happiness Project”)

I am a constant traveler but I don’t travel lightly. I carry God with me.

Today, once again, I am on the road and as I embark on this outer journey I am, as always, carving inward roads as well. The calendar and the map agree where this vehicle will deliver me each day. The route and the distance had been calculated before these wheels even began to roll.

I could go passively along, put my body in the seat and numb my mind with entertainment, news, or any mundane thing. I could use these captive hours of transport to keep busy – to stir the bees of ambition and let them buzz about their constant work. I could focus inwardly and mirror-gaze myself into hypnosis, for better or worse. I have done all of these things.

But I believe in change. I didn’t always, but I’m trying to keep believing that I can change. I’m practicing becoming who I am born to be. I am seeking answers in the pursuit of happiness. So I’m setting my intention for this tour (and from here forward) to draw nearer to God – to bring Him into my daily experience with mindfulness.

That is what I mean when I say I am carrying God with me. I do believe that God is always with and in and all around me. So, how do you carry the air? How do you bear the weight of God?

1) Pick Him up like a babe – Adore him.
(Worship just means paying attention – have you seen these autumn leaves?! Praise comes naturally.)

2) Put Him on like armor – Take courage, be strong and fearless, knowing all things are possible.

3) Drink His presence like medicine – Instead of whining or turning to the left and right seeking comfort in physical things, turn and look up.

4) Lift His words to the top of your mind – Elevate! Meditate! (Remember.)

5) Carry on a constant conversation – Pray like a river flowing always towards the source. (I love using The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle to keep me steady)

Like precious cargo, like a key in my pocket, like a torch, like a memory, like a tune, I am carrying God with me.

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Lucky Rhythm “Happiness Project” #7

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People often ask me about life (and love) on the road. Some say emphatically (as if it’s an obvious observation) that it must be so hard to be married on the road. Others, with the same assuredness tell me how wonderful it must be – “how lucky you are!” The reality of it is that it’s both. And I always feel lucky, even when it’s hard.

Some say, “My husband/wife and i would drive each other crazy if we were together all the time!” But we’re not really together all the time. He’s driving while I’m sitting in the far back of the van; he’s chatting with the promoter while I’m talking to fans at the merch table. Often I see him at the end of the night and ask “how was your day?”.

We meet in the middle of the music – I can always find him there.

We’re celebrating our 6th wedding anniversary today in the middle of an east coast tour. Last night at a dive pub in Hartford, CT we had a toast on stage with a shot of Cafe Patron at midnight. Today we are in the van for 4 hours on our way to Wilmington, DE for a show at World Cafe. It’s not all that romantic, but it’s nothing short of beautiful. This is the reality of love lived in the day to day and we find small ways to celebrate all the time. Today is special so we will have chocolate and champagne and our own hotel room.

These have been the best years of my life and things are getting better all the time. We are learning to love every day because we are in it for the long haul. It’s not any harder or easier than love ever is.

In honor of our anniversary I thought I’d include here the lyrics to the newest song The Ragbirds been playing lately:

“Lucky Rhythm”

Your heart’s an extraordinary drum keeping ordinary time.
What a lucky rhythm that we keep between your heart and mine.

I might lose mind trying to rhyme with a kiss
How lucky to find you are as crazy as this
You drum on my body, on the steering wheel
And I—– know exactly how you feel!

(your heart’s an extraordinary drum)

Is heaven like a hospital or is it like a parade?
Will time still keep rhythm? Will anybody count the days?
Well, it’s over my head and that’s all I can say
I feel heaven shining when that drum starts to play

(your heart’s an extraordinary drum)

“Believe It” Family Singalong (Video Blog #3)

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This is Part 3 of my Video Blog Series, featuring the song “Believe It” from The Ragbirds debut album “Yes Nearby”. After an amazing show at Larkin Square in Buffalo, NY we were hanging around my parents’ living room and I decided this would be the perfect place to have a sing-along for my video blog. So, here it is. With my band mates, my mom and dad, my cousin Chelsea and her friend Gork singing along.

Best quote from my dad: “Are we going to be Youtubians now?”

THE ALTER EGO “Happiness Project” #3

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THE ALTER EGO “Happiness Project” #4

Living a life in the public eye, to even a very small extent, gives me a sense of bettering myself for a higher purpose. If I couldn’t share my grief in a song and know that the song helped someone else who was grieving, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today. The process has strengthened me. I am not just living and reflecting on my experiences for my own benefit. I am living and sharing this life with others. People may not know the personal stories behind the songs – they don’t need to. The catharsis is in the writing and the joy is in the sharing. It is not so important to me to be understood, but to be heard is everything.

There are people hearing my songs, reading my writings, and looking at the pictures I post as I travel. Because I know that, I know that I am not on this road alone. There are even others documenting my life from the outside – the tapers, video guys, photographers, journalists, djs. They send me evidence that what I did the previous night was real – little souvenirs – images of my own face smiling, my own voice singing, my own words quoted in black and white. Sometimes the “me” that wakes up in the morning all crooked and disturbed, looks at the souvenirs of “me” from last night and is reminded – “Oh yeah! That’s really me.”

In my “Happiness Project”, I have one advantage that a non-performer doesn’t have: I have an alter ego – and that’s how I can envision (and actually practice) being the person that I want to become.

On-stage I take on the joyful, light persona of that alter ego – my best self. “Ebird” is brave, easy-going, always smiling – an ageless fairy creature out of childhood visions. She has been around the world and sings with a wisely wide perspective, songs about hope and love, songs that challenge and inspire. Don’t get me wrong – I am not pretending to be someone else. I am merely projecting the spirit of my true self through my own songs and the image that those songs suggest. Every performer does this – some more consciously than others. I am happiest on stage and so my joy comes naturally.

But it’s not “Ebird” that stays up all night working, finally coming to bed with a mind full of worries, dumping my anxieties and insecurities on my poor husband who’s trying to peacefully read a book. Out of love for him, if for no other reason, I need to get more deliberate about practicing happiness. To “Be Erin” means to “Be EBIRD” – my projected happy self. She is no less “me”. She is me, fulfilled.

“Little Things” Solo in My Backyard (Video Blog #1)

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This is the first of what will be a series of video blogs where I break down some of The Ragbirds songs and perform them solo, with stories.  Inspired by “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin I’ve been sharing my own process of the pursuit of happiness in my recent posts.  But for me happiness is intrinsically and inextricably tied to my music.   So to expand on the word pictures I will be painting in my written entries, I will also be overcoming my fear of video cameras to share some songs with you.  Enjoy!