Jenny Anne Mannan

American Songstress

Hell's Half Acre

After spending the night at Eagle RV in Thermopolis, Wyoming, we awoke on Day 4 rested, inspired, and determined to cover some serious ground.  

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Caleb sporting his clotheshorse-turned-designer brother Jacob's jacket. (The label is Mannan-Renz. Kickstarter & collection coming soon.)

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Caleb doing dad jobs.  

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The kids look ready to take on Wyoming and Nebraska, which is good cause that's what they did!  

About 20 miles in, we hit a traffic stop because a crew of mountain-crawling Cats and billeted jackhammerers was busily blasting away at some of the precariously dangling cliff-edges along the road. It looked hard. And dangerous. 

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It was impossible to complain about this view though. The road follows the Bighorn River all the way through the canyon to Boysen State Park, a happy little oasis on the bank of the Boysen Reservoire right in the heart of Wyoming. Next time we'll stay there. 

60 or so miles later, we came upon a place I had thought only existed in hyperbole. 

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You read that right. Hell's Half Acre is a real place, and this is what it looks like: 

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A 300 acre geological bathtub ring. Amazing. In the future, I will be more careful not to use the name of this natural wonder in vain. 

From here, we met up with I-25 and drove through Casper and Douglas (home of the Wyoming State Fair, at which the Bullas made many appearances) then we hopped off the freeway and took Hwy 26 toward the Nebraska state line. We tried to pinpoint the exact spot where the West ends and the Midwest begins, and Caleb and I both agreed it's right at the Nebraska border. The ranges and sage brush give way to freshly plowed fields, and silos take the place of stockyards.

Totally honest, I've always thought of Nebraska as an infinite stretch of flat, straight road flanked by cornfields as far as the eye see. And, along I-80, it is pretty much exactly that. But the view we saw on Hwy 26 something altogether else -- tall, sweeping clouds, a skyline so vast you can see the curve of the earth in every direction, T-storms on the southern horizon, the road criss-crossing the North Platte River, huge bluffs rising up out of nowhere, high plateaus and beautifully charming and tidy old farmhouses. I am so glad we took this route, and so sad I didn't take more pictures! 

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At the end of day 4, we'd driven 615 miles, which is as much as we'd driven in the first 3 days of our trip combined! We pulled off the freeway at Doniphan and to the Mormon Island State Park (not pictured cause I was busy making Waylon clean up the trash hovel his seat had become.) 

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Fed and showered, we crashed and braced for another day of serious mileage. 

Yellowstone

Day 3 of #mannanroadtrip2017! If you've been to Yellowstone Nat'l Park, you know words are woefully inadequate to describe the bizarre and breathtaking beauty in every direction. If you haven't been, you should go. Tomorrow.  

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When I was a kid on tour with The Bulla Family (later on, when we got hip, The Bullas), we routed a detour from our fair & festival circuit through the park at least once every summer. I spent countless hours looking out the window at these views, imagination captivated by the beauty and mystery of these mountains and rivers. 

Caleb wanted to see some bison. This old guy was minding his own business jogging along the road and causing a 45 minute traffic jam. When we passed he didn't even wave. 

Caleb wanted to see some bison. This old guy was minding his own business jogging along the road and causing a 45 minute traffic jam. When we passed he didn't even wave. 

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Then this little baby caused paparazzi mayhem!  

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Finally though we got to Lower Geyser Basin where we were greeted by that familiar mixture of sulfur steam and chilly Wyoming wind...if you want to experience this at home, just peel some hardboiled eggs while you stand in front of your open freezer. 

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Behind Caleb and the kids you can just see the boiling mud pit in which somebody (Waylon) claimed to have seen a drowned/dead buffalo.  

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Old Faithful, obvi.  

  And the Old Faithful Inn, or as the kids called  it, The Castle. 

 

And the Old Faithful Inn, or as the kids called  it, The Castle. 

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At the gift shop, we bought postcards and, since Caleb is a bona fide bibliophile, a book about Yellowstone, and also a sticker to commemorate our first voyage in our trailer. 

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Yellowstone Lake, also known as on top of the world.  

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We finished Day 3 at Buffalo Bill State Park catching up with my darling Aunt Jenny and Uncle Jim (not pictured because I was too busy enjoying myself to remember to grab my phone from the car), whose lifelong pursuit of adventure will forever inspire me. 

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Also, to restore balance to the universe, tomorrow I'll post video of the kids bickering and the hovel that is the boys' seat.  

Sometimes...

Sometimes, when you're camping, you wake up to this: 

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The happy faces of first and third born, who at home are often separated by school schedules and the easy compatibly of their peers, bunking together in the trailer because their sizes fit the fold-down dinette bed. 

Soemtimes, when all the forces of mischief and wiring conspired against the previous day's travel plans, you end up braiding your baby's hair at Denny's in Missoula while you wait for the guys at Tire-Rama to replace your trailer tires. Also the rims, it turns out, because your current rims are something called 'split rims' and have been known to blow up whilst being driven down the freeway and are no longer legal. 

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Soemtimes you pull off the freeway so the boys can go potty and you are reminded that Montana is really the Last Best Place and was probably the First Best Place and has always been your favorite place since you were but a girl watching it fly by the window as your dad drove the big brown bus down I-90, The Road To Everywhere.  

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Sometimes, you swallow your principles and buy the fun pack of chips at Costco cause you know the trip is gonna be hella long and snacks will be your only link to sanity and consequently your 3-year-old becomes convinced you aren't really in charge of her because no self-respecting authority figure would willingly hand out something that tastes like savory candy or for that matter Doritos. 

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Sometimes when you wearily pull into your campsite, 24 hours behind schedule, you realize nothing is as important as the memories you're making with these little people you sometimes forget to look at because you see them every minute of every day.

If you're really lucky, once you're out in the wilderness with no one but each other, those little people might agree with you.     

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Are We Gone Yet

Everything was locked and loaded at 9 am sharp, just like we planned. Which we all agreed was a feat of no small magnificence considering the length of our trip (4-ish weeks) and the number of people in our family (6). 

The kids eagerly jumped into the car, surrounded by pillows and activity books and snacks, and waited patiently while we hooked up the trailer. Casually and oh so naively, we conducted our perfunctory trailer light check.

Nothing. No brake lights, no turn signals, no running lights.  

We told the kids to hang on while we unplugged cords, blew on connectors, jiggled wires, and kept calm. We told them we would fix it while we googled, YouTubed, and searched as many vintage trailer forums as we could find. We told them to go watch tv while we cussed, sighed, and took turns running to the auto parts store. 

2 hours in, our best buddy Kev happened to be in the neighborhood and stopped by to see us off. 3 hours, a beer, a couple of iced coffees, and approximately every known swear word and trailer wiring supply later, Kev & Caleb were still out there, tinkering and troubleshooting in vain.

About this time the kids lost heart. 

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Approximately 8 hours past our ETD and no closer to solving the riddle of the malfunctioning lights, Kev had to take off. We had replaced as many things on the 12v wiring system as we could buy from O'Reilly auto parts, except the 7-pin connector which our continuity tester told us was working fine. (Btw, I now know way more about our trailer's wiring than I ever wanted to.) In one last desperate effort, Caleb decided to replace the connector, and if it didn't work we'd have to reevaluate the whole plan for the trip. Like, Thule and hotel instead of camp, which is to say, crush my dream of taking my kids on the Great American Camping Road Trip and ruin our summer and our lives. 

After more YouTube, more trailer forums, more trial and error, more cussing, and more precious TIME), we replaced the connector, plugged it in, and held our breath. Success! For one shining, glorious moment, all the lights were lit! We threw everyone back into the car, pulled to the end of the driveway, stopped to lock up, and realized the running lights were no longer working. Brake lights and turn signals were still good, though, so we said screw it, we can get to Missoula before dark.  

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At exactly zero dark thirty pm, we blew into the Missoula KOA, which, while not the rustic haven of #wanderlust glamor instagram fantasies are made of, was 200 miles closer to Nashville than our driveway and was therefore perfect. 

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Day 1 of #mannanroadtrip2017 ended with s'mores around a campfire in Montana, so, with the help of our family misadventure spirit guide Clark Griswold, we did it! 

 

Adventure Awaits

In case anyone has been wondering why I haven't announced the lineup for May's Northwest of Nashville show yet, it's because there isn't one :( I know, I am sad too!

But I have a good reason for taking a break this month: we're taking the family and the 1970 RoadRunner travel trailer, replete with original avocado appliances and hideous red-and-gold carpet (along with every activity book/travel game/road trip snack in the history of mankind) on a cross country trek to visit my family in Nashville. I am giddy with excitement, but also I keep waking up in the middle of the night in a flat panic over all the books and shoes I won't be able to fit in the trailer. And the kids need new swimsuits. And sunscreen. And Waylon needs some waterproof shoes. Ibuprofen!....that's when I remember they have Target in Nashville.

Besides, my job of packing food and clothes and books is tiddlywinks when I compare it to Caleb's list of things like checking water pumps and sway bars and tires and ball bearings...Sorry, what was that? I heard water pump and I zoned out. 

Every May when I was a kid, my family band would load our tour bus with our most essential earthly possessions (fiddles, guitars, my mom's upright bass, sundry personal items, and a Saxon math textbook -- not because it was beloved but because, like most homeschoolers, I never finished math on time), and we'd hit the road until late October. We'd usually head East first, through Montana then down to Yellowstone, across the plains and down to Nashville, where Shoney's breakfast and Bluegrass celebrity sightings were as ubiquitous as lightning bugs and thunderstorms. 

That's right. Bluegrass celebrities are a real thing.  

So while my kids won't be taking the following-in-my-footsteps thing quite so far as to dress in matching Western shirts and play a twin fiddle version of Sally Anne & Orange Blossom Special 3 times a day at the Wyoming state fair, come Monday The Mannans embark on a cross-country pilgrimage along the Bulla Trail. There will undoubtedly be adventure, hijinx, laughter, and hopefully a minimum of catastrophe. 

So while my kids won't be taking the following-in-my-footsteps thing quite so far as to dress in matching Western shirts and play a twin fiddle version of Sally Anne & Orange Blossom Special 3 times a day at the Wyoming state fair, come Monday The Mannans embark on a cross-country pilgrimage along the Bulla Trail. There will undoubtedly be adventure, hijinx, laughter, and hopefully a minimum of catastrophe. 

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I'll be sharing photos and updates here if you'd like to follow along on what promises to be an equal parts Griswold/Ingalls rough & rowdy fun old fashioned family vacay.  

And if you happen to be in Nashville on June 3rd, come to my dad's for a Jenny Anne Mannan house concert.  

Happy trails!  

Those Memories

Happy new year friends!

This was one of my favorite records when I was a girl; it's impossible to exaggerate its influence on my own music. Mark's fiddle solo still gives me goose bumps. I wanted to sing just like Linda and play just like him. Enjoy!


Peace Where You Find It

I love family photos. I love taking them, I love looking at them. When I was a little girl I loved nothing better than a visit to either of my grandparents' houses where I would pore over photo albums documenting family vacations and events big and small. My aunties are great scrapbookers, and they have archived decades of family gatherings, trips, haircuts both successful and regrettable. Their photo books chart fashion eras, home decor fads, cousins coming of age, and most of all they tell us that time really does fly.

In the age of digital and social media, memory preservation looks a lot different than it used to. We don't always print photos anymore, we stream or share them. Photos aren't just family photos, they're social networking tools. And sometimes, as I scroll through Instagram or Facebook, I wonder how much of our memory sharing is about preservation and how much of it is about creating a brand. Of course when I post pictures on Facebook or Instagram, I want to put my best foot forward, so to speak, so I filter or edit out the less-than-picturesque bits -- the chaos in the mudroom, the dustbunnies, the dark circles or crow's feet around my eyes, and I accentuate the positive. I slap on some lip gloss and zoom in on one of the good intentions that made it past my wishlist and I share that with all my friends. And acquaintances. And other moms who, if they're anything like me, feel pretty overwhelmed a lot of the time and carry around more than a little guilt about all the fun or productive or meaningful memory-making they wanted to do with their little people today but probably didn't because they had laundry to fold or multiplication tables to teach or errands to run or a friend to visit with or a shower to take. But the picture doesn't show all of that, because I've taken pictures of dust bunnies before and they're gross and who would want to share them, and I'm not sure how to photograph Guilt but when I figure it out I'll let you know. So there I am accentuating the positive and my brand becomes Frost-Filtered-Homemaker-Earring/Baby-Wearer-Who-Reads-Aloud-To-Her-Kids-All-The-Time. Even though my actual persona is Busy-Mother-Trying-To-Capture-Snapshots-Of-Beauty-And-Peace-In-the Midst-Of-Chaos. Putting my best foot forward, I'm not really telling the whole truth. Pictures are worth a thousand words, but sometimes the whole truth takes more like two thousand.

This is exactly the problem. We forget that, online, we're not always our actual selves. We're the image of ourselves. This image may not have much to do with who we really are, how we actually feel, what we actually do, because, of course, we're trying to be positive and prove to ourselves that our lives have picture-worthy moments too. The trouble is that many people on the receiving end of that image think it's the real thing, and so they look at other family's photos and sigh and wish they were one of the happy, chill moms who let their kids get out the glitter glue at any time of the day. It becomes a vicious cycle - the effort of one person to remind themselves that their life is beautiful becomes a measure for another person to live up to.

The immediacy of photo sharing has changed things too. I remember back in the Dark Ages having to wait at least an hour to get my photos processed. Now, I snap a pic and post it within seconds, fully edited and framed and hashtagged. And the options for improving that photo are limitless. Glance over any photography Pinterest board and you'll find tips for how to get more Instagram followers, how to use Photoshop, how to pose. Always use the same filter, put your hand on your hip, be clever but direct about hashtags...It's not that there's anything wrong with using technology to take the best photos we can, it's just that sometimes it feels like we're more focused on the share than on remembering the original experience. A great yoga instructor once told me when we experience a thing -- a sunset, a meal, a feeling -- our efforts to describe the experience take us out of the moment, until we're experiencing the description instead of the original event. I think it's this way with our modern means of memory preservation - sometimes the result and the feedback are so immediate, they influence our record of the event or even the event itself.

My aunties and grandparents were primarily interested in preserving memories for themeslves and their posterity. They just wanted photographic evidence that they made that trip to Yellowstone, that all the siblings and cousins were together that day in 1990, that they saw that rocket launch from Cape Canaveral. They weren't planning for all of their friends and relations and acquaintances to see and comment on each of those events, they saved that privilege for the few who were invited over for the slideshow viewing. They weren't creating a brand. Glennon Melton over at Momastery has said people can use their online persona or brand to do things at each other. We post our Saturday morning breakfasts or 4 layer birthday cakes at each other to prove that we're okay, we're justified, we're right with God and the world. Maybe we've got it wrong. Maybe we should take a page out of our grandparents' photo albums, the titles of which could easily be, "See, kids, we did have fun sometimes!" If I'm really telling the truth, that could be my caption to myself for every photo that I share. Through that tight spot between my shoulder blades, the mess in the pantry I'm trying to ignore, the lunch dishes that have yet to be taken care of, the sharp words I wish I could unsay, the great unnamed Something for my kids I may or may not be able to identify and get around to today, I can take some photos and remind myself, "Look! WE DO FUN THINGS! Our little life is messy, but it's great!"

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Look! We throw rocks in the river!

Summer

Look! We sit on the sun-bathed porch!

Summer

Look! We love each other!

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Look! We go to the movies!

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Look! We take ferry rides!

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Look! We do the Ciderfest!

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Look! We live in one of the most beautiful places on earth and we go to the orchard!

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Look! We build forts!

We're discovering that peace isn't an ethereal, far-off, pie in the sky concept. It's here, right here, in the middle of all the chaos and the stress and the lack of sleep and everything else. It's active, it's the sometimes tenacious belief that THIS IS THE LIFE. Peace is right here, if I look for it. Peace is where we find it.

The thing is, I'm not posting these pictures at you. I'm posting them AT ME! My brand is a byproduct of what I'm trying to do: remind myself of what's actually true. Sometimes when I glance around my life, I focus on the to-do list, the work, the messes, and the backdrop of peace and beauty is a little blurry. Sometimes the camera lens is the tool that helps me focus on those things. And when I look my friends' photos, I could stand to remember that that's probably true for them too.

And also it's a good idea print some pictures and put them in an album in case this whole internet thing doesn't work out.

Always Looking For A Home

It's like clockwork. Every year. Like the shadows of old injuries that ache when it's coming on to rain. How do we live through the muscle memory of the darkest days we've faced in this life, how does one brace for impact, when the flood will come as surely as the month of August; when the waves will take on a new but always whelming shape with each season of grief?

My response to this season is to get restless. I need something to do with my hands. I take on projects. I make lists. I cook. I fill the calendar with efforts at happy memory making. I get anxious. I wonder why I can't make decisions. I wonder why everything looks too big. I wonder why all my stuff is so shabby and I start looking for new stuff.

My friends and family see it, they see it happening and they know what it is. And they love me. They write songs for my family called, "Always Looking For A Home." They tell me the restlessness I feel is probably more of a spiritual longing than a physical one. They bring me gifts and sweet notes to let me know they remember what happened that day 8 years ago.

I don't know why, but knowing what to call a thing takes away some of its power. I remember when I first learned to identify the feeling of anxiety. It was such a revelation, just knowing what to call that shallow-breathing, panicky, pit-in-my-stomach feeling. Even though I still get anxious, I can tell myself, "This is anxiety. I know what this is." And then I breathe in and out, and remember what Suzanne the yoga instructor always said, "Healing oxygen will go right where it's needed." I think it's the same with grief.

Before I had any firsthand experience with grief, I thought it looked and felt like sadness. But now I know better. I know sadness is only one of the many shapes grief assumes. In A Grief Observed, CS Lewis said, "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning..." For me, it's the restlessness, the want to be somewhere else, do something else, have something else. The urge to run. Without fail, it gets more palpable at this time of year. I feel it most acutely when the days are long and hot, when the air hangs heavy, when I feel more than remember long ago summers spent picking raspberries and chasing grasshoppers and sleeping under the stars with the brother to whom every day was an adventure, and whose adventure took him where I can't follow.

And yet. Even though this restless summer feeling has its origin in grief, I think the feeling is much bigger. I think grief unlocked something that was already present, something that everyone feels, something we can't define, something we try to explain or medicate away. CS Lewis said it's what the Germans call sehnsucht, "That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of "Kubla Khan", the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves." It's the spirit that animates the songs of John Denver, the melancholy-laced hope in Fernando Ortega's voice, the catch in my throat when my baby tries her best to laugh at me. It's the shadow of a great grief, present in all the world, an ancient grief that has been reconciled in eternity, the consequences of which we continue to feel in time. It's the longing for a home, that perfect place where all is as it should be. And even though I've never experienced such a place, the yearning I feel for it is like a memory, the details of which I can't quite recall; like a song I might have heard when I was very young, the tune of which haunts my dreams but eludes my waking mind. Why does the longing for heaven feel so much like nostalgia, when it's a place I've never been?

But my brother is there. He's there now, whole, as he should be, at home, at peace, further up and further in. And I am comforted. I live in this beautiful world, bruised by sin and suffering, and I hope.

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"For them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before." --The Last Battle, CS Lewis

This Is Bluegrass, But Then Something Else

Back in October, John Gjaltema of altcountry.nl got in touch with me and asked me to send him a copy of my record for review on his Netherlands acoustic music site. I wasn't sure how he found me, but I was excited to send my record all the long way across the ocean and get feedback from someone with a European point of view all the same. Maybe he would like what he heard. Maybe someone else from the Netherlands would read it and become a fan. Who could tell, maybe this exposure would lead to playing a few festivals in Europe...I've always wanted to see something in Amsterdam besides the inside of the airport. Hans Brinker was like my favorite book when I was a kid.

Then of course I got busy settling into my new life in the country (more on this soon), and being pregnant with baby #4, and getting ready for the holidays, and I forgot all about John Gjaltema and his Dutch point of view until he forwarded me a link to his review of my record. It was a bit of a thrill to see my name in such an unexpected, exotic context, and I was curious about his response to my album. Paraphrasing will simply not do it justice, I have to share the review with you in its entirety.

Op haar negende wist Jenny Anne Mannan al hoe ze een gehoor tevreden moest stellen. Ze babbelde er op los, terwijl ze zelf de snaren van haar gitaar wisselde. Mannan groeide op in een muzikale familie die er veel op uit trok om gezamenlijk voor een publiek te musiceren. Op Saints & Sinners (eigen beheer) trekt ze de lijn van toen gewoon door, hetgeen betekent dat hier old-time mountain music valt te beluisteren. Dat is bluegrass, maar dan toch net iets anders. Eenvoudiger vooral. Gaat het in bluegrass vooral om het plezier van het samenspel veelal uitmondend in watervallen van noten, in old-time lopen de klaaglijke melodieën rechtuit. Niet te veel poespas, de trillingen van de snaren dienen liedjes vol smart. Helemaal niet raar dus dat Mannan in haar eentje deze cd volspeelt. Op fiddle, mandoline en gitaar begeleidt ze zichzelf op de negen nummers van Saints & Sinners. Dancehall Hornpipe, Dancehall Waltz en Dancehall Rag zijn instrumentals. Mannan komt uit de bergen van de in het noordwesten van Amerika gelegen staat Washington. Ze woonde een tijd in Nashville, maar gunde haar drie kinderen de rust van opgroeien in de nabijheid van de familie. Verkrijgbaar bij CD Baby.

So. Do any of you speak Dutch? I don't. Of course I didn't expect the review itself to be written in English, I mean, how narcisstic are we Americans anyway? But I did think that since John Gjaltema took the trouble to send me a link to his review he might also include at least a hint about what he said. But since he didn't, I turned to that well known and credible source of all information: The Internet. I found a translation website which promised to translate anything from any language to any other. Perfect! I copied and pasted the review into the translation generator, and received the following reply:

On her ninth knew Jenny Anne Mannan Mangal already how they had to set a hearing satisfied. They babbeld there, while they themselves the strings of her guitar exchange. Mannan Mangal grew up in a musical family, with have a lot to withdrew from public to jointly for a songwriter. On Saints & Sinners (their own management), draws the line when simply by, which means that old-time mountain music is to listen to them. This is bluegrass, but then something else. Easier in particular.

Aside from being glad that oldtime mountain music is to listen to me, I have no idea what to make of that. Is it a good thing that I myself the strings of my guitar exchange? But surely babbling there is not so good... Not only do I not know what the review said, I don't even know if it's positive! Oh well. I guess I can shelve my fantasies of European stardom for a little while longer. And in the meantime I'll continue making bluegrass, but then something else.

First Day of School

Oh the early morning quiet! It's our first day of school and the kids decided to sleep in. This reminds me of last Christmas morning when they slept till 7:30 - who does that? I thought their excitement would get them up before the sun, but here I sit, fully dressed and coffeed up, waiting for my little pupils to appear. (Oh and in case you were wondering, it's no accident I just compared the first day of school to Christmas morning. My friends and I have a theory that, as moms, we get excited about doing the things for our kids that also meet our own needs, and these things are different for every person. School meets my needs. Don't make fun.)

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After spending a busy summer soaking up the sun, taking the kids to the pool, dragging the kids to shows, cooking dinner on the grill, and steeping ourselves in wonderful, schedule-free chaos, I was so excited to sharpen pencils, clean out our desks, throw on a sweater, make lists and schedules, simmer some soup on the stove, and start our second year of school. (That was probably too many s's. Sally sells seashells by the seashore. Sorry.)

Tennessee is starting homeschool kindergarten this year, and my only plan for him is that he rub shoulders with learning enough to spark his curiosity and fuel his imagination. Minimal structure, less bookwork. Just guided activity and hopefully some learning by osmosis. If all he learns this year is that school is exciting, I will consider kindergarten a success. Right now, his favorite letter is x, and when I ask him to write it he crosses his fingers and says, "eckkkttth!" I can only hope to foster that level of enthusiasm in all our work together.

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This is Tennessee's standard pose of concentration. It's my number one reason for homeschooling this active, curious little boy. He simply cannot sit. To him, sitting is what you do when you've given up - when it's time to check in with your blankey and admit the world is just too much. Sitting is not what you do when you're problem solving. Everyone knows your mind is more engaged when you're precariously perched on the edge of a rickety Ikea chair. (He only fell off once.)

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I don't know how long his love of this particular puzzle will last, but for now he's asking all the right questions and loving the answers.

Violet is starting first grade, and we've got a few more guidlines for her: reading, writing, and arithmetic. ("Addition is counting forward on the number line...")

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So far math is her favorite, and since I happen to love powerful women who love numbers, I'm eager to see where her interest takes us. I'm sure we'll begin by reviewing how to write the number 3, but that's okay. Education happens one number or letter at a time, right?

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The kids eventually woke up and, if success can be measured in the cozy warmth of activity, curiosity, questions asked and answered, and above all, snuggling and reading, then we all enjoyed a very successful first morning of school. I am so excited to share the wonderful world of ideas with these interesting little people, and to see it all through their eyes.

My first grader:

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Another perk of homeschooling: silly faces for school photos are encouraged.

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My kindergartener:

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Aaaand my toddler:

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We have very limited academic aspirations for him this year...perhaps teaching him that not all birds are chickens? We'll see.

In Which It Takes 45 Minutes To Make A Pie

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Or, put another way, "Oh this old thing? I only wear it when I don't care how I look."

What is this quality of effortlessness that we seem to value so highly? For some reason, it seems that working hard on something isn't as valuable as as being good at something without trying. Hollywood is full of illusions of effortlessness - effortless beauty and fitness, effortless talent, effortless wealth. The only thing Hollywood will admit to working at is their 'craft', which, having seen more than my share of wooden performances, makes me wonder in many cases which craft they were working on and why so many film and television act-ors are so bad at working as well as acting.

But back to the point - effortlessness. My husband has this idea of effortless beauty (we're children of the 90's, you know), but unfortunately, since he's a guy, he doesn't understand that this idealized picture in his head of effortless beauty can really only be achieved by at least getting to Beauty Base Zero - which even Katniss Everdeen knows involves some tweezing, some moisturizing, some smoothing, some concealing, and probably some hair-coloring. And, as I get older, 'effortless beauty' also involves quite a bit of exercising and some strategic shopping. Unless, of course, he wants me to look like I'm actually still in the 90's, which he certainly doesn't and it's a good thing too because even my sacrificial love has its limits. And anyway I'm not altogether sure I can still grow my eyebrows that thick or find that particular shade of cranberry lipstick or that Eddie Bauer flannel. And by the way, the whole hair color issue really bugs me. My husband has the most incredible, thick, shiny, black hair - natural highlights and lowlights, glints red in the sun, gets blacker in the winter.

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I was a towheaded little kid whose natural haircolor as I've gotten older has grown into a non color, and I am unwilling to spend my adult life with mousy, nondescript hair just so that I can feel that false sense of superiority that apparently accompanies natural haircolor. The other day I told Caleb it's just mean when he says people shouldn't color their hair - it's like Heidi Klum saying people shouldn't be ugly.

But the illusion of effortlessness haunts us wherever we go. When I go into someone's spotlessly clean house, I don't automatically think of all the work that went into cleaning. I just think their house is cleaner than mine. When I attend one of my nieces or nephews birthday parties where I'm greeted by a smiling hostess and handcrafted desserts and decorations and thoughtfully selected party favors, I don't think about the week of planning and preparation that went into making that party a success. I just think my sisters-in-law are inherently better at party planning than I am.

A week ago I spent the morning dashing hither and thither around my house, trying to outsrip my kids' pace of domestic destruction and keep each room tidy long enough to actually enjoy a clean living space for a few minutes. My afternoon was booked full of lessons, and I wanted to pretend that order reigns supreme in my house long enough to make an impression on my students and help facilitate the learning process. I quickly realized my mistake, though, when my students' mother came in and assessed the level of clean-ness in my house and started stressing out that her kids would wreck it up. I'd taken for granted that she would realize that, like herself and all mothers of small children, I'd achieved this magic window through careful planning and a dither of activity and quite a bit more hollering than I'd like to admit. Yes, I wanted order, but I didn't want to perpetuate such a false idea of perfection that a fellow mother didn't feel comfortable bringing her kids over. I won't be able to maintain that standard for very long, and I'll be wildly misrepresenting myself in the meantime. How often do I work to create an illusion of effortlessness, only to put someone else under a burden? And if I'm working this hard at it, isn't it possible that everyone else is too?

So, I'd like to state the following: I spend at least 1/2 hour getting ready every single day. I wear mascara to the pool. It takes me 45 minutes to make a pie (not including baking time), and that's with the help of my KitchenAid. I get stressed out before every one of my kids' birthday parties, and usually dissolve into tears at least once. I color my hair. I work out, and I read articles about how to dress a post-baby body. I count calories and ratios. I often change outfits several times before leaving the house. I clean what my GrandFriend Jill calls the 'company path' every time I know someone is coming over, and I feel a slight pang of irritation when someone stops by and catches me in my jammies before I've had a chance to pick up the breakfast dishes. It isn't that I want credit for working so hard, it's just that I'd like to be free to say I am working hard. I'm coming in on Saturdays. I'm putting in overtime. I found it so refreshing when Salma Hayek talked frankly about how hard it was to lose the baby weight while maintaining a healthy nursing-friendly diet - much more endearing to ordinary women than Giselle Bundchen, who apparently breastfed her way to her prebaby runway body in 9 weeks while eating cheeseburgers.

Let's be nicer. Let's be honest. It takes 45 minutes to make a pie, and I wore this because I absolutely care how I look.

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Music Festivals: A Family Tradition

Last week I met up with my friend Kimber Ludiker, fiddle player for the amazing and inspiring (and coincidentally all-girl allstar) band, Della Mae, and played an opening set before their show out in the Spokane Valley. The evening turned into a mini festival, with lots of music, passels of kids running around, and a full moonrise over the mountains. Summer night air, high lonesome singing, hot picking...these are the sights and sounds of some of my fondest childhood memories. My darling friend Brittany Roberson showed up with her camera and captured some of the fun.

See, there's Kimber. She's rad. Seriously, I'm not just saying that because I like her. She's a total badass. I mean, both her parents are national fiddling champions themselves, so I guess it makes sense that she's a 2-time national fiddle champion and lives and breathes fiddle magic.

That's my mom's guitar strap, by the way.

There's Caleb and Waylon watching and listening...

 

And this right here is really what festivals are all about. Throwing as much food and drink at the kids as possible and then turning them loose to run and play so as to keep them out as far past their bedtimes as possible.

 

Here is my lovely Violet, with my lovely photographer friend Brittany.

This Saturday I'm playing at the Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival, so we'll have a chance to do it all over again. 

Oh and I'll have my brand new CD for sale. You should come. Bring your kids and listen to some music and make some memories!

Summer Reading

My summer reading list often turns into a wish list. Sometimes I hear myself saying things like, "I just don't have time to read," or "I'm too tired to read." But I burn with shame and remorse to confess that Caleb and I have succumbed to a wicked addiction to "The Bachelorette", and I can't honestly say I don't have time to read when I do carve out time to rubberneck myself silly watching this train wreck of a love story. (I really hope she picks Jef. Oh that's not a typo. That's how he spells his name. Jef with one f. I like him a lot. And Emily seems so happy with him, and I think he would be a good dad to Rickie.) Judge and roll your eyes all you want, it's good old fashioned American reality tv at its best. Anyway, the point is, anyone who makes time to watch reality tv most certainly cannot claim she's too busy or tired to read. The question is when to make it happen? I keep imagining a sunny afternoon, blanket spread in the backyard, happy, distant hum of kids splashing in the sprinkler, iced coffee or cocktail in one hand, book in the other. And let the mirthless laughter commence. It's not totally beyond the realm of possibility that Jupiter will be in its 7th house and the Big Dipper will be at its zenith while 5 wolves howl 3 times each and there will be at least 15 minutes together with not a single disturbance in the Force and I'll be able to jump into my aforementioned daydream, is it? 

I think it's like everything else in life. I find time for the things that are important to me, and try to let the rest go.

As far as reading materials go, I am always on the hunt for a good summer mystery. Something along the lines of The Mysterious Benedict Society, but maybe a slightly more grownup version. Last summer I tried The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which was not what I meant at all. Can anyone write thrilling stories that aren't chock full of the grotesque and morbid? I'm not even moralizing here, I just think it's lazy storytelling. I mean, if we use our imaginations we can find lots of mystery and intrigue without a single person being naked or violated or murdered. Grownup mysteries almost always begin and end in a dank basement with the upstandingest character in the story turning out to be depraved beyond all reckoning, with a few twists and turns along the way, and come to a shocking conclusion when the very flawed protagonist exposes or maybe accidentally kills said villain and then goes on to suffer from crippling PTSD while trying to forget, but finally finds redemption 30 years after fact when in an act of great heroism he writes his memoir. Apparently my standards are very high - and I might add, consistent. A girl who only elevates her mind with quality entertainment like "The Bachelorette" has to be picky about what she reads, too.

Anyway, this summer I've got a great reading list, and I'm having trouble deciding which book to pick up first.

1. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

My sister-in-law and I decided to read this before the release of the much anticipated film (this fall?), because we can't very well see the movie having never read the book. When I started the first chapter, I realized I have in fact read this book before, but I was undoubtedly much to young to appreciate the rich nuances of this classic. I can't wait to read it as an adult.

 

 

2. Chinaberry Sidewalks, Rodney Crowell

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A gift from my stepdad and inscribed by the author (!!!), I could tell within the first few sentences that this is going to be one of my favorites. After all, Mr. Crowell is one of my favorite songwriters. I have high hopes for his memoir.

 

3. The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde

Last winter Caleb and I happened to catch the 1945 film starring George Sanders and Angela Landsbury based on this book, and it was riveting. We immediately bought the book, and it's been waiting faithfully ever since. The preface alone is thrillingly brilliant: "We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless."

 

4. Lit, Mary Karr

I first heard of Mary Karr in a Rodney Crowell song, actually. "Earthbound", from the record Fate's Right Hand:

Tom Waits, Aretha Franklin, Mary Karr

Walter Kronkite, Seamus Haney, Ringo Starr

The Dalai Lama, Charlie Brown

Make me want to stick around...

Earthbound.

Clever, clever clever.

Ms. Karr's writing is beautiful and witty and honest and so distinctly American.

 

5. Little House On The Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder

My kids and I are making our way through the Little House series together, and it's a rarity for me to make it through a chapter without Violet asking, "Are you CRYING? AGAIN?" I am overjoyed to share these wonderful adventures with my kids.

 

6. Give Them Grace, Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessic Thompson

I've only read the foreword, but I am looking forward to the rest.

So that's a pretty good list, right? I'll let you know how it goes. Please don't make fun of me if all my lofty intentions only amount to half of a memoir and a few desperate searches through the parenting book for hope and encouragement. I hope for better things, but I also like to be realistic.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to make sure the DVR is set to record "The Bachelorette: The Men Tell All."

PS, What are you reading this summer?

 

 

Updates

So. A few things.

This morning I overheard my son telling his sister that he can't wait for swimming lessons, it's gonna be so fun, which reminded me that I haven't even looked at the pool calendar yet. But wait, that's not the part I meant to tell you about. Oh well, we've gotten started now so I guess I'll tell you anyway. Also I was shocked at the unbridled and unfeigned excitement in his voice, since last year I had to try every trick in the book to keep him from making a spectacle of himself (okay, a spectacle of me) at his lessons, including threats, bribery, cheerleading, peer pressure, and shame, concluding each day of fun with tossing him off the diving board to his swim instructor, and still, despite all my wonderful parenting and coaching, he scored a solid NW in every category of his evaluation.

His favorite part of swimming last year was sitting on the edge of the pool and playing with the squirty crab toy. He still talks about it.

But, okay, so he's excited to go back? I have to get right on that.

Anyhoo, that's not the part I meant to tell you about. What I meant to say is, the calendar now officially says it's summer, whether the weather agrees or not, and I've got a few things coming up that I want to highlight.

1. I am working on finishing up my record. Still. It's been exactly a year since we started recording, and I think it's actually going to get done! I can't believe it. I feel like I'm in the last 3 miles of a 1/2 marathon - you know, the part where I'm literally cursing myself out loud and wondering why in the world I ever did this on purpose. I could have stayed in bed this morning and slept longer! I could be drinking hot coffee right now instead of sweating my brains out and running my legs clean off and peeing my pants just so that I can say I ran really far. (I realize that's way too much information. Sorry.) But I just have to try to remember the feeling of crossing the finish line and hang onto that, because I know it will be just the same with this record. It's been such a group effort on so many levels, and sharing my progress, slow though it has been, with all of you has kept me energized and inspired. Caleb and I are finishing up the artwork right now, and I cannot wait to show it to you.

(Yes. That is an open BandAid wrapper in the background.)

2. In honor of the release of my first record, my dad is helping do my very own Hatch Show Print poster. You know, these guys:

The ones who made posters for Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash and The Beatles. The ones whose work is all over the Country Music Hall of Fame. I've had 2 of their posters hanging in my house since I very first set up my house, and those images are so historic and significant. I can't believe I'll get to have my very own! I'll also keep you updated about a very special cd/poster combo pack.

3. I am playing at the Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival on August 11. My first solo festival. I am so excited.

4. On August 19, I'll be participating in a very special benefit concert for the Schuh family. The Schuhs are practically an instution in the Northwest fiddling community; they're the ones who make every contest feel like a family reunion. So of course, the fiddling community is rallying around them as Jay fights cancer. Visit the Facebook events page to find out how to donate, and how to purchase tickets. It's sure to be a great time. You won't want to miss it.

There's lots more of course. I'll keep you posted about swimming lessons.

 

 

Charis and Eirene

So many important letters began with the appearance of those fraternal twin sisters, Charis and Eirene. Or, as we more commonly know them, Grace and Peace. "Grace and peace to you, from God our Father." "Grace to you and peace, from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you making my prayer with joy." "Grace to you and peace from God our Father. We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you." "Grace to you and peace. We give thanks to God always for all of you."

I grew up hearing all these verses in Sunday school, and in every sermon, the salutation of each of these precious epistles was somehow skimmed over. Yeah yeah yeah, grace and peace, blah blah, let's get to the heart of the message. You know, the part where we tell everyone they're not good enough and they need to work harder. And yet, what message could be more important or significant than these two words? Grace. Peace. To a busy, sometimes overwhelmed, often guilt-laden, never adequate wanderer, these words say it all.

Grace. Favor. Goodwill. Loveliness. Acceptableness. (Can it be?) A tangible, oft-repeated refrain: "You are lovely. I thank God for you. You are acceptable."

Peace. Harmony. Concord. Security. Safety. Prosperity.

Sometimes I forget. And other times, I just can't believe it. Not because I have not been secure, and safe, and the recipient of overwhelming goodwill. But just because it seems too good to be true.

 

Creative, Part 3

Does anyone else ever feel like there's an unwritten rule somewhere that says in order to be a real grownup you have to leave your creative dreams behind and get down to business? Stop living in a dreamworld, get your head out of the clouds and get to work? If you do follow your creative impulses, you should only do it behind closed doors, when the workday is done, the kids are tucked in bed, all the laundry folded and the house spotless, so that your self indulgences don't detract from your ability to perform your adult responsibilities.

This issue seems universal to creative, working women and men, stay-at-home moms and dads, virtually everyone who feels the push and pull of self-fulfillment vs. self-sacrifice. In my own experience, I am aware of an underlying logical fallacy that sets fulfillment and responsibility at odds with one another: if I find fulfillment in doing something creative, I also feel guilty for doing it because it probably comes at the expense of my family and children. If I choose to get out my fiddle or spend an evening recording or writing instead of taking my kids to the park or cleaning up the lunch dishes or waging war on the toys that have launched a full scale offensive against my living room floor and the bottoms of my feet, I feel as though I've chosen myself - my hopes and (day?)dreams and wants - over my real job.

Funny Cry for Help Ecard: My mother used to make cookies with me...but now she blogs and I pretty much raise myself.

For me, the trouble is twofold. In the first place, we live in a world that assigns value according to a very superficial, subjective critera. The world in which we live says art for art's sake is basically a self-indulgent waste of time. Artistic expression that doesn't find an audience or generate more than a couple dollars worth of income can't be that good, right? Show us the money! (Or the glowing critique or the published manuscript or whatever other form of achievement we use to define artistic success.) I have addressed this issue in Creative, Part 1 and Creative, Part 2 , exploring the notion that placing value on outcome over process is very destructive to any creative enterprise. But there is an issue that is even more basic than this one: is it true that my efforts at creative expression and fulfillment take away from my ability to perform my adult responsibilities? Does the fact that I'm a songwriter hinder my ability to show up wholeheartedly in the rest of my life? Am I a selfish mom because I continue to work on my projects, even projects that are worth a mere $2.02?

Once again, it's all backwards. I'm looking at my abilities in terms of my limitations. I'm acting as though my resources are finite and can never be replenished, as if investing creatively gives me less to offer everywhere else. I forget that artistic expression actually replenishes my resources, and infuses my daily life with a sense of hope and purpose and joy. What if...what if my creativity actually makes me better at my job? What if it makes me a better mom? What if it enriches my experience with the world, and that enrichment spills over into every area of my life? I know a very wise and wonderful preacher who says that a life of faith looks like running downhill. He says faith brings freedom, and when we are free we do whatever our hands find to do. We wake up every day and live. I don't know about you, but there's not a lot of room for self-doubt when I'm running downhill. I'm just putting one foot in front of the other, looking back with surprise and exhilaration about how far I've come. What if that's true about creativity too? What if I am really free to be myself, a songwriter with ideas and daydreams and deadlines, even in the middle of the busy grind of adult life and responsibility? And what if being my very own authentic self actually makes me a better wife, mom, friend, sister, daughter, worker, person?

So you see, when I ask if I can afford to be creative at the expense of being productive, I am asking the wrong question. If my goal is to be myself -- to occupy the unique space in the world that only I can fill -- I can't afford not to be creative.

Early Summer

The great thing about taking pictures is that when I realize it's been 3 weeks since I wrote on my blog and I wonder where the time has gone and how in the world it can be June already and what have I been doing with myself, I can find some answers.

I went to my nephew's little league game.

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We went to Portland over Memorial Day to visit my husband's family.

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My baby fell victim to the infamous Daddy/Uncle Jakey sandwich.

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My husband's Aunt Tamra shared her geneology findings with Great Uncle Mart.

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We all got quality cousin time.

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Nothing says Portland to me like a giant family breakfast at Elmer's. (We had a party of 17, half of whom were kids.)

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My husband mocked my menu choice of Rancher Omelette with Hollandaise sauce instead of sawmill gravy. But I stand behind that decision.

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My loving family waited in the car while, at the end of the weekend, on our way out of town, I ran into Ikea. For an hour. In my defense, it's HUGE in there, and it's built like a labyrinth, and my husband's cousin swears the ceiling is pitched so as to induce nausea.

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Sometime when I find the time and energy to vacuum my floors and put a couple things away I'll show you what I did with my Ikea purchases, and I think you'll agree with me that the stop was well worth it. Even if it meant my husband drove in silence for an hour until he forgave me.

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Last weekend my dad and his lovely wife Tracy came to visit us, bearing all kinds of gifts and treats, not the least of which was the Transformer Car. Apparently it's more exciting than our minivan?

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It was a wonderful visit, a perfect kickoff to summer.

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There, see? We've done some stuff. I guess it's alright that it's June.

Chill. Life is good.

It's almost the end of the school year. Time for wrapping up academics, end of the year recitals, final soccer games, a fond farewell to structure, and an eager and overdue hello to sunshine.

I love it when it's nice enough to do school outside. Especially when Violet decides on a getup like this.

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Why yes, that is McGuffey's Eclectic Primer. Do you remember it?

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I certainly do. "I see the boys and girls with their books and slates." And, "Look! There are John and Sue by the mill pond." Oh, a simpler time. When kids were named John and Sue instead of Wingspan and Banjo. (Thanks to Tina Fey for that one.)

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I am so proud to have a southpaw boy. I know he gets frustrated that the cord on the magna-doodle stylus is too short, and scissors are hard to use, and he has to use most toys backwards, but I happen to love being a lefty. One day, when he's interested, I'll tell him all about the long, proud history of southpaws in our family - his Great-Grandaddy Bulla and his Great-Grandma Peterson, his Uncle Kit, his mama...

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This is what Waylon tends to do when we're doing school. He hook his finger in his mouth and practices being a toddler. He's really good at it. Also he borrows Sissy's accessories.

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On Saturday Violet danced in her very first Irish dancing recital. There she is on the left. I was playing in the band and didn't get the front of house view. I did, however, get to see her eager little face when she turned around. Through my tears of course. Why do moms cry so much?

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My goodness.

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My kids come from a long line of Irish dancers - their daddy's little sister and brother, my little brothers and sisters, and their older cousins have all danced their hearts out to jigs and reels - and of course my hope is that my little leprechauns will carry on the tradition.

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The glow of performance is very persuasive.

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Waylon, meanwhile, will be dribbling food on his collar and reaching for the camera.

Sun Midnight Sun: Sara Watkins

Sun Midnight Sun, Sara Watkins' second album for Nonesuch Records, came out last Tuesday. If you don't have it already, please go buy it real quick. Then meet us back here.

Sara is one of my dear friends, and I wanted to talk to her all about her new record. Actually, I wanted to talk to her about all kinds of things whilst, for once, avoiding my kids' finely honed Mommy-Is-On-The-Phone-Let's-Ask-Her-For-A-Bunch-Of-Stuff radar, so I made an appointment and holed up in my husband's office, away from needy voices and distracting antics, for a good long chat with my girl about life after 30, marriage, becoming a solo artist after Nickel Creek, and writing and recording her second album.
 

So. What have you been up to since your last album came out? What are the highlights?

SW: My first solo record coming out was a pretty big highlight, and there were some other things that happened right away. Turns out there are some perks to working with John Paul Jones, aside from that perk in and of itself, you get to play with some other people too. So I got to play on Jimmy Fallon with John Paul Jones, my brother Sean, and Questlove played drums on “Long Hot Summer Days”. I was freaking out. I totally rushed! [laughs] 

I got to be part of the whole Prairie Home Companion group for a little while, Garrison Keillor having me join the show for so many broadcasts was really nice. Doing the Summer Love tour was so totally different for me because I'm holding a microphone, wearing a Betsey Johnson cocktail dress, getting to walk around in heels every night...

That is just so fun! What was that like, I mean being in that kind of a situation with Garrison Keillor?              

SW: I loved it. I actually practiced holding a microphone while singing, holding the mic in my hand. The only other time I’d seriously done that was this one sort of this gimmicky song with Nickel Creek and then like karaokeing and I sound horrible when I'm singing and holding the mic and singing karaoke, so I thought, "Wow, this is totally different, I need to actually practice how to do this!" So I practiced just so that I wasn't freaked out about the mechanics of it. Which sounds totally stupid, but there it is!

But it doesn't at all sound stupid, because you know, in the setting that we grew up in, being that kind of a performer, especially as a woman, was definitely not encouraged or considered valid. But it's about being feminine and figuring out how to channel all of that energy into the performance, I think it makes so much sense. I wish I could have seen it!

SW: It was really fun. And you're right, we come from the school of sort of roughing it, where if you try to make anything too pretty it’s almost a strike against you. I mean, girls are definitely welcome to look pretty, but it’s a pretty tough scale that people are judging you on, and if you wasted any energy on showmanship when you could have worked on singing a few more notes in better tune, it’s almost unforgivable. Which is totally valuable, but it’s fun to be on the other end of it. It's still the folk world, but it's the most accepting environment possible - Prairie Home Companion fans are so loving and accepting.

What was really fun was getting to be Garrison’s date every night onstage, where I just supported him. It was like we were going to a business dinner every night and he was the selling point and I was kind of supporting him and jumping in when it was my time, and he’d let me shine in my moments...it was kind of this whole dance. And I got to sing a few of my own songs, but mostly we were just singing duets all night. I’d sit on this little bench while Garrison would tell stories and do his monologues and then I'd rejoin him and we’d sing lots of oldies and classic American songs.

 And that was a pretty unique situation, right, to be Garrison's sidekick?

SW: Um, I think he'd done some similar things on the tour, but the one thing I did do that was totally unique was guest hosting “A Prairie Home Companion”.

So did he come to you with that idea?                                                                                            

SW: During Summer Love, the final days of the tour, he told me he was hoping to have a guest host. He wanted to see the show from the sidelines, and he thought I would be good at it. I was totally blown away and of course I said yes...I got super nervous, and then I got really excited because he was going to let me bring any guests that I wanted...there were several ideas that I brought to him and he'd say, “Uh, let's do it this way instead.” And I was like, “Totally fair! Totally fair.” And it ended up of course being the right call, because he does know how to run a show after all! He was really generous.

Making the jump from fiddle whiz kid to solo artist - was that a scary transition or do you feel like it happened pretty seamlessly?

SW: It was a little intimidating, mostly on the logistic end of things. We decided in the beginning of 2006 to put Nickel Creek on the shelf, and we gave ourselves 18 months to do that, so I had plenty of time to consider what I wanted to do and just take myself more seriously as an individual artist...That, combined with the Watkins Family Hour, which was basically my other band for all of those years anyway, those were really helpful. But the biggest transition was learning how to tour manage. That was a whole different kind of stress. I kid you not, Jenny Anne, I will be a better mother because I have tour managed!

Oh of course you will!                                                                                                                             

SW: I cannot imagine having a child at that time, having not done really anything responsible, let’s be serious, for more than a couple of days at a time! [laughs] So I took on tour managing, because I remembered that my mother told me all those years that I could do anything I set my mind to. [laughs] But it was just logistics - planning flights, making sure they were the cheapest flights, reconsidering all of the options, and then touring with my brother Sean and 2 other grownup men who have toured under a lot of circumstances and really were nice to me to pal around in a minivan with me all the time and pick up different backline in every town that we were in and sleep in motels and drive hours...all the stuff that bands do but for some reason it felt, because I was making everyone do it and it was for me rather than for a united cause, it felt like I was putting everyone out a lot more. They were all really nice about it but no matter what it’s gonna feel like I’m making them do this and they’re not getting paid well enough. So that was a transition, adjusting to the logistic end of things. And then the accounting is still a nightmare. But I’m so glad for it, because...it gave me this huge pride of ownership for a whole different side of the career, not just being a musician that people make excuses for on the business and social end of things, but owning something a little more, like owning my business, knowing how to do a little bit more of everything.

Do you think that sense of ownership has informed your artistic development also?

SW: Yeah. I think it has given me a little bit more bite into what I care about and what I want to achieve because after all, working harder for something makes you want it more.

It seems like it gives you not only more to say, but it also gives you a sense of authority when you say it.

SW: Cause I’m not just making up stories imagining how responsible people live, I’m trying to join them. [laughs]

It's where the left and the right sides of your brain unite, and there's magic in there!

When did the Watkins Family Hour start?

SW: It started when I was 21, so 2003. We were doing 3 weeks on and 1 week off with Nickel Creek, so during that one week we would do the Family Hour and it was me & Sean and Gabe Witcher. We would have friends join us as guests, people that we knew from Largo [the LA club that the Watkins Family Hour calls home], or friends who happened to be passing through town - Tift Merritt was one of our first guests, she was just passing through one night and she sang some songs. And mostly to begin with it was just us ripping off Tim & Molly O’Brien songs and Hot Rize and Bluegrass Album Band songs, just doing super easy ripoffs basically but they were really fun for us, because it was our “for fun” band.

After a year or two we decided we wanted to put a little more thought into the songs, so we tightened up the screws a little bit and there were a few years there when we had a group of consistent musicians who were the Family Hour band, and then they went on tour and that happened a few times, and the group we have with us now has been with us for probably 4 or 5 years. So whenever they’re in town they play with us. That’s the band, and then we have guests come in. Occasionally we’ll have a whole band come in as a guest, but generally it’s just a singer.  

So that’s how you met people like Jon Brion and Fiona Apple...

SW: Yeah. I met Jon one night at Largo - we opened for him one night, Nickel Creek did, and he let us play some songs with him. I would drive up every Friday night to see him, and it was a 2 hour drive home, so the owner of the club, Flanny, would let me sleep on the couch for an hour while they vacuumed before they closed down so that I could get some sleep before I drove home. [chuckles]  

How did you meet your producer, Blake Mills?

SW: I met Blake through Benmont Tench - Benmont has been the piano player for the Family Hour for many years, like 6 years now, whenever he’s not on tour [with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers]. He has on Sundays these weekly music hangs, at his house whenever he’s home, and Blake came to one of those. I think Gillian Welch brought him. And then I would see him at jams and hangs - a few times in a short while - and then we started bringing him down to the Family Hour and he would play with us. And I was trying to figure out who I would want to produce my record. I knew that I didn’t want to go for some big producer who had a big giant career and a big sound... even if I had the option. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to afford them anyway, but I knew that I wanted something else. I loved Blake’s Break Mirrors cd and I liked his songwriting, and I saw that he’s the kind of player that when he’s around everyone kind of plays a little differently, and adjusts a little bit, and kind of redirects their thought process a little bit. It’s not through any kind of forcefulness or attention getting - on the contrary he’s more...people just sort of go to him and kind of gravitate toward where he’s directing songs. And that was really intriguing, and I always liked where things went when he was sort of directing traffic. So I asked him to produce a few songs - I knew I wanted him to produce the whole record but I kind of chickened out and just asked him to produce a few songs, to see if we could test it. He said, “Yeah, I’d love to, what do you have in mind?” And so I told him a few things that I wanted for the direction of the songs and how I wanted to approach the record, and he said, “Sounds great, let’s do it!” So we did 4 songs in November and it went really really well, and we knew by then that we were planning on doing the whole record together, so we recorded the rest of it in December and January.  

Was it kind of an audition then, those first 4 songs?

SW: It was kind of like an escrow process - an out option for both of us where...I just wanted to make sure that we worked well together in the studio. If there’s an out option, even if it doesn’t seem like anyone’s going to take it, sometimes it just helps the process...So it was just kind of, “You know, if you’re miserable, or this turns out to be a horrible idea, we don’t have to do this.” But it went really well.    

How important do you think friendships are in the studio? Do you think if you’re too close that it can inhibit the process?

SW: [laughs] That’s so important! Sometimes it can really help to know people really well, and sometimes it can get in the way because you might be working with them in a different way than the relationship generally works. So in this case, I didn’t know him very well at all. I knew that we got along, and I knew that he was a really nice guy, and that everyone respects him. He has a very good reputation. I also knew that he’s 5 years younger than I am, so that was a little funny. I really loved that he’s young. I found out after the first week of recording that he had never produced anybody officially before. He had co-produced things - stuff for Jessica Hoop, and a lot of other people - but his name was only on one or two other things and it was all co-production stuff. So this was going to be the first thing that he had produced by himself. So it was really fun. And we did it in the studio that he basically grew up in, and used his engineer...I wanted the songs to be formulated with Sean, and me, and Blake all there. That was really important because I didn’t want myself to get carried away with some really exciting idea that was totally new but really had nothing to do with who I am as a musician and who I will be out on the road...I didn’t want to put on these fancy costume clothes that I would never really wear, and I could totally see myself doing that. So having Sean there, in addition to having his incredible musical insight, was really nice because he is my band, basically. That was a guarantee that we would be working with some of the tools that I have on the road, and also it helped me stay grounded in where I come from and a place that I might be going to, and then Blake was just adding to that. So instead of leaving something familiar and adopting something totally new, having Sean there was really valuable in maintaining this continuum.    

I think that definitely comes through in the record, because Sean’s playing and what he does on your songs is such a part of the sound that we hope to hear from you, that if that weren’t there something really important would be missing. There’s all of this new and exciting stuff happening on the record, and then there is an element of grounded authenticity...which I think all works together to make something that is so multi-dimensional.

SW: Thank you!  

The duets on this record are so amazing. I remember you posting something on Twitter about recording with Fiona Apple and having a runner’s high. And then I heard the song, "You're The One I Love", and I completely understood why. Was that a song that you thought of doing with her from the beginning?

SW: Yeah. So, Fiona is a frequent guest on the Watkins Family Hour. Well, she is more than a guest - she has declared herself and we have declared her a member of the family. [laughs] So I’m always looking for songs to do with her, and I was on this Everly Brothers kick for awhile, and I heard that song and really liked it, and I just felt like it should be a little bit darker and a little bit more stalkery and more obsessive-sounding, and I thought I would really like to sing it with Fiona. I thought it would be really fun to sing it with a girl...In the fall of 2011 I finally sent it to her and said, “Dude, do you want to learn this and sing it with me?” And she said yes, and so we sang it for a few Family Hours, and then in the second half of making this record we were looking at adding a couple of songs, so “Impossible” got added, and this one, “You’re The One I Love”. I asked her to record it with me and she said yes! I had never been in the studio with her before, and she was into it, which was so much fun. We had the song recorded, and then she came in and we sang it together in the same room. And it was just so fun and so intense, it was really awesome.
 

Was her persona different in the studio than what you’re used to when you play live with her?

SW: Yes, not personally, she’s still Fiona. But she sounded different on the mic - like when she was singing on the mic, I thought, “Holy crap, this is the voice that I heard so long ago before I knew her!” Just the subtleties of how she gets in and out of notes, you can hear a lot better when you’re in headphones, and when she’s singing with headphones on, I think, she gets to those places. It was just really fun. And we tried a few different ways of singing it, and then the last 2 passes we didn’t break eye contact the entire time. And it wasn’t awkward, we talked about it afterwards and it wasn’t weird, you know, “Oh shoot we were looking each other in the eyes, I’m going to look away now,” it was just like the most focused energy I’ve ever had singing with somebody.

That energy really comes through. One of the things I’m always sad about when I listen to a record vs. hearing people live is that a lot of times the intensity of the performance doesn’t always translate into the studio. It’s not about the mechanics of the engineering, it’s just that the energy is so different in the studio compared to when you have an audience. But in this situation it was so obviously a magical moment that completely transcends technology...it literally feels like you’re sitting there in the room watching it. So awesome.

SW: Thanks!

And then all of the string parts on that song are so cool. On the whole record, really.

SW: Blake was really helpful with the string parts, actually. A lot of the really definitive parts, like on “I’m A Memory”, there were certain things that he asked of me that I wouldn’t have thought to do, which is always the fun of playing with people who aren’t necessarily string players. Like those soaring string parts that are kind of cinematic? Blake was like, “Can you just get from the lowest note to then the highest D in like a bar?” And I said, “Well I don’t know how I would do that without it just being like a straight arpeggio, or something, I can’t really scale up that fast...” And he came right back, “Okay, so you can’t do it. How would you do it?” Which is such a great question! So I basically just faked it 3 times in a row and it sounds like this [laughs] small string section playing fairly accurately! So suggestions like that are so fun and helpful.

I love that part! It worked out. You did it. How did you do it?

SW: I just played a bunch of notes!

I remember that you meant to have Jackson Browne sing with you on your first record and that didn’t work out.

SW: Yeah. The timing just didn’t work out, you’re right, I’d forgotten that I’d asked him that first time around. So it worked out this time. He just came by and, he’s on “You & Me”, and then “Take Up Your Spade”. And I just love how his voice comes through - it’s pretty recognizable, even though it’s not really featured. Oh and he’s on “I’m a Memory” too, he’s on 3 songs. He and Blake are really good friends, and they’d worked more closely together than I have with Jackson, so we played a couple songs for him and mentioned, “Yeah, we were hoping you’d sing on this one.” And he said, “Great!” and so he did. It was so funny when we were soloing his vocal in mixing because his voice has so much to grab onto when you listen to it - there’s the roughness, there’s the smoothness, there’s the way he gets out of each note with this gravel...it’s just wonderful.

How did it feel having a person whose voice is so iconic sing a song that you wrote?

SW: It was pretty great. He’s just such a sweetheart that you don’t think about it as much as you might think because...well, of course you think about it when you’re in there because you’re aware of what’s happening, and I’m human, but he’s just singin songs, and he is so sweet and generous with this time, that he doesn’t put any additional sense of “You should appreciate that I’m here” onto anything. He’s just very gracious. But yeah, it is pretty crazy that he’s singing 2 of my songs. And I especially loved him on “Take up Your Spade” because I feel like you can really hear his voice stand out, and it was fun to hear him and Fiona. It was really fun hearing them together, that was a fun little...almost like a trick that I played on everybody. [laughs]

“Take Up Your Spade” is one of those songs that you hear that you sort of always wish you could have heard your whole life - it’s like it’s familiar in all of the right ways but it says things in a fresh way, like you think you know where it’s going and it does go there, but it’s in a way that surprises you - so timeless and so beautiful. Where did it come from?

SW: The melody started like 2 or 3 years ago when I was in Scotland on tour with Transatlantic Sessions, this group of people from America and UK who tour, a wonderful little series, and Bruce Molsky was in the show. And I got the melody idea from hanging out with Bruce. I knew that I wanted to write a song - this is actually a song that I did have some goals for - I wanted it to be congregational in feel but not religious in lyric, and I hoped a group of people would sing it together someday. And it was really nice having it turn out that way - I hadn’t told that to Blake, but he was the one who brought the idea of having everyone who was singing on the record come and sing on that song at the end. And I really loved it and it helped the song kind of come around to what I was originally hoping for. The subject matter came from something that my mom used to always say to me, especially if I’d had a particularly difficult yesterday, my mom would wake me up and say, “Good morning! It’s a new day, without spot or wrinkle!” and I loved that. I still think about it a lot, and so I wanted a grown up way to say that. And it carries with it a little bit of baggage, the feel of the song - I wanted it to have this realistic sort of trudging that you feel as an adult when you’re just starting the process of acknowledging that you can start over again. I wanted it to feel adult but still have what my mom used to say to me in there.

How are the instrumentals on this record different from the way that you would have treated an instrumental on your album a few years ago?

SW: The first song, well both of them, changed quite a bit from how they first started. They were both sort of fragments. The first one we did was what turned into “The Accord”, and that was a fiddle song that was originally very fiddle tuney. It was uptempo, and had kind of a double time feel to it, and I played it for Blake and he just basically said lets’ try playing it half that speed, what if we did it like this? And he started playing it at the tempo that it ended up being recorded, and we changed a few chords and added a couple phrases here and there and it just ended up having this great little personality. I’m really glad for how it turned out because, I think I told Blake before playing it that it’s always weird doing a record and then the novelty of “Heeere’s a fiddle tune!”, just “Aaand I play fiddle too!”, and so I was really pleased with the direction it took because they both fit in with the sung songs a lot better than they would have the way that I’d written them. And when I wrote them, I didn’t know what the record would turn into and I didn’t really have any context, so it was nice to put them together with Sean and Blake after we saw a little bit of how the record was turning out.

The other song, “The Foothills”, I did write for the record because I wanted to have another instrumental on there. I had the start, and Blake helped me finish it, and then he started messing with the tones on everything. I played it 6 times - 6 fiddles in unison, and they were really close to each other...they all matched and we couldn’t really hear the difference, so we messed with it a lot and tried a lot of different things - putting some effects on some tracks, using different mics with only one or two fiddles, amping and different things, and eventually we ended up with the way it sounds on the record. That was one of those times where I thought, “I’m just going to let Blake see this through until he’s done with it, because I really don’t know what I think yet,” because on principle I hate effected violins. So there were certain things where I was firm, “No, we’re NOT doing that, this sounds like a violin we’ve all heard that does not sound good.” So I put my foot down in certain places, but it was exciting and enticing to be in a situation where I decided, “Okay, I trust Blake, I obviously want him to have an opinion on this record, because I hired him. I’m a little uncomfortable right now because I would not be making these decisions, but that’s why I have a producer, because I want somebody else’s opinions. I’m going to sit back and wait until I know if I actually like or not, I’m not going to react out of being uncomfortable...” And sometimes that would end with, “Okay, I’m really not comfortable with this, this feels like you, it doesn’t feel like me.” And other times, “Okay, this is great,” and either he’d come around to a place that I was comfortable with on his own, or I would come around to seeing that there was a purpose for this and I do identify with the sounds that are coming out of the speakers right now. And on “Foothills”, I realized that what was working was that it’s not just the fiddles that have effects, it’s the whole stinkin track that’s squashed and distorted and lumpy sounding. And the more I heard it the more excited I got. So I couldn’t be more pleased about that song.

What I think is so interesting is that there parts of the bowing and nuances in your playing that you can hear so much more clearly because of the effect on your fiddle than you would be able to if you had just recorded it in a traditional way. To me, it almost replicates how it would sound live if I were sitting there watching you - some of the bowing is just so YOU - it was so fun to hear it and be able to actually picture you playing it. Because I think it's the spirit of how you play your fiddle on a song like that.                                             

SW: Thank you! That's awesome to hear!

Thinking about some of the life changes that you’ve experienced since your last record: you’re married now, you’ve turned 30...do those things give you a different perspective about your music-making and creativity?

SW: I think that a huge part of my creativity is a result of the security that I have in my marriage. Because he’s so unstoppably encouraging of my career and what I do and just the fact that it’s part of who I am, because he’s so relentless with all of that encouragement - and believable, like I actually believe him that he likes all that stuff about me - that relieves me of any kind of guilt...not any kind, I mean I still feel guilty...but a lot of the guilt about time away from home, and just the way that my life affects his life in sometimes a difficult way...because I know that ultimately he supports me 100%, even when he’s sad that I’m leaving, that first of all makes me work even harder, and it helps me be more creative and free with writing and it keeps me excited about music, because I know that I’m not just letting him down. I know that a lot of people in relationships have a hard time maintaining their excitement about music or their art, whatever it is, when they have the feeling that it’s making their loved one jealous. And I’m so lucky that I don’t feel any of that jealousy from Todd, regardless of the fact that I’m gone a lot. He could be jealous of people, of time spent with music vs. time spent with him...there are a lot of things that you could be jealous of - other families that have a much more stable, normal life - and I think because I don’t feel that, because I have a relationship that I feel gives me the freedom to be this, I think that helps me feel freer about creativity.

We’re always talking around here about the creative process. Had you been writing and collecting these songs for awhile, or did you write them specifically for the record?

SW: They were just sort of songs that had come up since the last record. And there were several songs that I’d worked on that didn’t make the cut, which was nice - I was glad to have some to throw away. I have a hard time...whenever I’m writing a song and I take a moment to stop and admire it, or think, “Wow! this would be really good for this or that,” I just lose it. And all of a sudden the song becomes half of what it should have been, because it’s more of a show than just existing. I loved your blog post about creating for creating’s sake, and I think that for me, as soon as I stop and admire something too early when the process isn’t completed yet, it takes away from what the end result could have been and it changes the whole perspective on why I’m doing it. It’s almost like a curse - whenever I’m writing a song and think, “Oh I hope so and so likes this lyric, maybe they’ll like that part,” immediately I want to slap myself because I know that I’ve come out of it and I have to either put it away or just refocus and shake myself out of that mindset as quickly as possible. And so, in saying that, I mean that I wasn’t writing any of these songs for this record. I haven’t figured out how to write with a goal. Except for “Lock and Key”; that one had certain constraints: it’s a me & him story, it’s okay to have some old timey lyrics, and I have an idea of how the story’s going to end, and so there are certain rules around it but I might not always even have those rules. I’ve never been able to write with a purpose, really, at least for a record. Not yet anyway. People write with themes, like, this whole record is about something, and for me I feel like either it’s going to be about that thing because you can’t write about anything else right now, or you have to really concentrate and it’s sort of this challenge to yourself to focus things. I don’t need to have any more challenges to writing a song - I just feel like I’m lucky to get any song!

Yeah, you want it to be real and you want it to come from a place of authentic inspiration, and sometimes if you have too many parameters, it can kill the actual spark, the real life place that it comes from. Didn’t you used to do songwriting challenges when you were on the road with Nickel Creek?

SW: Yeah. We’d pick a title and then write a song within 24 hours with that title. I think that was really helpful, if for no other reason than to help me not take myself too seriously and not be too precious about everything and feel like everything has to be good. It’s like, no, you’re just doing something, you’re just using crayons or something...and that was really good. I’ve done those songwriting games since then, and it’s really helpful if you have this block where you feel like nothing is good and so you’re not doing anything - that’s totally unproductive and it’s very hard to get out of it if you don’t just get the wheels turning.

Actually one project that I have been a part of that I'm really proud of is called For The Sender, it’s a really cool project that my friend Alex Woodard put together, and that’s one time when I was actually writing for a purpose. It was a really good exercise where we had these letters that people would write telling us their life story, and we’d just pick something out of the letter that seemed to make sense...that was really fun. I was co-writing with this guy Jack Kempshon, really great songwriter, and the feeling that I got from him while we were writing...because he’d just be sitting there with his guitar and singing these melodies and spouting out words without really being self-conscious at all about if it was going to work or not, and just seeing what people grabbed onto, and he would build on it. And he was so quick moving that there was no time to say, “No, I don’t really like that.” I’d have to suggest something if I wanted it to be different, because we’re moving right along here, so if you don’t like it then what’s a good suggestion? And that was really helpful - a really nice tempo and a different way to go about it.

I think it’s helpful to just accept where you are. I feel like I’m much more critical...I have better taste than ability in a lot of ways. [laughs] I hate it, it’s horrible, but what can you do about it? To an extent I just have to be there and do it, and I feel like I have a better idea now that I’m a little older too about what the past and the future means, which is funny, because you’d think you’d have a bigger idea of the future when you’re younger and you have more life ahead of you. But going into this whole record - the artwork, everything about it, partly because of how much I put into the first record and how much I learned about the process in terms of artwork and promotion and how you portray yourself and what you want to do and what your goals are and figuring all of those things out as I went, I’ve got a little bit better idea of what I want now, and I also know that this is this record. And I’m really proud of it and I’m excited for it, but it’s not my last record. It’s this record. And there will be more. There’s a lot of comfort and excitement in that. Not in a surrendering kind of way, “Oh well, there’s always next time,” it’s just, no, this is how it is now, but who knows what it will be next time?

Right. This is another piece in the puzzle.

SW: Yeah. And I actually did try as hard as I could for this - I didn’t phone it in, and I was really lucky to work with Blake and a lot of things fell together that made me really proud of the outcome, and all of that makes it something to celebrate, and I guess see it as, “Oh sweet! This is what happened that represents the first big chunk of my life.”

You've always done such a great job of communicating with your fans - I remember when Nickel Creek was touring and blogging wasn't even really a thing that people did, and you would write journal posts on your website from different cities. You've always treated your fans like friends, it seems like. Is the feedback mostly positive for what you're doing now?

SW: Yeah, I think so. It's funny, a lot of Nickel Creek people don't know that I'm doing this. A lot of times I'll be playing, opening for somebody, and towards the end I'll mention that I grew up playing with Nickel Creek and they'll realize, "Oh, that's how I know her!" It happens all the time. And I always feel glad, "Yes! I got another one back on my side!" To an extent I'm still trying to spread the word to anybody who cares, who felt an attachment to the band, I'm doing this other stuff here so please join me. All the while still trying to be myself and not live in the past too much.

I'm so excited for you. It's such a great record. It's spectacular music, and it's so inspiring to watch. I feel like I could talk to you about this for hours and hours, but you have been so generous with your answers and your time! Also, I just think what a great idea to make an appointment with my friends to hang out on the phone!

SW: I know! I should enter in the GoogleCal, "Call with Jenny Anne" much more often!

Visit Sara for upcoming tour dates and info.

 

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