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Me, Myself, and a Bottle of Wine

Next to giving birth to and raising my son John, making this record has been one of the most soul-stirring events in my life. Being under the radar of official press, me and myself opened a bottle of cab one night, and conducted our own interview through one long conversation and several glasses of wine.

ME: How does it feel to have made a record after so many years? How did motherhood affect the process?

MYSELF: It felt great to make the record, but it took a long time to own that feeling. It was hard to release myself from my role as a parent to follow my muse. I made a lot of leaps of faith to do it, but only after I knew John was on his own path, and I was just a gentle wind at his back. Being an artist, craving time alone, needing freedom from time constraints has never left me, but my priorities for 22 years were to give my son the best start I could. Though I’ve never felt settled anywhere, I practiced this odd ritual of constancy for so long, I learned to appreciate its merits. I’ve not been able to completely cut myself adrift from that, though I ache to totally give in to my wanderlust and create a life that would let me write all the time. I think often of selling all my stuff, my house, all my clothes except what I could put in a trunk, reduce my possessions to just what I’d need to live out of a pop up camper or small trailer; take a long trip. I want to so much, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it.

ME: Why not?

MYSELF: I’d still need a place to live when I got home. I’ve dreamed of having a guest room since getting to Austin. I’d like to have a place for my son and his girlfriend to stay when they come to visit. It wouldn’t solve the bigger issue.

I’ve been in recovery from so many things in my life. I can be addicted to anything. I was in AA long enough to understand the phrase “no such thing as a geographic cure.” We moved so much when I was a kid, every year and a half or so, sometimes less. Now, wherever I move to, at two years almost to the day, I start thinking that I’ve got to get the pictures down and start giving things away. For a long time I wouldn’t put any pictures up until several months had passed. When John was growing up I made a point of staying in one town. But we moved from house to house at about the same rate we did when I was growing up.

I think there’s a deep connection for me between movement and creativity, and an odd healing process is taking place that’s showing up as this struggle between ditching it all and staying put. I’m trying to teach myself that it’s okay to have a home and a life as a writer, have my wanderlust part of the year, without giving up every thing I own. That maybe it’s the movement I want, not the move. Over the last 15 years I’ve been practicing resisting the urge to run, trying on the idea that I can be happy and settled in one place longer than five years. It’s hard to change those road maps that make you want to do things that no longer serve you.

Right now though, it’s going on a little over five years in my house here in Austin, and I feel that struggle in fine relief. Like a character from a Graham Greene novel, I live with my heart in two worlds. The title track of the record, I Need To Drive, is about that duality. The song was written as a letter to my house, the house I live in now in Austin.

ME: Tell me about Jeanette Walls … you dedicated I Need to Drive to her.

MYSELF: Jeanette Walls is the author of a memoir called The Glass Castle. It’s a beautiful, painful portrait of childhood chaos. The kind created by two brilliant, free-spirited parents unable to put down roots or offer any stability to their kids because of their creative urges and demons. The family was constantly on the move. I feel like the kid she was in the book, watching little pieces of your life disappear through the car’s back windshield, trying so hard to hold onto it, and then, through that combination of resilience and denial that children are famous for, turning around and embracing the next adventure.

ME: Tell me about the record. How did you come up with the title DRIVE.

MYSELF: Stephen came up with it. And it was perfect. The title track, I Need To Drive, which was written for the record, touches briefly on the concept of flight vs settled-ness. The fact that we moved every 12-18 months till I was 12 years old shaped my relationship to relationships, and the rest of the record is one big song about the hellos and goodbyes to love.

The word DRIVE can mean something different to everyone. To me it means ‘let go, surrender.’ I made my way back to songwriting from motherhood by finally letting go of the need to control events in my life and trust the Universe, or God, to get me where I needed to go. My heart was set on songwriting and music. I started taking big leaps of faith. I reconnected with a divine source in AA, and learned that jumping was not only safe, but preferable, and that it’s more crazy to not let go than it is to cling to the cliff.

Life is a struggle between control and surrender, same as driving a car. Driving involves moving the mechanical elements forward, that’s all. You have to drive the car. You have to deal with life’s painful realities. But that’s it. The rest is trust and go. It’s cool that on top of all that it turned out to be a great driving record.

ME: Are you happy with the record? Tell me about your producer, Stephen Doster. How did you find him?

MYSELF: I can’t say enough about how proud I am of this project, and so much of the credit goes to Stephen. DRIVE was recorded on 2″ analog tape at EAR studio in East Austin. Tape was a pre-requisite for me. My father used tape in all his years composing and recording in NY. I think, from listening to pop music over the years, that tape offers a warmth and aliveness to recording. I don’t know if digital can match it. It sounds different to me. It could be perception, nostalgia, but I don’t think so.

I knew from hanging around ArtZ Rib House that someone named Doster recorded to tape, but I also wanted a producer who would understand me and my music. Also, I knew I needed a gentle person, because it would be my first time recording, and I wasn’t confident. After a few years in Austin working on craft and taking voice lessons, I started to feel like I might have ten songs I could get behind to record. That’s when I started asking around about producers, and Stephen’s name kept coming up.

After talking with Lee Duffy at ASG (Austin Songwriters Group), who knew my work from their weekly song doctor sessions, I went and listened to Stephen play with his trio at Ztejas on 6th Street. I knew immediately I’d found the right guy. Though I didn’t know initially who he was, I was sitting next to the stage and struck up a conversation between songs with the guy sitting closest on the stage to my table. There was an instant connection. Eventually he introduced himself as Stephen Doster, and we agreed to meet and talk about working together on the record.

We began meeting at my house every Monday afternoon. Initially I thought he would want to hear me play, and listen to the songs I wanted to record. Instead, we spent hours discussing music, the creative process, our respective histories, our musical heroes. When I told him one of my favorite records was Jack Bruce’s Harmony Row, he got excited and said Jack Bruce was one of his all-time favorite musicians. He later told me it was one of the many coincidences during that time that made him realize he was the right guy to produce my record. We didn’t just talk about music. Stephen talked about his childhood, his time growing up in Germany and in Texas, the San Antonio Spurs, his cat and especially his family. He talked a lot about his son Django. He’s a dedicated husband and father and I came to deeply appreciate and respect him as a person during that time. He also gave me a copy of his first record Rosebud to listen to, and I’m still listening to it. It’s a great record.

I feel so much gratitude for the amount of time Stephen spent with me before agreeing to produce the record. He needed to see who I was first. He never heard me play before he green-lighted the project. Though he’d asked around about me, it was only later when I went to one of his song-pitch sessions at the ASG symposium in ’09 that he heard me sing one of my songs. He told me later that after he’d heard me play, he did a “YES!” and said he was relieved to know I really could sing and play. After that we started playing the songs down and pretty quickly came up with 10 or 12 songs to choose from. We still met on Mondays as his time allowed. I know he did this to develop trust so I could relax in the studio. Stephen takes his work very seriously. His goal is to make the best record possible of an artist’s work. He knew, since it would be my first record, that I needed him behind me every step of the way. I remember calling him late one night, ranting and scared about what was about to happen. He said, “I’ve been doing this a long time. You’re ready. I’ve got your back. Hurry up and know it!” He went over the top to make sure I was at ease before I ever stepped foot in EAR. I’ll always love him for that.

Stephen’s become one of my favorite people in the world. He has integrity, which is sorely missing in so many people. It’s fed by his deep respect and concern for people, but he doesn’t shout it. He lives it. That’s so rare. I keep learning from him. He’s like a brother to me. My own brother Timmy died in May of 2008 from kidney failure. He’d been mired in addiction for so long, that we’d all lost touch with the Timmy we’d known as kids. He was funny and real, and had a fierce sense of loyalty to his friends. Just like Stephen. On the front panel of the lyrics sheet of the record is a quote by Rumi, ‘Do not grieve. Anything you lose comes back in another form.’ Across the panel are pictures of all the performers and people involved in the record. Losing Timmy in May, and then my Mother in December of that year is why that quote is there. This record came together at the end of two long years of watching my brother and my mother’s health decline and then losing them both. It helped me deal with the grief. It was a distraction on one hand, but it was also a place where I could process those feelings of loss. And it gave me a family again for a little while.

ME: Describe the production, the players, the process. What was it like recording at EAR?

MYSELF: I think the production on this record is perfect for these songs. Stephen’s percussive arrangements and choice of players elevate the ten songs in a way I never imagined. Some of Austin’s best musicians contributed to it: J. J. Johnson on drums & percussion, Chris Maresh on double bass, Stephen on guitar, Red Young on Hammond Organ and keys, Ephraim Owens on trumpet and Dennis Ludiker on strings. Their performances took my songs from their bare-bones guitar/vocal renditions and put them in a castle on a spare winter day amidst rolling hills with a glint of sunlight coming through the clouds of a sunset washing the stone in pink and gold, with black crows flying into the rising midnight.

When I got the first mix of just the bass and drums to practice to, I was lying on the floor with headphones on and melted into tears, it was so beautiful. J. J. and Chris laid down such a sensual bottom to the songs that they were flying. We also used several live takes of my vocals and guitar and Stephen’s guitar. I fought with him, but he wouldn’t let me redo the vocals. ‘It’s got soul, man, it’s music!’ I had handed him the project with total faith at the onset, and I knew if there was anything blaringly wrong with my performance he’d let me fix it. So I let go of my insecurities at that point. Some of the most beautiful notes on the record come from Stephen and Red’s playing. Stephen’s solo on You’re My Falling Star breaks my heart. It’s so simple, so wrenchingly beautiful. When Red’s hands touched the first keys to lay down piano on that song, the control room fell stone quiet, and we just sat with our mouths hanging open till the end of the song. Stephen got up to the mic and shook his head and said, “Man, that was, we’re just, you just, you killed me man … and you gotta make Paula stop crying.” By the time Red finished playing on Winter Blossom, I was weeping. Part of it was that this record meant so much to me. But also I understood on some level that the songs inspired these musicians, they had to, to get those performances.

ME: What was it like mixing the tracks?

MYSELF: I got out of the way. Stephen said, subtly to me one day, “You know, you don’t have to be at the studio when we’re mixing. It might even be best that way, but of course, it’s up to you.” Stephen’s an expert at making suggestions without hurting your feelings. I think that’s one of the reasons he such a great producer. He’s sensitive, and hip. I remember how he would let one of the players know if he wanted another take. He’d say “Hey man, that was great. Want to try it again?” Or, “Hey man, that was really great, how’d you feel about it?” His timing and tact is impeccable, with or without a guitar in his hands.

James Stevens, the co-engineer on the project, created a mix that for the life of me, I could not see how it could be improved upon in mastering. I tried to convince them both to let us release it like that. It took three tries to get something in a master that was close. I was married to the studio mix, but we went with the master.

ME: Talk about the artwork.

MYSELF: The jacket design was done by Renee Fernandez at Decoder Ring Design Concern here in Austin. It took several months to complete, and it’s been worth the wait. It’s absolutely beautiful. A work of art. She did a fantastic job putting all the images together to make a visual statement of the record. I gave her my thoughts about the title and what I wanted to convey, images from the songs I wanted in the design, that I wanted heavy use of color, a painterly look etc. Then she came up with this amazing cover. It’s visually stunning and underscores the duality that I was talking about before: the title says DRIVE, but the image beneath it is of woman in a hot air balloon (actually an image of the moon). All but three of the ropes holding the basket to the balloon are frayed, broken and blowing in the wind behind her. Her arms are thrust out before her, open wide to the journey ahead. She’s held aloft by a few threads, but she’s moving forward, embracing what’s ahead. The image partially refers to a line in the song Moon’s Too Bright.

ME: What’s next?

MYSELF: I’m supposed to promote the hell out of this record. My mind is a whir of new songs. Stephen had said once that DRIVE was the record I’d been waiting my whole life to make. That’s true, because it’s my first, and I honestly didn’t think I’d ever be ready. Now I know I’ve got several records in me, and they all want to come out at once. DRIVE is a sensual record about love. Now I want to make a different record. Romantic love’s been done and done and done. I’ve thrown my penny into the fountain, at least for now. I know I’ll come back to it. I’m working on a collection of songs that deal with characters caught in uncompromisingly difficult situations, but through which, via the devices of denial or veiled hope, grace or the act of surrender, there is a small opening to crawl out. It’s tentatively called “Sangre Triste,” which means Sad Blood, and refers to a genre of poetry that’s particularly cathartic.

One of these songs came out of my need for the last year, for time alone in the woods, in New England somewhere, in the dead of Winter. The kind of place where you get the kind of quiet you can only get from new snow falling. None of my efforts to make that happen have panned out. It’s not supposed to happen yet I guess. So I wrote a song about it instead, called New Snow Falling. It’s about a woman who comes unglued in her kitchen while her kids and husband and home all whirl around her, and she finds this pen and a sheaf of paper and just starts writing, and there’s a blizzard outside, as well as one in her mind, and she sits there on the floor of the kitchen writing, and all she hears is the sound of new snow falling. It’s a rebirth.

ME: Sum up what you’ve learned during your first time making a record.

MYSELF: I have a recording lexicon and I can throw around cool words like overdub, analog, high end, ‘feel good song,’ project, etc. I’ve learned I have another addiction to feed. And, for several weeks now, I keep hearing a voice say “Your life is going to change …” and then it feels like something extraordinary is about to happen.