2018 has been weird so far.
On Jan 3 I had bunion surgery. Sexy, no? No. The long term goal is to be pain-free, but, that's long term. Short term, it's been a bit rough. I was two weeks non-weight bearing. That meant lying around, scooting from couch to bed and back gain on a knee scooter, taking serious pain meds and sleeping a lot. So: doing nothing. On the other hand, I had beautiful friends bring me meals, cold Cokes, books, and essential oils; stop by to keep me company; and text text text to keep me entertained. Paul took care of all the household tasks and fetched whatever I needed, all with the patience of a saint. It meant everything.
Then it was into a boot and back to work; back to driving kids to and from; back to cheering at high school swim meets (from the deck because I wasn't about to take the stairs up to the bleachers); back to wanting to do everything I did before surgery but still being exhausted and sore and feeling like nothing I managed to do was up to snuff.
Eventually the boot came off and I am back in shoes. By shoes I mean one pair of Adidas that I wear everyday. They were my favorite before surgery, but now I'm not so sure (everyday, you guys). And then the flu hit. First my 17 year old son was struck with Influenza B one week before he was set to swim at state (the high school athlete's nightmare); then I got it. Tamiflu. Cough syrup with codeine. Now flu's gone and in its place I have a "secondary infection" but I'm on day two of antibiotics and am hopeful that the end of illness is nigh.
It feels like I've done nothing but convalesce for two months. That's probably because I've been convalescing for two months. It feels like I haven't been pulling my weight and I'm afraid I'm getting used to it and am becoming a lazy slob. And I know I should be patient and gentle with myself, and give myself time, but...but...but...
And while I've been doing nothing, everything has been happening. All the tracking for my album is done. I'm shooting for a May release. My musical hero asked me to open for him and he is going to play and sing with me. Darrell Scott is going to play on my songs. He is going to sing on my songs. Darrell Scott on my songs. I'm trying really hard to play it cool. It's nothing. It's everything. It all is, isn't it?
Emily Dunbar Music has been a ghost town. I ghosted out on my solo work because I've been doing ALL THE THINGS elsewhere. I will now justify my absence with a list of those things.
I've been working at a snail's pace (see list above) to record Hello, Better. It's been nine years since my last album and I've got a lot of songs to share. My friend Kent at Tone Tree Audio has been patiently engineering. Lisa Smith (Star Belle) plays bass. The Dunbar Boys lend their voices. Melissa Reichert records fiddle next week. And then we mix, master, and get it out to you. I can't wait!
In the mean time, I'm playing at the Listening Room in Hastings on March 9 opening for Darrell Scott. Darrell is going to play with me during my set, which is INSANELY exciting and humbling and a dream come true. See you out there!
Hope posted a blog yesterday in which she discusses our going to The Song School at Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, Colorado and what that means to her. I say "same." She also provided a list of the all the songs she has written in the past year since Song School. I thought taking stock was great idea and set out to do the same. It's like New Year's Eve over here--the year starts over at Song School.
Thinking back over the year showed me that time sometimes folds over on itself. It's been a long year. Time has flown by. Songs that seem like they've been around forever are actually still infants. Some songs didn't make the cut and were only played through once or twice. It also took some detective work--looking up the dates on Google Docs to see when I typed up the lyrics--before or after last August? Here's my list (in no particular order). It was a more productive year than I had given myself credit for. Thanks, Hopie, for the inspiration both in making the list and writing the songs.
1. Memphis 1993
I started this last summer before Song School, but I'm counting it because I worked on it all year. I chucked the verses at least twice and started from scratch and still knew it wasn't right. This summer on vacation I finally chucked the chorus (all but the line "Memphis 1993") and rewrote the verses again. I think I finally got it.
2. Mary, Mary & Martha
A three part vocal piece for Easter morning. My daugher and three other high school girls sang it for sunrise service this year.
3. The True Ballad of Belle Gunnison
I wrote this on a songwriting retreat over MLK weekend with Hope, Andy, and Emily. I looked up serial killers on wikipedia and found Belle Gunnison. It's a dark song.
4. Alpha & Omega
A three part round written for our church weekday school kick off. Turns out, I won't be there to lead the congregation in singing it.
5. On the Team
Theme song for vacation bible school.
6. You'd Think By Now
The most recent song. Started it on vacation--still putting the finishing touches on it.
7. Spirit of Elvis
Hope gave me this prompt: after losing a bet, an Elvis impersonator must choose between love and money.
8. Despite the Weather
I wrote this over Thanksgiving at Camp Luther with an assist from Hope. It's about blizzards and cannibalism.
9. Crying Chair
Did you know I'm writing a musical? It's called Mrs. Parker's Room. It's about Julie Parker's kindergarten class at Hawthorne. Songs 9-11 are my first three songs for the show.
10. Tattle Phone
11. School Today
12. Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)
Some women who participated in RealWomenRealSongs started an alumni songwriting group with monthly prompts. I wrote this song about a Pollack piece. It's mostly spoken word, which was a departure for me.
13. Small Town Parade
I wrote this on the way home from a Star Belle gig at the Chimney Rock Pioneer Days Festival in Bayard, NE. I love it and it's now a Star Bell regular.
It's about mermaids and bioluminescence.
15. Unexamined Heart
Another RWRS Alumni song. I strip mined it and used chunks of it for the new/keeper verses of Memphis 1993.
16. Moving On
A song about carrying on when life is hard. I love it. Star Belle has adopted it.
17. John 15:15
17-21 are memory verse jingles I wrote for VBS. They are maybe 30 seconds long. I almost didn't count them, but they count.
18. 1 Corinthians 12: 27
19. Philippians 4: 13
20. John 11:25
21. Psalm 105: 1b
I've been writing songs my whole life, really, but in a dedicated way for the past fifteen years. I've learned a lot. I've grown a lot. I used to hide my songs away, having labored over them and poured my heart into them, afraid that someone would find fault with the song--and by extension MY SOUL. I have grown out of that for the most part, though criticism can certainly still sting. I found community: first through a weekly song circle with my local friends where we would play our brand new baby songs for each other, giving and receiving great encouragement. Now I have a circle of pals who give honest feedback, listen to unfinished songs and give direction, help set goals and give high fives for either effort and/or achievement. I have mentors who are ahead of me in the game but serve as role models and can offer guidance and advice. Through RealWomenRealSongs I learned that every song is not necessarily a special snowflake; I can keep writing and another song will come around; sometimes I hit the mark and sometimes I miss and that's okay--keep writing. I know how to talk about songwriting. Measure success however you want, but with songwriting I know what I'm doing.
Now enter fiction. It's a whole new world, you guys.
I have a completed novel that I have kept pretty close to my chest. It IS special snowflake, isn't it? It takes sooooo much longer to write a chapter and get it right than to get a verse. A novel is tens or hundreds of thousands of words. Don't hear me say it is harder to do (songwriting is hard!), it just empirically takes a bigger time commitment. It feels like I poured my soul into it. I certainly poured a year and a half into it. I feel sheepish and shy talking about it. Who do I think I am writing a novel for publication? Why do I think I can do this? What if I spent all this time on it and it is crap?
I've gotten over some of this. SOME of it. Last summer I asked some super readers/friends to read an early draft and give me feedback. It was terrifying and helpful. It's been easier to send it out to 100 agents I've never met than to the people who I know love me and want me to do well. I still get flustered when someone asks what it's about.
I'm working with a career coach, the fabulous Sarah Fruehling. Want help getting to the next level in your pursuits? Want help figuring out what your doing with your life? Go see Sarah.
Last month we talked about the transference of skills. I have built up all these skills and resources for songwriting: community, mentors, openness. My new goal is to figure out how to apply these skills to the writing of fiction. I need a group of writers I can share with. I need someone ahead of me in the game to shed a little wisdom (I've got a list!). I need to some how not see this writing as so precious. I need to bring it out into the light and not make it be such a big deal. I'm working on it. It's such a good plan!
And in the spirit of this post I will tell you this. I am working on a new novel. It's not the one I set out to write, but new inspirations edged out my best laid plans...and by "new inspirations" I mean a plot line I've been kicking around for fifteen years. Almost every morning I'm up to put in a hour or so of writing before work. It's been fun! Also, I have sent a query letter and excerpts out to dozens of literary agents. Two have requested to read my full manuscript. That's something! That's something super cool. That's something to keep working on and towards.
It seems a little silly to rebrand myself, or at least to call it that, but I'm doing it anyway. I built this website years ago to promote my work as a solo singer songwriter. While I am certainly still writing songs, I am seldom performing them as a solo act. This was a conscious choice. After a few years as a part of Star Belle Ukulele Band and spending much of 2015 playing out with my sister-in-law Hope as The Mrs. Dunbars, I found that standing on stage by myself just wasn't as much fun as goofing around with my friends. Driving to and from gigs alone was considerably less fun than stopping and having small town adventures with the band. So, I stopped pursuing solo gigs and have focused in on Star Belle. Good times! (But I reserve the right to change my mind and play a solo gig every now and again!)
I also started several other creative pursuits. I wrote a young adult novel titled Daffodils & Graveyard Bells, and am currently seeking an agent in hopes of publishing it. I've started another one...or at least I'm writing a story. We'll see where it goes. I'm writing a musical. Some friends and I just cooked up a plan to collaboratively write a play. Hope & I are cooking up another project that we'll spill the beans on later this summer/Fall 2016. That sounds like a lot. It is, but it is all so much fun. And I find that creative momentum is powerful: once I start working on one project, the others start popping.
One thing I haven't had much follow through with is the blog. I've written in fits and starts over the years. Maybe this time it will stick. It would be good for me to have a place to share what I'm working on and where projects stand, if not because you are interested (Are you interested? You're interested, right? You're not interested? I hope you are interested.), than as an act of accountability for myself and proof that I'm making stuff. So, check back! I hope to have clips and excerpts and cool stuff to share.
On July 28, 2014 I posted this blog about my big step into the void, away from a teaching career. I figured it was time for an update.
When teachers reported for duty last year I was in Colorado at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and Song School at Planet Bluegrass. I had a few moments of panic, but then I sat by the St. Vrain River, heard amazing music, was cajoled by my pals and got over it pretty quickly. I've pretty much stayed over it. In September I was offered an amazing part time job slinging soap and then I was offered another part time job supervising student teachers. Score and score.
I worked it out to have Tuesdays off. Hope and I took turns driving the hour between our houses on Tuesdays and had a standing once-a-week music appointment. In the spring, most of those days included Jessica and Star Belle practice. I also finished out RealWomenRealSongs completing every assignment like the nerd that I am. The Mrs. Dunbars played gigs in St. Louis and Wisconsin. Star Belle played some great shows and got on the local news which has led to more great shows. I played solo gigs here and there. My life and my heart have been filled up with music. Score and score.
I also started work on a new and scary adventure: writing a novel. I have always imagined that I would do it. I have thought about it since I was a kid but never had the wherewithal to get started. In September I started and worked on it piecemeal throughout the year. My friend Nikki and I met regularly just to sit side by side and write, holding each other accountable to keep working on our projects. As summer approached I made a push to finish the first draft. I got to the end of my story, let it rest for a couple weeks, then did round one of serious edits and rewrites. The bad news was that the beginning was terrible. The good news was that I had learned so much and my writing had improved by a huge margin by the end of the novel. The trick was to get the beginning to match the end. In this case, "trick" means killing my darlings, starting from scratch, and pep-talking my way through it.
By July I had a draft I felt okay about. I knew it wasn't done. I knew it wasn't there. I knew I needed input. It needed readers. This, my friends, was terrifying. I have grown accustomed to getting feedback on songs. Songs that contain three verses, a chorus, and a bridge. That's like 300 words (I just checked one song at random and it has 289) and I usually work on a song for a couple days or a couple weeks, a few hours at a time. And I feel like I know how to write a song--they aren't all stellar and the process varies--but I get it. The novel is around 40,000 words (at this point, it's a novella, but I'm working on it) and it took me nine or ten months working several hours per week on it. I also wrote it having no clue if the process was creatively helpful or efficient, and having zero experience judging my own work of this kind. I know if a song is a stinker, but prose? Clueless. Uncharted waters, friends.
I am working on a song right the now, the chorus of which says, "It's not that I am not afraid/I just do it anyway." What's the point of writing a book that no one reads? What good is sitting with a project hoping I've done it well without ever seeing how it measures up?
So, I sucked it up, made six copies, and sent it out. Some went in the mail but most I dropped off in mailboxes, hoping I didn't have heart attack while driving around town. Now I am in the process of receiving thoughtful and helpful feedback from super smart friends who agreed to help me in this tricky endeavor. It's clear where the problems are and what needs tweaking and I am hatching a plan to finish it up when I get back from Song School. I should say for the record, writing fiction is very fun. It turns out I like making stuff up. So, what will become of it? What's the end game? Well, gee, wouldn't we all like to know the answer to that about this project as well as...EVERYTHING. Right now the plan is to do good work and see what comes.
So, this is where I stand one year later. Thanks for all support as I closed my eyes and took a leap. Guess what? A net appeared.
Hope and I are taking the show on the road: The Mrs. Dunbars are playing two shows in St. Louis. This is super exciting because Saturday night at 1900 Park we get to split the bill with some great St. Louis singer-songwriters we met when we went to Folk Alliance Region Midwest last fall: Eric Barnes, Jane Godfrey, and Bryan Ranney (go to my shows page for links to their music). This is also exciting because St. Louis is my hometown, where I have never played a show.
Though it had been a dream of mine since the first time I saw the Go-Go's video, I did not start playing guitar until I moved to Nebraska in 2001. I know I tortured my facebook friends with RealWomenRealSongs posts every week last year, but those videos aren't really representative of what a show is like. I received lots of support from my hometown friends when I put out my album, but that was five or six years ago (OH MY STARS, how is that possible?!). Really, the last time most of my St. Louis people saw me perform was singing "Groovy Kind of Love" in a red polyester Swing Choir dress or in Kirkwood High School's 1992 production of The Pajama Game in which I played Gladys tangoing and singing "Hernando's Hideaway" (olé!). So, this homecoming is a very late debut of sorts.
I am excited and nervous. Who will show up? What will their expectations be and will I meet them? Ultimately, the root of all these questions is this: will I be good enough? I suppose that question runs through my mind before every show. If I'm really honest, it runs through my mind most days. Yours too, right? Here's what I tell myself before most shows, but I think it applies to life as well: I have done all I can do to prepare. It's no longer about "good enough" but about being who I am in this moment and letting that vulnerability forge a connection between me and those around me. And it's about having the most fun possible.
I'll let you know how it goes. Or come to the shows, and you tell me how it's going (with applause and woo-hoos and whatnot). I'll be having a great time yucking it up on stage with Hope, cracking wise, singing songs, bringing the harms, and being vulnerable--not vulnerable like when you saw me in the Kirkwood High School 1991 production of Guys-n-Dolls in which I played a Hot Box Girl (seriously) and we had full-monty velcro dresses (seriously--with leotards underneath) that we threw into the orchestra pit (seriously). Not like that. But vulnerable none-the-less.
This year has been bonkers.
It's been a banner year. I am so grateful to Paul who supports all my adventures. When I doubt if I can or should go out and do something big and exciting he always says, "GO!" I am so grateful to everyone who has encouraged me and supported me and listened to my music or come out to shows. I can't wait to see what 2015 brings! Happy new year to you all.
Here's my final reflection for RWRS.
I had the great opportunity to meet and connect with other musicians, DJs, and venues at the Folk Alliance Region Midwest (FARM) conference in St. Louis. Attending this event, even as a fly on the wall, would have been killer. Great musicians from all over the midwest and, really, the continent were there doing their thing and it was beautiful to hear and see. But, I got to be a part of it in some major ways that were icing on the cake. Delicious and sweet icing on the cake. Here is a list of some great things about FARM.
1. St. Louis is my home town so Hope and I went down a day early and spent the night with my mom and dad--score!
2. Registration for this event was Hope's birthday gift to me. Thanks, Hope!
3. My friend Heather Miller hosts a radio show called Lyrical Venus on KRUU community radio in Fairfield, IA. She invited The Mrs. Dunbars to play a 10 minute showcase. We were the second act of the weekend. It was very fun and a new experience to have so many people hear us play before meeting us.
4. During FARM there are private showcases IN THE HOTEL ROOMS from 12-2 am. I got to play in many of these but a group of us decided to host a showcase: the Harry Potter-themed Magic of Music. Every night at 11 we put our suitcases and guitar cases in the bathtub, plugged in the twinkle lights, put potato soup in the crockpot, set up chairs, wrote the night's line up on the the chalkboard outside our door, and presented some really great music in a little tiny place. PS: tired musicians really appreciate a cup of soup at 2:30 am.
5. I signed up for a mentoring session with Jonathan Rundman. I tried to contain myself--I've been a fan of his music for some time, but had never met him. So, besides getting to hear him play a DJ showcase and in a tiny hotel room, I got to sit down and ask him questions and talk about music for a bit. It was super helpful, encouraging and inspiring.
6. I got to meet Anna Vogelzang who is a RealWomenRealSongs participant. I've chitchatted online with Anna all year and then there she was in the flesh. She, Hope, and I decided to cowrite our week 43 song. We sat and worked at the FARM registration desk and later out on the patio. We filmed it in the lobby. Here it is.
What I'm reading
What I'm listening to
My Favorite Murder Podcast, Someone Knows Something Podcast, The Cars Greatest Hits