Judy Collins

Quick Q and A with Tracy Grammer

For any of you who read this blog, you must realize that I post these interviews with musicians as a way to promote shows at the me&thee coffeehouse but I also love getting the word out to the world at large who may or may not know these artists.  There are so many ways to collect information about music and musicians, I figure that this blog is just one more little avenue to spread the music gospel.  I’m not a musician.  I simply love promoting those who are talented and who touch my soul.

Tracy Grammer is one such person.  Her music and stories are transformative.  Subliminal.  Spiritual.  You get my drift.

Here’s me posing some questions to Tracy as an example of an artist who bares her soul about her life and creative process. It’s worth a read.  It’s a mini-symposium on the process of creating art…and in this case the art is songwriting and music making.  Think about what the world would be without this kind of art.  A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about music and appreciate it. I hope that my interviews lead some readers to come to the same kind of appreciation.

To learn more about Tracy Grammer, visit her website.

Check out Tracy singing “Hole” from her new album, Low Tide.

Here’s a video of Dave and Tracy singing “The Mountain.”

Tracy Grammer will be performing at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on March 9, 2018.

I’ve been listening to Low Tide quite a bit lately.  I sincerely feel that it’s a complete work of art.  What it’s not is background music.  This recording is a living breathing document that chronicles your inner life with music and unforgettable lyrics. Was it more or less cathartic writing the songs than recording the album? Or were they both equally cathartic?

Thank you for the kind words.

Writers often say, “I didn’t know what I was thinking till I wrote it down.” So it is with me and all my writing — songwriting, prose, and the occasional poem

These songs were written to prompts for the most part, and I didn’t know exactly what I had to say about those prompts until I started hitting the keys and pushing the pen across lined paper. My engagement was failing at that point and my father had recently died, people I loved were damaging themselves with drugs and living just beyond my reach, and I was at a crossroads with my Dave Carter legacy work, wanting to move forward but unsure how. I didn’t set out to address or heal those situations with my songs. I was just trying to produce new music on a tight schedule, at the pace of a song a week. I have a daily writing practice that dates back before high school, so generating wasn’t a problem. Putting together songs, however, was something I’d always found challenging. Deadline pressure combined with intense, though sometimes latent, emotion were fine fuel for the process.

I wouldn’t call the process cathartic.

Getting a song involves a lot of random fidgeting and rumination until finally, something sparks the mind and heart. The spark isn’t cathartic, it’s just compelling, but momentum follows, and creative momentum is delicious. That’s the

ultimate  sweet spot:

when body, spirit, and intellect align in the service of art.

Even if the result isn’t genius, that zone is gold.

— when there’s no thought. There’s only flow.

I can’t say songwriting is, in and of itself cathartic.

These songs came too fast for that, generally sparking just hours before their due date. But performing them, and getting to know them, has been.

The songs continue to breathe and set with each performance, and I continue to unravel their meanings. I know writers who are revisiting songs they wrote 20 years ago because they feel like now, finally, they understand what they were trying to say. “Catharsis” is too fine a point to put on the process, at least in my experience. A finished song is just a portal you use to further contemplate whatever drove you to write that song in the first place.

Recording the album requires reckoning with some version of the song that feels true enough to stand on its own. Right now, I wouldn’t say recording was cathartic, but that’s because my ears are still in studio-mode, attuned to mistakes and artifacts and things I wish I’d done differently. If you ask me this six months from now, when I’m in relaxed listener mode, I’m sure I’ll answer differently. There are, however, two exceptions:

“Hole.” That song came out exactly as I intended. It is not a side of myself I think anyone expected to see, and it is particularly liberating to have that dark little sword out in the world. The second is “Free,” which may be “Hole’s polar opposite. I wept several times during the recording of “Free,” finally understanding how true it was, and is.

The imagery of “low tide” alludes to the hidden things that are beneath the surface. Was this an image that you had all along or did it realize itself as the project was being completed?

There was a liquid feel to the collection from the get-go. My working title was “Bloodwork” but that felt too gooey and dark to me, and basically no one liked it. About 40 more titles presented themselves during the recording process.

LOW TIDE was among the early arrivals. As with some of the lyrics, its correctness is still revealing itself.

To the extent that it invokes treasure, trash, access, expanse, and the cycles of high and low, wet and dry, turbulence and calm, I do believe it is the right title for this work right now.

There’s a very mystical power to the songs you performed with Dave.  The two of you were a powerful force in the music world.  When you were piecing this album together, did you ever feel Dave’s spirit giving you support or suggestions?

Thank you.

Dave used to say nice things about my songwriting to anyone who would listen.

Nevermind I hadn’t actually finished any songs back then. He had such faith in me as an artist that I think he just assumed I would write well when I finally got around to it .

I relied on Andrew Calhoun’s input and cheerleading more. And I relied heavily on Jim Henry, my longtime accompanist and co-producer for the album. I mostly had to trust myself.

For angel help, I looked to the late Lisa Lepine, who had been our manager and then was a staunch supporter of all-things-Tracy after Dave’s death. Any doubts I had, I could hear Lisa laughing and saying, “Oh my gaaaahd!” I also drew on the love of my father, and specifically recorded his song in a style he would’ve enjoyed. I dedicated my album to Dad and Lisa.

Have you ever thought about what your life would be like today if you had never met Dave Carter? 

I’m more likely to think about what life would be like if he hadn’t died. What if we had survived his gender change and formed The Butterfly Conservatory, our all-girl psychedelic country band? That had been part of the master plan. How kooky would our lives be right now? There’s no telling.

Or, what life would be like if I had gone off to pursue my own music sooner, and not upheld my legacy work so long? For all the blessings of the legacy journey, I have made significant personal sacrifices that I generally don’t talk about because who wants to appear ungrateful? Not me. And yet: what if I had shut that door and moved on, without looking back?

Truth is, I have a very active imagination and I can what-if till the cows come home. But that kind of rear-view dreaming goes nowhere. There is only the one life, the one happening now. I’m trying to make the best of it, and I am, at the end of every day, grateful. And I am often confused. But more grateful than confused.

His is a legacy that you have represented admirably since his death. Is it even possible for you to name your favorite Dave songs? 

They change , but I think I’ll always love “The Mountain” best.

Do you have any anecdotes about the first time you heard some of them or how you’ve grown to love them more over time?

Dave first played “The Mountain” to me in my little bedroom on SE 17th Street in Portland, same apartment where we’d eventually record our first album, WHEN I GO.

He sat cross-legged on the bed and said he couldn’t really sing the song and he wasn’t sure anybody would get it anyway. Well, the first half of that turned out to be true. To get the song out in the intended key, he was forced to sing in an earnest and distracting falsetto, and it took everything I had to stifle my giggling because, quite frankly, it sounded ridiculous. But then he got to the chorus. “I see the mountain, the mountain comes to me / I see the mountain and that is all I see.”

I grew up in view of the Saddleback mountain range in southern California. Spent childhood summers in Nevada, looking across Lake Mojave at the red-gold mountains on the Arizona side. And in Portland, we all looked to white-capped Mount Hood and the Cascades with a measure of wonder and longing. I felt an instant YES to the chorus. He’d put words to a connection that I’d been feeling all my life.

Afterward, he asked: “Well, what did you think? Is it any good?”

I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t really heard most of it.  But I wasn’t lying when I said, “Yes. It’s good. It’s really good.” And asked him to teach it to me.

The songs are masterfully crafted, challenging in the best ways, deeply prescient and, in a lot of cases, just plain fun to play. They anchored me as I found my way as a solo performer. They taught me how to sing, how to stand , how to connect, how to love and let go. And I can say with certainty that I know Dave better than I ever did in life for having sung them — anybody who studies the catalog will find his soul’s trouble and joy written plain — and  so my compassion for his struggles is much deeper now. I know myself better as an artist, as a partner, as a wounded healer, and of course, legacy keeper. The songs paved the road for my recovery from unspeakable loss. I am healed because of them, and it brings me joy to see great artists like Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, Chris Smither, Richard Shindell, and countless others , in campfires and coffeehouses, carrying them forward.

I’m curious about why you included “Cloudbusting” by Kate Bush.  I was reminded in a recent review of your album that that particular song was inspired by Peter Reich’s Book of Dreams about his father’s experiments with orgone energy. It also inspired Patti Smith to write “Birdland.”  Is there some connection between Reich’s discussion about universal life energy and your own personal philosophies?

I learned about all of that afterward.

I’ve loved this song since high school. Loved it for the cellos, for memory and longing, for the sun coming out and the optimism in the face of all odds. I wanted to include something old and well outside the genre, and this being a father-number, it fit my “Bloodwork” paradigm nicely. I wanted the challenge of running a pop song through the Tracy filter and seeing what came up. If Ms. Bush ever hears it, I hope she approves.

I do love the optimism and the touch of magic in the refrain: “I just know that something good is gonna happen / I don’t know when / But just saying it could even make it happen” and I think that it works well with the balance of my album, which is, on the whole, dark, and I placed it toward the end to mimic a break in dark clouds.

Enough Heaviness. How is Miss Kitty? And what kind of traveling partner is she? 

Miss Kitty is a dream on the road, and affable and adaptable companion. Over the course of our two-month tour last year, she let out exactly one stress meow. Otherwise, she seemed calm and comfortable.  Sat in her carrier on the passenger seat for the most part, and popped out for food and litter box relief as needed. Rode on the luggage cart like a champ, quickly acclimated to new hotels, and slept under the covers with me just like she does at home. I didn’t think I could grow to love her more but I did. And I do. And now I want to change the way I tour so I can bring her on long trips. I think we both enjoy the adventure.

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