A CONVERSATION WITH SARAH LEMIEUX OF THE
SARAH LEMIEUX QUINTET
“Moments Musicaux” August 14, 2014
Interviewer: Anne C. LeMieux (disclosure – mom)
ACL: You wore a number of different hats to bring this project to fruition. You’ve written eight of the nine songs, music and the lyrics. You sing the lead vocals and the background vocals. You play guitar, piano, and harp on it – anything else?
SEL: Some percussion.
ACL: Some percussion. And you did all the arranging and a lot of the recording yourself, and co-produced it. The result is a very cohesive collection of songs, both musically and lyrically. What was your vision for this album at the beginning?
SEL: My vision for the album at the beginning was to try and make something that was really sort of sweeping and sensory and visual, like—almost like a movie that you would listen to. And very narrative, also, with characters, and stories that happen to the characters, so you would close your eyes when you were listening and picture a scene that was happening.
ACL: The songs on “Moments Musicaux” are arranged for a very specific group of instruments, and one of the “feels” that comes through is Klezmer. You have very expressive melodic lines that convey emotional content in and of themselves and melodic ornamentation, not just with the instruments but with your voice, and you bring it together in this jazzy way, with an interplay that’s so balanced. Can you talk about your approach to arranging?
SEL: My approach to arranging was to try to combine everything that I wanted, every influence, and element into each composition. For example, with “Just A Little Longer,” I had the clarinet and the viola adding little pieces of ornamentation supporting the vocal. And then I wanted them to behave like horns in the chorus. In my mind, I had a horn line and I wrote it for the clarinet and the viola to play together and then, it wasn’t quite enough. I needed more “horn-ness” so I added background vocals to be like more horns, but I wanted—we were all horns, you know? So I wrote those lines. When I’m composing a song, if I’m sitting at the piano or if I’m sitting with the guitar, I’ll get two completely different arrangements, because the instruments themselves intrinsically have arrangements that they imply and my mind also has arrangements that it favors, but it has a vast palette of instruments that are real or imaginary, Renaissance, for instance, or you know, from the seventies, synth things, or whatever. So my brain has all these instruments that I can pick from. And depending on the mood, or the feeling, or the picture that I’m trying to support, I’ll select an instrument to think of, and I’ll write a line that I think that instrument would like. And then, for the unity of all the songs on the record, I wrote for the instruments that I chose for these songs and for the particular musicians in the Quintet.
ACL: You’ve called the music on this album “Chamber Jazz.” Can you describe this hybrid genre?
SEL: I don’t think we actually coined the term. There are a few other artists out there playing music that they refer to as chamber jazz—but what I mean by it is the particular combination of elements involved: underlying jazz harmonies, with some chamber instrumentation, like the flute or the clarinet or the viola, and sort of treating the voice as a chamber instrument in the setting of the small ensemble. And then a mix of improvisation and composed contrapuntal lines that sound like they could be improvised, but aren’t. It’s also intended to be intimate in the way that chamber music is intimate.
ACL: You mentioned composing your background vocal parts to be like horns. Can you talk about your voice as an instrument? Do you think in terms of colors and timbres in your singing, and how you shape your voice?
SEL: Oh, absolutely. I think a lot about how to—this doesn’t sound romantic or beautiful, but—how to hold my face to make the vowel the way that I want the tone to be, which is, I mean, singers do that.
ACL: I’ve noticed that sometimes you really smile when you’re singing.
SEL: Yeah. (smiles) Smiling. Smiling when you’re singing is huge, if it’s a moment that needs a smile.
ACL: Your voice blends so beautifully with the clarinet—a clear but velvety tone. How did you approach the parts of the arrangements where your vocalizing is so intertwined with the clarinet that it’s hard to distinguish voice from instrument?
SEL: Since I recorded “Glow Rosy” (E.P. released in 2009) I’ve considered voice to be my primary instrument. Guitar and piano are tied for second. But voice is where I have the most capacity to do something that I would say—something that’s uniquely mine. And I wanted to take my voice and make it the instrument that I knew that it could be, and also to, really, to learn how to play it as an instrument, you know? And to learn how to compose for it as an instrument and arrange for it—treat it as an instrument. So with this album, when I was writing the viola part and the clarinet part, I wanted it to be a chamber trio. I wanted us to be three chamber instruments, the voice as a chamber instrument, and the clarinet and the viola, working together as an instrumental trio as far as tones, and timbres, and dynamics, and things like that. And then, obviously it’s a jazz record.
ACL: Your background includes musical theater and choral singing, back when you were in school. During your college days, you played with indie rockers down in Manhattan, then you really delved into the blues for a while—your first album, Superbleu, was deeply rooted in blues. “Moments Musicaux” is distinctly jazz. Can you talk a bit about women and jazz?
SEL: I think an area where women were always able to be accepted as legitimate musicians was in jazz and where they were able to pioneer, was as vocalists. Take Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn, for example—everybody understood that they were working, and that they were doing something intentional, and that it was a skillful thing, that it wasn’t an accident of their having been born with a pretty voice. In developing my vocal style, I wanted to take my voice and be as intentional with it as I could, in every single way that I was using it. I made a real effort to take solos with my voice on this record , and to treat it like an instrumental solo break when I was doing it. You know, I have done a lot of, sort of, incidental scat texture on things that I’ve recorded in the past, but I wanted to give it a piece, its own section in the chart, like, this is the guitar solo, but it’s scat syllables.
ACL: Are you seeing more improvisation in your future?
SEL: Yes. Sure. I am finally at the point where I feel like a really competent improviser with my voice, and I love to do it, and it’s the same thing as composing, it’s just faster, you know? Everything I do starts with, mostly, some kind of a theme, and then variation, variation, and then phrasing.
ACL: Do you ever approach improvisation from a harmonic structure standpoint?
SEL: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And that also is a function of whatever mood I’m trying to serve. There are changes that feel like, Genesis! You know? Like the Planets and Space. And then there are changes that are, like, I’m in a country bar.
ACL: You’ve developed such a flexible instrument with your voice, with your scat singing. One song, in fact, is solely scat-singing.
SEL: “Pesnya Bez Slov,” which translates as, “Song Without Words”.
ACL: It’s amazing that without language, basically with nonsense syllables, it can
communicate so much. One thing I loved was that for any listener coming to it, you set the stage for them to bring their own story. With your inflection, and the way you used your voice, the emotion came through without any words. Yet it really did tell a story. As I was listening, I pictured this youthful feminine character who was yearning for intimate connection and it was eluding her and she almost achieved it, but it kept kind of going wrong. There was a section of the song where she was just so fatigued, but then, at the end, she picked herself up, and kept going. That was the story I heard. Can you talk about the making of that song, in all its aspects?
SEL: Sure. I think probably the reason that that story came across to you is because it’s very close to the story that came across to me when I was listening to the piece that inspired it, Rachmaninoff’s Allegretto in E flat minor. It’s from his collection called “Moments Musicaux”, which is where the name of this album comes from. The first time I listened to that song, I was in my car, and it was autumn, and it was sort of gray, and it was the mood of autumn: things are starting, but things are also dying, and that’s the story of autumn that comes around every year. And I listened to this Rachmaninoff song and I felt like my heart was falling down a flight of stairs—but beautifully. It wasn’t sad. It was everything happening at once, and I felt from Rachmaninoff—and I should say that I was listening to a recording of Rachmaninoff playing, it wasn’t someone else interpreting his music, it was his playing—and I felt from him that, that piece, which also has no words, was about the story of humans. How we are trying to achieve these grand dreams, and find these grand loves, and do all these things and it’s like (lifts hands up and spreads them out with an inverted sigh – inhaling) Auuch, it’s so beautiful, and then (slumps, exhaling) Auch, you’re back to the end, you know? And it’s also, you know, he was Russian and he had a lot of tragedies in his life and also a lot of grand successes, too. I think in all of his work, that comes through, but that song, the Allegretto in E flat minor is what inspired the arpeggiated section of “Pesnya." I structured it very similarlyto the way he structures that section of his piano Allegretto, and I had that story and those emotions in my mind when I was structuring it.
ACL: It’s fascinating that something without words can communicate on so many levels. To me, it conveys that sometimes, we human beings are just at a loss for words, we just don’t have the words to articulate our emotions. And sometimes, like the Tower of Babel, we’re all speaking, but we can’t each understand each other .
SEL: Sure. Well, a lot of the communication in speech isn’t necessarily from the
words that you’re speaking. A lot of the communication is from tone of voice and from prosody, and body posture and facial expressions. What I was thinking about when you were asking me initially about the song, the lead-in to your question about phrasing, lyrical phrasing, was that my technique with this record—thiswhole record—vocally, was to try and amplify the meaning of every verbal statement, of every word, by taking the meta-things from human speech, inflections and prosody, and thinking of the natural rhythms of speech. If I say, like, oh, “Excuse me,” (lightly, lilting tone) I'm being polite, but if I say, “EXCUSE ME!” (frowning, angry tone) I'm saying two different things with the same words.
ACL: Or if you say, “Come on, now,” (beckoning, friendly tone) or “Come onnnnnnn!” (exhasperated tone)—
SEL: Right, exactly, exactly. So exaggerating the natural prosody that you use can communicate meaning. I rethought some of my melodic lines to make the prosody more like you would speak, you know, for instance, I didn’t want the melodyto exaggerate a word like “to” or “the” or “but.”
ACL: I think one of the real strengths of this album and of your songs is the marriage of the music and the words. What was your process in melding the lyrics to the music?
SEL: I usually start with a lyric idea rather than a musical idea, and usually inherent in the lyric idea, there is some idea of mood as it relates to mode. Like if it’s happy, I’m going to want major keys and happy things, and if it’s sad, I’m going to want minor key. That’s really obvious and straightforward, but—De Temps is a good example. It’s a nostalgic song and it’s a bittersweet song, and so it’s mostly in a happy mode but there’s also a lot of dissonance, a lot of tension there, with the viola and the clarinet, and some close harmonies, harmonies you want to resolve. So the nostalgia, the bittersweetness of the lyrics can go with the harmonies. And then, you know, melody suggests itself to me from the harmony, and if it doesn’t work with the lyrics, I adjust, revise them. I would say, oh,
“I always knew that I would see you again,” right? “I AL-ways KNEW I’d SEE YOU a-GAIN.” That’s the rhythm. So if my melody has the wrong stresses, then I’ll go back and retool it.
ACL: So you go through a back-and-forth editing process between the words and the music, and wordsmith and notesmith?
SEL: Yes. I want to make sure everything’s very intentional.
ACL: One of the songs that spoke to me particularly was “Just A Little Longer.” I felt it captured so perfectly one of those moments in a relationship when you’re both really acting and feeling in unison, even though you’ve been in a long relationship and you’ve dragged each other through whatever. But here you’ve happened upon this moment when you’re truly together as one, when the relationship becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and transcends the polarizing pull of two separate selves trying to make a life together. Time can erode relationships—and grow them—at the same time, I think. It seemed that you played with time in this song. It starts with those arpeggiated guitar chords hovering a half-step above and below the fifth, resolving, hovering again. The way they flirt with the slow bass line created such a sense of anticipation of a special evening just really getting warmed up. It made me think of the Manhattan of yore, the Astaire-Rogers Manhattan, and the little Fred and Ginger inside all of us married couples, when we’re at our best.
SEL: It’s a really New York song. It’s funny that you say it made you think of Manhattan, because in one sense it’s a song about two people, but in another sense, it’s a song about being a young person in a big city.
ACL: It conjures the setting of the big city so vividly. For you, a young person, for me, a not-young person. You do that beautifully, go from the particular to the universal and back. You bridge that divide so well. To me, a measure of a universally appealing song is if people can take it in and say, “Yeah, that’s about me, too.” It connects to their narrative of themselves.
SEL: That’s how I feel, a lot of the time, like I’m personal, but I also have all these thoughts (spreads hands apart) about the universe…
ACL: Yeah? Well, they all come through. Can I just walk through the verses? The first begins with some broad strokes painting the setting, the characters, and evoking that sense of anticipation, which is interior, in the mind. Then the moment turns real, turns present as soon as you go into that chorus. No matter where I am when I’m listening, my foot starts tapping at that chorus, wanting to dance.
SEL: (nods, smiles) You know it’s funny that you said Fred Astaire. What I said to the instrumentalists in the first couple of rehearsals when we were getting the songs ready, was, “Now we’re going to go into the chorus and everybody’s going to be little Frank Sinatras. I want you guys all to be little Sinatrasand walk down the street and kick people in the shins and throw martinis at them. Come on!”
ACL: (laughs) There’s an edge to it, but it’s a very sweet edge, a very gentle edge. Not aggressive.
SEL: (smiles) No, it’s not aggressive, but it’s swaggering. I had to give a little oomph to my direction because it’s hard to get, you know, a lovely viola player and a clarinet player to swagger.
ACL: Well, it’s a really swingy swagger! And then, it dips back in time in the second verse, lyrically. I’m coming from a perspective— I’m twenty-four years older than you are, so I’m looking backwards, at the long courses of relationships, of intimate partner relationships—and those images of getting to the dawn and you’re both just so bedraggled, you know? Not necessarily literally, it doesn’t have to be hungover, it could be just emotionally bedraggled. And I was thinking of time and place, of post world war songs—some of your songs suggest bygone days to me. There was a song called “After the Ball is Over”—it was actually written in 1892, so it wasFin de Siecle for the 19th century. It starts out, “After the ball is over, after the break of dawn…” and the last part of it goes “Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all… Many a hope that has vanished, after the ball.” Mitch Miller used to sing it, and so I knew it when I was quite young. And it’s like your lyrics about the dawn, which should be new and fresh…
SEL: “We’d watch the dawn, plain and shivering,
Creep through glass and ashes out the door…”
ACL: It’s just like Peggy Lee—
SEL: Oh yeah!
ACL: The sad Peggy Lee condition, “Is that all there is?” But, then—there’s redemption! There’s the chorus, and it’s like, ‘Well, we’re not quite to the “Is that all there is?” point yet.’ You give us hope and redemption in the third verse, which is just magical! Brendan (Sarah’s brother, Brendan LeMieux, the drummer in the Quintet) and I were talking about how you can, simply with word choice, pack so much meaning in. I think the phrase, “in between the midnight and the one,” is a great example of this. You set it up with “We can race the dawn again and win,” so there’s the “We won, yay! We finally won!” And then you’re with “The One” as in “Your One and Only,” and you know at that moment: “Yes! We really were meant to be together.” And then there’s, “One o’clock”, of course, the time reference.
SEL: Well, sure. And that’s the perfect time, if you’re having an exciting night, between midnight and one, that’s the moment for you.
ACL: I know. And then, you’re back on the tonic, the “one” (I)!
SEL: (laughs, nods) I know.
ACL: And those layers of meaning are echoed in the arrangement with the background vocals. It’s such an uplifting end to the verse, ringing and lingering“in between the midnight and the one.” And we get to go back to that moment every time we listen to the song. It’s a gift!
SEL: (laughs) Thank you.
ACL: Speaking of your background vocals, I find them really skillfully, tastefully, and subtley done.
SEL: (smiles gleefully)
ACL: You tracked all your own background vocals on the album and I’ve also seen you do it live with the “looper.” I find it amazing. I was reminded of Pierre Bensusan, who used to do that with a chorus box—maybe one of the early influences you absorbed. There are a few places where you come in with your background vocals, and it’s like, “Wow! She’s a one-woman chorus of sultry sirens!” In “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” for example. Then there are other places in different songs where it’s the kind of vocal harmony that brings to mind not only the Andrews Sisters and the Lennon sister, but the vocal trio of Allison Krauss, Emmy Lou Harris, and Gillian Welch. So seamless and rich. And I think the harmonic resonance is deepened just because it’s all your own voice, like those sister-act harmonies—because of the fact that they’re related, that unified one-voice tonal quality is enhanced. And obviously, you’re highly related to yourself and your background singers! I look forward to the day when you and Nella can—and maybe me if I still have a voice left—
SEL: Yes. And Lily. And Jacob, too!
ACL: Back to your vocals, with De Temps En Temps, there was sort of a lightness to the songbut with a bittersweetness, too—I think the French term is “douce-amère”—when the bitternesshas waned and what you recall is the sweetness, which is the best essence of memories.
ACL: And it reminded me of… Doris Day.
SEL: (short burst of surprised laughter)
ACL: I love Doris Day.
SEL: (laughs) Sure. She’s great.
ACL: I thought she was a fabulous singer. She was very highly trained, you know, she went into her career as a trained vocalist. I looked her up to see if that comparison was way off base, because there were a couple of your songs—Doyou remember(Of course you do, because you wrote it!) “Is It Too Late?” That reminded me of Doris Day the first time I heard it. Not just the vocals, the breathiness, the almost conversational quality in spots. There’s something about her singing that seems fundamentally optimistic. Cheerful. And when you remind me of Doris Day, with that kind of buoyancy, that lilt in your voice, like in “De Temps En Temps,” you’re smiling. Doris was a smiling singer. That’s how I remember her.
ACL: Can we talk about probably the most whimsical song on the album, “The Gang’s All Here?” (Which, by the way, has the best, most musical use of a canned laugh track that I’ve ever heard.) To me, the lyrics were little visual and aural vignettes, that, if you were walking around a party, you would catch a little bit here, a little bit there, and it reminded me of—pointillism.
ACL: Yes, well, of “Sunday in the Park,” by George Seurat. All those little clusters of people scattered about, enjoying a lovely, leisurely afternoon, separate but together in the same frame. That song had an interesting inception. Can you describe how it came about and touch on the Kickstarter experience that funded the album project?
SEL: “The Gang’s All Here” was connected to one of the reward tier levels for the backers of my Kickstarter campaign. I said that I would write their names into a song that would go on the record, and I did. I tried to—for each person’s name, I tried to give some meaning that had to do with who they are. And for people I didn’t know—because some contributors I didn’t know—I asked. And I wanted the mood in it to be different from the mood in the other songs, because it wasn’t part of the writing process that I had gone through to write the other songs on the album. I wanted it to feel sort of like a cast party, I guess, you know?
ACL: It definitely has that feel. Brendan told me that you wrote the lyrics, or part of the lyrics—he actually has the notes that he took—
SEL: On the way to the studio in Hoboken.
ACL: And he was so impressed with your process, that you could do that on the fly on the way to the studio.
ACL: Writing lyrics. Throughout the album, there are things that made me, as a writer, think, “Wow! That’s a gracefully sophisticated turn of phrase!” or “That’s really finely crafted—Well done, Sarah!” For example, “steal Sol’s blazing glows…” or “good-bye kiss of lead…” or “holding our regrets upon remembering, holding out a hope of something more…” And the marriage of the lyrics with the music enhances the emotion and sense of the songs. In “The Gang’s All Here,” you have, “Grab yourself a cup of good cheer…”
SEL: “Here’s your easy chair, my dear.”
ACL: “Here’s your easy chair, my dear.” You use poetic devices so smoothly, so naturally, alliteration and assonance, chiming, cross-rhyming, blending the rhythm and the rhyme, and it just flows the song along, like burbling over some little stones in a brook—(I just want to note that you have a little burbling brook in your own back yard, here—)
SEL: (I do.)
ACL: And the song has got that bubbly sort of thing going on, an effervescent feel, and it’s so simple, yet it’s so effective at conveying an impression, visually and mood-wise. It is like being at the party!
SEL: Thank you. It’s intentional. I use different rhymes or non-rhymes to either pull people forward or make them feel like they’re staying where they are, depending on whether it’s a moment when I want to pull them forward or have them sit for a bit.
ACL: Do you have any poets in particular that you feel have maybe gotten their voices or their rhythms into your— psyche or your creative mental files?
SEL: Poets… You know, people who are really fluid and dense with imagery, like Whitman or maybe Tennyson… But honestly, I really wasn’t thinking of the lyrics as poetry, as much as I was thinking of them as little paintings or scenes. That’s kind of odd, because it’s sort of rhyming word art that I’m making, but I was thinking more in terms of visual art—visual art and the movements of time. I was thinking of impressionism, I was thinking of very early modern, and I was thinking of the twenties, and of the Belle Époque in France. I was thinking of times when there has been this cultural cohesion of a place and a time. Although, actually, I don’t know how much of that is after-the-fact, of people looking back and thinking, “Oh that was then and this is what it was like,” you know? But I wasn’t really thinking of poetry when I was writing these lyrics, I was thinking of pictures. I wasn’t thinking of the words standing alone.
ACL: I was thinking of tone poems, like “Prelude De L’Apres-midi D’un Faune,” which came from—
SEL: Yeah, yeah! Debussy was totally in my mind when I was doing this, too.
ACL: Debussy’s Prelude was inspired by a Mallarmé poem, “Apres-midi D’un Faune.”
SEL: Oh, I didn’t even know that. I listened to that a whole bunch, actually, this year.
ACL: There does seem to be some similarity between the way you interpret life through some of your songs and the French symbolists—not just the breaking free from strict forms, but the inwardness, the intimacy and how the words reflect moods and transient sensations. “Moments Musicaux.” If I had to choose one word, which is hard, to describe this whole album, I would call it… evocative. In the broadest, and best, and deepest sense.
SEL: Why, thank you!
ACL: You’re welcome! “If I Were a Song.” Let’s talk about that song a little bit. There were a couple of lines in it, where you sprung from image to image, but you did more than just that with your choice of words. Those opening lines—
SEL: “If I were a song I would float over layers of sweat and gin,
Of smoke glowing in curls of light, like night blooming jasmine…”
ACL: It sounds beautiful. Even if the words were nonsense syllables, they would still sound beautiful. But it’s also so laden not just with the visual imagery, but with meaning. The lyric begins with something that’s decadent and transforms it into something that’s beautiful and rare, almost sublime. I find it one of those transcendent passages in your songs—and there are several of them. “Snow in Jerusalem” has a number.
SEL: Thank you.
ACL: Do you have a philosophy or working premise about the transformative power of music, song, in particular, but music in general?
SEL: Yes. I don’t know that it’s a philosophy as much as an observation, that music is… sort of… what we are. You know? Like, you have all cells in your body and you’re made of cells, and the cells make up your organs and your bones, and your brain, but it’s not the same cells. You know, it’s different cells, no matter how long they last.
ACL: “You are the music while the music lasts.” T.S. Eliot.
SEL: Right. And so you’re a repeating pattern of different cells, right? You’re a pattern that’s propagating through space and time, like a sound wave. And so I think… that’s really symbolic (chuckles), I think music works so well as a place for people to just put their emotions. You can put your feelings into this song and they’re… not going to crush you, you know? You can put it in the song, and that’s where it can be and then, you know, it frees you to be able to sing the song and feel the feeling, but still be able to live your life and go on.
ACL: I think that’s absolutely true, and not just for the people who are blessed enough to be able to compose and perform music, but—
SEL: For hearing it, too.
ACL: I think about my mom. I have so many of her LPs. Music was her companion for the whole second half of her life. It seemed to me that it was really her only true defense against the loneliness that she felt.
SEL: It’s a wonderful defense against everything, music. And it IS a wonderful companion. It feels almost the same to be listening to a song that you love as, if you really get immersed in it, as it does to be sitting with a friend. It’s very restorative. It can cast everything in a different light, or in a different frame, you know? Like, you could be alone in your room, sitting there sadly, or you could be alone in your room dancing to James Brown! (feet dance a little, fingers snap) Two totally different moments.
ACL: Very true. In your room or in your car. Every time “The Sky Stays Blue” comes on in the car, which is where I’ve done most of my listening, I can’t keep my left foot still, it has to dance around a little! I love the vibrant feel, the Latin rhythms, and the visual palette—the colors in the lyrics are so vivid, so strong. One of your themes sort of popped for me in that song: Human conflict.
ACL: When you think of the rise and fall of the civilizations… you so elegantly, breezily delineated that.
SEL: (raises hand and opens it, lowers and closes it into fist a few times)
ACL: Right, expand, contract, in, out, like a lens zooming in for a closeup, then out for adistant perspective, then in again. In the verses you touch on the rise and fall of civilizations, which is often due to conflict, to war, as well as individual conflicts, one maybe a random crime, “cloaks concealing bright stilettos” maybe medieval political intrigue, the last verse an entangled love triangle. There’s conflict due to competition for resources and there’s conflict due to our need for love and connection, you know? But again, so easy-breezy, like a samba.
ACL: Rhumba. Anyway, it’s such a… saucy juxtaposition—the topic/the music.
SEL: (laughs) Saucy! Well, the sky stays blue.
ACL: And the sky stays blue.
SEL: The sky is still—I mean—obviously, practically, physically, on earth there are things we could have done that made the sky not blue, for a time….
SEL: But the universe is still there. The stars are still there. The planets are still there. What we do—we have fights, we have wars, we eat, we don’t eat, we love, we don’t love—the sky is still there, and it’s still blue.
ACL: I find that a very comforting ending, the chorus.
ACL: After giving us almost a film noir start in the first verse!
SEL: (laughs) I wrote that song from the title. And I wanted to have the title, you know, simple, sort of high concept, “the sky stays blue, no matter what we do.” And then I wanted to take that from sort of out here (spreads hands apart) and bring it down here (closes hands, lowers, and brings together) very personal, to people. I wanted to sort of amplify the meaning of it as I went along.
ACL: Very successfully done. Another thing about this song, it has a classic jazz feel to it. I think of the old “Blue Skies.”
SEL: Oh, yeah. That was definitely in my mind. Not the harmony of the song, but the title of the song.
ACL: Yes, it’s like tip of the hat, in the nicest possible way, to a source of inspiration.
ACL: “Snow in Jerusalem.” It stands out as distinctly different from the other songs. Your musical arrangement really enhanced the imagery in the lyrics:
“A single crystal hovers like a hummingbird,
Too buoyant to be real, you don’t believe your eyes,
And as you’re watching comes a second and a third,
And then they’re numberless, and softly filling up the skies…”
You’re describing the beginning of a snowstorm and as you sing, I see that first snowflake and then the others—the imagery just enveloped me. Very powerful. And I found it such a healing song—or a song that has the hope for healing.
SEL: Well, I just wrote a whole long piece about the song. I’m selling it to raise money for a camp called Seeds of Peace, where they bring children from conflict zones all over the world to learn how to talk to each other and be peaceful with each other, and solve problems with each other, instead of seeing each other as human enemies.
ACL: Does it have a leadership component to it?
SEL: It has a leadership component to it, it has… when they go back to their home countries they bring back skills to be able to be voices of peace in their own communities and they have offices in countries all over the world where children who have gone home can go for support to help them help, to help them help make peace where they are. But what I had written was… I didn’t want to just put the song out there without any introduction, because it made me very sad to listen to it, especially when the latest outpouring of fighting started again. I didn’t want the song to ambush anybody, in the middle of a record of jazz, and songs about other things, a night on the town, and oh, the Middle East falling to pieces and people are dying… And I wanted to give it some introduction, so I was writing about the process that led me to write the song at all, and it snowed, it snowed in Jerusalem last winter and I was looking at pictures of the snow in Jerusalem and it was like Blanket of Peace. It fell on everybody. It fell on Jewish people and Muslims and mommies and soldiers and vegetable sellers and investment bankers, it fell on everybody, you know? And I thought, well there’s a really obvious metaphor, you know?
ACL: You deal with the issue so gently. I just love the way the song closes, with, you know, all the mothers really praying for all the sons and only God can sort this out and, you know, I pray God—Yahweh—and Allah that He will—She—They will.
SEL: Everybody. Yeah, you know, that was my other thought, the snowstorm sort of obscured personal details about people and made everyone… just sort of humans and wouldn’t that be wonderful, if everyone could just have these details about themselves be obscured and let their human hearts shine through, so a mother could say, “Be careful!” and it could go with anybody’s son.”
ACL: Another thing, talking about “Snow in Jerusalem”… I’ve always had this sense in my own writing of people having personal geographies across the course of their lives. When your wrote “Amalfi”, I was very impressed with that personal-geographical quality. “Book a flight of fantasy… alight upon a sandy sanctuary…” That was one of the songs, I think, that caught the attention of the folks at the 2014 CT Music Awards, because it’s very distinctive, and again, so highly evocative, with the lyrical imagery and music. Hearing the waves, the strolling tempo, seeing the“limoncello afternoons,” that pale yellow summer sunlight, reflecting off the water, making everything look slightly ethereal, the dreamy melodic meandering somewhere on an Amalfi Coast beach, where “every day is a jewel, every moment a shining one…” And that started me thinking about the geography of your songs, going back to “Manhattan” which I think was—would you call that your first real successful jazz effort?
SEL: I think so.
ACL: And again, you painted these pictures, “The Brooklyn Bridge around your neck, your gleaming chrome and steel…” “A portrait painted in eight million pieces…” You have the whole big city, and then it all came down to the story of one girl.
SEL: (nods, smiles)
ACL: Which connects with the perspective of your song “I’m Just A Girl.” And here you are, this girl, and you’ve traveled from Manhattan to here. So, what was the impact of spending that time in New York on you?
SEL: Oh my gosh! It tremendously informed me as a person. I lived in New York, you know, off and on, for ten years I think? Something like that? I went to college at NYU and I stayed, pretty much straight through, with a few Connecticut breaks. Everything is there! You know? And it’s very much a city with a personality. It has a couple of personalities, actually. But when I lived there, it felt like I was in a relationship with the city. The city and I were, you know, intimate with each other. And it’s a wonderful—you know, if you’re going to walk around thinking of yourself as this star of your own movie, it’s a wonderful backdrop, to be the star of your own movie. Then you notice that there are eight-plus-million other people walking around starring in their own movies, too, and you go (nodding) “Oh! Oh, I see!”
ACL: Those are all extras.
SEL: But you realize that you’re an extra to them, and then sometimes you have these moments where you interact with people, and—you’re people!
ACL: Like the man who saved your life?
SEL: (nodding earnestly) Like the man who saved my life. That man in the rainbow scarf. My goodness! He’s a wonderful man. I thanked him in this album, too. I told you that story, right?
ACL: You did, but tell it again.
SEL: I was walking down University Place to go to class one morning, and I was not paying any attention, and it was before I had a cellphone, so I wasn’t, you know, on my phone, or anything, I just wasn’t paying attention. And I went to take a step into 14th street and someone grabbed me from behind around my neck (demonstrates headlock kind of grab with arm) and I was like “Ahh!” (sharp intake of breath) and then a bus went VWOOOZZSH! (slides hand passing right in front of her nose) And the guy said, “I bet you thought I was trying to kill you.” And I said, “Oh, thank you so much! Oh my God! Oh no!” (pauses reflectively) What a wonderful man in a rainbow scarf. I hope he’s having a wonderful life out there.
(A neighbor starts mowing his lawn.)
ACL: There’s one more thing I want to touch on and then I’ll see if we can do a little wind-up, because I don’t want you to lose your voice. So, what has been the biggest challenge to you, besides being a working mom with a nine year old and two year old twins, in making this album?
SEL: What’s the biggest challenge other than that?
SEL: Well, there are, you know, mundane challenges, like scheduling people to get in the studio, that’s mundane… The biggest personal challenge, I would say, is continuing to be able to emotionally inhabit material. When you perform it for a recording, you’ve been working on it like a bird house (makes tiny hammering motion with one hand holding imaginary tiny hammer) so consistently and you get very close to what you’re working on and then you start to listen and you’re, like, “Ahhhhhh, I can’t hear anything!” (waves and flaps hands near ears in confusion) This might as well be cotton candy. I don’t know what it means anymore. It’s all, you know, “too many notes, too many notes.” Like the Emperor critiquing Mozart in “Amadeus.”
SEL: So, being able to give a performance of something for posterity, that has all the emotion and the delivery and the nuance and the timing and the specifics, but is still full of feeling… is a bit tricky.
ACL: Well, I think that you’ve succeeded beautifully, and, um… Bravo, is all I can say. (applauds) Bravo!
ACL: I can get in touch with you for your personal background information, right?
ACL: Thank you, Sarah.
SEL: Thank you!