I can’t remember the exact year I saw Holly Near perform her “Singer in the Storm” concert at the Provincetown Town Hall with my mother and sister and father but I do know she was singing about nuclear disarmament and protecting the earth and feminism but I was just like– I think she's a lesbian and her piano player seems very effeminate. Imagine if people wrote “effeminate” on lockers instead of “fag,” like “You’re effeminate!” or “Chorus is for effeminate people!” Wouldn’t that be weird?
I set out to write lullabies, not protest songs. Everyone in my life was starting to have babies, and I was, and continue to be, too tired and cheap to buy them gifts and they already have like three different cruelty-free mobiles so I thought I should “use my gifts” and write them some songs instead. But then my attempt at lullabies were kind of intense, because everything is terrible, and I ended up writing songs about ticks and cannibalistic grandmas and patricide and I had a lot of arguments in my head like “You just don’t get it, it is hopeful, it’s about like, power!” I changed course and decided they were lullabies for adults, or for our “inner children.” Like who’s helping us get to bed? Nobody cares about us! Something cool happens when you call something a lullaby, even if it doesn’t sound like one, like when you say “This gay bar actually is a haunted house” suddenly there are a lot of weird sounds and bowls filled with grapes. Then Trump got elected and it seemed kind of off-key to be making lullabies, like having a winter coat stand at the beach, like that’s not exactly what we were hoping for, do you have a mojito or a pot truffle? I hate pot truffles, but I’m trying to make a point and make it relevant. Protest songs seemed more honest, anyway, more accurate, maybe more vulnerable, too. You could also call them spells, but that’s kind of didactic, like giving out pamphlets at the beach for the beach, like “Come to the beach! You should try it!” and everyone’s like, I’m already here I’m literally at the beach. All this beach talk is making me nervous.
I had two formal, very professional questions going into this project, beyond the more longstanding questions like Can I sing? Will people like it? Will I feel trapped at the piano? Will people laugh? Am I good? Should I ever get out of bed? Who cares? Abort, abort, abort! The first (formal, professional) question was: What happens when you call something a protest song? Some ideas: Emotions (despair, hopelessness, melancholia, resignation, ecstasy, revenge, and more) that don’t seem politically useful are forced back into the house of politics. We are forced to make neural grooves, or whatever, that string together dead pelicans, bee stings, male baking ingredients with the rapid gutting of an already skeletal welfare state and the intensified buildup of a brutal war machine on top of the slavery and genocide that form the foundation and condition of possibility of the U.S. And despite the fruitful possibilities of those dots being connected, these emotions being welcomed, we fail ourselves, we don’t remedy anything, we disappoint each other, we confront the frailty of our tools, and maybe in that reckoning something else emerges.
The second question was: What are we doing when we sing together? Some initial ideas: We are casting spells (hexing shit, invoking shit, turning some shit into some other shit, alchemy), making speech acts, doing something somatic, physical, embodied. We are being in the same room together (ew!), getting lost in each other (gross!). We’re competing for airtime, judging ourselves and those around us, wishing we sang better, wishing we were singing a different song, wishing we were somewhere else, or hoping it will never end. I’m not saying this is redemptive or even liberating, but for many (not all) of us, it has become something of an atrophied muscle, first to laugh together, then to clap, then to sing, then to forget we are singing and still sing.
Suzan-Lori Parks wrote, “Words are spells which an actor consumes and digests--and through digesting creates a performance on stage." Are songs super-charged spells, spells on steroids or probiotics? Is a choir a provisional coven, a small army? I don’t know? Why are you asking me? I’m just a singer-songwriter!
"What are we doing when we sing together? Some initial ideas: We are casting spells (hexing shit, invoking shit, turning some shit into some other shit, alchemy), making speech acts, doing something somatic, physical, embodied. We are being in the same room together (ew!), getting lost in each other (gross!)."
Learn more about 2015 grant recipient Morgan Bassichis.