I remember when the great jazz trumpet player Herbie Spanier, a family friend, complained to me about the seasons. He said something like: why are we expected to do all this work in the dead of winter when it’s so cold and dark and you just want to hibernate, and yet in the summer when the days are long and we’re full of energy we’re expected to go on vacation and relax?
I’ve taken that analysis to heart and after long months of organizing in the cold months, we usually spring into action in the summer. I bristle a bit when people ask how our vacation has been, as this is a time of creative work and gathering ideas, not relaxation. This summer has been no exception, as Michel and I embarked on a whirlwind of activity that included Bali, an inspiring stay at the Rimbun Dahan international artist residency Malaysia, and performances in Sulawesi. Our sons and my dad were along for the entire adventure and Reg joined us for the last leg.
I have a lot of stories to tell about this magical summer, so many that I don’t even know where to begin. So I’ll take all my notes and photos and videos and dreams and thoughts and sort them out as the days get shorter. With any luck I’ll share some of them here.
I will start by sharing this video of our last night on the adventure, when we performed at the Toraja International Festival in Ke’te Kesu, Sulawesi. It’s an excerpt from a poem I wrote about Toraja so it felt very right to sing it there, at the site of the inspiration.
We also performed some of Reg’s songs from his wonderful, evocative Songbook album. And I sang a page of poetry from my friend Susan Briscoe’s Crow’s Vow, aiming to send her energy for her overwhelming health challenges. I followed this with dream haiku written for my beloved cousin Marianne who had passed so suddenly a few weeks before from pancreatic cancer. Toraja is a very spiritual place with such a startlingly different approach to life and death so it felt right to delve into these themes in this beautiful environment. Much of that was also reflected in Franki Raden’s multimedia opera of the first night of the festival, when we had a chance to collaborate with an amazing range of local and international musicians.
June 6, 2017
by admin Comments Off on The Intuitive Art Game
Yesterday my dreaming friend Maureen shared a dream with our small online dream group that included a magical cat. As I read the description I was reminded of a small watercolour I made once of a similar cat. Where is that painting? I plan to scan it and show it to her but life interrupted. The following day she posted a second dream and tagged me as there is singing in the dream and Michel appears, so perhaps I’ll understand some of the imagery?
In fact, a portion of today’s dream about a red dress reminds me very much of a dress I bought just this weekend. I was so happy to chance upon it as it reminds me of a dress I made and wore all through my first pregnancy. The floral paisley pattern, the shape, are all very similar. In Maureen’s dream, her friend tells her she wore a dress like this after her pregnancy, a little flip on the detail of my pregnancy dress. Thinking about the dress and that time period reminded me that I wanted to find the watercolour of the cat. I jump up to get it.
I head to my office cupboard, thinking, don’t I often come here to find old things prompted by Maureen? I grab a green document folder that might contain the watercolour but it isn’t there. It contains five drawings I made once when playing an intuitive game with my mother many years ago. She was working intensely with Carl Jung’s book, Memories, Dreams and Reflections and a Dictionary of Symbols, all while teaching drawing in new and inventive ways.
The art game she created involved taking 3 paint tubes and working intuitively with them on a big piece of paper. Don’t think too much or try to draw something specific, but let the energy of your hand and your intuition guide you. That was the process. Afterward, take a small matte board with a rectangular hole cut out of it. Move it around the big drawing and select parts. Cut the parts out and write what you see, rapidly, with just a few words. What is in the brushstrokes you threw in there so quickly? What symbols, images?
The first two drawings are familiar to me. In one, a woman is standing at the beach and her shadow looks like a faun. There is blood nearby. It reminds me now of how I would give birth on all fours a few years after making the drawing. And the second drawing, using the same red as the blood in the previous one, is of a red dragon (see above). And as it turned out a few years after I made this drawing, my first child JJ was born in the year of the red dragon. I would never have guessed that when I painted this. When was it exactly?
The notes are dated … June 5/6, 1997! I stop, look at my computer and realize, it is twenty years exactly to the day today. And it started yesterday, so June 5/6 is a good way to express it. How uncanny is that? And as I think about this detail, I feel honoured by the energy that presents itself so beautifully on a kind of anniversary. Maureen is so often behind these syncs within my office archive. It was a question she asked that propelled my Chan Chan story with my dream journal a few months ago.
The third drawing makes me hesitate. Will I even scan it? My note on the side is that this is a couple on a snowmobile on water or perhaps a peace sign greeting. It reminds me of a tragic snowmobile accident in our circle of friends. I once saw shadows of that story in a dream Maureen had, with details that were again startling in their accuracy. Seeing traces of it here raises so many questions for me. Is it possible that this is all tied into these random brushstrokes from 20 years ago?
The last two drawings are still a mystery, no doubt waiting to reveal themselves in the years ahead, that is: if the years ahead really are in front of us and not perhaps coexisting with us right now, in this moment. My mother’s notes are copious, a bit like my notes today. She writes that my dragon has a proud nose (underlined) just like my son. The blue is femininity, fecundity, meditation and serenity. The shadow shows the darker side of the soul, a vital part of herself. There is much water – that the Chinese consider water the abode of the dragon. Water also carries the symbolism of intuitive wisdom. She definitely had plenty of that.
As I scan the drawings I am about to file them in a directory with other drawings. The first one I see is a lovely painting of a red dragon, made by my dragon boy’s baby brother. He doesn’t hesitate or play intuitive games. After being taught how to draw by his attentive grandmother, he just goes for it. But I should try the game with him anyway, and feel sorry I only played it once. I’ll try it again soon and report back here on any new magic that occurs.
May 2, 2017
by admin Comments Off on Melancholy in springtime and inspiration
This is always a bittersweet time of year for me, when we’re waiting breathlessly for the leaves to emerge from the trees again, and yet there is a tinge of loss in the air. You’d think I’d feel that way in autumn but with the riotous colours we get here and the crystalline blue and white winters looming ahead, it turns out, as the song says, spring really does hang me up the most. I’m not the only one. My Facebook feed fills with tributes to other people’s mothers a few weeks before Mother’s day.
A couple of years ago, while in Barcelona, a book of Catalan poems jumped out at me from the bookshelves of the artist’s studio we were staying in. I began singing some of these and this one feels most apt for how I feel today, on this anniversary of my mother’s passing.
It’s called “Springtime” appropriately enough. Our trio worked with what we had on hand, Reg with his small acoustic guitar, Michel with a few things he found in the kitchen; a bucket, a broom, some chickpeas, echoing the sounds of the city. I had some small recording gear in my suitcase and made a mic stand out of a Nike soccer shoe box. This track includes my first attempt at singing in Catalan so apologies if I mangled it.
I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic these days and in it she mentions how creativity is the ability to receive ideas that are looking for us. This reminds me of my mother’s philosophy of art as well, as she sometimes told me that ideas live longer than people. That’s why we could enter a space and pick up ideas that were waiting there. That’s definitely how I felt in Barcelona, a city so dense with inspiration and creativity. I could barely catch my breath while marveling at all there was to see and hear. This is something that motivates and interests me, how our ideas and creative projects change and morph depending on where we are in the world. Our children were inspired as well, as you can see in their drawings made during our stay.
Michel was also struck by a plethora of ideas in Barcelona and he composed a wonderful piece called les cahiers de Barcelone that we’ve released on his cd Alom Mola. It’s a collage of sounds and snippets of songs gathered in his walks. And when indoors he created illustrated scores. Here are a few of the images he created that are included in the cd booklet.
As a child I was spoiled by my father’s academic life and our occasional year long sabbaticals. Now I do what I can with summer holidays and try to give our children a taste of that freedom to travel, to explore and create. It’s a chance for all of us to break free from the routine of the school year so we have our mini-sabbaticals together, our family art residencies, in the summer. And springtime? Well, that’s just something to muddle through.
My mother, Agatha Schwager, painting out of the back of our orange VW camper, brought back after one especially inspiring sabbatical.
April 6, 2017
by admin Comments Off on Words or music; chicken or egg?
It’s like the chicken or the egg question: which comes first, the music or the words?
I’m happy to write songs in either order, words first or music first. When the words come first I like to tease out a melody, stretching it, bending it, looking for the music in the natural rhythm of the syntax, the flow of the syllables. I was a teen when I started writing shy, short texts like “are you paranoid? are you perpendicular to the wall? are you parallel to the ground? are you paranoid?”. Next I would pull out a big four track tape machine, the Fostex, that my gadget-happy brother Reg offered me. In the privacy of my room, I would sing different overlapping tracks until I arrived at the melody that really struck me as being how it goes. An example of how that sounds can be found in the song Anchor which features vocal overdubs and a more developed sort of paranoid lyric.
Or if you flip it all around and start on the opposite end, one can listen to a melody and tease out the words instead. It’s like deciphering a mystery or untangling a lost story. I don’t generally compose with melodies first so I’m more likely to collaborate and write lyrics for someone else. When we were kids and my brother wanted to learn every song under the sun, he would appear with fake books full of tunes and settle in with his guitar. We spent a lot of time learning jazz standards, picking and choosing our favourites. What else can you do when there’s no colour t.v., no internet, no computers? Ah, the good old days. The fake books were big and fat but even that source of inspiration wasn’t infinite so it was only a matter of time before Reg had to start writing his own tunes. And I had it in my head that I wanted to be Stevie Wonder but as a little blonde girl in Northern Ontario, I was pretty sure I’d have to go to some lengths to accomplish that. The best I could come up with was that I should probably start by writing my own songs like he did. So I was motivated to take Reg’s melodies and sit with my eyes closed, pen and paper at hand, and try to hear the words inside the guitar lines. Sometimes it would jump out me and I’d just trust that those first words that popped into my head would take me somewhere by the end.
Last year, when he told me he was working on a new album featuring a collection of many songs he’s written for vocalists, I was happy to join in and resurrect a few of the songs we’d written years ago. And I asked him to send me some new tunes so we could add some fresh songs to the mix. It seemed right to celebrate his song collection with even more songs.
He sent me a batch of guitar melodies titled things like song #8, Untitled #6, so no hints at all. I went through them, listening closely for songs that felt as though they are speaking to me. Then the scribbling began, the fast forwarding and rewinding, testing the words and discovering a small story. Sometimes it is very visual, other times it has more to do with a mood. And once in awhile there’s just a lot of guitar and I move along to the next one.
One of the first melodies I picked in this recent batch made me feel like I was gliding along somewhere in nature. As I listened I had an impression of being on a bicycle and thought of my cousin Marianne and all her cycling adventures in Provence in France. Imagining how she must feel when she returns there every couple of years, I started writing about the fields of lavender. This left me with the dilemma of singing the word purple several times in a row, not an obvious word to hang on to in a flowing melody but I persisted nevertheless. It is fitting that Reg invited our old friend, the great saxophonist Perry White, to play on this piece as he too is an avid cyclist.
The last song on the album is from a different landscape altogether, a dreamy place that is yet haunted by cold winds and unpredictable weather, and populated with a myriad assortment of birds. This song, which Reg titled Crow’s Call, has a mystical air to it so the story here is not really narrative but more about brush strokes of of imagery, much like the artwork on the cover of the Songbook cd.
That artwork was created by our mother Agatha Schwager for her last exhibition here in Montreal, The Shadows of My Hand. She studied Chinese ink brush painting before producing this last series of artwork and her goal was to express the energy of her ideas in her swift, strong brushstrokes. She told me that after she showed these abstract paintings to her Chinese brush painting teacher and one of his friends, the two men stood together for a long time in silence, contemplating the work. Finally they turned and asked her, “did you study the crows for a long time before you painted them?”. That made her laugh, surprised that they saw crows where she had seen abstraction.
Brodie West’s contribution on this song fits the ornithological theme well. His inventive sounds reminded me of a cardinal so I included a photo of one of my backyard red cardinals on the album artwork to honour this bird’s input, as he is overlooked in the lyrics.
Two other vocalist/lyricists, Luanda Jones and John Alcorn, contributed to Reg’s oeuvre and it is fascinating to hear their lyrics alongside Reg’s compositions. All the songs are consistent and the lyrics are always perfectly in step with the melodies. It’s proof, I think, that the melodies contained the lyrics all along, and we are just the detectives who have peeled away the layers to reveal them.
This past weekend we had a wonderful evening making music at Resonance Café here in Montréal. Michel and I invited our nephew, accomplished and versatile guitarist Gabriel Lambert, to join us. We also invited bassist Guillaume Bouchard, who has been so dedicated to Michel’s Journal des Episodes project. Guillaume is emerging from intense treatment for lyme disease, something that had left him bed-ridden for far too long so we were very grateful he was able to return to the stage and his music.
Our sons (more Lamberts!) and some of their friends joined us for the evening as roadies, videographers and ticket sellers. And we were greeted by an enthusiastic and encouraging audience of friends and others who followed us along for an inspiring evening. Resonance Café is a great venue, with good sound, thoughtful vegan food and a welcoming, all ages atmosphere that allows for creative freedom. What more could you want?
In the spirit of free jazz and my beatnik ways, our music was very loosely structured around poetry I have written or collected, and these texts were the jumping off point for our improvised music. Earlier in the week I selected some poetry that felt right for this moment in time and shared them with the musicians. Perhaps the recent epic snowstorm made an impact, or my newfound interest in knitting. I sang about nuns embroidering (Federico Garcia Lorca), Catalan poetry in translation (JV Foix), stormy forests (Anne Bronte) as well as my own poems about storms, dangers in forests, dream haiku and newborn children. Here are some clips.
January 27, 2017
by admin Comments Off on Why I keep a dream journal
When I tell people I’ve been doing dreamwork for decades, they sometimes ask why I keep a dream journal. Here’s one small story that illustrates what I love about it. I’ve been keeping a dream journal since the early 1990s when a series of mysterious dreams and events led to me to start gathering evidence for my mystic detective work. At that time, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the dreams I collected.
I’ve kept dreams scribbled in notebooks, binders, and more recently on my computer. While tidying my office this past week, I stopped to check if a notebook was blank or full. I flipped it open and discovered it was a travel journal I had kept during a family vacation to Santiago de Cuba. The date was March 11, 2009. My children were young and it was March break. We wanted a beach getaway to a place that would have good music nearby.
Feeling a bit nostalgic now, I randomly reached up for one of the dream journals I’d just placed on a high shelf. I landed on a dream journal entry from February 11, 1996. Michel and I were living in Paris and pondering our future a lot, the possibility of starting a family, those kinds of things. The journal entry reads “yesterday in my dream I was made to remember the words “chang chang”.
Was it exactly that, chang chang? Or was it chan chan? What did I make of those instructions? Did I find it sinister or random, a name or phrase from another language? At that point I hadn’t learned how to work with my dreams creatively so it was noted as an instruction and nothing more. Remember this.
And, speaking of remembering, with these two journal entries juxtaposed against one another in this current moment, a song popped into my head. I remembered that in March 2009, during our trip to Santiago de Cuba, the soundtrack of our trip, the song we requested the most, was the great Cuban song by Compay de Segundo entitled … Chan Chan!
Don’t I have video of my children singing along with this song? Ah yes, found it easily, two happy boys on my parents’ laps, singing Chan Chan! triumphantly, fourteen years after I was told to remember the title (Chan Chan starts at 1:31). My younger self, questioning the future in Paris, would have been comforted to know I’d be singing and dancing with our two children soon enough.
And here I am, about eight years after we all sang it together, finally putting two and two together. I’m not entirely sure why the puzzle pieces have fallen into place right at this moment. Perhaps it is because I was thinking of a question my dreaming friend Maureen asked me earlier this week. She asked how we feel about those voices that tell us things as we wake or all asleep. This synchronicity between journal entries seems to reply, look, it’s fine, it was intended to be helpful even if it took a few decades for her to get the message.
What kinds of folds of time are we dancing in? Such is the magic of dreaming and dream journaling, breathing poetry into our lives everyday. To cap it off, another dreaming friend, Barbara, pointed out to me that the song Chan Chan is also from a dream. Wiki quotes Compay Segundo as saying “I didn’t compose Chan Chan, I dreamt it. I dream of music. I sometimes wake up with a melody in my head, I hear the instruments, all very clear.” All the more reason to take our dreams, full of song and music, story and poetry, and bring them with us into waking life.
Continuing along with the freeing of a weekly jazz standard (part 3), here is a song I recorded with Reg in the spring of this year, Willow Weep for Me. It’s a short version as construction next door interfered with our ability to record without the sound of drills and jack hammers but we managed to run through it once before throwing in the towel. It’s a lovely lyric, a song for a tree and its empathy.
I was hunting around for an appropriately starry painting to illustrate my version of the classic Stardust. I looked at a few paintings by Van Gogh and selected his Starry Night over the Rhone. I spent some time with it, tweaking the colours and reading about the painting in detail. I am really happy with how well it goes with the song, hints of purple etc. And then the next day I see the painting in my Twitter feed and click to read about a new exhibition at the AGO called Mystical Landscapes. So here I am busy with the song Stardust, recorded for my father who always requests it, and now the painting I’ve paired with it is on display at the gallery next to his home. Mystical indeed.
Where do you put your disappointment, when world events shift and alter the landscape before you so drastically? Here’s a love song that expresses a little bit of that.
September 2, 2016
by admin Comments Off on It Goes Like This: a collection of jazz songs pt.2
Further to the quest of freeing some of my music with a weekly Friday upload, here is another song from the album Born To Be Blue. It was my first time performing this classic and we did it in just one take because, after we finished, Reg and Neil agreed that it was just how they wanted it to be. Sometimes freshness and spontaneity are key. And being an agreeable leader who lets the guys in the band decide stuff (especially after starting the day weirdly out of tune for one tedious song I’d chosen) is worth more than attempting to attain some kind of musical goal. Or maybe the idea of being a leader is misplaced and really I’m younger than they are so whatever, move on to the next song now. In any case, it sounds pretty good. If I want to sing it more I can just sing along with this take.
Written by vegan eden ahbez in a cave near Palm Springs, famously recorded by Nat King Cole, here is a song I love for it’s mysterious and mystical lyric.
Apparently Johnny Mercer composed these lyrics while driving along in Palm Springs as he listened to an instrumental version on the radio. How else to come up with a line like “Your lips are like a red and ruby chalice?”.
I love all the songs on Frank Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours of the Morning Album, but none more than this one. What I’ve learned from him? How to be mournful while yet swinging:
Helen Merrill’s version of this is my favourite and some old friends from Sudbury were involved in the recent film with the same title.
August 26, 2016
by admin Comments Off on Thoughts on Being Female from Picnic Table Two
In a brief few seconds in my mother’s old office I came across this photo, from the summer we went to Parry Sound and made Dave Young play improvised music to poetry with us along the shores of Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada. We might have done some standards too but I mainly remember the incongruity of it all, the wild verses and the savage scenery, all with Dave keeping his musical composure. Pretty sure it wasn’t my idea and it is too bad we don’t have on musical record of that event.
As Michel and Dave went on to play on the cruise ship that winds around the islands, I was left to my own devices during that week at the Festival of Sound. Having grown up on the shores of a lake in the north, I was eager to relive my childhood experiences of swimming whenever I wanted in pristine, cool water. The nearest small beach was a walk away along a winding path called the Wilderness Trail. It struck me, as I packed up my swimsuit and headed out, that I no longer had the sense of freedom and security I had had as a child when I went swimming in our backyard. Something about the whole excursion had me on high alert.
I’ve read many articles recently about women joggers going missing or being murdered and we have an epidemic of missing aboriginal women here in Canada. It reminded me of this poem I wrote and later recorded with Michel for our album Lone Jack Pine. Here is the song and the lyrics, for all those of us who have been startled to feel a sense of disquiet in the beauty and tranquility of nature, due to the insidious misogyny that permeates our culture. The lyrics are below and the music is below that.
Thoughts on Being Female, from Picnic Table Two
on the wilderness trail
rising from the beach
must remember to switch
my bikini for a dry bra
we’ll have no disks of damp!
as I start off alone on the wilderness trail
with salt on my lips that I must not lick away
someone is watching – I’m an angry cat, terrifying
works every time
what was it that her grandmother said?
nothing so shameful
as a woman walking and eating
or was it walking and smoking?
walking and eating or walking and smoking?
a boy from Hong Kong told me
you walk like a lumberjack
but what use is elegance
on the wilderness trail?
you get a false sense of security
on the wilderness trail
so blindly safe
like the unlocked doors of the widow’s house
are creatures lurking in the shadows?
monsters, and abductors of girls?
suspicious even now at picnic table two
with it’s etching
let’s do it on the table
lipstick from the city like a biker chick
hair bleached by the Muskoka sky
ah, asking for trouble, no doubt
asking for trouble
on the wilderness trail
June 10, 2016
by admin Comments Off on It Goes Like This: a collection of jazz songs pt. 1
Long, long ago there was no internet and there were no computers. As a child I did things like compulsively reading books and swimming in the lake, or canoeing out to pick blueberries on some scruffy rocky island. Sometimes, lying on the dock or rolling in a beanbag chair, I imagined a world more like today, when I could answer questions with a few well-chosen words, or watch any film whenever I wanted where ever I was.
Meanwhile my brother Reg found his own personal voice in his guitar. So for fun, as something to do, we’d learn songs. We’d spin the vinyl of our parents’ jazz collection and I’d scribble the lyrics down and we’d practice. Or we’d leaf through big heavy fakebooks and pick and chose. We’d practice and practice and learn new songs every day.
Today I still have the binders of lyrics and notes on about 110 jazz songs I can sing at the drop of a hat, my memory for the lyrics still remarkably intact. Those are just the ones with Reg’s hand-written charts, as my brain likely contains a few hundred more.
So to honour this collection and just for the joy of sharing, we recorded a few recently. And I’ve also gathered up recordings we’ve done in the past that somehow got left in the dust of the ever-changing technology, songs released only on cassette just before compact discs took over, songs not uploaded for streaming before Spotify blotted out everything else. This is the place where I’ll upload a new one every now and then. The title of the collection is in answer to the eternal question, how does it go? And then one pauses and thinks and replies, before starting to sing, “it goes like this”.
Here’s the first one, recorded last month, a song I’ve always loved for it’s great, timeless lyrics. Also, we are excited to welcome a new family member to the Lambert clan whose middle name is Sonny which reminded me of this song, When Sunny Gets Blue. Because what more does a newborn want than to be held tightly when they are feeling blue?
And here is the second song in the collection, a song we don’t hear often, with great timeless lyrics.
Another great standard which has equally lovely French lyrics. Here’s the English version.
A lovely lyric with a soaring melody, Skylark.
And the fifth in the collection, If the Moon Turns Green, from our cassette release entitled Ballads II.
Here’s the playlist thus far with 5 tracks. Check back regularly as there are many more to come!