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Quick Q and A with Meg Hutchinson
 by Kathy S-B  ·  28 August 2014

Meg HutchinsonMeg Hutchinson is an inspiration in oh-so-many ways. Not only is she a fabulous poet and fantastic singer-songwriter but she is a champion. Meg is an active advocate for mental health awareness. Having suffered from mental health issues herself, she is keenly aware of what it’s like and is a powerful speaker on the subject.

Learn more about Meg at her website. Take a few minutes to listen to Meg’s song, “The Gatekeeper,” which is about a true life story about a California police officer whose duty is to patrol the Golden Gate Bridge and to help those who are attempting to jump. A powerful song. Here’s another video featuring Meg’s soulful singing and songwriting.

When did you first start writing — poems, stories, songs — anything that was not school related?
I can remember writing stories and poems from before I could write. My mom is a poet. She would let me dictate stories to her when I was about four or five and she’d patiently write them all out for me. There was an epic saga about losing my doll “Fellow” in the forest. There was a recap of a friend’s birthday party, and various other things that five year olds find worthy of report.
When I learned how to write, my mom and I had a ritual of leaving each other letters under our pillows on nights where she had to go out. We have a huge folder of our correspondence.
I inherited my paternal grandmother’s guitar when I was about nine years old. I took some lessons for a year. In eighth grade I wrote my first song. It was about apartheid and South Africa. I sang it at the school talent show. After I walked off stage I burst into tears. My friends were patting me on the back saying “what’s wrong, you did a good job!” But I was crying because it was like coming home. I knew what I was supposed to do. I walked out into the schoolyard with my guitar and I remember it was snowing and I was crying with happiness at having found a familiar place in myself and in the world.
When did you start sharing your writing with others?
The next week I decided I would start my music career and I went down to the open mic at the local Deli. I sang that same song, my only song, “Freedom’s Ocean.”
Do you experience writing as a meditation of sorts — as a way to make sense of your world and that of the world around us?
I guess from a very young age it was the best way to create some kind of order to my experience. Writing was a good way to communicate in my household. My two sisters were super talkative and brilliant and I was the rather quiet spacey middle child. Writing was a good way for my slower mind to form thoughts over time. In that sense it was already a meditative practice.
You grew up in western Massachusetts which, by definition, is a somewhat rural part of New England. Do you think you would be a different person today if you had grown up in a large city?
Yes, absolutely. I grew up close to the earth. I grew up lying in the grass, in the moss, in the leaves. I grew up with my hands in the mud and running around barefoot everywhere collecting things. I grew up with a sense that there was a natural kind of silence in the world and a natural space between events. Every day after school we were allowed to just run out the back door into this great forest and just play til suppertime. That silence and independence would have been very hard to find in city playgrounds.
What kind of gigs did you play when you first started playing your music before audiences? Did you play in the subways before you ever played in a club? Would you say that busking is a good way to test out your stamina for the musician’s life?
My first regular gig was in a bar in Pittsfield, MA. I was 17 and they gave me Tuesday nights. The owner was super sweet. The audience was a bit rough around the edges. Mostly men there for dart league night, which also happened to be on Tuesdays.
I sang my heart out there. The more that people drank the more wayward the darts would get. It was never dull there.
Later I started playing in Borders bookstores all over the northeast. It actually prepared me to play the subways. You have to win people over in that environment. One person at a time. You do that by finding your own joy there, you know?
The espresso machine would be grinding away, and most people in the cafe would be reading and eating. Then I’d start singing. I’d sing my heart out. I’d be loving every minute of it. I was really pretty terrible back then but I was passionate about what music was doing for me. It was helping me. People noticed that. They put their books down.
When I moved to Boston I asked Martin Sexton what the best thing I could do for my career was. He told me to play the subway. It was the greatest education I could have gotten.
Your newest CD, Beyond That, has been described as your “most modern and intricate” production date. What makes it modern and intricate?
I spent the last few years learning Pro Tools recording software and re-learning the piano. This gave me so much freedom to write in new forms, in new ways. I felt free of former song structures and felt ready to explore.
I also wanted to play with different sound options. I’d always loved David Gray’s “White Ladder “ album and I wanted to find that combination of organic sounds and yet some of those synthetic beats and layers that I’d found so compelling on that record.
You’ve won so many songwriting and festival competitions. Does any one stand out as a special one to you?
Kerrville was the turning point. That was the first major song competition I won. I was 22 and had driven all the way to Texas. I didn’t even care that I was so poor I had to sleep in the car on the way there. I had my dog Osa along with me and I was just invigorated and felt so alive out there on the road. When I won that award it opened a door and bigger things started happening in my career.
You’ve been very open about your struggles with mental health. Have you discovered that this openness has enriched your life and made you a stronger individual?
Yes. In the eight years I’ve been open about living with Bipolar illness I’ve been amazed at how much closer I’ve felt to people around me. I guess I had somehow believed that I was supposed to be perfect. I was really good at things, at sports and school. I was a really happy and sunny kid. When I began to struggle at age 19 I kept it hidden as much as possible. I thought it would make me unlovable. The greatest discovery was to make the choice to be open and to find myself feeling more loved than ever before.
You are a noted keynote speaker and have been asked to give talks about mental health issues at universities and hospitals around the country. Did you ever imagine that one day you would be helping others by telling your own story?
No, it has been one of the great surprises of my life. It’s amazing to go from someone who was too ashamed to seek help, to being someone who gets up on stage and talks about it all.
The choice to speak didn’t feel comfortable in the beginning. But I felt a deep sense of responsibility. When I was going through my lowest point in my life eight years ago, I felt so much shame about diagnosis, and so little belief that my brain would ever start working well again. That shame and that fear about the future combined with the illness put me at such huge risk for suicide.
We can’t eliminate these illnesses, at least not yet. But I do believe we can get rid of the shame and get rid of the fear and discrimination and encourage help-seeking. I think if we change those things we can make it so much easier for people to recover. Especially young people. These illnesses impact young people so tragically and abruptly.
Please tell us about the film you’re working on. It is an extension of the lectures that you give?
I’m working with Ezzie Films whose mission is to document the positive contributions of music to society. I met founder Todd Kwait when I was invited to appear in a recent film of his “For The Love Of The Music” about the Cambridge folk scene and the early days of Club 47 which is now Club Passim.
Our film is called “Pack Up Your Sorrows” in honor of that song by Richard Farina that I’ve loved my whole life. The chorus goes, “But if somehow you could pack up your sorrows, and give them all to me, You would lose them, I know how to use them, Give them all to me.”
The film is told through the lens of my personal story. It explores the topics dearest to my heart: the role of nature, meditation and creativity in healing, the value of mindfulness in education, the importance of mental health literacy and wellness, and how all these elements converge in making the world a better place. I got to interview leading psychologists, neuroscientists, authors, historians and spiritual teachers including many of my heroes. We’re about to start editing and expect to release the film in early 2015.
Last but not least, we need to hear about your dog, Austin. He sounds like a remarkable furry friend.
Austin is a 1½ year old brindle pitbull mix. He had a tragic start to his life and was rescued last summer from a severely abusive home. Immediately the local shelter could see his sweet spirit and humor.
They called my friends at Out of The Pits in Albany, NY. The president of Out of the Pits, Cydney Cross, was my first music manager twenty years ago and taught me all about the music business and got me my first gigs when I was 17!
Out of the Pits took him into their custody and got him the surgery he needed and many months of loving foster care. I followed his story on their website from August until December.
On the anniversary of my dog Osa’s death I had a dream that she and Austin came running across the lawn together. In the dream Austin sat down in front of me and I could feel the presence of this really incredible heart. He just stared at me.
I called them the next morning and he came home with me at Christmas.
He’s had a lot to learn about the world, and a lot of fears to overcome. But his goofiness and willingness to learn were just completely enchanting from the start.
His biggest issue is separation anxiety. Unlike my last dog, he can’t stay alone in a green room during shows. He cries and wails for me and is like the Houdini of dogs. Our compromise is that he sleeps on stage during my shows now. He loves folk music. The minute I start to sing he falls fast asleep. I often have to wake him up at the set break.
He’s a good friend and a good teacher. We spend hours in the woods every day. He reminds me of the spirit’s capacity for resilience and recovery. He reminds me to pay attention to the small things along the way.

Quick Q and A with Natalia Zukerman
 by Kathy S-B  ·  21 August 2014

Natalia ZukermanNatalia Zukerman is a multi-talented artist who has plied her trades on both coasts — as a muralist in San Francisco and as a musician in Boston and New York. She may have grown up surrounded by classical musicians, but it was the folk and acoustic music scene that beckoned to her to join forces. Natalia has recorded seven CDs and has contributed her talents to recordings by Susan Werner, Willy Porter, and Janis Ian among others. Her songwriting combined with the rootsy and gutsy instrumentation of any stringed instrument she chooses to play makes for a terrific show or CD listening experience.

To learn more about her, visit her website. Here’s a video of Natalia playing her song “Gas Station Roses.” It’s a great song to introduce you to her tasty tunes!

You’re got a brand new CD coming out — your seventh! It sounds like the record took on a life of its own — various twists and turns and a variety of different kinds of songs! How would you explain this recording to someone familiar with your earlier work?
It definitely took on a life of its own! That’s a great way to describe it. I knew I wanted to record a handful of songs “live” with just me and Willygoo Porter in the studio. Bringing him new songs and “noodling” together on them is one of my favorite ways that I make music in my life so I wanted to capture that. I had just written the songs (I actually finished one the morning we went into the studio!) so neither of us knew them all that well. There wasn’t time for them to get stale or set. Kinda like jumping off a cliff but I trust Willy so implicitly that I knew we wouldn’t fall far, or that we’d at least catch each other and end up somewhere cool! When the recording was done, I figured I had an EP of acoustic songs but one of the songs, “What Comes After” was really begging for a different kind of production. So I sent the song to Meg Toohey and AG out in LA and they sent back this incredible, lush, heartbreaking, cinematic version. I just continued to do the next thing and trust that the answer would come. I try to do that in life and in art and whoa is it hard but when you can really do that, the best results come!
Tell us about all the various special guests you had on the CD. (including your father and his wife on violin and cello)
I really am so blessed to have a community of such incredible musicians. Most of the sounds on this record were made by me, AG, Willy, Erin McKeown and Meg Toohey. Abbie Gardner played dobro on one of the tracks. I had played a lap steel part and it just wasn’t doing what I wanted it to so I asked Abbie to come in and of course she killed it in one take. She’s a monster slide player and one of my great heroes.
My mom, a flutist, has played on two of my records — my first record ever, Mortal Child, and my second, On A Clear Day. It was an amazing experience to work with her in that way and my dad and stepmom have always asked, “When are you gonna ask us to play on your records?” There was never quite the right time- I had wanted them to play on Brand New Frame on the song, “The Last Few Miles” and I even wrote out string parts but their touring schedule and the studio availability was going to mean that I wasn’t going to be able to be present at the recording. Kind of defeated the purpose for me. Adrianne (AG) added a lot of synth string parts to the songs we were working on for this record and while some of it laid a really cool sonic foundation to my ear, some of it just sounded, well, fake. I’m totally fine with that if it’s not trying to sound real but I think my ear just can’t really handle too much of that. I’m spoiled by having grown up with some of the best string playing in the world being played in my living room every day! It’s a blessing and a curse. So, anyway, my dad and stepmom, Amanda just happened to be coming to LA when I was out there working with Adrianne. I didn’t think they’d have time but we brought a portable rig to their hotel room the night they arrived and Adrianne recorded them right there. I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing experience. They were so generous and so attentive to the tone and the music. It was a really big moment for me on a personal level and I hope that the sweetness of that comes through!
I’m intrigued by the fact that you wrote many songs about the power of fire for this CD. What do you think brought that theme into your consciousness?
I knew I wanted to write a more cohesive record this time, to challenge myself to make a record with a real story line rather than just a collection of songs placed together. I had a few of the songs — “Courage To Change,” “What Comes After,” “Bucket”, and “Come Thief.” I started writing about the writing — (kinda meta! what can I say? I’m a nerd.) I wrote about what I thought was the connective tissue and what came up were themes of resurrection and destruction. In writing the title track, Erin and I did a lot of research about fire — controlled burns, oxygenation, the way that a Jack Pine’s seeds can only be released under extreme heat. In other words, the way that fire creates and destroys. I was very taken with this idea in my own life. I was (and am) in a time where I am noticing all of my old behaviors and actions and realizing what I do to protect myself, what I do out of habit, and what I do to be self-destructive, either willingly or unknowingly. I’m still writing about all of that. I am done with fire (I think!) but I don’t think I’m done with the ideas started in this record.
The financing of the CD was fan-funded. Not only did you have musical offerings but paintings as well. Your virtual gallery is a fascinating tour of your artwork. What inspires you to paint? Do you go in creative spurts — dividing time between music and art?
The fan funding was so fun. I was really resistant to the idea, having watched lots of my peers go through the process and feel overwhelmed by it. I knew I wanted to have the things I offered be only things that I would be doing whether I had a fan funding project or not. Those things are writing and painting. I’ve been making paintings based on my songs for a few years now so once this collection of tunes was finished, I went through the lyrics for imagery that excited me as a painter and got the opportunity to realize most of them. Making art about my art sometimes seems really redundant, certainly indulgent, but what are artists if not obsessive? It was really cool to investigate fire from a visual place and find new ways to tell stories that way too, to let the songs take on new visual lives.
I’m also interested in the charitable organization, Keepers of the Waters, that you have aligned yourself with. Can you tell us a bit about this group and what they hope to accomplish?
It is so exciting to work with KOFTW and I’m so glad you asked about it! I was in a women’s artists group when I lived in the Bay Area in the ’90’s called No Limits that was started by an artist named Betsy Damon. I’ve followed Betsy’s career over the years and knew that she started an organization called Keepers of the Waters and has dedicated all her work to water. Keepers is a non-profit whose mission is to inspire and promote projects that combine art, science and community involvement to restore, preserve and remediate water sources. Pledge Music gives artists an opportunity to align with and donate part of the proceeds to a charity so I looked up what Betsy and Keepers were up to and saw that she is now living in Brooklyn! I couldn’t believe the serendipity of it all. We are actually going to get together next week and I’ll hopefully be able to film some of our interaction as I learn more about what she does and how to further my work beyond the Pledge Campaign with this organization. Betsy and Keepers combine art, activism and environmental science to help us continue to have clean, accessible drinking water on this planet. I can’t really think of anything more important.
You have taught songwriting clinics. What could one expect if they signed up for a writing workshop with you? Have you had the opportunity to catch up with former students and see how they’re doing with their writing?
I have taught workshops at festivals and I also taught at a two-week songwriting camp at Interlochen in Michigan. I love teaching and learn so much from my students every time. In a one-time workshop, I usually like to start with a writing prompt of some kind- sometimes working from a painting or an image- and then talk about structure and “rules” of songwriting (rhyme, meter, etc.) from there. In a two-hour workshop, we usually have a whole song by the end either as a group or each individual, depending on the size. It’s really one of the coolest things.
I understand that you went to Spain to study flamenco guitar a while back. Was this the first time you studied flamenco? Have you found yourself using flamenco technique as you write new songs now?
Going to study flamenco at Carmen de las Cuevas in Granada was one of my lifetime dreams and I applied for an Iguana Grant every year to help me pay for it. I finally got the grant and got to go! It was incredible- to just play guitar all day and walk all over that gorgeous city. It’s a style that has always pulled at me — the combination of sounds and influences, the confluence of Moroccan music, Jewish and Arabic music — it’s so rich! I was humbled by the experience. I hope that everything I endeavor to do makes its way into my writing somehow so I think there’s little flourishes here and there for sure. I really hope to go back and study more someday. I met an amazing woman who works with the university there and she’s been trying to get me to come as a guest teacher. Another lifelong dream I guess!
What’s the latest with Winterbloom? Will there be any more projects with you, Meg, Antje, and Anne?
We will definitely all be working together in some incarnation for a long time. I hope so anyway! We love each other so much and are all such fans of each other’s work that I can’t imagine we won’t collaborate again in the future. The pull is too strong!

Quick Q and A with Trent Wagler (The Steel Wheels)
 by Kathy S-B  ·  9 May 2014

All the buzz about The Steel Wheels is most definitely warranted. They have been selling out venues up and down, and back and forth this land of ours. The band has also been asked to play at some of the most prestigious festivals around: Merlefest, Moab Folk Festival, Kerrville Folk Festival, Ann Arbor Folk Festival, Stagecoach and the Fayetteville Roots Festival. Their music caught the ears of the good people at National Public Radio and they dubbed their sound as “Americana, made by hand.”

The band calls the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia home. This incredibly talented four-piece string band manages to transport their audiences by playing some of the most natural and organic music ever heard. They take their traditional music that is so close to their souls and magically transform it into something that is as compelling and relevant as anything I’ve ever heard.

The Steel Wheels

Check out the band’s website and catch some of the special magic of The Steel Wheels by watching this fabulous video of “Red Wing.” Another spectacular video for “Rain” gives you another taste of the band’s music.

How long have The Steel Wheels been playing together?
We first played a show together in 2005, but we truly formed The Steel Wheels in 2010 and have been touring since then.
Were you directly inspired by any particular musicians whom we may or may not know?
Some you may know: Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt, Grisman and Garcia, The Band
Some you may not: Mennonite Hymnal, Henry Wagler
Your style is described as Americana. How do you define that term?
I think we’re best described as Classic Americana or Americana Roots/String Band music. We borrow from the early styles of U.S. music. That’s mountain music, blues, old-time, ballads, a little Cajun and Irish influence all seen through our 21st century lens.
What is it about your music that gives it its unique flavor?
We pay tribute to the aforementioned styles, but we’re writing from our own experience. We’re not a “period” band. The best music you can listen to is true to itself and its performers. We strive to be as authentic as possible and hopefully that works for people.
It’s interesting and quite exciting that you have developed relationships with other independent type business people to sell coffee, beer, and those absolutely stunning mugs! Was this a brainchild of the band or did the individual entrepreneurs approach you because they were fans of your music and felt that it would be a good way to reach a demographic who would be interested in their products?
These partnerships all developed naturally out of relationships we’ve made as a band. In most cases we were friends with the businesses first. Then, we saw and loved their products and wanted to partner with them to promote their work as well as ours. The mugs, for example, are made by a lifelong friend of Jay Lapp, our mandolin player.
Just like we want our music to sound and feel authentic, we prefer to keep our partnerships with business owners we really know and believe in.
Tell us about the Red Wing Festival. How did that come about?
We have spent the last 4 years touring the country seeing some of the best bands in the world. We wanted to bring some of what we’ve seen to our home: the Shenandoah Valley of VA. We also knew if we were successful we could build a reason for more of our friends and fans to come to our home and join us every year for a celebration of music at the festival.
When you play a show, you get the chance to construct an evening of music and all the artistic choices surrounding that evening, but when you create a festival it gives you a bigger palette to communicate who you are and what you’re about. The different musicians and activities included are a certain kind of artistic statement.
What’s your favorite thing about festival season?
We get to see great music and collaborate with other musicians.
Have you toured outside the United States at all? If so, what is the audience’s reaction to your music?
So far we’ve spent a good amount of time in Canada. The audiences up there have been amazing. We’ve talked about Europe and Australia, but nothing has come of it yet.
If you had any words of wisdom to impart to aspiring musicians, what would they be?
Play anywhere and everywhere you can. Music is music. On the porch, on the street, or on a stage. And put your heart in it, or your wasting everyone’s time.


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