At the beginning of 2017, as I stared months of open weekends down, I realized that I was more anxious than I cared to admit. For the previous six years my time had been filled to the point that I had to defend a few precious weekends out of a year. Now I was wide open, and filled with questions over what I would do.
So I decided to just say yes to everything.
I learned a lot by implementing this “little” rule. I learned what shows I should and shouldn't take, I learned what I'm worth and I learned what I'm capable of. It's a funny thing to really learn this after more than a decade of touring, recording, and performing. I suppose it's better late than never.
So, when I was presented with the opportunity to perform in Jordan and then India at the end of the year, I knew I had to say yes.
In late November I traveled to Jordan with two members of Della Mae (Courtney and Zoe) and two special guests, Phoebe Hunt and Maya De Vitry. Phoebe and Maya are accomplished multi-instrumentalist musicians who I had yearned to collaborate with but we were often proverbial ships in the night. We were offered this trip as an extension of Della Mae's ongoing work with the State Department and a program called American Music Abroad. Jordan would be our 18th country with AMA, and included all the trappings of former trips; orphanages, refugee camps, embassies and schools. I have learned many different things in each of these foreign countries. I've learned about poverty and endurance, about rhythm and melodies. I've learned about religion, compassion, curiosity and fascinating cultural variations. This time I ended up learning far more about my feminine self which was ironic considering we were traveling to a country in the Middle East where women have far fewer rights than men. In fact, though it is considered a more liberal Middle Eastern country, Jordan still has a high rate of Honor Killings.
Whether or not it was intended, the program itself was overwhelmingly feminine. Not only were we an all female band but the Cultural Affairs Officer and her assistant from the Embassy, who orchestrated the whole thing, were pretty badass women as well. As we traveled in the cab of a bomb proof vehicle we debated philosophy, politics and religion. We talked about the Me Too phenomenon and about our own lives intimate details. At the end of the trip we crossed the border to Israel together for just one night in Jerusalem. I came out of it with a much better understanding of myself, the women I had chosen to travel with, and the different experiences that each woman has in our world.
I also ended up learning a lot musically. Within this new, “Della Mae esque band” I learned to take on a different role because all five of us had brought songs to lead. I have been a front person for as long as I can remember and this more equal spread of front person duties forced me to step back and concentrate on supporting each song as a side woman. Because I wasn't singing as much, I was able to play a lot of percussion on the washboard I brought along. I worked hard at making sure the washboard wasn't....well.....a washboard, and this change helped me listen to songs with new ears.
One most notable performance was at the female headed SOS Children's village in Amman. At SOS orphaned children are placed with a mother and other orphans in a subsidized house. This gives the child the experience of a family as opposed to often emotionless institutionalized care. It effectively combines several orphaned children with one women who might be socially outcast or desire children but cannot have them.
Some of the most cherished memories of my life will be performing to crowds like the one at SOS. If we have been able to give women a spark of empowerment, or a man a different perspective, or a child an hour of joy then everything will have been worth it.
Just four days after I returned home from Jordan I turned around and boarded a plane to Kolkata, India. I didn't know 6 out of the 8 band members I would be playing with, but we had been exchanging music for months ranging from Italian classical to Chinese rock and roll.
It all started in early summer when I received an email from a man named Sandeep Das asking me to perform with a group called the HUM ensemble. I quickly emailed the person he cited in the e-mail, cellist Mike Block, to ask if this was for real.
Sandeep asked me to sing and play guitar for HUM which is an offshoot of the Grammy winning Silk Road Ensemble lead by Yo Yo Ma. I'm not gonna lie, this opportunity was scary for me to accept; for the first time I would be on my own in a foreign land playing music without Della Mae.
The trip got off to a rocky start with 7 hours of waiting on the tarmac. British Airways forced me to check my guitar through to Delhi, and I was nervous they'd lose my bags, which of course they promptly did...for six days. Almost the entirety of my stay in India.
I walked into my first rehearsal with HUM wearing the clothes I'd worn for three days of airplane travel, without my guitar. In the end I learned how valuable it was to just breathe and accept, and move forward in whatever way I could. I sat in rehearsals forming chords on my fingers as everyone practiced, and made notes to learn things I didn't know.
And... there were a lot of things I didn't know. I'm a very folk, blues and bluegrass based musician. A “three chord song” kind of gal. These pieces weren't like that at all, and I had to force myself back to my hotel room to learn shapes, movements, and time signatures I had never used before.
I'm also not much of a soloist, I do it at home, amongst friends....usually while drinking bourbon. But, Sandeep insisted that I take a solo during the concert. In addition to that the bass player, Matt Small, taught me a different guitar tuning that I used to perform a Raga with the band, again, something I had never done previously.
Most of the time we were cloistered in our hotel practicing, but when we were able to take a moment off we wandered out to the markets outside the hotel. There I was witness to some of the most heart wrenching poverty I had ever been exposed to. Children slept naked alongside the road, women stretched out their arms toward me asking for food. Alongside every road were makeshift houses made out of tarps or filthy blankets. Heavy with guilt I thought again and again of my log cabin in Maine, and asked myself how I could have gotten so lucky. This feeling has not left me since I returned home to breathe the clean air and enjoy my many blessings. I encourage every one of you to give thanks for the intangible this holiday season, and, if you can, to give a little bit more to families in need. If you can't afford to give money, I for one know that music and time make a great gift if you have nothing else to offer.
My Indian adventure ended after just one concert in Kolkata, but I was amazed at how much I learned musically while I was there. I was compelled to be less of a leader, and more of a listener and I'm grateful to each person in the band who gently taught me something I didn't know. In the end I rented a guitar from a local shop and wore a borrowed Sari to the show; it all worked out better than I could have ever anticipated.
Sometimes when you settle into a friendship, or a marriage, or a band for that matter, you become complacent and stop growing. You relish the feeling of slipping your foot into the old shoe, and loathe the idea of trying something new. This whole year capped off by these two travel experiences forced me outside my comfort zone. Because I made myself say yes, I wrote and presented a TEDx talk in Portsmouth, NH last September, I recorded two albums of original music, I started two bands and traveled to three new countries.
Most importantly, I learned that saying yes to everything can be paralyzing, but if you use that fear to light a fire under your ass, you've suddenly become a rocket ship.
I write this at my kitchen table, anxious of how my solo album will be received, worried because I haven't written a song in 6 months and depressed because the world seems to be such a dark and murky place at times. Believe me, I'm not always the airbrushed social media, jet setting rock and roller that many people seem to think I am. I am just another person floundering along trying to get it right. Fortunately, even though I make plenty of mistakes, I do get it right sometimes.
So, Happy New Year to all of you! May your 2018 be filled with love and joy. Please, give back in whatever way you can, and to hold on a little tighter to those who surround you.