Rockwood, transitions, etc
welcome to the first ever ttalk audio!
Hi, my love.
I made Tisha a lemon chess pie today. We ate it on the terrace, since I’m a COVID traumatized human who still can’t be indoors unmasked without developing stress hives. It was extremely delicious, since you asked.
I’m typing to you now on Saturday night, the wüdburner going strong. I have a bandaid on my index finger because I persist in burning these poor fingees on the fire or baking or whatever other hijinks my Lucille Ball meets Muppet self ends up in.
(Who needs hands, amirite?)
I don’t know if it’s the bandaid making it so difficult to type or the fact that it’s Saturday, but either way: My body is extremely confused.
Because as you and I both know ttalks happen on Sunday, not Saturday. And though it is wildly unhealthy and frenzied, I generally have a rhythm around these things.
It goes like this: Unless I’m on tour (when the ttalks write themselves), I find my life extremely boring. Still, I love connecting with you and am also terrified of disappointing you/anyone on the planet of earth, so the beat goes on and the ttalk gets written.
I inevitably end up waiting until Sunday at the very last minute to write the whole thing because I have changed almost zero percent since I was in middle school.
(I am now a Jewish-adult-middle-schooler.) (It’s fun and mostly stressful!)
Sundays are therefore weird/semi-hilarious. I tell José I have to write but have nothing to write about from early Saturday onwards. He is patient, gives me things to eat and somehow doesn’t rip my face off in frustration.
Eventually I type some sentences. I type some more sentences.
Then I start enjoying the typing and write like a feverish Jewess on a mission. Et voila! Every week before Sunday at midnight you’ve got a letter in your inbox.
But since (!) we’re now (!) starting ttalk audio (!), and I have no flapping idea what that entails, I don’t think it’s wise to do my Jewish-slacker-meets-hyper-focus-meets-lucille-ball-on-natural-amphetamines boomerang routine at this moment in time.
So I’m writing to you on a Saturday night. And I will read this on to you on a Sunday morning and email both audio and letter to you on a Sunday afternoon.
Like a good responsible human.
“Good responsible human” is not a way I’ve ever described myself. My body remains unclear on how to do this new journey into pseudo-functionality. I’m sitting on the couch next to José, warming my feet at the wüdburner and clacking my bandaided fingers until something appears. Eventually I will go into our little studio, sit in the teepee and read this to you.
I hope you are as excited as I am about this new world of text and audio. Next week it will be just for paid subscribers (you can do that here at $5/month or through the button at the bottom of this letter!), but today it’s for everyone. A preview, of sorts, or just me having no idea what I’m doing.
(I’ve decided, for example, to speak these parentheticals I do in a triple voice.)
(Will this be the same next week? Hard to say!)
We are learning as we go. Taking steps, doing the things.
Transitions, transitions. You know me by now, my love: I’m a sucker for nostalgia. And the nostalgia is heavy as I yet again walk right into the unknown (does anyone else have an 8 year old step daughter and hear those three words as a screamed song from Frozen 2?! just me?!)
This new step + teaching all of these young magnificent humans has me thinking about my own schooling.
Which was … fine.
The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, an incredibly abusive space for women and singers/an anarchistic two floors of NYC wild-west with the word “school” slapped onto it somewhere, had a couple of majorly good things going for it.
(It’s weird, you know?)
(From the inception of that school up until the time it very recently changed into a more functional environment, a truly bonkers amount of big names came out of the New School.)
(Sometimes I wonder if that dysfunction made us all into the artists we are now?)
But that’s more than we have space for here.
For now we can talk about the best part of New School, far and away, which was their lesson policy.
Essentially the way it worked in that glorious 13th street wild west was that once you had demonstrated you could proficiently sing jazz, you were free to take nine lessons a semester with anyone you wanted. The fee for these nine lessons was an amazingly generous $100 a lesson (which, I checked through inflation because a bish is thorough, would be $131.05 now.)
You could take each of those doll-hairs and spend them however the fuck. If you got someone to say yes the New School would approve it: Voice, piano, image consulting (someone seriously did this!), Alexander Technique, you name it.
I studied first with Sasha Dobson, a singer who I worshipped in the Rockwood scene. I called her in a shaky voice and legitimately couldn’t believe it when she said yes.
(It was every bit as wondrous as I could have dreamed.)
Our lessons consisted of us hanging and Sasha pulling out a guitar every so often to sing songs with me. She had a categoric and spanning knowledge of jazz and a loose, brilliant mastery of singing. For ten weeks I’d go up to her apartment in the 20s where we’d smoke a joint, drink tea and talk about songs we loved.
Dreamy, dreamy, dreamy.
I owe Sasha so much as both a musician and a songwriter. She was nine years older than me, had gone to the New School too, and knew it for the wild and anarchistic experience that it was. She encouraged me, ever so gently, to start considering some other music in the way that only queen Sasha could.
As always Sasha was right, and as soon as I started on that “folk shit” I realized I was at the wrong school. But there wasn’t a New School for Folk and Contemporary Music (if someone starts it I’ll be the first student?!) and I’ve never been particularly brave, so I stayed around and set my sights on a new goal: Songwriting. I found the few teachers who were even interested in talking about it, and looked for the precious kindred spirits I could find.
Thankfully there was a perfect person to call to talk folk shit with.
Someone who had graduated the two floor anarchy just a year before I got there and was already turning heads and taking names in the downtown scene.
Becca Stevens hit my radar early on, when someone passed me her landmark first album Tea Bye Sea.
(I swear, my love, my head turned a full 360 degrees like a music induced exorcist victim.)
I, along with the entire world, had never heard anything like that album. I dove head first into it. I didn’t have the musical language for what I was feeling, didn’t know how to say that this was the freshest, most dazzling musician that had come around in a long time.
So I just listened, and listened, and listened.
And though the world is enormous the world is also very small: I ended up at a Becca show just a few months after hearing Tea Bye Sea.
Which meant I had listened to the album approximately 10,000 times by then. I couldn’t help myself: I got just short of crying, and praise vomited allllll over her.
(This is a good time to give you some advice, if you want it: Never ever tell your favorite artist how much you love them. You can tell us you like our work! But if you want to work with us, it’s a good call to just treat us like humans!)
(It works better!)
(Because we are humans!)
In any event I really, really didn’t do that.
I treated Becca like an angel fallen from the heavens who could fix all of the world’s problems (but especially mine) with a ukulele. She was very nice and also probably concerned that I might sneak into her house and knife her.
She moved on to the next hardcore fan, and I realized I had made a large mistake.
Thank god I got lucky: A couple of weeks later we met again at a party on east 11th street. My heinous ex-boyfriend had just broken up with me for the first time (of many) because, in more or less his words, there were major problems with every single part of who I was.
I was in shock. But in that weird moment of clarity, of absolute vulnerability with no ability to posture, Becca was there for me despite my earlier fan-girling. We walked through a snowy East Village and talked through everything. Bought cannolis at Veneiro’s. Then we reentered the party apartment (the cannolis were a big hit!), drank wine and talked about life.
Sure, a 5’5 sociopathic narcissist had just told me a laundry list of every single thing that was apparently “wrong” with me, but I swear I walked down Second Avenue to Orchard that night completely starstruck.
In the months following, because I was 21 and hopelessly devoted to said sociopathic narcissist, I decided to put my focus on that whole dumpster fire rather than considering how to follow up on the whole buying cannolis and drinking wine with my idol thing.
It all seems laughable knowing what a small deal he is and what a large deal had happened on 11th street that night. But a year passed before I got up the courage to call my now best friend / fellow Grammy nominee.
2010 then, a year at Blue Note Records under my belt. I had begun to write songs, though I wasn’t telling anyone about it because I was pretty certain I was god awful.
I called Becca tentatively, with the same shaky voice that Sasha heard.
It turned out she had never taught a lesson, but was down to try.
(Life is hilarious!)
(Becca now has a whole ass wildly successful songwriting SCHOOL!)
(She is the only person on earth, myself included, who I think can teach songwriting!)
(Anyway! Back! To! The! Story!)
My first lesson with Becca was in a New School practice room. I asked her to turn off all the lights and face the wall while I sang my first ever song to her.
I will never, ever forget the kindness and genuine love she showed that song. Her comments were gentle and incisive and helpful. She gave me just enough encouragement to keep going and just enough feedback to want to write the next one.
From that time onwards I just studied with Becca. She helped me write, begin to believe in myself, helped me to assemble my first band. Our lessons slowly blossomed into something more: A beautiful mentorship and budding friendship. We got a lot more tea, drank a lot more wine. She shot the music video for Weightless in the woods of my childhood elementary school.
It was beautiful then. I don’t know if there’s a word for what I was, almost an apprentice in our scene. I began to meet the community, I went to everyone’s shows.
But it was more than that, because Becca is Becca. She wasn’t satisfied to just let me be an apprentice: She was insistent that I shoot for bigger, broader, that I consider my future. She was firm about demystifying the terrifying process of what happened after I left school.
And boy was there a lot to demystify. Becca was just … alarmingly patient. She sat with me, helped me to get videos of my school’s senior recital so that I could use them in future booking emails. It turned out she was booking herself, so she set me up with a gig at the legendary Cornelia Street Cafe (RIP) just a few weeks after that senior recital.
It all felt like a dream. And that dream was nothing compared to Becca’s connecting me to the gem of Houston Street slash forever space where my heart resides: Rockwood Music Hall.
A fucking paradise. The epicenter of New York songwriter excellence.
Rockwood opened in 2005. A (barely) 70 cap room that former banker Ken Rockwood built after 9/11 turned his head around. It was, seemingly from the very beginning, the place to be.
My High School friends and I would take the train downtown and just exalt in the worship of it.
I don’t know if this is true, but someone once told me they had Norah Jones’ piano. What I do know is true is that there was a patina of magic on every wall and surface. The room held 70 fucking people, and every single hour was magnificent. Anything could and did happen: Ben Gibbard would stop by, Regina Spektor would stop by. 70 people and your idols would just walk in and jump on stage. You just… sat against the windows, the stage in front of you and Allen Street behind you watching history happen.
On those nights, young and naïve and completely intoxicated with the talent of New York City, I made a promise to myself: I would become a person at Rockwood. I would know the sound guy, the bouncer, the owner. The bartenders wouldn’t have to ask, they’d just make the drink I liked.
And I, too, would jump on the stage like it was nothing. Just super casual.
2005 then. No way to see how that could happen.
But by 2011 I had Becca Stevens, the world’s greatest friend and mentor. Becca didn’t directly connect me to Rockwood because she knew the value in me sorting those skills out myself. Instead she gave me the email of Matt, legendary backbone of the club, and helped me to craft out exactly the email to send.
And then … it just happened. My first gig at Rockwood flew by. I set my sights on the next, and eventually had a monthly gig at Rockwood 1.
From then on my band and I were regular fixtures at the club that had graced my dreams. I did indeed become a “person” at Rockwood. When they built the larger Rockwood 2 we moved there, and when they built the beautiful (my favorite!) Rockwood 3, we moved there.
Arguably most importantly, I got to flex my excellent skills as an ironic flyer maker.
Over the years the fliers grew more professional. Of course I combed my email through hundreds of them to show you, thought you’d get a kick out of this night in 2012.
That’s what I’m talking about, my love. That kind of ridiculous night. Rock! Wood!
It all feels like it was yesterday and it all feels like it was a thousand years ago.
In the time since I’ve toured the world, moved across an ocean, and played a room that is exactly 21.4285714286 (I checked because a bish is thorough) times the size of Rockwood 1.
My second ever show playing this new album, in fact, at the epic Paradiso here in Amsterdam.
Tisha was in my band then, being their absolutely superstar self. There is a video from that night, of the song “Ticket To Anywhere,” that I hope to be able to show you soon. For now here’s a photo, our good pal Tisha center stage.
We mixed the audio this week at Flowriders, another magical Amsterdam place that we have come to call home.
It’s beautiful to hear it all back now. The song, a meditation on the ability to create your own fate and finally exit, has the chorus “If home is the open air, then baby we can go anywhere.” You can imagine how poignant it was to sing that to 1500 of the people who took us in when all felt lost.
I was emotional, and so was my bb Tisha. Before the show they were a bag of nerves. Young, badass, and about to play a sold out set on one of the biggest stages in Holland. I hope I did a good job in assuaging some of that. I know I did a good job today when I got to show Tisha that video of them just owning it, singing, playing bass and being the rockstar they are.
And oh, my love, if there wasn’t the most magnificent tear prick moment of full circle in seeing Tisha’s face light up. That moment of possibility that comes when someone opens your eyes just a little further than you can see for yourself. Tisha isn’t just a bassist: They are a world class songwriter, one that deserves every bit as much encouragement as Becca gave me.
Me, in a practice room, with one song and a whole universe of doubts.
Tisha, eating lemon pie on my terrace, sitting on some of the best and freshest new songs I’ve heard in *years.*
There is so far for them to see. I’m hoping, through it all, that I can be of some service in showing them just how much further they should be looking on the horizon.
And sometimes, like today, when Tisha leaves my house after a 5 hour hang with saran wrapped challah in their hands and a big smile on their face, I feel I’m getting closer to that goal.
Horizons are relative. Good art is everything.
Thank you for being here with me on this momentous first ever t-talk audio, for keeping me going through all of this and helping me to constantly push my own boundaries.
More next week.
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