Category: Tchunes

Inktober Day Thirty-One: Friend

The last day of Inktober deserves a story:

This is my mandolin. It’s a hand-made, solid-wood a-style flattop made by a guy in Missouri now doing business as The Big Muddy Mandolin Company. The mandolin isn’t the friend in this picture, but it’s a powerful symbol of friendship.

About twenty years ago, I stumbled headlong into a group of musician friends. Well, most of us weren’t musicians yet, but we all learned to be musicians together, and inside the little enclosure we made for ourselves it was safe to be a novice, and that safety made us brave enough to keep practicing together until weren’t too embarrassing when we played in public.
We’d gather in a friend’s garage with our instruments and a few beers and we’d play tunes until the neighbors came and told us to shut up. Then we’d move into the living room till the housemate who owned the house put down her fiddle and told us to go home. We’d sit on the sidewalk in front of The Ark for hours, making sure we got the best seats for Old Blind Dogs and Steeleye Span and Lunasa. We’d play at sessions, nursing pints and playing reels until we risked our day jobs in the morning. We busked on occasion, and played bars and libraries and even a country club once.

I played clumsy tinwhistle and serviceable bodhran, and never did learn to read sheet music, but somewhere in there I started tagging along with my friends to The Musical Petting Zoo. During these visits I kept ending up in the Mandolin Family room, surrounded by banjos and octave mandolins and bouzoukis and all sorts of trouble. I stared at the mandolins, drawn to their simple elegant forms and just-right size, but scared away by their complexity. Somebody picked one out for me and showed me how to make a couple two-fingered chords. I tried a couple different mandolins each time I visited, but I kept coming back to this plain little A-style that wasn’t too fancy or presumptuous and seemed just approachable enough that it might maybe get me past being intimidated by an instrument more sophisticated than whistle or drum.

I was messing with that same mandolin one day when Jen called me in to the guitar room to show me this little beauty of a parlor guitar she was going to get, and then it was time to leave. When I got to the car it turned out that Emily had spent the rest of her grad school money buying me that sweet little mando, and Jen had bought me the carrying case to go with it. Other friends jumped in to help: Rollande bought me a strap, a string winder, a tuner, and a little beaded bag in the shape of a clownfish that held a half-dozen picks of different weights. Brian bought me a mando stando so it wouldn’t have to lean against the couch. Other friends gave lessons, advice, tunes.

I poked away at it for a couple of years, overwhelmed by this shower of kindness. I dragged it with me to sessions and house parties, hoping I’d somehow learn through osmosis. The truth was I never got comfortable enough with myself to figure out how to advance past those first two chords and a half-dozen tunes, and I felt like a terrible failure because I had let down the folks who’d gifted her to me. The mando still seemed way too complicated and while I could fake my way through a whistle tune, or hammer out a simple rhythm, I felt entirely out of my depth with chords and hammer-ons and pull-offs and tremolos and all. Every once in a while I’d halfheartedly ask around for teachers, but was ultimately too embarrassed to meet once a week and display how little I knew compared to all the actual musicians I hung out with.

As we all moved away and on to the next phases of our individual lives – a process which happened shockingly fast from late 2003 through early 2004 – music slipped away from my life. I played a few sessions in Kalamazoo, but they never stuck like the ones in Ann Arbor did. I occasionally filled in on whistle and drum with a local band, but the truth is I never did like playing on stage. Instead I longed for those weekly living-room sessions , the clubhouse garage with its twinkle lights, Maritime food potlucks in Sol’s kitchen, Park Lake pickin’ parties. Eventually I stopped going to sessions entirely, let comics take up all my spare time. My poor little mando got relegated to the back of the coat closet, and barely saw the light of day for ten years. Once in a great while I’d feel a wave of guilt and nostalgia, pull it out and tune it up, but like most well-intended attempts to start new habits, my practice never lasted long enough to build up calluses.

Dirk and Emily stopped by one night on their way from Missouri back through to Boston. Dirk didn’t have his fiddle, so he pulled out the mando and restrung her, and we had a few simple tunes in the living room, round and round fifteen times through the Hole in the Hedge. I felt a surge of restorative love for the music, but once they left, the mandolin went back into the closet, buried under sports and work and family obligations and everything else.

And then a few weeks ago, I faced down a series of major changes, and realized that I was going to need some distractions to keep me occupied while I figured out the new direction my life was heading. I needed things that I could pick up and put down without a ton of commitment, to keep my hands and mind from settling into old patterns of overthinking and overdoing. Apropos of nothing, I realized I could bring the mando out of hiding and see if I could make it stick this time.

One of the best things I got out of the last few years playing sports was a better understanding of how to pick up new skills without beating myself up in the process – after a lifetime of only doing things that came easy, and feeling frustrated and humiliated when I tried anything remotely challenging, I finally learned how to learn. I’ve taught myself some pretty scary and difficult things lately, and getting over my and feelings of inadequacy around an instrument seemed pretty simple by comparison, so I pulled out the mando, tuned her up, and went looking for a teacher.

In the twelve years since the mando went into the closet, online music instruction finally became viable, and it turns out there are a bunch of really good teachers out there. Having beginner-level videos to repeatedly scrutinize gets me past the insecurity of asking the hundred stupid questions I was too embarrassed to bother a real musician with – how do you hold your left thumb on an A chord? How do you grip the pick? Can you record that strum pattern for me? – and I can play along with a backing track as often as I want without annoying anyone but the cats. I found an entire Music Theory 101 course online from Yale, and hearing the prof walk through the basics has been a huge help: chord progressions no longer seem like a mysterious art.

I didn’t want to post anything sooner than this because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep it up past two weeks; I never could before. But here I am at the end of my second month, and I’ve got about six reliable chords and two I-IV-V progressions, so yay me. I’m not reliable with tunes yet, but the process of practicing actually feels good enough to keep me coming back, poking at it for a half-hour here, an hour there. My mandolin is a pretty amazing reminder of how many times my life has been blessed by good friends, and how I’ve progressed these last few months. It’d be a shame to put her back in the closet again.

Clockwork Game Update: 4/5/12

Signal Boost of the Week goes to Thomas Dolby, who is currently touring for his new album, A Map of the Floating City. Paul and I went to see him in Manhattan last week, and it was a really fantastic show, so if you’ve been hesitating on buying tickets, hesitate no longer. As a special bonus, Mr. Dolby is bringing along a custom-made trailer on his Time Capsule Tour that will allow you to record a special thirty-second message to the future. There’s already a YouTube channel that features some of the best messages, including those from Bill Nye and Reggie Watts. Oh yeah, and the Time Capsule itself was designed by somebody pretty awesome.

Clockwork Game Update: 11/03/11

Signal Boost of the Week goes to Thomas Dolby! His new album came out a short while ago, and it’s popping up all over the web. As readers of the blog know too well, the packaging and art on all four (!) editions of the album was created by someone rather dear to my heart.

In addition to being an amazing musician (and a nice guy!) he’s responsible for bringing the polyphonic ringtone to cellphones everywhere, directing the music for the TED Conference, and he also created much of this album in his solar-and-wind-powered studio.

It’s been so fascinating and wonderful to watch this album evolve, and to see Paul’s hand in so much of the design. Go check it out!

The Floating City

As regular readers know, my husband Paul has been doing a whole lot of work with the amazing Thomas Dolby, and there’s a big new part of that work debuting right now: a game called The Floating City:

“Based on a crazy idea I have been nurturing since I began my new album nearly two years ago, it is the fruit of several months’ hard work by a dedicated all-star team of developers and writers, and it’s the prelude to my album ‘A Map of the Floating City,’ which will follow as the game reaches its climax,” Dolby said in an advance.

Here’s an exerpt from Paul’s own blog:

Concept-wise, this is a really cool idea from Thomas; have a game that people can play, meet other Dolby fans from around the Earth, learn about his previous music, and hear bits of his new music. It’s a little post-apocalyptic, a little steampunk, a little “Mad Max”, and 100% geek-tastic! As deep and complex as Thomas’ songs are, this game is exactly the same. And it’s a game that rewards you for being smart, inquisitive, and willing to solve problems and think ahead!

Now all of you! Go play the game! You get free stuff! And the prize for solving the game? Well, I can’t tell you what it is, but I know what it is, and what it is is AWESOME. So you should play, in hopes that you win it. And, you know, because Paul did all the artwork for it, which makes it even cooler than it would’ve been, otherwise.

Thomas Dolby on WNYC

If you can’t wait for the new album, you can hear Thomas Dolby play some of his newest tracks on WNYC’s Soundcheck. And that Toadlickers iPhone game he mentions? Guess who did the interface for it? First two guesses don’t count!

He blinded me with design

So all of you guys know that Paul’s been doing a lot of design work lately for Thomas Dolby. But do you know how much design? A LOT. And now there’s more!

Another project I can finally talk about! Yesterday Thomas Dolby revealed “The Floating City”, an online game connected with his upcoming “A Map of the Floating City” album. I have been doing all the game graphics, and it’s going to be a very cool game when it launches. Here’s a peek at the design of the game. More information can be found here.

Seriously, if you haven’t yet, go check out and see Paul’s handiwork. He designed both EPs, the intro screens for the Toadlickers game, the promo work, maps and icons used in the Floating City game, and even the website itself! He’s so amazing. Yay Paul!

There’s even more on the way, so stay tuned.

I love this song so much it brings tears to my eyes

Michigan native Jen Sygit, backed up by old Pub Domain buddy Drew Howard. Just what I needed on this gloomy, gloomy day.

What it’s really like to work at a music store

Seriously, I laughed so hard at this that I nearly peed myself.

Daisy May Erlewine

Been listening to “Daisy” May Erlewine’s song “We Are” from her album Mother Moon on loud repeat today because it’s something I really need to hear, over and over and over again.

Oh my liar, don’t you be so sad

Know you’ve got the power of healing in your hands

And oh my sweet boy don’t you dare give up

Know that you are more than good enough

The way you are, you are, just the way you are,

The way you are you are, just the way you are

And oh my brother don’t give up on the world

Know you cant seek shelter outside of yourself

And oh my sister don’t you get so low

Build a home within ya, take it with you when you go

Wherever you go there you are, you are, you are, you are

Wherever you go there you are, you are, you are, you are

And oh my people don’t you judge a face,

Know that god is with us no matter his name

And oh witness please forgive us for everything we’ve done

For all the shame inside us is hurting everyone

Everywhere we are, we are, we are, we are, we are

Everywhere we are, we are, we are, we are, we are

And oh my friend don’t you get all bent

You have got the mixture for your medicine

And oh my lover don’t you dare get scared

For if there’s a love within us then love is everywhere

Everywhere we are we are we are we are

Everywhere we are we are we are we are

She’s got a brand new record out on Earthworks music, starring a bunch of great local musicians (like everyone’s favorite drummer, Mike Shimmin) — and it’s also mixed by our next-door neighbor, the incredibly talented Ian Gorman. You can pick May’s stuff up from Fox on a Hill Records. Her music is just plain wonderful, whether she’s recording with Seth Bernard or solo. Do yourself a favor and go check her out post-haste.


The Swell Season kicked off their US tour in Kalamazoo last night (I know, right?) and it was one of the absolute best shows I’ve ever seen — I was moved to tears more than once, and the audience was so responsive that we were all swept away together. There were some really wonderful moments, including a beautiful looped fiddle solo from Colm Mac Con Iomaire, a really nice opening set from Glen’s old guitar buddy Mark Dignam, an absolutely inspired cover of Into the Mystic, this hilarious moment where Glen unintentionally prefaced the song “Back Broke” with a reference to Christian country singer Ray Boltz’s coming out, a guest musician from the audience, and loads of lovely singing from the audience, complete with hair-raising harmony (Seriously, it’s hard enough to get an audience to keep time, let alone sing in bazillion-part harmony). Glen also tried a really gutsy move, playing Say it to me now with absolutely no accompaniment or amplification. It was a really incredible moment until — well, just watch the video. Oh who am I kidding, that just made it an even more incredible moment.

Some nice local moments, too: Marketa came into my friend S’s salon to have her makeup done before the show and was super nice to everyone, and Glen was in Water Street having coffee exactly when I had considered stopping by for more caffeine, but then thought I should be all responsible and save money and stuff, and so I kept driving instead (insert cursewords here). Though I really have no idea what the heck I’d do if I met him — probably turn into goo and tell him how I’ve had a crush on him since I was in eleventh grade when he was still Outspan Fookin’ Foster. Which would endear me to him immediately, I’m sure.

There’s a ton of grainy iphone video up on Youtube right now, so if you’re curious, go have a look.

When I die hallelujah by and by

Came home late last night after an exhausting day (two library gigs on opposite sides of the state; seven hours in the car, six hours talking to kids, no real food, three hours sleep and Red Bull to run on) to find that the bluegrass band who lives across the street from us had set up in the park and was belting out “I’ll Fly Away” in four-part harmony, complete with banjo, doghouse bass, guitar and fiddle. It was beautiful and haunting and wonderful, and when the song petered out (as old-time songs tend to) they all hung around the park bench and tuned up their harmony, each voice joining in one after another: “I’ll — I’ll — I’ll — I’ll fly away!”

Lovely. There are times when my neighborhood really pisses me off, but tonight was not one of them.

Nice moment from Wednesday’s session

We had a visiting musician drop by the O’Duffy’s session this week, a young man from Spain who plays whistle like nobody’s business. He visited twice before, last winter, and impressed the heck out of us because he knew pretty much every tune we threw at him, and played a bunch of new exciting stuff as well.

This time, Manuel brought his practice set of uilleann pipes (minus the drones) and though he said he hadn’t been at it long, he played amazingly well and brought a new level of lift and draíocht to the session, one that can’t really be described unless you’ve seen it happen.

Toward the end, he set out on a blistering set of whistle reels, unaccompanied except for Aaron’s bodhrán, and all the other musicians were just listening, and we all started to pat our feet in perfect time, and it was all so good and right and enjoyable that I don’t know how else to describe it.

I don’t know why that moment struck me so; it must be because when you listen to a group of people respond to live music, they rarely do so in sync and sympathy with the music. It’s about the audience, and the audience’s feelings, not the musician’s. This was a different kind of moment, one where the other musicians, as listeners, were one with the music even though they weren’t playing. Participating, and yet not, propelling the player forward without transposing their own egos.

I wonder if that’s not a lot closer to the way music used to be experienced, back when there was no television and radio, when the presence of a wandering minstrel was cause for celebration, cause for stopping your everyday life just to listen.

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