Deborah Crooks (www.DeborahCrooks.com) is a writer, performing songwriter and recording artist based in San Francisco whose lyric driven and soul-wise music has drawn comparison to Lucinda Williams, Chrissie Hynde and Natalie Merchant.
Singing about faith, love and loss, her lyrics are honed by a lifetime of writing and world travel while her music draws on folk, rock, Americana and the blues. She released her first EP "5 Acres" in 2003 produced by Roberta Donnay, which caught the attention of Rocker Girl Magazine, selecting it for the RockerGirl Discoveries Cd. In 2007, she teamed up with local producer Ben Bernstein to complete "Turn It All Red" Ep, followed by 2008's "Adding Water to the Ashes" CD, and a second full-length CD "2010. She's currently working on a third CD to be released in 2013.
Deborah's many performance credits include an appearance at the 2006 Millennium Music Conference, the RockerGirl Magazine Music Convention, IndieGrrl, at several of the Annual Invasion of the GoGirls at SXSW in Austin, TX, the Harmony Festival and 2009's California Music Fest, MacWorld 2010, Far West Fest and many other venues and events. She toured the Northwest as part "Indie Abundance Music, Money & Mindfulness" (2009) with two other Bay Area artists, and followed up with "The Great Idea Tour of the Southwest in March 2010 with Jean Mazzei.
I’ve known songwriter Annette Conlon for nearly as long as I’ve been recording music. The Los Angeles based artist has long been an avid support of other artists as the host of ‘Nette Radio, ‘one of the longest running radio shows dedicated to promoting women in music.’ She’s also hosted many a songwriter showcase over the years and collaborated with her husband in duo The Conlons.
But after a harrowing few years of health challenges, Annette is putting her own voice front and center, embarking on a solo project inspired by the events she’s weathered, “Life, Death and The Spaces Between.” Amidst a crowdfunding campaign to support the project and some unexpected family events, Annette discussed her road to healing and writing her most inspired material. Q: You’ve been so active in music, I didn’t realize you hadn’t recorded your own solo work. How did you know it was time?
Annette Conlon: I fell and hit my head on a trashcan on April 17, 2014. I suffered a pretty severe concussion and during my recovery I started writing. I had written an entire album’s worth of songs between April 17th and Sept 5th; but really by mid-June I knew I wanted to record the songs I has written thus far. These songs felt special to me, and to Doug, and seemed to really connect with people when we played them live.
I told Doug I wanted to record right around my birthday in June. It wasn’t until we were in the studio and recording that we realized this was really my baby. Even though I had written everything, we went in with the intention of recording a “The Conlons” record; however, we realized that wasn’t what it was. Doug is fully supportive of my first full-length solo record, has generously played on it, and is currently working on his third solo record.
Q: Backing up to 2012? Can you brief us on what happened? What was vocal therapy like — was it regaining or learning a whole knew toolkit? I gather you focused on physical recovery first and then the emotional work didn’t kick in until the concussion….
AC: I had a retropharyngeal abscess resultant from bacteria that was residing on some cervical fusion hardware put in back in 2003. I had three surgeries through my esophagus: two due to the abscess and one to repair a hole in my esophagus. During the second surgery my right vocal laryngeal nerve was damaged and the result was the right cord became paralyzed. My surgeon, who is a top ENT surgeon, used Radiesse for Voice, and injected that through my neck into the right vocal cord, having me sing while injecting the gel to move the right cord back into the middle.
Now my left vocal cord basically does all of the work and my right cord just kind of sits there, in one place. I had swallow therapy to learn how to swallow again as my swallowing muscles were damaged. I also went to speech therapy/vocal therapy sessions at the hospital to learn how to speak correctly again. (I basically went until my benefits ran out). I did all of the homework for swallow and speech/vocal exercises, and once I was given permission to do so, I began one-on-one vocal coaching with the amazing Jan Linder-Koda via Skype. I also used her vocal warm-ups on my own time. I kept old mp3s of when I was first talking and trying to sing. It’s amazing to me how far I’ve come. I don’t have as big of a voice as I had before I got sick.
That power is gone. I have to remember not to push too hard or I will lose my voice. I get vocal fatigue easier – and I have noticed that if my neck muscles are tired my voice will change. All of those surgeries have affected me and I have had to learn to work with it and not fight it. That’s okay, it’s really a small price to pay to still be able to do something I love so much. Not only did I survive all of that, but I’m singing? I’m pretty lucky! I’m so happy when I sing, and I’m so thrilled to say I’m making a record without auto-tune. It’s authentically me. This new voice is purely me and I really like it.
I think the reason I didn’t focus on the emotional healing was that my “job” was to get well.
Some days I had 2-3 doctors’ appointments. Some weeks I went to the doctor 3-4 days of the week. Recovering from 3 major surgeries, the feeding tubes, the PICC line, all of the drains, etc, required so many visits, physical therapy, etc., that it was all I really did for a while. Not to mention the very real fear for the first year that the infection could resurface. I think emotionally I didn’t feel well for a long time. Physically, I was still not super strong even at a year and a half. When I had that concussion in April I was still not as strong as I am now. My legs collapsed as I stepped off the curb and down I went.
In August 2014 I celebrated my two-year anniversary of the first surgery. It really wasn’t all that long ago. It is remarkable to me know to look back and see how far I have come.
Q: How was writing a part of your emotional recovery? All these songs were written in this period. How are they different than your previous work? What do you hope listeners will take away from the work?
AC: Writing these songs was cathartic. I confronted, relived, and experienced… however you want to say it, thoughts and feelings that were veiled in my subconscious because I had focused all of my energy ‘getting well’. Once I had quiet time to just sit, without any outside input, my mind opened up, and I started listening. It was amazing to me to experience this as an artist/writer. I’ve always been a writer, but sometimes you try to force things. You tell yourself “I must write this song or finish this short story.” Instead, I merely listened and wrote. The words and the music came not independent from each other but almost in concert. I had to learn how to listen and convey this from inside my head to pen, paper and guitar. I’m still listening and writing, and I’m grateful that I’m able to stay connected to this inner voice.
In the past I didn’t have an inner voice, or muse, specifically guiding me as I do now. When I would have an idea of a poem, I would write it down, and then struggle with cords to come up with a song. If a melody came first I would sing it into a voice recorder or my phone, and struggle to convert it into cords. Sometimes weeks went by before I found words that made sense to that melody. Those struggles seem to be gone for now and I’m grateful.
I definitely want the listener to take away that this is a collected body of work. There can be hope after sorrow; there is joy in overcoming struggle. While each song stands alone, I think together they tell a story. We are frail beings, we are strong, and we can take and make beautiful music out of really awful circumstances, which in and of itself is very healing.
Q: Tell us about your plans for the record and going forward? Are you fully recovered from the events of the past few years? Will you be touring?
AC: I plan to release the record on April 17, 2015. That is the one-year anniversary of the concussion, and it seems like the perfect day for THIS record to be released! I really hope we make the Kickstarter goal…. I am so grateful to everyone who has supported me and donated thus far. We were doing really well at first and had a lot of momentum but my Uncle died on Nov 1 and I flew to Alabama to be with my family for the funeral. From Alabama, I flew to Colorado with my parents to attend the funeral of my mom’s best friend’s on Monday of this week. I’ve known this sweet lady since I was in kindergarten. Her daughter and I were in church choir together all through junior high and high school.
It’s been a long week of funerals and sadness. [And] I am still in Colorado due to the Arctic Front that moved in. I hope to be able to return to Los Angeles on Friday. … I am focusing my thoughts on the positive energy of all the support I have received thus far and praying that it works out as it should. I wouldn’t change a thing, because I put my family first, but the timing was rotten. That’s sometimes how life works out. I do hope your readers will check out the Kickstarter and find a reward they like! There are some really great things there!
Am I recovered? I think I’m as recovered as I’ll ever be although I can always get stronger, or in better shape, and I work towards that every day. I’ll never be like I was before I got sick. When they told me that at the hospital it made me so mad. I don’t ever want someone else to define me. I understand now what they were trying to say, to caution me and keep me from being disappointed. This isn’t something I dwell on. I’m certainly much stronger now than I was in April and I hope that I’ll be stronger next April than I am right now.
I would definitely consider touring to support the record. I might do several smaller tours instead of one big tour. That seems like a good way to stay healthy, happy and strong.
Oakland musician Michele Kappel-Stone is one of those rare hybrids of cool, talented and nice. The Baltimore native is always playing somewhere and she’s a seemingly tireless advocate of her fellow artists.
When she’s not working on her own projects, she can often be found sitting in with another band, helping book a show or organizing an event for The California Roots Union. I’ve been catching Kappel-Stone on various stages in various guises — playing as Tippy Canoe, putting together shows at The Starry Plough — around the Bay for years, but one of my favorite of her artistic incarnations is her recent collaboration with Laura Benitez, Heartache Sisters.
The duo project is a winning spin-off of Laura Benitez & The Heartache in which Kappel-Stone plays drums and sings backup.The duo’s voices blend well, they can play multiple instruments, they exude fun and look great doing it. Think Shovels & Rope crossed with Loretta Lynn and you start to get an idea of what the Heartache Sisters have going on.
After meeting up for coffee in the burgeoning Grand Lake District of Oakland, which she now calls home, Kappel-Stone answered some questions about the evolution of her musical life.
Q How did you first start singing and writing songs? Who were some of your earliest influences?
MKS: My professional singing debut was dressed in a head-to-toe white leotard performing a song called “Sex In Wetsuits” for multi-media avant theater company Impossible Industrial Action’s original play “The Pleasure Raiders.” This was 1990 in Baltimore. Before that it was mostly singing into a hairbrush in my bedroom and daydreaming. I started writing songs seven years later when I was the drummer in The Kirby Grips. I was learning to play the guitar and set my sights on becoming a songwriter.
A portion of my earliest influences include the Grease Soundtrack, Patsy Cline, The Monkees, Donna Summer, Barbara Mandrell, Earth, Wind & Fire, Eurythmics, and The Pretenders. That’s a combination of my mother’s record collection and my first order from Columbia House Record Club (cost just a penny). My first instrument is drums. I have the theater company, I.I.A., to thank for this, too. They gave me a shot behind the kit when the “real drummer” suddenly quit.
Q What brought you to the Bay Area? Does the East Coast ever pull you back?
MKS The Bay Area’s arts and music scene was the initial draw. Secondly, I was deciding between New Orleans and San Francisco in the heat and humidity of Baltimore in August and my air conditioning broke. SF sounded “cool.” Lastly, my best friend, Mandy, decided to move here first and that sealed the deal. One of the reasons I’m excited to return to touring next year (both solo and with Heartache Sisters) is to get to visit my homeland again. I miss it, but always feel connected.
Q You’ve got your finger on the pulse of the Bay Area music scene as a steadily performing artist and a talent buyer — whose inspiring you now?
MKS There are far too many to name and I’d hate to leave out someone I really adore. Instead, I think I’ll name the bands I’ll be sharing bills with coming up. The Demons I Knew (10/11 at Amnesia, SF), The McCoy Tyler Band, Secret Town (11/13’s The Heartless Woman Ball at Leo’s, Oakland), Maurice Tani, Loretta Lynch, and Yard Sale (featuring Jill Olson, Denise Funari and Melanie deGiovanni) (11/22 at The Starry Plough, Berkeley).
Q Describe your writing process. Do you write words first or start on an instrument?
MKS The melody and chord progression come along first, then the words fit themselves in. Sometimes a single line of a lyric and the melody occur together while driving in the car and I’ll develop the rest when I have a guitar or ukulele in my hand later, but that’s less common.
Q How do you feel to have your first solo show is coming up? What can audiences expect?
MKS I’m excited for my first solo show under my very own legal name. Audiences can expect a slight tingling sensation, but it won’t be anything to be alarmed by. Musically it will be a mix of my new songs, with a few older tunes from projects that have stuck with me and deserve to live on. Style-wise, I suppose you can revert back to the earliest influences question and imagine what that mix sounds like filtered through my personality.
As timing would have it, we had a gig in wine country on the Sunday of the August Sonoma County Earthquake in California. It was in Sonoma County rather than Napa, but like most people living in the Bay Area, we’d felt the earthquake in the wee hours of the morning.
Like most California natives, the feel of an earthquake is familiar. The first hints of movement, the approaching tremors and then the peak of the shake. Kind of like thunder in the earth. This one felt long and steady (I think I woke up after the sharpest of the jolts), not enough to get out of bed but enough for us to know it wasn’t an inconsequential tremor.
It felt to me that we were at or very near the center of something moderate…or somewhere not too far away, some peoples lives were changing considerably…which they were. My best wishes are going out to those in Napa who are reeling from the 6.1 quake’s aftermath, and whose nerves are likely rattling from the 80+ aftershocks.
While I don’t think of moving from California when an earthquake reminds me how fragile things really are, something primal in the survival department does get rattled. The earth moving is an awesome event, period. And I have instant recall of the two other largish and large earthquakes I’ve been in (5.9 in 1979 and 7.1 in 1989, both while I was living in Santa Cruz), down to what I did (ducking and covering under a dining room table and doorway respectively), and who I was with, and also that knowing that ‘this one’ is a ‘big one.’
I had the brief thought on Sunday that maybe we shouldn’t go the gig in Geyserville because of the quake. There were bridges to cross, after all, and we’d be heading closer to the epicenter than we were here in Alameda. Then I realized how silly that was—that while we could control how close we were to a fault line, there are infinite risks inherent to living anywhere, but it’s the living, as risky a proposition as that can be, that’s the point. And so we made the drive, and enjoyed playing atop a beautiful hill with a bucolic view of Dry Creek Valley.
Driving home last night, I happened upon an early Fourth of July celebration, a burst of fireworks originating near the Oakland Coliseum viewable over the water from the Bay Farm Island Bridge.
A day before the holiday, it caught me by surprise, the lights and glare inspiring my instinctual appreciation for fire anew.
Last year we spent the fourth at Kwame’s uncle’s house in Seal Beach, en route between a string of shows we were doing in Southern California and the Southwest. In Seal Beach, we walked over from the house to a local field crowded with half the neighborhood to ooh and awe over the multiple displays going off along the Southern California Coast.
Growing up, July always seemed like the hottest month, but somehow the heat didn’t disrupt the desire to set off a firecracker.
Because we were inland a few miles, we’d often take our holiday fireworks to Manresa or Beer Can Beach to set off after dark. The fireworks sold at stands at that time packed a punch, and watching the official displays in Watsonville and Santa Cruz was nearly secondary to the rogue displays going off at home and along the coastal beaches. We’d buy what are likely now-illegal bottle rockets and other items promising high voltage glitter and thrill from a roadside stand outside of town.
During the week leading up to the holiday, we’d preview our cache of snappers, sparklers, and those weird charcoal snakes that grow before your eyes with the strike of a match, on our brick patio. One never knew exactly what would happen once the firework was lit, which was the real fun.Would the firecracker be a dud or amazing? One year, my dad shot a defective firecracker off early that flew low into a small conifer and burst into flame, a fire that was fortunately easy to contain. Considering our impulsiveness, we were lucky to escape being burned badly or worse: there’s good reason so many fireworks are illegal.
The thrill in lighting your own fuse is primal, and the beaches of Santa Cruz were crazy on Fourth, as they are likely are now, crowded with similarly reckless pyromaniac types intent on figuring out how where to best roll the keg in the sand, light the brightest bonfire and set off the loudest explosion. The folks who wanted bigger and brighter on their own terms bought their fireworks from vendors in Mexico or through other underground routes and their were always some impressive, if dangerous, unofficial displays.
Tonight, we’ll venture out into the middle of the Bay on the boat to see what we can see. Happy Fourth!
This past weekend, we took the ferry to San Francisco and spent half a day at the Asian Art Museum, catching the next-to-last-day of the Yoga: Art of Transformation exhibit. A much-buzzed-about-in-yoga-circles show (there were many accompanying events that drew on the vibrant and diverse Bay Area yoga community), the curators of the exhibit created a compelling narrative in 135 artworks that serves both as visual feast and food for thought, tracing the roots of yoga as a practice of renunciates in ancient India, to its overseas sensationalization in Europe and the US, and present-day popularity, and commercialization, worldwide.
A winding narrative of paintings, sculpture, drawings, photos and video, including South Indian temple-derived sculptures of multi-armed yoginis, pages from a 16th century treatise“Ocean of Life” (some of the earliest examples of asana illustrations), large early-1800 paintings of the chakra system from the Jodhpur court that carry both religious and political associations, and footage of Krishnamacharya and Iyengar practicing asana, very clearly showed how captivating, and widely interpreted, yoga has been throughout the ages. Fittingly, the show culminates with a wall-size piece by Pardon My Hindi, #WhitePeopleDoingYoga in the Education Resource Center.
The Yoga: Art of Transformation exhibition next travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art (June 22, 2014–Sep. 7, 2014).
Beyond such special exhibits, the Asian Art Museum, now housed in the former SF Publication Library that was built in 1917, is truly a treasure trove of Asian art and culture. Every time I’ve gone to a special event here, I take solace from the inevitable crowds in one of the upstairs galleries. This time, after viewing the yoga exhibit, we popped into a gallery filled with Japanese Buddha sculptures and then just stood a while in the beautiful interior court.
Stars. So many stars. Wood chips and pine needles, a cushion for each step. The ocean, the ocean, the ocean. Whales keeping their secrets. Gulls trolling the shore. Poppies tentatively trying the hillsides. Stars. So many stars. So hard to leave…From Big Sur with Love.
“I have a big inner life. My struggle is how to organize it.” — Baz Luhrmann New York Times 2/9/14
Rainy day here. Rainy days. As California basks in belatedly falling rain and snow, I’m happy to be warm at home, reading the Sunday paper, recovering from my venture into beer tourism.
I’m not a big drinker and, when it comes to alcohol consumption of any kind, I’m more apt to have a nice glass of red wine.
However, my SO has a high regard for IPAs and enough interest in craft beer to brew up a batch at home from time to time. So when another friend who is likewise partnered to a beer lover invited us along to enjoy Russian River Brewing Company’s annual release of its renowned Triple IPA ‘Pliny the Younger,’ we said sure.
As the event showed up increasingly in the press, it dawned on us that the Pliny the Younger release was a very big deal among beer drinkers. Expensive and time-consuming to brew, Pliny the Younger is considered one of the very best tasting beers in the world, but is only available at the Santa Rosa pub for two weeks each year (with very limited shipments elsewhere).
People from all over the country (world?) — we’d meet a woman from Texas who flew in and got up at 5 in the morning to get in line — gather in Santa Rosa each February to consume the rich beer. And so I found myself rising early Saturday to join my friends and the gathering throngs to await our turn to taste Pliny.
The drenching rain didn’t keep the crowds away and it was late afternoon by the time we were let inside Russian River Brewing Company. Inside the brewery, it was nearly standing room only, shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow, as the capacity crowd toasted glasses and sipped on the golden ale. The pub serves an extensive list of other highly regarded and artful brews, including Pliny the Elder, all year, but it was Pliny the Younger’s day.
“Are you leaving?” I asked a man getting up from an adjacent bar stool, hoping to secure more perches for my party. “No,” he said, looking at me aghast. “I’m staying ’til they close. Eventually, we got a table to sip and further consider this year’s Pliny over pizza and pub sandwiches. Was it all that? I’m hardly the best judge, but I will say it was the smoothest, most drinkable beer I’ve tasted.
We had another great time in Austin, playing at MEOWCon 13 and getting completely inspired by all the other artists (hello Leni Stern African Trio*, Bluebonnets & Suzi Quatro), while catching up with new and old friends (Katie Garibaldi, Sue Quigley, Willow &The Embers) with gigs at The Driskill and Cedar St Courtyard to bookend the conference experience.
MEOW Showcase, photo by Jo Wymer
MEOW Con 2013
Along with the live shows, there were several films that screened during MEOWCon. We met Seattle filmmaker Kay D. Ray on the shuttle to the hotel and were very happy we made a point of seeing her ‘director’s cut’ of Lady Be Good: Instrumental Women In Jazz. Containing extraordinary footage of, and interviews with, pioneering women musicians from the 1920s to the 1970s, it’s a deep, inspiring, troubling and enlightening film all at the same time. In other words, make sure you see it. You can find out more and support it’s release at Kay’s site. Very big bow of appreciation to Carla DeSantis Black, who rounded up an extraordinary mix of women in music that was the inaugural MEOWCon. Here’s to many more!
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