The Sleeper Hits

Back when I bought albums, rather than downloads, I usually bought an album because there was one song I absolutely had to have…and I was hoping that the rest of the album would be worth it. When I’d get the album home, I’d play the hit song, and then I would start the process of exploring the rest of the songs, hoping that they’d be worth my time.

That first song, the one that hooked me onto the album, I’d play that one about a zillion times. But as the weeks would pass, songs that I hadn’t noticed that much – the ones that weren’t as flashy — often ended up grabbing my attention. Sometimes, with repeated listens, the “hit” would get old, while that shy one on track 3 revealed more and more layers. And those would be the ones that stayed with me, week after week, month after month, year after year.

In praise of the Sleeper Hit!:

Album: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill / Lauryn Hill

Song I bought the record for: Doo-Wop (That Thing)

Songs I fell in absolute love with: Ex-Factor and I Used to Love Him

Best Line: “Tell me who I have to be / to get some reciprocity”

 

Album: New Non-Fiction / Susan Werner

Song I bought the record for (and still love): May I Suggest

Songs I fell in absolute love with: Pretty much the whole album, especially “Stationary,” “Misery and Happiness,” and “Barbed Wire Boys”

Best Line: “Tough as the busted thumbnails / on their weathered hands / they worked the gold plate / off their wedding bands”

 

Album: Hits / Joni Mitchell

Songs I bought the record for: Big Yellow Taxi, The Circle Game

Songs I fell in absolute love with: Carey and California

Best Line: “So I bought me a ticket, I caught a plane to Spain / Went to a party down a red dirt road / there were lots of pretty people there / readin Rolling Stone readin Vogue”

 

Album: Mama’s Gun / Erykah Badu

Songs I bought the record for (and still love): Bag Lady

Songs I fell in absolute love with: Penitentiary Philosophy, Didn’t Cha Know?, Time’s a Wastin

Best Line: “Bag Lady, you gon’ miss your bus / you can’t hurry up, ’cause you got too much stuff”

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By Sofia Echegaray Posted in Music

Interjections

From the strange summer of 2009, a short piece on music and life:

I have developed a raging crush on someone, and I am unable to communicate with him in any sort of normal, human way. This is how it goes every time I see him:

Man: Hi, Sofia, how was—

Me: I LIKE LINOLEUM!

Man: …errr…

Me: IT’S MADE FROM FLAX!

Man: …I have to go talk with my friend now.

The good thing is that I am so awkward, and it makes both of us so uncomfortable, that I’m starting to find it funny. In fact, yesterday evening, at the end of a performance I went to, I said to him, “Hey, I was thinking, that since every time I see you, I say something awkward, we could just practice, and get it out of the way at the beginning.” He laughed.

Here’s my theory of harmony singing: if I’m singing along to a song I don’t know, I have to make my best guess about where the melody is going, and harmonize to that. If my guess turns out to be right, my harmony sounds pretty with the melody. If my guess turns out to be dissonant to the melody, then I’m singing a passing tone, on the way to the “right” note.

Passing tones are those little notes in a song where the harmonies sound a bit dissonant — it makes you feel tense to hear it, and you feel a need to resolve it. And, when the harmony goes back to sounding pretty, you feel this great sense of relief and beauty.

So maybe life is the same way. It’s either “right”, or it’s a passing tone. And, passing tones are “right,” too — in fact, some of the most exquisite moments in music that I’ve sung have been the passing tones. And both kinds of harmonies resolve at the end.

So maybe I can relax a little.

One Morning with Martha Stewart

There is a special shame American women are taught to feel, a fear that if we were left alone in the middle of the wilderness, with only our wits and native flora to guide us — Could We Darn a Sock? Bake a pie? Sew two sheets together from muslin?

I do not think this particular expectation is foisted off on men. There’s no Martha Stewart Living for men, teaching you to feel self-conscious because you no longer melt down your own lead to create bullets. If Bob can hunt game for the winter, so much the better, but it’s not a test of his worthiness in society. When Bob’s newborn son is born, he does not feel a pang of regret because he has to go buy a rocking chair, rather than carving it out of wood. Yes, a good paycheck and IKEA are good enough for the average man.

But throughout the world, societies always place their anxiety about changing cultural values onto the women. That is why men who are atheists want devout, traditional wives, and Indian men in three-piece suits want their wives to wear saris.

Here in America, women have also born the brunt of our cultural anxiety about the modern age. So we’re supposed to be modern, work full time, get a paycheck – and then kick off our shoes and spend lots of time and effort doing the kinds of old-fashioned chores for which the phrase “labor-saving device” was originally invented.

Yes, we women are somehow supposed to become proficient in newfangled modern life, but also stencil and bake and crochet and set up jars of preserves for the winter. Come home with your shield, or on it.

Preferably knitting a tea cozy.

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This is all to explain how I, one recent morning, found myself setting about the Project of Cleaning my Filthy Venetian Blinds. It was fueled by disgust, of course – many, many tenants before me had ignored this issue, and by now it was truly frightening. But somehow, all those years of housewifely propaganda factored into it too. According to magazines, I had been missing out on some hitherto undiscovered height of ecstasy, easily found again if only I would enter into a gloriously tedious, anachronistic cleaning routine. So I set about to clean these things in a style to make Martha Stewart proud, assured in the promise that my fabulous orgasm would be in the mail.

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But first, let me explain my usual approach to housekeeping: Obliviousness. 

This approach works not merely for housekeeping, but for life!** Try it! You too can miss your subway stop on multiple occasions because you’re trying to remember the lyrics to Backstabbers or the bass line to Use Me.***

But anyways, back to housekeeping. Not the highest thing on my radar. For example, once or twice I’ve had people over to my place, and they’ve said, “Sofia! You have all this stuff all over your kitchen floor!” To which I reply, “I have a kitchen floor?”

Up until that point, I had been operating under the illusion that I was standing on some sort of interstellar vortex which automatically sucked away all pieces of onion, garlic, etc. that happened to fall on it.

Well, anyways. I’m terrible at maintenance cleaning, but I do like a good project, with its promise of an actual sense of accomplishment (as opposed to regular housework, which has been correctly described as ‘Sisyphean’). And this morning, I noticed my venetian blinds.

So, I thought about cleaning them “the old-fashioned” way.You know, the way Our Foremothers did. I quickly went out and enslaved someone of darker complexion than myself, and forced this hapless individual to clean for me.

Well, no.

I quickly went down on my hands and knees, and scrubbed the venetian blinds in the ancient ways of my people. Then, for dramatic effect, I died of consumption.

No; still no good.

Ok, I took a rag, and overcome with nostalgia for a time that never was, a time after plastic venetian blinds but before women’s suffrage, I dampened it with an artisanal mixture of water, white vinegar, and a tiny bit of soap. I felt good; I felt honest; I felt that judgmental busybodies who have servants clean for them so that they can oversee media empires extolling the virtues of cleaning your own house…I felt that these people would not snub me. I suppose true Martha Stewart overkill fashion would have required rags imported from France for the sole purpose of cleaning plastic venetian blinds, but my rags did just fine. (I just mistyped “my rage.” Hrmmm. Freudian typing.)

Then, I lovingly wiped down each plastic, filthy blade of the venetian blind. Top and bottom. “Who sweeps a room as for thy God makes that and the action fine,” that sort of thing. I listened to This American Life. A nice Sunday morning.

By almost the end of TAL, I had finished one half of one set of blinds. I have 4 windows with blinds. At this rate, it would take me 8 hours to finish — not including the actual windows themselves.

At this point, I had a thought which tied me even closer to women through the ages. I thought, “Who the FUCK invented Venetian Blinds? Obviously a man, or someone who never ever expected to clean them. Why can’t everyone just have curtains? Then you could just throw them in the wash and be done with it.”

The ancient imprecation having been observed according to prescribed ritual, I then thought, “There has got to be a better way.” I took another set of blinds outside, laid them awkwardly over a folding chair, and hosed them down. They are dry now, and slightly warped in places, but I think they’ll smooth out. However, I can’t seem to get them back on the little window venetian blind hook thingies. (More ancient imprecations followed as according to custom.)

I do have to admit, though, that the left half of my lovingly caressed blinds are lookin’ mighty fine. So once I become independently wealthy, then I can do the rest. In the meantime, Martha Stewart’s fictional nostalgic housewifery factory is just going to have to wait.

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** I’m not proud of this, but I got into a fender-bender last year because I spaced out trying to remember the lyrics to the theme song from “Maude.” So I would have to put a big caveat in there, which is that spaciness does Not Work when operating heavy machinery. Don’t Space and Drive.

*** 70’s funk will always have a special place in my heart.

A Few Thoughts on the Nature of the Voice

Different stages in life have their own times, and so do different kinds of abilities. Athletes peak young. Dancers peak young. Models peak young.

Singers peak old.

In the classical world, a “young singer” is any singer under the age of 40. A woman’s singing voice doesn’t even finish developing until she’s about 35, and a man’s develops a little earlier, but still in the late 20’s/early 30’s range.** So the 30’s aren’t even the peak — they’re just the beginning of the peak.

Being a singer is like this: let’s say you have an instrument, and you play it all the time. But every once in a while they take it away, raise the bridge, and put different gauge strings on it. Or you drop it, they fix it, and when they give it back, now it’s painted blue. And if you’re sick, or you’re in a bad mood, or you’ve stayed up too late, your instrument now plays only in E flat for the next week.

After you’ve been playing your instrument for years, you find that all these tiny incremental changes have made a big change overall. All of these adjustments — all of this living — have put more power, more strength, and more soul into your instrument than you ever dreamed of.

And maybe you find that, all this time, you thought you were playing a violin, but your instrument seems to have become a sitar. Or a trombone. Or whatever.

And, coincidentally, that thing it became? Secretly, that is the instrument you always wanted all along.

I believe that it takes 30-plus years for our bodies to begin to find our voices because that’s how long it takes our hearts to begin to resonate and sing at their true frequencies. For most of us, we spend years wandering in the dark, saying things we don’t believe, giving and taking disrespect, and trying to figure out who we really are and what we really want to say. It is not until well into adulthood (if then) that the dross begins to fall away to reveal hints of the gold underneath. Why then should our singing be any different?

The song makes the singer just as much as the singer makes the song.

Story: A few years ago, after years of singing with a beautiful, clear, church-choir soprano, I came out with a blues-mama belt straight from my gut. I was 32 years old, I had been singing regularly for decades — and I had never heard this voice come out of me before. The song came out when my heart was ready, and my voice came out to welcome the song.

Story: Several years ago, when I was having vocal problems, I found that if I said something I didn’t really mean (like “yes” instead of “no”), my throat tightened up and my problems got worse. For the sake of my singing voice, I had to truly think about my speech. I had to make sure that my voice was aligned with my heart.

Story: Around about the same time, I noticed that I could only sing without discomfort in Spanish! And then I realized that losing my ‘voice’ was not a new experience: when I was 4, my family moved from Spain to the U.S., and the other children teased me so much that I forgot Spanish. Losing my first language was my original sin, learning it again was my journey, and singing in it now — is redemption.

So: good luck to everyone. May you all make friends with yourself on the continuing journey to your heart’s true voice.

Happy Announcement!

Dear Everyone:

I have an announcement to make.

It’s a Good announcement.

This weekend, I will be at the Kerrville Folk Festival, competing in a contest called Music2Life. The contest is an unusual one; it celebrates songs of social change. It’s hosted by Noel Paul Stookey and his daughter. (More info: http://www.music2life.org/ ).

The judges for the more than 200 submissions this year included Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judy Collins, and Peter Yarrow. My song Nickel and Dime was chosen as one of the ten finalists.

For those of you who don’t know, Noel Paul Stookey is the “Paul” and Peter Yarrow is the “Peter” in Peter, Paul and Mary. So this is kind of a Big Deal.

But Wait! (as they say on tv) There’s More!

This is a Big Deal to me for a number of reasons. The first is, I’m going to be singing, officially and stuff, on the Kerrville Threadgill Stage, which is like a super awesome dream-come-true, Christmas-cum-Birthday, Sweet 16 and Graduation all rolled into one. Some girls dream of their weddings, * but not me: I dream of singing on stage at Kerrville in front of a bunch of hippies.

But here’s the other thing: it’s also another kind of homecoming. Because, 7 years ago, through a series of coincidences too convoluted to describe, I ended up working as a Tech Support Lass for one Peter Yarrow, in New York, New York.

There I was, my first day working for him, on the phone for hours with a technical support agent in Germany, trying to get a European wireless network card to work with Peter’s American laptop,** and thinking, “God, I don’t understand. I want to sing music. So why is it that I’m here working with computers and doing tech support?”

Later on that day, Peter asked me to sing for him. I went into the bathroom and breathed deeply, and then I said yes.

Three weeks later I was on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Kerrville Folk Festival, in Kerrville, Texas, to attend the songwriting school. Two and a half years after that, I moved to Austin, Texas, where I’ve been living ever since.

“What’s ‘Kerrville?’ ” I had said to Peter. “Trust me. It’ll change your life,” said Peter.

And it did.

The seven years since that trip have not been easy.*** But I’ve had some of the most beautiful, passionate, true, and joyful moments of my life. There have been many, many times when I’ve thought, “Ah, yes, this is my life!” To have that feeling – even once – is a gift that makes life worth everything.

So, join me if you will – in person, in thought, or in happy vibe – this Saturday, June 5th, at the Threadgill Theater, 1-3 pm. In Kerrville, Texas.

Love,
Sofia

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*All I know is, it’s being catered by TacoDeli.

** And I never did get it to work…

*** This is what is known as “understatement.”

♫ Dark Matter

Buy Dark Matter on iTunes

Dark Matter 

(c) Sofia Echegaray, 2003 

You are my dark matter

My star was born in you

When you held me tight

I thought your heat was light

Radiating night: Eremite

You’re surrounded by young galaxies

All of them just sitting at your knees

Hoping that someday someone might please

I prayed you’d shine some night on me

It’s dark but I never fail

To see you by your spectral trail

The ghosts of women taking up the veil

Your ghosts will always walk with you

Your dark-eyed luminosities

Told me truth that you could never see

Told me you loved me

I prayed you’d shine some night on me

♫ Here We Are

Here We Are

(c) Sofia Echegaray, 2010

I saw a man with eyes like yours

shopping in the supermarket aisle

I couldn’t move, I stared

thinking for a little while

Oh my Mind, cease and desist,

leave me alone and just relent

But no, my God made me like this

Here we are again

Here we are again

You come as you are

You with your need

Open me up

And leave me to bleed

You took to the sea on a ship of sighs

and you sailed away

Your love was a moonless night

I was a child, waiting to see the light

CHORUS

You got eyes like a saint

in some painting

Suffering without complaint and

You’ve got skin

Smooth as a getaway

And my love was a wine-dark sea

Oh would you drown

If you could drown

in me?

CHORUS

♫ Cigarette

<strong>Cigarette</strong>
(c) Sofia Echegaray, 2008

Cigarette
I ain’t seen you yet
Holding onto me the way
You hold that cigarette

At the end of your long hands
At the end of your long day
You need something from that burning
Makes me want to say:
Hold me like you hold that cigarette
Hold me like you hold that cigarette

You touch and stroke my face
You give a warm embrace
But when the burning’s over
There’s ashes in your place

I look at your long hands
I can see in your long face
You need something from that burning
I just can’t replace
Hold me like you hold that cigarette
Hold me like you hold that cigarette

[Bridge]
Call my friends on the phone
But I know what their advice is
They say, You give him all your love
He gives you all his vices

But oh, when he kisses me
It’s everything that nice is

Hey what you want to bet
I just can’t quit you yet
Not the way you’re teaching me
The meaning of regret

At the end of my long days
At the end of my long nights
I need something from you, baby,
Makes me feel all right

If you’d hold me like you hold that cigarette
Cause I love you, like I’d love a cigarette
I can’t quit you
Baby, I can’t quit you yet