Songs From a Closet
It was the Fourth of July when I heard back. It had been not quite a month since I’d huddled into that quiet closet with my guitar in one hand and a small handheld recorder in the other. Determined to make the most of things, I sat down on the floor and pressed record.
Life had taken some interesting turns in the past several years. Like most people, I had always had an answer to the question: “so… what do you do?” The answers slowly shifted over time to accommodate the various passions that occupied the largest spaces of my life: Swimmer. Student-athlete. Biologist. Educator.
Motherhood had hit like a freight train though. I once read something that likened motherhood to being on a little boat adrift in the sea. Your baby is the captain and you are just along for the ride, bobbing up and down along with the swells and dips in the ocean. The sleepy smiles that threaten to melt you, and the sleepless nights that threaten to break you. Your family, friends - they’re way out there, grounded on the shore, loving you and delivering advice and words of wisdom that can be difficult to absorb or even hear over that wide expanse of the sea.
I wonder sometimes if we can become so distracted trying to hold on in the waves, so in-tuned to those little beings that we love so fiercely, that we forget that it’s only a temporary arrangement? I might have heard of that notion once or twice while out on the blue.
Well, it was when my father-in-law passed away that our little boat was cast even further from the shore, to brave the waves in solitude in the midst of what felt like a hurricane. Grief and the heavy weight of loss mingled strangely with the joy and comfort that came with the birth of our fourth child. I was way out on that boat this time.
My solitude and struggles were no match for the grief that had settled upon my family though, so I made the choice to bury my own burdens - they could wait until our world stopped shaking and the people in my life could once again shoulder anything outside of their own intense grief and needs. But we all know what happens when we try to bury burdens and emotions without some sort of outlet.
And so the music crept in - slowly at first. I learned to play guitar by watching videos of Seth Avett playing guitar. After many hours of nap-time practice and some dabbling into the world of songwriting, I found myself at a local open mic, where I awkwardly stumbled through quiet fingerpicked renditions of Dolly Parton’s Jolene, and one of my favorite Townes Van Zandt songs, If I Needed You. My now very dear friend, Adam Monaco, was the host at the open mic that night. I still remember his words when I finished playing - he looked at me, paused, and said “You are a star”.
He still thinks that to this day, despite my best efforts to convince him otherwise. It’s a beautiful thing in life to have such a cheerleader, and I’m lucky to have many.
After that night, the music continued to move - my playing improved. I became comfortable and more confident embracing that vulnerable position of playing music in front of people. I truly enjoyed the human connection that music so naturally and so beautifully nurtures. My husband, Pat, was simultaneously a little perplexed and excited - supportive of my newfound passion… another cheerleader.
I had always been deeply moved by music… I played the violin as a kid and would sometimes be moved to tears by the sound of a full orchestra. Peter, Paul, and Mary was my favorite thing in the world to listen to back in middle school. Like every normal kid, I sang along to songs with much gusto and I even remember one time in college when I was listening to a particularly moving song alone in my dorm room, when I thought “man, I just want to sing”. Then I got up and left for my organic chem class - I had to be there at 10 am.
The music somehow got lost in life, only to emerge like a lion when it finally found an opportunity. I think I could have realized it was there earlier had I been paying more attention.
Eventually, Adam and I together founded the folk band, Under the Oak, and teamed up with our friend, John Fisher at Winding Way Records, signing to his label… cheerleaders.
We played festivals and coffeeshops, recorded a studio album, and we now joke about how ridiculous it is that I’m the only one in our circle who hasn’t heard my voice on vinyl because I haven’t figured out which turntable to buy yet. I call it a turntable now, by the way.
Even still, I’d wanted to do a solo project for a while - something simple. I had some songs set aside, and would imagine how I’d bring them to life… where I would record, how I’d choose a studio, how the songs would be arranged. I figured my first step would be to record a couple of demos here at home, and use them to fine-tune the songs and to visualize where I’d add in some other instruments to achieve the sound I was after.
Life is busy though, and there was always an excuse to not sit down and record those demos. Then June rolled around. School was letting out and my house was loud and full of the sounds of childhood summers. We had some fun Under the Oak festivals booked in the coming days. I had a single set to be released in the coming months for Songcraft - a unique and beautiful project created by yet another cheerleader and good friend, Chris Peace. Many of my close musical friends were headed to Montana, for the annual Acoustic Life Festival hosted by my dear friend, Tony Polecastro, and his team.
I had only been to that festival one time before, but had fallen in love. The mountains… the people… the music. It’s only a two day event, but rich in learning opportunities, community, and moving performances from accomplished artists - and it all culminates in one final Saturday night hoorah of music and friendship.
And it was Saturday night. Pat rarely travels for business, but was out of town for the weekend, coaching a water polo camp. The kids were in bed now and there was enough quiet and stillness to allow some complicated emotions to creep in.
Jealousy is never a good thing - after all, I had willingly made the decision to stay back home with my family. We had so much going on that I didn’t want to miss: the kids were fresh out of school for the summer, my son was playing water polo at the very camp where Pat and I had met for the first time so many years ago, and I had planned on heading down there the next day to see him, connect with some old friends, and do a little reminiscing.
But in the stillness, I just got sad. And lonely. My house was quiet, and there was music happening in Montana.
Joan Baez once said “action is the antidote to despair”. I ended up heading to the quietest, most insulated place I could find so as not to wake the kids or be interrupted by the stray bark of one of the dogs.
A closet in our master bedroom. Bigger than a standard closet, yet not quite qualifying as a “walk-in”, there was just enough room for me to kick some laundry out of the way to sit on the wood floor and settle in with my guitar. I balanced the little handheld recorder on a box in front of me.
I needed some demos.
That night, I embraced exactly where I was in this journey; all of my heart and all of the beauty that is my life, my family, and my music. Imperfect but real.
It didn’t take me long to decide to use these closet recordings for my first solo release, rather than heading into a studio. I’m not sure if it was the fact that I listen back now and enjoy knowing that in those moments, my kids were sleeping peacefully right down the hall - their childhood somehow preserved in the music. Or maybe it was my own rebellious spirit; the musical version of joining in on that trend where people take no-makeup selfies to remind the world that real life is beautiful, too. Or maybe it was just me being lazy and cheap.
Whatever the reason, I had the files now. But they still needed to be mixed and mastered in order to be used, and I needed somebody good to do it. Given the humble beginnings of these recordings, and the flaws in performance and technical prowess, I needed some magic to bring the songs to their fullest potential.
When I went out on a limb and emailed Shani Gandhi, a Grammy-winning producer, engineer, and mixer, who had worked on one of my favorite albums (Sarah Jarosz - Undercurrent), I’m not sure I expected to hear back - at least in the way that I did.
We had just left the Fourth of July parade with the family and had settled in at a local restaurant to grab some lunch. I did the thing that all the good people say you should never do - I got my phone out and checked my email at the table… Re: Songs From a Closet.
*** Maggie Pope's self-titled debut EP will be available in the Fall of 2018, with a pre-release of the single, The Pilgrim, released on September 21st. Subscribe to her mailing list for more updates and special offers ***