Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Personal dispatch #9

This is a dispatch from Alison Cecile Johns. Listening to her cover of "The Way Young Lovers Do"—with its smoldering vocals, softly rhythmic percussion, bubbling bass, and somber guitar parts—is like watching the sun slowly burn down to crinkly, grey ash. Alison provided a bit of background information, as well as why she recorded this particular song.
I remember distinctly the first time I heard Astral Weeks. I was living in a town in the Santa Cruz mountains called Ben Lomond. Walking back from the bus stop one night, I ran into a woman and in order to have something to say, I pointed out the constellation Orion. We became friends, and one day she put this on the turntable. She was a transplant from a Christian fundamentalist background in southern California and had performed as a child in a relatively famous Christian youth band. So she had a great musical sense about her. Playing the title track, she closed her eyes and hummed and sang along. The words "To be born again," although she was no longer the devout Christian she had been, seemed to have a deeper significance for her, and thus for me, as I watched her sing. The imagery, the poetry, the details—"putting on his little red shoes," "pointing a finger at me"—I hadn't heard this kind of mystic transcendence in the vocal performance of a white man, frankly, ever. I was submerged in this gorgeous world of light and questions and loss and the kindness of strangers. "Ain't nothin' but a stranger in this world / I got a home on high." Yeah. I might not believe in heaven, but I believed in this sound.

So, that was it. The album has technical problems—overdubs that don't sync up, things that might have been mixed a little better—but it's perfection, and its flaws contribute to that. I've played it for people struggling with the English language who understand the mystic energy of the recording without need for translation. It's just in the sound of the recording, particularly when you listen on vinyl. Some records are like that.

And although I was barely 22 when I first heard it, over two decades ago, whenever I get the urge to listen to it there is a sense of renewal and connection, not to a younger me, but to something of life right now. It's both ecstatic and grounded in experience.

I picked "The Way Young Lovers Do" because, as a vocalist who has done a lot of jazz, I have a special fondness for the jazz waltz. Morrison often has a combination of adoration and lust in his songs, and in "Young Lovers" I wanted to pull those feelings into a more grown-up setting. I also like to cover songs by men and give them a feminine twist with intention—not to make it more feminine with a higher voice or a softer angle, but to embody the story as a grown woman, if that makes sense. I didn't want to strain to re-tell a story that as already been told so well ("Madame George," "Slim Slow Slider"). I think some things, you just had to be there for.

I've been playing professionally, off and on, since the early 90's, studied music formally, but don't do more than fool around on various instruments. I record at home, though, and the guitar, bass, and vocals are all mine. It's all very lo-fi. I only do one vocal take—if I am not happy with it I start over. I am trying to get a feeling, more than perfection. In that way, the songs are more snapshots than polished offerings. I do play live, and am looking to work more doing jazz.

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