What's your story?
That's what singer-songwriter Heatherlyn's new album "Storydwelling" invites us to ponder. Our ears, hearts, and souls enjoy a bevy of gorgeous music as we do.
Unlike her debut album, "Heatherlyn" (2008), which demonstrated her chops on acoustic guitar, Storydwelling features a full band, The Storydwellers, and they are fantastic. The drums, standup bass, and keys/organ are superb, but the masterful guitar work by Tyler Burkum (of Audio Adrenaline fame and regular guitarist for Matt Kearney) really shine and take Heatherlyn's music to stunning new levels.
In her words, "Storydwelling is about cultivating courageous and compassionate curiosity for each other by deeply listening to and authentically sharing our stories with one another, thereby healing ourselves and our world. Storydwelling, the album, is a collection of songs from our shared human story, deeply personal songs from my story, and songs with imagination for the story we will write together with our lives... "
Heatherlyn is a woman on a mission -- a mission of encouraging people to consider how the stories of our lives shape us and how they can create new stories based upon an intentional consideration of their journeys and what new opportunities they might present. Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Quaker activist, Gene Knudsen, said, "An enemy is someone whose story we have not heard. Heatherlyn helps us to do that examining and that hearing.
I won't discuss all of the songs on the album but allow me to muse a bit about some of them. There are different types of stories including: personal, interpersonal, communal, societal, historical, and universal. This album addresses them all.
The first song on the album, "When I Dream," speaks to the personal in a way that many people can relate to. With a gypsy-like, burlesque sound, Heatherlyn channels Edith Piaf's torch singer delciousness for a new generation. With hints of the ambient lounge vibes of Portishead (Nobody loves me), she seductively belts out lyrics reminiscent of a children's bedtime prayer, "... Now I lay my head down, hoping for surround silence, if trouble comes while I sleep, let there be only peace..." She has an artful way with words similar to Paul Westerberg's (The Replacements) poetics -- but deeper. The song invites contemplative introspection, which is the essential beginning point and foundation for considering one's story.
The second song, "Wayfaring Stranger," is her cover of a traditional spiritual (the songs of slaves). Her rendition of it is soulful and her voice is haunting. Her dread-locked hair has truly taken root in her heart. She demonstrates the timelessness of this old song (based upon a tragic part of our collective national story) and makes it relevant to today's generation with a world music twist. The song has a steady rocakbilly and ska-like pulse and Tyler's slide guitar is divine. Without actually asking it, hearing Heatherlyn sing this song asks us: Who are today's oppressed people? What is our role in the stories of their oppression? How can we help create stories of liberation?
"Home With You" epitomizes the "storyness" of the album. Speaking to interpersonal stories, the song shares about the various living circumstances that partnered couples she knows have found themselves in. It celebrates the love of each of those couples and inspires listeners to celebrate their own stories of love. The song has a down-home frankness and honesty and weds them to a bright, songbird innocence (think Mary Gauthier meets Iris Dement). This song is sure to be played as the first dance for the bride and groom at many weddings -- where lovers start crafting new stories together.
"Jack Riddle," is the story of a real man by that name. It's a cover of a song by Heatherlyn's friend Melissa Marley Bonnichsen based upon her encounter with rural poverty in Appalachia. It offers a gentle, but clear, mirror for us to gaze into. It's social commentary without being preachy. It simply tells Jack's personal story -- and invites us to think how we can weave people like him into our peronal and collective life stories.
Inspired by Gandhi, "Be The Love," is a groovy call to action. In it, Heatherlyn demonstrates a Sade-like cool. It encourages people to step up and live into being the best they can be in the upbeat ways of Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone. "...Be the healing for the orphan born with AIDS, be the strength -- a neighbor's burden raise, be the star that guides us through this haze, be the love." Intentional loving can be a part our story.
"We Have a Dream" is inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and by Heatherlyn's encounter with Noble Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum through her involvement with the PeaceJam youth project. It begins with an Elvis Costelloesque (Detectives) guitar line and then shifts into a Bob Marley-like reggae vibe. It is a powerful song of hope. She busts out with some spoken word in the spirit of Michael Franti and Ani DiFranco offering profundities such as "... having the humility to admit that we're part of the problem and we can all be part of the solution. Sometimes giving up our pride is harder than giving up our lives." She's right. Humility is essential to knowing and owning our personal and collective stories -- and for creating better ones as we move forth.
"Modernity," is a reflection upon her experience of visiting a small mountain village in Tanzania. It's slow and sultry and she seems to channel the late Jim Morrison in her poetry. She warps our minds by sharing how a village with such extreme poverty offered her the most incredible generosity and hospitality -- in ways that far exceed what is available in the "developed" world. She asks, "What would it mean to be truly free to live abundantly and generously in a globalized modernity?" Generous hospitality can be part of our stories. Perhaps we can birth a world were no one goes without.
"Put on Your Climbing Shoes" is the most upbeat and pop-y song on the album. It's a tribute to MLK's famous "Mountaintop speech" (the one he delivered the night before he was shot). With a driving rock beat, Heatherlyn weaves MLK's words with her own and brings all of us a vision of the mountain-top. With references to Moses and the Exodus and a CCR-like sound (Down on the Bayou), she cheers us on as we move toward living-out that great dream -- that's become all of ours. Remembering and incorporating our dreams is part of birthing the new stories of our lives.
The album closes with "You'll Never Know," a most personal story about her experience of growing up without a father. The grand piano style and bold singing are like Tori Amos wedded to the gentle, folksy grit of Fred Small, Greg Brown, and Tracy Chapman. Through her honesty and authenticity, she models and demonstrates how we can each embrace our stories -- including the not so great ones -- and use them as building blocks for our future stories.
Here's to us, fellow storydwellers, remembering our stories, pondering those of others, and creating new ones.
Storydwelling will be what I give to my loved ones as gifts this year.
Pre-order digital download cards and autographed CDs at www.heatherlynmusic.com. The album will be availble starting Sept. 13 at iTunes, CDBaby, Amazon, and heatherlynmusic.com
Roger Wolsey is the author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity