I couldn't tell you for certain how I got into this field of writing about music. It was a sort of weird, twisted series of missteps and accidents, chance meetings, asking the right question at the right time. My favorite: I spilled a beer on Kyla just before she told me she was looking for a News Editor for the new NoDepression.com, the summer after the magazine went away. (Classy. She hired me anyway.) It's kind of been like that.
But here's why I have not gotten bored and found my way into band PR or tour management or gone full-throttle back into my life as a performer: every blue moon, I wander into a room and see an artist I've never heard of before, who, with a single lyric and note and guitar strum, completely enthralls me. And then I get to come here or to About.com or to some magazine gig I'm working at the time, and tell the world. There are two such artists on my list this year. I'll delve into Zoe Muth's Old Gold later.
Today, I want to talk about Rose Cousins and We Have Made a Spark.
The magic moment of discovery was at Folk Alliance in Memphis back in '08, I think. It was late. I was alone and wandering half-awake through the upper reaches of the hotel, ducking in and out of rooms of singer-songwriters. I love singer-songwriters. They're my people. But when you're in an environment like that - singer-songwriters in every nook and cranny, with all their earnest lyrics and pretty melodies and friends singing backup, their eyes closed, etc. - people start to sound exactly the same real quick. There are the Dylan knockoffs, the DiFranco-esques, the young Dolly Partons, and the very serious Townes Van Zandt townies. You start the week like a walking sheet of flypaper, everything sticking to you until you're so stuck full of everything that nothing wants to stick anymore.
But Rose Cousins stuck. I have no recollection of what she sang that night, but holyshit. She did that thing Iris DeMent does, embodying the songs, and the thing the Avetts do with the truth. She sings some of the saddest songs you'll ever hear, but that's not even it. People sing sad songs all the time. Look at Emmylou, look at Mindy Smith.
But there's this message in Rose Cousins' songs where it's not just the sadness. There's hope. These aren't songs about getting something off your chest. Any ol' person can dump their troubles into a song. That alone is creative, perhaps, but it isn't necessarily artful. Cousins takes it to a whole other level. She breathes into the songs so they live on their own. There's another layer there - one in which the telling of the sorrow is like blowing up a balloon with helium, and letting it go. The more balloons you fill, the less air you have to blow. And when you let them all go, the sky fills with color.
Or like freeing a bird from a cage. (Which brings to mind the Maya Angelou quote - "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.")
It's that kind of sadness. Sadness that lends something to the world, that helps us all add our little balloons and birds to the sky.
The collective sadness-turned-color thing is an important point here, because We Have Made a Spark is not just about Cousins. It's about a community in Boston, Mass., and how they support each other - through music and ideas, and through life. Voices on this album include Mark Erelli, Rose Polenzani, Edie Carey, Kris Delmhorst...
But what gets me about all the guests on this disc is that these aren't guest spots to help Cousins sell albums. These are guest spots because the album is about starting something together. It's not I Have Made a Spark, although if such an album came from Cousins it would probably be just as worthy. The We part strings throughout these songs. When Cousins is singing, exasperated, at a betraying lover, "I want someone to hold me near and it will not be you, my dear / do you think you could ever let me go," her friends are right behind her, echoing her, backing her up, holding her with their "oohs" and their steady drum rhythm and their fluid guitar lines, like the way the sea holds a boat.
It's not that Cousins needs the support musically. As you can see in the video below, she can slay the heck out of these songs alone and unplugged if she wants to. This would have been a beautiful songwriter record if she recorded it alone in some Nova Scotia studio. (Do they have recording studios up there?)
But the presence of all these people adds something - an important something. It lifts the album from being one about just turning sorrow into beauty, to being about how much beauty we can make together. About letting the beauty strike a spark. A spark which will lead to destructive, creative, singeing, warming, nourishing fire. Fire that will protect us from the beasts which might approach while we get much-needed rest from our sorrow.
Yes, I'm taking this metaphor a little far, verging on hyperbolic; but Cousins named the starting point. I'm just here to interpret. It's a big humanist statement she made here - whether deliberately or whether it was one onto which she stumbled.
Sort of the way I stumbled into her work in the first place. Sometimes, even just stumbling can take us across a threshold, to where we need to go.
This is one of the most stunning albums this year. I feel like many people missed it, but it's never too late.
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