Tom Mank & Sera Smolen – With Souls of Birds
Part One: With Souls of Birds
Preface: You will have to excuse my use of first names in this piece but I find I cannot write it from any journalistic distance. Tom Mank and Sera Smolen are more than just people to me. I knew them before we ever communicated. I knew their music, which is why I contacted them in the first place. I had just reviewed their album Where the Sun Meets the Blue for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange (FAME) and, quite taken with Tom’s approach to life through his music, asked for an interview. He graciously agreed and paved the way for an interview with Sera as well. While we talked, they worked on a newer and even stronger album — to my ears, anyway — Paper Kisses, and before the release of that album we tied up some loose ends, shall we say.
Those loose ends made me realize that I didn’t want to write just a review of their musical lives, which was my original intent. It became evident that there was something just short of an obvious reason they were together and making music and I began to wonder about their paths. I mean, how do completely separate entities from completely different points in space and time find each other? And what if one had, say, attended a different school or taken a certain job? Would either be where they are now?
Mostly, though, I wonder about the music. I put every bit as much stock in Tom Mank and Sera Smolen as others do in Green Day and Bruce Springsteen and the plethora of so-called superstars who supply background music for their lives. Paper Kisses and Where the Sun Meets the Blue have supplied background for mine since their release and I chuckle at the obvious disbelief in people’s faces when I mention them in the same breath as Revolver or Days of Future Passed. It is a statement of fact, not a comparison, yet it never ceases to raise eyebrows or instigate rolling of the eyes.
So put aside prejudices when you read this. It is hardly objective and it is no “I saw the future when I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan” story. It is a story of two people who happen to be musicians and the people who influenced and influence them. It is a story of lives lived and lives being lived. But mostly it is a story of what music can mean to people who really embrace it and allow it to enrich their lives. And it happened not on the yellow brick road, but on the long road to Ithaca.
“I grew up in Baltimore,” Tom said during our first interview. “My mom, Sophie, played guitar and sang country music, mostly just for herself. When she was growing up, her brother John taught her to play guitar and she and Aunt Helen, her sister, sang harmonies together all the time. Not many women were playing guitar back then.
“I wouldn’t call my family musical by any means. The only musical person was Mom. We would have house parties and there would be all these relatives and Mom would bring out the guitar and sing for everybody. For Christmas every year, she would give us kids little musical instruments hoping that one of us would take it up but none of us did — until I was eighteen anyway, which was when I decided to start playing guitar..
“She had this reel-to-reel tape deck which had dubbing capabilities and she would record herself, then sing harmonies on another track. This was in the mid-sixties, remember. It was pretty unique for the time — and funny at times too. Once, she recorded a Johnny Cash song and then recorded herself harmonizing with him.
“My early listening experiences came from my sister and brother. I shared a room with my brother, who is seven years older than me. He was always playing music, everything from The Brothers Four to Barbra Streisand to classical music— everything you could imagine. I couldn’t do homework without hearing it. He played music constantly and had a big record collection.
“My brother was very diverse when it came to music. He would find an artist and buy everything he could find by that artist, then find another and buy all of that person’s stuff. When he discovered headphones, he would sing along with headphones on and you know how terrible you can sound when you can’t hear yourself. [laughs]
“Speaking of The Beatles [note: we weren’t speaking of the Beatles], I was hearing The Brothers Four and bluegrass and Streisand and all of a sudden, he was playing Sgt. Pepper. Put it on out of nowhere. I remember thinking, what the hell is that?”
Though Tom didn’t realize it at the time, seeds had been sown.
“I was a late bloomer onto the music thing,” he admits. “It was almost like I came out of a cave. I was drawn to guitar at age eighteen. It almost became an obsession, something I really wanted to do. There was this rumor that Eric Clapton had sat in a closet for a year and learned how to play guitar and when he came out, he was great (laughs), so I decided to start playing guitar. I thought that maybe in a year or so I could be good. Once I started, I carried the guitar with me everywhere and practiced all the time. It was like music had become a revelation to me. The acoustic guitar is what I wanted. I would read about Clapton’s influences and suddenly I’m listening to Robert Johnson and Skip James and all the blues legends. Then I’m listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and more and more I find myself drawn to the acoustic songs. From there, it was a small jump to bluegrass and folk and the singer/songwriters. Of course, this happened over a period of time.
“When I got my first job, I bought one of those Hitachi cassette players with speakers you could remove to separate the sound. I would go down to the basement bathroom, lay my head between the two speakers, put my feet up on the toilet and listen to music. I tried The Beatles first. I bought Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper and Hey Jude and listened hard. I was fascinated. There were so many intricate things going on. So I bought a few more, and then a few more.”
Of course, that was not everything Tom did. He went to school and studied.
“I had attended an engineering high school,” he said, “and thought I would continue that, so I worked for a year after graduation and made enough money to attend a community college to study Civil Engineering. After a couple of years, I felt like I wanted to write, so I switched my major to English Composition and got a degree in Writing. I was getting A’s in all of my English and Writing classes and B’s and C’s in my engineering classes, so it looked like a good move at the time. I thought I was going to write novels, I guess, or work for a newspaper or something.
“While I was there, I met this guy Denny. He was a little older than me and had a reel-to-reel setup. We would drink beer and listen to all The Doors and then all the Jimi Hendrix and others. He had them all, in the order that the albums were released. So we listened. To all of Janis Joplin and all of the Jefferson Airplane and all of The Rolling Stones and all of Eric Clapton. It was phenomenal to night after night be listening to this music. It came at me all at once. And after a lot of the bands had split up. (laughs)
“It wasn’t really camaraderie. Denny just loved music so much and I got into it so much that that was what we would do. Night after night after night. His wife Gina was there and she thought we were a little crazy, listening to music over and over again. It was an education for me. Listening to somebody’s total work and then listening to someone else’s total works.”
Meanwhile, just outside of Rome (New York, that is)
Unlike Tom, Sera Jane Smolen knew exactly what she wanted from life from the very start— music. The opportunities to listen were there, though the opportunities to learn were limited.
“We lived in a little town up north,” she said, “and there weren’t very many opportunities to see music but I remember there was a little concert series, maybe five concerts a year, and various musicians and groups would come to play.
“My sister and I studied music, she for just a short time. It was only through the public school, of course. It wasn’t like our parents were keen to take us to private lessons or have us be good or anything, but it was charming to have girls who studied music in the family. After all, we were just going to get married anyway, so…
“Up there in the country, they only had a full-size cello and it was way too big for me, but I didn’t know the difference. As a result, I later had to unlearn different things that I had learned how to do. I had to relearn them the correct way.”
Relearn? What does that mean?
“That I later had to unlearn different things,” she explained, “that I had already learned how to do. I had to learn to do them the correct way. I had to take something I was doing and understand, really understand how it is done— with the muscles, with all of the principles of motion, the use of weight and imagery. And I would say today that all of that relearning has really affected me as a teacher. Now, no matter what comes up in my studio, nothing scares me. I have already had to figure those things out.”
That was not the only obstacle she would have to overcome.
“Many cellists are classically trained. In a sense, you almost have to be. Maybe you don’t have to be, but in order to do whatever you want to do, you need that kind of information and experience.
“If you want to be able to do anything you want to with a bow, you have to know how to use a bow. Which means you have to know how to use all the parts of a bow, all of the different ways to articulate and to color notes. You have to know how to make strong as well as transparent sounds with the bow. And there is the left hand, which fingers the notes. You can’t put a capo on the cello. You have to know how to play in all of the different keys or else you’re a cellist who can play in only three keys, thank you.
“Understand, all of the world class string players— the Midori’s and the Joshua Bell’s and the Yo-Yo Ma’s— started before they were five. All of them. I lived on a dead-end road in the country and did not start until I was in the fifth grade.
“I began listening to all kinds of music and at the same time studied classical. By the time I reached high school, I began to feel like music was the only language that could tell the truth. I started playing cello during my study halls and would play after everybody in my family went to sleep.”
Most of her free time was spent studying and playing and listening. Without realizing it, music was becoming her life. As graduation approached, Sera looked for ways to extend that life. She wasn’t ready for marriage and a family and, still consumed with music, wanted to pursue the path she was on. As she later realized, despite difficulties, there is always a way.
“The little steel company that my father worked at had this extraordinary program, and I hope they still have it,” she related, “where they paid four years college tuition for all of their employees’ children. Not room and board, but tuition. When it came time to choose a college, I chose Ithaca College because it had a performance certificate you could obtain at the same time as your certification to teach.
“The performance certificate allowed me to have more time in lessons and string quartets and orchestras and chamber music groups. It gave me a high level in-depth study of the cello, not just a perfunctory knowledge. I gave recitals and premiered pieces by composers. I was in string quartets and guitar quartets and chamber orchestras and master classes — many, many wonderful things.
“When I graduated, I took one course each semester and studied a number of education courses at Cornell University and then at Ithaca College. Usually, to get a Masters, you have to have 30 credits. Eventually, between those universities, I had 30 credits but no Masters. I was a freelance, self-employed musician. I performed, taught, studied and gave recitals.
“Then I began to work with David Darling. David Darling is the guru of improvisational cello. There are so many people who would say ‘I would not be who I am now without David Darling.’ I am one who says that. As a musician, he blows my mind. I think there is a little paragraph on my website about my first lesson with him.
“It was around that time that I began to develop a plan, which was to train and continue gathering experience so I could do teacher training in later life.”
The Suzuki Method
Teaching is a very personal thing to Sera, as is music. Talking with her, one gets the sense of adapting teaching to the student — that teaching is all about the student, in fact.
“I took graduate training to teach the Suzuki Method,” the emphasis on Suzuki. “Shinichi Suzuki is an extremely important musician in world history, in my opinion. What happened was he went from Japan to Germany and when he got off the train in Germany, he noticed that all of the children were running around and playing and talking German. At that moment, he realized that all Japanese children speak Japanese and all German children speak German. That was his eureka moment where he saw what real musical talent actually is. They’re all geniuses. All children are gifted to learn their mother tongue perfectly. So he found a way to teach music the same way. Through his techniques and teaching, thousands of young children the world over have become great musicians.”
Sera’s voice changed in timbre and intensity as she continued.
“Suzuki would say that every child is born talented and is nurtured in the environment. The Suzuki methodology as it was originally done in Japan has to be a little different than in America because, culturally, we’re different. The philosophy works. Every family and, of course, every child is unique. When parents bring their children to take lessons with me, I teach them and their children. I try to teach the environment of their household in order to nurture the innate musicianship of each child.”
Voodoo education? Hardly. It is a key element to many alternative schools. Separating a student from his or her environment gets in the way of learning. Think about it. That’s all Dr. Sera Jane Smolen is saying. The Dr.? She has a doctorate, yes, which she received in an out of the ordinary way. Sera didn’t have the requirements to enter a doctor’s program through most universities, but then …
“A few people said to me, ‘You should go to the Union Institute,’ so I looked into it. It is a ‘university without walls’ and they only deal in Ph.D’s.
“On the application, they encouraged me to give them a description of the learning I had done in my life, whether it was within or outside of school. So I listed my studies with David Darling and the recitals and the premiering of new compositions and attending Suzuki seminars and then outlined my studies at Cornell and Ithaca College. They looked at it and said I had the equivalent of a Masters, that I qualified. And I received my doctorate.
“In fact, I am continuing to work on the research I did for that degree. It is affecting the way I am going about the whole rest of my life. While I studied there, I delved very deep into very interesting and very important topics. It completely changed my understanding of the relationship between music and the human being.”
Tom Mank: Conversations in Waves
Tom had been carting the guitar around with him for a number of years before really going public. Sure, he played a lot by himself and with the occasional friend and acquaintance, but it was a struggle.
“When it comes to public speaking, I’m totally nervous,” Tom explained. “Singing, the more people, the better I perform. For me, public speaking is being extroverted in front of people. Performing is being introverted in front of people. At least, that’s the way I describe it.
“The turning point for me was when I realized that I didn’t have to be a performer. I didn’t have to tell stories and make people laugh. Some people like to go hear an artist because they are extroverted and funny and what they do is interesting, but sometimes they like to hear an artist who introverts himself. When I realized there was a difference, I realized I could do it. Now when I perform, I close my eyes and sing and play.
“At first, I was terrified,” he admitted. “I used to take my guitar down to Ocean City in Maryland and jam with these guitarists. One day, this guy said, hey, sing with me at this gig, so I did. I remember sitting up there, frozen, and I think I even turned my back to the audience. It was truly terrifying that first time. But I got used to it.”
Still, it wasn’t until Tom moved to Ithaca that he began to thrive.
“I moved to Ithaca in 1977,” he said, “and shortly thereafter became interested in bluegrass. I did a lot of picking. I was in a band called Blue Country, which gained a certain amount of notoriety around there. We had a basic lineup — guitar, banjo, bass, mandolin, fiddle and vocals. Blue Country lasted from ’84 until ’90, and at the end I was just beginning to really write songs.
“I think I first started writing songs when I was learning to play guitar — in the early ’70s — but I think the first song that was a ‘keeper’ I wrote in ’81, and the next one was 1985. When I talk about ‘keepers,’ there just are not that many.
“Some of the songs I would perform with Blue Country and they would work out, but even some of those didn’t end up being ‘keepers.’ I was well into the ’90s before my songwriting skills began to develop.
“You see, for the longest time, the ideas were there but I couldn’t express them until I could play the guitar well enough. The words were interesting, but the music was not. My advice to songwriters, especially those just beginning, is if a song doesn’t work out, keep the lyrics. I have stacks and stacks of old lyrics and every once in awhile, when I’m looking for something, I will go fishing amongst those stacks and find a phrase I need. I’ve kept all of the old handwritten lyrics from the ’80s and ’90s.”
Love in Motion
Only people who don’t appreciate the intricacies of music — and life, really — could miss the inevitable connection between people like Tom and Sera. There is an obvious deep-seated connection between them, an understanding which overrides all. Still, they could have missed one another. They could have been two ships passing in the night and, in fact, almost were.
“I was in the studio recording my second cassette,” remembers Tom, “and I said to the recording engineer, a cello would sound nice here, and he said, you should call Sera. I said, Sera who? He gave me her number and I called and said I have three songs and I’d like to see if you would play cello on them and she said, it’ll be a hundred dollars.” He and I both laughed. “We got together and she improvised some cello parts. Best hundred dollars I ever spent.” More laughter. “That was in ’92.
“She was in another relationship and so was I. We recorded and it sounded pretty good. We got together again in 1999, when we weren’t in relationships anymore.”
Of course, there was more to it than that. Life was not always the smooth sailing ship Tom at first presented.
“In ’90, the shit hit the fan,” he said. “My marriage fell apart, I lost my job and found out that I had a heart valve that was leaking and in need of repair. It was a wakeup call. I landed in the hospital and had all these songs in my head and vowed that when I got out of there, I was going to play more music. I had to record those songs. I mean, I could have died and had none of those songs recorded.
“When I did get out, I started meeting with musicians, singularly or in groups. I started playing with everybody. Music became my number one priority. I listened more, I wrote more, I played more and I recorded more. You learn from everybody, you know? You are influenced if even from just hearing someone play. You know how bands are. You start a band and play a few gigs and it doesn’t work out, but you still learn from all those people. And it becomes part of your music.
“Looking back, the ’90’s were pretty good to me. Because I had lost my job, I went back to school and got a Master’s Degree, so I had a new career in Computer Mapping and Environmental Planning. And you know how it is when you start a new career. I was 40 years old and took a job in Corning for a couple of years and when that contract ran out, went to Washington D.C. to work for a year. Then I went to Boston for six months and then was in New Hampshire for a year and by then there were job openings in Ithaca again.
“Musically, I was gaining experience. I played open mikes all the time, wherever I was, and was meeting new musicians and songwriters. I was keeping the music fresh and was in and out of bands with the people in Ithaca. They’d set up gigs there and I would travel to play.”
Now, let’s see … where were we again? Ah, yes. Sera.
The 1980s and ’90s were a blur to Sera, at least in terms of activity. Her life was a constant maelstrom of study and practice and music and new techniques and… and… One thing you can’t say about Sera is that she ever had time to relax. For some people, music is indeed a full-time job.
“I was taking lessons — endless lessons,” she said. “Endless Master classes and going to talks and talking with colleagues and being in groups. You learn from conductors and other musicians and the music itself and you have to practice. You have to learn it. It isn’t passive, where it soaks in like a sponge. You have to decide that you are going to do that and do it. Luckily, I love to practice.
“Also, I studied philosophy — specifically Kashmir Shaivism. I studied with Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and spent a lot of time playing in chants. I was using ragas and playing with a variety of Indian musicians. At the time, she had decided that an efficient way to teach was to set up a satellite dish and broadcast to other countries. At the time, she was broadcasting to 72. So I played on these broadcasts over and over and over. Sometimes all of us would have these extraordinary inner experiences because of her presence in the whole thing. I was very, very committed to that.
“So there I was, playing in the chamber orchestra, playing in the Syracuse Symphony. I was giving recitals a lot — solo recitals. I was premiering pieces by composers. And I was teaching.
“Because improvisation was opening up so many important things for me and because I learned that for the last 6,000 years everyone improvised — and in classical music in the Western world since the 1900s, they didn’t — I learned that to not improvise is unnatural. So about the mid-’80s, I started teaching improvisation. At that point, all of my students improvised and composed and played classical music. They could read music and write music and they could play the blues. That seemed to me like a good way to teach.”
She also studied with Alice Kanack. Kanack, it seems, was very influential in the teaching of The Suzuki Method and developed a school specifically for that purpose. Sera’s relationship with Kanack has spanned years and they recently collaborated on a book on improvisation for string quartet.
It was Sera’s doctoral thesis that provided the push that Sera and Tom needed to find one another again.
“We were in touch on postcards,” Sera said. “If he moved or something, he would use it as an excuse to invite me to jam with him. He happened to be in Keene, New Hampshire when I needed to do some research on teaching in the Waldorf School there, so we reconnected. I remember saying to Tom, I have to do this doctoral research. Could I sleep on your couch? And he said, you can if you jam with me. Every night, when you’re done and you come back, if you jam with me, you can sleep on my couch.
“He was both joking and serious, but I did it. I jammed with him every night, and we even wrote this beautiful song together— “New Mown Hay.” I was playing this bass line/guitar chord thing on the cello one night and Tom said, hey, that’s cool. The next day, he came back from work with lyrics to go with that bass line. During this baseball game that week, someone had reflected on death while on the diamond and Tom was thinking about that a lot. That was a big part of how he started that song.
“Later that evening, he played “Almost Time” for me and I was blown away. And I still feel that way about that song. Sometimes, I feel like a bull in a china shop when it comes to music. The delicacy of “Almost Time” literally took my breath away. I wanted to enter that song poetically and respectfully and elegantly without disturbing anything. I still get the feeling that if a song is so beautiful, intense, profound and inward, that I don’t want to barge right into it. I want to go toward that music very carefully.
“So our relationship was musical at first, but the personal connection started coming along with that. Eventually, it was as if a veil was lifted. It was one of those mysterious things where neither one of us would have ever guessed that we would be lovers, much less spouses. Who knew how destiny would work in that way? It was just lovely. I’m not sure how long he would say it was. Maybe it was less than a year, but it was just lovely.”
The significance of the relationship was not lost on Tom, either.
“At that time,” said Tom, “I started becoming more comfortable with my songwriting. I began to try to say as much as I could with as few words as possible. Since then, I have become known for cutting a lot of adjectives and verbs from songs. In fact, in a way it has become my trademark.
“It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve felt like this is really it, that this is my style and the songs are real. As I say to Sera when I’m writing a song, I don’t know if this will be a ‘real’ song. But lately, there has been a much higher percentage of those which turn out really well. I think a lot of that has to do with being a better guitar player, that and the fact that in the past four years or so, I started using a whole lot of open tunings. I felt like I’d hit a level of competence with standard tuning. I mean, I saw other people using open tuning and sometimes on CD’s it will tell you what tunings they use and I started saying, hey, I’ll try that. Many times, I will figure out chords and not know what they’re called. I don’t know anything about reading music, but when you get into open tuning, you’re in a whole new frontier. It’s a thing with us guitar players. I meet songwriters from all over and we frequently trade guitar tunings.
“Now, Sera’s path is very interesting. Performing with me is like a dream come true for her, in some ways. As a cellist, if anyone wants to perform with you, they usually hand you sheet music. But I rarely have even suggestions. I write a song and I leave a spot for her to improvise, so she has this blank slate every time. She’ll sit there and say what if I try this and what if I try that and sometimes loses track of time. She’ll spend a couple of hours trying to come up with a small part. It is amazing sometimes the stuff she comes up with.”
“By the time I’m involved,” Sera explained further, “Tom has the song worked out to a large degree. It is not like I have no effect on the music because I do make suggestions and I do share observations and he does sometimes make changes based on those suggestions.”
As regards her own compositions, she likens them to “poems which come mysteriously when and how they have to come. I love to improvise and I consider my pieces as improvisations that get saved. I have various fragments of music which get incorporated into my improvisations. When I sit down and dive in, I just find what I must find, musically.”
Tom, on the other hand, seldom improvises. One might think that compositions like those he writes would need a more structured base. The process is loose, true, but it works.
“When Sera’s not home,” Tom went on, “I like to think of it as down time. I pick up the guitar a lot just to see what happens and sometimes, especially when I work on new tunings, a song will start to develop.
“Since I use so many open tunings, I have to write down the tablatures or I will forget them. I have a book in which I can write down where my fingers are on a specific chord. And I need it. I forget them. I don’t know the names of the chords and once I change it to an open tuning, I am clueless. If I need to know which chord I’m playing, I will ask Sera and she figures it out on the piano. It is a mystery to me.”
Part Two: Where the Sun Meets the Blue
While Tom Mank’s personal journey through music began at eighteen when he picked up a guitar for the first time, it took wings in a hospital. Tom’s heart was broken, true, but it was fixable. A small titanium valve was ready to do what the body could not— make Tom once again whole and, as they say in the business world, viable. Thoughts raced through his mind as he walked the halls awaiting the operation, the most obvious being, what if …
Make no mistake. This was a battlefield, though within the confines of an operating room, and as everyone who has been on one knows, life hangs in the balance. If that sounds melodramatic, so be it, but the drama was real and the endgame even moreso.
The old Tom Mank might have lived the experience and gleaned what he could out of it. The new Tom Mank, though, did what he had promised himself. He put it into song. “In a hospital,” he wrote of the experience, “Midnight to three/Doctors get ready to think about me/The long halls look like a creeping vine/And the ceiling lights like the morning sky”. (from “Almost Time,” © 1999) “I remember walking high on a hill”, it continues, “Watching the sunset standing still/Then down through the woods, our hearts in flight/And waltzing together by the woodstove light.” These are thoughts one hangs onto when the mere possibility of death approaches, at least as regards my own experiences. “A cool stream running, the sounds of laughs/The far away motion where all dreams pass/The sound of children racing and crowds that roar/And the smell of the ocean on a New England shore.”
Tom walked out of that hospital repaired, if that be the word, physically. As important, Tom walked out of that hospital renewed, musically. Maybe from the outside he looked the same, but on the inside he had gained focus.
“’Almost Time’ is one of the best songs I’ve written that we no longer perform live,” he said when asked. “This was a very important and personal song for me — probably the song that started the run of ‘real’ songs. On the CD Almost Time, it is one of only three of the ten which were written in 2000 [the instrumental ‘Margo’s Garden’ and the lyrics to Sera’s music for ‘New Mown Hay’ were the others]. All of the others on that album were written in the ’90s and re-recorded. After Almost Time was completed, succeeding CDs all included songs which were all ‘new’ when those CDs were being recorded. So for me, the song ‘Almost Time’ was almost a ‘single’ release which was followed by a series of ‘full’ CDs. As important, whenever I would perform it live [pre-Sera], it is one song which seemed to really move people.”
To put this in perspective, Sera made this comment: “I didn’t meet Tom again until the recording of Almost Time and didn’t even know that he’d had a major heart operation at that time.”
For Tom, the timing was almost prophetic.
After the release of the album, “pre-Sera” became an endangered block of time. By 2001, the two decided to try an album together and began working on what would become Conversations in Waves. Musically it was a huge leap forward, Tom’s songwriting at least a full step above his previous work and Sera’s cello coming alive alongside Tom’s guitar and voice. One can easily hear what Tom earlier referred to as a run of ‘real’ songs. Two of the best, in fact, were Mank/Smolen collaborations: “International Waters,” a look at the no man’s land between the U.S. and Canada as a space devoid of country, and the next track (title obscured and as long as my arm) an instrumental jam of consequence, a precursor of collaborations to come.
Writing songs may have been important to Tom at the time, but playing music with others was as important. One huge difference between the pre-operation and post-operation Tom Mank was his commitment to the musicians with whom he felt most comfortable.
“The musicians we brought into the studio for Conversations and, later, Souls of Birds,” he pointed out, “came from two sources: (1) The best musicians and singers I had worked with throughout the ’80s and ’90s — Timmy Brown, Tommy Beers, Laura Branca, Dee Specker, Patti Witten, and two bandmates, Rick Manning and Paul Fairbanks, from my earlier newgrass band Blue Country; and (2) classical musicians — Sera’s colleagues: Victoria Paterson, Ruth Roland, Michael Galloway — plus Danny Birch, Sera’s wildcard.”
Three long years spanned the distance between Conversations in Waves and the next LP, Souls of Birds. Tom Mank had always had a sound, but that distance also uncovered a personal style. The songs, as nebulous as they at times seem to be, were more personal. A philosophy of life and the trials of life began to surface, most evident in the title track, “Souls of Birds and a long, structured-but-rambling folk/psych opus titled “Big Red Moon.”
“’Big Red Moon’ was a case where the lyrics came first,” Tom explained when asked about his writing process. “I wrote those lyrics on a plane flying back from The Netherlands the first time Sera and I went over there. Sera had fallen asleep and we were over the clouds and the sun was going down. There was this big red sunset you could almost feel. I wrote all of the lyrics on that plane and had to find the music later.
“There is an eighteen-minute version around here somewhere,” Tom laughed. “We had to cut it down. In fact, I have a whole collection of alternate mixes. Sera, in her regular job, plays with all kinds of musicians and we thought why don’t we do one with Danny Birch. In the Indian tradition, ragas have a pattern to them and you keep the pattern but improvise within it. What you hear on ‘Big Red Moon’ is an alap — a free collaboration upon the raga — as a long intro. Then, the song starts. The song was already written when we realized that a musicians’ improvisation within that pattern might work with the open tuning I was using.
“Sera and Danny did a number of takes. They were in the studio for hours. I came in and recorded the guitar after they were done. In that case,” Tom elaborated, “I played my guitar to what they were doing whereas usually the opposite happens. Of course, Sera and I had to work out an arrangement first, before it ever went into the studio.
“There were takes which were longer, too. We didn’t do any chopping. We pretty much used the live tracks.”
The track ended up being close to eleven minutes in length, a flowing trickle which turns into slowly meandering river and gives way to Tom’s slightly wistful vocals. Somewhat of an anomaly on the album, it stands out more for its meditative qualities than for its length.
“Souls of Birds is the only CD I’ve ever worked on where after it was done, I questioned it. I probably should have made ‘Big Red Moon’ the last song on that CD because if there is anyone who might not be into the length of the song, it might stop them from even listening. There are some really good songs after that and if they don’t listen past that song … Sequencing can make a difference in the mood of a whole CD. If it had been an LP, ‘Big Red Moon’ should end Side One, then Side Two would finish it out.”
‘Finishing it out’ is hardly how a critic would look at it. First, Sera takes the cello on an adventurous solo ride on her “Where Do You Bury a Gypsy,” followed by “Takes Your Breath Away,” a song which reflects what was quickly becoming the Tom Mank ‘sound’ as well as Tom Mank subject matter (the reference is to asbestosis, a malady common in the mills around Baltimore). The groove of “Whisper To Each Other,” written by Tom with help on the bridge from Patti Witten, showed musical bedrock which would be developed more fully in the next two Mank and Smolen albums, “Without You” is as Americana as Tom gets, and it ends with “Khaki and Bone- 1918,” a WWI-themed look at war and its emotional tolls. These five songs in sequence are a look into the future of Tom Mank and Sera Smolen and could easily have been a true peak but for a left turn in the long road which neither could have seen.
In 2005, Tom’s job required a move to Kingston, New York. First, of course, they needed a place to live and they found one quickly enough. As luck would have it, they also found a key ingredient in their musical future. Their new landlady, Julie Last, had just set up a recording studio in her home.
“We rented the house right next to Julie,” Tom said. “We plopped right down and we’re way out in the woods and there’s Julie. I mean, we found a place to rent and the lady living next door is setting up a recording studio. How’s that for timing?”
The studio is Coldbrook Studio, where Tom and Sera would end up recording their next two albums.
“When I went into her house for the first time, I saw a platinum record on her wall,” Sera commented. “She said, very humbly, ‘Yeah, I recorded Double Fantasy with John and Yoko.’ I mean, there it was. A platinum record. Right there on her wall.”
“Julie had lived and worked in studios in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City,” Tom explained. “She comes with quite a resume.”
The little cottage, and Julie, were godsends to Tom and Sera. To find a house next door to a musician (Julie herself had released an album on a major label titled Relics, now self-re-released) and a recording studio was nothing short of miraculous. Tom almost felt like he’d died and gone to heaven.
“The house was Musicland,” he said rather exuberantly. “We heard that Levon Helm used to live there and that it was used by The Band for rehearsal. There is a lot of history and lots of vibes in that house. There was a lot of music when we were there, too. Sera was always practicing the cello and I always played the guitar. A lot of music.”
As if to prove a point, he added, “I can sometimes go a year without writing a song. I wrote a lot of them in that house. Those couple of years were very lucrative in that sense.”
Where the Sun Meets the Blue
Tom and Sera knew a good thing when they saw it. When any opportunities arose regarding live shows, they jumped on them and asked Julie to join them and when Julie’s schedule permitted, she did. The longer they lived in the cottage, the closer they became with Julie until, one day, Tom approached her about recording a song for them.
“Sera and I had decided to record one song before we moved back to Ithaca. Just one. We figured, Julie has this recording studio so, yeah, let’s just do it. So we did. But it just kept rolling and became more.
“Granted, I was a bit intimidated at first, what with her track record and the people she had worked with. She was a woman in the studio when there weren’t women in the studios and she had this platinum record for Double Fantasy. That is impressive to me. And she has this photo she took of Joni Mitchell painting her album cover hanging on the wall. She had worked with so many great people.”
After some basic tracks had been recorded, Tom began to think of an extra voice on a couple of the tracks.
“Julie sings regularly in a vocal group known as Prana,” Tom said. “There is another lady who sings in that group who is probably more well-known regionally than most named Bar Scott, so I asked Julie to approach her. She wasn’t available, but Julie mentioned another lady from Prana, Kirsti Gholson. When we got Kirsti in the studio, all I could think was, wow, her voice is fantastic!
“Now, this is Julie’s recording studio so if Julie and Kirsti are singing, guess who’s working the boards? I had never worked the boards before. What an experience! So, when you hear Julie and Kirsti singing on Where the Sun Meets the Blue that means I’m running the ship. I mean, Julie and Kirsti tried everything! There were so many ideas and so many options, and we recorded them on a single track.
“At times, if Julie had had her way, where there are two voices, there would be four. But I prefer to not do more than we can perform live and I don’t really like to double-track. I prefer to keep the mixes simpler. The other side of that is that Julie’s and Kirsti’s voices are so beautiful that I want to hear each one separate. I don’t need to hear two Julie’s and two Kirsti’s.
“So the basic difference between Where the Sun Meets the Blue and our earlier album Souls of Birds is that one was recorded in Ithaca with Ithaca musicians and the other was recorded in Woodstock with Woodstock musicians. Then again,” he hesitated, “it was pretty special having Julie as recording engineer — that made a huge difference. And having both Julie and Kirsti on vocals had a huge impact. But any project is only as good as the songs and I think I had written better songs for Where the Sun Meets the Blue. Or at least, I like to think so, because that would mean I’m getting better at it.” Then he laughed. Again.
Tom can laugh all he wants. He is getting better at it, or maybe just more focused. Or maybe he is just now realizing what is important to him. Or maybe it’s just become more personal.
The first time I heard the song “Keep Crossing That Line” I had to listen again immediately. There was just too much to process, I guess, and I listened again and again until it started to make sense. This was Baltimore, 1963 and Baltimore, 1968 and I knew little about it, so when Tom and I talked, I had to ask.
“The idea for that song had been floating around for a long time,” Tom admitted. “Somewhere around 2005, I got my hands on a book about The Baltimore Orioles titled Black and Blue which I found really interesting. It was not just about the team but about everything else that was going on in society, not the least of which were the race problems in 1960’s Baltimore. One thing I learned was that in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King had made a speech in Baltimore and claimed that Baltimore was the most segregated city in the country. Those were pretty strong words when you consider all the more publicized cities in the Deep South. I was 52 at the time I read the book and ten when he made that speech, but until I read the book I had no idea that he was in town or had made that speech.
“Anyway, in 1968, I ruptured my spleen playing baseball and had to go to the hospital. I was in the general ward when Dr. King was shot and there were riots and all of these people started coming in all shot up. They ended up sending me home because they needed my bed.
“It was shocking. I was seeing things I’d never seen before. People were being brought in I normally did not see. There were all these different kinds of people in the beds next to me and they were always rotating and changing and the nurses were crying and I remember someone screaming ‘They shot the wrong guy!’. It had a definite impact on me, so there is a little part of me in that song along with a little part which came out of reading the book. I still think about it.”
Maybe not all songs on the album are as intense as “Keep Crossing That Line,” but they are as personal and as deep. Like the title track, “Where the Sun Meets the Blue”:
Tom and Sera have a friend who lives in Newport, Rhode Island and who had a nineteen-year-old daughter, Molly, who had always dreamed of sailing around the world. The daughter met someone special and as luck would have it, his father was an accomplished sailor who owned a sailboat. At some point, her dream became theirs and arrangements were made. They put out to sea.
“The day we moved back to Ithaca from Woodstock,” Tom said, “it was pouring down rain. A hurricane had just hit off the coast of New England. Molly had been emailing impressions about the sun and dolphins swimming next to the boat and all of the things that were happening. By the time we arrived in Ithaca, we found that the Coast Guard was looking for the boat and couldn’t find it. Somewhat stunned, I sat down and this really strange guitar tuning came to me: E, A, C-sharp; E, A, C-sharp. It didn’t make sense musically, but it was like the chords were being sent to. And then these words started coming.”
Thus was born “Where the Sun Meets the Blue.” A vision of a young girl and her companions on a dream quest. A tribute to a daughter lost at sea. A song which virtually wrote itself.
Not unlike “Green Church.” In 1977, Tom lived in the hills outside of Ithaca for a short time. The outdoors experience jumpstarted his love affair with the environment and gave him an understanding of people, past and present, he had theretofore not had.
“Growing up in NE Baltimore, we were all in a way raised to be racist. It wasn’t conscious, it was just the way it was. What saved me was busing. When I went to junior high school, kids were bused from downtown so that the school was racially mixed. I could see that everybody was okay. I honestly don’t know which direction I would have taken had I not seen that for myself, early on. The thing that blew my mind was that there were all of these neighborhoods and different groups of people who had a hard time getting along. They held grudges against one another for what appeared to be the vaguest of reasons. When I moved to Ithaca, here were all these people living in communes way out in the country. I mean, some of the locals had never really seen a person of color up close. I had to ask myself why all of these people up in the hills were talking racial trash. They had no reason to think the way they did outside of what they had read or what they saw on TV. It didn’t make sense to me. In Baltimore, at least there were real instances which might have given someone a reason to think that way, but just outside of Ithaca…..”
Call it Nature 101. For the first time, Tom had time to separate the reality from the ideal, the individual from society, the country from the city. He came out of it with an appreciation of the problems facing society as a whole. At 40 years old, he would decide to study environmental engineering.
He carried the experience with him and still does. It felt like a church out there in the woods, he said once. Over the years, that feeling evolved into “Green Church.”
The Magic of the Studio
“Green Church” has a jazz/blues feel with a touch of beatnik attitude and poetry helped along by rhythmic finger snaps. Surely it did not start out that way and, in fact, more than likely warped way beyond its original form. Part of the transformation can be chalked up to time, but a large part has to be attributed to the dynamics of recording. Preparation work alone can change a song dramatically and when you are faced with absolute decisions, a lot depends upon how the sessions go.
The original sessions for the album which would eventually be released as Paper Kisses came about because of an impending tour. Tom and Sera had planned a trip to The Netherlands and Where the Sun Meets the Blue contained, to Tom, old material. He wanted physical product which would show where they were at the time of the tour— something up-to-date. So he scheduled time at Coldbrook with Julie and aligned the musicians he needed. And the next album was under way.
Three songs came out of those early sessions: “Green Church,” “Crooked Moon,” and “Baltimore.” An “advance tracks” EP was pressed in very small quantities and passed out to radio and concert promoters. The Green Church EP served its purpose, but it was precursor to another huge musical leap for Tom and Sera — the aforementioned Paper Kisses.
“Paper Kisses isn’t a whole new recording,” Tom explained when we first talked about it. “Sera laid down some new tracks (on the original three songs) and there were a couple of other things I felt needed changing. We remixed some vocal parts, like on ‘Crooked Moon,’ the song I did with Jennie Lowe Stearns. I was not really happy with the original mix. There were two voices in harmony throughout and I made the suggestion that we do one voice, then two, then one, and then two again. It was just an option. We recorded it a number of ways and then mixed it and decided at that time the way we wanted to go. And like on ‘Green Church.’ Originally, I sang all the verses and Julie and Kirsti sang their parts, but I thought that they should each sing a verse. I liked it better that way.
“So the three EP songs sound different although they are essentially from the original sessions. Besides the vocal parts, Sera added a cello solo to ‘Green Church’ to complement the tuba solo and, of course, all three songs were remixed and remastered for the album.”
Beyond the music, there is a personal side to the recordings you might miss. Both part of and beyond Tom’s writing and recording process.
“I pretty much write a song by myself,” Tom explained, “and then bring it to Sera. When I show it to her, sometimes the song will change and sometimes it won’t, but Sera has great suggestions when she has them and adds a lot to the process. By the time we get to the studio, the songs are pretty much finished, but they have to pass the Last test. Julie can have some amazing suggestions. A word here and different phrasing there can make a big difference. I listen to her. She has a lot of experience in the studio. Other places I have recorded, they just record you. They know how to set mikes and get the sound and all, but they didn’t have suggestions like Julie does. She is a vital part of the production and the arranging.
“And for Paper Kisses, I was ready. I went in and launched right into it. I said, hey Julie, I have three new songs. Boom, boom, boom. And she listened. She had her finger on the pulse of what was going on. She changed a lyric here and there and had a few suggestions regarding phrasing and chord changes. And when it changed, it had a huge impact.
“Julie almost gets in a trance sometimes. She’ll turn her head sideways and think while she listens. She is so knowledgeable about notes and music and can hear it all in her head. When she’s finished thinking, she’ll just say ‘Let’s try this’ or something like that and we’re on our way.
“As for Kirsti, it’s energy feeding energy. When I have songs, Kirsti will say ‘You have songs for me to sing on? Yay!’ And when I hear her sing on them, I’m saying ‘Wow! It is so much better!”
Better, indeed. You can feel the enthusiasm Tom and Sera have for Julie and Kirsti and each of the musicians who have helped and do help them out. Tom and Sera have many friends who obviously enjoy being involved in their project, whether live or in the studio. But the friendships with Julie and Kirsti are something special, at least at this point in time.
“We have a dear friendship with Julie,” Sera said during our conversations. “I have come to appreciate her more as I’ve gotten to know her. Not only do we trust her as an engineer, we have learned to trust her as musician, colleague and singer. I said to her just the other night that her presence is obvious in every inch of the recording we do with her.
“Julie and Kirsti come to our songs ready to offer ideas for vocal harmonies. They have sung together for years and know each other. They are professionals. This is the way they have affected our songs.”
There is a siren-like quality they brought to Paper Kisses. Quite an other-worldly quality, in effect. When you put it together with Sera’s downright intriguing cello and Tom’s bluesy voice and a catalog of outstanding songs, you have an album which will be much sought after when the next round of collector-mania hits in a couple of decades. I can see in my mind’s eye the prospector who uncovers this album and discovers the amazing music captured in time.
They are good people, are Tom Mank and Sera Jane Smolen. A lot of that comes from being grounded — from having their priorities straight. I think Sera stated it best when she said “I really consider myself utterly ordinary. But I believe in the power of art and believe that anyone can learn art and that art can transform your life. Art changes the nature of life if you really take it in. It’s like almonds. An almond is a nut, but if you put it in water overnight, that almond is no longer a nut. It is a seed. All of the chemistry in that almond changes by simply soaking it in water. Art does that to life. It changes everything.”
Note: Since this was written, Tom and Sera have released another album of note, Swimming in the Dark, and are presently working on songs for yeat another album release. With luck and perseverance, I hope to brung us all up to date on the happenings and music emanating from the Mank/Smolen cave. Stay tuned.
Blowin’ Me Away (cassette, 1991)
Some Big Town (cassette, 1993)
Improvising Chamber Music Sampler, Music for People (1997, with David Darling)
The Way of Creation (Betsy Bevan, 1999)
Harmonious Soul Scenes (Karlton Hester & Hesterian Musicism, 2000)
Tom Mank & Sera Smolen
Almost Time (2000)
Conversation in Waves (2001)
Souls of Birds (2004)
Where the Sun Meets the Blue (2007)
Paper Kisses (2010)
Swimming in the Dark (2013)
Green Church (2009)