A Short Life In Music

Don’t know if I’ve said much about this here, but I recently started singing with a band again after years of hiatus. I started singing in public in college, when I joined an a cappella group at Tulane University named THEM. It’s a great group, you should check them out if you’re into vocal harmonies of newer rock and pop music (no dusty old standards for THEM). They’ve gotten a lot better since I was a member, but that’s typically how it goes in maturing music clubs. Back in my day, we were still cool, though. We actually raised money to produce THEM’s first ever CD, and a cover of The Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” was included, with little ol’ me singing lead. I loved singing. I still do.

THEM in Concert 2002

Here I am singing "Wide Open Spaces" with THEM in 2002.

THEM Recording 1st CD

The sopranos (including me in the red jacket) recording THEM's first ever CD.

After college, with a cappella no longer a viable option, I started searching out opportunities to sing in a real band. As (dubious) luck would have it, I was participating in a fashion show with a couple of friends of mine (one of whom later became famous for his line of Defend New Orleans t-shirts and gear), and the guy who owned the gallery where we were showing also led a band. We were hanging out with this guy and his girlfriend, playing some music, singing along, and I got asked to join the band. Just like that, I was in! The band was called Spencer Livingston and the Little Sisters of the Protecting Veil, and we sang covers of old dirty blues songs, as well as some originals. When I say dirty, I mean it. We did Bessie Smith’s “Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl,” which includes memorable and very obvious lyrics, as well others like “It Ain’t the Meat (It’s the Motion)” and “Bow-legged Woman”. There were some more serious songs, but with one crusty old man and four beautiful young girls singing old timey songs about questionable deeds, the band was an oddity through and through. I liked it, mostly. I was unnerved by Spencer, a blues guitarist and artist with a house full of collected bits and pieces, a great record selection, and an intense vibe. As barely 20-something girls, the four of us Little Sisters all had our own drama and issues going on, including feuds with each other and significant others, large aspirations, and shitty day jobs. In the end, it was a combination of the oddity of the situation and a petty squabble that ended our group. Such is the way of things. According to YouTube, Spencer’s still playing out on his own, which I’m sure is a lot less hassle than dealing with a gaggle of girls. While singing with the band, I got to perform at Tipitina’s Uptown, where I met one of the great romances of my life, and also fell in love with not one but two fantastic bands as a result. It was one of the last times I played with Spencer Livingston and the Little Sisters of the Protecting Veil, but it was a good trade-off to find more music to inspire what was to become of my life from that point on. I went from being a singer to being a groupie for the popular and now-defunct New Orleans reggae/funk/jam band Saraaba, and a fan of still existing The Soul Project.

Hanging out with Saraaba and Soul Project put me in a great space to meet musicians, something I should have taken much greater advantage of. I was young then, just 22, painfully shy and awkward still, and very uneducated in the beauty of networking. When the romance ended, I still went to some of the shows, but lost touch with people who would have been great for me if I would have just tried harder and thought a bit deeper. Oh well. As it was, I was still invited to sing with The Soul Project once on stage – I performed “God Bless the Child”. That was a good feeling.

New Orleans' Banks Street Bar

The Banks Street Bar, a great place to get a beer and hear new musicians get their start.

I’m not sure how I got into my next band. I know who got me in, but for the life of me can’t remember exactly how it happened. I believe that I was hanging out at Banks Street Bar, watching The Soul Project play. That was really the only reason for me to go there. It was 2004 by this time, and I had just clawed my way out of a pretty tough spot in life. There was a guy named James, a graffiti artist and bartender who made paper roses, and I’d often sit with him at the bar and listen to my old flame playing music on stage, too wrapped up in my own grief to understand just how creepy it was that it was months since the breakup and I was still haunting his concerts. I’m an odd child, but love is also odd. One night, sitting and listening, I looked up and saw a guy I recognized from college – the old roommate of my first serious college boyfriend. This guy, Travis, and I started talking about what he was still doing in New Orleans (cooking and making djembes), and we made plans to hang out at some later date.

The next thing I remember is Travis arriving at my door one day with a beautiful girl in tow. He introduced her to me as his ‘friend’ Theo. She’s still my friend, but not his. That was short lived. We hung out (I think he was loaning me a book?) together and when he left, he mentioned that he knew a band that was looking for a singer.

A band. Sounded good.

The band was Forever Flood, which we would all find rather ironic, given famous events not even a year into our short-lived future together. The music was reggae and a little pop rock. The band mates were amazing. Travis played drums. Matt played Saxophone. Kick-ass Helen was on bass and vocals, with a little percussion too. I sang and played some percussion. The leader of our merry band was Evan, on guitar and vocals. We practiced at Travis’ house, in his little living room, but only until 8pm so his neighbors wouldn’t get too pissed. We ranged in age from Matt, just in college, to our later bassist Danny, a Brit who, as a member of the Queen fan club, actually GOT TO BE IN ONE OF THEIR VIDEOS as a kid. If you’re reading this Danny, I’m still so damn jealous. Danny came onto the scene when Helen went to Greece for a month or two, and when she came back we kept them both – him on bass, her on vocals. Then they started seeing each other, so everything worked out just fine, really. It’s funny how when you’re playing in a band, you get to be as close as brothers and sisters, then eventually someone crosses the boundaries, relationships happen, and before you know it the band is breaking up because somebody called somebody else a fat-ass. Of course that’s not at all what happened to Forever Flood. Helen and Danny are still friends. Travis moved away. Matt plays a variety of instruments now for a great band called the Dirty Bourbon River Show. Evan and I are once again playing music together.

Forever Flood's First Concert

Forever Flood's first concert at The Red Eye, with Evan on guitar, me on vocals and tambourine, Helen on bass, Matt on sax, and Travis on drums. We made pretty good tips that night. I think it might have been the skirt's fault.

No, it wasn’t the band that broke itself up. It was a hurricane.

On August 28, 2005, I woke up to the pulsing of my cell phone. I was sleeping on it, and blearily dragged it out from under me to answer. It was around eight in the morning. On the other line was Danny, the bassist. He was a cab driver at the time, and had just gotten off of his shift. He told me to be ready outside my house in 10 minutes, to pack up everything I needed with me, and to be ready to leave immediately. I hadn’t planned to evacuate New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina. I’m originally from the coast of North Carolina, and there was a major hurricane (or two) every summer of my high school days. My childhood home flooded multiple times, so many that eventually FEMA paid us to move and demolished the house. I knew that evacuating to a shelter would be dangerous, and I couldn’t bring my cat. As far as I was concerned, flooding and wind was nothing when faced with the possibility of leaving my cat behind. I’d weather it. But that morning, waking up to Danny telling me that I was leaving whether I wanted to or else, I was unusually compliant. I packed the cat, my laptop, my photo albums, and a change of clothes for two days. We wouldn’t be gone longer than that, I thought.

Danny, Helen, Evan and I evacuated west with my cat, Matthew. We drove to Arkansas and bedded down for the night, thinking that we’d be able to go back in a day or two. But on Monday morning when we turned on the news, it was much worse. It was obvious that we wouldn’t be going home anytime soon. We were stuck with each other, and all of us were running out of money. We moved on to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and found a B&B that gave us rooms for far below what they’d normally go for. We stayed for a few days. I lost about 10 lbs over the first week, for worry and lack of money to eat. I remember having to buy a belt at K-Mart to keep my jeans up. We went to the only real bar in town, a karaoke joint, and met up with other New Orleans evacuees there. We sang there, and went back home and played music together. I cried. We made plans. What would we do? Emails piled in, checked from an internet cafe because smartphones and free wireless were still things of the future. A friend in Chicago offered to take me in. My parents threatened to disown me if I didn’t come back to NC. So many hard decisions happening all at the same time. What about my belongings? What about my beloved musician ex? What about my bandmates? Who was I without them?

An amazing friend met up with us on the Tennessee border and took me back to her house in Memphis. Evan went back to his home in New York. Danny and Helen started a road trip in the same United Cab we had evacuated in. Eventually, with my father’s help, I scraped together enough cash to get to Chicago. By then my grandparents were able to help me out a little, too. I never got the FEMA check so many were promised, nor did I receive housing help when I finally returned to New Orleans in early 2006. By then I was deep in debt because none of my credit card companies had accepted the hurricane as a viable hardship. It’s funny, but for such a shit time, I had a lot of fun checking out a new city, going to music shows by displaced New Orleans musicians, meeting artists and forming new friendships with old acquaintances. It was a magical break from my old New Orleans life, and though life upon my return wasn’t nearly as rich or as fun, it became much more emotionally stable as a result of my growth during this period.

When I got back to New Orleans in January of ’06, I tried to get back together with the band. By that time, however, they were breaking up due to artistic differences. I was also in grad school, and having a hard time balancing work, life, and the band. So even though Evan and I tried to make new music, it didn’t work out. I didn’t talk to him again, which seems odd in retrospect, but I was ashamed at giving up on him.

Fast forward five years. I’ve just moved back to New Orleans after a three year stint in Chicago, which did not end up being as magical as I remembered, but was still a great town to call home. One of the biggest issues with my Chicago self was that music was tough to find, and even tougher to participate in. I tried out for multiple bands, but nothing seemed right. So very many hipsters with notions of grandeur, so very few working musicians with strong goals and good plans for getting there. Next to the people I was meeting, I felt like a boring old lady. No, I don’t listen to Death Cab for Cutie. No, I don’t think your ironic moustache is amazingly awesome. No, I definitely do not think skinny boys look smashing in skinny jeans. I was just looking for a regular group of guys to jam with and maybe make some original songs to fall in love with (and by). Why is that so damn difficult?

So I’m looking through Craigslist and see an ad, written by a no-nonsense guy, looking for a no-nonsense female vocalist who doesn’t have commitment issues and can handle harmonies. Without reading much further, I knew that it was Evan. I didn’t reply. I didn’t know how, or what I’d say. The old shame was still there. Luckily, the Universe does look out for those who stumble about blindly. About a week later I get a Facebook message: “I heard you’re back in town. Feel like being in a band?” It turns out that Evan had run into the old romantic interest from my groupie days, and through idle conversation had been informed that I had moved back to New Orleans. And so life moves full circle.

About a month ago I started practicing with my new band, Drive West. I pick up harmonies pretty fast, and Evan and I have always sung well together. We also fell back into the old routines pretty easily – sarcastic comments, friendly beers, the occasional attempt at sage advice, laughter. It’s nice being a real musician again, and even though I’m still not too great at meeting new people, the drummer Matt and bassist Mike are turning out to be pretty cool with my awkward attempts at friendship. We’ll make it. Our first gig was on Saturday, at, of all places, the same Bank Street Bar where I used to go to cry and drown my sorrows, and where I first made the connection that would introduce me to Forever Flood back in 2004. It’s a small world, for being a place of infinite possibilities.

Drive West Logo

We plan to.

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