Eat, pray, songwriting…keeping it simple.
Sarah Calvert is a mult-talented singer/songwriter, and also a participant in the S.A.C. Canadian Songwriters Social Media Challenge. She recently released “Other Side,” an album that features Canadian talents like Suzie Vinnick, Brian MacMillan, Andrew Collins, and Tim Bovaconti. As many artists can resonate with, Sarah encountered strife and turmoil while touring her album, leading her to strip away everything familiar, including her primary instrument. She jettisoned to Hawaii and India where she developed a deep appreciation of keeping things simple that has been reflected in her new approach to songwriting. Not unlike the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” Sarah’s journey crystallized things she couldn’t see as clearly while caught up in the busyness of modern day living and touring. May her story serve as a reminder of the inspiration that comes from leaving our respective comfort zones, as well as the value of keeping things simple in songwriting.
In Her Words…
Music. Glamour. Travel. Frostbite. I didn’t anticipate on the latter aspect of touring a new album. Last winter I toured my latest record, “Other Side” to the other side of Canada: B.C. and Alberta. Many of my friends were perplexed, “Why would you go now, with all of the snow?” I responded that it was perfect timing because of the record-breaking amounts of snow. As a former professional ski bum, a tour through the mountains was idyllic. And it was, to a certain extent. I sang, I skied, I cried.
What I did not know, was that a vigorous musical/teaching tour (I taught songwriting and yoga to pay for lift tickets and gas) coupled with a rigorous ski regime would leave me both burnt out and freezing.
It was a month and a half into the tour, and minus 35 in Kelowna when I pulled up to the Bike Café for a show. As I fumbled with near-frostbitten hands to unload my piano, my ski poles became entangled in the mic stand. The buckle of my snowshoe had trapped the cord to my amp, and as I gave a yank on the ski pole, nearly everything in the car fell out with a thud onto the icy road. I did what any other tired musician who had slept on a myriad of couches over the past few months would do: I cried my eyes out. Then I wrote about it.
The glamour of being in new places almost everyday had faded as quickly as Jessica Simpson’s singing career and I longed for my own space, my own bed, and warmth. Yes, the name “Sarah” does mean Hebrew Princess, of which I am both, so I blame it on my name. The next day I contacted an old friend in Nelson; she had a house vacant in Hawaii and asked if I wanted to stay there for a week to recharge my batteries. I thought long and hard about it for 3.2 seconds and was on the phone booking my flight.
Fast-forward three days to Vancouver where I boarded a plane to Kauai aboard United Airlines. After the infamous and unfortunate “incident” with Dave Carrol and his broken guitar, I decided to leave my precious Larivee at a friend’s and would buy a cheap ukulele when I got there. As soon as I got off the plane, picked up my rental car and headed north, I stopped into the first music store I saw and bought a uke for 60 bucks from Mike, the charismatic owner of the store. It was a torrential downpour, so he showed me a few chords as we waited for the rain to subside. During that week I sat on various porches, verandas, and beaches, strumming and plunking away. I didn’t know what chords I was playing, with the exception of C F and G7 that I had learned from Mike. I began writing songs that comprised of three or four chords: harmonically uncomplicated, yet lyrically rich. I was keeping it simple.
After my Hawaii trip, I remained in Vancouver to do a few shows when I got an email from a fellow yoga teacher in Toronto asking if any Toronto Kundalini Yoga teachers could go to India to teach for a few weeks, beginning next week. Again I agonized over the idea of going for the tried and tested 3.2 seconds and booked a flight to Delhi for the next week. Just one bag, one uke, and me. No ski poles, amps, loop pedals and snowshoes. Simplicity.
Once I arrived in Delhi, I was told my bags did not make it with me, and were held up in Amsterdam; all I had was my purse, a small carry on and my uke. I traveled north to Chandigarh by bus, which was an 8-hour affair, and arrived early morning. For the first few days, I didn’t have classes as the regular instructor was still there, so I sat out on my porch overlooking a quiet street, a plethora of dahlias and marigolds, and strummed my uke and the four chords I now had mastered. As a jazz trained pianist, I found it liberating to ditch the sometimes-intricate chords I integrated into my music: the diminished sevens, the augmented F#. I focused more on the lyrics and images I wanted to create with words and phrases. As it turned out, I was not able to get my bag for five days, and so, day after day, I sat in the same shirt and pants and continued to strum the same 4 chords and write songs. I remembered seeing Emmylou Harris at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival years ago during a songwriting workshop where she agreed that there is power in “three chords and the truth”. Indeed. I was one-upping that with my four.
I had just started reading Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, and in Hawaii had read Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, whereby the female protagonist finally finds love late in life, only to find it is fleeting and ends up alone. I used the themes and images from both of these books to write a song called, Swept Away, where I imagined myself the female protagonist. Nobody warned me of the power of manifestation in sacred India, and I too found love that was fleeting and resulted in heartache and an arranged marriage: not mine. That however, that is another story.
India is the perfect place for artists to tune into our senses; I have never visited such a sensual country. The vibrant colours of flowers, silk cloths and nature, the smells of incense, the noise in Delhi, the silence of the Himalayas, and the touch of a beloved’s hand upon skin. Sense profoundly influenced my songwriting over the 3 months I was there. I encourage all songwriters, no matter where we are, to tap into the senses whenever we can. To connect to ourselves and each other is why we write, and we all can relate to each other through the simplicity of a sight, a sound, a taste or a touch. Three chords may be all you need to speak your truth. Some of my fave tunes employ three chords: Neil Young’s Helpless, John Prine’s Angel of Montgomery. Just remember that inspiration is abound; in books, art and our lives. It’s simple.