by: Leslie Alexander
Every writer experiences the dreaded “dry spell” – a stretch of days, weeks or years when words refuse to come. Sometimes it’s because they are too difficult to utter, or perhaps the sense that no one is listening overwhelms the creative spirit. Sometimes the drought is occasioned by events so cataclysmic that the period of incubation before which they can be expressed seems to stretch into infinity. For the writer, words are the vehicle of identity and without them, we are shipwrecked high and dry in a desert where water of the soul is either memory or a mirage.
That’s how I felt when I moved back to my hometown of High River, Alberta, following a sad split with my ex, producer and touring partner John Ellis. Without him by my side on stage, much of the fun seemed to have gone out of playing, and I was tired of fighting the business on my own. With my mom in the last stages of a terminal illness, I turned my attention toward her, finding that at the end of the day there were no words or musical notes left. I decided to follow her example and seek a career in health care, taking a job as an aide and applying for practical nursing training at a nearby college.
Trading my orchard home on the Thompson River for a cut-out condo in small-town surburbia seemed a hard pill to swallow. I’d hoped to find a small garden cottage near the river, but I just couldn’t afford it and settled instead on what I fondly dubbed “Pleasantville Gulag” – a series of fake-quaint condos arranged in a prison-like quadrangle, softened by the camoflauge of artful landscaping. I felt surrounded by strangers I was too shy to approach. It wasn’t home but it would have to do.
High River wasn’t quite home either, not anymore – since I’d left 25 years ago, new neighborhoods had sprung up every direction, along with chain stores and big-boxes, the better to keep business out of the historic downtown. The changes I saw there were for the better – murals adorning the old brick buildings which housed funky coffeeshops, art galleries and stores and well as the now-legendary Gitters Pub, where music was played six nights a week. That’s where I went to exercise my musical demons and make a few new friends. For a full year, though, life centered around hospitals and care homes, school and study. My old life of writing, recording and touring seemed a distant dream.
In April, 2013, Mom died. The first wave of grief passed and the flotsam of her life was cleared. Then a dark Thursday in June came, when the waters of the Highwood River rose with a torrential downpour and the lives of those who lived in High River changed forever. After a three-week evacuation, many of us returned to find our homes totally destroyed, and others left with damage that would take years to overcome. Many lost their livelihoods as well, as businesses all over town were devastated.
I returned home with a crowbar and a hammer and no idea where to start with the gooey mess that used to be my basement. Before I knew it, those neighbors that had seemed so distant were working right alongside me, tearing out my mucky insulation and drywall. During the first three days back, everyone in the Gulag worked together to make our homes clean and mold-free. Luckily, the condo development had flood insurance, and the repairs to my basement were covered. If I had gotten the little cottage in West High River that I’d wanted, I’d have been ruined. And I discovered a community to which I now feel I belong. After three years of tumultuous upheaval, it seemed for once that trouble had passed me by.
For twenty years the craft of songwriting was an integral part of my identity. Every major event that flowed through my life was examined through the lens of the creative process. I would begin a song not knowing what it would teach me about it’s subject, and by the end I would have an answer of sorts. Some songs were constructions; others came purely from the source, almost fully formed. These are the moments a songwriter lives for. Writing a well-crafted song is an enjoyable enterprise, but true fulfillment comes when we get the sense that we are an instrument ourselves of something larger. At that moment, it’s not about career, or hit songs, or having our picture in the paper. It’s about getting something right, and not necessarily by our own power.
This was the experience I had when the song “High River Strong” came to me. At first I intended only to play it for friends, but by their reaction I realized could raise more spirit, and perhaps some money, by recording and releasing it. At first the thought overwhelmed, knowing what I do about the work involved. But the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. My first choice was to work with my friend Leeroy Stagger, who I knew to be a very busy man. I decided that if he could make the time, so could I. He replied to my text with immediate enthusiasm and offered to round up players. We contacted my “husbeen” John Ellis and engineer Sheldon Zaharko in Vancouver to help. I thought Johnny and I would never work together again, but here he was bringing his incredible talent to my cause without hesitation.
Local radio, as well as the Calgary Herald and other news outlets got behind the release. We threw up a website at www.highriverstrong.org where people could download the song in return for a donation, and a put together a compilation CD featuring the tune which I placed in local stores. I rounded up a group of local musicians who donated their talent for a series of benefit shows, where I was reminded just how much fun it is to be onstage making music with friends for enthusiastic listeners. Since those shows we’ve continued playing and have decided to form a band, something I never envisioned doing again. Never say never!
Together we raised a few thousand dollars for the flood fund, but more importantly gave the town a positive, hopeful anthem to honor and commemorate their experience. My sense was that a river of inspiration flowed through me, bringing hope not just for my neighbors but also for myself as an artist. I am still pursuing a career in health care, feeling that having a new life to write about can only fuel my contribution as an artist. I am not so interested in chasing the brass ring of the music business any more, but glad to know that the well of creativity in me is alive and well. All of the attention and ego-satisfaction I craved now pale in comparison to the realization that what really matters are those things of the spirit that can’t be kept in a basement box to be swept away according to the whims of fate. With everything it took, the High River flood brought me renewed faith in the generosity of friends, the unexpected gifts to be found in hardship and the enduring power of song, and for that I will always be grateful.
Click Here to visit Leslie Alexander’s Songwriters’ Profile.