Last winter I took a close look at my expenses and income as a performer when I prepared my taxes. That’s when I realized that I couldn’t afford to ignore my hourly wage as a musician anymore. I want to preface the rest of my thoughts by owning up to my identity as an artist, which I’ve been diving into and uncovering this year. At the heart of it, I make music to process and heal experience and emotion. I am deeply connected to the small rural Sebastopol property I was raised on. I am a mother who values family, home, and balance.
I made a stab at climbing the ladder in the traditional industry. I had incredible, gifted, hard-working partners in the dream along the way. I had some bright victories and beautiful, transcendent moments. I had some fall-flat-on-my-face failures. I put countless hours and thousands of dollars that I didn’t have into creating and sharing my music. I’ve felt the pressure of acting like “one of the boys” and all that entails. It takes a lot of mettle to take on the challenges of rejection, as well as the terrifying tedium of cold calling strangers repeatedly to peddle your art, to climb the ladder of exposure and “success” in the music industry. To be honest, I really sucked at that part of the job. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
When I was in my 20s, walking away from a gig with $50 or $100 bucks in my pockets was great. It’s awesome to walk away with cash in your pocket while also getting to share your art, make meaningful connections with people, and feeling the rush of adreneline and release of performing.
Now I’m 36. I’ve invested in my creative music education business, and I have bills to pay. Most importantly, I have an 8 year old daughter and right now feels like a CRUCIAL time to foster a positive relationship with her as she approaches the tween/teen years. She brings me incredible joy with her bright, curious, and loving spirit. Being her mama has taught me so much that I can’t imagine learning outside of the realm of parenting. I separated from her Dad when she was five and we split custody 50/50. Because of the nature of his line of work, my time with my daughter is mostly over the weekend, when most performing opportunities arise. So at this point, putting 10 hours and thousands of dollars of musical gear into a gig where I’ll walk away with a crisp big ben doesn’t pencil out. Here’s the breakdown of the 10 hours, based on the year I performed every weekend as well as what I’d put into a gig with a band today:
2 Hours personal prep/practice (music, booking, press kit, sound plot, etc.)
3 Hours rehearsal with the band
2 Hours set up/break down/ transportation (if it’s local) on site
3 hours performance/on site time
The long and short of it is- I don’t have those extra hours to dedicate to the traditional model of performing anymore. My daughter needs them. I need them so I can build a new dream.
I’ve been in HEAVY mourning for that extra free time for years now. At this point, I’m ready to let it go to make room for a new model. One that is based in art, education, community, love, and balance.
It’s a dream that’s knocking loudly at the edge of my tangible reality, and I’m feeling all the feels. Fear, Resistance, Excitment, Bliss, Grief, Anxiety, Fear. Yep, I know I said that twice. It’s terrifying to release such a huge part of my identity as I move into something new, something that holds unknown challenges and rewards.
I imagine that I’m walking barefoot on a path, and each time my foot makes contact with the earth I feel a pulse of excitment, joy, resonance, alignment. I’m even more excited to connect with other women who share in a vision of a sustainable career rooted in creating and teaching art in balance with a nurtured home, self, and family.
This is my daughter in the 2002 Dodge conversion van I bought last year from my friend Dave Mulligan with a dream that my daughter and I can hit the road and play community based shows in California, see some beautiful places, connect with friends, and adventure together. It was love at first sight with this van, which I went on my only tour on in 2008 when I released my debut record, Smoke Rings in the Sky. Good times were had by all. We drove Ron DMC from Joshua Tree to Bellingham in 20 days, playing every night in a different town. Steve Poltz even came out to our show in San Diego. Ron needs a new transmission and some love. Part of the dream that's knocking at the edge of tangible reality. . .
Some funny things come to mind as I watch this. I’m on day 5 of daily shares, and it’s not easy. If I wasn’t committed to sharing with an open heart from my creative and educational music path, I wouldn’t share this. That ego voice is just too loud in my head saying- well, you know! You’ve got your own. But the voice is kind of funny. It makes me feel the need to assure you that I am not stoned even though I was born on 4/20. To explain that the reason I am moving that way is because I am sitting on an exercise ball that I bought for my daughter to play with, but now use as a desk chair. So many things.
I’m sharing this one for my student Vikki, a fifth generation farmer from the Philippines who is taking voice lessons for the first time after a life long love affair with singing. She has a natural huge soprano voice and we are working on getting her in touch with her low range so she can sing contemporary songs that she loves like “Can’t Help Falling In Love”. She is on a serious healing path with music, and has the bug BAD. Bad like she owns 8 Ukuleles bad. Which is actually great. Which is what this song is about.
As I got into the unexpected and seemingly miraculous process of making a record with Tim Bluhm last year (a collection Mother Hips songs that I arranged for female voice and piano), I had many moments of - Oh s**t, I’m making a record. I know exactly what it costs. No I don’t have that kind of money laying around. But this is what I do! Mellotron arrangements by Pat Sansone of Wilco- yes, absolutely! String arrangements from Nashville!? Hell yes!
How could I say no to such beauty and the opportunity to make art that’s exactly aligned with the pace of my soul?
I wrote this song as I was grappling with these questions and the illogical/inspired yes. I’ll be asking for support with a crowdfunding campaign for the first time so I can get my music out to you. But this kind of share is free. Straight from me to you, with all the beauty and realness which is sometimes just freaking awkward and makes me cringe a little, at least if I listen to that old ego. But again- the sharing is more important than the fear. So here you go.
PS. I’ve posted a snippet of this song before on my blog, right after I wrote it. But I was afraid to share it, because it felt too close to my heart, too vulnerable, too new. The funny thing is that I usually find it really awkward to look into the camera, but as I recorded it felt very natural for the same reason I was afraid to share this song with you before- because it is straight from the heart. Funny how that works!
Gambler Song- Alison Harris 2017
Am F C G (vi IV I V)
You’ll be the death of me, strip my skin right from the bones
Lead me on a wild goose chase, ’til there’s no place left to call my home
‘Cause I’m a gambler baby, lay it all down
I might go on singing ’til there is no sound
When you come a knockin’, open every door
I will cross each threshold, always wanting more
Feed me on fantasy, ’til you make me moan
I’ll live on song along, ’til I’m only skin and bones
‘Cause this is all I have, this is all I love
This is all I live for, I can’t get enough
If you wonder, baby, why I’d rather be lost
If I can’t keep singing- nothing’s worth that cost
So leave me by the wayside in a field of wild flowers
My song and I, we’ll whittle down the hours
You might see me standing like I am all alone
But I’ve got song beside me, and she is my home
Many can’t conceive it, most don’t understand
I’d rather be with music than touched by any hand
Even in the darkness, I'll shine in the light
Deep down in the dark, my spirit's shining bright
One of my students requested this physical warm up in video form, so I thought I'd share with all of you. This is just a quick check in and physical prep you can do before you sing. One of my teachers explained the vocal warm up practice as a way to send enzymes to the parts of your body you work with when you sing. I start with a little shifting, walking, or stepping in place to activate the pelvic floor, which stays turned on and engaged to support the diaphragmatic muscles while singing. Then I move to shoulder rolls to relax the shoulders, but more importantly to open the ribcage which houses the lungs. Half circles of the neck relaxes the throat and frees the vocal chords, and a little tapping of the cheekbones and third eye, or center of the forehead, prepares for tonal focus and resonance.
This is the fourth attempt at a video of a song I wrote a few years ago, "Chemical". This evening I headed out to the barn to set up a spot to play with making videos. Videos are tough. It's scary to see yourself there, so exposed. The ego tends to run away when you watch yourself on the screen. I think it's safe to say that it has a way of bringing up any physical insecurity you might have- at least, it does for me.
BUT. I am determined to share more with you this year. I am recovering my love of writing and creating, and working on integrating education and performance. I would like to share something from this process EVERY DAY. Maybe it's crazy, or unrealistic. But it feels so good to commit to exploring my thoughts and feelings and articulating them at a level I can share with my community on a daily basis. It's the same propulsion that drives my songwriting, and I'm excited to explore and broaden the ways in which I express.
So- here it is. This song usually calls to me when I head up to the "music barn" on my family property, because I wrote it there a few years ago. I was losing the light- as you'll see in the video- and the pressure kept getting to me, distracting me and causing me to forget the lyrics. I often tell students that making a recording of your song- even a voice memo on your phone- is a good way to start the process of confronting fear and nervousness about sharing your voice. How do I know? Because I struggle with that fear, and nerves, every time. Like we all do. But- the sharing is more important than the fear, because it provides opportunities for healing, for strong relationships, connecting with community, bringing together people in a collective experience, for exploring the shadow self, and bringing the darkness out into the light to be acknowledged and transformed. So we don't feel so alone. So we can feel joy in connection. And that's more important than insecurity. So- here you are.
By Alison Harris
(I learned this technique for writing lyrics from songwriter Tim Bluhm, who shared that he checks the integrity of lyrics by writing them out in prose form, with punctuation. It's an interesting way to test out the structure of what you are trying to say)
"You flew away, freeing my heart. I finally know- it isn't the start of something beautiful. Oh what a love, oh what a day! Baby to think I was willing to give it all away. We'll meet again, high as the stars. When you're fighting to win, the need for a victory is Chemical. I fought for your heart, I fell down with ease. Scraped up my elbows and tore up my knees. Oh what a love- oh what a night! If you're trying to find me, I'll be in the last dream on the right. Someday you'll say- Give me the key. When the lock has been rusted away, and your heart gives in to Gravity. I don't know what it is about you, I just can't get enough of the view! Fell so hard- I've got proof in the scars. This love is adrenaline, it's Chemical." - Alison Harris, 2015
It was a year of transformation. A year of healing. When the fires happened, my family and I were lucky enough to stay safe in West Sebastopol. Things didn't feel right, but as friends who had lost their home came to seek shelter with us and we processed what had happened together, as we came together as a community- well, those kind of connections got our county through. It's a small start and the recovery is FAR from over, especially for those who lost their homes. But- connection, music, collective processing and healing- it helps. It makes it bearable, sometimes. As the fires continued to rage and everything was shut down, I wrote this song about healing and finding hope. It's called "Charts of Healing", and I hope it brings some your way.
So, I just had an exchange with a student and good friend who is a visual artist. She sent me a picture of a detailed portion of the painting she's working on, and commented (well. . . texted. Let's just pretend it's the 90s and we were actually talking to each other)- "My version of singing Bach."
She knows that I sang Bach for years, from age 15 to 24 every week without pause. Singing Bach's complex choral melodies (in German) for first soprano taught me how to master control of my resonance, vowels, and vocal flexibility. It's ironic, because there is NOTHING flexible about singing first Soprano Bach parts in a choir. It's probably some of the most rigid singing you can imagine. Still, working on those difficult passages demanded that I develop flexibility in my voice, because if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to execute the passage. And trust me- when you are singing up to a high "A"- it really shows when you f**k up ; ) (Side note- I am dreaming of starting a series of vocal warm ups for vocal flexibility all based on Bach Melismas).
A melisma is basically *a lot of notes very fast* in a sequential pattern that moves up and down for a few bars. Here's the definition that popped up when I searched just now: "a group of notes sung to one syllable of text". So there you go- vowels, tone, and movement.
After my friend compared painting in intricate detail to singing Bach, I said- "I can totally appreciate the comparison". To which she replied,
"I can too now, I had no idea the voice was work. I thought you had it or not."
At this point, I saw a combination of lightbulbs and a sea of red. Because the more I teach, and the more I sing, the more I believe passionately that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is a natural vocalist. Using our voice is pretty much the VERY FIRST thing we do. We cry. We babble. We make lots of different expressive sounds. We talk. And most of us listen avidly, passionately, frequently to music.
Music is how we are designed, it helps us process our inner and outer worlds. So how come some people can sing, and some people "can't"?
It's just work.
Oh, and the desire/willingness/conviction to bare your soul in front of everyone. That too.
We all have an incredible natural musicality inside of us. It takes a huge amount of dedication to physical technique, fine motor development, neural connections, and strange abstract concepts (like engaging your diaphragm while you completely relax your tongue) to realize and strengthen your voice. It also requires a huge amount of vulnerability. Because when you sing you reveal your own unique sound, tone, and interpretation. We tend to want to sing about things that are close to our hearts and souls. Very close. Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve.
It's been shown that, on average, people fear public speaking more than they fear death. So- imagine what happens when you ask people to try public SINGING!?!
If you are afraid of sharing your voice, here is something to think about. Something I know to be true, because I've been doing it for 20 years. Because, quite honestly, it was the only way I could express certain thoughts and feelings that had to be expressed or they would make me implode. Can you relate?
Having the courage to express yourself with integrity and authenticity will touch those around you and create ripples of healing from the inside out.
If you'd like to find out more about the song circle and vocal expression program I'm starting for women in February, CLICK HERE.
Thanks to my friend for the food for thought. I'm leaving you with The B Minor Mass and a Bach Melisma. To find the right one to share, I just looked through my old Bach scores and looked for the most dog-eared page. Sweet Dreams.
This living room, home-made collection of Christmas songs is a little gift that my 8 year old daughter and I made for family and friends this season. It brought great joy to our hearts to sing and laugh together while singing these songs. I hope this season will bring joy and laughter to your heart as well! Please enjoy my humble gift of a few of our favorite Christmas songs to warm your winter. Peace and Bliss to all.
Alison and Elaine
The Tubbs fire ravaged Sonoma County and many lost their homes. Much beautiful, sacred land was burned. For the first two days of the fire I was glued to the news, unable to think about anything else despite being safe in Sebastopol. My mom teaches in the Piner-Olivet School District, which serves Coffey Park, and her community and school was turned upside-down. Music is a transformative, healing force that can take the heaviest of experiences and emotions and change them into something that can be shared, processed, and healed. I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to express this story and the feelings that come along with it through music. Please visit my music page for information about benefit shows coming up. Love to all! Stay strong Sonoma County. It is crucial that we not leave ANYONE, or any living being, behind in our healing and rebuilding efforts.
Ok I admit it. I'm TOTALLY HOOKED. I love the simplicity of writing with the ukulele. There is an innocence, a sweetness. Perhaps it's because I don't know that much about the Uke. It saves me from getting too heady, over-crafting chord progressions. It lets me stay intuitive and put the focus on the melody. It encourages playfulness. The other morning I took the Ukulele out to the field and sat under the shade of a tree, looking out at thousands of blooming dandelions. They remind me of stars in the sky. I started working on a new song called "Dizzy", which had been coming to me in bits and pieces, starting with the chorus. I recorded a demo in my living room and am sharing with you!
I got the idea for this song thinking about how falling in love is a mind-altering drug. How it makes us dizzy, it feels good, it's terrifying, we learn to mistrust the feeling but then again when it hits it's absolutely delicious. I read that kids make themselves dizzy to have a mind-altering experience, to alter their reality. So I thought it would be sweet to go through the ages- starting with the child spinning, looking up at the sky, and then our first taste of attraction, touch, and love when we are tweens and teens and beyond. My friend Lee has a great story about her nana falling into deep, passionate love at 75. I put that into the last verse. This song is a little pep talk for my heart, which has been slowly blooming open after a few years of shutting down entirely. Like Kate Wolf sang, "Give yourself to love, if love is what you're after. . ." I hope this song makes your heart happy too!
"Dizzy" Demo by Alison Harris
Ever feel like you've been army-crawling through the desert without a cool drink of water when you happen upon an oasis paradise? I won't lie- Starting my music business, which balances creation, performance, and education, while figuring out how to be a single mom and trying to maintain some semblance of personal balance nearly took me under. It did take me under a few times. Thank god for my friends, family, and support networks who helped me through the toughest times.
This past weekend I was visited by such a thunderstorm of blessings that it felt like a healing salve for my soul. I've been working on a cover album of Mother Hips songs with Tim Bluhm, who has been recovering from a paragliding accident for the past year. It's been a magical project which helped reconnect me to my authentic musicality and voice, and connected me to an amazing community of songwriters and music makers. We are working with Pat Sansone of Wilco, who is laying down some gorgeous symphonic Mellotron arrangements of strings and other instruments behind my piano/vocal arrangements. Dave Schools of Widespread Panic and Hard Working Americans tracked Bass on one of the songs, and I recorded vocal doubles and harmonies over the past couple of weeks in studio. I hadn't heard the results of the last few sessions yet. It was the first Friday of Summer Vacation, and my mother, daughter and I were headed to the Mendocino Woodlands for Folk Dance Camp.
My parents met in this lovely folk-dancing community who have been dancing together for 40 years, and it was a full-circle moment to be heading there with my mother and 7 year old daughter. As we were about to hit the road, the new tracks from the Mother Hips cover album started coming through, and the sounds were beautiful and exciting.
The weekend with my family in sacred woodlands surrounded by music and community was full of love, connection, family, and people dancing and making music together for all the right reasons. Because they love it. Because it makes them feel alive. Because it connects them and brings them joy. Because it creates more love in the world. Playing, Singing, and Dancing for Love.
After a Macedonian singing workshop I sat in a sunny meadow and channeled the sounds of middle eastern scales into a song of my own. My daughter magically found a friend from school at the camp, and watching them dance along the forest paths playing make-believe reminded me of my childhood in those same woods. It was a sacred weekend of connection, love, family, music, and creation.
One of the very first songs I wrote with the guitar (my dad's old nylon string), Open, drew on these Balkan and Middle Eastern sounds. Below are videos of Open and a snippet of the song I started writing in the meadow, still in progress. I hope these songs inspire you to do a little playing for love of your own. If you do, I'd love for you to share your inspiration with me.
Alison is a Musician, Writer, Teacher and Mother. She lives in rural Sonoma County with her daughter, Ella.