Arts & Writing Essays & Opinion

Reflections on making art

Lisa Marie Simmons offers her reflections on music, songwriting, touring, and creating new art
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NoteSpeak Touring Band – Laura Masotto – Violin, Marco Cremaschini – Keys, Marco Cocconi Upright Bass, Federico Negri – Drums  Manuel Caliumi- Alto Sax. Photo Credit Monica Polato

I was filming a video for my new project NoteSpeak the other day. It’s another niche band which seems to be my specialty. I cannot for the life of me seem to hit the sweet spot where I can get on that festival circuit and have MTV knocking at my door while maintaining my artistic integrity and yet I manage to make a living.

As a young’un, I was part of a project which had no imagination and no goal if not to make as much money for its producers as possible. Inexplicably, it climbed up some charts and I spent a year touring around Europe lip-synching to it and feeling as though my soul had been irretrievably sent on to the highest bidder before I bowed out to focus on bettering my craft.

I worked on my skills in all regards; composing, singing, piano, writing, for a few years. After all, you can never stop trying to grow as an artist – we’re all constantly learning.

Eventually, I put together a band I was really proud of.

When I sent Hippie Tendencies songs to pop festivals, I received the comment more often than not that it was “too jazz”. So, we sent it off to jazz festivals. And, yup, we were told “it’s too pop”. Anyway, here I am, an American singer/songwriter based in Italy, and I’ve got this new band – album called NoteSpeak to be released in 2020 (little plug there, I’m an indie musician dude what do you expect?). We’ve just gotten a booking agent and signed a contract with our dream indie label. The coolest of the cool. Honest family vibe but contenders. Er that’s a hint. Nestling into that sweet spot I’ve been seeking.

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Hippie Tendancies – Marco Cremaschini, Cesare Valbusa, Lisa Marie Simmons, Massimo Saviola, Christian Codenotti. Photo credit Rocco Delillo

It’s a new project, and everyone needs new content – photos and video to help position us for those coveted festival slots in summer 2020. We set up a live video in a great location and, being part of an artistic community, we are helped along the way by others – as always, there’s no such thing as truly ever ‘going it alone’. We all rely on others to help us out from time to time.

So, we set up and get a nice friendly little audience. When we finish shooting, this 14 year old kid has some questions for me.

“Why do you have to shoot each song 2 or 3 times? I loved it the first time but I don’t want to hear it right away again! That was sooooooo long. I just wanted to get to “Decapitation Blues.””

Of course he did, he’s 14, anyway when he asked, “Do you REALLY believe that there can be peace on earth like you were talking about in ‘Every Generation’s War’?”

Okay I know I know this is sounding like one long plug, but it’s relevant I swear! When he asked me that, I turned cartwheels in my brain and heart, while trying to maintain my cool – ‘cause you know I want this teenager to hear me; but the excitement I was downplaying? The cartwheels? Those were all happening because, well, that is why I write. That question and our subsequent conversation encapsulated why I possess this striving desire to mirror society in the most humane egoless way possible. Encouraging people to consider something they never have before or another point of view, perhaps even to take action where they might never have contemplated doing such. That is ambrosia for me. That is everything.

So we sat and I told him what I thought: that humans have the capacity to evolve in a meaningful and positive way; that just because we’ve always fought each other doesn’t mean we always will. I pointed him to Vision of Humanity to illustrate the fact that there are intricate studies being made to determine what makes a peaceful nation, we spoke about other resources, there are so many, built by the millions of people who do believe we can achieve it and are going about finding new ways of being human. His question, though sincere, was posed in a bit of a snarky matter, as a 14 year old is wont to be, but by the end of the conversation he was thinking, really thinking about whether he might be wrong, whether there is a possibility that we change what is considered the inevitability of the human fate.

There are several essential differences in those two projects I’ve mentioned. In Hippie Tendencies I was singing songs and with NoteSpeak I’m declaiming, singing a bit too but mostly it’s poetry. Several important distinctions being questions of space, rhythm, and meter. With a song you can only say so much, you must keep to the melody as well as to the meter. While there are many famously epic ballads, generally speaking, songs tend towards the more concise, whereas spoken word allows more words to be employed.

Crafting lyrics

Beyond the craft behind constructing a song or a poem, and all which that entails lyrically and musically (there’s yet another post for another time!), songwriting is often about making a personal experience universal. If one wishes to reach a broad audience, many folks must be able to see themselves or their ideals reflected in that song allowing them to relate to whatever it is one is chirping on about. In contrast, spoken word is a much more directly expressive vehicle. The very nature of the art form is that it is confrontational and holds nothing back.

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Lyrics in action. Photo credit Elena Tagini

Marco Cremaschini is my writing partner, my muse, my love. While he and I continued to compose songs for HippieTendencies and toured with the band to the States in support of our first self-titled album in 2011, something else was brewing. The writing process of that HT album, with Marco as a partner, continued to be revelatory. We collaborated in many different ways. While I was primarily the wordsmith and he the melody maker, we were both happy to exchange roles some of the time.

He’d give me bars of melody which seemed to inspire me instantly, at other times I’d have a strong melody and play it for him with the song pretty much written, thinking it sounded pretty damn good and he would take it – make some chord changes, fiddle the arrangement – transforming and elevating the composition to such a degree that, much to my dismay, I could no longer play it. Often I’d be working on a similar sound or feeling to whatever he’d passed on and whatever lyrics I had would just slot right into his melodic line.

We both dreamed songs and woke up in the dead of night to scribble the ideas down before the grey dawn could snatch them from us. The night he dreamt of “Shame on You”, he sat bolt upright and ran from the room to the piano, beyond excited, mumbling the hook until he got to the piano and started composing. He pretty much wrote the entire song that night and then gave me the title as my launch pad for the lyric, which also followed incredibly quickly.

Writing space

My writing room sits perched at the very top of our house where I can pretend that I am in a lonely garret, while the Maestro is two floors below in our home studio/spaceship, which is filled to bursting with the baby Schimmel, the Hammond, the Rhodes Suitcase, guitars, drum kit and more keys keys keys of every kind imaginable.

I painted my study walls brick red as soon as we moved to our house here on the lake. That deep dark color feels womblike and enveloping… makes this room safe and warm, while conveniently encouraging my bohemian fantasy.

Marco soundproofed the studio and covered the walls with old album covers and ordered vintage Star Trek posters from America; only the original series would do. Atmosphere for his own cockpit. Those were literally our priorities in an empty house.

Sitting at my desk writing; with the faint strains of Marco’s sometimes melancholic, sometimes raucous, yet always sublime notes providing the soundtrack to my day, makes me feel as though everything I’ve ever wanted, everything I’ve ever needed is at hand. Marco is as committed to realizing himself fully as pianist and composer as I am committed to growing every day as a writer. The execution of our disciplines defines us; it is as comforting as it is inspiring to have his company.

Composition

NoteSpeak began with that. His compositions, as I sat agonizing over every word in the day’s poem, somehow started to mingle with whatever truth I was seeking to record. We’d meet, as we still do, at the dinner table and compare notes. We trade our work constantly. He is always my first reader, I am always his first listener.

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I wrote a poem called A Fazioli while listening to him play and remembering those outrageously tender days when we first realized we had fallen for each other. Fallen irretrievably deep into one another, no coming up for air nor any desire to do so. Every time I see a couple sealed together at the lips… I smirk at the memory of how useless every other person on the planet instantly became to us in our insularity. We were outrageously rude, going out in the company of friends and ignoring everyone present, intoxicated and smug. Speaking our own language that we were inventing. Feeling, like love’s young dream always does, that we were pioneers. At any rate, I wrote that poem…

Hippie Tendencies was clicking along nicely thank you very much and we were enjoying that peculiar band family thing where you hate each other and love each other in one hot steamy mess. We had all sorts of adventures that deserve a few of their very own blog posts for another day. At any rate on H.T.’s second album, we had experimented with combining two songs from Joan Baez and Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for the film Sacco and Vanzetti. “The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti” and “Here’s to You” are famously based on letters that are attributed to Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Letters written to his father and to Nicola Sacco’s son as they waited to be executed. We were struck by the parallels of Sacco and Vanzetti’s story and the pervasive amnesia of Italians who perpetuate similar intolerance today and so decided to pay homage. Ending up with a song that relied heavily on improvisational jazz – though we recorded it we’ve never played it live the same way twice. Rather than adapting or changing the existing vocal melodies we decided that I would not sing it but would speak the lyric, shout it, proclaim it. Rather unexpectedly our interpretation became one of the most requested songs at H.T. shows and we were inspired to continue working in that vein.

So back to A Fazioli… When I gave it to Marco to read he almost immediately composed an accompanying piano score for it. The day we recorded it in the spaceship I recited while he played. The alchemy created as we listened to one another felt like the deepest magic and the song from the first take meshed perfectly. With a recitation, all the signposts we usually rely on to communicate musically are gone, yet somehow we both reached the end of the road that night perfectly in synch.

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NoteSpeak. Photo Credit Elena Crisanti

Each of the songs on NoteSpeak has its own story. Some started from the poem, some began with Marco’s music but from the outset, we were dedicated to making sure that they were one entity. Not poems with background music. Though the music could certainly stand alone, as well as the poems – their worth is exponentially greater entwined, just as our lives are.

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