february 2009

Artists On the Verge, 2009

Gabrielle Louise

Licks Of Love From A Musical Gypsy

'I prefer to see the good in people, I prefer to see the good in the world around me'

by David McGee

What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone's heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar. One weird thing is, I wonder if everyone's hearts would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don't really want to know about. That would be so weird, except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn't have had time to match up their heartbeats yet. And at the finish line at the end of the New York City Marathon it would sound like war.

—from Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel

Blonde, beautiful, articulate and gifted, Gabrielle Louise clearly has her wacky side as well. Witness her adulation of Jonathan Safran Foer's trippy fiction. Doesn't seem to fit the profile of a singer-songwriter who probes so seriously into the nature of love, or dedicates herself so passionately to environmental causes (which has earned praise as both an artist and an advocate from Willie Nelson, for whose World Peace Institute she has composed a song, in addition to developing the Musician's Biodiesel Network to promote the alternative fuel movement), or casts harsh judgment on waste, whether it comes in the form of people divulging the intimate facts of their life to total strangers or spending too much time on lost causes of the human sort.

But in Foer's fiction, she in fact finds common ground with the human experience, and inspiration ensues.

"He's my favorite writer, absolutely," she says assertively of Foer during a phone interview from her home in Denver, CO. "He has you crying and laughing and howling all in several chapters; the range of emotions he takes you through is incredible. I think I notice a direct correlation between the time I spend reading and the time I spend writing. It just depends on my mood, but Jonathan has consistently been my all-time favorite. And I would say that my music is undoubtedly inspired by that—if I'm reading a book, I'm writing songs. It just works that way.

"But I also really enjoy reading a lot of poetry. Recently when I've been on the road it's been fun to pick up old poetry books from bookstores around the United States, so I've been getting back to the classics and reading some Walt Whitman and Dickenson, whatever I can pick up in an old copy that looks like it's falling apart. That's a plus."

This is valuable knowledge to have at hand when speaking to Ms. Louise, now 23, especially after hearing her second album, the Gene Libbea-produced Cigarettes for Sentiments, on her own label. In contrast to her first album, Journey, featuring her songs in a multitude of settings that reflected not only her own musical background but that of the diverse cultures represented by her backing musicians, Cigarettes for Sentiments is the artist fans hear when they see her live. It's stripped down, mostly just her voice, her guitar, and a bass played by either her regular bassist Joe Skala, or Gene Libbea, who performed those instrumental duties in the esteemed Nashville Bluegrass Band for 20 years before going on his own. The third member of her regular trio, Ryan Drickey, provides fiddle, cello and harmony vocals, and there is the subtlest hint of percussion on three tracks. Quiet is the predominant mood; so much so that it forces a listener's focus onto the writing, the lyrics, the storytelling. This is an artist who comes to music from a literary vantagepoint, first and foremost.

'I notice a direct correlation between the time I spend reading and the time I spend writing'

"Gambling Man" tells the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man ("she cut her hair and she taped her chest/straight slacks and a cigarette/her heart's a-hanging like a weight 'round her neck tonight/she made her living as a gambling man") and does some does some dastardly, manly things to an easy mark, barely escaping with her life into the Tulsa night. In "Goodbye In a Song," she's driving away from an apartment in Boston, escaping the wreckage of a relationship, saying "goodbye in a song." As she drives she reflects on the missteps and misjudgments that lead her to this point, and winds up at song's end startled by the onrushing memory of her parents' split and how "they had to say goodbye in a song." In the jazzy "Don't Be Hasty" she gets dumped by a guy genetically predisposed to flight, who winds up returning to rekindle the flame, tempting her again, even as she counsels herself to stand firm, despite her heart's yearning, desire battling common sense all the way. Arguably her most literary song, "A Little More Quiet" begins with a vivid, painterly sketch: "From the dirty sky comes the city sun, rising like the moon just a little less quiet, over houses with their painted facades." This sets the stage for a curious tale of a woman who may be a caregiver for either a little girl (her daughter?) or an elderly woman, it's not clear, whom she encourages to dream, to follow her imagination. "We grow up to dream, to dream at night," she sings at the song's surprising conclusion, "and our voices creep under wooden doors, spilling down the stairs, singing through the airvents into offices where computer screens glare. 'Can't you play a little more quiet?'" In the title song she describes scenes of older people on society's margins, selling their memories ("I gave her a dollar for her two cents") for cigarettes and sustenance, the poignance of their stories and their plights emphasizing anew how deceiving appearances can be. "If we couldn't see, if the world went dark, could we finally use our hearts?" she queries plaintively in the chorus. There are moments of aching tenderness in the gently fingerpicked childhood reminiscence, "Until the Morning," and angry denunciations of the acquisitive society in the guitar-and-fiddle-fueled fury of "American Dream" (during which her own activist bent surfaces in the lyric about "our children are dying over gasoline").

But the lyrics standing alone are only part of the story. As a vocalist Gabrielle Louise is deep into the interior of her songs, exploring them in a warm, sturdy voice reminiscent at times of Joni Mitchell's, one of her main influences, especially in the falsetto flights and lower register swoops animating the title song and "Don't Be Hasty," for example. Despite the winsome setting and sad story of "Goodbye In a Song," she executes a captivating balance of heartache and resolve, admitting the pain of a romance's collapse but at the same time mustering the strength to leave it behind, moving on with an open heart. The theme of being strong enough to love again in the aftermath of heartbreak animates the somber album closer, too. In "Music Box," accompanied only by her own assertive acoustic guitar strumming and Ryan Drickey's solemn fiddle and gentle vocal harmonies, she explores the imagery of a music box dancer "frozen in a spin," awaiting only the honesty and commitment to "set the record straight, start at zero and play again," to love anew. "Maybe you could wind me up again this time," she suggests in a full-throated cry, practically beseeching someone to be courageous enough to do so. Take a chance, open yourself to love, ditch the self-pity and be the master of your fate—thus a growing songwriter's overarching themes.

"They're solid stories," producer Gene Libbea says of Louise's songs. "If a songwriter is able to tell a story, and if they're able to put pictures in your mind, then I think they've done their job. If you don't get anything in your mind, but it sounds good, but you don't know what they mean...I've run into that before. She's very descriptive. Her songs do tell a story."

Peripatetic, Naturally And Proudly So

The peripatetic existence of one Gabrielle Louise comes to her naturally. Born in Newburg, Maine, in Penobscot County, 15 miles west-southwest of Bangor, amidst bucolic splendor, a child of parents she describes as "musical gypsies," she acquired a deep love of the natural environment, but probably not from the 10 short months she spent in Newburg. Being inclinded to wanderlust, the aforementioned musical gypsy parents packed their brood in an Airstream trailer and headed cross country, "looking for a place to settle down." They found Shangri-La in Cotopaxi, Colorado, along the Arkansas River in the southern part of the state. "They stopped for gas and thought it was so incredibly beautiful that they stayed."

Well, not for long. Mom and Dad—Sadler is the family name—took their duo act right back out on the road, and Gabrielle "ended up going to 12 different schools before I graduated high school. Lots of transition. Several times we would just embark on a 'vacation' but be gone for a year. I was home schooled at that time. But wherever we went we were always returning there, so that's what I consider home—Cotopaxi, Colorado, along the Arkansas River."

Stability came in the form of "Cosmic Cowboy" Michael Martin Murphey who hired Paul Sadler III as his lead guitarist when Gabrielle was almost 12. The family had settled in La Veta, Colorado, where the parents opened an organic restaurant ("the restaurant didn't do very well because the demand in that community was pretty low for organic food. They're ranchers and they want hamburgers and fries," Louise says ruefully). One day in walks Murph, hears Paul jamming with himself in the back room, and hires him on the spot. Dad went on the road, mom went back to school, obtained her degree and now works as a music therapist. (She and Gabrielle have also played gigs together on occasion, billing themselves Mother Gabrielle.) Little Gabrielle, though playing no instrument yet, was already following her muse: "At the time my mom owned that restaurant, I was just a little shy of 11. I was walking back and forth all the time from the restaurant to the house, and I just remember constantly singing songs to myself-I was the crazy 11-year-old girl who was singing to herself everywhere she went. Then at 12 I started actually writing songs. It was easy to do that in my household because both of my parents played an instrument. So I didn't end up picking up the guitar until I was about 16, because they could just play for me." She pauses for effect. "I think I was just a little bit lazy at that age, too. And then we had a little family band for awhile, my mom and I, based on her and I harmonizing together, and that was about the time I picked up the guitar, at 16. My dad would play with us when he wasn't on the road, and my younger brother plays the drums, so he would join us as well. We did that basically until I went to college, and when I went away to Berklee I embarked on my own solo career."

'It's certainly a more enjoyable existence if you can constantly choose love over fear. I like to look at things lighter. But that doesn't mean you can't dive in and experience the beautiful side of sorrow either.'

Matriculating to Boston's esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston brought Louise the closest she'd been to her Maine birthplace since the Sadlers had left the state more than a decade and a half earlier. The Berklee—and the Boston—experience spurred considerable artistic growth, but it did not produce a degree—she's shy one science credit ("My mom was really upset. She keeps saying, 'Gabby, sign up for the class! Sign up for the class!"). Apart from the education she almost completed, Louise made a valuable connection in Tim Mitchell, then in the school's recording program. With Mitchell engineering, Louise assembled a group of fellow student musicians representing a global perspective: "We had all those resources right at our fingertips—international musicians everywhere you go. Any type of instrument you could image."—and retired to the city's Mix One Studios to cut her first self-released album, 2006's Journey. To those coming to her work initially with Cigarettes for Sentiments, Journey might come as a shock. Taking full advantage of the musical melting pot at her disposal, Louise opted for full-bodied productions of varying textures reflecting the rainbow hue of her backing musicians: "More About You" has a Latin feel, enhanced by Ben Bogart's bandoneon ("it's an Argentinian accordion and it's the instrument of tango. I've become really, really interested in tango dancing and in March I'm going to Argentina to explore that.") as well as the groove provided by the Argentinian rhythm section of Andres Rotmistrovsky (bass), Tomas Bobjaczuk (drums) and Marcelo Woloski (percussion). "In the Water" is a high-strutting gospel-rooted workout, with Matt Pryor spicing the celebration with exuberant, churchy piano. The lone, noir-ish bass on "Midnight Angels" prefigures Gene Libbea's discursive soloing on Cigarettes for Sentiments' "Don't Be Hasty," but Louise's throaty, sultry vocal is more Marlene Dietrich than Joni Mitchell, and as the arrangement unfolds the song becomes a smooth jazz interlude, notable first and foremost for a surprising, cascading solo on harp—not harmonica, but harp, as in Harpo—by Fulbright Scholar Maeve Gilchrist, and for some nifty Jimmy Smith-style organ commentary. There's also an easygoing, shuffling pop ballad, "The Optimist," wherein Gilchrist's harp again becomes a captivating atmospheric voice, but more tellingly introduces an abiding Gabrielle Louise philosophy of keeping on the sunny side, even in the darkest hour. A 2007 five-song EP, Around in Circles, recorded with Mitchell at Clinton Studios in New York City, further develops that philosophy in beautiful but wrenching songs such as "For the Brokenhearted," "Here to Repent" and a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz." The key lyric in "The Optimist" comments on a father's unbending work ethic, how he keeps his eyes fixed on his goal, certain he'll complete the task at hand, inspiring Louise to note of his mindset, "It's not a change, it's a choice that he can't resist, to look at things like an optimist." She's made the same choice, and found affirmation in the writings of the aforementioned Jonathan Safran Foer.

"I'm a huge optimist, sometimes to my detriment, I think," she says with a coy laugh. "But I prefer to see the good in people, I prefer to see the good in the world around me. Because I think you can just choose, and it's certainly a more enjoyable existence if you can constantly choose love over fear. I think I like to look at things lighter. But I don't think that means that you can't dive in and experience the beautiful side of sorrow either. It's ironic, but I think I also optimistically look at those negative emotions—Around in Circles toys with that a lot; there are a lot of sad topics on that record. A lot of that came out of me really enjoying the fact that sorrow is also a beautiful emotion; and what really influenced that perception was Jonathan Safran Foer, because he writes about these painful things but at the same time they're so human. And they're so in touch and so real and completely beautiful."

While still enrolled at Berklee, Gabrielle went back to Colorado to do some shows. At Abragadro's Number, an acoustic room in Fort Collins, she met producer Gene Libbea, who had been encouraged by a friend to come see "this girl, this singer-songwriter," as he recalls. Libbea had just completed producing Bearfoot's acclaimed Follow Me album, a copy of which he left with the artist at the end of the show.

"Gene introduced himself after the show, and I was really charmed by him," Louise recalls. "A couple of years went by before I was in the area, or it made sense for us to work together. But I just always had it in the back of my mind that I was really interested in working with him. He had given me the Bearfoot record that he had just completed, and I really liked that CD."

It was two years later...

when I finally get a call from Gabrielle Louise," Libbea remembers "She wants to do this record, the budget was ridiculously limited. It wasn't something I was used to working with, so it meant we had to do things a certain way, so it would go quick. Or as fast as possible, not only on recording, but on mixing. She had a group, a trio she'd been going out on the road with, upright bass and a fiddle. So I thought, Well, that's what this record's gonna be. And she plays all the guitar parts. She did 'em live, in the studio and sang, all of her songs, with the exception of maybe one. She recorded guitar and voice simultaneously, and I did the bass in an isolated room. And that was the basis for the songs."

Producer Gene Libbea: 'She did an absolutely masterful job of not only singing but of playing the guitar. And the fact that she did 'em both live, at 23, makes her a total badass. She's like a female James Taylor, when he was young. Because he played the hell out the guitar, and he wrote good songs and he sang. The whole package. She's the same deal.'

To Libbea, he of the distinguished bluegrass resume, the Gabrielle Louise project was something of a homecoming. He's so identified and revered as a bluegrass bassist that his roots in folk music might surprise those who figure he was to the bluegrass born. When he says Louise "couldn't have picked somebody better to work with" than him, he's not being self-serving. Rather, he muses, "Who did I listen to 35 years ago when I was first picking up the acoustic bass? Gordon Lightfoot, among others. Trio stuff, folk songs. Which is kind of interesting, because it was like coming full circle for me—where I started was where I was ending up with her."

And to the artist herself, having recorded the adventurous LP Journey and the more introspective EP Around in Circles—a project that is an EP owing only to lack of funds with which to finish it (it's on the back burner now, slated to become a full album at some indeterminate time in the future)—Cigarettes for Sentiments is akin to a debut, the best reckoning of her artist identity to be found on the three discs extant.

She appraises her recorded oeuvre thusly: "Journey was really so much about me finding myself, even in its title. Around in Circles I still feel really connected to as a project, except that it's not a full project, but it really embodies my true personality as a musician. So in that respect, yes, Cigarettes for Sentiments is my first CD. And I had approached Gene basically with those same words—I have these two albums, but one of them is not finished, the other is kind of a search for myself, and I'd like to do something that just sounds like me. He said, 'Great. We'll go into the studio and we'll record you and your guitar playing and singing at the same time, and everything else will be secondary so you can really come through.' I wanted something that would really, truly represent what I do live. Around in Circles to some extent does, because I'm playing and singing at the same time, but it still is more produced than Cigarettes for Sentiments."

What Gene Libbea brought to the project was not only his vast experience recording acoustic music, but a note-perfect assessment of the artist's calling card: the advanced level of the writing. Simply put, Libbea says, "you cannot have things getting in the way" of the songs, "especially when she's extremely literary. She's not a simple writer; she hasn't come to that point in her writing career where she starts making every word count so much. Here she'll find two or three ways to tell you about it in the course of the song. Which is interesting. Somebody else pointed that out to me, that they loved it but their main criticism was that she used too many descriptors or too many ways to explain. However, all that aside, if you don't mind that, it's really not a big deal.

"It's a challenge to record that way because there is a lot of quiet," he points out. "You gotta be really quiet when you're recording. When you let off on your instrument you can't sit there and snort and sneeze; there's nothing to cover it up. She did an absolutely masterful job of not only singing but of playing the guitar. And the fact that she did 'em both live, at 23, makes her a total badass. She's like a female James Taylor, when he was young. Because he played the hell out the guitar, and he wrote good songs and he sang. The whole package. She's the same deal. If she keeps it up, look out. How good is she gonna be in five years writing songs, if she keeps doing it? I think she can work herself into the company of Gillian Welch. Really, Gabby could do anything. She could write for movies. I don't know about her on-demand writing. Does she really have to get motivated to write by some experience or feeling, or can she just write if somebody says, 'Write about this'? If she can work like that, she can go that direction. She has to get on the folk circuit and somehow work it like Gillian did. Gabrielle plays guitar in a remarkable number of styles. What struck me initially about Gillian was how she really paid attention to the basics of rhythm, the most basic of rhythm styles on the guitar. And Gabrielle is the same way—she puts attention into not just going through the motions but really making it sound like something."

An Unpredictable Life

Gabrielle and her trio tour around the western U.S. in what they fondly refer to as the "Veggie Van," a van now outfitted with a dual-tank system of diesel gasoline and vegetable oil (you start the engine on diesel, and switch it over to the vegetable oil after it's warmed up). They get about 26 miles to the gallon on the road. It's part of a broader commitment Gabrielle has made to environmental causes (see separate interview below). Her career is a DIY proposition right now, and the pace of it causes her to assess her life as "totally unpredictable," which, she hastens to add, "I love, I find it so inspiring." Elucidate, please.

"When we were on our way back from our tour to New Mexico last weekend, I thought, I just love the colorful characters that I meet, and you never know what to expect. I think all of that surprise element really keeps me creative, keeps me writing, keeps me inspired. I like that it's not predictable, not a nine-to-five-type thing. But I do toggle between booking and touring. So I'll book a tour for myself, and that's like a full time job. Then I hit the road, and when I'm on the road I don't really have time to do booking, because you're either in the car, doing the sound check for the show, showing your host that you're appreciative of him putting you up in his home. Some gigs have hotel rooms, but at this stage of my career it's a lot of house concerts and acoustic societies that have associated lodging with a volunteer who's willing to put you up in his or her house. You're meeting all these wonderful, gracious people, and you can't say, 'Oh, I'm gonna check out and spend four hours on the computer here arranging my next tour.' So it goes booking-tour-booking-tour, you can't really do all of it at once.

"You know," she adds with a cheery verbal shrug, "I'm kind of a gypsy. I've been back in Colorado for two years, and I really can't say what's going to happen."


Gabrielle Louise On The Musician's Biodiesel Network: A Self-Interview

'My mother raised me to believe every person on this earth is equal, and that the earth is our true parent and provider'

More than touring around in the Veggie Van, Gabrielle Louise is promoting greater awareness of the dangers of climate change and the benefits of biofuels through her Musician's Biodiesel Network. A work in progress, the MBN will provide a platform for other artists promoting environmental conservation and alternative fuels. The following self-interview is posted online at The Willie Nelson Peace Research Institute website at: www.willienelsonpri.com and it points up this artist's near-lifelong commitment to environmental causes. No Gabrielle-Come-Lately she.

Willie himself says of Ms. Louise: "Her beautiful voice carrying a message of peace could be mistaken for a visit from a member of an angelic choir. But there is more to Gabrielle Louise than her musicianship and talent. [She is] a staunch advocate of environmental responsibility. I find encouragement in a commitment like this."

What motivates you to work for peace and the environment?

The combination of music, peace, and the environment has been the three staples of my upbringing. I grew up in a series of small Colorado towns, one of five children to a pair of gypsy musicians. My mother is a music therapist, and my father a professional guitar player. If my parents weren't taking us swimming in the rivers or exploring the Colorado Rockies, we were aimlessly traveling the country in our silver Airstream, meeting all walks of life.

My mother raised me to believe every person on this earth is equal, and that the earth is our true parent and provider. When I was 12, she and I started a professional musical duo, singing in genetic harmony. Through our music and songwriting, we helped our local "Open Spaces Committee," getting the word out about keeping land undeveloped. Since then, I've maintained the values of equality, peace, and the preservation of our environment in my solo career.

Why have you chosen the path of Art for Peace?

I believe artists have an uncapped power to deliver messages. (I think it's important to choose to sing, write, dance or paint art that delivers the values you believe in sharing with the world.) Music is particularly a catch fire medium because, as my mother has shared with me from her music therapy studies, a human body is, almost unwillingly, propelled into movement, emotion, and memory upon hearing it. Should the content be tailored to deliver peaceful and positive messages, as we've seen with Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Willie Nelson, and so many others, the concept of "peace" can be spread very quickly.

What are your ideas for peaceful solutions?

Regarding the pursuit of peace in combination with the environment, I have recently come to believe that having a domestic source of fuel will discourage our interest in the affairs of other countries, and particularly their natural resources.

The growth and use of Biofuels also assists combating global warming, by emitting less carbon into our atmosphere than the use of gasoline.

Besides planning a national summer tour with the exclusive use of biodisesel, I am currently designing the first Musician's Biodiesel Network, a virtual network to showcase artists supporting the alternative fueling effort (Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt and Martin Sexton to name a few).

The website will also be a resource of information for visitors on the basics and benefits of Biodiesel—Why use it? Where to get it?—in addition to having a public forum for discussion and showcasing songs and videos relevant to the biofuels movement. 

Buy it at www.gabriellelouise.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024