“Black Wings is a story told out of sequence, each song is a snapshot of an event that led to the ultimate undoing of my 10-year marriage. The stories on this record emerge from a deadly silence, they dispel a facade of a happy family portrait, and they air the truth of what had been hidden for too long. The ritual of writing and recording served as a lifeline to my survival during a very dark life passage. Black Wings has been the key to my transcendence, punctuated by the unshakable synchronicity of art imitating life.” – essence
I’m sure that just about all of us are familiar with the saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by now. I think that singer/songwriter essence should be wearing a cape by now with a big S on it. The songs on her latest album Black Wings are like peeking into her journal or diary entries and reading her incredibly open and honest story of her marriage. In a day and age of manufactured “stuff” being spewed out by the music industry, it’s a rare thing to find an artist who is willing to expose herself like this and be so open and vulnerable. In doing so, she managed to tap into the storyteller in herself that had been waiting to come out for a long time. We sat down recently for an incredibly candid interview as essence held nothing back and told us about the events that went into making this exceptional album.
essence: Where shall we begin?
I listened to the album without knowing the backstory and it intrigued me. Then, I read the backstory and I was intrigued even more. When did you start writing the songs that appear on this album? Did you start before you know what was going on or after?
There was never a time that I didn’t know what was going on; I actually knew when I married him. I discovered the first set of emails that indicated that he was soliciting prostitutes on a business trip when we had only live together for five weeks. It was a crazy sequence of events that put me out of my own character as I normally don’t hold much in. In this particular case, I couldn’t believe what I saw and it was so shocking to me. I thought we were so in love; I was so in love with him and I didn’t want to believe it. I found out and then I told my dad about it because he was my best friend. My dad told me to be a wise woman, watch and wait and say nothing because maybe he’s not acting on it. Maybe it’s was a fantasy thing and he’s not really reaching out. I didn’t know if he was actually following through with it, so I followed my dad’s advice. Within two weeks of finding that first email, I found out that I was pregnant with our first child and I found out that my father was. He was diagnosed shortly after that with pancreatic cancer and he died in thirty days. The combination of all of that put me into survival mode and I didn’t say anything. I hoped it wasn’t true and I hoped that it would go away, but I kept seeing evidence of it. I finally did confront him and he told me that I was crazy, insecure, paranoid and that I had low self esteem; yeah, that was the quote that he used to say. We went to therapy for years and, I’m not exaggerating, we could have bought a house with the money that we spent on it. I stayed because I thought that it would get better and I wanted it to get better. So, the songs were being written as these events were happening and they started very early in the relationship.
It sounds to me like the writing process was also therapeutic for you.
Oh totally; after so many years of therapy I don’t know if I would go back. This experience has been so much more healing than any therapy that I went to. I felt that, in the end, that it was a waste a time. No offense to any of the therapists out there, but you have to have both people wanting it to work and the person that I was with was just sitting there bold faced lying through the whole thing. He was very convincing in the therapy sessions and said all the right things making it seem like he was two feet in.
How do you think all of this changed you as a songwriter?
A lot of things changed with my songwriting with this record and it wasn’t just this experience necessarily. It was many, many things that happened over a course of time that made this record what it is. Part of what happened is that I had a collaborator for many years that could not make music anymore because he had a drug habit. I had to reinvent myself from doing electronic music because he was a programmer. I found myself going to my roots and finding out who I was without him. What I found was that I am a storytellers and that the songwriters who resonate with me most deeply are poets, people like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. The great, classic songwriters are what were playing in the house as I was growing up as a kid. Those are my roots and I let go of the electronic thing and went back there; that was happening before this whole mess happened. It was like the perfect storm creatively in that I had more to say than I had ever had; the only way that I knew how to survive that situation was to be creative with it. I had to get it out and I had to write about it because it was killing me. I had to do it by reclaiming my organic, acoustic roots. Those two things happened at the same time; I couldn’t replace my collaborator and I had to find my own voice to tell my story.
What did you learn about yourself from all of this?
I think I learned to listen to the little voice; it’s always there and sometimes it’s hard to hear, but it’s there. Also, to tune in because everything that I needed was there. It’s like following bread crumbs; writing songs is like a series of steps of tuning into your gut, your inner voice. From the smallest little things like ‘hey, I don’t want to be at home tonight, I want to go listen to some live music.’ I needed to get out and listen to some live music and it started with listening to other people and being inspired. There was a part of me that got mad that I was a mom and staying home and not living up to my creative potential. There was a part of me that was really pissed off and there was a part of me that had to rebel. There was a part of me that needed to leave my house at night after the kids were asleep and go to open mics. I started having a life of my own again that wasn’t like the prototypical life that you’re supposed to do as a mom or a wife of a successful business man. He didn’t support what I did and he thought it was a silly hobby. I can’t tell you how many times he told me ‘when are you going to realize that music is going nowhere and grow up and get a real job?’
I think so many of us miss those signs because we’re not in touch with that little voice.
Oh definitely; it’s much easier to watch tv and go to bed than to stay up and work on your craft and go out and share it. If that song isn’t so great, then that’s ok because you’re just going to go and write the next one and you keep going. For me, it was like medicine; I had my own little world and I had created this music community. They were like family and in some cases they were more than even my physical blood family because I felt that we were on this journey together. The people that I found and was working with really held the bar up high for me. This one guy told me to come back in six months when I had written a real song. He would nudge me and push me really hard to the point that I was mad. I will admit that I really respected that and I wanted to do right by him. I don’t think tough love is the only way to create because I also had very nurturing people as well.
You recently did some live dates in California; what were those like?
They were a blast! We did a series of shows in Southern California and it’s been a great time. The band is better than ever and I feel extremely honored to have played with such extremely talented musicians. There are people out there who hardly know the songs, but they come out and sing the words out loud. It feels really good and people tell me that the record has made an impact on them which is really nice to hear. If there’s some small way that this record can help somebody, then that’s a good thing.
Can we count on any more live dates?
I’m doing four dates in Oregon at the end of this month and if I had my dithers then I would keep on touring. My heroes are like Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams and Bob Dylan and these people who are out on the road a lot. I want to share my music with lots of new people; it feels good and like it’s the right thing to do so I want to keep going.
Speaking of heroes, if you could bring back one artist that we’ve lost and perform with them, who would it be and what song?
Oh that’s easy; it would be Prince, hands down. He was my childhood idol and the person who made me want to do what I do. He would be the guy and any of his songs would do; anything off of Purple Rain, 1999, Sign o’ the Times albums or Dirty Mind.
I know that our time is about up, so is there anything else on your radar that you’d like to mention?
I’m writing new songs that I am pretty excited about and I will also be releasing some new music videos as well.
Are you doing a video for every song on this album because every time I turn around, it seems like another one pops up?
Pretty much (laughs); that was sort of my goal! I’m not there yet, but we’re getting there. I also teach voice lessons when I am not on the road. I am working on a special project with one of my voice students who recently was diagnosed with ALS. We’ve been working together for about a year and a half and a few months after we started working together, his voice totally disappeared. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong and long story short, one thing lead to another and we found out he has ALS. Now, he’s having upper body weakness and his hands aren’t working very well. He’s been writing these songs, but he can’t sing them or play the guitar anymore. He wants me to help him put them to music; there are songs for his daughter’s future children that he will likely not meet. So, I have that as well as working on a new album. I’m coming out on the other side of this divorce and I have a lot to say.
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