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Interview with Rachel Elion Baird
by Karla Van Vliet
When and why did you start playing music?
I was musical very young, and would pick up instruments and just start playing them. Throughout elementary school I played the flute. For fun, I would learn popular tunes off the radio and sing my sister to sleep at night. I think allot of kids do that – learn tunes and go around singing them.
I started singing “professionally” as a child in choirs, as a soloist. I was first on television when I was nine and was lead singer in a blues band by the age of 12,. I was also in musical theater until I went to art school, where art, poetry and rock and roll were moving me more than theater. I picked up guitar in 7th grade and that became my main instrument.
How has your music making practice developed throughout your life?
I was offered scholarships for classical training but found I did not love the body of work for opera or the classical guitar. It did not excite me and I could not see myself doing it for the rest of my life. I was very influenced by Joni Mitchell and John Denver, those were the two singer/songwriter’s who influenced me the most and why I think I became a singer/songwriter. They were who I listened to and whose work moved me early on, both the quality of their respective voices and the lyrics to their songs.
What types of music have influenced your own work? Beyond music what else is an influence in your music-making process?
Growing up in San Francisco, I was also heavily influenced by the massive music scene going on, the harmonies of the Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Mama’s and the Papas, also the amazing blues music scene.
I first heard the blues at the Free Blues Festivals in Golden Gate Park. That music was so grounded, so deep. The three day festivals were phenomenal. There was this funky place I found called Mooneys across from the Savoy Tivoli on Grant Avenue in Little Italy where I used to hang out. The Mark Naftalin Blues Band was the house band there on Tuesdays and everyone from the Chicago blues scene would come through and play. It was this small dive, where the roof leaked like a sieve. They would put out bowls and pots all over the floor to catch the rain, major atmosphere. Percy Mayfield, Big Mama Thornton, everybody came through there and jammed with Mark and his band. Mark had played the piano with the Paul Butterfield Blues band, Canned Heat, the Holding Company and Van Morrison to name a few. When he would play, his hands were a blur – I was blown away by this band. I would sit with my best friend (we started going there when we were both Thirteen) and listen to the blues, sipping tea late into the night – then catch a bus home. I understood the blues beyond words or explanation. It seems to me the most true and deep expression of what it means to be human.
The Mark Naftalin Blues Power Hour would be broadcast live every Monday night from the Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax. When I was a little older – 15, we would hitch hike or bum a ride out to Fairfax and back for the power hour. The place would be packed, every body dancing, and they had the best peach pie.
Then rock scene had exploded with Credence Clear Water Revival, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix – I found I loved the intensity of rock music, particularly the guitar, but also loved the emotion of the blues and the beauty of vocal harmonies. Then when the band Journey became big, the classical roots of Steve Perry’s vocals also gave me inspiration – how his voice would open up and resonate.
My family was more into Dionne Warwick and Barbara Streisand, so I also listened to and sang allot of those songs as well. I loved Van Morrison for his blues style but also for the depth of his lyrics –he is more poet than song-writer.
I was always a big multi-tasker, always have had multiple creative things going on, so I would be lead guitar in a rock band, singing the blues in another, have a trio for acoustic/singer/songwriter tunes and get paid to be in musical theater and sing solos for churches on Sunday. I was also already very involved in the S.F. poetry scene.
What image do you think your music conveys?
Hmm, my love and joy of music for being an honest clear emotional expression of life. I think most songs, certainly my songs are usually about relationship and the questions we all ask, experiences we share. Each song can tell many stories, intertwining mythology, perceptions, herstory and sharing my personal journey in a very revealing way. I think the process of writing is a process of delving through many layers of existence, trying to find answers for myself and hoping that some of my discoveries are interesting to other folks as well.
On Blue Blue Box, my favorite song is Dreamland. I heard this song as a strange symphonic blend of music, and natural sounds, there is a whale sounding in the song. This song was written for a friend who had drowned. After she had passed, I felt myself still connecting to her and her family on non-physical levels (and still do). This lead me to think about how and where we all can connect with other, alter our collective futures, where everything will be all right, as in The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin; how we are all the dreamers changing the fabric of the world and outcomes for each other as we dream – living these extended and changing lives by the virtue of having known each other. I think with this record, often I am crossing the line between the physical plane and etheric planes.
Another example is in Evanston, I wrote that song while physically driving, literally, guitar in lap… the road was so straight and boring, I was in this mundane but at the same time surreal physical environment, seeing all of these dreamscapes, where the natural world was revealing totems and messages to me as I drove and I was trying to apply them to personal decisions I needed to make – literally which way to go. I think that’s why I love taking road trips – Exploring, going into unfamiliar territory, everything is so present and immediate, I can notice so much more, remove the lines between the physical, the energetic and time, all while eating disgusting road food and having a back ache from sitting too long.
What does your music-making express that is different than your poetry or visual art?
I see myself simply as an artist, where each art form informs the other, is a color palette of expression. Some folks are visual, some prefer movement or sound, I think I am all those things and that my music brings all these expressions together within the natural kinetic response to voice and chordal harmonies. I think my work in general is raw and honest. I am not interested in pleasing anyone or conforming my work to become “successful,” or “popular,” which is probably why both projects I have released are rather eclectic – that is how I am, “eclectic.” Sure, I hope folks like it, and that those that do will come hear me play or listen to the recordings. I say what I mean to say, use a chord or a note, to express what I am feeling, to fill in the story with sonic colors and emotional expression.
And why express that in music verses poetry or visual art?
When I am inspired, I follow it organically to its conclusion, sometimes an idea becomes an art project or painting series, sometimes it pours out as a poem over morning meditation or coffee and porridge, or starts to float in the air of the day as a conceptual piece, or begs to be expressed in film – as I start to have these dialogs appear in my head – and I go to the computer and write all this (or on scraps of paper if I am away from my desk)…sometimes my creativity will express as a chain of all of these.
How music is different is that often I wake up with a complete song in my head. In terms of my solo/songwriting, I often dream my songs first. That is probably the difference in expression. Sometimes I wake up singing a song I have just dreamed, I wake up moving towards my guitar, sleep walking to it, trying to wake myself up to write this mother down before it disappears back into the ether of my dreamscape.
Your work often seems place specific or influenced, can you speak to what place means to you in relationship to your music?
This depends on what project I am working on. When I am in collaborative groups, we often write and make up the songs spontaneously in rehearsal.
In terms of Blue, Blue Box, this is a set of stories, written and lived out while on Martha’s Vineyard. Stories of relationship, experiences, conversations, thoughts, hopes and dreams. I think living on an island combines that dreamtime into your waking reality, bleeds through.
What part does your music play in relationship to your whole artistic vision?
My artistic vision is a complex and ever evolving subject. I would rather answer how it plays a part in my being a whole person. Writing, music, painting, conceptualizing, it is all like breathing to me. I can’t not do it.
Sometimes I take breaks from performing, because I am a very private person, performing requires allot of preparation, sometimes stress and at times has included a definite lack of privacy. I am trying to get back to the feeling of performing for the sheer joy of it. What I like most about performing is the collaborative aspect. How you can bring a song in, even a finished one, and the combination of musicians you are playing with on any given day will morph the song into something exponentially greater, all those voices and energies blend and make a brand new creation. Also, how live performance can be so Zen, such a time/space event. In any given moment, magic can and does happen. I live for those moments.
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Island Girls - from ""Blue, Blue Box." by Rachel Elion Baird , Filmed on the Island of Martha's Vineyard.
Noticed - from "Blue, Blue Box" by Rachel Elion Baird, filmed outside of Boulder, Colorado.
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Blue, Blue Box Review
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Blue, Blue Box Review
My Nguyen, Divide and Conquer Music
Rachel Elion Baird is a singer/songwriter, musician, poet and artist who grew up in the Bay Area. She readily implements in her sound luminescent vocals, startling lyricisms and West-Coast rock roots. Drawing inspiration from her wanderlust, deep connection to nature and spirituality, Baird writes songs about everything from paying homage to Jack Kerouac on “Forty Years Past” to meeting Emily Dickenson’s ghost on “Emily’s Magnolia” and reviving Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” on “Leonardo” with its historic references and sweet minor progressions resolving in major key. Revolving around an impressive imagination and a deep respect for the intangible, Baird imbues in her works a poeticism that goes on to shape her renderings in a very powerful way.
A 11-track album, Blue, Blue Box gets moving with “Marco Polo.” You can really feel Baird strutting her style on this anthemic song. The music pulsates with a dramatic drumming beat and percussions and has a classic rock vibe to it. Up next is “Noticed,” where bouncy rhythms on the drums pulsate on this track. Sung with an edgy, discordant vibe, you can definitely feel Baird’s energy pulling us toward the music. Half-sung and spoken word, the performance felt very spontaneous. It definitely vied for my attention.
A smooth, jazzy lounge vibe could be detected on “Just Like Leonardo.” The cool, soothing tones go on to project itself here. The reverberating sounds of the guitar rolls in on “Woman At The Well.” Baird’s vocals come in with no holding back. Mellow guitars in a country-twang mode evoke another place and time on “Now.” Combined vocal harmonies are melodious and an interwoven piano adds a soft aspect to this song.
“Island Girls” felt like an undeniable highlight. A piercing melody is executed on the guitar. The driven notes continue in the song as the combined vocal layers come in. The sound evokes a timeless feel. “Wait And See” felt like a ballad. The beauty of the song really took my breath away. On “Dreamland,” a more rock n’ roll centered sound gets executed. Next, electronic beats unveil a more techno, trance vibe to the track. This sound felt different from the other songs as Baird moves toward more innovative technological fare on this number. On the outro “Emily’s Magnolia,” Baird’s vocals display a hushed sensibility. The tone and mood felt just right. This was a great way to quietly close the album.
Deeply ingrained in storytelling, Baird brings her unique perspective in actualizing these tracks. At the core of this album is the guitar, and you can see how layers of instrumentation further the sound. Baird’s vocals are on-key throughout as she ties in the main themes surrounding each track. As symbolism, imagery and musical sensibilities come together, Blue, Blue Box is a record that places as much importance on mood and feeling as it does on craft. Built to last, this album exudes a timelessness that is worth diving into again and again. The more you listen, the more the sound will grow on you. This was a solid effort and I look forward to seeing more from this artist.