Often, Jill Tracy’s music is rooted in a place. For half-a-decade, she has performed at the annual festival Flower Piano in Golden Gate Park’s San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her concerts, known as “sonic séances” would take place amongst the Redwoods, where Tracy would, in some pieces, channel lunar frequencies. The San Francisco-based artist also made three trips to Lily Dale, a Spiritualist community in New York, to record forthcoming album The Secret Music of Lily Dale.
While spending 2020 mostly at home, Tracy (whom you may have heard recently on NPR’s show “Hearts of Space“) recorded and released three EPs and one single. In December, she re-released the work as the compilation A Medicine for Madness: The 2020 Collection. This time around, the recordings had less to do with the specific location and more to do with specific moments throughout a challenging year.
Tracy opened for both Peter Murphy and Bauhaus in 2019, and was planning to release The Secret Music of Lily Dale in 2020, with a tour to follow an album release show in the hamlet. That changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. “I was like everyone,” Tracy says by phone of her life last March. She worried about loss of work and about a disease that was still a relative mystery. “I was going out to get the mail and putting gloves on,” she recalls. “We were just all in a panic.” Her piano, though, provided solace. She recorded herself in the spring of 2020 with no intention of releasing it.
Tracy had made the music to soothe herself, but as she noticed other artists sharing their creative projects online, she opted to release the personal compositions. “There was a unity, where we felt that we were all in this boat together,” she says. “Although I had never recorded anything in my apartment, and didn’t really know exactly how I would do this, I just felt that the pressure was suddenly off and no one was expecting anything slick and professionally produced.” Tracy released four instrumental pieces in June as Evocations of the Moon: Piano Spells in Lunar Frequencies to Align, Soothe and Restore.
It was the first time she put forth an entirely instrumental release, something she continued to do throughout the year. “It just seemed like to add a vocal or write lyrics was unnecessary, that I didn’t need to supply a narrative because everyone out there was going through something profound and devastating, frightening, life-changing, and they all had their own stories,” she explains. “They were living it, so I didn’t need to tell them how to feel.”
A two-song EP, Seclusion 22/Whispers Behind the Glass, followed in July and reflected the summer at home. “I think we all felt like it was just a short term lockdown and we were doing our duty as citizens to help others to not spread this deadly virus,” she says. By summer, though, it was clear that the pandemic would continue to rage and we would continue to maintain social distance. Tracy says her main social activities offline were running her errands. She would get dressed up for the grocery store and the post office, her mask becoming a “fun accessory” to wear out on the town. But, as the pandemic continued, there was a lot of fear and feelings of isolation, which she channeled into her music.
Then, wildfires hit California. “On top of a pandemic where you’re not supposed to be outside, we were told not to go outside because you couldn’t breathe the air,” Tracy says. On September 9, she woke up to darkness, although it was late in the morning. “I looked out the window, and the sky was this crazy deep charcoal tangerine color,” she recalls, “just like any apocalyptic, sci-fi movie that you’ve ever seen, but worse, because it was real and it was happening all over.” It was also eerily quiet; the sound of birds that Tracy normally heard was gone. “I suddenly got terrified and I thought, what has happened?” she remembers.
She started playing music and recording it. “It was it was a direct emotional archiving, when I did this work,” says Tracy. “I just hit record and I played, so you’re getting this direct transference of emotion.” This resulted in three pieces – “The Morning With No Sun,” “Where the Birds Hide” and “Lament in a Blood Orange Sky” – that comprise The Dark Day EP.
To close out the year, Tracy recorded one more piece, “Elegy for a Solitary Year,” which is a lament for both lives lost and lives changed. “I wanted to do a piece, not only for the deaths that occurred, but the death of our old selves,” says Tracy, “because of everything that all of us have endured and lost – businesses and finances and just a sense of community and our dreams, our plans for the year.” In the lament, though, there’s hope. In a follow-up email, Tracy noted that the music is also reflective of the revelations that 2020 brought – and the opportunity to “reinvent an entirely new path.”