PLAYING SEATTLE: Songwriting during Social Distancing

Who Is She? Photo Credit: Sarah Cass

Seattle, the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak with more than more than 1,000 cases, has now been on social distancing-induced lockdown for about a week now. At first it was just a lot of hand washing and a limit on groups of 250 or more, but now all businesses except the essentials are closed, and all social events are cancelled or postponed until further notice.  As if waiting for a bomb to drop, everyone is at home, wading in anxiety, boredom, fear.

What’s more, the economic impact of this time has hit musicians, who make the bulk of their income from performing, touring and teaching lessons, particularly hard. Frantic in the face of tremendous financial loss, Seattle’s local music community has come together in a heartwarming way, creating many fundraisers, offering to teach each other how set up their teaching studios on Skype, and starting live-streamed shows and concert series with “virtual tip jars” to help people make up their losses.

Many artists have been using this time to write new material, as well. And, as history has shown us, hard times in seclusion make for amazing art—and some great songs are already trickling in. Here are some of those brilliant new pandemic-inspired pieces, written and recorded by local Seattle artists in the last few weeks (except one). Each artist has also contributed a little reflection about their songs and this bizarre time—the humor in the constant hand washing, the anxiety in being cooped up, the fear of what’s to come—and their melodies act as a reminder for Seattle and the world: We’re still here, we’ll get through this, and we’re all in this together.

“Social Distancing” by Seattle punk trio, Who is She?

“We made this Saturday night because it was our last night with Julia before she moved to LA. We were gonna go to dinner but we canceled because we didn’t want to go out and be irresponsible and knew it was better to social distance. So we stayed in and made this. We didn’t really intend for it to be a real song. Now we are all unemployed and can’t play shows anymore!”

“Thanks, Friend, for Checking in,” by singer-songwriter Micah Jerome Ellison

“I live alone in a small apartment, and I was sent home from work last week. I thought I was doing fine until a friend checked in on me, and as we shared our feelings about the pandemic, we became aware of the dull roar of anxiety that we each felt. I wanted to capture that in a song while expressing gratitude for my friends. And I hope that people listening to this will consider checking in on their friends, especially the ones that live alone.

Musically: I arranged the accompaniment in stacked fifths, a wide position on the piano, like my fingers are doing their own social distancing from each other. The first and last stanzas of the lyrics mirror each other like a reciprocal conversation. And the last note is the major 7th, typically a pleasing, relaxed note, but there’s a sense of emptiness in it without any accompaniment: the conversation’s over, and here I am again, alone in my apartment, wondering how long this will last.”

“Wash Your Damn Hands” by folk musician Jacqui Sandor

“I’m a folk musician and I’m very interested in how circumstances bring about new songs. I’ve been watching my friends write awesome music about being quarantined recently. It’s pretty incredible how fast things are changing every day in relation to this pandemic, and I knew that when I wrote this song so I put it out quickly (note that I’m wearing a Huggle in the video and wearing a ponytail because I didn’t even want to waste the time putting real clothes on). I had seen a few articles about people being bored with the Happy Birthday song so as a joke I quickly sketched out some verses about other problems people in my generation are facing. I’m looking forward to all the new songs coming out of this, and also to seeing how this pandemic will change music education and the way we consume live music.”

 “Sketch #4” by electronic artist Tiffiny Costello of Housekeys

“With the Coronavirus infecting and uprooting every part of our lives, it is easy and natural to feel hopeless. I deal with depression, anxiety, and attachment issues, so naturally I am having all sorts of emotional reactions to the doom and gloom in the world today.

As a sober person, I can’t grab a glass of wine to self-medicate anymore (but I do grab a can of Diet Coke). Housekeys exists as my main music project and as an emotional outlet for me to express something when I feel too much of it. Making music is one of my coping skills, so I recorded this ambient improvised sketch while playing live on Instagram a few days before Jay Inslee announced that all our bars, restaurants, etc be shut down. I was feeling panicked, alone, abandoned, and fearful about the uncertain future for everyone. What I needed was hope, and expressing that through music helped me find it, plus the live-streaming helped me share it with others.”

“Alright” by singer-songwriter Tekla Waterfield

“I haven’t really been allowing myself to fully comprehend the weight of what’s happening in the world right now because of this pandemic. But last night, I went deep. I read some articles and fully absorbed the comments and posts my friends and peers have put up on social media expressing outright panic over losing jobs and livelihoods. It’s a lot for all of us to process right now. I woke up this morning feeling really heavy.

Thankfully I have a wonderful partner. We’re not sure what our next steps will be with all gigs, public events, tours aka all of our work stopping for now. But we’re okay for the moment. A month from now….? It’s scary.

Anyhow. I wrote this song on Tuesday morning. I asked my honey Jeff to sit in on vocals and dobro. Hope you are all hanging in out there. Sending love. ❤”

“Pandemic Journal” by electronic artist Kaley Lane Eaton

“Pandemic Journal was started mostly as a way to keep myself sane amongst this wild uncertainty, and to hold myself accountable to do something expressive every day. I’ve struggled with allowing myself to make solo work – I’m a composer that has worked through commissions and collaborations for my entire career, but being forced into social isolation was a sign that it was time to shift gears. I’m also overwhelmed with massively complicated feelings and anxieties about how this situation is catastrophic to the working class and my beloved city of Seattle, but that it might be healing to the earth and to our ingrained patterns of harm as we’re forced to slow down. When those feelings reach a peak, I try to avoid thought and language and just tap into the well of universal emotion and the cosmic sound world. ”

“Broken Time” by rock band Fraktal Phantom

“I wrote the lyrics for this tune about the societal issues around things like pandemics, disasters, war. It’s also about how to make things right when said politics are always bad. Sean Fisher wrote the music.” – Jack Gold-Molina, drummer and lyricist

“Song From Shed” by songwriter Mike Dumovich

“I woke up last Monday at about 4 in the morning with the fear—my brain was like pop rocks and I just needed to get quiet. So, I forced myself to play a slow chord once. Then another. It really kind of came out at once.”

“Ottosbits” by musician Simon Henneman

“Obviously this is a very surreal time and the challenge of surviving in the face of what is to come is scary. Not just the virus and the possibility of getting sick, but the financial uncertainty and how to maintain community when there are no gigs and no practices with people. It was really nice to be able to take a break from obsessively tracking the news and mentally and emotionally preparing for what’s still ahead of us to work on something fun and kind of totally out of my wheelhouse. My creative effort on this one is mostly done, but it’s not finished yet: I’ll be sending it to fellow musicians in isolation to add their own parts and voices to it and am excited for what it will become.”

“Make It Through Tonight” by singer-songwriter Aaron Shay

“Several years ago, a friend called me in a terrible crisis. We talked for a while, and after they hung up, I wasn’t sure if I had helped them hold on to life. The song began to take shape, then, although I didn’t finally finish it until last year. And now, there’s a kind of symmetry… Just as I’m deciding how to release this song, the whole world undergoes a terrible crisis like we’ve never seen. I’m happy to say that friend is still alive. They deserve a good life, just as we all deserve a just society.”

PLAYING SEATTLE: Simon Henneman Explores “Non-idiomatic Shred Guitar” with Cantrip

Cantrip plays the release show for Authentic Luxury at River Dan’s on May 4th.

Seattle has a vibrant community for free improvisation, and guitarist Simon Henneman is a veteran member. Since the early 2000s, Henneman has been playing at Cafe Racer, a local hang known for its weekly free Racer Sessions jam, and eventually he began curating other jam sessions in the city and collaborating with several other legendary Seattle musicinas, like drummer like Greg Keplinger, who toured as a drum tech with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.

For his part, Henneman plays in a variety of different groups, from his group with Keplinger called WA, to Diminished Men, a local favorite since 2007. And though he’s interested in a variety of different styles, Henneman’s musical voice is defined by angular melodies and sound-play, and is bolstered by his loyalty to a variety of local jam sessions.

He defines his most recent release, Authentic Luxury, as a work of “post-modern shred guitar,” which rapidly moves between different time-feels, melodies, and moods. Released with improvisational trio Cantrip in May, the LP really captures Henneman’s exploratory and “non-idiomatic” guitar work as well as his creative bond with other local musicians, highlighting why his relationship to the Seattle’s scene is so supportive and progressive.

AF: What was the impetus for this new album? Is there an underlying theme that drives it?

SH: I was mostly just trying to make a non-idiomatic shred guitar record or a shred guitar record that didn’t seem like a shred guitar record. It’s really just a way to sum up what I’ve been working on the last few years, but in a rock trio kind of format. I think a lot of it is really funny and deadly serious at the same time. I hope that comes across.

AF: What got you into the guitar? When did you start playing?

SH: I was a really nerdy kid into computer programming and Dungeons and Dragons – I didn’t really know anything about or listen to music, though I had some piano lessons when I was younger. I couldn’t get into the basic electronics class that I really wanted to get into and a friend told me guitar was cool so I took that class and became totally obsessed with the guitar. It was a really badly structured class; after roll call the music teacher just hung out in his office doing paperwork while the guitar class all hung out learning from each other. [It was] a lot of people asking each other, “What was that you just did? Can you show me how you did that?” which was actually really great. I started playing guitar when I was thirteen, so thirty something years now.

AF: How long have you played music in Seattle? What bands/groups have you been a part of?

SH: I was born in Seattle but grew up in Arlington, a former logging town, about an hour north of Seattle. I’ve lived here off and on my whole life. I was really into free improv and free jazz when I first started hanging out in Seattle and there is a great community for that here. There are always free improv jam sessions happening, right now and for quite a few years the Racer Sessions at Cafe Racer, before that was the Mt. Non Fiction sessions at the Blue Moon on Sunday nights that I curated for a couple of years, and before that was a great session called Sound of the Brush which was curated by Tom Swafford and Gust Burns. Right around the same time as Sound of the Brush Monktail, I was really active with their Coffee Messiah improv session series.

I got to know a lot of the free players through these sessions. I started playing with my band Diminished Men in 2007. I have a group called WA with Seattle drum legend Gregg Keplinger. I play in a country band called Contraband Countryband. I have a fifteen-piece big band that occasionally plays my music called Meridian Big Band. I play in a band called Shitty Person which is kind of a downer rock thing. I have a band called UbuludU that started as a version of Cantrip, but is now a really loud stoner rock power fusion kind of thing. I do a dual guitar instrumental rock thing with the Dave Webb Band (which is also sometimes called the Simon Henneman Band). We’re doing a tribute to ’70s fusion music at the Royal Room on May 16th. The last few years I’ve been doing a ton of tribute gigs to Marc Ribot’s Cubanos Postizos, Black Sabbath, John Coltrane, Frank Zappa, metal versions of Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, and others. I really just like all kinds of different music and playing whatever I like. I don’t really subscribe to any strict genres.

AF: Aside from a guitar focus, what influences do you bring to Cantrip? I hear psychedelia and certain world music styles—is it reflective of your most current listening?

SH: Cantrip came about initially as a way to return to some of the music I had maybe only done once at a tribute or other gig. It then became a way to sum up what I’ve been up to the last few years and the chance to play some [of my] material, like “Zeno’s Klaxon” or “Machingo” that I never thought I’d be able to play with people.

I’ve really gotten into the guitar in a big way in the last few years, so it’s definitely a guitar record. There’s a lot of improvisation on the record—I don’t like to write out guitar solos, I think it’s way more exciting to improvise them. In that way, the group is always related to current listening because what I’m listening to comes out in [the improvisation], but some of the tunes are a decade old and some are a year old.

As far as what actual direct influences, I’d say Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, Diminished Men, Hermeto Pascoal, Steve Vai’s Flex-Able record, and the guitar playing of Shawn Lane, Ruth Crawford, Kaija Saariaho, and probably a lot more. Right now, I’m listening to a lot of technical death metal like Obscura, Necrophagist, Viraemia, as well as 20th and 21st century classical and Western art music, and stuff like Billie Eilish and JLin.

AF: Haha, right on! The particular group on this album—tell me about them. Do you play with this group a lot?

SH: It was originally a trio with me on guitar and a different rhythm section for each gig until I played with Chris Icasiano and Mike Murphy. The way they played the material was really close to how I was hearing it in my head so it solidified this line-up. I’ve known Chris for years through the improv sessions at the Blue Moon initially and then through the Racer Sessions and [label] Table and Chairs. Mike and I just met about a year and a half ago through a friend that was in a great theatrical prog rock band called Moon Letters. We don’t have a lot of gigs in town lined up right now, but I’m booking a West Coast tour for us this summer.

AF: What does Cantrip mean?

SH: Cantrip is a Scottish word that means either a short spell, incantation or a witch’s trick.

AF: What parts of Seattle’s music scene inspire you?

SH: There’s a lot of different people doing different things. There are so many amazing and unique drummers here. The folks that I’ve met through the Racer Sessions are really inspiring. I feel like I can do just about anything musically here that I’d want to – there’s people to work with for almost anything a person would want to do. That being said I’d still like to find a twenty-something shredding metal drummer that’s down to rehearse three times a week and can improvise like a champion so I can do some of the technical death metal stuff I’ve been working on live, ha.

AF: You’ve been making music here in Seattle for a while,- what are your future goals for your music?

SH: I’d like to have more people hear it, or at least have the people that are out there that would be into it in other places be able to find it. As great as the internet is, there’s still a parsing problem when it comes to finding new things. I’ll bet there’s all kinds of amazing music I can’t find yet. I’d like to continue to grow and learn as much as I can.

AF: How would you define the kind of music maker you are?

SH: Curious. Rigorous. I enjoy the work.