Drinking Nectar with Wendy Colonna
In ancient Greek and Roman stories, nectar—that sweet, golden, unadulterated liquid—provides sustenance to gods and goddesses. Nectar’s purity offers energy to those who imbibe its sweet liquor, but nectar’s sweet essence offers an elixir that heals and, for the inhabitants of the heavenly realms at least, drinking nectar also confers immorality upon them. It’s no wonder that the semi-human Tantalus decided he wanted a drop of that sweet honey; he’s punished for that deed, but his actions illustrate so well the emotions and the human character that make up the heart and soul of Louisiana singer-songwriter Wendy Colonna’s new album, Nectar. We’re all driven by the need for connection to something pure beyond ourselves; at the same time, our hearts are riven by the desire to reach lustily for sweet goodness and the desperate longing to be healed of the brokenness that comes from these cravings. On Nectar, Colonna eloquently delivers a set of songs that probes the wisdom of the ages as much as it lays open her own struggles with the misgivings, the imperfections, the shortcomings, as well as the capacity to love and heal that mark the human heart.
Nectar opens with a Marty Stuart/Kenny Vaughan-like lead break; those first few notes of “Dirty Things” tell us right away that we’re slinking off to swampy, funky rhythms that will move our flesh and encourage us to leave our spirits behind. Colonna channels Maria Muldaur’s seductive, sexy pipes and Jesse Winchester’s “Rhumba Man” as she joyously complains that “I can’t seem to shake those dirty things/why can’t I be a champagne girl with wings/alcohol and cigarettes/bare feet and tar stains on my dress/I can’t seem to shake those dirty things.” With a gleeful nod and a wink, she captures the rapturous pull of the body and the not-so-sly resistance to what passes in culture for disguising that rapture (“starch your Sunday dress and keep your reputation clean”). “Dirty Things” is a celebratory Garden of Eden story in reverse, as the singer declares at the end of the song: “I would rather trade a month of Sundays/for a sweet taste of fresh cut sugarcane.”
Colonna demonstrates her strength as a songwriter on Nectar by showcasing a different musical style on each of the album’s 11 songs. Reggae reigns on “Sleeping,” an anthemic call-and-response tune that recalls the Sutherland Brothers’ “Sailin’” and that features a heavenly chorus of background vocals by Ginger Leigh, Jess Klein, Noëlle Hampton, Barbara Nesbitt, Charlie Faye, and Finley Sexton. “Dance with the Moon” is a Blossom Dearie-like shuffling ditty featuring Guy Forsyth’s haunting saw that probes the “great divide” between dreams and reality, and the desire that motivates each. Drenched in Kim Deschamps’ soaring pedal steel and Forsyth’s harmonica weaving around it, “Texas Summer Love” at once celebrates the freedom and the beauty of a Lone Star state summer day in the face of the bitterness that often accompanies such a day. In the tune that resembles Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Railroad Lady,” Colonna knowingly admits that “sometimes you just grow bitter reaching high for something sweet.” “Texas Summer Love” ingeniously weaves lyrics about living in the state, and a state of mind, through music that so marks Texas musicians through and through.
The highlight of Nectar is “Bring Me Water,” which begins with Colonna’s singular, lonesome and pleading voice accompanied by a simple guitar riff. As the singer moves from the simple plea to be buried in her madness when she dies, the song soon begins to swell with the power of Dave Madden’s Wurly and electric piano. “Bring Me Water” perfectly follows “Dirty Things,” for if the opening song embraces the joys of the body, “Bring Me Water” pleads not only for some measure of understanding and forgiveness but also petitions for permission to seek what it means to be fully human. Being fully human means being able to accept our own and others’ shortcomings with grace; it also means being able to acknowledge our own need to be cleansed (“let the rain fall down upon my face”) and to let go of our own tendencies to allow division rather than healing to flourish. “Bring Me Water” captures the essence of much of the entire album.
On Nectar, the sweet honey of Colonna’s voice fills our cups with the enduring energy of her pure songwriting. She has blossomed as a songwriter, but it’s the unadulterated beauty of each song that moves us from one flower to the other on the album.
I met up with Wendy Colonna in Chelsea a couple of weeks ago, just ahead of two shows at Hill Country BBQ in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and we chatted about Nectar and her songwriting.
HC: What's the story of this album? How did it happen?
Colonna: We did a small regional launch in the fall of 2013 as a kind of springboard into a national launch after the holidays. You know my last record was a big production, and I wasn't exactly pleased with the way I came out. I mean, I liked it, but I wasn't sure I wanted to go that route again. So, I've spent some time building a trustworthy team before taking the plunge. Plus, not long after that album I got really, really sick with this fungal lung infection. Man, there were days when I just couldn't move; out of that brokenness came healing, though, and it took a couple of years to re-group. During the process of healing, I recognized and affirmed that I have gifts to give to the world and a call to be of service to the world.
HC: And the album started to develop?
Colonna: Yes; songs started coming for the record. I was doing some really cool writing projects. I wanted to write and record an album that expressed the permission to be human. After my experience, I wanted to have the raw poetic permission to write songs about being broken, being at the edges of life, and being healed. I started writing songs with my dear friend Mark Addison, and joked about making this "dark record" together. (Laughs) All things connected to the record came out of this space, and every single relationship has been wholeheartedly good. It's been a healing experience.
HC: How did you record the album?
Colonna: We tracked about eight songs in three days. A couple of the musicians knew each other, but most didn't. My desire was to have freshness in these songs, and play them as they came. Everybody played so beautifully, and the chemistry was so high. Mark wrote "Girl Without a Name," and I wrote "Dance with the Moon" in the same week. I wrote about 85% of a song, and then we would play the last 15% together, making some changes here and there, maybe to a bridge or to a line or chorus. Mark and I have a deep level of trust, and we're both in such deep service to the song.
HC: How did you come up with the title, "Nectar"?
Colonna: I don't want to go too deep into that, but you know nectar is this pure, sweet thing you can access, and I think I was trying in some ways to use that image to describe my own experience of being broken to find that purity and fire inside.
HC: How did you select the songs for the album?
Colonna: Simply hanging out with Mark and going through songs; it was more a conversation than a cutting. I was listening to Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark every day while I was working on Nectar; Mitchell's album is such a peaceful record, and I wanted to give my record as much time as it took to make Court and Spark and to listen to it; does that make sense? I wanted to put together my record with the same care, artistry, and attention that Mitchell did with hers because I wanted listeners to spend time listening to my record over and over, too, hearing new things all the time.
HC: When did you start playing and singing?
Colonna: I've been singing my whole life. (Smiles) I sang in church when I was growing up. When I was a teenager, I started playing songs with friends of mine; we sang songs by Melanie, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Beatles. The first song I ever played was "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
HC: Who are some of your biggest musical and songwriting influences?
Colonna: Okay, let me think about this for a minute. Chris Miller, my choir director, was a visionary, and he taught me how to sing and how to be in a rock and roll band. Greg Graffin of Bad Religion has been really influential to me as a songwriter; he writes powerful songs, but he also teaches evolution and geology and so combines a deep social message with his music. Of course, Joni Mitchell; she's a painter as well as a musician and doesn't allow herself to be defined simply by one genre of art. The artists I admire most and who have influenced me the most are the ones who are unafraid to defy stereotypes; they're irreverent and rock the boat. I go to Jackson Browne's first three albums, especially Late for the Sky. I think "Fountain of Sorrow" and "For a Dancer" are the best songs ever written. Ever! I love how personal and at the same time how courageous and universal his writing is. The writers who continue to influence me are those who are in service to the music. Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers: they turned the lights on for me and helped me to understand that songwriters come in all shapes and packages, not exclusively rock or folk or jazz. R&B and soul have great songwriters; Bill Withers wrote such catchy and groovy songs; that guy could write a song. And, Alice Walker; she's one of the best writers I've ever read; her novel, The Temple of My Familiar, is my favorite book; she's my soul mate.
HC: Tell me a little about your approach to songwriting.
Colonna: Well, I collect lots of scraps of paper with ideas on them or notes on my phone, and I'll let them sit and wait before I come back to them. I'll block off entire days, and feed my soul with great books and records and let all of them inspire me. Some of my songs grow directly out of personal experience and some don't. But when I'm ready to write, I just show up. You can learn about elements of poetry and rhythm and such, and that is a kind of refining of your vessel. But, when you come to write, you have to be ready to receive. On the day I wrote "I've Never Been," I wrote two crappy songs; just wasn't coming, so I went for a walk and then came back and barfed it out. (Laughs)
HC: Do you have a favorite song on the album?
Colonna: "Bring Me Water." It's a letter that you might send, or you might not, asking for reconciliation. It's a prayer for that kind of peace. That song was good medicine for me. After we recorded the album I felt this sense of peace that the song expresses so well.
HC: You talk a good deal about calling and gift; there's a deep spiritual component to your music.
Colonna: Well, not in a religious sense. I think I'd describe music not as vocation or calling but dharma, or duty. My dad was an environmental activist, and it wasn't always easy for him. I could choose to follow in my dad's steps, or I could choose to focus on doing what I could to make changes through music. I wanted to know I could be a part of serving, and saving, the world. I want to do my little part to plant seeds in people's hearts to learn, know, practice and love life and the world around us. So, "Mother Forgive Us" is a petition to be forgiven for what we don't do. We are beings to the source and to one another, and we are definitely destructible. Music can offer a salve or medicine and access to our hearts and the healing of our hearts.
Photo credits: Stevan Alcala