Album Review

Pamela Means' 'Plainfield' turns pain into perfect art

Pamela Means - Plainfield

There's absolutely nothing plain about Pamela Means' beautiful new release, "Plainfield," on Wirl Records.

It's a rich musical tapestry of six years of introspection, and centuries of oppression.

Growing up bi-racial in Milwaukee and its environs, Means says she felt the sting, the uncertainty of racism and not fitting in most of her life. In "Plainfield," she's taken her pain and crafted it into a stunning collection of songs.

Plainfield, the town that serves as the new release's namesake, is about a 40-minute ride from anywhere in Western Massachusetts.

"I used to live in Plainfield and I wrote all the songs there," Means explains. "I'd been living in Brooklyn and had a breakup," she recalls. "(The choice was) stay living in New York or go back to Boston. And I found I could live on my own and live alone somewhere beautiful - Plainfield - without all that craziness. I moved somewhere rural, to be quiet in my head," she says.

The 2009 breakup and subsequent move came after other painful losses. She lost her brother to suicide on July 6, 2008, her father died that Sept. 6, and then the following spring's heartbreak left her devastated.

She needed to find a world away from the city, a place she could make her own. She'd lived in Boston in the 1990s and stayed in the Northampton area "for a bit before moving to Brooklyn, so I was pretty familiar with the Pioneer Valley."

In the woods of Plainfield, with its spectacular sunsets, she found a place of refuge, healing and independence. 

"It was really intense so I ended up moving to Plainfield that summer. I started to peel back what I just went through, and the backlog of my whole life. Being on the road was too much, I couldn't be in both places at the time."

In her songs, she revels at coming home late at night, soaking up the peace and quiet while looking up in awe at the Milky Way. The night stillness, the beauty.

"I quit touring at that time, too, just to really commit to this introspective place." 

In Plainfield, she found not only the time and space to heal but also the chance to devote herself to "writing songs the whole time. Well, mostly the whole time."

She stayed for six years, putting touring on hold, playing gigs now and then and teaching guitar at a local luthier.

"I did not intend it to be that long," she says with a laugh. "I guess I played enough gigs, taught guitar (to get by)."

The solitude so essential in her healing, however, began to turn.

"In the end, it got to be too much isolation and I crawled back to civilization."

And when she did, she brought "Plainfield" with her, a wide-reaching collection of songs from the heart.

With "James Madison," Means offers a mini-history lesson of our founding fathers' sins from a bi-racial view. She comes from the perfect place to offer up fresh clarity on the nation's real, raw history.  "Color of the Skin" is her take, a very personal one, on the very real problem of police abuses, such as the Michael Brown shooting. 

"That moment brought up my outrage, my growing up a bi-racial kid outside of Milwaukee. And my own experience of being pulled over. It was all of that, that moment and an entire lifetime."

The song tackles the racial divide head on, recounting the changes and the stubborn persistence of bigotry and hate. Sure, there's been some progress in equality, but for many in America nothing much has changed.

"There have been little steps, but I think there's an enormous, growing backlash since Donald Trump took office," she says.

Is there hope?

"Given the hundreds of years of slavery and the hundred years of reconstruction and Jim Crow, it will take longer. I always wonder myself how long will it take? How many generations will it take for us to outgrow, go beyond that?"

But she persists on "Plainfield," as she switches the focus inward.

In "My Brother Was," Means honors her late brother and laments his loss on so many levels.

With "I Just Called Her Ma," she captures the fragile nature, and strength, of her mother and turns that pain into pure artistry, thoughtful and responsive.

 Although Means' mother died when the singer-songwriter was 14, the woman ingrained some traits, and values, still evident today.

She's excited about returning to the road with her new album's gems in tow. At selected gigs, she performs with singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey, who she credits with keeping her songwriting juices flowing during her time in Plainfield.

She's part of a long-distance songwriting group with Mulvey and singer-songwriter Joe Panzetta with the stated mission to produce a song a week.

That forces her to pull out notes, find scribbled bits and pieces of lyrics collected over the years and sit down and put them into song.

"So in the songwriting group, I got to writing a song every week. I got to find all my old notes of songs I wanted to write, and talked about it. I actually worked on that song (James Madison) for about three, four and five weeks in a row. It's a very different style now than it was. It started kind of country, which was weird. I had some of the lyrics, then it just all came together. I don't think it would have if I hadn't been hacking away at it (with the group)."

With "Cinnamon and Chocolate,"  "Plainfield" allows her to be open about something else very personal.

"It's a love song. Coming out in my songwriting is something I've just become more comfortable with. And there's a piece of that there. I grew up closeted, went to religious schools where I was taught gays go to hell. I was closeted as a young adult and started my career and really didn't come out until I moved to Boston. At the same time, I was waking up politically."

Today, she still quotes poet-writer-activist Audre Lorde as helping with her struggle.

"One was, 'Your silence won't protect you,' and the other says you must use your own truth to empower yourself or someone will use it against you. When I was closeted, they'd whisper about it and it really freaked me out. Yeah, then once I owned it, there was power in that. But it's been a long road."

Means admits she isn't comfortable with musical labels, as her business card indicates. One foot firmly planted in the folk scene, she's also an accomplished jazz musician who studied classical guitar and jazz at the Wisconsin Conservatory before setting out on her own.

Her body of work includes "Jazz Volume 1" which gives her soaring, sweet voice a powerful frame.

"(Folk and jazz) bleed into one another. I'm also a Gemini so sometimes I play around with the idea that in some way I really am two different artists. I can have a full-on folk show, and a full-on jazz show with zero crossover and be deeply satisfied with both. That's actually what I'd really like to do."

"When I went in to record 'Plainfield', I had a backlog of songs that I had written and I recorded as many as I could," she says. "Then I started recording (jazz) standards so I have "Jazz Volume 2" up my sleeve that I'm going to put out later on."