September Newsletter: What a Lark!

Happy September!

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“What a Lark!”
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In August, I decided to take a little more time to breathe. I dug into some good books, played a couple shows at Hotel RL in Olympia, Washington, worked on recording demos, and wrote a huge blog post about my time in Kaliningrad on my tour back in June.

The song I’m sharing this month — “What a Lark!” — was inspired by my morning at the Baltic Sea on June 15th, which you can read about in the aforementioned blog post. I started writing it in London on my friend Jack’s piano, spent some time pondering over my audio notes in New York, then finished it up in Portland.

I was camping on the beach at the Baltic Sea with my Kaliningrad friends, absolutely all of whom are night owls. I, on the contrary, am a total lark. I managed to stay up until midnight the night before, and when I woke at dawn, everyone seemed to be just getting to bed. Unable to sleep in daylight even with an eye mask, I crawled out of the tent and greeted the morning.

I found myself in a small city of tents.

Everyone’s in Tent City
Sound asleep

The fire from the previous night was still burning, and my friend Seryozha sat next to it, staring into the middle distance. He’d arrived after I went to bed, and at some point burnt his hand in the fire. Now he couldn’t sleep because of the pain. He didn’t have painkillers, so he was soothing the injury by keeping his hand buried in the sand.

I gave him some Ibuprofen, and eventually he tried to get some more sleep. He retreated into his tent but left his arm hanging out and his hand buried.

In his absence, I watched a White Wagtail pecking through the sand, flinging it back and forth.

White Wagtail on the shores of
The Baltic Sea
Sifting through the sand
Wagtail, are you wagging at me?

I mused on my lark-ness, busily writing postcards as everyone slept. I thought about my constant need for clarity — “beautiful clarity,” to borrow a phrase from Russian poet Mikhail Kuzmin. What was the plan for the day? When would I find out the plan? What time would everyone wake up? What all did I need to be ready for?

I thought a lot about my Kaliningrad friends. It’s strange to become so immersed in a community (not to mention a language and a culture) for a week, then to leave it all behind. Sitting alone on the beach, I marveled at the depth of my emotional connection to these people whose lives are so different from mine. I knew that there was nothing remotely similar waiting for me at home in Portland.

Most of the people in this tight-knit group met one another through theater. As morning progressed, individuals made entrances and exits: emerging from a tent, saying good morning, going for a quick swim, finding a place to pee, going back in the tent to continue sleeping. The action passed by like a dream, or an absurdist play about time. I couldn’t figure out what it all meant, but I knew that it was somehow beautiful, and that I would sorely miss being a part of it.

Actors in a play

Actors in a play

Besides vocals, this recording includes piano, an additional keyboard voice, an ambient synth pad, and cello. As always, remember — this is a work in progress!

Thank you so much for letting me share new songs with you, and the stories behind the songs. And remember, I always like hearing from folks! You can email me, or reach out on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

Take care,
Stephan

Shows

September 14 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
September 28 - Sofar Sounds, Boston, MA
September 30 - Areté Venue and Gallery, New York City, NY
October 23 - McMenamins White Eagle Saloon, Portland, OR
November 25 - Yotsuya Tenmado Comfort, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
November 26 - K.D. Hapon, Nagoya, Japan
November 28 - PEPPERLAND, Okayama, Japan
November 29 - LIVE rise SHUNAN, Shunan, Japan
December 2 - Graf, Fukuoka, Japan
December 4 - Risin’, Saga, Japan
December 5 or 6 - TBA, Ibusuki, Japan
December 9 - HOME, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan

PS Do you want me to come to your city? Tell me and I’ll try to make it happen! (I don’t always know where people want me to go…) Also, if you’re curious about hosting a concert, it’s easier than you might think! Especially if you're in the US or Canada. Piece of cake.

Look at the Harlequins! Tour, Part 3: Kaliningrad

This entry is LONG! It covers the Kaliningrad leg of my tour, from June 12 - 18. Those who want to know every detail of my life will find it riveting. The rest of you can scroll through for whatever interests you — for example, pictures of people and places and birds!

June 12, 2019

From Winchester I traveled to London-Heathrow Airport and from there caught a plane to Kaliningrad, with a brief layover in Warsaw.

On my first visit to Kaliningrad (in December 2017), I traveled to and from Gdańsk by bus and stayed only one night. It was a brief but powerful whirlwind that left my heart aching for more.

Some background on my “Russian connection,” because people often ask. I became interested in all things Russian when I was a kid, after reading Gloria Whelan’s Angel on the Square and Carolyn Meyer’s Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess. This was before the days of Duolingo, otherwise I surely would have started learning the language immediately.

Years later, in 2005 (my first year at the University of Oregon), I heard Regina Spektor’s “Après Moi,” which includes lines in Russian from the poem “February” by Boris Pasternak. The sound of the words mesmerized me. Soon after this, I learned that the U of O had a Russian program. Before committing to the language, I decided to take a Russian literature class. We read a few short stories by Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, selections from Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Bulgakov’s Master & Margarita, and Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s Sonechka. All of it blew me away. I started listening to a Russian language learning podcast, and over the summer I read as much Russian literature as I could. In the fall, I enrolled in my first Russian course, and finally, in 2018, I graduated with my B.A. in Russian.

Okay, back to the current story.

A few months ago, Vlad (who organized my first show in Kaliningrad) and I started Skyping so we could work on our English and Russian speaking skills, respectively. Vlad radiates kindness and warmth like few people I have met. His general way of being in the world reminds me of the lines from Regina Spektor’s “The Light,” addressing her son and her husband: “You and your daddy, you look like poets / Your eyes are open wide while you are in a dream.” The first time we Skyped, he smiled and said, “I’m so happy to see you. You look good.” Offhand, I can’t recall many (or maybe any) times a straight man has said something like that to me. That’s Vlad.

Airport flowers.

In Kaliningrad-Khrabovo Airport, paper-wrapped bouquets of flowers rotate in vending machines near an island of shops dripping with amber souvenirs.

The previous night, I had played a Sofar show in Chesterblade, a village near Frome, and it was so cold enough inside the heritage farm house you could see your breath. Kaliningrad, on the contrary, was blazing hot from the moment the plane landed. I approached the bus that would take me to the city — less than a dollar for a 40-minute ride. At the door, the driver called out, “Заходите!” (“Come in!”). Worried he’d said “Уходите!” (“Go away!”), I scurried off to a safe distance. Then I approached again, gingerly, and slipped aboard.

On the bus, I stuffed my bomber jacket in my backpack. Still I sweated profusely as I chatted with Vlad on VKontakte and tried to keep my phone alive long enough to coordinate our meeting. The bus crossed the bridge where I’d first met Vlad in 2017, and pulled up to a crowded bus stop. I stumbled out with my bags and Vlad was waiting with open arms to give me a big welcome-to-Kaliningrad hug.

Vlad has his guests select a record to play from his collection. I chose Элла Фитцджеральд — Ella Fitzgerald.

С милым рай и в шалаше — a Russian proverb meaning, “With one’s sweetheart, it’s paradise even in a hut.” Vlad and his basically-brother and sometimes-roommate Seryozha say this to one another, and while they don’t live in a hut per se, they do live in a humble seventh-floor walk-up art studio scattered with paintbrushes, canvases, and minimal amenities. Enormous windows fill the space with light and afford a wonderful view of the river and city.

I stored my luggage up in Vlad’s loft, then climbed back down the ladder with gifts.

In Russia, не принято идти к друзьями в гости с пустыми руками (it isn’t acceptable to go empty-handed to visit friends). I gave Vlad a small packet of granola from Portland along with a book called Speaking American. In our Skype conversations, we had read aloud from a dual-language book called Talking American. I noticed that Talking American was displayed on top of the piano, and Vlad added Speaking American to the arrangement.

(Side note: I cannot fathom the effort it must have taken to move that piano to this building’s seventh floor. I’m guessing it’ll be in that room as long as the building stands.)

Before my sweaty shirt had a chance to dry, Vlad proposed we take a trip to the Baltic Sea and stay the night there in a tent on the beach. I was tired, but I said yes, and soon we were in the car with Volodya and Anya, on our way to Zelenogradsk.

Once there, we went to Spar, a Russian grocery store, and I couldn’t stop smiling because it was all so different from what I’m used to — the products, the packaging, and above all the prices. From an American perspective, everything was dirt cheap.

View of the view from the boardwalk. Not sure why I didn’t try to get the actual sea in the picture.

We strolled along the boardwalk. It was after 10 PM and still not quite dark. I had gone to bed at 1 AM and woken up at 5, and it was starting to hit me. Still, Vlad had an all-important search for beer to complete. It’s illegal for stores to sell alcohol after 10 PM, but that wasn’t about to stop Vlad. The others and I sat on a bench and waited for him. Even at this hour the boardwalk was bustling, and to my amazement there were tons of families with young kids out. Evidently (P)Russians are more laid-back about bedtime than Americans.

In the distance, a long pier glowed with lights that slowly shifted from color to color — red to purple, purple to blue, blue to green. When Vlad returned, we went to the pier, and once there I realized that the lights were underneath, illuminating the water and nighttime swimmers below. Far down the pier, loud club music throbbed. A group of eight or more guys laughed and shouted, climbing onto the railing and jumping into the lit-up water below.

Finally it came time to set up the tents, near a series of quaint wooden swing sets. Vlad rummaged through his backpack and realized our tent was still in his apartment.

It was decided that Vlad and Volodya would find more alcohol while Anya and I set up the tent. Anya balked at this arrangement, not wanting to be left alone with someone who she couldn’t talk to, but Vlad reassured her that she could speak Russian with me. It did turn out to be a challenge at first, but an amusing one. I knew very little of the specialized vocabulary people might use to communicate as they set up a tent — words like “poles,” “stakes,” and “flysheet” — and inflate an air mattress — words like “valve” and “pump”. 

It was a unique bonding experience.

Once we got through the more tricky parts of our job, Anya and I chatted more generally. Eventually we talked about how I’m a morning person, and I learned the Russian word for “lark” — жаворонок.

When Vlad and Volodya returned, they played a few songs on the guitar, and then the four of us — three owls and one lark — went to sleep in our single tent.

June 13, 2019

In the morning, everyone wanted to swim. I resisted, but ultimately gave in to saying yes to life. (I mentioned this and learned that Russians know about the Year of Yes.) I tiptoed into the sea, cringing each time the waves lapped a little higher on my body. The water was freezing cold. My friends asked me how this compared to the Oregon Coast, and I admitted that this water was actually a little warmer.

Find the Mediterranean Gull!

In the water, every hundred yards or so, a line of logs were placed vertically, separating the sea into segments. A dozen Black-headed Gulls perched on the logs nearest us, with one Mediterranean Gull mixed in. Lifer!

Vlad sang some lines from an eerie Doors song called “Bird of Prey,” then played it for me on his phone. I had never heard this song before. (Now it goes through my head all the time.)

We sang it as we packed up. Then we made our way along the boardwalk, where in the light of day I could now see intriguing features such as changing stations, hot corn booths, and a small shed with the word “ЛАЗЕРТАГ” (LASER TAG) on it. (See photo gallery above.)

On the drive back to Kaliningrad, we passed the most glorious fields of lupin. I could hardly believe my eyes. Lupin for days.

While Vlad was at work, I dealt with administrative tasks, practiced and prepared for my shows, and recorded a promo video for Vlad to post. I planned to go get groceries, but just as I got ready to leave, a huge thunderstorm broke out. Slumped so low in a chair that I was nearly horizontal, I must have hovered between sleep and awakeness for hours. Sometimes on tour you just have to accept that there will be weird days like this. Fortunately I hadn’t overbooked myself on this one, so it wasn’t a big deal to spend an afternoon decompressing.

Alex Popov, a friend I’d made on my first visit to Kaliningrad, invited me to the Upper Pond for a public outdoor rehearsal-performance by his friend Ilya Levashov’s band, for which Alex was playing percussion. On the way, we met up with Tatyana Decay, an edgy (in the sense of being avant-garde), artsy young woman whom Vlad had never met but knew from VKontakte. We hurried alongside the pond — which truly must be a lake — and after what felt like an epic quest but mostly amounted to continuing forward along a single path, we finally found the show.

This is an instrumental. I don’t think there’s any singing in this one.

Ilya describes Kellan as “Prussian post-folk,” and the songs are written in a revived Baltic Prussian language. They have a really fun, eclectic sound — here’s a little clip I took. You can also find their first EP, Ukpirms (“the very first” in Prussian), on Soundcloud. (While you’re at it, you can also check out Alex Popov’s neo-folk band, Sunset Wings.)

Good company.

After the performance, we walked to Ilya’s apartment, and eventually the kitchen was stuffed with seven people sitting and chatting, sipping tea and snacking. I marveled at Ilya’s hand-carved recorders, stored as if on display in a rack on the table, gleaming in warm shades of gold, chestnut, and burgundy.

June 14, 2019

Art.

A visit to the Amber Museum in the morning proved as colorful as Ilya’s recorders. I opted for the audio tour, and I have to confess that I retained absolutely nothing from it. Most interesting were the amber inclusions — bits of ancient life trapped and preserved in amber. I hunted around for ornithological inclusions and found exactly one, of a Gastornis feather. I also got this photo of an amber hornet on some amber cheese.

I was starving — not because of the amber cheese, though it certainly couldn’t have helped — so I hailed a Yandex Taxi. (Yandex Taxi is like the Russian Uber. They do also have Uber, but when you take it the drivers automatically know you’re not Russian.) At my destination, I paid the driver in cash, adding, “Сдачи не надо.” When he acted flabbergasted, I asked if I’d said it incorrectly. He told me I’d said it correctly — just no one ever says it.

Packets of tofu.

The vegan restaurant I’d been driven to, sadly, no longer existed. So I went to a tiny natural food store, Компас Здоровья (Health Compass), where I saw such wonders as seitan in jars, tofu in bags, and fancy nut/seed butters ranging from peanut to poppy seed. I bought vegan sausages and hot dogs, bread, vegan cheese, and a product claiming to be borsch crackers.

I squeezed in a bit of music practice, but before I knew it, I was again swept off to the Baltic Sea. It felt so contrary to my fundamental nature to take another leisurely trip like this. Left to my own devices, I work every single day, even in between show days on tours. At home, it takes a superhuman effort from Adam to get me to take a break.

I scrambled to pack some postcards so I could be productive at the sea.

Vlad and I took a bus with Tatyana Decay and another of Vlad’s friends, Axinya Makeeva. Once we reached Zelenogradsk (and made a pit stop at Spar), we set off in search of our campsite. I naively imagined we would camp in the same place we did the first night, but that one took just a few minutes to reach. This time was different. My feet began to ache from hiking on dry, unstable sand. Each step felt like several steps. What began as a lovely little seaside stroll turned into a grueling trek down a seemingly interminable beach.

I asked Vlad how much farther we had to walk. “I think… just five more minutes,” he told me.

Ten minutes later, I asked again, and he said, “Hmm. Maybe two more minutes.”

I couldn’t believe how tired I felt. We were probably walking for less than a half hour, but we were carrying camping gear, bags of food, and a big jug of water.

We watched for the green flash, but alas — no flash.

Finally, finally, we reached our destination, which to me looked no different from the mile of beach we had just passed over.

(I realize I probably sound disgruntled. Truthfully, these are happy memories.)

Vlad the Young Pioneer.

We set up camp. Vlad got a fire going. There was some dancing around to hits of the early 2000s, and then we roasted hot dogs over the fire. It was already dark, but after Axinya set up her tent, she went for the longest swim. Every few minutes I checked through binoculars to make sure she was still alive. When she finally came back, she claimed the water was warm, but I refused to believe it, having taken the plunge just a couple days before.

Shortly before midnight, I brushed my teeth and tucked myself into the tent, stuffing earplugs into my ears. Everyone else stayed up, but I needed something resembling a normal night’s sleep.

June 15, 2019

A few short hours later, the sun came up and I had no hope of sleeping any longer. I’m a lark through and through! I crept outside, trying not to disturb Vlad and Tatyana, and found myself in a small city of tents. Sometime after midnight, other friends of Vlad’s had apparently arrived.

Seryozha sat next to the fire — somehow still burning — looking cheerful as always but a little haggard. He explained that he had burnt his hand in the fire during the night and couldn’t sleep because of the pain. He was keeping the injured hand buried in the sand to try to soothe it.

I asked if he had taken any painkillers, and to my horror, he hadn’t. I tore into my backpack, found my first aid kit, and gave him some Ibuprofen. Unfortunately I didn’t have any burn ointment with me.

He took the Ibuprofen, and we chatted for a while. Eventually the pain lessened enough for him to attempt sleep. He lay down in a tent, leaving the opening unzipped so he hand could stay outside in the sand.

Greater Whitethroat (Серая славка)

Left alone, I climbed up a dune and a patch of trees and shrubs I hoped might be birdy. It wasn’t particularly active, but I did find my first Greater Whitethroat there — though I didn’t actually ID the bird properly till a couple days later. A flock of Mute Swans flew overhead, their wings whistling, and I went back to the campsite to scan the sea. Great Cormorants glided low over the water from time to time, but all was mostly quiet.

White Wagtail on the shores of the Baltic Sea

I sat in the shade of a tent and wrote postcards. My little friend that morning was a White Wagtail who paced urgently around the beach, tail bobbing up and down, tossing sand left and right with their beak.

Someone I didn’t know came out of Seryozha’s tent and introduced himself as Yury. For some reason — maybe the name — I responded in Japanese. Yury went for a brief swim, then back into his tent to sleep.

The morning went on like this, with people emerging sleepily to pee or swim (or possibly both), then returning to their tents. I sat there, somewhat mystified by it all. I felt like I had been dropped into some kind of absurdist play or silent film. The Lark and the Owls.

Вампир.

The tent housing Seryozha and Yury turned out to have another occupant, a young woman named Nastya Rychkova. Another tent held Volodya and Anya, who packed up and left while nearly everyone was napping. 

It was still early in the day, but little by little more people began passing by. Some of them laid out towels or chairs and unfurled giant umbrellas. By 10 o’clock it looked like all those pictures of crowded beaches. This isn’t a sight we ever see in Oregon. What umbrella could withstand the wind?

I took out my own collapsible umbrella and hid under it. I had sunscreen, but since I was categorically opposed to swimming in the freezing water, I figured I might as well save it. Tatyana came outside and sat down next to me, and since she’s even paler than I am, I shared my small patch of shade with her.

I often find it hard to relax and just have fun. Sometimes a lack of clarity creates a barrier for me. In this case, I wasn’t sure how long we planned to stay at the sea. The other day we had gone home almost right away, so today I didn’t want to get too comfortable and then suddenly find out it was time to go. I considered asking Vlad how long we were planning to stay, but he was lying face down on a beach towel, dead to the world. Someone placed some smooth stones on his back, and every once in a while we’d add another one. He’d stir slightly and continue snoozing. (Later, when we were leaving, I noticed that Vlad had a sunburn on his back, with unburnt patches wherever the stones had been.)

Axinya struggles to make it back to her tent.

I finally loosened up when everyone (except Vlad, who was sleeping) started playing a game of Pictionary in the sand. I guessed a couple works of Russian literature correctly, and managed to get someone to figure out Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem.

After hours of everyone but me swimming on and off, someone finally explained to me that the water was indeed much warmer than the other day. Apparently those thunderstorms had something to do with it: the cloud cover had incubated the sea, raising the temperature.

Setting my doubts aside, I slathered my entire body with sunscreen. Then I wove through the people lounging and playing, and the kids whose job it was to pace around yelling “Горячая кукуруза! Горячая кукуруза!” (“Hot corn! Hot corn!”), and marched bravely into the water.

Packing up, or trying to.

It was perfect.

I suppose I can’t be too hard on myself for being so skeptical. What experience do I have with enormous bodies of water undergoing drastic temperature changes overnight?

“This is happiness,” Vlad said deliriously.

In the early afternoon, we packed up all the tents and trekked back into town, passing picturesque banyas and seaside villas. Vlad seemed a little woozy, and I suspected he was dehydrated. Before boarding our train, we hung around a little square by a market. Most everyone had ice cream, and I tried my first kvas (a fermented beverage made from rye bread), which was pretty tasty and refreshing.

On the train, we ended up sitting next to this sandy, surly-seeming shirtless jock. Yury wanted to play some songs, and asked the jock if he minded. The jock shrugged and continued scrolling through his phone and looking frowny.

Lest we forget.

Yury took out his guitar, which suddenly seemed gigantic. As Yury played and sang, I noticed the guitar pressing into the jock’s arm occasionally, and I wondered how pissed this guy — and everyone else — must be. In the US, I don’t think people are generally supportive of music on public transit.

I looked around nervously and was surprised and relieved to see other passengers smiling and nodding appreciatively. But the biggest surprise came during Yury’s next song, when the jock started mouthing the lyrics.

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.

June 16, 2019

I woke up feeling grateful for a full night of sleep. The previous night, Vlad had gone to bed right away and Seryozha and I followed after watching the first part of The Little Golden Calf.

Today would be busy in the ways that come more naturally to me: a little show in the morning, a big show in the evening, and last-minute preparations in between.

Vlad and I hopped on a bus and when we got off, we ran into Yury and Nastya. I thought this was a coincidence, but it turned out I just knew nothing about what was going on. I met Olga, who had arranged this show for us, and we boarded a small bus — like an activity bus — bound for Polessk. I wished I’d brought a book — it turned out to be an hour drive. (I generally have a rule of always bringing a book with me, but sometimes I break it when I feel like I already have a million things with me. This tour taught me more than once that it’s always worth making room for that million-and-first thing, as long as that thing is a book.)

Still, the scenery deserved my attention. And one point when I was distracted by my phone, Vlad told me to look out the window, and waddling alongside the road was a White Stork. After this, I kept my eyes glued to everything passing by.

Walking through Polessk. Note Yury’s cool shirt.
Photo by Olga Popova.

In Polessk (population: 7000, though it seemed almost deserted), we played a concert at a “psychoneurological institution” — basically a residential care facility for adults with various disabilities. (First we stopped at a little grocery store with a dog at the door. See photos.) At the facility, Vlad, Yury, and I took turns playing songs for an enthusiastic audience, and Nastya contributed percussion with tambourine-esque bracelets. Afterwards, everyone wanted to talk to us and take pictures together, which was so sweet and fun. A large group of residents followed us all the way to the gates, waving and calling out farewells as we headed back through town to the bus stop.

Just as we turned the corner, I noticed two birds on a telephone wire. Common Redstarts! A new species for the life list. (No photos, though.)

In the town of Polessk are the ruins of Labiau Castle — Замок Лабиау. We wandered through a desolate courtyard, empty except for a headless statue and a sign that said Центр развития человека — Center for Human Evolution — which everyone thought was funny.

That evening, I played my show at Katarsis. I scarcely dared to hope for it to be as heartwarming as my 2017 show at the same venue. But I needn’t have worried — it proved to be one of the greatest experiences of my career. It’s difficult to identify what sets a show like this apart from others. The audience listened and applauded, as most audiences do. But they seemed more willing to engage, to participate. There was an electric, tangible connection between audience and performer. Moreover (and perhaps somehow a by-product of this connection), it felt like all judgment was suspended — like any imperfections in my performance were either irrelevant or added to the uniqueness of this particular show.

Does the distance an artist has traveled somehow heighten people’s sense of urgency to tune in and be present? Or is it the infrequency of performances that adds value?  Many artists I know strive to play as many nights of the week as possible. Scarcity, though, could be more powerful than ubiquity. 

Huge, huge thanks to Felix Morozov, who took photos and videos of the event!

Video by Felix Morozov. Cover of Весеннее танго (Spring Tango) by Valeriy Milyaev (Валерий Миляев).

Video by Felix Morozov.

Video by Felix Morozov.

Video by Vlad Barabashov.

After the show, so many people lined up to talk about the music and buy CDs and shirts. It brought me so much happiness to spend time with each person: the person whose child drew a picture of me during the show; the person who was so curious about my song Вертишейка (“Wryneck”); the person who especially loved “Overwintered”; the people who wanted to take pictures together. Among the photos that ended up in my possession were those taken with the fantastically mustached Vadim, spritelike Alesya, and super hip Nadya and Nastya (Smirnova, not Rychkova).

When I woke up, there was a tent in the living room.

Back at Vlad’s, a group of us hung out, eating and talking and listening to music. As I fell asleep — before everyone else, of course — I felt overcome by a bittersweet gratitude for this night, this place, and these friends I’d soon have to leave behind.

June 17, 2019

My last full day in Kaliningrad involved an adventure with two almost-total strangers, Nadya and Nastya (Smirnova, not Rychkova). After a quick breakfast, we set out on foot, walking along the Pregolya River. Across the water, there was Kneiphof — Kant Island — and the spire of Königsberg Cathedral.

Hooded Crow. The dome beyond the trees belongs to the historic Jewish orphanage building.

Nadya and Nastya had offered the previous night to accompany me on an excursion to the Curonian Spit — Куршская коса. The Curonian Spit is a narrow, 60-mile long stretch of land — or sand — that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. It spans from Kaliningrad to Lithuania, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When we got to the bus, the tour guide struggled to find my un-Russian last name on her roster. Finally she located it and waved me aboard, then as an afterthought exclaimed at my name’s strangeness and asked if I was German or what. I was already moving down the aisle of the bus, my back to her, so I just pretended I either didn’t hear or didn’t understand.

We sat in the very back, like mischievous teenagers. Over the tinny intercom, the guide talked on and on about the Curonian Spit and amber. I tried to follow the lecture at first, but quickly became exhausted and let the words blur together. She passed around maps and other visual materials. One of the handouts depicted something that made the three of us grimace, but I have no recollection of what it was.

Our first stop was at Биологическая станция Рыбачий — Rybachy Biological Station, a bird banding station. Senior researcher Anatoly Shapoval led us down a trail into the forest, telling the group about the station. I was the only person with binoculars. We stopped in a clearing where interpretive signs detailed the birds of the area. The English translations made me chuckle — “Rear Birds” instead of “Rare Birds,” “Eruption” instead of “Irruption”. For the bird Сизоворонка (European Roller), the English account was headed with the German “Blauracke”.

I stayed at the edges of the group, watching the Barn Swallows darting around overhead, and a Common Redstart singing from a branch halfway up a pine.

We emerged from the forest and into an open area, then followed Anatoly into a vast system of nets within nets within nets. Inside, a Yellowhammer — Обыкновенная овсянка — fluttered fruitlessly against the soft walls.

One of the innermost nets contained butterflies. While Anatoly talked about butterflies, I stood shielding my face from the glaring sun. A woman in a white linen bucket hat asked me if I needed a hat. It sounded like an offer and not like a general inquiry, so I hurried to reassure her.

Anatoly then led us back into the woods, to a sort of cabin with an open window, like a store at a summer camp. This was the Fringilla Field Station. From the window, Anatoly gave a complete bird banding demonstration. First he showed us the many different band sizes, offering examples of birds that would require each size. Then he retrieved a small bag, from which he produced a tiny songbird.

I started filming at this point, so you can watch it all, following this play-by-play in English: Holding the bird in his hand, Anatoly casually shuffles through some papers. A concerned member of the group asks if this process causes the bird stress, and he says, “Don’t worry. All their lives, birds live under the influence of stress. Without stress, they simply can’t live.” Then, adjusting his grip, he presents the bird as if they are a carnation. He explains that the species isn’t one most people will know the name of, and identifies the bird as a Серая славка — Greater Whitethroat, or Sylvia communis in Latin. Still holding the bird, he begins writing in his log, examining the bird’s eye color and plumage to determine that this is a female. He says that there isn’t a way to tell whether this is a juvenile or an adult, because they have the same plumage. He takes a measurement. Then he explains the importance of fat to a migratory bird who will fly 7800km (4846 miles) to winter in Sudan, Ethiopia, etc. He blows on the bird’s chest to find out how much fat this bird has on her, and writes down “мало” (not much), noting to us that she still has till the end of August (remember, this was June 17th). Last, he explains that it is difficult to weigh a bird without letting them fly away. The solution, we see, is to plop the bird facedown in a cone. Finally, after he records her weight, he warns the “paparazzi” to be prepared, and releases the bird, to everyone’s delight.

Our excursion then took us further along the Curonian Spit, bringing us to the Dancing Forest — Танцующий лес — where the trees twist in spooooky, mysteeerious ways. (It’s very beautiful, really.)

Who gave you permission to dance like that, forest?

While we were there, our guide came up behind us and asked Nastya and Nadya very insistently where their comrade (me) was from, and I couldn’t help but laugh. We told her, and as she walked away she mused again on how she had wondered where on earth my last name could have come from.

Nadya poses, Nastya shoots.

Our last stop was Efa’s Height — Высота Эфа. A boardwalk led us through the trees and gradually upward. Common Chaffinches — Зяблики — serenaded us as we hiked. (Another bird on the life list!) At the height of the Height, a platform gave us views of the Curonian Spit, with the lagoon on one side and the sea on the other. We shared a moment of doubt over which side was the lagoon and which side was the sea. Most importantly, Nastya and Nadya created some glamorous Instagram content.

Photo by Nadya Yarkovich.

Photo by Nadya Yarkovich.

Domovoy and compass.

Before we left this stop, I searched the shop stalls by the entrance for a Christmas ornament. Last Christmas, I went through boxes of old ornaments and determined that almost none of them held any significance to me. I hung up a European Robin ornament from Stonehenge and a caterpillar mascot keychain from the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, and decided to start a new tradition of collecting souvenir ornaments on my tours and other travels. I often admire but pass over cute little trinkets in gift shops, not wanting to clutter up the house with useless stuff. Usually I opt for useful items, or nothing at all. This new tradition would give me an excuse to buy small, inexpensive, purely decorative items. They could occupy space that would have been set aside anyway for Christmas ornaments, and the joy and happy memories they bring me wouldn’t be diluted by blending into the background of everyday life.

White Wagtail in the cemetery.

I found a cute ornamental Домовой — Domovoy, a Slavic household god. When your cat seems to be staring at something invisible, people say they’re looking at the Domovoy. Nadya and Nastya very sweetly bought this ornament for me, as well as a Kaliningrad keychain with a compass — to help me return, they said. ❤️

We returned to Kaliningrad, wandered through an old cemetery, and walked Nastya to her place. Then Nadya and I went to Evropa, a mall, which was exactly like every mall in the world. I wanted to go to some Polish clothing stores. I had really liked Yury’s T-shirts, and when I asked him where he got them he said “a Polish store at Evropa”. I didn’t find any shirts like Yury’s, but I did end up getting a different one. (A month and a half later, I saw a tween wearing the same shirt in Vancouver, BC.)

Eventually, Nastya met us at a Korean restaurant, and afterwards we were reunited with Vlad and Seryozha. Nadya found me a vegan-friendly popsicle that — to my shock while eating it — ended up containing Pop Rocks. Together, the five of us walked to Felix Morozov’s place.

All I knew was that we were visiting Felix, so it was a surprise to me when it turned out to be a tea ceremony. We gathered around a tray on his floor and he passed around some loose tea for each of us to smell. Then (and I don’t remember the exact order of these steps) he splashed hot water in all our little cups, rinsing them out. He steeped the tea. He poured the tea into the little cups with a certain sprezzatura, alternating between all six cups in one continuous pour. After we sipped this tea, he passed around other teas and had different people choose. Again Felix rinsed and steeped and poured. It was all very intimate and elegant. On his computer, selected with me in mind, birdsong played.

At some point Felix handed me a tea to smell, which I did. “Запах,” I murmured as an assessment, even though this just means “smell”. For the next twenty minutes (if not longer) we laughed about this and came up with many examples of circumstances where a person might simply say “запах” and avoid disclosing whether they found it good or bad.

It was the perfect way to spend my last evening in Kaliningrad.

Felix, Nadya, Seryozha, me, Vlad, Nastya. Photo by Felix Morozov.

Felix, Nadya, Seryozha, me, Vlad, Nastya.
Photo by Felix Morozov.

As we left, I expressed my gratitude, and my sadness to be leaving. Knowing the word “грустно” (“sad) but forgetting its noun form грусть (“sadness”), I said “грустность”. (Not an unreasonable way to turn something into a noun in Russian.) “Грустности нет,” Felix kindly informed me. (“There is no ‘sadness’” — meaning this word for ‘sadness’.) But it had also been amusing, like something a child would say. “Грустности нет!” I wailed, pretending to cry.

June 18, 2019

After packing my suitcase, I bestowed Harlequins T-shirts upon Seryozha and Vlad. They had done so much for me, and I wanted them both to have something to remember me by.

Vlad, in turn, searched his bookshelf and gave me an incredibly precious gift: a copy of one of his favorite books from childhood, Незнайка на луне (Dunno on the Moon — Dunno being the story’s know-nothing anti-hero). Inside the cover, a stamp identified the book as being “из книг Барабашова В.” (“from the library of Barabashov V.”). I hardly knew how to respond, except to hug him.

Seryozha, for his part, sent me off with a moving dance performance.

Vlad walked me down the seven flights of stairs to the alley where my taxi was waiting. After a long hug, we said our goodbyes. On the drive to the airport, I fixated on the city passing by, trying to eke more memories out of Kaliningrad. In the airport, I lingered in a gift shop for as long as I could before going through customs and security. And on the plane, I contemplated my calendar on my phone, already plotting my return.


August Newsletter: Blue Jay

Dreaming of being a Blue Jay.

Dreaming of being a Blue Jay.

Happy August!

Your free demo this month is...

“Blue Jay”
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(Each month I send a free secret demo like this to my subscribers — you also get access to all the past songs I’ve sent out!)
(Keep reading for more info on the song)


It seems like every month this year has been busy and exciting! Last month, if you missed it, was the release of my “Overwintered” music video, along with this wonderful article from the National Audubon Society. I also played some shows in Portland, Olympia, and Eugene, went birding in Seattle with Heidi Trudell of Just Save Birds, celebrated my 32nd birthday, took a little trip to Vancouver, BC, helped out at Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, did a lot of writing and reading, and worked on planning my fall (including my third Japan tour!).

If you’re interested in reading more about my June UK/Russia/NY tour, I’m writing all about it on my blog. Here are parts 1 and 2, which cover the first UK leg of the tour. I had to take a short break from the blog to work on a massive grant application, but the next entry will be up soon and tell all about my time in Kaliningrad!

As for this new song, “Blue Jay,” I literally finished writing it today! I wanted Sparkbird (my forthcoming second full album) to have at least one purely fun track, and I believe I may have found it in this song. Writing this song reminded me of writing “Pompeii” — another fun one. Sometimes you just need to capture some joy!

I owe some of my Blue Jay inspiration (jayspiration? inspirjaytion?) to Adrienne Kisner and her book The Confusion of Laurel Graham, as well as Julie Zickefoose and her forthcoming Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay. Both excellent and well worth checking out!

This recording is just keyboard and vocals (with a little bit of vocal layering at the end for impact). Expect it to get bigger and fancier.

As always, I hope you enjoy the new song! It’s an honor to share such fresh work with you.

Till next month!

Take care,
Stephan

www.stephannance.com

Check out LOOK AT THE HARLEQUINS! on

Bandcamp | iTunes | Spotify | Amazon | Google Play

PS Do you want me to come to your city? Tell me and I’ll try to make it happen! (I don’t always know where people want me to go…) Also, if you’re curious about hosting a concert, it’s easier than you might think! Especially if you're in the US or Canada. Piece of cake.

Shows

August 9 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
August 10 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
August 27 - Literary Arts, Portland, OR
September 13 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
September 14 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
September 28 - Sofar Sounds, Boston, MA
September 30 - Areté Venue and Gallery, New York City, NY
October 23 - McMenamins White Eagle Saloon, Portland, OR
November 25 - Yotsuya Tenmado Comfort, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
November 26 - K.D. Hapon, Nagoya, Japan
November 28 - PEPPERLAND, Okayama, Japan
November 29 - LIVE rise SHUNAN, Shunan, Japan
December 2 - Graf, Fukuoka, Japan
December 3 or 4 - TBA, Saga, Japan
December 5 or 6 - TBA, Ibusuki, Japan
December 9 - LUSH, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan

Look at the Harlequins! Tour, Part 2: Winchester, Ham Wall, & Sofar Frome

On the double-decker bus from my friend Jack’s house to the train station, I sat at the very front on the second floor — or is it the first floor, and you enter on the ground floor? Either way, I watched out the huge front window as we appeared to narrowly avoid colliding with all of London.

Vegan pie and mash and mushy peas!

A hop, skip, and a jump later, I was in Winchester! Reunited with my dear friend Rex, who very graciously played host, tour guide, and roadie for the next few days. We went to a pie-and-mash-and-comic-book shop called Piecaramba!, and I had a delicious vegan pie and mash, and my very first mushy peas. (Which I loved. So minty! So mushy!)

We returned to Winnall Moors, a wonderful place Rex showed me during my first stay in Winchester in December 2017. The entrance recalls to me a Shinto Shrine’s torii gate, which “symbolically marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred” (Wikipedia). The top beam of the gateway is carved with Winnall Moors as you enter and Winchester as you exit, suggesting that the moors, though located within Winchester, are somehow apart from Winchester. A Narnia type arrangement, maybe.

In a tree where, on my last visit, someone had told me to look for a Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo), I again found no buzzard, in spite of it being the perfect place for one. In lieu of a buzzard were two Common Wood-pigeons. This was truly the tour of Wood-pigeons — I don’t know if it’s always like this in June, but there were just tons and tons of them everywhere I went birding, in both the UK and in Russia. In addition to the Wood-pigeons, though, Winnall Moors afforded me glimpses at my first Reed Bunting, Eurasian Reed Warbler, and (most noisily) Sedge Warbler. There were also two Mute Swans with several cygnets, and a funny Eurasian Wren who apparently preferred to sing while seated.

After this, we went for a stroll/hike at Old Winchester Hill, “a chalk hill … surmounted by an Iron Age hill fort and a Bronze Age cemetery” (Wikipedia). We had barely left the parking lot when I saw a Eurasian Kestrel! I think it was at that point that I also saw a Red Kite, but my memory is a little fuzzy. An interesting fern-like plant (possibly a fern, but who knows) was plentiful along the trail to the hill. In contrast, the adjacent forested area had absolutely no groundcover whatsoever.

When we reached the fort/cemetery area, a sign alerted us to the presence of ground nesting birds. If any birds were nesting on the ground, they stayed well hidden while we were there, though we did encounter a Eurasian Magpie, some spectacular Yellowhammers, and my very first Greater Whitethroat. Also present were some Common Swifts, Carrion Crows, Eurasian Blackbirds, and (briefly) a few rosy Eurasian Bullfinches. We also heard the distant call of a Ring-necked Pheasant.

And, of course, there were stunning views of the English countryside, with more shades of green than you can shake a stick at.

Our return route involved some of the deepest and most irregular stairs you can imagine. Let the fact that I took no pictures of these stairs be a testament to the focus required to navigate them.

Poppies of Cheesefoot Head.

We stopped by Cheesefoot Head (“Cheesefoot” pronounced like “Chessfut”), which Wikipedia describes in part as “beauty spot”. As I recall, in December 2017 it was full of Rooks. This time the fields were full of daisies, red poppies, and other wildflowers.

Just in time for sunset, we went to a lookout on St. Giles Hill and enjoyed the view of the city before heading to dinner at Gurkha’s Inn, a restaurant serving Nepalese and Indian food.

In true English fashion, the next day was a rather wet one. I dashed out to Winnall Moors in the morning, where — as in 2017 — a passerby told me, “There’s a buzzard in the dead tree up ahead!” I hustled down the path, quickly realizing that it was farther than I’d initially thought. When I reached the spot with the tree, it was empty. Not even a Wood-pigeon! Birding is about the journey, though, and along the way I saw a Coal Tit, a few exuberant European Robins, and a couple of pretty little Eurasian Blackcaps.

The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty. Not pictured: dead pigeon in the pond. (Though of course I took a photo for Heidi Trudell and her Dead Birds 4 Science! group.)

Rex and I spent the day in a variety of historic locales. First we visited the Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty, which to this day houses twenty-five men who are “single, widowed or divorced, and over 60 years of age” (Wikipedia). The gardens were beautiful and lush, and the buildings themselves held interesting glimpses at life in medieval England. There was also a dead Wood-pigeon floating in the pond. As for living birds, there were Barn Swallows nesting in whatever little nooks and crannies they nest in, and more curiously, a couple of Eurasian Goldfinches clinging to the flint stone on one of the hospital walls.

Goldfinches perched on the wall.

Monument to “Beware Chalk Pit”.

We then went to the Farley Monument, the burial site of a horse named “Beware Chalk Pit”. The inscription read: “Underneath lies buried a horse, the property of Paulet St. John Esq., that in the month of September 1733 leaped into a chalk pit twenty-five feet deep a-foxhunting with his master on his back and in October 1734 he won the Hunters Plate on Worthy Downs and was rode by his owner and was entered in the name of ‘Beware Chalk Pit’.”

One Skylark skylarking.

While skirting the outside of this very unique monument, I happened to witness a Eurasian Skylark skylarking! That is to say, he was hovering high in the sky above a field and chattering up a storm. (Not exactly a new bird for me, but still exciting. Previously I’d seen Japanese Skylarks, Alauda arvensis japonica — a subspecies of Eurasian Skylark. For now.)

Rather than avoid the rain, we leaned into it, opting to take a walk along the River Itchen. This proved fruitful, as we saw several Gray Wagtails skipping themselves like stones up and down the river.

Rex in the rain!

Our flexible itinerary allowed us to spontaneously jump on board for a tour of Winchester College that happened to be starting as we were passing by. It was really a fantastic tour, and if you find yourself in Winchester I highly recommend it. As an American, when I hear the word “college” I think of university, but in this context a college is for students aged 13-18. The whole place was more like Hogwarts than I could have ever imagined possible, and I found it fascinating from beginning to end. Oh! And at the end, we got to go into the chapel where they filmed Valjean’s death scene in Les Miz!

“sure to blow your mind”

We ended the day with dinner at Wagamama, a British chain serving Japanese-ish cuisine. They had a vegan bowl called “avant gard’n,” created by chef Gaz Oakley and featuring a “vegan egg” that was interesting but very unlike an egg in everything but appearance. (That probably makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy it — I actually really liked the dish! The “egg” was just sort of silly, especially because they played it up so much on the placemats, boasting that it’s “sure to blow your mind”.)

Finally, it was the day of my show in Frome! But first — you can probably guess — we did a bit of sightseeing, immersing ourselves in the tiny, picturesque town of Shaftesbury — most famous for Gold Hill, a street featured in this bread commercial. It was like stepping into a bygone era, an era of unspeakably steep and lumpy roads.

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Shaftesbury Putt-Putt.

Apart from Gold Hill, Rex and I indulged in a substantial audio tour of the ruins of nearby Shaftesbury Abbey. It was a bit like walking through an ancient mini golf course, following numbered placards from one pile of stones to another. Meanwhile, the pre-recorded guide in our handheld audio devices told us what on earth we were looking at. Often his straightforward little lectures were followed by more impassioned performances by a voice actor portraying a nun who lived at the Abbey at the time of its dissolution and demolition. While I can’t recall any of her lines in their entirety, I do remember her hissing the phrase “servants of sin” to describe the people ransacking the Abbey.

Next, we made our pilgrimage to the Ham Wall Nature Reserve — my first close encounter with the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds — similar to the Audubon Society in the US). The RSPB manages the reserve, and from this birder’s perspective they’re doing a damn fine job of it. There’s quite a diversity of paths and habitats — with public art interspersed — and a truly awesome feeder setup behind some blinds at the entrance. I always love it when reserves have feeders. When you combine feeders with excellent habitat, you can see so much! And it’s just nice to have some low-hanging fruit, in case a place isn’t otherwise very active when you happen to be there.

At the feeders there were Eurasian Blue Tits, Great Tits, Dunnocks, European Goldfinches, European Robins, and at least one Eurasian Collared-dove. One of the feeder highlights was an adorable cluster of juvenile House Sparrows. I also saw a Eurasian Jay, which I’d seen before but only briefly. This, too, was not a lengthy encounter. And thinking about it, I’m pretty sure I have yet to hear a Eurasian Jay make any noise. Eurasian Jays seem to be less in-your-face than the North American jays I’ve seen (California Scrub-jays, Steller’s Jays, and Blue Jays).

As we meandered down a walkway on the edge of the wetlands, I noticed a low booming call that I knew could only be coming from a Great Bittern. From the sound of it, we were practically on top of the bird, but they proved impossible to track down. Instead, on the water, we saw many Great Cormorants and Mallards, as well as Canada Geese, Mute Swans, Tufted Ducks, Gray Herons, one Great Egret, and a family of super cute Little Grebes.

Still, I was bound and determined to find a Great Bittern. I wish I could build the suspense up longer, but just a few minutes later I found one! Hoorah! And shortly after this, a Eurasian Marsh-Harrier swooped by!

Finally, I had heard that there were owls potentially visible from a very remote blind, so I left Rex behind and hustled out to meet my destiny — which ultimately turned out to be some Carrion Crows. But as I speed-walked back to Rex, I FINALLY saw a Common Buzzard!

We spent a few more minutes enjoying the feeders at the entrance, then bid Ham Wall adieu and headed to my Sofar Sounds show in Frome.

Actually, while the show was organized by Sofar Sounds Frome, the venue for this particular show was in the nearby village of Chesterblade, in a heritage stone farmhouse. After some trial and error, we found some signs that ultimately led us to our destination. (The directions would have made complete sense had we been coming from Frome like normal people.) Following the signs down a rustic driveway, we pulled up alongside a gloriously quaint stone building strung with fairy lights.

The very first thing I did in the parking lot was brush my bare leg against a clump of stinging nettles. Welcome to the English countryside!

Of course, from the nettles there was nowhere to go but up. In my tradition of overusing the word “magical” to describe shows, the show was magical. And not just the show, but the whole Sofar experience. Anna-Dina and Ed — the Sofar Frome team leaders — were so welcoming and completely lovely. The farmhouse’s chilly interior was draped with colorful tapestries and furnished with cozy armchairs, sofas, and blankets. The mere presence of Nichola Devine’s harp onstage added an ethereal touch. The green room was divided from the public area with a huge playground parachute.

The audience began to arrive and soon the place was packed. My set came second in the lineup of three artists (the usual Sofar arrangement). It was so calming to listen to the otherworldly violin-playing of Clarice Rarity before my set, and after, the equally exquisite Harpoetry — spoken word and movement with harp accompaniment — of Jodie Jaimes and Nichola Devine.

I played “Sparkbird,” “Overwintered,” “Pompeii,” and “Varied Thrush”. The audience was so kind — including the people sitting on the floor in the very front, even though I know I spat all over them while I was singing!

Afterwards, I had the heartwarming experience of interacting with a number of listeners, one of whom went so far as to compare my music to that of Joanna Newsom! (Thank you, Zoë!!! Such high praise.) I also had the great pleasure of meeting and chatting with Sarah Swales, the photographer for the event, who used to live in Seattle! These four photos were all taken by Sarah:

And then, though it always feels hard to leave such a warm community, it was time to go back to Winchester. I needed to pack and attempt to sleep at least a few hours before the drive to Heathrow and my flight to Kaliningrad, Russia.

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Hopefully at least Rex has made it to the end of this long entry! Rex, how can I ever thank you enough for all the support you have given me? Without you, I would have none of these memories, nor the many that I didn’t manage to fit in to this post. I’m truly, truly grateful. You’re one of a kind!

Till we meet again. ❤️

Look at the Harlequins! Tour, Part 1: London

I scheduled a long, long day for myself when I booked a show in London for the day of my arrival from Portland.

A month later, I sit at home coughing and blowing my nose as I write this blog. Since I left New York a week ago, I’ve been sick — for several days with a fever. I can’t remember ever being sick in June/July. (The only time that comes to mind is when I was born, because I had congenital heart disease. So, I was pretty sick in July when I was 0.)

So, did three weeks of burning the candle at both ends finally catch up to me? Maybe.

But did I have a fantastic tour? YES. Did I live it to the fullest? YES.

Book against standard airport carpet.

Frankly, I maximized the shit out of this tour, and it started even before I left. I found out that you can order books to pick up at the Powell’s airport bookstore, and since my friend Peter’s partner Ocean Vuong’s highly-anticipated novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was hitting bookshelves on the 4th, I decided to select it as my tour reading material.

Ocean’s book was so brand spanking new that it was hand-delivered in a paper bag 30 seconds after I asked for it at the Powell’s counter. (Had I realized they delivered books to the airport one at a time, I might have just picked it up for myself at Powell’s on Hawthorne. On the other hand, three weeks later I saw the book on display in a bookstore at JFK. Butterfly effect? You’re welcome, Ocean.)

As we took off, a Killdeer flew alongside the plane. Bye, Portland!

Birding in Jack’s backyard.

I read a third of Ocean’s book on the plane, and it is a mind-blowingly great novel.

At this point I want to take a moment to thank the person who sat next to me on that direct flight from PDX to Heathrow. I was in the window seat; they had the aisle. They got up at regular intervals to use the restroom, which relieved me of the discomfort of having to ask to be let out, like a dog. I appreciated this.

Ah, London! What a lark! What a plunge! I made it to my friend Jack’s house and hung out in his backyard for a while, watching birds. There I saw my lifer Common Swift, a Eurasian Collared-dove, and some Rose-ringed Parakeets — perhaps some of the same birds I’d seen on my previous European tour in 2017.

Weirdo Victorian megalosaurus.

When Jack got home, we headed to the Crystal Palace area to hang out before my show. At Crystal Palace Park, we saw a collection of bizarre Victorian dinosaur sculptures. Then we navigated a fun/confusing Victorian maze. At the same time, I became reacquainted with a number of Victorian birds — or Eurasian birds, anyway. Most exciting to me were the baby Eurasian Moorhens!

Crystal Palace ruins.

We also walked among the ruins of the Crystal Palace itself, weaving through some kind of fitness boot camp that was taking advantage of some old palace stairs. Life goes on!

Show at the Library of Things. Photo by Jack Kennerley.

My show at the Library of Things went well. My energy was starting to wane, but it was still a lot of fun, and everyone was so sweet. I should play more shows in libraries!

Ship of Fools by Kehinde Wiley.

The next day, Jack and I braved the drizzle to do lots of fun touristy stuff. We went to Greenwich and saw, first and foremost in my mind, Eurasian Magpies who proved very difficult to photograph. We also went to a 16th century mansion-turned-museum called the Queen’s House, where they had some amazing contemporary artwork by women and people of color juxtaposed with all the typical colonialist stuff. For example, in one room there was a bust entitled Olaudah Equiano: African, Slave, Author, Abolitionist, 1745-97. In another, an enormous painting, Ship of Fools by Kehinde Wiley, occupied almost an entire wall. (From the museum label: “Kehinde Wiley inserts figures from marginalised communities into settings that echo famous paintings of the Western tradition.”) There was also a series of photographs showing diverse young women of Greenwich, a project by Bettina Von Zwhel in response to the Armada portrait of Elizabeth I.

I’m a magpie paparazzx.

We trekked up a hill to the Greenwich Observatory and stood very near the Meridian Line, but not on it because that costs money. (While everyone else in the world admired the view of London from the hill we’d just dragged ourselves up, I finally snapped a pic of a Eurasian Magpie.)

Afterwards, we crossed busy, blue Tower Bridge on foot and scored free tickets to the Tower of London from Jack’s boyfriend Nick. Having been raised on YA/middle grade historical fiction about Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, I was especially thrilled about this visit.

We’d heard there was a baby raven at the Tower… but we saw this baby pigeon! Even better!

Strolling around the castle grounds, I imagined my Quaker ancestors quaking at the sight of the Tower in the distance as they paddled down the Thames on the raft that would ultimately carry them to the New World. Perhaps they even caught a glimpse of one of the Tower’s six ravens.

One of the six ravens.

“Legend has it,” I told Jack and Nick, “that the kingdom will fall if there are ever fewer than six raisins at the Tower.”

Nick: “Did you say raisins?”

Outside the Charing Cross Theatre.

In the evening, Jack and I went to the penultimate performance of Amour, an under-appreciated Broadway musical I’d been obsessed with in high school. On Broadway it lasted maybe two weeks before being shut down, and its West End debut suffered a similar fate. We originally bought tickets for a performance later in June, but the run was cut short. Thankfully Jack was able to exchange our tickets.

Amour playbill.

As I described in my Instagram post after the show — it was pure magic. Having waited 16 years to see Amour, it was almost too much to handle. I was elated to see how everything was staged, and to hear songs that weren’t on the original Broadway cast recording. I cried at least three times, not because I was sad, but because it was everything my teenage self had dreamed of and more. Afterwards, I met every cast member I could and told them all the same thing: that seeing this show fulfilled a long-held wish, and this memory will be special to me for the rest of my life.

Graylag Geese, or Here Comes Everybody.

On my last day in London before heading to Winchester, Jack and I went to Walthamstow Marshes and Reservoirs. The wind there was just unbelievable. Nonetheless, there were birds aplenty! We saw oodles of Common Swifts feeding over one reservoir, along with at least one Bank Swallow and a couple of Common House-martins. (I think I saw my lifer Common House-martin from Jack’s backyard that morning or the previous day.) Along the rim of the reservoir, I finally saw my first Graylag Geese! Unfortunately they were very friendly, in a way that means people must be feeding them. Boo! Don’t. Feed. The. Waterfowl.

We also saw many Tufted Ducks, Great Cormorants, miscellaneous gulls that I couldn’t identify at a distance (particularly in such a mighty wind). My favorite part was seeing a couple of Eurasian Coots building a nest. One partner remained on the nest while the other one sought and retrieved nesting material. Then they’d help each other place it, which was the cutest thing ever. But most readers won’t have to take my word for it, because I got video!

#MuralOnTheMarsh.

On the way out, we passed by this fantastic #MuralOnTheMarsh. Hoorah for public art! The mural runs along either side of a paved multi-use path and features Gray Herons, Great Cormorants, Great Crested Grebes, Canada Geese, and (for fans of mammals) Red Foxes.

That night I watched “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” (the Miley Cyrus episode of Black Mirror) with Jack, Nick, and their friend Jésus, over vegan fish and chips. And the next morning, I left for Winchester!

To be continued!


July Newsletter: NO-vember

IMG_20190630_171859.jpg

WHAT A MONTH!

Last month, I mean. Not November. “November” is your demo for July, but I’ll get to that in a moment!

I spent June playing a handful of shows in the UK, Kaliningrad (Russia), and New York. It was a strange, surreal, magical month. I met so many wonderful people, and had so many wonderful experiences — it’s too much to describe in this newsletter, but you can peruse my InstagramFacebook, and/or Twitter for a lot of the details! And I’ll be writing several posts about it this month on my blog.

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Content warning: sexual assault, self-harm

I concluded the tour with an interview with Tara Santora, a reporter for the National Audubon Society, talking about the intersection of birding and my music. I actually mentioned this month’s song, “November,” when talking to them about how birds can be used as characters in songs. In “November,” a Loggerhead Shrike appears briefly. Shrikes are carnivorous songbirds who impale their prey on thorns and barbed wire fences. Cute but deadly, this bird struck me as a fitting character in a song about abuse and sexual assault.

I haven’t been particularly vocal in adding my voice to the #MeToo movement — but yes, #MeToo. Experiences of sexual assault are among the many issues I’ve addressed in years of therapy. The incidents that most strongly inspired this song took place when I was 16 and 18. I still struggle with the repercussions of other people’s violence against me. These experiences have impacted my confidence, my belief in my own abilities, my sense of self-worth. At the time, they fueled a tendency toward self-harm — specifically, cutting — that I thankfully haven't engaged in in over 10 years.

Can't pick them out,
Can't press them in;
I'll never hide my scars.


As a cis-assumed non-binary person, it’s often tough to know where my story fits in. And I worry about speaking over other people who are even less represented than I am — black and indigenous trans women, for example. So I usually keep it to myself. But of course my story matters too, and one place I feel comfortable opening up about it is in my music.

In writing this song — and all of my songs, really — I was influenced by the queer Russian poet Mikhail Kuzmin, who used chains of symbolic associations along with intertextuality (references to other writers’ works and his own) to create poems loaded with intriguing imagery. (Whether or not I ever come close to succeeding is for the Kuzmin scholars among you to judge!)

My other time machine: 
A pungent, putrid 
Brownish-green 
November smile 
Blandishing 
My two-timing door—


As dark as this subject matter is, I love performing this song, and I’m so excited about this demo! As always, it’s a work in progress, and subject to change — but the strings and bass and recorders and percussion are really bringing it an intense, driving energy.

I hope you enjoy the song — and I hope you’ll be able to join me for a show sometime soon! I’ve got some upcoming dates in Portland, Eugene, Olympia, and Boston, with more to come.

Take care,
Stephan

www.stephannance.com

Check out LOOK AT THE HARLEQUINS! on

Bandcamp | iTunes | Spotify | Amazon | Google Play

PS Do you want me to come to your city? Tell me and I’ll try to make it happen! (I don’t always know where people want me to go…) Also, if you’re curious about hosting a concert, it’s easier than you might think! Especially if you're in the US or Canada. Piece of cake.

Shows

July 5 - Artichoke Music, Portland, OR
July 19 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
July 20 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
July 21 - Eugene Piano Academy, Eugene, OR
August 9 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
August 10 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
September 13 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
September 14 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
September 28 - Sofar Sounds, Boston, MA
Other East Coast shows are possible for late September — stay tuned, and get in touch if you want to make sure something happens where you are!

June Newsletter: Big news & a song about TREElationships 😜

Tracking vocals for the “Arboretum” demo.

Tracking vocals for the “Arboretum” demo.

Happy June!

There’s so much happening right now! I just filmed a music video for “Overwintered”, directed by Dawn Jones Redstone. How can I describe Dawn in brief? The word "phenomenal" comes to mind. I think it's also fair to call her a mover and shaker. Stay tuned for news on the video release, which will likely involve screenings in Eugene and Portland!

I have a ton of gorgeous new merch — T-shirts, tank-tops, hoodies, tote bags, and stickers — designed by Chad Lowe.

And I’m about to leave on a mini-tour, with shows in London, Frome, Kaliningrad, and New York! Check my website for dates. And make sure you're following me on Instagram and Twitter for updates from distant lands!

Now, for your free song. For this lush spring/summer month, I present to you a demo of “Arboretum”.

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The orchestration will need some pruning. But for these monthly demos, more-or-less-finished is better than perfect! It’ll all be re-recorded in a fancy studio with real instruments. A percussion wizard will add percussion. Someone will use expert knowledge to get the levels right, and expensive plugins to make everything sound crisp and polished. At the risk of belaboring the point, this is a work in progress. Got it? Good!

In early 2008, I was in a long-distance relationship with a guy from Ohio — the Buckeye State. (He’s actually the person who suggested I start posting my music to YouTube! He was there when I filmed The Penny Song.) Our relationship inspired a number of songs, including “I am not a stranger here” and “Spring”.

Once, when he was visiting Eugene, we were walking on the University of Oregon campus and happened to pass by a tree with piles of nuts underneath. A buckeye tree, he declared. The state tree of Ohio!

We took a nut back to my apartment and somehow convinced it to germinate. It grew in a plastic cup for a while, even mustering up some real leaves before Georgie, my Senegal parrot — then just a few months old — destroyed it.

Later that year, we broke up. Walking by that tree he’d pointed out on campus, I imagined a palimpsest before me, with the specters of our past selves still hunkered down examining nuts. 

Every day I pass this way
I expect to find you
Waiting for me
Beneath the branches
Of the buckeye tree...

He was gone, but in a way he’d rooted down into my life, and there was no getting around the memories.

But for whatever reason, I didn’t finish the song then. Still, the ideas floated around in my head from time to time, transforming slightly over time. I had other relationships, and for each one, I quickly established symbolic tree connections. A sugar maple for the guy from Vermont. A Northern Red Oak for the guy from New Jersey. And for the guy from Florida — a palmetto, an orange tree, a Bald Cypress stand, a whole ecosystem.

It was a formidable plot for one amateur gardener to manage. 

When I returned to my notes for this song in 2016, I delved deep into the world of trees with the help of an incredible book called Trees Live Here: The Arboretums of America. I went back to the U of O campus — itself an arboretum — and wandered around, admiring the collection. Passing again by that tree the Buckeye boyfriend had found, I wanted to determine whether it was an Ohio Buckeye or a Yellow Buckeye. I tracked down a guide to the U of O arboretum and learned that the tree in question was actually a Red Horsechestnut.

In the end, I really leaned into the Florida imagery, because GOD, the biodiversity of Florida. I nearly start salivating at the thought of those glorious swamps, and then I remember the mosquitoes. 🙃

Now, I really need to get back to practicing and packing. Feel free to write back to me! I always love hearing from you!

Love,
Stephan
www.stephannance.com
Check out LOOK AT THE HARLEQUINS! on
Bandcamp | iTunes | Spotify | Amazon | Google Play

PS Do you want me to come to your city? Tell me and I’ll try to make it happen! (I don’t always know where people want me to go…) Also, if you’re curious about hosting a concert, it’s easier than you might think! Especially if you're in the US or Canada. Piece of cake.

May Newsletter: Вертишейка — Wryneck

Happy May!

This month, instead of sharing a demo of a song I’m working on orchestrating, I’m sharing a demo of a song I just finished writing. This brand new baby song is called “Вертишейка” (Vertisheika, or “Wryneck” in English). A wryneck is an absurd little bird in the woodpecker family.

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When I was on tour in December 2017, I played two shows in Russia — one in Kaliningrad and another in Saint Petersburg. Ever since, I’ve been especially eager to return to Kaliningrad, where I met many wonderful people whose creative energy impacted me profoundly.

Now I’m finally going back! In June (next month!! yikes), I’ll be visiting and playing a show in Kaliningrad! I’ll also be playing shows in London, Frome, and New York. (The next Portland show, while we’re at it, is July 5th at Artichoke Music. And I’m playing a Sofar Sounds show in Boston on September 28th! Stay tuned, dates keep being added.)

For this new song, Вертишейка, I wanted to try and write something that would on some level convey in Russian what my English songs are like. Not that I began writing with a mission statement in mind, but as I wrote it occurred to me what I was doing.

The key lyrical elements of a Stephan Nance song, it turns out:

Signs of queer life in Kaliningrad

Signs of queer life in Kaliningrad

  • Birds (specific birds)

  • Trees (specific trees)

  • Queer undertones

  • A touch of magical realism

  • A vague reference to the cartoon Steven Universe

At the beginning of this song, we find our protagonist at dawn, at the end of summer, in a persimmon orchard. (Kaliningrad is where I ate my first ever persimmon.) A lichen falls from a tree and startles some Bee-eaters. (Possibly these are actual European Bee-eaters, but they may represent the protagonist and some companion of the protagonist. Maybe they are bee-eaters in some symbolic way — always eating society’s stingers, or something along those lines. I’ll let you decide.) This lichen was evidently disturbed by a snake-like bird with a backwards head — a Wryneck! (Wrynecks are famous for imitating snakes and twisting their heads 180 degrees.)

The protagonist implores the Wryneck to stop looking at them, but evidently the Wryneck won’t be dissuaded. On the protagonist’s stroll out of the orchard, the Wryneck — that sneaky little busybody — lurks nearby, obsessively monitoring the protagonist’s every move and word.

Now, thanks to that Wryneck, the protagonist finds themself the subject of gossip. Everyone knows they’re “not normal” (which in Russian can be interpreted to mean not straight). Fine! They admit it! They’re not normal! But not-normal people can’t be normalized.

So, the protagonist declares, that Wryneck — and everybody else, no doubt — can say what they will and think what they want. The protagonist is over it. They don’t need your respect; they already have their own.

These last lines, about respect, allude to the Steven Universe song “Change Your Mind”. Steven Universe has been censored in Russia to remove the show’s groundbreaking queer representation. Far be it from me to not include a Steven Universe reference in my first all-Russian song.

I will say outright that my Russian lyrics are not without flaws. I have a BA in Russian, but I’m not a native speaker, and my level of fluency fluctuates wildly from year to year and even minute to minute. I’m fine with the lyrics reflecting that reality. Finished is better than perfect! And I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now, so time for songwriting is somewhat scarce.

More on some of those other irons soon…

Love,
Stephan
www.stephannance.com
Check out LOOK AT THE HARLEQUINS! on
Bandcamp | iTunes | Spotify | Amazon | Google Play

PS Do you want me to come to your city? Tell me and I’ll try to make it happen! (I don’t always know where people want me to go…) Also, if you’re curious about hosting a concert, it’s easier than you might think!

Triannual Update: 19 for 2019

With nearly four months of 2019 behind us, it’s time for an update on my 19 for 2019! I’ve knocked out 8 items on my list and I’m on track for two more. I’m so glad I decided to do this — it’s helping me do a lot of worthwhile things that I might have otherwise postponed indefinitely!

1. Teach Georgie a new trick.

There was one day where I sort of kind of tried to teach her to spin around, but we both quickly lost interest in that particular trick.

2. See my friends Angelica & Becca.

Becca is moving away from Oregon, too, so I’ve added her to this goal. She should have been on there anyway, because even when we both lived in Eugene it was so easy to go forever without seeing each other. Even though it always made me so happy to see her! Clearly I need to make more of an effort in the seeing-friends area, in general.

3. Go to a dentist.

I went to a dentist! In fact, I went to the dentist five times. There was the preliminary examination. There were a couple rounds of fillings, and a broken crown replacement. There were deep cleanings and a polish. Then there was me going back in because I was afraid I needed a root canal, but it turned out the crown replacement was just still sensitive.

4. Finish first draft of book.

It needs a ton of work, but hey, it’s a first draft and it’s DONE.

5. Go to a writers’ group.

Technically I’ve gone to a reading series, but I did read my own work for a group of other writers, so I’m saying it counts.

6. Plan a birding trip with my friend Becky.

I did go birding with Becky, but I wouldn’t say I “planned a birding trip” with her. She came to Portland and we went birding. I think this goal is really to plan a birding trip to a place where neither of us lives — maybe Eastern Oregon or the coast.

7. Go birding with my mom.

I need to think on this one and figure out how to make it happen. Hmm.

8. Go back to Japan.

It looks like my 2019 Japan tour will be in November. On the sooner side of things, in June I’ll be playing some shows in the UK and Kaliningrad, Russia!

9. Find a new favorite board game.

I may have found two new favorite board games! One of them — Wingspan — I have yet to play. I pre-ordered it as soon as I heard about it back in January, but demand exceeded production and I’m still on the waitlist.

[EDIT: I FINALLY GOT IT THE DAY AFTER I POSTED THIS!!!]

The game I have played is MachiKoro. Adam got it for me after I returned from my first Japan tour in 2017, to help me cope with missing Japan, but we never actually played it until this year. It was super fun — kind of a mix of Settlers of Catan and SimCity.

10. Do The Curated Closet.

I had called this one “Dress for success,” but that isn’t an easy item to check off. A more actionable plan is to read The Curated Closet and follow its steps.

11. Read a book in Russian.

I haven’t even begun to think about this, really, BUT I have been doing a Skype language exchange with my friend Vlad from Kaliningrad. So maybe keeping up on my Russian is just taking a different form than I expected.

12. Go to a Japanese conversation group.

I finally went to a Japanese conversation group a couple weeks ago and I’m so glad I did! The people were super friendly and welcoming. I definitely plan on going again.

13. Change my Facebook page photos four times. √ √ √ _

So far I have changed photos three times! One more to go and I’ll be able to check this one off, though I’ll want to make sure I don’t wait till 2020 to change them again after that.

14. Brush up on French.

I do still want to do this, but it always feels less pressing than Japanese and Russian. Probably I need to set a more specific goal.

15. Write a monthly newsletter. √ √ √ √ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I’ve sent out a monthly newsletter every month this year, so I’m on track for this one! Each newsletter includes a free download of an unreleased demo along with some of the story behind the song. The response to this has been lovely, with people emailing me back very thoughtful messages. I’m glad I started doing this!

16. Make a vlog.

Finally, I made a vlog for my niece Genevieve! Actually it’s a product review, but that counts, right? It’s a video, and in it I’m talking and being silly instead of just performing a song. I haven’t seen Genevieve since I made the video, but word on the street is she dug it.

17. Plan two family get-togethers.

Zero progress on this. I need to get moving on it, or I’ll end up trying to cram two get-togethers into one weekend in December.

18. Get a stamp made.

My friend Rebecca DeMoss (the Becca of goal #2), who did the artwork for A Troubled Piece of Fruit, made THREE amazing stamp designs for me! If you come to three of my shows, you can collect them all — on programs, in your own journal, wherever — and get a special prize! It looks like there’ll be more to come, too. I’m so excited about these stamps, I can’t even tell you.


19. Have (new) friends over.

It’s been tricky, because this year has been so busy, but I did have a new friend over for an hour once! And old friends have stopped by on a couple occasions. I’ll be continuing to work on this!

Some things I’ve accomplished that weren’t on my list:

  1. I went to the Winter Wings Festival in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

  2. I went to a Portland Birds & Beers meetup.

  3. I started working on a music video.

  4. I went to AWP (the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference).

  5. I entered this year’s Tiny Desk Contest (see right).

  6. I made seitan for the first (and second) time and not only was it super easy, it was also much tastier than the packaged stuff.

  7. I started re-reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, with the goal of finally finishing the series. (I only ever read 10 or 11 books out of 13.)

  8. I’ve orchestrated several songs for the next album!

  9. I got a new(er) phone that will be great for taking photos on my tours this year!

That’s it for this update! If you want to get my next free demo in your inbox next week, sign up for my newsletter here. :)

April Newsletter: Grit > Fancy Tricks

Hi there! It's April, and that means it's time for another secret demo!

The following story (as usual!!!) is kind of a bummer, but I’ll start with the happy ending: the song I got out of it! “After the Ball” is one of my favorite songs to perform, and I’m excited to record it for SPARKBIRD. You can hear the direction I’m taking it in this demo, but of course it’s a work in progress.

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Now for the background on this song.

In my years of creative block and weekly therapy for trauma, I often had surprisingly little to say about the more obviously traumatic events I’ve experienced. And the nightmares that left me drenched in sweat every night for three years were also rarely, if ever, about those events.

Instead, they were about a housing situation I found myself in after a difficult breakup.

It’s a complicated story, and one that I won’t go into completely. I can only tell my side of it, and they’re welcome to tell their side, wherever they are. (If they do, I hope they won’t name names,  because I’m not naming names.)

It’s confusing to look back on it, because I see that I made a lot of mistakes. I wish I had done many things differently. At the same time, I feel compassion for this younger version of myself. I know they were trying as hard as they could.

Following my difficult breakup, two of my closest friends offered to let me live with them while I got back on my feet. I had recently been diagnosed with PTSD, and I wasn’t able to pay rent, but we agreed that I could contribute in other ways (helping out around the house, etc.).

At first, it was nice to live with friends. (Calling it “a ball” might be a stretch, but it was better than living with my ex.)

But the breakup was just the first in a series of unfortunate events. Soon after, a close family member attempted suicide. My mental health declined. I was continually grateful to have the support of my friends through this difficult time, and when I checked in about where we stood over the finances, they said things like, “We’re so glad to have you here, and you do so much for us. It’s such a relief to have all these chores done when we come home from work.”

A few months later, things were looking up. I was playing more shows. I met someone really great and started writing a song I felt excited about (I finished it many years later — “Grey & Green”). I found a counselor who was helping me get back on track at the University of Oregon. And I was finally able to get a bunch of work done for the professor I was working for.

And then everything fell apart. On a single day, I lost my job as a research assistant, the person I’d been dating broke up with me, and I found out my grandpa was in the hospital and didn’t have long to live.

When my friends came home, I told them the things that had happened. And in response, as I sat there crying about my dying grandpa, they gave me a lecture about how I needed to pull myself up by my bootstraps and stop being so irresponsible. I needed to stop working on music and focus on real work.

My jaw dropped. If there had been any hope of my pulling myself up by my bootstraps, it was dashed in that moment. I felt overwhelmed by the most gut-wrenching sense of betrayal, and a sort of cognitive dissonance set in. I thought I knew these people — how could they respond so cruelly? Did they think I wanted to have all these awful things happen?

And music —  that was the one thing that always brought me joy.

Where compassion might have bolstered me and helped me be more the person they wanted me to be, their chastising crushed me. I stopped allowing myself to work on music, like they wanted, and as a result I lost hope.

And I became extremely resentful of these people and the cushy middle class lives I saw them living every day. They complained about money problems while going on fancy vacations and spending frivolously. Meanwhile I was on food stamps and skipping meals.

I don’t envy the position they were in. If I were them, I never would have let me live with them. I was never going to be what they wanted me to be — that is, someone who would succeed in the particular way they were succeeding. After I moved out, I still couldn’t manage the bootstrap thing and ended up on disability.

My advice to you, if you’re ever feeling charitable, is to ask yourself a lot of questions: what expectations do you have of the person you want to help? Does your compassion depend on a certain timeline? Does it have an expiration date?

I wish my friends had asked themselves these questions before they invited me to live with them. Maybe then we’d still be friends.

All of that was in 2011. In the years that followed, whenever I tried to work on music, a nagging voice would hiss: “Stop it. Stop being so irresponsible.” It wasn’t until 2016 that I was able to finally shake it out of my system.

And I wrote this song to finally wrap that whole experience up, once and for all. Ta-da!

With love and grit,

Stephan
www.stephannance.com
Check out LOOK AT THE HARLEQUINS! on
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March Newsletter: A song for a very special day and month ❤️🎂

Happy March! ❤️ Spring is almost here! 🌷

The song I’m sharing with you this month is called “Rebreather,” and I wrote it for my partner Adam. Today (March 3rd) is his birthday, and the anniversary of the day we first met. And our actual anniversary is March 15th — the Ides! 😱

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If you haven’t heard the story, it’s a pretty cute one. In November 2012, Adam saw an ad for my music on Facebook.

600722_10100911095274676_805494865_n.jpg

The next couple months were really rough for a multitude of reasons (some of which are discussed here). When Adam saw me post something cryptic and depressing online, he found my address and sent me a sweet, supportive letter in the mail.

In February 2013, when I was trying to get back on my feet, I got a message from Adam’s friends. They wanted me to come to Tacoma to to play music at Adam’s surprise birthday party.

March 2013.

March 2013.

I agreed, and a few weeks later took a train up to Tacoma. Adam found me hiding in a recycling bin, so I guess that’s technically where we met.

Over the first few years of our relationship, I was focused on improving my mental health. It was an incredibly challenging process that took a ton of work, and a ton of support from Adam. I know there were times when it looked like that struggle would be part of our life forever, but our relationship remained strong throughout it all. Most people would have given up, especially so early in a relationship, but Adam always saw that I was more than my mental health struggles.

I started writing this song when we first met, and was finally able to finish it four years later in February 2017. When I started writing it, it was all about this sense I had of him guiding me through hostile terrain. And at the time he’d been planning to go on a school trip to Nepal, so I had Everest in mind. (He didn’t end up going on the trip, so it’s sort of funny that it’s forever embedded into a song.) When I returned to the song in 2017, the story shifted. It’s not about me relying on Adam to carry me through everything — it’s about how his support empowered me to empower myself. Now, whether I’m faced with a new obstacle or dealing with the ghosts of my past, I know he’s there for me — but more importantly, I know I’m there for me, too.

February 2019.

February 2019.

Thanks for reading and listening. 😊 Till next month!

PS  If you're interested in having me play a house show sometime this year — anywhere in the world — let me know! Here's my helpful guide to hosting a living room concert.

PPS If you're in Portland and looking for a piano or songwriting teacher, look no further!

February Newsletter: An early glimpse of "Sparkbird"

Hello! Happy February!

I was so caught up in the release of Look at the Harlequins! (Bandcamp | iTunes | Spotify | Amazon | Google Play) that I forgot to send out a new song last month! To make up for it, I'm sending a big one — the demo for the title song on my next full-length album, Sparkbird. I've been busy orchestrating ten songs for it, and I'm hoping it will be ready later this year.

While this song doesn't mention any birds by name, it's very much a tribute to birding and the joy that the pursuit of birds has brought to my life.

A "sparkbird" is the bird that gets you obsessed with birds. For me, that's the Western Tanager. Actually, I have a picture of the Western Tanager who sparked my passion and ultimately inspired this song! There he is.

This is the "incredible, bright yellow bird with an orange head and black wings" I mentioned to Kelsey Greco when she interviewed me for this Vortex Magazine article.

As exciting as the discovery of this Western Tanager was, way back in 2011, I didn’t really start birding right then. But more and more, birds became tied up in my self-care and mindfulness practices. There were individual birds I looked for on my daily bike rides — a hummingbird who was always perched at the top of a certain tree, a pheasant who was always on top of a certain pile of bark chips.

I was appreciating birds but kind of tiptoeing around them. For some reason, I had this idea that if I dared to go out with a pair of binoculars, some Real Birders would call me out and tell me to get off their turf. Eventually I met a Real Birder — my friend Rebecca Waterman, who contributed backing vocals to "Grey & Green" — and I asked her very sheepishly if she thought it’d be okay if I looked at birds even though I didn’t know anything about birding. She told me to just do it, and that she didn’t know a ton either but you just learn as you go.

It makes me wonder — how often do we wait for permission to do something that could make us happier?

If watching birds happens to be something you're interested in but feel unqualified to do, let me be the one to say: you have permission! Or maybe you want to learn to play an instrument, or to speak another language, or do calligraphy, or write a poem, or make something out of clay. You have permission to do those things, too! You'll probably be terrible at it at first, but being terrible at something is the first step towards being good at something.

On the subject of birds — this week I'm going to the Winter Wings Festival in Klamath Falls, Oregon, to do research for the young adult novel I'm writing (which, if you haven't guessed, is bird-related). If you follow me on Twitter and Instagram, you'll be seeing some glimpses of that trip, which promises to be very cold and snowy.  ❄️⛄️

Oh — also, this demo is of course a work in progress! In the end, it'll have real instruments, and definitely some percussion. 😊

PS If you're interested in having me play a house show sometime this year — anywhere in the world — let me know! Here's my helpful guide to hosting a living room concert.

Diversity in my music

When I made my first album, A Troubled Piece of Fruit, my main concern was getting it done. I found an engineer, and when I needed session musicians, I basically hired whoever he suggested. A few friends of mine did the artwork, graphic design, and played cello and melodica.

Including myself, there were 8 people involved in the production. Only one was a person of color, and only two were women. (I’m non-binary, and I’m counting myself as such, though at the time that’s not how I identified.)

At the time, I wasn’t really looking at myself as a person providing opportunities in the music industry. My main focus was getting myself in the door.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the production of Incredible Distance. Reflecting on A Troubled Piece of Fruit, I realized that if I hired the most visible, highly recommended people, my personnel would be predominantly white, cisgender, heterosexual, and male. This was in Eugene, Oregon, and whenever I searched for local musicians, the first people in the results were always apparently the most privileged. And when I reached out to professors and instructors at the University of Oregon, they generally recommended white male students. Sometimes they gave me a few leads but recommended the white male on the grounds that “he has more experience”.

It’s worth noting — in case you’re unaware — that the music industry is a notorious bro-fest at basically every level. If you fit into that scene easily and comfortably, you’re going to go farther faster.

Wanting to to do my little part to dismantle the white cis heteropatriarchy, I decided that for Incredible Distance, I’d hire only women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ folks.

And that’s what I did. It definitely complicated the process. I hadn’t done any recording since early 2013, and a lot of my contacts had moved away. Nonetheless, I was able to do almost everything in Eugene, though it ended up being easier to find a violist and a photographer in Phoenix, Arizona.

While I was in Phoenix (for a show as well as the recording and photoshoot), a non-white 20-something man asked me why I hadn’t been able to do it all in Eugene. When I explained that I wanted to hire only women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ folks, he took issue with it and said I was being racist towards white people and discriminating against the many talented straight white men out there.

I have no clue what I said in response to that, but I assume it was something vague about agreeing to disagree, even though I hate that phrase.

In any case, I was more hesitant to disclose my hiring guidelines after that conversation.

But that guy in Phoenix can rest easy. When it came time for the final mixing and mastering, I did end up hiring one of the many talented straight white men out there.

Still, out of the 13 people who worked on Incredible Distance, eight were people of color, four were women, two were women of color, and four of the five white people were queer.

Now, for the latest record, Look at the Harlequins! How does it measure up in terms of diversity?

A whopping 23 people worked on it (compared to 13 on Incredible Distance and 8 on A Troubled Piece of Fruit). I decided not to completely exclude cis straight white guys, and ended up hiring five (three of whom I had worked with on A Troubled Piece of Fruit).

Eight of the 23 were people of color, and eight of the 23 were women — but zero were women of color. To my knowledge, eight of the 23 were queer. Of those eight, one was a person of color, and three were (white) women. The two non-binary people were white. Three of the 23 were BIPOC (Black & Indigenous people of color).

Of course, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes, and the numbers don’t tell you everything. There were women/POC/trans folks who got sick or had emergencies and weren’t able to be involved. There was also a cis white guy (orientation unknown) who I un-hired after he very rudely questioned the qualifications of a woman I had hired.

The takeaway for me is that I can stand to do better in ways, and that I absolutely should remain conscious of the hiring decisions I’m making — who’s getting the opportunities, who’s going to end up having “more experience”. I love everyone I worked with on this (and every) record, and I want to hire more people of color — particularly women of color, trans people of color, and Black & Indigenous people of color — in the future.

I’m just one independent musician of modest means, so it’s probably a stretch to say “With great power comes great responsibility” self-referentially. But with great power over a relatively small project does come some responsibility, for sure. I want to always hold myself accountable and use my power responsibly.

Overwintered

There’s no exit till we skate.

 
Photo:  Kai Hayashi  · Graphic design:  André Casey  · Makeup design:  Dr. Lisa Buckley  · Makeup artist: Rheanna May Murray

Photo: Kai Hayashi · Graphic design: André Casey · Makeup design: Dr. Lisa Buckley · Makeup artist: Rheanna May Murray

You can now listen to "Overwintered"! It's the second single from Look at the Harlequins!, and probably my favorite song out of everything I've ever written.

Featuring...
Stephan Nance - vocals, piano 
Simeon Brown - violin 
Lizzy Donovan - cello 
Milo Fultz - upright bass 
Hannah Murawsky - bassoon 
Hannah Pell - oboe 
Merlin Showalter - drums, percussion 
Arrangement - Stephan Nance & Merlin Showalter

Piano was recorded at Eugene Piano Academy (where I'll be playing a release show on Friday 01/11!); vocals, violin, cello, bassoon, and oboe were recorded at Sprout City Studios, all with Kash Mowatt engineering.

Upright bass, drums, and percussion were recorded at The Rye Room, with Matt Greco as engineer. I highly recommend you watch this video of Merlin dancing around to the percussion and bass tracks.

 
 

I’m going to talk a little about the circumstances under which I started writing this song, and even though I’m not going deep and dark I should probably say:

CW: trauma, suicidal ideation

I started writing this song at the end of 2012. I had gone to Klamath Falls in southeastern Oregon to perform on the local LGBT organization’s float in the town’s winter parade.

I was 25 and struggling with some serious mental health issues, aggravated by a series of traumatic experiences throughout the previous year or two. On top of it all, in my home life someone very close to me began expressing a lot of distressing things to me, including their desire to die.

So, naturally, when I met a teenager who was struggling in Klamath Falls, I leapt at the opportunity to ignore my own problems and dedicate myself to fixing theirs.

It felt so comforting to spend time in a totally unfamiliar place, free from the shadows of past experiences that haunted me in Eugene. And for a person from the rarely-snowy floor of the Willamette Valley, Klamath Falls was a winter wonderland. After such a turbulent couple of years, and in the midst of such dark times at home, having snowball fights and going ice skating with a person I didn’t feel threatened by — it was an irresistible change of pace.

My intentions were innocent — the innocence of it all was what I found so enticing. I felt safe. I wanted this teen to feel safe, and I didn’t feel like their guardians were doing enough to make them feel safe and cared for. I was frustrated by their guardians’ refusal to even try understanding what this teen was going through as a young queer person in rural Oregon. Looking back, it’s easy to see that I got too invested and too involved. To make a long story short, it ended badly, with unjust accusations and scary threats against me.

For a few weeks, I didn’t talk to anyone or see anyone. I was dangerously depressed. I want to say it’s a miracle I’m still alive, but it isn’t really a miracle — it’s because in what could have been the final hours, I found a shred of strength somewhere inside me, reached out, and got help. I’m so glad I did, because there were a lot of great things ahead of me.

That teenager left home a few months after all this happened. They joined Job Corps and eventually got their GED.

I struggled with creative block for the next few years. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say — I just couldn’t stop stopping myself from saying it. It took years of weekly therapy and a ton of work on my own to finally write songs again.

In 2016, I came back to what I’d written of “Overwintered”. I gave myself two weeks to delve deep into that time in my life in order to finish the song. Part of my process is to compile a sort of corpus of vocabulary that the song will need, and I already had most of that in my notes. So it was mostly a matter of sifting through it all and staying afloat while I bundled the whole experience into a manageable package.

And now it’s recorded and ready to be heard and interpreted however you wish. As with many experiences in my life, I wouldn’t want to repeat it, but I’m glad I got a song out of it!

(Incidentally, the other single from Look at the Harlequins! — “Pompeii” — is also about my impulse to help people get out of their crummy situations. As is the track “Hope or Float”. I’m noticing a pattern!)

I hope you'll listen to "Overwintered" and dance around like Merlin. I also hope you'll come to the release shows in Eugene (January 11th) and Portland (January 18th) if you can!

Oh, and on a completely unrelated note — happy 11th hatchday to my Senegal parrot, Georgie! Here’s a video of her fetching.

 
 
 

19 for 2019

Inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s 18 for 2018 (and 19 for 2019), I have put together my list of 19 things I want to get done in 2019. I’m doing this in lieu of resolutions, which tend to be more vague and less actionable. What’s on your 19 for 2019? Here are mine:

1. Teach Georgie a new trick.

My pet Senegal parrot can fly to me when I call her (when we’re doing that, anyway), roll over (though she holds on to her cage top with one foot), wave, and fetch a ball and drop it in a bowl. On January 7th, she’ll turn 11 years old, and I think it’s important for all 11-year-olds to learn something new. (Also, she hates the traffic outside our new place and could use a distraction.)

2. See Angelica.

My best-friend-forever Angelica lives in LA. I saw her twice in 2017 (in Japan when she lived there, and in LA after she moved), and once in 2018 (in Eugene for our friend’s wedding). Since it takes some effort to see each other, it’s important for this to be something I’m keeping track of.

3. Go to a dentist.

My crappy insurance only covers crappy dentists. When I was in Eugene, I tried for a while to schedule a cleaning but my dentist’s phone number was apparently disconnected. I considered going in person, but the building always looked abandoned and I had no easy way to confirm their hours. And anyway, my last appointment had to be scheduled half a year in advance, and I didn’t know whether I’d be in town. Result: I haven’t been to a dentist in at least a couple years. This problem needs to be rectified (even though I got a Quip for Christmas).

4. Finish first draft of book.

I started writing a YA novel in 2018. I intended to finish it in 13 weeks, but instead I wrote half of it in ~5 weeks, made a new record, moved to Portland, and took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

Now I’ve started a new 13-week Best Self journal, and one of my goals is to finish my Bad First Draft of this book in that time.

5. Go to a writers’ group.

Accountability isn’t really something I struggle with, but I know I could benefit from interacting with other writers, sharing my work, and getting feedback (while also giving feedback on other people’s work, of course). If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Happier in Hollywood, it’s the importance of writers’ groups.

6. Plan a birding trip with Becky.

Now that I live in Portland, I need to make a concentrated effort to see my Eugene friends. I also need to make a concentrated effort to spend time in nature. In Eugene, I racked up a yard list of something like 80 species. Here, I’ve gotten five or six so far, with weeks in between new additions. So, with this goal, I’ll be able to see two birds with one binocular, so to speak

7. Go birding with my mom.

Shortly before I moved to Portland, my mom expressed a strong interest in birding. She even ordered a Sibley guide. I was thrilled and promised we’d go birding, then promptly left forever. Planning to do some birding with my mom would be a good way to get me down to Eugene, and get us to enjoy some quality time out of the house.

8. Go back to Japan.

My first Japan tour was in 2017. My second Japan tour was in 2018. My third Japan tour is in 2019. When? I don’t know yet. But 2019 for sure.

9. Find a new favorite board game.

Because Adam and I have incompatible approaches to Bananagrams. Because Iota can be a lot of work. Because Settlers of Catan has gotten kind of old. Because no one ever wants to play Guts of Glory with me. Because no one ever wants to play Machi Koro with me.

10. Dress for success.

Adam told me about this great book — The Curated Closet — and we both want to use it to curate our closets. Or our shared closet. Note: he didn’t actually read the book, he just listened to the episode of By the Book where they followed The Curated Closet’s teachings for a month. (I might do the same thing.)

11. Read a book in Russian.

I want to do something to maintain my Russian. Reading a book in Russian would be a decent way to do that. (I know I need to practice speaking, too. Also writing. And listening. But I’m going to focus on reading a book.)

12. Go to a Japanese language circle.

When I return to Japan, I want everyone I met on the first two tours to be blown away by how much I’ve improved. I can’t do that just by learning thousands of kanji on WaniKani.

13. Change my Facebook page photos four times.

Last year I changed my Facebook page’s cover photo one time. From February 2nd all the way to December 31st, my Facebook page said “New EP coming Feburary 9th”. This is not good.

14. Brush up on French.

My niefling Alex goes to a French immersion school, and I’m starting to feel incompétent next to them. I want the words to come to me a little more easily, like they do for a too-smart-for-their-own-good nine-year-old.

15. Write a monthly newsletter.

Milo Fultz, who played bass for me on A Troubled Piece of Fruit and Look at the Harlequins!, sends out a monthly email newsletter where he talks about what he’s been up to, what he’s been listening to, what’s next for him. I always love reading them, and they always make me feel envious of his newsletter-sending consistency and all the cool things he does. Since my one-word theme for the year is Enviable (or, alternately, Nemesis-worthy), it follows that I need to embrace this practice.

16. Make a vlog.

Every time I see my niece Genevieve, she screams at me, “When are you making a vlog?!” The answer: 2019. It’s on my 19 for 2019, so I’ve gotta.

17. Plan two family get-togethers.

Even when I lived in Eugene, I didn’t see my family as often as I’d like to. Now that it’ll take more work to make it happen, I want to maximize the experience at least twice this year by planning family get-togethers. In theory, this will bring a lot of family together at one time. This is something that happened more often when I was a kid — maybe because there were more grandparents around — but it’s sort of fallen by the wayside in recent years. (To be clear, I intend to see my family more than twice. I just want to make sure we get everybody together a couple times.)

18. Get a stamp made.

In Japan, there are souvenir stamps everywhere: in train stations, at highway rest stops, at nature preserves. I’m a little obsessed with finding them and stamping them in a nice notebook throughout each trip to Japan.

I want to get my own stamp designed and have it at my merch table (along with some small sheets of paper for folks who don’t happen to have a notebook on them) so people can get a fun, free souvenir at my shows. I especially want this for my next Japan tour, but I think it’ll go over well in the US and other countries as well.

19. Have (new) friends over.

As I mentioned several times, I just moved to Portland. I have various goals (on this list and elsewhere) that involve meeting new people, and inviting someone over (for dinner or just to hang out) is a great way to strengthen a new relationship. I also want to get to build friendships with acquaintances I now live closer to, and maintain older friendships.

I’m not sure yet if I’ll give progress reports throughout the year or just an overview at the end. It might depend on how successful I am at knocking them out. We’ll see!

For now, I’m focused on my new record, Look at the Harlequins!, which will be released on January 11th. There’s a ton to do to get ready for the release itself as well as the release shows… so I’m going to get back to that!

Happy 2019!

 
 

Look at the Harlequins!

Happy new year!
Happy new record!

2018 has been an exhausting and gratifying year from beginning to end. When I rang in the New Year, I had just come home after a tour of nine countries. Incredible Distance came out in February and I set off on my second tour of Japan. In March, while still in Japan, I celebrated my five-year anniversary with my partner Adam. In June, I graduated from the University of Oregon with a B.A. in Russian. In July, I went to Brooklyn to record a couple dozen vinyl records at Leesta Vall, each capturing a unique performance dedicated to the person who ordered it. (And I made a few extras!) While I was there, I also appeared on the mürmur podcast (episode 277). Then I headed to Boston to play a house concert, and I had the great pleasure of meeting some wonderful people who have been following my music for almost as long as I’ve been making it. In September, an article I wrote about Russian LGBT issues was published in The Gay & Lesbian Review. I also took a trip to Eastern Oregon to enjoy some birding and do research for the young adult novel I’m writing (which will hopefully be out there in the world in a couple years). And in November I moved to Portland! I’ll miss everyone in Eugene, but like a freshly repotted plant I’m excited to grow in ways I couldn’t before.

Somewhere in there, I started assembling this new record, Look at the Harlequins! What I envisioned as a humble little EP evolved into something more akin to a mini-LP, with a team of two dozen people behind it (compared to eight people on A Troubled Piece of Fruit and thirteen on Incredible Distance).

I had the title — a line from the song “Grey & Green,” borrowed from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Look at the Harlequins! — for about a year, and I knew I wanted to somehow showcase a Harlequin Duck on the cover. For a brief period, I was obsessed with an far-fetched idea that involved a row of tiny Harlequin Ducks swimming along my blue-shaded eyelid. (Easier said than done.) Eventually, I stumbled upon Dr. Lisa Buckley’s fabulous #BirdGlamour looks on Twitter. A month or so later, the possibility of a bird-glam cover photo finally dawned on me, and I contacted Dr. Buckley. She designed this glorious Harlequin Duck makeup look, Rheanna May Murray applied it to my face, and Kai Hayashi shot a brilliant set of photos.

You can already listen to “Pompeii” —the first single from Look at the Harlequins! — on Bandcamp (see player to the right of this post). Pre-order Look at the Harlequins! (digital / physical) now and you’ll get an instant download of “Pompeii,” and then next week you can come back to get the second single, “Overwintered”. Pre-orders really help me make a bigger splash on release day — and thus make way onto new listeners’ radars — so thank you for the early support!

If you’re in or near Eugene or Portland, I hope you’ll join me for the release shows on January 11th at Eugene Piano Academy and January 18th at Classic Pianos (next to Aladdin Theater). Ticket sales from these shows will benefit the Lane County Audubon Society and Portland Audubon. The show in Portland will be opened by fabulous pop-soul singer-songwriter Karyn Ann.

I’ll be posting more about the record and all the exciting things coming up in January and beyond, so make sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Thank you for supporting me and my music, and for helping me get it into more people’s ears. It means the world to me.

Take care, and happy new year!

Helsinki, Saint Petersburg, Napoli & Beyond

(Before my memory fails me completely, I want to try to finish my account of the 2017 Europe tour. Shortly after my last post (way back in February!), I left for Japan, and the blog fell by the wayside. But it’s never too late for now!)

Selfie in front of some rainbow stairs leading up from a beach in Morocco.

Selfie in front of some rainbow stairs leading up from a beach in Morocco.

December 10

After Malmö, Sweden, the next stop on my whirlwind tour was Helsinki, Finland. After a short train ride and a short plane ride and another short train ride, I wound up at Helsinki Central Station. I wandered around in a stupor, wanting to make the most of my one day there but feeling too exhausted to do anything. I had written down several sights I wanted to try seeing, but they were all too far away. I wouldn’t have time to see them before the show.

In the end, I decided the best idea would be to go for a walk.

I walked through Kaisaniemi Park, admiring the public art and withered roses. The Botanical Garden appealed to me but I couldn’t find a way in.

Botanical Garden as seen from Kaisaniemi Park. I stuck my camera through the fence to get an unobstructed view.

Botanical Garden as seen from Kaisaniemi Park. I stuck my camera through the fence to get an unobstructed view.

Then I went in a store called Music Hunter and got my dad a vintage button with “Great Balls of Fire” on it along with a piano, flames, and little flashing red lights.

I found the front of the Botanical Garden and realized you had to pay to get in, which wouldn’t have made sense for how little time I had. Instead I spent a long time loitering outside and watching a flock of Bohemian Waxwings. I’d only seen a couple of them once before, in Oregon, where they’re rare, so this was an exciting encounter.

My camera died and I guessed it was time to move on.

At Elisavet’s, preparations for the show were underway. It ended up being a huge potluck with tons of people from the Couchsurfing community and beyond — including Rhienna Guedry and her partner, who are also from Oregon.

I wish I had written about this sooner or taken more notes so I could say more about it! I played an hour or so of songs, and everyone was so kind. But the details are a blur… I do remember that I ate very well, and that the keyboard was a nice one.

December 11

After a few hours of sleep, I had to slip out quietly and head back to Helsinki Central Station. From there, I boarded the train that would take me, like Lenin before me, to Finland Station in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Fast forward past a fairly uninteresting train ride in the dark, followed by a nerve-wrecking border check, and bam, I arrived!

IMG_3421.JPG

Ah, Saint Petersburg. For so many years I’d longed to visit you.

And to be honest, it ended up being a mixed bag. Too much time zone hopping and too little sleep had left me frazzled, and the absence of anything resembling normal daylight took an additional toll.

I was also starving.

Fortunately, I had lots of rubles from my show in Kaliningrad, and I knew how to use them.

I took a cab to Veggie Box, a tiny vegan eatery in an adorable village of (apparently stackable) boxes stuffed into some sort of alley/courtyard situation.

On the way to the venue, I saw Moscow Station, Nevsky Prospekt, and the monument to Aleksandr Pushkin. A tunnel-ish passageway led me to the courtyard where Etobar (literally “this is bar”) was located.

The bar at the end of the tunnel.

The bar at the end of the tunnel.

Etobar was a cool, jazzy sort of place, though they were playing a strange twangy version of the Scissor Sisters’ “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” when I arrived.

I got acquainted with the bartender and a guitarist named Anatoliy Garkin while I waited for my show time. It was fun speaking Russian with them — I felt fairly competent, which was nice.

Evgeny, the person who organized this show for me, arrived from work a little after I started. The show was going well until I was in the middle of “The Sound Narrows”.

I wrote this song when I first met Adam — my partner of almost 6 years, if you’re out of the loop — and I was feeling especially homesick and sentimental at this point in the trip. So it was particularly jarring when my heartfelt performance was interrupted by a man who came up, laid a hand on my shoulder, and told me to stop.

“Блюз играешь?” he slurred rudely. (“Do you play blues?” with the informal “you”.)

I gaped at him, speechless, and he took the opportunity to push me off the piano bench. He sat down, struck a chord, and began to croon an old blues classic — “Let It Be”.

Anatoliy, whom I had met earlier, made a beeline to this usurper of the stage and confronted the man. Nevertheless the man persisted, and when Anatoliy tried to remove him by force, the man spun around and the microphone toppled over. I backed up to the bar and watched anxiously as they pushed each other around. The mic was down but the merch table still hung in the balance.

In rushed the manager, who broke them up before it could come to blows. In the midst of this, I met Evgeny, who assured me that it would all be okay, and the man was just drunk.

Once the man was back in his seat, the manager approached me and ordered me to go back and keep playing.

My jaw dropped again. “Is it safe to?” I asked Evgeny. (The manager had already zipped away.)

Hesitantly, I returned to the piano and resumed playing, but I sang timidly, almost in a whisper. It was a huge relief when I finally made it to the end of my set.

A more pleasant memory from the evening was when a woman came up to me after the show and thanked me for playing, telling me that it was her birthday and my show had been a wonderful birthday concert. She handed me one of my Incredible Distance postcards, where she had written a sweet note. I still have it, and I’m still grateful when I read her kind words.

The next two days were spent exploring Saint Petersburg. One enormous highlight was the former residence of the great poet Anna Akhmatova (see her work “Requiem” — I haven’t read this translation, however). Perhaps most special of all was the chance to see the angel in Palace Square and visit the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum.

When I was 13 years old, I was hugely into Scholastic’s Dear America and Royal Diaries series. Carolyn Meyer’s Anastasia introduced me to the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution. The next year, I got my nerdy little hands on an advance reading copy of Gloria Whelan’s Angel on the Square, and that “absorbing saga” solidified my interest in all things Russian. To see the angel on the square, at Christmastime no less, was a childhood dream come true.

The angel on the square.

The angel on the square.

December 15

After three days in Saint Petersburg, I met up with my friend Jack in Italy. We trekked around Rome for a day, saw everything you’d expect us to see, visited some Catacombs, then headed to Napoli, where we ate the most amazing pizza for basically every meal. (In between meals, I scarfed down many of Italy’s shockingly easy-to-find vegan croissants.)

On the morning of my show in Napoli, we took a trip to Pompeii, which was incredibly cool. (If you go, I do recommend taking a guided tour, just because they can tell you so much about what you’re seeing. When you guide yourself — at Pompeii or anywhere — it’s too easy to skim the placards or brochures and miss lots of not-to-be-missed things.)

An ass that won’t quit, no matter how great the catastrophe.

An ass that won’t quit, no matter how great the catastrophe.

I started writing my song “Pompeii” — the first single from Look at the Harlequins! — years and years ago, probably around 2010. (I have so many song ideas that I just haven’t gotten around to…) I guess visiting Pompeii got the old song fragment floating around in my head again, because it was one of the next few songs I wrote after all my winter touring.

The stage is set. Which pillow would you choose?

The stage is set. Which pillow would you choose?

Back in Napoli, Jack and I found the venue (after finding more pizza), which was a sort of community center. This show was organized by Luca of the Napoli Couchsurfing Group. He put together such a special event, and I had such a lovely time with everyone. There were so many sweet moments… Getting to speak Russian with a woman named Regina who was visiting from Venice… performing “Limits” with Jack in the audience (I wrote the song after Jack stayed with me and Adam in Eugene — it was the first song I’d written in three years)... everyone snapping along to “Sparkbird”…

The evening came to a close, and that show in Napoli ended up being the last one of the tour, though others had been planned. From Italy, Jack and I went on to France, where my show in Marseille turned out to be a logistical impossibility. Instead, we visited museums. We hiked through the Calanques National Park. We found a park with a pond full of nutria.

We parted ways there, Jack heading back to London and me going to Morocco. My shows in Morocco also fell through, in part because I fell in a huge hole — but I should save that story to tell at future shows.

I ended up back in London, where the tour had begun nearly a month before. I went to a vegan Christmas market, had my first London theater experience (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), and ate a Christmas eve pub meal with Jack and his family.

I stayed Christmas Eve at an airport hotel. On Christmas morning, I walked from my room straight to the airport, then sat on a bench writing a few last postcards before boarding my plane back to the US. When I arrived ten hours later, it was Christmas morning again.

Malmö via Copenhagen & Kronborg Castle

I've been so busy these past couple weeks finishing up the Incredible Distance EP that I've fallen behind on my already-belated blogging! I was determined to catch up before leaving for Japan, but I ended up finishing this entry on the plane.

December 9

I left Bjerringbro early, in the dark. This was still my week of running in circles “like a ragged squirrel on a treadmill" ("верчусь как ободранная белка в колесе," as Kuzmin wrote). It would take a few hours to get to Copenhagen, and I wanted to see a few sights before continuing on to Malmö, Sweden, for my show that evening.

Fortunately, I had an excellent guide: Jacob, who had attended my show in Copenhagen two days earlier. We met at the train station, swung by his place to store my suitcase, popped into a little café for some tea, and caught a train to Helsingor, home of Kronborg Castle.

For some reason, when Jacob had asked me if I had been to the castle, I thought he was referring to Kastellet, a "star-shaped 17th-century fortress with ramparts," or Amalienborg, the palace where royal family lives. Both of these are in Copenhagen, so I was surprised at how long the train ride was.

Jacob got cozy on the train, sinking down and propping his feet up on the seat in front of him; I followed suit. It felt rebellious. On the buses in Eugene, the drivers sometimes make an announcement if they notice your feet are on a seat.

A view of Kronborg across the water.

A view of Kronborg across the water.

Jacob let me use his extra train pass, which you're supposed to scan before boarding the train and again after exiting. You have to check in and out. I, of course, forgot to scan my pass when we arrived at Helsingor. I was with Jacob the whole time, and apparently he scanned his, but I missed it somehow. It wasn't until we had already reached Kronborg Castle that we (that is, Jacob) realized what I had(n't) done. He very kindly went back alone to scan the card, giving me some extra time to look around. Near the bridge leading to the castle, I saw some Common Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Mallards, Black-headed Gulls, and my first Great Black-backed Gulls. After crossing the bridge, I saw some Mute Swans, one of whom was eating with great economy of energy.

I got our tickets — which turned out to be a good idea, as the line had tripled in length by the time Jacob returned. We joined the throng of people crossing another bridge leading to the castle. A Gray Heron skulked in a corner of the moat.

The courtyard was bustling and festive. It was difficult to know where to go or what to do. There was no obvious beginning or end, because the castle encircled (or ensquared) us entirely. A line was forming outside the closed doors of the chapel, where some sort of event was to take place. We weren't there for the event, so we went through the museum part of the castle. It was packed with people. The museum provided an overview of the castle's history and depictions of what life there had been like.

In the courtyard we had seen and heard a solitary caroling woman dressed in a dark, heavy-looking period costume, and she seemed to reappear at every turn, singing different styles of songs in different languages.

At one point, our route led us through the chapel on some sort of balcony-level walkway; the chapel itself was blocked from our view, but we could overhear the event that was taking place. A modest-sounding choir was singing "Operator". It was hard to explain to Jacob why I thought this was so hilarious. I think it was just a surprising song to hear performed by a choir at a castle in Denmark.

In a large, beautiful ballroom, Jacob pointed out Julehjerte (pleated Christmas hearts) on a huge Christmas tree. In another room, he pointed out a celebrity, the director of some successful film.

In between each segment of the castle, we inevitably found ourselves driven into the midst of a Christmas market. Some parts of the castle were temporarily closed, seemingly to drive more traffic into the markets. In any case, I already thought the castle was interesting and cool, and then we finally came to the gift shop, where I was surprised to see lots of Hamlet-related merchandise, much of it emblazoned with the quote, "To be or not to be."

I commented on the abundance of Hamlet swag, and Jacob said something like, "Well, yes, that's why we're here..." I was confused, but eventually, finally, I came to understand that this castle was the setting of Hamlet. Helsingor was Elsinore. Basically, my mind was blown, and I needed to rethink everything we had just seen. (Fortunately, the gift shop carried a handy little book with photos of the castle, inside and out, with corresponding excerpts from Hamlet. Jacob was so sweet as to get me this, and I read it when I got back to the US.)

We left the castle and Jacob starting leading us somewhere. As we walked along the docks, he talked about being a Danish folk dance instructor, and I told him about how I had danced at the Scandinavian Festival when I was a kid.

Me and Ashley Delp Weimar (who is actually Danish) waiting offstage at the  Junction City Scandinavian Festival  in 2000.

Me and Ashley Delp Weimar (who is actually Danish) waiting offstage at the Junction City Scandinavian Festival in 2000.

Han, the Little Merperson

Han, the Little Merperson

I had no idea where we were going, and I don’t know what I expected, but I was certainly surprised when a gleaming merperson appeared before us. Jacob knew I was interested in seeing the statue of the Little Mermaid, as well as the nearby Genetically Modified Little Mermaid, but both of these were back in Copenhagen. I hadn’t known there was yet another variation on the theme to be found in Helsingor.

A placard near this merfigure indicated the title of the work: the Danish pronoun “Han,” meaning “He”. Even statues are assigned a gender when they enter this world. I understood what the intention was – to create a male counterpart to la Petite Sirène – but under my queer non-binary gaze, this svelte individual exuded ambiguity. They were certainly petite, but this isn’t generally a characteristic associated with masculinity, or even necessarily with mermen. Was the pronouncement of a pronoun a coming-out? Or, on the other hand, doth the merman (or the artist behind the merman) protest too much? I have experience reading queer texts and reading texts queerly, but I’m an amateur where visual art is concerned.

In any case, this queer encounter (of the third kind, you could even say) was welcome after a fairly heteronormative week. (And it would only get queerer, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

After this, we returned to Copenhagen, managing to squeeze in a viewing of the original (well, replacement of the original) Little Mermaid before it was time for me to hurry on to Malmö. The Little Mermaid wasn’t quite as tiny as everyone said, but it was true what I had been told – if you can’t find her, just look for the crowd of tourists taking photos. (And perhaps on a quiet day, look for the Mute Swans eagerly awaiting said crowd.) The sun had already set, but she and the swans were semi-illuminated by some dim spotlights, and probably blinded by the perpetual flashing of the paparazzi’s cameras.

At the train station, Jacob and I said goodbye and I hurried onto the train, which didn’t immediately leave. I was standing near the doors, and after a minute he approached and told me there were some seats open in the next car. I found a window seat, and it was still a couple minutes before the train departed. Jacob stood on the platform smiling, framed by the train window, people milling around him, and this became my parting image of Copenhagen.

Copenhagen and Malmö are separated by water, but connected by a tunnel. It’s one of those things that is remarkable to think about but altogether unremarkable to experience.

My Skyroam Wi-Fi connection took a minute to sort itself out after being underwater, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to do when we reached the first train station in Sweden. I had assumed I’d be getting off at the same place as everyone else, but from what I could tell, as many people stayed seated as disembarked. I hesitated, then took my chances and lugged my luggage out onto the platform. Passengers were filing through a gate in a fence, so I joined the queue. The friendliest border patrol officer in the world thumbed through my passport and said, “Single-entry visas… I don’t think you’re a risk for overstay!”

Me, windblown in Malmö.

Me, windblown in Malmö.

Outside the station, the wind was ridiculous.

I weighed my transportation options and took an Uber to Eli and Kim’s flat. As was almost always the case when I took a Uber or cab in Europe, we reached the destination and the driver seemed to expect me to say something like, “Yep, this is the place!” or “Just over there would be great.” But I had never been to any of these places, so I always just pretended that the perfect location was exactly where we had slowed down. Touring solo requires you to feign confidence, approach unfamiliar buildings, and waltz right in. Trial and error can be quicker than finding people who know the answers and figuring out how to ask them – if not only because some of the time, you’ll get lucky.

Anyway, it only took a few minutes to find the entrance, and a few minutes to be let in by Eli. He and his roommate Kim gave me a warm welcome. It felt affirming to be in the company of people who were vegan and queer and trans and used my pronouns. (Eli had even asked in advance what pronouns I’d like to use in Swedish, briefing me on the gender-neutral options in Swedish. I opted for “hen”.) I sat on a sort of bench along the wall of their kitchen/dining area, and they fed me delicious porridge with cinnamon. They also had vegan caviar, which comes in a metal tube like an ointment. This blew my mind, but apparently lots of condiments come in tubes there. (This only blew my mind to a greater degree.) It was interesting to try some of the Swedish options for vegan butter and cheese. There were also some festive, Christmasy Swedish foods and drinks, such as pepparkakor, which are sometimes like gingersnaps but n this case were very soft, gingerbread-ish biscuits. (Eli generously gave me a package of them, which I somehow managed to restrain from eating until I returned to the US and could share them with Adam.) Some of Eli and Kim’s friends arrived, and we had some non-alcoholic glögg. It’s mulled wine, but you toss some nuts and raisins into your cup and eat them with a spoon before drinking the liquid. We also had some of this non-alcoholic beverage that was invented as a beer substitute, to reduce excessive drinking at the holidays. (Apparently it is available two or three times a year, with slightly different labels for different holidays.)

The show was sweet and relaxed. The applause after the first song scared the dog, so it was decided that everyone would snap their fingers instead.

After the show, as always, I was exhausted, and, as always, I stayed up too late, and, as always, I had to wake up way too early.

While dragging my suitcase through the apartment complex courtyard, the top handle – the one most useful for lifting the suitcase – broke. I don’t remember why I was carrying it instead of rolling it – maybe to not make too much noise. I found the metal component that had popped off, but I was in such a hurry that I forgot to look for my luggage tag. Later, examining the suitcase on the inside, it appeared to be potentially fixable. But I never got around to finding a screwdriver, and the suitcase handle remained broken for the rest of my trip. Finally, a couple days ago, Adam fixed it in less than a minute.

Bjerringbro and (Magical) Hjermind Forest

December 8

I started planning the Incredible Distance Tour in June, shortly after returning from the 2017 Japan Tour. My original plan was to tour the UK and western Europe, but I kept finding shows further east and further north. I found shows in Poland and thought, "Hmm... Kaliningrad is right there..." Then I found the show at Think.dk in Copenhagen, and I thought, "Hmm... Aarhus is right there... and Malmö is right there..." Then I found the show in Helsinki and thought, "Saint Petersburg is right there, I can't go to Helsinki and not go to Saint Petersburg..."

You get the idea.

I posted on Couchsurfing that I was looking to play a show in Aarhus. I soon received a message from Rasmus and Ane, who live near Bjerringbro, 45 minutes from Aarhus, in "a magical place called Hjermind Forest". I certainly couldn't say no to an enchanted forest. And I'm glad I didn't. Don't worry, this isn't one of my disaster stories — except for a minor mishap right at the beginning of the day.

I left Think.dk early that morning and caught the metro to the train station. I had bought train tickets in advance, so all I needed to do was find my platform. I'd have more than enough time.

I watched each metro stop go by, and I was pleased to see that we were right on schedule. Then, maybe a stop and a half from the train station, we came to a halt. There was an announcement in Danish. We sat there. One minute. Two. Five.

Finally, we stared moving forward again. When we pulled into the station, I was ready to bolt out and run to find my train. I dashed to the schedule screens, and couldn't figure out which platform I needed. I hurried over to some cops and asked them, and they shrugged and said (basically) they didn't know anything about anything. I ran into the ticket office and asked, frantically, "What platform for this train?"

A ticket agent looked at a clock on the wall and asked me, "For what time?" It seemed to me that it should have been obvious which train I was trying to catch — the one that was about to leave — but I told him the time. He said, 'Why, that's now!" and I said, "I know!!" And with unbelievable slowness, like an Ent, he said, "If you are running, and if you are very lucky, track 6." I thanked him and ran like my life depended on it, my chest burning, and when I reached the platform, the train was still there but the doors were closing. And then it was gone, and I stood there, panting and feeling deflated. And irritated, because if the ticket agent had just told me what track to go to in the first place, I definitely would have made it.

I trudged back to the ticket office, in no big hurry anymore. The ticket agent looked smug and said, "Ah, it was already gone," and I responded bitterly, "No. It was there. The doors just closed before I could get on."

He directed me to a desk and another ticket agent, who said, "Ah, you were late? I cannot just give you a new seat, you must buy another ticket." Seeing how crestfallen I was, she asked me why I was late, and I explained about the metro. A look of commiseration washed over her, and she said, "Ahh, yes, I understand!" She gave me a new ticket, which was a huge relief.

While waiting for the next train, I sat on bench to write some postcards. Immediately, a guy approached me and asked me for money. I offered him food, and he said no, he wanted money. I said I didn't have any cash and he said we could go to an ATM. He said he needed beer, that he was an alcoholic and was suffering from withdrawal symptoms, and I said that sounded difficult but that food was the only thing I could give him. Annoyed, he finally gave up and wandered off.

The train was fairly crowded. My seat was at the end of a car in one of those arrangements where four seats are facing each other. My neighbors for a couple hours were a mother and her children. I seem to remember there being three children, but it may have been two children who were just all over the place. One of the kids was talking basically the entire time, and when they weren't talking, they were singing or whispering (sometimes in Danish, sometimes in English). (I'm not saying this in judgment — I'm just trying to paint the picture for you.) For a while, they were whispering, "No babies at the train, no babies at the train, no babies at the train... no job is too big, no bob is too small... no job is too big, no bob is too small..." Eventually the mom asked, in a tone that was maybe annoyed but possibly slightly concerned, "What's too big, what's too small?" And the kid just looked at her silently.

(I Googled the "no job is too big" thing and it turned out to be from something called Paw Patrol.)

I tried to take some video of the scenery passing by, but it's difficult to see anything past the grimy train window. You can hear the kid talking, though. (Maybe someone who speaks Danish can tell us what they're saying.)

Footage of my dirty train window, and possibly the world beyond it.

The first thing I saw when I arrived in Bjerringbro was a lot of bicycles.

Double-decker bicycle storage at the train station in Bjerringbro.

Double-decker bicycle storage at the train station in Bjerringbro.

My first goal in Bjerringbro was to go pee at the train station, which didn't turn out to be possible. Always make use of the washrooms on the train. You just never know.

Hooded Crow in Bjerringbro.

Hooded Crow in Bjerringbro.

So I started the 45-minute walk to Rasmus and Ane's house. I didn't find a place to pee, but I did find more Hooded Crows. (I had seen my first Hooded Crows a few days earlier in Kaliningrad.)

I went through the quaint little town. Cute little shops gave way to cute little houses, which in turn gave way to gas stations and the headquarters of Grundfos, the world's largest pump manufacturer,  which finally gave way to fields, Christmas tree farms, and Hjermind Forest. I probably appeared to be hopelessly lost, wheeling my suitcase down the motorway, further and further out of town.

The motorway I walked along, and a first glimpse of forest.

The motorway I walked along, and a first glimpse of forest.

At Rasmus and Ane's adorable house, I finally had the opportunity to pee. Then I thought I'd go experience the magic of the forest, but before I even made it out of the house, I saw a Marsh Tit in a tree in their yard. They look a lot like various other tits, but it was still exciting to see a new species in a new place.

Marsh Tit.

Marsh Tit.

I entered the forest, crossing by a small sort of reservoir filled with clay-colored water. The trail had sloped down steeply from Rasmus and Ane's house, leveled out, and then rose again. I arrived at a clearing where there were various surprising structures.

The Cabin in the Woods.

The Cabin in the Woods.

The Three Little Cabins in the Woods.

The Three Little Cabins in the Woods.

The first building was apparently some kind of cabin. It had pretty windows and doors and a thick thatched roof. In an adjacent clearing, there were three squat wooden structures like flattened cabins. They looked a little bit spooky. There was a distinguished-looking placard on the path, and I imagined I had stumbled upon a UNESCO Heritage Site, but Rasmus later told me they were just shelters you could rent to camp in.

There were birds hanging around this clearing, mostly a lot of tits — Marsh Tits, Eurasian Blue Tits, Great Tits — as well as a few European Goldfinches, a Goldcrest, and a couple of Eurasian Blackbirds.

"Come explore Denmark's outdoors." You know, just like Charlotte Gainsbourg does in Antichrist.

"Come explore Denmark's outdoors." You know, just like Charlotte Gainsbourg does in Antichrist.

Being in the forest in Denmark naturally brought to mind that video on The Onion (which is a satire news site, in case you don't know) about a Denmark tourism campaign created by Lars von Trier (Denmark Introduces Harrowing New Tourism Ads Directed By Lars Von Trier). ("Tourism officials hope the acclaimed Danish director's bleak vision of unsettling sexuality and brutal violence will attract more visitors to their country.")

I made my way back to the house, and soon Ane (and the dog) came home from work . (I had gotten in earlier using a key they'd hidden for me.) Ane was very friendly and fun to talk to. She and Rasmus are both educators who work with children. Ane and I sat at the table cracking nuts and eating dried fruit while she told me some recent activities she'd done with the kids. I was impressed by how outdoorsy the activities were, even in December.

Eventually Rasmus arrived — on roller skis. I had seen some of these in the bathroom and had no clue what they were. I thought they must have something to do with accessibility, somehow. But it turned out they had just been drying after being washed.

Rasmus played with the dog, or the dog played with Rasmus — they both had an abundance of energy to expend. It was especially impressive, considering Rasmus had just worked with kids all day and skied home!

Ane made a lovely dinner that definitely involved bread and salad and almost certainly involved soup, though for some reason this part of my memory is fuzzy.

A fun little stage set-up featuring a solar system backdrop and assorted gymnastics equipment.

A fun little stage set-up featuring a solar system backdrop and assorted gymnastics equipment.

We got ready to go to the venue, which for this night's concert was a building that used to be a school but now apparently served various purposes as needed. We set up in the gymnasium against a solar system backdrop; next to each planet was its corresponding astronomical symbol, and then there were also some bonus characters, such as a turtle.

To my right and to my left were a pommel horse and a vaulting box, respectively. I dragged the pommel horse over to the piano to see if I could sit on it to play, but it just wasn't practical.

Rasmus had managed to get me some press coverage in a local paper, which was exciting. The audience ended up being rather small, thanks to a live broadcast of a significant sporting event at the same time as my show. Nonetheless, it was a very nice show, and I'm so grateful to Rasmus and Ane for all the work they did to make it happen.

When we left the building after the show, the night sky was full of stars. Rasmus was locking up, and Ane and I were walking to the car. We passed the corner of the building and were immediately struck by an absurdly cold wind that was no longer blocked now that we were in the openness of the parking lot.

Soon, though, we were back in their warm, cozy home in the forest. Nestled in my comfy little bed in the attic, I wrote a few postcards and dropped off to sleep, wishing I could stay a few days to wander through the forest and meet more of its inhabitants. But it's good to save something to look forward to for next time.

Copenhagen: Challenging the norm

December 7

As with Poznan, it was already dark in Copenhagen when I arrived. Fortunately, I would be able to do some sightseeing a couple days later. That night, I would be playing a show at Think.dk, a "co-creative community and think tank" dedicated to saving the world. It would also my first (and so far only!) Low-Fi Concert. Low-Fi is another world-saving organization that facilitates intimate concerts like the ones I tend to play.

On the way to Think.dk, I was able to talk on the phone with Adam (my partner), which hadn't been possible for several days. The weather was blustery, and my suitcase wheels became cacophonous at every stretch of cobblestones — but patchy, substandard communication is a hallmark of life on tour.

I use Skyroam to stay connected, and it's almost always satisfactory, but my service tends to go AWOL whenever I'm on a fast train — which, on tour, would probably be the most convenient time for me to talk. And each day, when I reached the site of my next concert, it was important to be present and connect with my hosts. I was in a new place every day, but for my hosts and the people attending my shows, the new variable was me. So the opportunities to talk with Adam were few and sometimes far between.

Somehow, I managed to both talk on the phone and successfully navigate to the courtyard where Think.dk is located. The neighboring gym was a hive for fit Danes who buzzed in and out as I hovered nearby in an archway, avoiding the rain.

After a few minutes, I hung up, and it was time to get back to business. I approached the glass door of Think.dk. There was only dim light to be seen through it. I rang a doorbell, and when no one opened, I checked my phone to see if there were any messages from Anja. Then, I tried actually opening the door, and of course it swung right open. Up the stairs I went, then through another door. I remember thinking at that moment how strange it was to communicate with people living thousands of miles away, to see pictures of a room and a piano, then to suddenly be there in that room, shaking those people's hands and getting ready to play that piano.

The room was simultaneously open and cozy. Its design was impressively multifunctional — it appeared ready to accommodate a yoga class, a craft workshop, and a slumber party, with only minimal adjustments in between. For tonight, though, it was a concert venue.

My low-fi shot of the stage setup.

My low-fi shot of the stage setup.

I got settled, and Anja generously fed me some delicious pumpkin soup with bread. Martin's kid Romeo opened the little door for December 7th on his advent calendar, and dropped the chocolate into his soup. While Anja and I chatted, Romeo worked on his Christmas wish list. He showed off a brand-name Santa hat he bought on the way home from school. Anja showed interest, then as an aside to me sort of shook her head in disbelief; not long ago, Romeo didn't think about brands at all.

The end-of-year holiday season is a peculiar time to be traveling. If you're traveling in places where Christmas is widely celebrated, you find yourself becoming privy to people's personal traditions. You see how they wrap presents and where they store them (under a tree? on a tree? hanging from clothespins along a length of twine attached to the wall?). You sample their holiday cuisine (more on that when I write about Sweden). You hear Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" everywhere (or at least in the UK, Poland, Russia, and France).

After dinner, I got ready for the show. I was excited to be playing a real piano, and to have the support of Think.dk and Low-Fi Concerts.

Another low-fi photo, this one of a think.dk sticker that says "#24: Challenge the norm". 

Another low-fi photo, this one of a think.dk sticker that says "#24: Challenge the norm". 

As for the show itself — what can I possibly say when Erika Bálint from Low-Fi has already written so beautifully about it? Read her account of the evening here — it was, as she says, heartwarming. (Thanks again to Low-Fi and Erika for using they/them pronouns for me! Let it be a lesson to everyone else.) It was such a joy and an honor to play this show, and to meet Erika and Delia and Jacob and everyone, to talk to you and answer questions and share songs and some of the stories behind them. Thank you all for braving the weather and taking time out of your schedules in a very busy season to come see the show. I hope I can return to Copenhagen soon.

And in a way, I will, at least in my memory and on this blog, because I did return on the 9th of December. But first, I paid a visit to an enchanted forest near Bjerringbro, where I played my next show.

I laughed when I saw this in the office. It has a slightly different tone than #24, "Challenge the norm". "#23: Feeling a bit stiff? Maybe it's the stick up your ass!"

I laughed when I saw this in the office. It has a slightly different tone than #24, "Challenge the norm". "#23: Feeling a bit stiff? Maybe it's the stick up your ass!"