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
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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!

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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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.

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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!

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.