“Oh I’ve got these blackened traveler’s feet
and I’ve got this broken train-stop sleep
I got miles unfurled in front of me
before I reach my own country
I can’t count the places I laid my head
seems most of them were borrowed or begged
and it may have cost half of all I own
but I know the difference ‘tween a house and a home”
– Gillian Grassie, “Borrowed or Begged”
There were a lot of magical things about our show with Gillian Grassie (yes, I’ll get to the Prince cover later), but perhaps the most magical thing of all was this: eight months ago, I heard a song playing in the background of my office that was so beautiful and so smart that I stopped what I was doing (sorry, Doug) and immediately sent the artist a show request, and despite the fact that she’s based in Berlin and hadn’t played Memphis since 2007, she said yes, and then there she was, playing music in my house last night.
And oh, what music. Gillian explained to a guest during intermission that her interest in the harp had come from a childhood fascination with fairies, and there’s no denying that there’s something otherworldly about that sound. It’s the instrument of heavenly protectors and nature’s mischievous interlopers, after all, and Gillian’s command of the instrument calls this full range of influences to mind – sweetly smitten one moment, winking sass the next, with stops at wistful melancholy and razor-sharp realism along the way. Her songwriting is the same Tamlin-esque shape-shifter, moving through time and place with literary ease.
Our audience sat enraptured through the first set, which leaned most heavily on Gillian’s latest release but also featured classics that predated her by decades or even a century. We enjoyed friendly conversation with Gillian during the break, and settled back in for a second set that dove more deeply into her earlier pieces. One of the amazing things about Gillian’s work is that there was no discernible difference between the quality and maturity of a song written when she was 18 than one written for her last EP (at least not the 18-year-old’s writings she’s willing to share). As the evening was regretfully coming to a close, Gillian asked for a vote on the cover she should play: Prince or … well, I don’t even know what the other choice was because the room rose up as one (with maybe one person the loudest?) in support of hearing a Prince song.
Now if you’ll forgive me a tangent … I know 2016 has seemed particularly rough for lots of people in lots of ways, but my worst time, personally, was this past spring. As a child of Minnesota and lifelong Prince devotee, his death was crushing. It’s still something I struggle to accept, seven months later. But worse, it was followed by the death of my dear Uncle Pete. Although his final foe was lung cancer, Pete was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, and at the time we thought, well, that’s it. Our family began a process of half-mourning, waiting for the inevitable (and, we assumed, imminent) end. I remember sitting in the basement, listening to one Prince song over and over, rewinding the cassette when it got to the end and starting again. It was a eulogy and a tribute and a punchline wrapped in sorrow, and it the only thing that felt right to my heart in that moment.
And so when Gillian began playing the opening notes of “Sometimes It Snows In April,” the weight of this year’s grief – all of this year’s grief – rose up. But then it kept rising and floated somewhere nearby while we were all transfixed by Gillian’s interpretation of that 1986 deep cut, a reminder to cherish every moment of love in our lives.
The final song was intended to be the aforementioned “Tamlin,” but since we wouldn’t let Gillian leave, she officially wrapped up with “everyone’s favorite co-dependent love song.” I don’t think I’m imagining that people were a little slower to leave than usual, a little overwhelmed by new discoveries and eager to share some more time.
It was an incredible pleasure and honor to welcome Gillian into our folk family. I hope her traveler’s feet bring her this way again soon.
If you were a guest at this or any other show, be sure to sign the guest book. And of course, if you want to support what we’re doing, you can make a donation from the button over there on the right.