Alicia McGovern

The power of the word

Alicia McGovern is fond of seasons. She made that very clear with her beautiful cd ‘Words Through the Seasons’: “You’ll be a leaf in the autumn, a bright glowing gold, with all of my colors mixed in when we grow old”. The album is full of beautiful symbolic lyrics like these, seasons being the red thread. In this interview she goes further into her lyrical matters, into her love for nature and the everlasting cycle of the seasons. Autumn proves to be her favorite season as the above fragment clearly demonstrates. “When the winds of change are moving in and the possibilities are endless” is her poetical explanation. Words of a woman, a singer-songwriter through and through, who is aware of the power of words en who likes to play with these words in her lyrics. It’s time we let Alicia McGovern speak…

 
 
 
Alicia, for the people in Holland you’re quite a new artist. Can you tell us something about your career in music until now?
 
I’ve written songs for a long time, but only within the last couple of years have I actually been performing them.  I recorded my first CD, We Just Fly, before actually performing any of the songs for people besides friends and family, and very informally.  This was due to shyness.  Once I released We Just Fly, I started getting involved with the music community, getting comfortable performing, and worked a lot on getting comfortable with that part of being a musician.  I also started attending songwriting workshops and music conferences, meeting other musicians, and becoming a part of the larger music community.  Through all of this I was learning a lot more about writing songs and just about who I am as a musician.  I started really studying the work of Songwriters I’d admired for years and looking for what moved me in their writing, finding what I did that was similar to them and also what I did that was definitely different.  I started to feel an identity as an artist through all of this asking myself who I was, and who I was not, as a songwriter.  Of course, this process is ongoing and will continue indefinitely, I suppose.  Music can be so subjective that it can be hard not to hold tight to what you know is authentically “you” as a musician.  Lots of people like lots of different things.  I was lucky enough to have musical inspirations that moved me in a way that reminded me of that, as well as friends, family, and supporters of my music who let me know when they were touched by something.  This is the biggest feedback I need to keep going—knowing I am touching something in people.  Before I knew it, I had a new body of work that this process of exploration had inspired.
 
What is so “typical Alicia McGovern” that makes the differance between you and those other singer/songwriters?
 
Hmmm... that’s a hard question you’re asking me to answer... I think all songwriters are constantly finding the balance of what fits who they are and what they are trying to say and touch in people, and I think we all overlap on certain things. I tend to lean toward more simple guitar parts and melodies to keep a lot of focus on my lyrics. I don't use a pick, I tend to do a lot of finger-picking and lighter strumming with my hand. Sometimes I incorporate the two together. I used to think that I couldn't be a "real" musician until I started playing guitar differently and really wowing everyone with my guitar playing-- and I didn't have a lot of confidence about the style I played in; I thought it was too simple. But at some point I realized that the style that I play in is what fits my voice and my delivery of the lyrics, which I really want to be heard. Of course, I want to keep growing as a guitarist, but that embracing of what I already was doing, instead of waiting to learn to do it another way, had to occur for me first, and has boosted my confidence and allowed me to get better and braver about trying new things on guitar.Realizing how much of a priority it is to me that the lyrics be heard also gives me the opportunity to look deeper at what I want to do with the lyrics. I don't want to just settle for something that makes the point I'm trying to make and rhymes, I want to search around for a way to say it that allows me to play with the words a little, or play with the sounds, or say it in a way that hints at showing something more than just the lyric.
 
This isn't to say that I'm the only person doing these things! It was just that for me, when I first started writing and performing, I'd find myself comparing my work to people I admire, wondering if they would say it that way, etc. It feels good to feel like I can now ask myself if this is how I really want to say it, if I feel like I'm getting the most out of the words that I can get. Again, an ongoing process. I have so many songwriting heroes that literally make me stop in my tracks over how much meaning they can pack into a line, and that is something that I will keep trying to do. Since the question was "what differentiates me from other songwriters" I find it hard to say that these things differentiate me from other songwriters, more that these were the things I realized were true to who I am as a songwriter, and they are what puts me where I'm at right now on my journey as a songwriter. It is so common to have someone say, "your voice reminds me a bit of this person", and to have someone else say "your writing style reminds me a bit of this other person", and still someone else say, "your guitar playing reminds me of ____ (yet another person), and most musicians get that kind of thing often. So realizing my own combination of these qualities, and just my own voice as a writer, was what that process was of discovering who I am as a singer/songwriter.
 
 
Your new cd “Words through the seasons” is at the second position in the Euro Americana Chart of february. How do you feel about that as a relative newcomer?
 
I love it!!  It has been such an honor beyond words to experience so much enthusiasm and support from the Euro Americana reporters.  So many people have written me to let me know that something in my music has touched them, and this has been such an amazing experience for me.  This has been one of the biggest honors I have experienced to have this support as I continue to make a path musically.  Thank you, thank you, a thousand times to the EuroAmericana Chart!!!
 
In the last song of the cd, “So many songs”, you sing: 
So many songs about winter. 
So many songs about spring. 
So many songs about summer, 
you’d think time would have taught us something...”
Words that convey a certain amount of disappointment. What is it you’re disappointed about?
 
This lyric was more for me about playing with words, and even with my own themes in lyrics (for example, when I say “so many songs about birds” in the next verse, I’m making fun of myself a little because I mention birds a lot).  Likewise in this line-- I tend to write a lot of songs that focus on the seasons because the natural world is a huge source of inspiration for me.  With the line, “you’d think time would have taught us something”, I’m not only poking fun at myself for the trouble I have of “letting go of colors and cares” and also for the times I find myself not accepting what is, but it is also meant to just be an observation about my society and our disconnect from the natural cycles that the world doesn’t fight against.  We just want to go, go, go, rather than observing that there are cycles in the natural world that keep things in balance, a time to lie under snow and hibernate, and a time to grow leaves, and then fruit, and a time to wind down, etc.  I didn’t mean it to be disappointment as much as just a reminder to myself and others that the world goes through cycles and accepts changes in tides, weather, daylight, activity, and so should we.
 
Like we discussed before, the lyrics of the album have a lot to do with the seasons, and this is underlined by the title of the album. I think I can clearly hear that in the music as well. Maybe I’m just longing for the spring, but I hear the sparkle of that season in, for example, “Our tiny little hearts”. In my opinion there are more songs where a certain season colours the music. I guess you did that consciously?
 
I felt that I saw that happening with the work I was choosing to put on this album, so that was why I came up with the name.  I think most every song either mentions a season, or has the feel of one, or uses the imagery that one associates more with one season than another (again, part of my obsession with the natural world).  Yes, this song was definitely meant to be as light-hearted and warm as spring can make you feel, and was meant to show a willingness to blossom, in this case into love.
 
Winter is often used as a metaphor for the dying of a person. In “Heavy as the wing” you’re lovingly looking back at a person you lost. The lyrics are so intense I can hardly imagine it not being autobiographical:
The wind still holds the memory of the movement of your hand.
The way you waved goodbye; the way you helped me stand.
And I still hold the memory of your hand wrapped around mine so
how I had wanted you to stay and you said sometimes it’s time to go...”
What can and are you willing to tell us about “Heavy as the wing”, Alicia?
 
I actually started the song with the idea of comparing things that were light in weight and heavy in meaning, so I started with the idea of something being “light as the breeze and heavy as the breath, light as the feather… and heavy as the wing (that would be taking someone somewhere else).  I was at first thinking that I would have it be a song about saying goodbye to someone leaving on a plane, and then decided that I wanted to work the lyrics so that they could be taken to mean that the wing that took someone to “another place” could be either the wing of a plane physically taking them somewhere, or that it was the metaphorical wing of someone who had died  (I was thinking of the idea of an angel wing or the person ascending to the great beyond).  I purposely wanted to leave it ambiguous, because I know that both of these things can bring different levels of pain.  I have experienced both of these things being painful, and so I definitely had some emotion to put into either scenario.  My goal in writing it was not to be writing it to a particular person, but when I sing it I do feel as though I’m singing it to a few different people who I have said goodbye to in those different ways.
 
 
When you listen to your album you can’t ignore the phenomenal “I’ll keep trying”. You tell us in that song that you see a young and older version of yourself in a dream. Versions that are more vulnerable than the person you are now. You say you want to protect them against “intimidations and imitations”.
Can you explain this a little bit more?
 
Yes.  This song actually came to me in a way in which I felt that I was reminding myself to stay true to living authentically.  I know many people who have fallen into a life that they didn’t see themselves living, and I feel that many people feel that they are not living the life they want to live. I have been there myself in the past, living a life I didn’t want to be living, but telling myself it was what I should be doing.  I think there is a large “intimidation” from my society to live in the way that the advertisements tell us to live—to be clean-cut, well-dressed, well-connected with the latest technological gadgets, driving a classy car, to speak in a certain way, to like certain things, and so on.  It is all based on money and advertising, and it makes it very easy to forget your authentic self to keep up with it all.  It is intimidating to do something different, to buy fewer things, to follow a dream, to choose to make less money to do that, and to not follow the path that is expected of you.  I think that many people try to live up to this standard for approval by society, but aren’t actually able to do so, so they live an “imitation” of that life that they are told to live.  This song is meant to remind myself how precious life is and how important it is to remember what is really important to me, even if it means giving up some material things and some approval from others who can’t understand that.
 
Who, by the way, is responsible for the really gorgeous arrangements in “I’ll keep trying”?
 
The string arrangement on this song was the one part of the CD that I wasn’t there for.  We finished recording, and I flew back to Utah.  But I just really felt like this song needed this, sat with it for a while and still felt that way.  Daisy Castro is 13 years old, and a prodigy.  She’s amazing.  I had heard all about her, and had heard some of her work, because Mark Thayer, who recorded the CD at Signature Sounds, is a friend of her family.  So Daisy came in and performed the orchestral arrangements for the strings. She played violin, viola, and cello.  She laid down a number of different parts on each instrument, so Mark would pair down, edit, and mix them and send me what he’d arranged, then I’d listen and give feedback on changes I would like in the arrangement as well.  It ended up being a longer process due to having to send things back and forth, but I’m thrilled with the how it turned out, and I’m glad you are, too.  So you could say it was a multi-person effort as far as the final product, but the music was all from Daisy’s hands.  She is amazing.
 
Who has been an inspiration to you and can you give us five records that have been really important to you in your life?
 
5 records that come to mind are:
 
Paul Simon, Graceland
Greg Brown, Further In
Dar Williams, Mortal City
Richard Shindell, Blue Divide
Cry, Cry, Cry (a trio effort from Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, and Lucy Kaplansky)
 
But there are so many more.  I would say my musical inspirations have been all of the above, plus so many others: Darrell Scott, Leonard Cohen, Mary Gauthier, Eliza Gilkyson, to name a few; there’s also such an amazing crop of newer artists like Anais Mitchell, Danny Schmidt, Antje Duvekot, Jonathan Byrd, and Meg Hutchinson who blow me away.  Also the poetry of Ted Kooser and the writing of Margaret Atwood and James Baldwin, to name a quick sampling, has influenced me.  Of course, I have lots of other inspirations in my personal life: my family, my fiancé, my friends, people I meet who tell me an interesting story, and on and on.
 
 
 
Well, Alicia, I think I’ll have to ask someone who has made a record about the seasons what her favorite season is, and to conclude I’ld like to ask you in which season we may expect you here in Holland and Belgium?
 
My favorite season is probably fall; the leaves changing color is so exciting to me, and as the air turns cooler after a hot summer it feels like the winds of change are moving in and the possibilities are endless.  Perhaps that is when I should come to Holland and Belgium.  Maybe I should ask you and the readers of this interview when you would recommend coming for a visit.  I am starting to think about planning a trip, but it is a very new idea, and I’m new to touring (especially overseas).  SO any suggestions would be much appreciated!  Feel free to write me at  alicia@aliciamcgovernmusic.com, and maybe you can tell me when I should come and what I should see.
 
Thank you so much Ed for listening to my CD so closely to form these questions. It means so much to me! And to John Smits, thank you for translating!!
 
Photographs (in the order in which they appear):
  • Erik Nordholt
  • Justin Mool
  • Lindsey E. Larsen
  • Erik Nordholt
 
Ed Muitjens