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The Art of the Road
"Surfin' USA" is an apt description of my latest musical endeavor-and I'm not referencing the Beach Boys' song. I'm talking about couch surfing and Net surfing. Both are valuable skills for the independent touring musician. This kind of surfing requires strong networking skills as well as finding a niche among those who support your artistic vision and can offer you their couch for the night.
When I graduated from Berklee in 2005, I took the advice of Professor Pat Pattison and moved to Nashville. "Consider it grad school," he said. Some of the earliest-and best-connections I made came through the Berklee Nashville Alumni Chapter. I met Mare Wakefield '04, and we started writing and recording children's music. As the duo Eve and Mare, we released two albums produced by her husband, Nomad Ovunc '04. We got some national and international attention, airplay on XM Radio, and even placed songs in an award-winning toy.
In the meantime, I also wrote some jazz-inspired songs and recorded my first solo album featuring several Berklee alumni. Once I got the CD in my hands, I had this nagging feeling that there was something more I was supposed to do. I remembered reading an article about a duo that wrote songs and found visual artists to interpret their music. I wanted to do something similar, but how would I find the artists? Why would they agree to help me? Could I tour with the art?
Delving into the world of visual artists kind of scared me. At the time, I was reading a memoir by Sue Monk Kidd in which she talked about her fear of writing The Secret Life of Bees, her first work of fiction after years as a nonfiction writer. She described learning to welcome fear instead of trying to escape it. She would sit down at the computer and write for two hours, then go sit on her dock and stare at the lake for two hours. She went back and forth until the day was done.
Taking Art on the Road
Adopting her method, I started to chip away, a little bit at a time. Like a sculpture, my project took shape. A family member who is an art collector put me in touch with several artists. I found others by asking friends, friends of friends, and, sometimes, total strangers. Within a few months' time, I had 13 artists paired with each of my original songs. The result was 13 amazing paintings, a yearlong tour, and a book and CD set called Peace or Drama, A Journey through Music and Art.
A few of the artists suggested that I tie the project to a charity. A simple Google search led me to PeaceTones, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps artists in developing nations to produce their art. I dedicated a portion of the proceeds from the book and art sales and began performing shows promoting this "art inspires art" theme.
Last summer I planned a cross-country tour to California and back (with paintings in tow) with pianist Joseph S. Smith '05-a Berklee friend and cowriter on two of my songs. He's a music teacher in Pennsylvania and had the summer open. He drove down to Tennessee, where we loaded my Ford Escape hybrid and set out for a grand adventure.
Finding the appropriate venues for such a unique project was sometimes a daunting task. I snagged a gig at the First Saturday Arts Market in Houston. It was sweltering hot, but fun to serenade appreciative art aficionados. I found a charming (and more temperate) spot in the California hills called Work of Heart Gallery. With its vaulted ceiling and wood beams, the open room was filled with the work of local artisans, which was good company for the art collection we set up onstage.
At each space, after a quick sound check, Joe positioned the paintings while I set up the merch table with art books, CDs, and postcard prints. It was a double thrill to present an art exhibition and concert everywhere we went. Whenever people asked how the tour was going, Joe said aptly, "It's exhilarating and exhausting."
Two of our favorite shows were back to back in the San Francisco Bay Area. ArtSpace 4500 had a secretive, speakeasy kind of feel-no sign, no bar, just an old cozy couch flanked by a handful of chairs and a piano tucked in the corner. Our 13 paintings looked right at home mounted on the back wall. The room invited warmth, and the crowd soaked it up. When I offhandedly mentioned to the audience that a feather boa would complete the scene, a gentleman presented me with a boa he had stashed in his car. Only in San Francisco!
The next day we performed on Yacht Barkissimo, "the floating oasis." Stumbling across this uncommon concert venue online, I was immediately smitten. I wrote to the owner: "Music, art and a beautiful boat! How can you resist?" Luckily he couldn't. Joe hung the paintings in the boat windows, which kept time, tapping with the breeze as guests sipped wine and noshed on decadent food.
We did an interview for an Albuquerque radio program fittingly called Art of the Song. This led to a booking at a tiny theater in Taos, where one audience member actually painted us as we performed.
My random Internet searches weren't always so fruitful. When I got stumped, I'd open up the map, pick a city, and then Google its name along with the word Berklee. Someone would always come up. I booked a gig with Paul Rogalski '90 at Mojo's Music in Boulder. I emailed music professor Keith Cochrane '82 in Farmington, New Mexico, who called me the very next day saying, "Never in all my years have I had someone contact me and say, 'We went to the same school; can I stay with you?' I was so intrigued, I just had to call!" He ended up letting us stay with his family and invited me back to perform at their annual jazz festival.
I contacted Justine Taormino (Berklee's regional alumni representative in Los Angeles) who launched an email chain to other alumni that netted us a gig at the Mint, a historic venue on Los Angeles's Westside. Justine also gave me names when I sought another songwriter to open for us. Meg Todd '09 stepped up and even offered us a place to sleep for two nights.
Joe and I were amazed at the generosity of friends and strangers. We spent only three nights out of 23 in hotels. Along the way, people not only provided beds but often food-in some cases, gourmet home-cooked meals. We made new friends and were buoyed by the enthusiasm and support of everyone who helped us.
Back when I was searching out gigs, I Googled "Santa Fe jazz," and up came a familiar name: Lee Eliot Berk. He had retired as Berklee's second president around the time that I graduated. I emailed him and was pleased to get a response stating that he and his, wife, Susan (both patrons of the arts), were very interested in my music and art program. We ended up doing a concert in their home. It was our last show of the summer and one of the highlights of the tour.
Since doing 25 shows surrounded by beautiful paintings, a final art auction fundraiser took place at the David Friend Recital Hall on the Berklee campus in December. The circle was complete. Joe and I performed together again and got to share the stage with former Miles Davis drummer Jimmy Cobb, a friend to Berklee and PeaceTones charity.
What I learned from this journey is that kindness and community are strong in this great land of ours. People are often eager to help someone earnestly pursuing their dreams-particularly if there's some commonality. It's indeed a small world, especially for those who aren't afraid to seek support in unconventional ways. I may have been bold in the asking, but I'm humbled by those who took a chance on me and welcomed me in.
The words of Mick Jagger come to mind.
- You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
Well you just might find
You get what you need
Singer songwriter Eve Fleishman has recently relocated from Nashville to San Francisco. For more information on her music and art project, visit www.evefleishman.com.