august 2009

'The truth is, in any relationship, ultimately, especially if it ends, everybody does the best they can, and everybody takes care of themselves. This is me taking care of myself. It was all so long ago that for me now, these songs just speak to an internal process.'

'Our Stories Are Our Stories'

Judith Edelman returns from divorce, illness, stage fright and the shadow of the Easter Bunny with the mesmerizing Clear Glass Jar

By David McGee

Ours is not a caravan of despair. —"Look! This Is Love," Rumi

No, a thousand times no, Judith Edelman's return from a self-imposed nine-year sabbatical from the music world is not a caravan of despair. Clear Glass Jar, her new album, may be the product of intense self-examination in the wake of the collapse of her marriage to mandolin master Matt Flinner, and it may have its share of anger, bitterness and sarcasm about it, but it also has flashes of humor in its lyrics, and an abiding spiritual grace in its point of view, as the music-shaped by electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, bass, drums, violin, viola, and cello-both rocks and lilts, practically genre-less in its melding of classical, folk, country and straight-ahead rock 'n' roll styles, bespeaking an artist who was an unwilling student of classical piano as a youngster and years later started on a different path altogether by teaching herself bluegrass guitar technique and joining a touring bluegrass band (Ryestraw) before a solo career presented itself almost by accident.

Still and all, Edelman recognizes the inevitability of reviews pointing to the divorce from Flinner as being central to the subject matter and citing any number of songs seemingly aimed right at him, unflatteringly so in some cases. In the end, she had to accept that "the truth of the matter is our stories are our stories.

"The truth is, in any relationship, ultimately, especially if it ends, everybody does the best they can, and everybody takes care of themselves. This is me taking care of myself," she states emphatically during a phone interview from the Maine resort where she's relaxing with her mother. "It was all so long ago that for me now, these songs just speak to an internal process. There's no doubt that the people who know us, who know me, know him, know our story, will probably go, 'Rot-ro!' Don't piss off a songwriter!

"This is a really interesting question because I'm struggling with this in grad school right now. There are things I'm choosing not to write about because, you know, the people are still alive. And even though it's not about them, there are certain key things they couldn't help but associate with themselves and it would be painful for them. Matt and I are not friends, we don't have contact, but I don't think we have any enmity towards each other. I guess, for me, this is all so separate, this is all my thing. I hope it doesn't hurt anybody's feelings. I can't imagine it could, because it's so long ago, but that's a risk we all take as writers. To be honest, part of the reason I shied away from the whole confessional songwriter thing for so long was just, 'Oh, God, too complicated. I don't want to go there!' But when it comes down to it, these are the songs that came out; it's not like I had a choice to make a different album. So the choice was, do I record these songs or just do nothing?"

thumbnailThat she might do nothing may well have been an option for Ms. Edelman, given what it took to get this far. The backstory here really goes back, way back. She chronicled it in a 2005 essay for that she has come to rue, because so many try to define her by it. Perhaps because it's titled, "I Hate Music." Provocative enough, that, her account of how this feeling announced itself at a tender age is rife with the dark humor one also finds on Clear Glass Jar. Let us travel with her back to those days of yore and hear what she has to say:

Music and I have had this ferocious and unsettling relationship since before I can remember being unhappy about anything. That puts me at about five. The only spoken rule I can recall in my parents' house was that each of us kids had to choose an instrument on which to take classical lessons before we hit kindergarten. The choices were piano and violin. I picked piano. It never occurred to me to wonder if there were other instruments out there, nor did it dawn on me until recently that my dad may have just wanted to start a band. Were we actually conceived to be a family band? After I had been taking lessons for a few years, Family Chamber Nights were born.

Here's the routine: three kids, ages 8, 13, and 16, spend three interminable hours struggling through the chamber piece of the moment, Dad conducting and playing violin. I'm playing the piano, my middle brother is on violin, and my eldest brother, who also plays piano, is at the harpsichord (yeah, we had one; yeah, my dad built it—another story). I don't remember what we played—how many pieces could there have been for two violins, piano and harpsichord?—but it doesn't matter, because by 9 p.m., Family Chamber Night is disintegrating into a painful violin lesson for my middle brother, a crying jag for me, a lecture for my eldest brother, and massive frustration and a sore throat for Dad.

It was the hard truth that none of us, except my dad, were any good. I'm sure there were visions of little classical prodigies dancing in his head, but, like many fantasies we have about other people and family vacations, the reality was much bleaker. I think it was around that time that my dad started using cryptic sayings about how real life never lives up to our imagination. He started calling Family Chamber Nights "The Triumph of Hope over Experience." He could also be heard muttering darkly around the apartment, "Never visit the Easter Bunny." It's hard to be so much of a disappointment to your father that he compares your musical ability to the Easter Bunny turning out to be a bastard if you're stupid enough to try to visit him.

'I'm Feeling Lucky Today,' Judith Edelman and Theo Burke at D.G. Willis Books, La Jolla, CA, 2008

Get the picture? Only part of it, dear reader. She goes on to recount piano lessons from a teacher she and a fellow student called "Mr. Hamburger," whom she admits "scared the shit out of me." Diligent practice, an hour a day every day, did not translate into apple pie perfection on her next go 'round with Mr. Hamburger, whose habit was to then "pull out his imaginary handgun from his imaginary holster, hold it to my curly head, pull the imaginary trigger and say, 'Kapow.' Then he'd bring the gun up to his face, blow on the invisible barrel, and make me play whatever it was again, thinking—what? That after I'd had my little head blown off with his imaginary 45, I'd somehow play better? Ok, I'm sorry, but that is sick. The Easter Bunny may turn out to be a bastard if you ever meet him, but at least he isn't a sick bastard like my piano teacher."

She continued taking lessons, but with a different (and "great") teacher until she was 18. Then she walked away from the instrument and did not revisit it again until 2004, when she was 39. Now, in 2009, at 44, she's playing it evocatively on Clear Glass Jar, which must say something about healing.

But there's more to why she would say "music has never been easy for me" and "lately it has been compulsion rather than joy that has kept me playing and writing." And after her divorce from Flinner: "I couldn't even listen to it. It reminded me of him, of us, of failing."

So it was. Her father, by the way, is 1972 Nobel Prize Winner (in medicine) Gerald Edelman. She did not follow her distinguished parent's path, choosing instead to major in English at Swarthmore, graduating in 1987, then relocating (she was born in New York City) to the Bay Area and volunteering at a third world development organization, which led to her receiving a grant to evaluate subsistence level projects in third world countries, specifically Kenya and Zimbabwe, where she spent 1990. She might have stayed longer, intended to stay longer, in fact, but she contracted salmonella and "some other parasite that they were never able to identify and said, 'We'll just hope this antibiotic knocks it out.' So far all I know, it's still living inside me."

The illness, though, set her on a new course, and those piano lessons she abhorred so much in her childhood turned out to have some value after all, spectre of the bastardy Easter Bunny notwithstanding. While recovering at a friend's house in Africa, she began fooling around with an old guitar and caught the fever to pursue it rather than Third World development.

"It was actually in Africa that I realized Third World development required a certain level of passion for it that I just didn't have," she says. "I was just in this place where, when you're sick, everything gets so fundamental, so basic, you can't really think on any kind of a big level. For me it was just what was right in front of me. I thought, The only thing I know is I want to go home and I want to learn how to play the guitar. So that's what I did. I came back and I started taking guitar lessons."

She was a quick study, but before she got going on guitar she started singing with an "amateur wedding band type thing" in Berkeley and hanging out with "bluegrass types" in the Bay Area, which inspired her to learn bluegrass guitar. Specifically, bluegrass guitar: "I wasn't interested in learning folky kind of guitar, because at that point I wasn't writing my own songs. I just wanted to learn how to play bluegrass guitar." She admits now, after stressing how the piano "reminded me of things I was trying to get away from in my roots and my upbringing," her understanding of the 88s "helped me tremendously in learning to play the guitar."

After a year of serious woodshedding, "as a rhythm guitar player I got decent pretty fast, because I spent so much time doing it." She was invited to join Ryestraw, then in its nascent stage, and within a year was touring the country, "learning on the job for sure." Fairly early on in her Ryestraw days she started writing songs, "which turned out to be ferociously not bluegrassy. I didn't mean it to be that way. I thought, Oh, I'll write some bluegrass songs for the band. But it never turned out that way."

je2Playing at Rockygrass with Ryestraw, she was spotted by the veteran producer-engineer Bill Voorndick, who championed her to Alison Brown's Compass label in Nashville, and just like that she had a record deal, as a solo artist, with a band that included her boyfriend, now ex-husband, Matt Flinner.

Asked if the sudden transition to solo artist was a shock to her system, Edelman gasps, exclaims "Yes!" and laughs. "On the one hand it was refreshing because it meant that I was writing a lot and it meant that I could really kind of expand the scope of what I was doing and I could really record all the songs that Ryestraw couldn't do. So on that level it was fantastic. On another level I thought, Oh, my God, the pressure all falls on me now. It's my name out there, and if we suck it's me people will blame."

ejdThus began another chapter in the curious case of Judith Edelman. Three Compass albums-1996's Perfect World, 1998's Only Sun, 2000's Drama Queen-received increasingly enthusiastic reviews and she seemed well on her way to securing a niche among her generation's foremost roots-centric singer-songwriters. But much like the yet-undetected monster of a parasite that may be incubating in her body right now, another affliction was more immediately manifesting itself during these years of promoting her new music, namely an extreme case of stage fright, professionally shielded from the public, but gnawing away at her off stage, reaching a debilitating stage, and foreshadowing further emotional devastation in the form of her split with Flinner.

"I think the stage fright grew definitely when I formed my own band, and got worse for obvious reasons. I also think I put a lot of pressure on myself. Part of it is I was always really, really lucky. I always had tremendous musicians around me, but I always felt the pressure to live up to that as well. I think the pressure of it being my name had something to do with it. But people were saying, 'The more you do this, the more you stay out on the road, the easier it will get.' So I was going on that assumption. But you know, about a decade went by and I found it was getting harder. By the time I decided that I needed to take a break and re-evaluate things, it was pretty bad. I had tried everything-ev-er-y-thing on the planet-and things helped to a certain degree but I never was able to master it.

"Now, that being said, I got very good at performing. If at the time audiences knew I was really suffering badly from stage fright, I think they would have been shocked. Because I got very good at pulling it off. At any rate, I thought I would take a six-month hiatus and see what this is and whether I want to continue to do this. In that six-month period my marriage fell apart. Nine years later, here I am-funny how six months turned into nine years."


Onstage with Matt Flinner: 'There's no
doubt that the people who know us,
who know me, know him, know our
story, will probably go, 'Rot-ro!' Don't
piss off a songwriter!'

One hesitates to say it was worth the wait, not wanting to encourage Edelman to go off on another nine-year hiatus from recording, but Clear Glass Jar is truly a mesmerizing work. In a real sense it picks up where Drama Queen left off so long ago in expanding the sonic palette she was exploring then, and in its immediate predecessor, Only Sun; in its dramatic string parts it evokes the classical roots she shunned for so many years. Looking back on the Compass album and her newest, she soberly admits to feeling like a completely different artist now. For starters, the road to Clear Glass Jar began five years ago, when recording commenced and she began reclaiming her personal history. (To make a long story short, the record was finished four years ago, except for one song recorded a year ago and added to the sequence, but Edelman, who was financing the project, admits she ran out of money to be able to wrap it up completely. So it sat on the shelf until she replenished her bank account,)

"First of all, there very much was an evolution within those three records," she explains in appraising the Compass works. "Someone who was completely green on the first one-I handed it over to Bill Vorndick and acquiesced in most ways. On the second one, Only Sun, I started to take a little bit more control and I think you could see my development in that record. Then by the time Drama Queen came, I no longer was recording with Bill, and Matt and I produced that album. It was kind of a return to a rootsier, simpler approach to production. Bill is just such a sound genius, and Only Sun is sonically gorgeous. But in many ways I was looking to return to something that felt more organic to me. So that's what Drama Queen was.

"Then in these past years, as you probably know from reading 'I Hate Music,' the comfort I found in music ultimately came again from my roots, came from classical music. For awhile I couldn't even listen to the stuff I had been loving for so many years and that had really defined me for all of my adult life. It was just fraught for me with so much pain around divorce and my choice to leave the road-and I felt really ambivalent about that choice-still feel ambivalent about that choice-but what it made me do was go back to piano. Once I did, the classical stuff is what came out. So when I started to write on the piano, I found that there was, the classical stuff had never left. It was in there but I couldn't express it on the guitar. It wasn't what I was looking to do on the guitar. And it was specifically appropriate for the piano. So by the time Clear Glass Jar started to be made, which was five years ago, there was an alchemy going on between the bluegrass and folk worlds that I had been immersed in and my original classical training. I think that what came out in Clear Glass Jar is a very odd amalgam of those elements."

Indeed, amidst the throbbing rock pulse of "Load of Blues," for example, Edelman's co-producer and chief collaborator on the album, Gawain Mathews, injects the surprising textural delicacy of a bluegrass mandolin run. The somber reflections articulated in "Firefly" are framed by brush drums, winsome acoustic guitar fills, and hushed, crying strings in a track that in some respects isn't far from what the baroque-rock investigations the Left Banke was exploring on some of its album tracks in the late '60s.

In terms of content, there's plenty for a listener to grab on to and abundant opportunities for interpretations based strictly on Edelman's marital history. It's a bit more complex than that, however. "Load of Blues" could be heard as a literal description of a housewife's daily drudgery (such are the dreams of the everyday housewife) as she awaits her significant other's return from "the old assembly line," or, metaphorically, as a cataloguing of metaphysical woes of a narrator working towards some inner peace; "Karma, Jane" raises the prospect of temptation and infidelity, complete with a warning of actions having consequences that may well linger long after the dirty deed is a fading memory; "Lost Day" describes a sense of inertia, of having time pass with nothing to show for it as a relationship sours, driven by piercing admissions such as "I wish I could help/but I am lost myself."

The album begins with "Magnetic," stylistically and lyrically a kind of overture for the ensuing drama. Its music moves from subdued to roiling, and Edelman's voice from a whisper to an anguished cry. Amidst all the intensity engendered by the rushing, swirling electric and acoustic instruments and some clever lyrical interconnects between natural phenomena and the human experience of same ("your sweet magnetic pull," "will the aurora borealis give us one last show," "if the north isn't true"), a key question emerges that could be the album's overarching theme: "Is electricity all there is to you and me" suggests chemistry, despite what some assert, does not equal depth in a relationship. Most of the songs proceed from that assumption to illustrate the point, as relationships expire of narcissism, selfishness, thoughtlessness and the stasis ensuing when all those conditions are present.

jheadshotEdelman basically agrees with this appraisal, but points out the "unconscious" process of creativity, and how her own understanding of what she had crafted was more a matter of hindsight rather than a deliberate attempt at the outset to reckon with such weighty topics.

"When I looked at these songs, I realized, as it says in my bio, this is really in many ways the most personal album I've written," she explains. "I was always pretty staunch about this, as we are in our youth always kind of are very strident and righteous about our stuff. I always said, I am not a confessional songwriter; I am a narrative songwriter. Well, that's all very well, but for some reason I was associating confessional songwriting with navel-gazing, fluffy, folky stuff that I just wasn't interested in. But truth be told, you can be both. You can be a narrative songwriter and a confessional songwriter, and I think these songs are both. And that disillusionment you're talking about is a common thread here. It's an album about, oh, coming to terms with the fact that things aren't the way we thought they could be. And the last song, 'Tired Of This Town,' Nashville is not what I thought it would be. In 'Karma, Jane,' friendship is not what I thought it would be. There are just so many things here that speak to what you're talking about, that electricity which at first we think is it but turns out to so not be it, at all, and it's kind of shallow. 'Firefly,' for me, is me talking to me, which speaks to that whole metaphor of a fly in a glass that can't get out, so it's me talking to me in my own head. Just trying to offer a little bit of comfort, because things can be hard."

Indeed, "Firefly," so gentle and comforting in mood and words, along with the propulsive rocker "Nature Boy," seem to be two songs directly addressing one partner's emotional distress, and in an empathetic way. In "Firefly," Edelman wonders, "How long have you sat inside your head, wondering?" In "Nature Boy," in a forceful voice set against anxious drums and a howling electric guitar, she sounds uncannily like Kasey Chambers when she importunes her subject to "rage against the jungle ever teeming in your head."

On first blush, it seems she must be addressing someone else, but listen again, closely, and it sounds like she might be talking to herself. Which turns out to be the case, she admits.

"In fact, I am talking about myself there. Truly, those two songs have absolutely nothing to do with Matt or our relationship or the past. Those are fully me addressing my own head. There are other ones that are obviously coming out of my experience with the divorce, but those two definitely not."

The Judith Edelman Band, 'Wall of Time,' with Peter Rowan on lead vocal, Matt Flinner on mandolin, March 1, 1999

In a prime example of how important sequencing can be to an album, the song "Meet Me There," which comes immediately after the halfway mark on the 10-song treatise, could well have been the final number, a cold and broken hallelujah that wonders, after everything that's happened, if there could be some common ground based on shared experience and reconciliation, sentiments appropriated from Rumi poem close to Edelman's heart. But Clear Glass Jar ends instead on "Tired Of This Town," which goes out on a weary, resigned note, and very ambiguous, almost as if a sequel is in order. So was much thought put into the actual sequencing?

"Oh, God, yes. Absolutely," she answers immediately. "Sequencing is very tricky, because are certain songs that may lead to the next narratively, and you think, Oh, that's perfect. But key-wise, or feel-wise, it's really unwise. So you have to balance those things. 'Meet Me There,' putting that in the middle of the album, it's not that I'm saying that there's no hope, but what I am saying is that, in the process I went through, I have these moments of wondering, Can't we get to that spiritual field that Rumi is talking about in the poem I took that from. It's a beautiful poem. It can be taken to be meaning on human terms, but it's always about God, too. And while I'm not a religious person, that sense of spiritual reconciliation-internal spiritual reconciliation-is so beautiful in Rumi. And those moments are pretty fleeting-you have these moments of feeling this ecstatic sense of forgiveness, and then it goes away. It comes back but it goes away. In 'Tired of This Town,' while it is a dark meditation on disappointment and 'on every sign on every street is lettered with my own defeat,' it ends with the possibility of coming around. I don't know if that means there's a sequel, but it's not without some possibility of redemption.

Right now Edelman is a graduate student at Bennington, in her second semester of studying for an MFA in creative writing in a two-year, low-residency program that requires her to be on campus every six months. While in Maine with her mother she'll be giving a performance at a community center on the island where they're holed up. She says it might be the start of a renaissance in her touring career, "or maybe it's just a blip." In fact, even when discussing the matter of performing, still, an interviewer can sense the hesitation on her part, especially when she adds, vis-à-vis the community center performance, "Maybe I'll dive back under my rock, using grad school as an excuse-'Oh, I'm much too busy.' I reserve the right to withdraw again.

"But," she adds as a postscript, "that speaks to what one expects from one's career. And what I was shooting for when I was much, much younger was very different from what I'm shooting for now. I'm shooting for something a lot more integrated in a way. I really do see my writing now as a continuum. Because I'm doing so many different kinds of it. If I can manage a writing life that incorporates these elements, I'm good with that. I'm not looking to be a star, which is good, because I'm not going to be. Maybe I'm looking for a career with a little "c" as opposed to a career with a big "C." Which is what every young person is hoping for. But I know the music business very well now, and what it will support and what it won't support."

But as she sings/chants at the end of "Tired Of This Town," at journey's end, "Will you be home later if I come around/I'll come around, come around/come around, come around..."

Would it be inappropriate to say we'll leave the light on for you?



Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024