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Songwriting and the art of distraction; Ethnic Heritage Ensemble returns

Feb 19, 2020

Kelly Izzo Shapiro, left, and Sarah Eide are taking part in February Album Writing Month.
Credit Traci Westcott/Sarah Eide

No square on the calendar seems to have escaped. "Extraterrestrial Abduction Day" is March 20. Entire months have been claimed. November is NaNoWriMo. Translation: National Novel Writing Month. And now we're in the midst of FAWM: February Album Writing Month.

We can all agree that Hemingway didn't need an artificial deadline to create "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell to Arms." And it doesn't seem as though Sarah Eide and Kelly Izzo Shapiro need much prompting, either. Eide, who moved from Chicago to Rochester about 1 1/2 years ago, has released three albums under her own name, collaborated on another album with the poet Jennifer Jean, and has scored music for film and video games.

Shapiro, who was raised in Brockport and now lives in Brighton, challenged herself a few years ago to write a song a day.

She's up to 4,000.

Yet they're committed to February Album Writing Month. Working through a website, fawm.org, songwriters are challenged to write 14 songs in February; they're getting a little extra time, since it's leap year. As each song is written, a demo is posted on the FAWM website. There are chat groups. Feedback from other songwriters. Opportunities for collaboration. And when writer's block sets in, the site provides little brain teasers, called prompts.

"It feels kind of like I'm in a playground, you know," Eide says. "Like I can be a kid and just write something and not worry about how good it is, or what the message is, or anything like that. Like I'm just kind of writing.

"Just letting stuff kind of blow out of you, as they do, is a pretty important thing to engage in. In any kind of art, really."

The first February Album Writing Month was in 2005. Out of it came 513 songs, with 25 songwriters completing the challenge. By 2017, the FAWM site had grown to 11,239 songs posted, and 457 songwriters completing the challenge of 14 songs in 28 days.

That was the year Eide first jumped on board, and she's done it every year since. Last year wasn't her best effort -- she started only two songs -- but her excuse was she was in the midst of releasing her latest album, "Dreams on Hold." As of last week, Eide had completed six songs and had three more simultaneously bounding through her brain, racing each other for completion. Eide's certain she'll have more than 14 by the time FAWM says time's up, pencils down.

Eide has a song, "Pour Over Me," that was born in a previous FAWM year. When she releases it on Feb. 24, its growth will be evident.

"When you hear the demo that I made for FAWM, it's the same song, but it's like, it's like taken on a life of its own," she says. "So FAWM to me is sort of, in a lot of ways, about creating little baby songs…"

"Sketches," Shapiro says.

"Just sketches," Eide says, picking up the thought. "And they're super special and super interesting, but seeing how some of them -- not all of them, many of them probably don't -- but some of them grow up to be these fully produced recordings that people from all over end up hearing and appreciating. It's just really cool to see that transition."

Meanwhile, Shapiro continues on her song-a-day path.

"It's just a good way for me to kind of cleanse my brain, if nothing else, you know," she says. "Like a daily kind of, put all your thoughts down or, even if they're not like personally about me, it's just a good way to sort of get out of my own head space if I'm getting into a crazy, stressed-out place."

Life. It's a crazy, stressed-out place.

"I'm writing about, specifically about, my daughter, who is going to be born in August," Shapiro says. "I'm trying to make this whole album sort of about, thoughts about her. So she knows sort of where I was during, like, when she was being created."

Shapiro sees these new songs as a gift she can give to her daughter when she turns 12 or 13. And she wants the words to be upbeat and positive. Before reality hits.

"I'm sure she'll find out soon enough what the world is," Shapiro says. "It slaps you enough in the face, I think."

FAWM prompts aside, the albums being written by Eide and Shapiro are not line after line of non sequiturs. These are concept albums. Shapiro, anticipating the birth of her daughter. And Eide anticipating…

"I don't want to give too much away," she says, before proceeding to do just that. "It's basically about extinct and nearly extinct species."

The first song she wrote for the concept recalls how the skies of the American Midwest were once filled with millions of passenger pigeons. But the birds were hunted into extinction. Eide's song opens with the world's last passenger pigeon, Martha, dying in a Cincinnati zoo. The song's called "Empty Sky," and "it's very sad, but it's also very beautiful," she says.

"The purpose of the album is to actually make people feel uplifted, slash, you know, inspired to do more for the environment." One of the uplifting moments might be her song about the American bison, which was once on the brink of extinction. So humanity gets a halfhearted pat on the back for that one; biologists estimate that, at our current pace, 1 million species will become extinct in the coming decades.

They're not specific about which species.

"I might have to write a song about the human race and our impending doom," Eide admits.

As Shapiro says, life slaps you enough in the face, in many ways. One of Eide's previous albums was influenced by motherhood and personal growth, "the difficulty of being a young mom, and choosing a career as music." Personal challenges that Shapiro's new collection of songs might be as well, with an additional layer.

"This pregnancy has been very complicated," she says, "so kind of what prompted me to write these songs is to let her see how optimistic I was trying to be during, like, during a time when things were really stressful. So I guess the theme is just trying to be positive about a very difficult situation."

The situation has stabilized. "Every week that goes by is, like, a little bit safer," she says.

Eide and Shapiro met at January's "If All Rochester Wrote the Same Song" concert, where almost two dozen songwriters presented their versions of "No One Will Ever Know" at Hochstein Performance Hall. Besides getting a song into the event, Eide played keyboards in the house band, and told Shapiro about February Album Writing Month. The timing, considering Shapiro's pregnancy, was perfect.

"It's actually been amazing to have this project to work on," she says, "because when I first found out that there were some complications, I was kind of taken aback and didn't know what I was going to do with myself. And so Sarah was like, 'Oh yeah, you should do this thing.' And I was like, this is the perfect distraction."

And, she adds, "I thought if I can build something for her, it would be a great way to express love."

Shapiro's music can be found at kellyizzoshapiro.com. Eide's music is at saraheide.com.

Kahil El Zabar.
Credit Provided

Music of the ancient future

In this country, we tend to think of folk music as Bob Dylan or Joan Baez with a guitar, but folk in other parts of the planet looks and sounds quite different. Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble plays an 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23, show at Bop Shop Records, 1460 Monroe Ave. 

Led by Chicago percussionist El'Zabar, for 45 years the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has been a leading avant-guardian of jazz, what El'Zabar calls "acoustic improvising." He's worked with the likes of Pharoah Sanders, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and Archie Shepp, and has scored feature films and the theatrical version of "The Lion King."

El'Zabar's sound often calls on a vast bag of percussion: congas, bongos, balafon, marimba, berimbau, sanza, shekere, traps drums and thumb piano, plus the occasional woodwind and bass bamboo flute. The group's new album is "Be Known Ancient/Future/Music." So call it jazz, folk or Afrofuturism, El'Zabar will be joined by Corey Wilkes on trumpet and Alex Harding on tenor sax. Tickets are $20 advance, $25 the day of the show.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.