Rachel Garlin believes in music's power to change lives and soothe souls. She put her latest song, "Democracy Demands," online on Oct. 3—a month before the election—hoping to inspire community action. It was available on her Facebook and Instagram accounts when Howard Dean, the former Governor of Vermont, shared it on Twitter, calling it "remarkable and wonderful." It quickly picked up over a thousand views.
"I wrote it the day after Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed," Garlin said from her home in San Francisco. "I sat down with my guitar, wondering how far are we gonna go before we demand something different? I've been struck by the way dark times can inspire new art. I've had a burst of creativity during the lockdown, writing more songs than I normally do. I made a demo of the song in the little closet space I have in my basement, then went to a Covid-safe, socially distanced, one-person operated studio in Marin. I recorded in isolation with producer Ron Alan Cohen—just me and my guitar. I wanted a stark recording, so I didn't add any other instrumentation.
"I released it on my site and as a single through CD Baby, so it's available on all digital platforms. I put the video for the song on YouTube. The images were from my iPhone. I was at the lagoon near Bolinas with my wife and kids. As I saw the boats circling around each other, it reminded me of the Captainless ship in the song. I decided to slow down the footage and make it black and white. It got passed around quite a bit on Facebook and Twitter."
Garlin is planning to release a song a week during the current lockdown. You can find two new tunes, "The State That We Are In" and "Road Trip Song," on her YouTube site and CD Baby page.
"The video I did for 'Road Trip' is a tribute to 100 years of women's suffrage," she said. "The video tells the story of a trip downtown, to cast a ballot on Election Day, with my three-year-old daughter, Daisy. It shows us at City Hall, voting.
"The last few years have been crazy. I'm constantly reeling. This morning I woke up to the sound of thousands of crows in the sky—a hoard of crows, a murder of crows, filling my window before six this morning. Last week, a house on the street across from us burned down. No one was hurt, but the sky was full of smoke and flames. It recalled the day the sky was orange with the smoke from the California brush fires."
The anxiety of the past years also inspired most of the songs on Mondegreens, Garlin's most recent album. She was planning a CD release concert, but the album came out earlier this year on April 3, a few weeks after the lockdown started in San Francisco.
"For me, making an album is a long process," Garlin said. "Several years of writing and thinking and planning go into every record. I started recording the songs at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, with producer Julie Wolf, about two years ago. We didn't know Fantasy was going to close their doors soon after, so we became nomads and finished the recording at several different studios."
Wolf assembled an all-star cast of musicians to back up Garlin, including bass player Todd Sickafoose (Ani DiFranco), drummer Scott Amendola (Charlie Hunter Trio) and Vicki Randle, drummer in Jay Leno's Tonight Show Band.
"I like to play live, so I do my recording—singing and playing the guitar simultaneously—ideally with the band at the same time, which we did, as we moved from studio to studio," Garlin said. "Julie and I spent some time together, playing the songs in their basic forms. She'd ask me to play them again, maybe at a slower tempo, so the story could unfold in its own time. We worked out the arrangements together, but the musicians all brought ideas too. We were open to hearing them and incorporating them; my approach is to let people play to their strengths, so the chemistry among musicians can happen in real time."
Mondegreens is full of restrained power. The songs feature Garlin's passionate vocals, her expert fingerpicking and literary lyrics that present difficult emotional states with all their nuanced complexity intact. "Cheers to You" is a slow, spooky rocker. It tells the tale of a young woman struggling with the fears and addictions that keep her from surrendering to feelings of love. "Good Morning" is a bluegrass romp, with banjo and fiddle, celebrating the endless possibilities that every day offers, despite lost love, broken bones and words left unsaid.
"The Boys of Summer," the 1984 Eagles hit, gets a gentle makeover that gives the song new meaning. "We had a lot of fun recording that song," Garlin said. "It's a well-known boy-meets-girl story, so transforming it into a girl-meets-girl story flips the script. It's retroactively inserting the song into '80s pop, when non-traditional love stories were less common on the radio."