I think our cat is trying to communicate with us, but he is a fierce lover with a filthy mouth. Our fridge is covered in magnetic poetry. Nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, and articles all crammed into a word salad. Xander, our sweet, special, nervous OCD Bengal cat likes to pull down scraps of red and white words while we cook or watch tv. It’s often just the word of the day, but he does occasionally get ambitious in the middle of the night and I wake up to a confettied sentence on the floor just begging for sense to be made out of it.
He can’t help that his assistive device / sometime Ouija board is a mix of two magnetic themed sets—the Romance edition, and the Sex edition. Plus a few random cat words like MEOW. So we get oddly accurate things like “MEOW babe” “pussy voice said milk” or experimental poetics like, “please spray the bright.” Sometimes, straight up fuck poems such as, “finger her paradise world” or simple nonsense like “ready my beach.”
But the first of September arrived bringing cooler rainy weather with it, and as I packed my breakfast and lunch for work, Xander scratched off an extremely apt poem:
That night, I came home and lit candles early to fill the house with warm light and scent as I cooked and he delivered “candle dinner” in red, which was a bit eerie.
Today my mother had major abdominal surgery. We all texted and called and prayed and well-wished until later, I was relieved to hear her voice—groggy, but chuckling, telling me in small voice that she loved me. Wrung out with worry, I headed out to the garden at dusk for a late summer harvest of tomatoes. Xander meowed, fished three times, and softly commented, “empty our soul.”
Last week, I had a particularly strange dream. The image of the monstrous seashell building is still tumbling around on the ocean floor of my brain.
I know it was fueled in part by my neighbor. She was preparing to attend a beach wedding over the weekend and as I watered the garden at dusk, she called out over the fence to ask my opinion on the best dress of three. A mini fashion show ensued as she popped in and out the front door in short order, doing a quick pirouette each time. I suggested the comfortable stretchy number with the peacock feather pattern over the short cocktail dress or the thing with the trailing wrap skirt and bodice that would require stitching and extra boob support to make it work. Why make an outfit more complicated when you need to be comfortable near the ocean—because . . . sand, saltwater, and wind.
Later, she awaited her frantic friend whose son was getting married to arrive last minute to help prepare wedding favors—seashell ornaments. Piles of them. All of which needed a dab of hot glue, ribbons, and hole-punched tags with the bride and groom’s names attached. It would be a late night of of production for her and as it happens, for me as I slept.
In the dream, I rowed a small boat out into a wide canvas of ocean. There, I saw a large metal spike rising from a soft ripple of water and bubbles. I slipped into the water to swim towards it and grasped it with one hand, my legs floating behind in a gentle current. I touched the top of it, and found it sharp and tapered as a needle point blade.
Then I looked down into the ocean below and felt a strange wave of fear and nausea as I discovered what I was holding was a spire attached to an enormous building that went down for miles. It was shaped like a turrid shell, more specifically, Turris babylonia: the Babylon turrid or Tower Turrid. I could see endless windows spiraling into oblivion, casting golden whorls of light out of the black-green hulk of bone-metal. The windows were an inverted negative of the pattern on the elusive Scaphella junonia: the junonia shell, or Juno’s volute.
I battled two opposing instincts—swim down to see if there was more to the cityscape; or get back in my little red boat and find the nearest land. Somehow, my sense of the building was based on a faint memory from a previous dream. It did not feel like a livable, underwater Utopia, but a submerged and dark-tinged Atlantis. This seashell skyscraper was merely a glittering prison tower.
The morning after the wedding and my dream, I asked Terri how everything turned out.
“Oh, we were up ’til one in the morning,” she said stiffly, “but they turned out nice. Hold on, I’ll show you.” She ran back into the house to retrieve a sample.
She dangled a few shells on silver and gold ribbon between two fingers, one of them a Babylonia. The dream swam up and flooded me with remembrance.
Later, I read that people who attend beach weddings often receive seashell favors, bought in bulk from a craft store, just as these were. Sometimes, brides want that extra stagecraft to their ocean side ceremony and purchase cheap bags of foreign shells to scatter along the beach or create aisle runners. They often get left behind, run out with the tide, and wash back in to the minor annoyance of pros or the sheer delight of amateur shellers (yes, a name for people who collect seashells) depending on their knowledge of where the shells originated. But most people who buy them have the innocent intention of spreading them on local beaches so their children and grandchildren can go hunting and find a rare treasure—albeit, not a local creature that has fled its conical home. Shellers call these castaway orphans and refugees “Wedding Shells.” Still others want to rid themselves of their old beach comber collection with similar meaningful ceremonies that return them to the sea, even if it’s not the same water.
I look at some of my own collection on my nature altar, recalling the sandy coastlines and aquamarine water I dove in to collect them—even who I was with when I found them. California. Florida. Oregon. British Virgin Islands. Once, I opened a box on a dresser at an estate sale to find a small clutch of shells, which promptly went home with me. I wondered, where had they gone to find all these? What memories were attached to all these nature objects? Were any of my prizes wedding shells? Certainly not the brain coral or the banded tulip shell, not the dried urchin or the sand dollar—I found those in their native spaces.
And what of all those holey stones aka Faerie Stones, Hag Stones, or Witch’s Amulets I have a knack for finding? Or for them finding me. It is said that they offer protection by placing them on a nail near doorways. Faerie stones provide a window into other worlds as you gaze through the naturally made hole eroded by time and water, or clam-like shelled creatures called piddocks, known by the sweeter name, angelwings.
Piddock shells are divided into 2 or 3 sections, one of them with a pointed beak that contains a set of ridges or “teeth,” much like a grinding plate for spices. They slowly drill their elliptical shells into rocks, creating tubular burrows, rhythmically contracting the muscles attached to their wings, siphoning water and holding it in to create an expansive pressure, and extending a fleshy foot that grips the stone surface of their home to rotate the shell. As they grow, they enlarge their hole, carving out space to live in and protect themselves. They remain in their stonehouse hidey-hole their entire lives—5 to 10 years. Because of their foot and their siphon hose, they can never quite fully retract into their shell halves and close their wings. They are a mouth with teeth on the outside and feet on the inside! Those muscles fusing the wings together become weak, and the rest of the shell fragile, making it rare to find angelwings on the shore with both halves still intact.
But perhaps what I should be doing with the stones with holes in them drilled by nature to see through time with, is what the mystics did—thread them with a black cord and put them near the bed to ward off nightmares. Especially nightmares of buildings in the shape of a cutting shell rising above the water’s edge.
As the duo return to Portland to perform their love songs at a sold-out show on June 3 at the Aladdin Theater, Vortex chats with Jesca Hoop about the co-creation of an album of duets with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam.
Some love letters we keep to remind us we are loved. Others, we burn to forget that we were broken by another. But the inspiration behind Love Letter for Fire, a collaborative album between Sam Beam of Iron & Wine and singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop was not to remember or to forget—it was to reinvent. In this case, a 13-track album full of love song duets.
Like most loving endeavors, it began simply and in earnest—Beam and Hoop were fans of each other’s music. Beam had always wanted to make a record like this one with a female partner as an homage to the classic duets he grew up hearing on the radio. He went through Hoop’s catalogue on iTunes and was struck by the album Kismet. Meanwhile, Hoop was finishing her fourth record at the time and had never co-written. Hoop admitted familiarity with Beam’s music “because it had cleaned my house many times,” she remarks. So after a proper amount of mutual admiration, Beam decided he wanted to get to know Hoop better and invited her on tour, and the album was subsequently written throughout 2014.
In their 30-plus years as a band, Indigo Girls have increasingly turned their attention to social causes.
Indigo Girls have been in the music scene since the ’80s, experimenting with their sound, enduring worldwide touring, and outlasting many of their female acoustic-based folk rock contemporaries. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers boast a long-lasting girlhood friendship, 16 albums, more than 35 years of writing, arranging, recording and performing together as a duo, and a Grammy for their self-titled album, which contains their signature song, “Closer to Fine,” featuring earnest lyrics and finely woven vocal harmonies delivered with equal parts fire and grace—a distinctive quality that longtime fans have come to cherish.
Separately, they’ve released solo albums and embarked on successful personal projects—Ray founded a record company and a nonprofit organization that promotes independent musicians, while Saliers scored a film, opened a restaurant and cowrote a book with her father. But their accomplishments have expanded because of the music they make together—and beyond it—into the realm of political activism. Indigo Girls’ commitment to social justice issues, humanitarian concerns and environmental causes can be heard in their musical themes and seen as personal action. Together with Winona LaDuke, Ray and Saliers founded the nonprofit Honor the Earth to raise awareness and financial support for indigenous environmental justice.
The singer-songwriter stepped away from music to pursue an M.F.A. in fiction and returned with her most personal sonic document.
“I’ve taken to exploring the land around me, finding lakes hidden in the pine trees, getting lost, learning to feel comfortable not knowing where I’m going,” wrote Laura Gibson from an A-frame cabin in the mountains of central Oregon during the winter of 2013. Equipped with snowshoes and solitude, Gibson was focusing on her fourth album while also taking time out to teach songwriting to middle and high school kids in Sisters, Ore. Those thematic echoes of teaching, pine trees, solitude, being lost, and searching for a dark lake would reverberate on her new album, Empire Builder.
Gibson didn’t initially think of herself as a writer. “I had great science teachers and math teachers but I didn’t know what words could do,” she explains. “It wasn’t until I started writing songs that I grew myself into a writer. It was only a few years ago I started to believe that I might be able to write something outside of music.”
With that belief, she boarded a train headed east on the famous Empire Builder Amtrak route. She left behind her boyfriend, family, friends and her Portland music community to teach undergraduate writing and pursue an M.F.A. in creative writing at Hunter College in New York City.
The Brothers Comatose: Alex (left) and Ben (right) Morrison. Photo by Jessie McCall
Ahead of their performance at Revolution Hall on March 12, Vortex spoke with brothers Alex and Ben Morrison by phone, covering topics from the rapid evolution of their home base, San Francisco, to wilderness exploration.
The Brothers Comatose are nothing like what their name implies. Actual brothers Ben and Alex Morrison on guitar, banjo and lead vocals deliver energetic bluegrass-folk shows with a backing ensemble—described by Ben as “a Southwestern-tinged, rowdy string band”—that includes Gio Benedetti on upright bass, Philip Brezina on fiddle and Ryan Avellone on mandolin. As for the “comatose,” while playing the banjo, Alex gets so deep into the music that his eyes roll back in his head—hence the origin of their name.
City Painted Gold is their newly released third album, written in and about San Francisco and crowdfunded through Kickstarter with a hilarious video of them trying and failing at musical styles before finding their sound. Fine musicianship and playful humor are hallmarks of their performances, but when you get right down to it, the brothers and their string band are as friendly and fun-loving as they come and always deliver a raucous hoedown dance party.
“I’m sad,” I tell her, looking for analog
in a world of constant digital connection.
“I know,” she said, “you used to write
great letters, too, and you know a lot of people,
but you just need your roots.”
“Go outside and listen,” my mother advises.
Outside, I see all the life looking for hands,
all the living things that need me back,
and I understand what they want—
flowers for vases, tomato vines withering
but weighted with so much pendulous red.
It’s all thirsty, even the sunflowers nod and
hang their heads.
The fires are burning still, more now every day
acres of smoke closer still than farther away.
It’s hard to see, so I listen.
Windchimes in a dusty breeze, paper crisp rose edges
and black spotted leaves. A dog barks, children scream
playing near dark, screeching brakes, and the Jade District
festival thick with voices and music, pounding echoes,
War drums sound, apocalypse theater, Taiko, large and loud. I reach for shears,
and go to ground. I pull the small dandelion fluff of lettuce tops
into a silver kitchen bowl, swirl until the seeds release
the temple drums continue, the clouds go grey
the rusty gate opening screech call of a Scrub Jay
pecking black seeds from under the yellow bonnet,
the neighborhood, haunted.
The early dusk, a yellow-green cyclone sky,
wildfires make for softbox sunsets in the summertime,
the dried up lake beds reveal ancient forests,
the grass has all died, save for the clover.
We may need them when this is all over.
“Go outside and listen,” she said.
I don’t see any people,
but I hear them all.
With her eponymous EP due out May 27, Moorea Masa will celebrate its release on May 31 at Mississippi Studios. Until then, enjoy the video for the title track. Photos by Jason Quigley
Moorea Masa has been in her studio space at the Falcon Art Community in North Portland for just over a month and she’s been spending a lot of time there lately—meeting fellow artists, assembling musicians for her upcoming EP release of Oh Mother on Sunday, May 31 at Mississippi Studios, and putting the wraps on a very beautiful, very personal, very Oregon video for the title track. All of this is to honor the passing of a dear friend’s mother, and motherly figure to Masa, Marcia Jean Barrentine.
This morning I woke from a dream where a dragon was terrorizing the city I lived in. It would cling to the parapet walls of churches, breathing fire down on the street and smashing buildings as it went. No one could figure out where the dragon lived and it would appear suddenly in random places. While on a date with a strange man at a theatre play, I discovered that HE was in fact the dragon, able to shiftshape. Somehow, his eyes and the graceful, reptilian slink in his step gave him away.
I was given a gladius from the community, a smallish sword, and instructed to murder him while he was human, which I couldn’t do because—he was teaching me things, and of course, I loved him.
I woke as he was perched at the top of a tree, leering down at me in dragon form, as I sheathed my sword, and thought to myself, “we should leave this place, we are not welcome here.”
From backing Ural Thomas and The Decemberists, the soul-folk singer strikes out on her own for the first time with a new EP of time-honored material. Photos by Tor Clausen
It’s a windy night as I climb the porch to a pale yellow house, the color of first daffodils in spring—a spring that’s come early to Portland. Moorea Masa greets me warmly and invites me into her kitchen for tea as she finishes cooking a meal for herself. A smallish cat named Hafiz, a nod to the Sufi mystic and poet, paces around, mewling for the food dish to be filled. In between bites and the wayward, headbutting affections of Hafiz, Masa tells me tales of her family, her musical travels, her new soul-folk EP, Oh Mother, and how a soul singer comes to be named after a beautiful, heart-shaped island in French Polynesia called Mo’ore’a, which means “yellow lizard” in Tahitian.
Masa’s Italian father and German-born mother both worked on a cruise ship in their youth. “My grandmother asked them, ‘Well, what was your favorite island?’” It was the one they met on—the island of Mo’ore’a—that became the name they gave their child.