Rachel Garlin’s LP Mondegreens arrived as a welcome balm during the early days of the pandemic and was already associated with her “sidewalk sessions” playing music in front of her home in San Francisco as a way to reach out to her community. The songwriting continued, though, not only unabated but at an increased pace due to a songwriting group Garlin took part in, but also due to a special challenge in February 2021 to write a song a day. Sharing the songs online same-day was an even bigger outreach and all of these exercises became a way in which Garlin found growth and openness during the paradoxically closed time that we have all lived through.
When it came to collaborating with Producer Jonny Flaugher on the EP, The State That We Are In, which arrived in June, Garlin found the same principles of exploration and openness led to more adventures. The final pieces of the puzzle for Garlin’s 2020 and 2021 experiences so far were training for the America Ninja Warrior competition TV show from springtime onwards (making an appearance on Season 13’s June 7th episode) and managing to go on a live tour (where she is currently) to launch the new EP.
I caught up with Rachel Garlin from Vermont while on tour and she kindly shared some of the big, universal ideas she’s found relevant to her daily creative practice as well as navigating the needs of her community and of the world in a time of unprecedented change.
Americana Highways: Thanks for talking to me while on tour! I know that you were doing pretty extensive livestreaming up until the time you left on tour, but what’s it like out there?
Rachel Garlin: It’s been great. Venues are opening up and people are ready to come and see live music. Everyone is being really creative about how to make it work in this new format.
AH: What are you playing on this tour?
RG: I’m playing songs off my new EP, The State That We Are In, and also songs from my repertoire. I’m meeting up with audiences who have come to see me play over the years, so I’m putting together new stuff that compiles some of the oldies.
AH: That’s exciting that you might be meeting in person, now, people who have been watching the livestreams over the past year and interacting with you.
RG: Exactly, yes. One thing that happened, though, is that before my show in Boston, a fan e-mailed me asking when I was going to send out the Zoom link for the show. I had to explain that it was just a live show and not being livestreamed. Expectations are changing. For the past 18 months, people have only expected concerts to be online. It’s a shift for everyone, but I think it’s a welcome shift. I appreciate peoples’ flexibility and openness easing back into it.
AH: That is so true. Since nothing like this has every happened before, it’s kind of fascinating in its own way to see how this goes.
RG: I’m playing songs that I wrote during the pandemic from a small, windowless, closet-office from my house in San Francisco and bringing them out into the world in real-time and real life. It feels like a special opportunity that I’m grateful.
AH: I was surprised to hear about this EP because I knew how recently the LP Mondegreens had come out. But then I heard all the writing that you did in February, which is jaw-dropping. Are all the EP songs from that period or a mixture of things?
RG: It’s a mixture because leading up to the 28 songs that I wrote in February, I had been in a weekly songwriting group where we wrote a song a week during the pandemic. All the songs were written were written during quarantine. “The State That We Are In” came from looking around at everything that was happening, politically, socially, environmentally. I just really tried to take stock and metabolize this huge collective experience that we were all having around Covid and express some of it musically.
“Seashells” is a song that I wrote when we went to the seashore in Northern California and were visiting some friends. I was observing some of the ways in which people were making magic out of the circumstances of Covid. Even in the moments when the beaches were just opening because you couldn’t even go to the beach. Sometimes we’d just go for long drives along the shore and not even get out of the car and I’d have to explain that to my three kids. To still feel a sense of spaciousness was a challenge, so when the beaches opened back up, it was this huge gift to be able to have your feet in the sand and to be out there with my four-year-old daughter picking up seashells. It was the reopening of that experience of the vastness of nature.
The song “Late To Bloom” came out of the experiences of meeting up with people from the past and then reflecting on that. I had a couple of significant reunions this year. The quarantine has been a time of constraint and confinement, but also an opening and blooming in new directions. I have definitely felt that as an artist. The slowing down and the going inward has been, ultimately, one of sharing more. Writing a song every day in February and sharing it that day was scary for me since it’s scary to share things before they are refined and polished. I really had a strong impulse to do that, despite my fears, and try to be courageous in that space of sharing. I fought my own tendency to produce things in a certain way to be a lot freer and more open in my sharing. I could also ask people what they were working on. Despite the closure of the world, we could also open towards each other.
I did that in my community, too, working with young writers over Zoom, to communicate with them where they were staying, even though we couldn’t meet at Sunset Youth Services. I work there and we have a youth-run record label that supports the work of youth in the city, so we had to be creative about how we could continue our work, whether that meant showing up with food and basic provisions, or whether that meant encouraging our students to keep writing and collaborating.
AH: Did you notice anything particular about your students’ songwriting or the way that they were approaching music under these new circumstances versus meeting in person? How do you think they were processing their experiences?
RG: There was a lot of pain from the pandemic in San Francisco and in our communities. There was a lot of loneliness and struggle around staying balanced and staying well. People in our community were getting sick from Covid, and there were casualties. There were folks who couldn’t get support in person. Some of it’s hard to talk about. Certain kids and families couldn’t get the help they needed in person. Our work is relationship-based and part of our work relies on them being able to see us and feel supported. Without that, some of the coping mechanism aren’t the healthiest and it’s been sad to feel the suffering.
I think music can be a great outlet for kids, as we know, and a lot of the music was hopeful, and some of it was more desperate and angry. The best we can do is support that expression. But to talk about reopening, we had a big, outdoor picnic concert and fundraiser event about a month and a half ago. It was in a parking lot overlooking a lake and the kids performed together. It was really celebratory to hear the music that kids had been creating live. I sometimes cowrite with the kids from the agency and we played some of our shared songs on stage.
AH: That’s amazing. Thank you for sharing that. I’m so glad that you were reaching the young people that you were able to reach.
RG: The improvisational nature of music, or at least the way that I do it, has helped me navigate the pandemic. I like to write in the moment and without a grand plan. I approach songwriting from a spontaneous perspective. I like to start riffing on the guitar, and with my voice, and see where the song leads me. Some of that has been really handy during the pandemic because everything has been really unpredictable and we’ve had to create and recreate structure from the chaos. I like that spirit of creativity as it’s played out during this time, so I offered that to these kids and to my own children, seeing the ways in which we could combine our need for a plan with our need to stay open to the way things would unfold.
I think the album, The State That We Are In, was like that, too. I worked with a Producer, Jonny Flaugher, who I hadn’t met before. We didn’t have a grand plan to make an EP, we just started working together and enjoyed the collaboration. We began to realize that even though he was in LA and I was in San Francisco, we could put together a real record with real musicians. We’d often meet in the wee hours of the night, because we both have little kids. I’d creep downstairs trying not to wake anyone in the household and go into my little music studio. We’d start to text each other and in the dead of night we’d collaborate on ideas and send each other mixes. It was this little capsule of creativity that we’d break open in the middle of the night. That’s how the record unfolded.
The same thing has happened with this tour. We didn’t have a grand plan that this would be an album release tour since we didn’t know if venues would be open, but little by little, we put together anchor dates. Staying open to things has been a big theme of the record and of the experience.
AH: I was really impressed by the level of musicality on the record given the fact that everyone was working remotely. It’s incredible what you managed to accomplish in this way. How does this compare with what you’d usually do in a studio?
RG: Usually we’d have a big day of tracking, then have a bunch of musicians come into the studio, then work a couple of days the following week. I like the rely on the expertise of the people who I work with anyway, but this time it was really about letting go of control. I had to trust people that all their experience would go into it. Jonny would have ideas of adding flutes or horns, and I trusted him to hire people. A lot of people were in their midnight studios, too, so we’d commune.
It’s exciting to do things in a non-traditional way and I’ve known that throughout my life. There’s an excitement to that, an adrenaline to taking risks and going off the beaten path. Certainly, that was there in making an album with people I didn’t know. I’ve never met Jonny in person and we didn’t Zoom a lot either, though we would get on the phone to hear each other’s voices. The human experience was fairly analog, about talking and writing to each other. Some of that spirit is in the record. I loved all that. If people go back to doing things the same way after this, it will be a loss, because the experience has opened the senses in new ways. I’d love for the EP to be a sensory experience for people since all of that went into the process.
AH: Tell me about your recent athletic endeavors. I think the road to America Ninja Warrior only started in March for you. Is that right?
RG: Yes, I got the call in February. I was doing my daily songwriting practice and in the middle of that, I got the call from American Ninja Warrior. It was a new thing for me to try the ninja sport. I had about five weeks to train and learn. Again, you fling yourself into these adventures and just see what happens. I met all these great ninja athletes, and there’s definitely some crossover because it’s a very creative sport. People design obstacles from their imaginations or from the playgrounds of their youth. I very much like to tap into my inner child when I’m writing, when I’m playing with my kids, and even when I’m interacting with the world. I like to be playful. The sport is very playful.
The main advice you get is, “Practice monkeying around. Go back to the playground.” We live a couple doors down from a playground, so I started by training there. I started practicing for an obstacle course, though they don’t tell you what it will be. I found that some of the energy that you might expend while practicing music or writing songs could be transferred onto the obstacle course. In a similar way, you are using impulses and imagination, as well as on-the-spot decision making to guide a path that’s a little unexpected.
AH: There definitely can be an adaptability and an adventure to sports but I think we often lose that as we get older. Maybe that’s part of why Ninja Warrior is so popular because people are recognizing something there.
RG: I think that’s right. It’s different environments where we can combine adventurousness, childhood memories of how to be free and uninhibited. That’s how I approach songwriting and that’s also how I approached learning to be a “ninja.” It’s a beginner’s mindset and a growth mindset.