Rachel Garlin

Interview: Rachel Garlin Explores Restriction and Resilience For “The Ballad of Madelyne & Therese”

Interviews

Rachel Garlin Explores Restriction and Resilience For The Ballad of Madelyne & Therese

Singer/songwriter Rachel Garlin recently released an innovative new concept album, The Ballad of Madelyne & Therese which tells the internal story of the secret love affair of two women in New York City in the 1940s from multiple perspectives. The album has also been adapted to the stage by Garlin as a one-woman show with public performances past and coming up where she continues to evolve the storylines present in the songs.

The Ballad of Madelyne & Therese has a big sound and is backed by a full band that features bassist/co-producer Jonny Flaugher (Lady Blackbird), organist Kenneth Crouch (Eric Clapton, Mariah Carey), guitarist David Levita (Tim McGraw), drummer Michael Jerome (Better Than Ezra), and even special guests on horns and flutes. I spoke with Rachel Garlin about the joy of returning to the studio for in-person collaboration on this collection, the gradual discovery of the story within these songs, and what’s all-too-familiar today about the restrictiveness of the 1940s.

Americana Highways: How did you come to the decision to write a storyline surrounding this album? Was it something you’ve been thinking about doing for a while?

Rachel Garlin: Mainly, the songs “Please Therese” and “Madelyne Why” were good launching points for me to write this piece of historical fiction about two women from the year 1940 who are named Madelyne and Terese. As I started to think about their life and love affair, I wrote a plot that also connected the rest of the songs.

 

AH: It’s sort of like seeing a shape in the clouds, where you find something there which speaks to you. I think the song order also has a dramatic arc to it, an emotional landscape to it.

RG: I’m happy to hear that because I did spend time on the song order as I was thinking about this plot. When I perform these songs on stage, I’m able to describe the plot, but when people hear the album, I hope that they can feel that rise and fall of tension.

AH: I see that you’ve already been performing this album as a show, which is so cool.

RG: Yes, I’ve already performed it twice and I’m workshopping it in front of live audiences. The shows were in San Francisco and Santa Rosa and I have my eye on a couple of locations where I’d like to present it while it’s still in “wet ink.” I’d still like to experiment and improvise. I’d like to let the story discover itself in these different contexts. I’ve never done this before! [Laughs] It’s totally new, so I’m bringing a lot of beginner’s mind and curiosity to how this is developing. The presence of a live audience is a bit part of that and is very important to story.

That presence of people in a room was also really important in the creation of this album! I flew to LA to work with producer and bass player Jonny Flaugher. We had a series of days over a couple of months where we all got together and listened with fresh ears. I had some voice memos I’d made of the songs and sent to Jonny. When we get together with the players, that’s when the arrangement really comes together. Jonny is really good at creating a context where other people can play to their strengths and bring ideas, and the sessions have a live and improvisational feel to them. I’m hoping all of that spirit comes out in the record.

AH: It’s very energetic! Every song is just sonically really amazing. I know that you worked remotely with Jonny during the pandemic period, so the difference here was that you were actually able to work in-person with him and with these other people. Had the other players heard these demos before the studio?

RG: Yes, we send out a basic, rough demo, but it’s really on Day One in the studio when I play the song live, acoustic, and unplugged for them that people have a chance to tap out a beat and imagine the layers of instrumentation. Pretty quickly after that, we go into the recording room and put one down. That first or second take usually has some kind of magic in it that we want to keep. With these players it didn’t take all that long to do the tracking. There was also a lot of joy and inspired energy in the room.

AH: Did they know about the story that would link the songs together yet?

RG: Not in the beginning, because I hadn’t written it! When we recorded the songs, we didn’t know what the interaction was between these central characters. At one point during the recording, which lasted a couple of months, I did share with them a sketch of the storyboard I was developing around some of the songs. That was just a fun moment, saying, “The next song we’re recording is from the perspective of Therese, and this is the setting.” The main feeling was just a sense of curiosity.

AH: There’s a wide swath of sound traditions on the album, but I think with each song, you can see what the guiding principle is. I’m amazed by what you’re saying about how this developed because there are a lot of classic sounds on this album and that really fits the 40s setting, but the players didn’t always know that. It was at least partly fortuitous, or maybe it’s the inclination of the players.

RG: Yes! I think that’s true. We weren’t afraid to dip into bygone eras as well as creating a contemporary feel. I think that we were open to what the songs were calling for and these players were so skilled that we had a lot of variety to work with.

AH: Before you knew how these songs might fit together, were you aware of the fact that a lot of these songs seemed to involve relationships and had that in common?

RG: Yes! I think the songs on this album are stories about the internal state of people. Each song has a mood and the expression of an internal state. That meant that the songs could be applied to any character, including Madelyne, Therese, their husbands, or the lounge singer, Hazel, who also comes into the story. So it was fun when writing the plot to “try on” the songs for different characters. In fact, when I performed the debut in San Francisco, I was narrating the plot, and I set up one of the songs.

I thought I was setting it up from the perspective of Madelyne’s husband. But as soon as I started singing it, I realized that it was from Madelyne’s perspective. Since I was on stage, I didn’t stop and correct it, I just continued. But after the show, I decided it was meant to be Madelyne’s song and would stay that way. So I made that decision while on stage and that’s the beauty of the live moment. I learned something about the characters.

AH: It sounds like you’re aware that you may make more discoveries like that?

RG: There are many question marks in the story, particularly with how the story ends. There are many places where the story still could go one way or another, and I’m relying on workshop experiences to see where the story wants to go.

AH: Was there something particular about the 1940s that appealed to you as the setting for the story?

RG: I am interested in hearing the real stories from that period about same-sex relationships because they were not always visible or audible. I am interested in hearing some of those stories from the perspective of my characters.

AH: It was such an extra-conservative time period due to the war setting.

RG: Yes, and the whole air of secrecy and repression impacted my characters greatly. The story focuses on their personal lives and exists within this much greater contexts. One of my challenges as an artist is to learn as much as I can about the context, to honor the history that exists and use these fictional characters to, hopefully, share some truths about peoples’ lives. People like them were very real.

AH: For me, it’s eerie to hear in these songs things that were absolutely true of the time period, but also stand out as being absolutely true right now. That’s disturbing but also meaningful.

RG: Finding ways to creatively communicate under the radar back then, for instance, are still necessary survival skills in modern society.

AH: When I listened to the first track, “Having Slept On It,” I was reminded of the storytelling technique of dropping readers right into the middle of the action of the story. This is definitely a similar scenario and it’s very energetic.

RG: I like that idea and context. The story does begin in the middle, in the middle of the night, during a bout of insomnia. More than one of my characters are struggling to sleep through the night and that becomes a theme throughout the play and the album. Where do we go at night when we’re awake? Where do we go in our lives when we’re supposed to be alive, but parts of us are dead?

 

AH: I can see how in a kind of flipped reality, where you can’t be your real self during the day, maybe you can be yourself at night.

RG: Exactly. There’s a lot of juxtapositions of dilemmas in the songs and in the play about being hidden, hiding, being revealed, conforming or not conforming. The songs came first, so I discovered these themes after the fact when piecing together the story.

AH: Something that really works for that song is that the restlessness and uncertainty isn’t something the person is trying to destroy or quash just so they can rest. There’s a kind of hope posed in the middle of that, and there’s a kind of possibility to that.

RG: There’s a little bit of a sense of suspension of time at night. Things are closed, and that leaves room for other things to open up. I think that song is about embracing the chaos of midnight. Sometimes it is good to go to bed with a “messy head” and allow ourselves to be wakeful as we wrestle with dilemmas. Those are kind of the times we’re living in now. I don’t usually go to bed with a sense that all is well and good in the world.

AH: So true!

RG: It’s a complicated proposition to be alive right now, and sometimes allowing in that complexity is just what the psyche needs.

AH: Even though some of the songs deal with heavier themes and uncertainty, I see a lot of energy behind these songs, particularly in the music, that suggests growth or development.

RG: There’s resilience in these characters and in the songs, even though they do reach some darker places. We recorded this album after the lockdowns of the pandemic. We recorded it at a time when resilience was taking shape and we had the lived experience of helping each other through that time. Getting to play music live in a room with people is something I will never take for granted again. The excitement of being together and coming up with these arrangements that we couldn’t have imagined otherwise.

 

AH: One of the songs that felt very modern in certain moments was “Louisa.” I love that song for a lot of reasons. The idea of clothing expressing, or restricting the expression of gender and personality is something that my siblings and friends and I talk about a lot and this song is totally relevant to now in that way.

RG: Yes, absolutely. It’s fun to play that song live. It happens in a nightclub, and the nightclub singer, Hazel, is playing with gender expression, in the 1940s. She’s playing with costumes, she’s playing with uniforms, and she’s doing it in the context of this cabaret. And she’s also doing it in her real life. There is a connection to now. When I think about the dialog today around gender expression, and we see how many different expressions in our culture, of course, all of those always existed. The full expression of the gender spectrum is not an aspect of modernity, it’s just an aspect of population.

That’s why I’m so curious about these time periods. We may not have had the language, descriptions, or categories, but certainly the internal impulse to be yourself must have always been there. I love seeing how the characters play with that and presenting this piece in the year 2023 means there are a lot of connections to the conversations that are happening right now surrounding language and restrictions. Even as things are opening up around gender and sexuality, there’s a competing movement to close those things down, perhaps even with a harsher and more stringent lock. It’s the same thing that I’m exploring for the year 1940.

Thanks for chatting with us Rachel Garlin!

For more details on Rachel Garlin, check her website here: https://rachelgarlin.com/

Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Rachel Garlin Captivates and Shines On Her New Album “Mondegreens”

 

 

 

Leave a Reply!