Nature’s Muse: How the Adirondacks Inspired Song City’s Aspiring Songwriters
There was just enough snow on the ground that the yellow and orange leaves clinging to the branches of the trees seemed surreal last week in the Adirondacks. Jim and I drove up to Silver Bay for Song City’s INK songwriter’s retreat, and I was awed by the colors out my window during the last light of the day.
Ten musicians had gathered for four days the first week of November to approach songwriting differently: their goal was to write collaboratively and yet distinctly new music, together over the course of a few days.
Scott Womer, the architect of Song City’s collaborative model of supporting original and local songwriting, brought the songwriter retreat into being with the help of a grant from the Council on the Arts. Assisted by Anthony Cubbage, Womer birthed the retreat into life with the goal of further growing local songwriters and enhancing the craft.
Twenty-five individuals applied to attend the retreat, “and while any of the 25 would’ve been great, we really wanted to pick a group of artists who could support one another through the process of thinking about songwriting,” Womer explained. The songwriters were brought together daily for meals and sharing, but also encouraged to use time independently to explore nature, lyrics, and their own processes for writing.
The ten artists who arrived at Silver Bay earlier in the week before us couldn’t be more different from one another. Representing different ages and all at different stages with their work, the musicians came together for connection and also disconnection.
“I applied because I wanted a dedicated time away to write, but also because I have a need for connection and focus with other musicians,” Albany songwriter Amanda Case explained. Over the course of two days, Case was able to create two songs as she discovered a new community of Song City’s retreat.
Deb Cavanaugh agreed, adding, “The beauty of the setting is what inspired my song. I came with zero expectations, but the environment has been so conducive to my writing.” The humble Cavanaugh praised access to the chapel and other cottages, as well as the natural world, as inspiring her lyrics.
As Jim and I settled into the group, we listened to the musicians share ideas and offer generous support and feedback to one another. “When we first got here, we all played a song for each other, and we quickly heard how we all played different sounds and genres,” Natalie Seagriff of Troy recalled. Seagriff’s band Horsegrenades performs a more rock-focused sound, “and the workshop offered me a chance to explore a more indie rock/folk sound.”
The group of songwriters agreed that the common thread among them was heartbreak. JJ Hinterberger noted that songwriting has helped him heal, and Seagriff nodded with support. The writers seemed to be not only drafting lyrics but also offering peer counseling to each other. “These are songs about longing, and how we process it,” Seagriff explained.
Musicians were enjoying food handcrafted with love by O’Malley’s Oven in Troy and telling jokes around the dinner table in the cabin before transitioning to the final performance of their new pieces. It became very clear that the retreat had produced some sort of magic as we watched these musicians nervously tune instruments and review new lyrics. Whether playing acoustic or electric guitars, mountain dulcimer, or mandolin, each song was bringing forth the essence of the songwriter’s story for the world with an openness and vulnerability that was spellbinding.
Songwriter Saliyah Itoka acknowledged that vulnerability as well as she explained, “This experience helped me learn and reminded me that my music is a safe space for people, and a safe space for me.” Itoka’s rich voice added to rapper John Brown’s song on its chorus, and created her own safety with her original songwriting.
Even so, there was an overwhelmingly anxious vibe as the musicians took turns playing their new creations. “I wanna go before I forget it,” Cavanaugh laughed.
As the musicians shared in their circle, songs about longing and love were apparent, but not just for lovers. Longing for peace and love for humanity was a theme from Cavanaugh, and love of adult children and aging parents also came through as well as a theme, as was love of self. From blues to jam sounds, the writers talked about “waking up in a sweat dreaming about lyrics” and resting by the lake observing its natural beauty.
Sitting in a cabin with ten artists from vastly different places, different genres, and different times in their lives, I was flooded by emotion and the realization of how uniquely each person experiences love and can share that love out into the world. These artists were so present for others and themselves, crescendoing into self-exposure through self-expression.
I loved all ten of the songs and felt like I knew each of the writers much more intimately than I should after this brief meeting just from listening to the songs. We wandered away from the cabin into the indigo-blue night, chilled by the Adirondack November air, Jim holding my hand and my thoughts cradling what we had just witnessed. I looked up at the starry sky and asked myself if I could be as brave as those musicians who were strangers just three days before but who had clearly been vulnerable with each other and left with new connections and songs.
All ten will reunite at the AI Center in Troy, New York, to play out their new music on December 5th. Song City plays in the round style, allowing the musicians to sit together and communicate together with a larger audience. Jim and I are excited to return and hear where the songs are at in a month, as well as reconnect with the musicians.
The showcase will feature Kaylee Boerner (Ladybird), Sean Jones (The Paper Prince), JJ Hinterberger (That Moment When), Saliyah Itoka, Deb Cavanaugh, JB!! Aka Dirty Moses, Natalie Seagriff (Horsegrenades), Ben Hart, Amanda Case, and Ed Schwarzschild (Doctor Baker). Tickets go on sale Tuesday, November 21st, at www.songcitytroy.com.