Friday, June 20, 2008

The best artist you've never heard...

I love words. Anyone who knows me knows that; I love to talk, to write, to read- words can be beautiful, and, as I tell my students, a broad vocabulary is the key to effective expression- why color with red, blue and yellow when you can use magenta, saffron and jade?

This makes me a scrutinizing listener. When I hear a song, I am listening to the key changes, the riffs, the clever time changes, but first and foremost I'm listening to the lyrics. You don't sing the bassline in the shower.

A few years ago I sat at Masquers' Cabaret, eating a salad. I had just finished my set, and I was absently watching the other acts. I had not really been impressed by many artists I'd seen up to that point, so when Joni got up with her husband/guitarist and said hello in her quiet Texas drawl, I settled in to chat with my husband.

And then she began to sing and I shut my fat mouth. Clear and sincere, she talked about things that I had thought only I considered. She was intelligent and gentle, unapologetic and piercing. I couldn't take my eyes off her. Then she softly said "One, two.." and began singing a song so heartbreakingly beautiful that was afraid to breathe, afraid to break the fragile ornate spell she cast. When she sang the last line, I felt physical pain.

When she finished, I walked up to her and said "Great set." She said "You, too!" We just stood there, staring ...it was like we knew each other, somehow were already connected. Suddenly we said "Switch?" And without explanation, we each pulled out a CD and handed it to the other. Then we said goodbye.

That weekend was Thanksgiving. Sean and I were driving to Visalia to spend the weekend with my friend James- to be honest, we really just wanted to get the hell out of town for a while. Sean had just lost his job, and we didn't really know what was going to happen from there. Sean grabbed Joni's CD as we got into the car, and the whole way up the 101 we listened and talked about how much of what she was saying we were going through as well. We grew silent during 'I Rose', and I stared out the window, amazed at this feeling of connection.

By the time we got back to LA, I decided I was going to go out on a limb and see if she wanted to grab lunch. I went to find her on MySpace, and lo and behold, there was an e-mail from her waiting for me. She'd been doing the same thing.

She told me how 'Leaving the Life' had moved her and wondered if I'd like to get together sometime? We decided to meet for lunch a few days later. The day came, and I was running around, trying to get out the door, and Sean called;
"You're going to be late!"
"I know- I'm going!!"

I got to Robbie Mac's on Ventura and looked around. Just then the door flew open and Joni raced in:

"I'm so sorry- my husband was just yelling at me that I was going to be late!"

And with that it began. Our parallel journey. We talked for 3 hours that day. About music, teaching, faith- we had so much in common, it seemed absurd we hadn't met before. She taught English, I tutor English, we both hope to make our music OUR way, and find a way to live true to our faith in a business that often wants to homogenize our beliefs for secular consumption or pigeonhole us as "Christian rock". We realized the afternoon was gone, and agreed to 'do this again'.

Over the next few months, we would get together whenever possible to eat, chat, work on songs- always for hours at a time. It was as if we were trying to catch up on the lifetime before we'd known each other. We'd get on the phone and commiserate over where our journeys were headed, our fears and victories. It was a wonderful time.

Then one day we were at Joni's apartment working on a song I'd written that she was playing piano for, and she told me that she and Zach, her husband, were moving to Nashville. They had signed on with a manager there, and she felt that the Lord was leading them to go. I was happy for her, but inside I ached- She had become so dear to me, how would I manage without her?

The time came very quickly for them to leave, and we agreed to have one last lunch the day before they set off. We promised to keep in touch, that this wasn't goodbye, just an adjustment in distance. We both kept very brave faces, and when it came time to drop her off, she said "Now, y'all better give me a hug."

I got out of the car and hugged her and wished her good luck. She started to walk off down her alley and I got in and started to drive away. I was holding it together pretty well, then I looked in the rearview mirror, just as she turned and looked back. We both raised a hand, and I lost it. Somehow, this woman I'd known for only a few short months had become like a sister to me and just as I'd found her, she was gone.

Whenever I miss Joni, I put that CD on....and she's there, with her words, her wisdom, her kindness. We keep in touch via e-mail and phone calls, and she just had her first baby- an event I so wish I could have been there for, to rejoice with her, support her, babysit for her! When we do talk, it's like no time has passed; we still are living that parallel existence, (even though there's no baby in my immediate future), and her friendship is still there for me in difficult times. Her encouragement has helped me through my recent health crisis, and I thank God for her.

Do yourself a favor- go to Joni's MySpaceThe song she played that tore my heart out was 'If I Hold You'
In fact, I'm listening to it now.:)

I miss you, Joni.