September 24, 2011

Album Reflection: Heatherlyn – Storydwelling. ~ Cynthia Beard

Dwelling in Song

Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter Heatherlyn’s sophomore album Storydwelling threads the theme of living in and among musical and lyrical narratives that range from the personal to the universal and everything in between. I obtained a pre-release of Storydwelling this summer, and it’s taken me a while to decide exactly what I want to say about it. Rather than write a typical review (in part because, admittedly, I’m biased), I would like to offer a different type of essay on this outstanding album. I hope that my musings will invite you to consider how music and stories have impacted your own life experiences.

One of the biggest challenges that Heatherlyn has faced is self-releasing an independent album at a time when the record industry has forced mainstream musicians into boxes and categories that, while limiting, also allow music to be packaged for widespread radio airplay and concert tours. By choosing to release her album as an unsigned artist, Heatherlyn is taking a major risk in that she must market her own music. This included securing the capital investment to produce the album, which among other things, involved a Kickstarter fundraising initiative and a subsequent campaign to invite fans to pay upfront for a pre-ordered copy of the album long before it was finished. These funds allowed Heatherlyn to continue working on the album at a time when many musicians would give up or indefinitely postpone due to insufficient finances. The community-driven result arrived in mailboxes all across the nation this summer in the form of autographed prerelease copies of the album (packaged in the most environmentally friendly way possible) and, in some cases, small cards with instructions for downloading the album digitally. After listening to Storydwelling numerous times, I remain impressed by this superb album that is innovative, creative, beautiful, and fun!

Although not easy, being an independent artist in today’s world has its benefits. Self-releasing an album is challenging, yes, but it’s also empowering, especially when the voice at the microphone is as soulful and expressive as Heatherlyn’s. She wasn’t confined by the demands of executives who are more concerned about their bottom line than they are about creating great music. She was able to make decisions based on what she felt would tell her story and convey the overriding theme of “storydwelling.” Most of her songs are originals that only she could have written because, well, they are her stories. Throw in a cover (“Jack Riddle”) that was written by her friend Melissa Marley Bonnichsen, and the traditional spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger,” interpreted in a way that is performed alternatively “with liberty” to the tempo and then with a steady, driving backbeat.

Altogether this song serves as a lens through which the entire album can be understood: Heatherlyn’s stories are meditative and self-reflective on the one hand but also aware of the larger social and cultural context that connects us all. The lyrics begin, “I am a poor wayfaring stranger while traveling through this world of woe. / Yet there’s no sickness, toil, nor danger in that bright world to which I go.” Perhaps the freely sung introduction, with Heatherlyn in dialogue with highly expressive guitarist Tyler Burkum, serves as a metaphor for how we all feel a bit like wayfaring strangers at various times in our lives. But with the shift to a more metrical, rhythmic second verse, I get the sense that through shared experience (musically represented with the more accompanimental role that the instruments take on), we reach that “bright world” that the lyrics promise.

Some of the songs on this album seem to emphasize Heatherlyn’s personal journey instead of the communal narratives that I’d argue are more pervasive on this album. Even through the personal, though, social and cultural experiences are still evident. Her most vulnerable song (“You’ll Never Know”)         is

Photo: J Baer

placed at the very end of Storydwelling, with her revealing the ambiguous feelings associated with having no contact with her alcoholic father. Yet the song also offers a commentary on the struggles that countless others, especially women, face in coming to terms with domestic abuse and addiction.

I find it curious that this is the only song that features a piano, with solo keyboard (played by Matt Patrick) actually leading in at the beginning of the song. In the 19th century, the piano came to signify music for the home, and I’d argue that this is still true today to a certain extent. I doubt that Heatherlyn consciously intended to convey a sense of her own fatherless “home” with the piano, but it’s an indication of how our musical associations are often based on shared cultural knowledge.

My favorite song on the album is another that operates in two spheres, the personal and the social.  “Home with You Continues” expands on a song that appeared on her self-titled 2008 debut album. Whereas the original “Home with You” is completely acoustic, the follow-up employs a fuller band that includes an electric guitar and is at a subtly quicker tempo. Both versions tell the story of Heatherlyn and her husband’s journey together, but instead of a purely personal love song, she also shares the stories of friends whose homes are unconventional and inspirational. This includes an amazing married couple who met in a Seattle tent city when they were among the employed poor who, no matter how hard they were working, simply could not afford the high cost of rent.

Several of the songs on Storydwelling remind me of the socially conscious folk-rock music of the 1960s that I was raised on, not always in terms of style but definitely in message. The reggae-like “We Have a Dream” riffs on Martin Luther King, Jr.’smost famous speech along with the work of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum, whom Heatherlyn worked alongside during a PeaceJam youth  educational outreach event. MLK’s influence on

Photo: M E McCaron

Heatherlyn is further evident on “Put on Your Climbing Shoes,” a driving song that is almost impossible not to dance to. The lyrics recall the Civil Rights leader’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech that he delivered the night before his assassination. Implicit in the activism of the Civil Rights Era is, at least to a certain extent, a belief that socio-economic upward mobility should be accessible to all Americans, but this message is flipped on its head with “Modernity.” I imagine myself sitting in a 1950s jazz club listening to a spoken word poet ruminate over a bluesy bass (played by Aaron Fabbrini) and cool, aloof drums (by the percussively innovative Zach Miller). A trip to Tanzania, with simple dinners in an impoverished village, prompted Heatherlyn to ask, “What does it mean to be truly free / to live abundantly / with generosity / in the midst of modernity?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times, although never quite so eloquently.

This question also seems to be at the heart of Storydwelling, for embedded in our life’s stories are also the narratives of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. To be free is to acknowledge that we live in community with others, for denying our relationship to the world around us is a type of self-imposed prison. Thus, Heatherlyn’s story becomes our story as we all share collective experiences of interacting with loved ones as well as those who hurt us. In this way, Storydwelling moves beyond the personal into the realm of the social and cultural, even when she is singing about her own experiences. Yet on another level, Storydwelling also participates in a universal story that transcends time and location, for music is a means of artistic expression that all cultures participate in.

Storydwelling not only constructs stories, but it is in itself a story, dwelling in the creation of Heatherlyn and her collaboratory Storydwellers. The journey from conception to final production is a marvelous story of how an independent artist has found a means for sharing her musical talents, and the result is an album that, as Duke Ellington would say, is “beyond category.” Don’t listen to Storydwelling with the expectation that it will sound like anything you’ve heard before. And that’s a good thing!

– – –

Storydwelling is available at www.heatherlynmusic.com as well as on iTunes, CDBaby, and Amazon as of September 13. Ask your favorite independent record store to carry it, or if you are in the Minneapolis area, stop by The Electric Fetus or The Buzz Coffee & Cafe to buy a copy. Be sure to check out these reviews on the album by my friends Roger Wolsey and Sue Leibnitz here and here, respectively.


Cynthia is a PhD candidate in musicology at the University of North Texas in Denton. She enjoys world travel, is involved with several local non-profits, believes that her progressive Christian faith calls her to advocate for social justice throughout the world, and can get a little obsessive about the environment. She describes herself as a leaf blowing in the wind. Peace, love, and flower are her favorite words. Oh, and the French word pamplemousse, although she’s not a big fan of grapefruit.

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