Surrounded by college students returning to schools in Boston and New Haven, I sat on Amtrak’s high-speed train, staring out my window at the Connecticut scenery racing by while thoroughly enjoying listening to Rebecca Turner’s latest album, The New Wrong Way. Her sophisticated, eclectic songs address issues of aging, perseverance, independence and self-awareness. Her poetic words create vivid character portraits delivered with a beautiful, delicate and nuanced voice. She represents strong female characters who have defied gender norms, dreamed and endured; she reminds us to stay grounded and open to others’ perspectives. She interprets two songs by other artists, making them her own.
The New Wrong Way is imbued with an appreciation of the impact of music on both performers and people who listen intensely. She tells her tales with an engaging blend of rock, folk and country sounds and a fine group of musicians, including Rich Feridun (Tammy Faye Starlite, Jimmy LaFave, Amelia White), Sim Cain (Rollins Band, Chris Harford, Marc Ribot), husband Scott Anthony (Fond Farewells, Nu-Sonics), Deena Shoshkes and Jon Fried (both from The Cucumbers and The Campfire Flies) and Boo Reiners (Demolition String Band).
Looking around the train, I didn’t envy my inner 20-year-old self or the students surrounding me, given the difficult lessons that lay on the tracks ahead of them. It takes a lifetime of wear and tear to develop the maturity to come up with Turner’s insightful reflections about some of the heady issues explored on The New Wrong Way. You want to listen to these songs over and over, to capture their essence and meaning. I found myself singing her catchy tunes long after I got off the train.
I learned more about the journey that made this very worthy album possible during a recent interview in Hoboken. She will perform songs from The New Wrong Way at a record release party featuring her electric band, with Shoshkes and Fried opening, at Little City Books in Hoboken, Nov. 6 at 7 p.m.
Turner’s Mother, Linda Levitt Turner, was a historian and the co-author of “Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters.” “I thought I’d follow in her footsteps,” Turner said. She has spent many years working as a copywriter (currently for an e-commerce consumer products company) and has grappled with owning her identity as a songwriter. She said New Wrong Way is more about the “search for doing something, rather than finding someone.”
With three recorded albums, she can finally settle into the notion that she is a solid, soulful songwriter. She said that at a recent gig in Manhattan, “something changed for me. Even after two records I never thought of myself as a musician/singer-songwriter — not as my main identity. Something flipped and I thought that this is now my main identity.”
She said to herself, “you’re about music.”
There were times when she would not even mention this side of her identity. But now, she said, “I’m gonna lead with that … it’s my ‘something’.”
Her accomplished mother died in 2013, but her influence on and connection with Turner remains palpable. Turner pays tribute to her on the album’s cover by featuring a photo of her taken when she appeared as a guest on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1972 to discuss the Lincoln biography. Turner was 7.
The colors of the album cover were taken from the colors of the dress Turner’s mother wore on the show. Turner’s picture appears next to her mother’s photograph. Both women succeeded in male-dominated environments: Her mom is an expert not only on Mary Todd Lincoln, but on first ladies generally, and Turner entered the first class at Columbia University to co-educate in 1983.
Her song “Cassandra,” about country musician Miranda Lambert, celebrates a female country voice — an “inspirational rebel.” Rather than focusing on Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings or other traditional male “outlaws,” she writes about a woman “who does what she wants to do … she is not deferential and does not conform to gender stereotypes.” She praises Lambert in this song for strutting “like an outlaw queen” with “all kinds of crazy energy,” and also confesses to need this as a release “ ’cause when I’m falling down the slide of work and worry, I need guitar so proud and bass too loud, drums like guns and a worked-up crowd, purple lights and warm clear nights, and life let loose.”
In “Free the Rose,” Turner talks about disentangling a rose bush from other plants. But Turner is not a gardener and this is not a song about weeding. She explained that a friend brought a potted yellow rose to her mother’s memorial service, and she struggled for five years to keep it alive.
“I marveled that it stayed alive for five years and as soon as I wrote the song, it died,” Turner said. “The song is about perseverance — my mother persevered a lot.”
The rose symbolizes her mother, and her dad’s old pruning shears brings him into the song. The shears are fictional as he was not a gardener. “I inherited a lot of his cooking tools. But I don’t have a song about cooking,” she said, with a laugh.
In the song, Turner wonders if it will hurt when she frees the rose, concluding that “things will bust open … We’ll get out of the way and then who the hell knows?” I think there is a universal understanding that when we lose a loved one, the future is uncharted and survivors must carry on and fill the empty landscape with something new.
Turner’s first two records, Land of My Baby (2005) and Slowpokes (2009), focused on her adjustment from the city to the suburbs, and were recorded in the Viewing Room, a studio in her first New Jersey home in Springfield. She has worked over the past 10 years developing the 13 songs on the new release. She has also chosen to write about other people and their perspectives, rather than keeping the lens exclusively on herself.
“I haven’t made a record since 2009 because a lot of family things were happening,” she said. As primary caretaker for her mother, who moved from California to New Jersey with Alzheimer’s, and as an involved stepmother to her beloved stepson, releasing an album had to wait. But she continued to write and perform, and was determined to release the album before the 10-year mark since her last album passed.
Although encouraged to record some of these songs as singles, she resisted, and chose to present them all at once due to their interconnected themes. A lover of vinyl records, she wanted to release her songs on both CD and vinyl.
“I felt like these songs needed to be all sitting together on one record because they told a story of the intervening 10 years,” she said.
Amtrak pulled in to my Boston destination and I found myself walking along Commonwealth Avenue singing the catchy and emotionally charged second track, “The Cat That Can Be Alone,” which was inspired by jazz singer Anita O’Day’s autobiography.
“The cat that can be alone is one up on the cat that can’t,” Turner sings, echoing a line in the book.
I was moved by the courage expressed in this song to forge ahead despite obstacles and to learn to “hold your own hand,” particularly during an era when women had little personal freedom or professional success. But I also thought that this is something we must do when someone we love dies, and that made my mind wander back to “Free the Rose.”
Turner portrays O’Day’s early years in Kansas City, Mo., and later Chicago, and her breakout moment when she became a dancer in “walk-a-thon,” a touring dance company. O’Day challenged the notion of a traditional female jazz singer and struggled to find her way during the Great Depression, but successfully joined several big bands as a singer, and recorded 17 albums from 1952 to 1962.
“I just marveled at her (O’Day’s) ability to keep going, with music pretty much pulling her through everything: addiction, bad romances,” said Turner. “It’s something that has kept me going, too, from listening on repeat to The Roches’ Zero Church album during the time my mom was getting sick, to the joy of The Bay City Rollers on the schoolbus after a day of getting picked on in 6th grade.”
I asked Turner if some of the lines in “The Cat That Can Be Alone” were inspired by her personal journey, as well as O’Day’s experience. When I first heard the song, I thought it was a brilliant song about the pain of growing up. The lines were so relatable and the themes of perseverance and self-reliance so present in our lives as we age and face life’s obstacles. She smiled and acknowledged that she “hadn’t thought about that until you asked. I probably wouldn’t have even thought about the fact that I admired that and thus was somewhat thinking about myself in the song until you pointed it out.”
I thought it was a brilliant move to follow this song with her cover of “Tenderly,” written by Walter Gross and Jack Lawrence and recorded by O’Day, among many others. “The Cat That Can Be Alone” discusses the need for self-reliance during times of adversity; “Tenderly” portrays a woman deeply in love and dependent on someone else. Turner’s vocals are gorgeous, sharing a cool, jazzy moment, caressing each word of the song. I exhaled after listening to her romantic rendition, ending with the lines, “I can’t forget how two hearts met breathlessly/Your arms opened wide and closed me inside/You took my lips, you took my love so tenderly.”
She celebrates her impactful friendship with Shoshkes and Fried — “two of the Earth’s nicest humans,” Turner says — on the stunning song, “Water Shoes,” co-written with Philip Shelley. The tune makes me want to dance, which is problematic when listening to it on a New York subway. Shoshkes and Fried join Turner on this hypnotic song (on percussion and banjo, respectively), as does Sue Raffman, who provides backing vocals. Turner said of Raffman, whom she sang with in a college a cappella trio, “she’s a genius with arranging harmonies.”
After meeting Turner in 2003, Shoshkes and Fried helped her create a vibrant musical community in New Jersey. She and Shoshkes, together with Anthony, launched the Saturday Afternoon Song Swap, a performance series for songwriters. (Song Swap celebrated its 10th Anniversary in 2019 with a communal concert and a compilation album). “We’ve met so many wonderful people through the Swap,” said Shoshkes in a prior interview.
In “Water Shoes,” Turner poetically describes an encounter when they all swam at a river together, singing: “I don’t know how to be how you are, be so sweet, like you are, wasn’t born on your star. But you make me want to take things apart, to rewind this old heart.”
“Water Shoes” is about “connecting with others and not being stuck inside yourself … but it is in a larger sense about the friend/musical community I have found, and people outside of that, even, who make me want to be a better person. As an only child, I can be pretty solipsistic, and I’m kind of weird about love and gratitude sometimes … I am either not showing it or over-showing it. But I think that to be outside of yourself is very important, and thankfully I have great friends and family who inspire me to do that.”
She says of Shoshkes and Fried, “I really admired their get-up-and-go, no matter what happens. At this stage of my life, I realize that’s the most important thing: to be able to keep going and have courage … One of my big questions from the past 10 years is, ‘What is the thing to pursue in life?’ When I see people who are happy, I wonder how are they happy.”
There is a line in the song that goes, “I don’t know what I want, maybe peace, maybe just not to always be wanting.”
“I thought maybe I just want peace for myself,” said Turner. Later, she realized that “rather than peace … I don’t want to always be wanting.” She’s no longer wanting, now that she knows she’s all “about music.”
On the song “Circumstances,” you can hear Turner’s upbeat country influences. It’s a seemingly light song that contains a deceptively serious message. It features a woman challenging her middle-aged partner’s choices and direction and asking that he re-center his focus on what’s important, including his guitar and her.
The song, Turner said, is “about the weird confluence of fuzziness and clarity that happens with middle age. You’re running around doing stuff, taking care of people, worrying about things and starting to lose it a little bit, but at the same time, you’re realizing it’s kind of now or never for doing stuff that makes you happy. The song is in the voice of a fictional girlfriend berating a fictional boyfriend (who is, in part, me, and other musicians I know) to embrace both his art and her, more fully (although she wouldn’t put it that way) an attempt to be more focused, grateful and just maybe calm.”
There are references to both high and low moments created by a connection to music. “I love formative musical stories,” Turner said of the song she co-wrote with her friend, Tom Lucas, titled “Tom Tom” about his time when he felt alone in Japan during his college years. “He watched an XTC tape over and over again and he absorbed it … it turned him into a great songwriter.”
“Idiot” focuses on her connection to Vin Scelsa, who used to host a radio show titled “Idiot’s Delight,” and “other DJs like Michael Shelley at WFMU,” Turner said. “All week I listen to streamed radio shows. Even though Vin isn’t on the air, there are all these other people out there and I can listen to all this great music anytime I want. That’s what the line, ‘you’re my pleasure at my leisure,’ means … it was like a sacred thing (listening to ‘Idiot’s Delight’). You would hear new and old things. He would talk at length; he would interview people. It taught me a lot about what good songs are. Everything was interconnected. He loved movies and books and it all tied together. He looked at music from the same angle as I do. It overlaps with other disciplines.”
“What If Music?” references the ways in which music appreciation has changed for Turner over time, and speaks to the downside of hyperfocusing on a particular song. No longer interested in listening to the same song or album over and over, she wants to move on and find something new because “I’m running out of time,” she said.
“Living Rock” addresses the vitality of rock ‘n’ roll. Turner sings: “There’s life in us, still time for us, still feeling those things: that fluttering, that muttering that rock ‘n’ roll brings.”
In addition to songwriting, Turner co-owns, with Anthony, Storybook Sound, a home-based studio (mostly devoted to mastering) where Turner recorded part of her The New Wrong Way. Storybook Sound has also mastered albums by The Feelies, mixed a Richard Thompson documentary soundtrack, remixed recordings by the David Gilmour-produced UK band Unicorn, and mastered two Alex Chilton records.
From the New Wrong Way album, “Tenderly,” a cover of The Bee Gees’ “Sun in My Morning” and the vocals for “The Cat That Can Be Alone” were recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis. Many legendary artists have recorded there, including Big Star, ZZ Top, Al Green and James Taylor.
“There was a comfortable vibe there,” Turner said. “Power pop, soul music and rock were oozing out of the walls. My friend Donna Upton, who also sings backing vocals on the record, grew up in Memphis, and has lots of connections there that helped make the whole Memphis and Ardent process go smoothly.”
“We went to Memphis to visit our son on college break in 2018,” said Anthony, “and decided to look at Ardent for the future. Jody Stephens (a member of Big Star, and the vice president of production at Ardent) took two hours to show us the studio and relayed so many great stories. We were hooked and returned exactly a year later. We completely believe in musical ghosts and resonances that linger after the sound has died. In that regard, the vibe at Ardent runs as deep and strong as the Mississippi River. Memphis really informed the way we made this record … we needed to be in that deep current.
“Of all the great music towns — Chicago, Nashville, Detroit, New Orleans — Memphis is the only town that was never able to shake the elements that made it great. … Rebecca said that Big Star is her Beatles and considers Ardent to be the America’s version of Abbey Road (Studios) in terms of lasting musical impact.”
Turner grew up in Los Angeles “during a very fertile musical time” that fueled her rock, country and folky sides, she said. A child of “ ’70s FM radio and ’80s-era record stores” she has been inspired by artists ranging from Doris Day to Tom Petty, The Bangles, Liz Phair, The Plimsouls and The Go-Go’s.
She was also exposed to the thrill of live music after spending two years at a Jewish sleepaway camp in Northern California. We discovered that we both love the same hypnotic Hebrew song, “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Me’od,” by songwriter Rabbi Baruch Chait and inspired by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, that challenges the listener to face their fears with strength and move forward through adversity, repeating the line: “All the world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid … Don’t look down, keep moving.” Beloved at Jewish summer camps around the world, this song of resilience reminds me of Turner’s song, “The Cat That Can Be Alone.”
Eventually settling in Maplewood, she has embraced the Garden State, enthusiastically declaring that “New Jersey is where it’s at.” Mentioning venues like Fox & Crow in Jersey City and The Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, Turner says she feels like she’s at peace in a musically rich scene.
For more about Turner, visit rebeccaturner.net.
For more about the Nov. 6 show, visit littlecitybooks.com.
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