A SWAN ALSO RISES
I was born in Red Bank, NJ at 9:37AM on September 30, 1983. I don’t remember it well but apparently I was supposed to be Matthew, so when the doctor yanked me out with a forceps and announced, “Congratulations, you have a son,” my parents were surprised to see him holding baby girl. I don’t know how to explain this except that it was the 80s and everyone was on drugs — except my mother, who recalls the whole experience as quite traumatic. The nurses had called her Laura all night (her name is not Laura) and, as this seemed a more appropriate name for a girl than Matthew at the time (again, the 80s), they decided to use it for me.
That’s really all you need to know. Libra Sun, Cancer Moon, Scorpio Ascendant, Year of the Water Pig, and what Freud would consider a massive complex that led me to devote my life to guitar-playing, self-inquiry, and name-changing (another reason for writing this in first person).
But don’t we all feel a little misunderstood? Not Seen For Who We Really Are? Thankfully we have music, and specifically, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Mister Rogers saw Me For Who I Really Am, even if I made fun of him (and then hid behind the couch so he wouldn’t see me). I felt really bad about this — I adored Mister Rogers. But how could someone be so kind, so loving, so… mellow? Perhaps I can credit those conflicted hours watching Mister Rogers for not only my introduction to music — particularly a shiny red accordion — but for my path as a yogi.
Most of my childhood memories are music-related — riding around the Jersey shore listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland, Joni Mitchell’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, and Talking Heads’ Naked. Watching Bonnie Raitt perform on my other favorite TV show, Sesame Street. Playing a blue plastic Donald Duck guitar and composing ballads for princesses, flowers, and my sister’s hair. So many Saturday morning cartoon theme songs… and my favorite song of all, the ocean.
But that was nursery school. We all know that all we know we learn in kindergarten. That year my family moved to Vermont, where I drove a tractor (with supervision), starred in The Little Red Hen, learned the alphabet (!), and experienced The Single Greatest Most Formative Thing To Happen To Me Ever.
TOM PETTY. I can still conjure the moment I heard “My sister got lucky/ Married a yuppie.” I was sitting in the backseat when this jangly refrain of “Yer so bad/ Best thing I ever had” launched me forward to demand WHO IS THIS?! Not only was yuppie the coolest word I’d ever heard (rhymes with puppy) — the music beneath was the first glimpse of Southern California by eyes acquainted to gray New England winters. I heard my calling. I saw my future. Tom Petty will always be the Absolute.
Basically I was ready for the road.
We moved — again and again and again and again — finally settling in Connecticut, the first place I didn’t want to stay. (Though I did learn what yuppie meant.) The significant silver lining to Stepford County was a vibrant school music program, and I began taking violin lessons. Not my first (guitar) or second (cello) choice, but a stand-in for the time being. I practiced diligently, excited by the opportunity to make music in a giant out-of-tune band of third-graders... though in private I often turned the instrument sideways and pretended it was a guitar like Tom’s.
Then puberty happened. Jimi Hendrix. Joni Mitchell. Patti Smith. Alanis. Rage Against the Machine. The Cosmic Egg cracked open, and at the center stood Bob Dylan. I became dark and moody, desperate for meaning and expression. Despite reservations my parents gave in and gave me the greatest present in the history of presents on my thirteenth birthday when I held my first guitar (not counting the blue plastic one). I named it Tom (obviously). Inspired by Joni, I detuned to achieve those yummy low tones and drones that had initially drawn me to the cello. I began to write songs about things other than princesses, my sister’s hair, and flowers, transcending the intensity of my emotions through music. It was my religion. My bedroom wall was a shrine to Beck. I struggled with depression however now I had a magic wand (Freudian eye roll) to keep the dementors at bay. Yes, I’m a big Harry Potter fan, too.
No amount of magic could hold my parents’ marriage together, but we returned to Vermont in search of a lost time. Once again, while riding in the car I heard a song so unbelievably out-of-this-world I lurched forward and yelped WHO IS THIS?! Phish. As I lost one family, I gained another, channeling my love and obsessive compulsion into trading tapes of live shows, memorizing set lists, and going to as many concerts as my mom allowed. Phish and its community embodied the childlike wonder, acceptance, and creative freedom I watched fade in the rearview as the car pointed towards Manhattan, College, Future, Work, and All Those Other Gray Places I Didn’t Want To Go.
The Twin Towers fell. My parents divorced on September 11, 2001. The country declared War on Terror, and so Terror occupied the recently vacated seats at the dinner table. I abandoned my violin for a sewing machine, spending long hours making hippie clothes and quilts, as if in attempt to patch my shredded world back together. Phish went on hiatus. I stopped seeing friends. I wrote and recorded my first album of sad songs in the high school audio room. I was becoming a songwriter.
In 2002 I graduated from high school, postponed California Dreamin’ for NYU, switched programs several times, transferred to Wesleyan, took a semester off, moved to Berkeley while attending Goddard College in Vermont (don't ask), worked a bunch of jobs, transferred back to NYU, and finally graduated (on time, if you can believe it) from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. My concentration was called Circles: Creativity & Consciousness — a mashup of yoga, mindfulness, creative writing, performance, music, visual art, dance, and existential crisis.
After graduation the stock market crashed, but with a major in Circles I wasn’t exactly poised for Wall Street. During college I'd recorded three albums and played a gazillion open mics, plus I'd had a taste of the road (Phish was back) and I loved it. Thanks to MySpace I was able to book my first “tour” to Europe, pitching myself as a novelty “all the way from New York City.” While in Europe I booked my first US tour, boasting that I was “currently on tour in Europe.” I had no idea what I was doing. I tore through museums and baguettes like a cyclone. It was awesome.
Then… ten years went by… around and around and around… circles…. big stages, little stages… forty-eight states… twenty-three countries…couches, floors, futons… so many faces… friends… family… a dozen more albums… 1300 concerts… radio stations… deserts… trains… highways… tears… exhilaration… breaks… breakdowns… breakthroughs… ecstasy… despair… close-calls… divine intervention.
If I write the least about the juiciest time it’s because I'm here now — bottling the juice, funneling it into new creation. I'm currently at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago writing about my travels thus far. If you’d like to read/hear/see more I share photo essays, songs, etc. every few weeks on patreon.