An acclaimed singer, songwriter, activist, extreme sports competitor, mother and mentor, she’s always been driven by determination, craft and creativity. With six previous highly-regarded albums to her credit, and a career that’s found her acting the role of trail-blazer in any number of activities and initiatives, she’s always made it a point to challenge herself, while also giving her fans and followers opportunity to reflect upon their own beliefs and possibilities. Indeed, Gaines has always made it a point to exceed and excel, regardless of circumstance. As the first Woman’s World Extreme Snowboard Champion, the owner and operator of her own record label, Big Air Records, the originator of Freeride, a series devoted to lifestyle, music, extreme sports, and the environment, an advocate for NORML, and an on-air commentator for MTV, ESPN and Oxygen Media, it’s clear that her ambitions are boundless.
“It’s why I do what I do,” Gaines insists. “It’s so liberating knowing that I can invest so freely in myself.”
That attitude has never been more evident than on her new album, Pale Star, an introspective set of songs that reflect her thoughts, observations and experiences culled in the wake of the pandemic.
Due for release digitally on March 26 on her own Big Air Records, it’s dedicated to her longtime friend and collaborator, pedal steel player Bucky Baxter who passed away last May. It was, she said, a therapeutic endeavor that allowed her to excise the grief and emotion experienced while dealing with the isolation and uncertainty brought on by the scourge of Covid19 and the tension and terror sewn by the current political divide. The songs were gestated over a period of two years — although one of them, “Drugstore Corner,” was actually written 26 years ago and revisited now in light of DACA and the plight of the “Dreamers.”
Imagination and inspiration generally go hand in glove. It’s nearlyimpossible to possess one without the other. That’s especially true asfar as Greta Gaines is concerned.
That said, Gaines said she didn’t write the songs with any specific message in mind. She says that they come to her spontaneously, and that it was only later that the meanings became clear to her. Imagination does indeed give way to inspiration as the impetus finds focus.
Her first album in four years and the followup to 2017’s critically acclaimed triumph Tumbleweed, Pale Star was recorded live, taking form as a mostly introspective effort, one that shares mellower musings with a soothing sensibility. The tender and touching “Angel of Mercy” offers one example of that comfort and caress: “I hope the road evens out and the storm dies to calm / I hope the trees spread their leaves to keep you dry and warm / And the stars light your way and the night stays clear / I hope an angel of mercy gets you there…”
Other tracks find a similar fit though their uplifting attitude and the ultimate optimism found in their purpose and perspective. The yearning yet affecting “Apollo” finds Gaines summoning the god of classic Greek mythology to share his strength with those that need it so desperately in today’s trying times.
“There’s a magic in that muse,” Gaines suggests.
“It’s a call to the god of music. I needed that when I went back to songwriting to channel my distress and try and get some grounding after feeling like I was living in an upside down world.”
“The city's on fire, the world she's gone mad / I’m just trying to hold on to the good things I still have.”
So too, the softly seductive title track finds her yearning for the connectivity that has eluded nearly everyone over the course of the past year. “It’s about wanting the world to recognize the unheralded talents of someone you admire,” she says.
“Go on sputter like a pale, pale star / Hide your light though you won’t get far / One by one they come / By what you never dared / Would see the light of the sun”
That same hope for healing — in this case, as it relates to a loved one struggling with addiction — is found in the lyrics for “Angel of Mercy.”
"I hope your emptiness fills with amazing desire / I hope you stop tempting fate with your walks on the wire"
“It’s a metaphysical image in a way,”
Gaines muses, echoing the stoic stance suggested by the song.
“Each of us are trying to find our light and thinking about what it is that can make us shine even at a time when there’s barely any glimmer of light whatsoever on the far horizon.”
“Empty Spaces” comes across as both driving and determined, maintaining a similar stance as it finds her calling upon a mystical muse.
“When things got tough, I gravitated toward the magical world and explored it in my songwriting,” she says. “There are Gods, angels, ghosts, runaways, voodoo, pale stars, birds and frogs from the natural world…things that make their presence known at the beginning of ‘Empty Spaces,’ the first new song I wrote for the album. It’s a very poignant song. I lost two of my most important musical collaborators last year. Bucky, and Grammy nominated engineer Rick Will with whom I wrote ‘Purple Jesus’ for my first album, were two of the main guys who kind of raised me musically. I wanted to acknowledge in this song that the space that loved ones leave when they go is hard to fill, and it may never be filled….
“I never spent so much time alone as I did this year,” Gaines continues.
“It gave me time and space to explore what's inside of the empty spaces I would find.”
She recites the lyrics as additional emphasis: ”Lets take a drive to the lake, birds and rum cake and wherever this road takes us….remember my old friend, I'll fight for you until the end. I can't go home without you there, I need more time to make it right, but you left no traces...only empty spaces”
Gaines expounds on that idea in the upbeat attitude expressed by the song, "Good For Me.” In this case, the lyrics reflect the feeling that a near stranger once made the singer feel.
”I remember the first thing you ever said to me, we'd never met but just like an old friend sweetly, you gave me hope, baby hope and that was good for me."
On the other hand, Gaines describes the song “Voodoo Baby,” easily the album’s most upbeat and emphatic entry, as about her feeling of powerlessness when it comes to connecting and desperately trying to be heard.
"Maybe its gonna take some voodoo baby to help you see that it don't hurt to change / and maybe it's gonna take some voodoo baby to help you dream of meeting me half way / If this is the apocalypse and we're going up in fire / I would try and kiss your lips, only love can take you higher".
“There’s a lot of longing in these lyrics,” Gaines concedes. “I was describing what it takes to reach the ones you love, even while dealing with the danger, isolation and loss that gripped me when I was writing this album. I was trying to find that connection. The thing that’s most essential for me right now is to feel love and find the hope.”
That’s the sentiment shared throughout the album. “All the deaths this year because of the pandemic, all the grief in isolation, from the lack of closure though funerals to the ritual of celebrating peoples lives… we lost so much recently,” Gaines reflects. “But even in the anxiety and despair, the songs led me back into the light and were very therapeutic. In a sense, the songs reflect the larger cultural context of what is ‘essential,’ and what we need to discard…even when it’s more difficult than we might have imagined.”
Given that perceptive approach and unrelenting attitude, it’s little wonder that the pundits have eagerly shared their praises. Performing Songwriter called her “A real-life Renaissance woman.,” Maverick magazine described her work as “grown-up, cool Americana music aimed at people who actually appreciate lyrics and musicianship.” Indeed, Pale Star proves the point.
1. Apollo (3:40)
2. Empty Spaces (3:48)
3. Pale Star (4:33)
4. Everafter (4:00)
5. Angel Of Mercy (2:50)
6. Giving Up The Ghost (3:24)
7. Drugstore Corner (3:24)
8. Voodoo Baby (3:22)
9. Good For Me (3:56)
Produced by Jim Reilley, Eric Fritsch and Greta Gaines
Greta Gaines (vocals, electric / acoustic guitars), Jim Reilley (bass, additional keyboards, electric guitars), Eric Fritsch (drums, upright piano)
Ethan Hawke (vocals on “Pale Star”), John Jackson (guitar on “Everafter” and “Drugstore Corner”), Tim Carroll (guitar on “Drugstore Corner”), Larissa Maestro (cello on “Apollo”), Scotty Huff (trumpet on “Empty Spaces”), Steve Hinson (pedal steel guitar on “Pale Star”)
All Songs written by Greta Gaines except “Everafter” written by Greta Gaines and Rob Hotchkiss and “Good For Me” written by Greta Gaines and Amy Schweitzer Johnson