“Stopped in the woods to listen
Thought I heard the angels whisperin’ whisperin
This is a temporary madness that you’re in
It feels like it’s over when it’s time to begin. Begin again.”
For Greta Gaines, adventurer, songwriter, extreme sports trailblazer, activist, mother, mentor, TV commentator and producer, composer and dreamer, making records seemed to be out of her system after the critically lauded Lighthouse & the Impossible Love. With so much to do, two boys to raise and a high profile role in the legalize cannabis world as an advisory board member of NORML and a face of Women Grow, she’d made an album of elegance and great songcraft – and was satisfied with a musical output that includes 1999’s alt-leaning self-titled debut, 2004’s Triple A standard It Was Hot and 2006’s Can’t Kill the Flavor, followed by the hard roots/Americana Whiskey Thoughts. And then the election happened.
As the first Women’s World Extreme Snowboard Champion recalls, “I was feeling like I was going mad right before the election, like maybe truly getting ready to lose my marbles. I was walking in the woods with my dog, and I kind of heard angelic voices saying, ‘Begin again…’
“The lyrics (to ‘Begin Again’) poured out… That was the inspiration I needed to let the flood gates open, to sit down and write all day and all night until the muses stopped speaking to me. A deep sense of agitation started the process, and it didn’t stop until the record was recorded, mixed and mastered – all within a few months.”
Those seven songs mark some of Gaines’ most collected and evocative work. Pieces of Neil Young, traditional story songs, ‘60s girl groups through Nico’s sangfroid, world weary cowboy feels, mahogany vocals, bits of the Cowboy Junkies, Concrete Blond’s Johnette Napolitano, Laurel Canyon country, buoyantly jubilant garage rock all co-mingle on Tumbleweed in a heady mix of urgency and triumph.
With stewardship from longtime musical collaborator Eric Fritsch, the two worked quickly, capturing the fraught nature of pure creation. Channeling the playing into a distillation of the unvarnished emotions under the surface, they dug in. From the earthy, meandering vocal of “Heal Me,” buoyed by a warm acoustic guitar and steady beat, to the austere yearn of break-up reckoning of “Only Lonely,” featuring longtime Bob Dylan steel guitarist Bucky Baxter, this is a record peeling back layers.
“Begin Again,” works a terse guitar, a murky musicality and dry bewitched vocal for a tension that evokes Katnis Everdean’s survival and emergence stronger and brighter; it’s a mirror of Gaines’ own live as your heart desires ethos. “Tumbleweed,” with its Crazy Horse guitars and a powdery vocal, offer a refuge in the chaos.
“I told my mother recently I was overcome with nostalgia, these ghosts from the distant past were popping up out of nowhere. I was confused, because I’ve never been one to look back. She said, ‘You’ve not been old enough until now to look back.’”
“I hadn’t written a new song for years before this happened so violently and quickly – and out of nowhere. So the urgency was I didn’t want to lose any momentum once I started. I wanted to let out whatever was new and held up inside of me. I am emotionally toying with an unfamiliar new emotion: was life better then? Why would anyone ever want to go back? Because for the first time in my existence, I am afraid about what lay ahead for meyself, my country and my world.”
Growing up in the great outdoors, the woman who’s hosted extreme sports and fishing shows on MTV, Oxygen and ESPN2 is connected to the universe in very tactile ways. But as importantly, she’s built a career out of speaking up and speaking out. Not one to preach, Gaines offers up better options, truer pictures.
Take the sweeping, almost wistfully joyous “Light It Up.” Its gospel vocals and loose down-stroked groove shining, it celebrates the growing marijuana culture. Or the drummer boy beat and cutting vocal of “Leo For Real,” Gaines calls out a rock & roll Romeo with a chiding that works as it a cautionary portrait.
“What I’ve learned of late is that saying you’re ‘done with this shit’ is stupid,” Gaines admits with a laugh.
“Tumbleweed has reinvigorated me into believing I will always want to write and record music. I didn’t want to fix or autotune anything. I’m finally a confident enough singer to let it all hang out as raw as possible.”
Being real is what it’s about, real and aware and alive. It’s what drives Gaines. “Music may be one of the rawest ways to change people and spur them to action. Some of my fighter/activist side has oozed onto this record. Music changes the molecules in a room. People connect on a metaphysical level to – and through – music. It soothes and eases pain, serves as a companion, gives release and yes, sometimes motivates people to get out of their own heads and join a higher cause, something greater than themselves.”
Drawing on a vast coterie of voices and moments, Tumbleweed stands as an album of one woman’s phases and stages. Whether it’s the historic “Sweet William,” or the handful of polaroids of a childhood spent with her younger brother and their current desire to touch what was in the title track, Gaines’ aim is true. Voice shifting from gentle to raucous, yearning to resolved to exultant, she’s natural in all environs and utterly connected to the varying emotions these soundscapes conjure.
“I sing for myself now. It’s best for me not to overthink things,” she offers. “These were all so new, I wanted to get them out the way I heard them in my head. Each song has a character, a particular narrator’s point of view, so my vocals sound different from song-to- song, but it’s unconscious.”
“A friend just listened, and said, ‘It sounds like a cross between Aimee Mann and Lucinda Williams,’ and I said ‘Thanks! If you say so…’”
Flattering though the comparisons may be, ultimately, there is only one Greta Gaines. Wholly, absolutely unique, her music seeks to unite us all in a place that’s saner, sweeter and yes, realer than the seeming madness around us now.