The Magnolia Sessions: One More Project

Robin Meloy Goldsby checks in with an off-the-record account of her newest album, Magnolia.
 
Goldsby's new CD, Magnolia, features the composition "Mirage," a mother-son collaboration.

Goldsby’s new CD, Magnolia, features the composition “Mirage,” a mother-son collaboration.

“Hey, Momma, I want to write a song for you,” says Curtis, my nineteen-year old son.

“For me?”

“Yeah, for you. You know—for your new recording. I’ll compose it. You play it.”

Curtis is eating ramen noodles—the consumption of which seems to be a rite of passage for most boys his age—while constantly checking his phone for text messages, Facebook alerts, Four Square check-ins from his pals at the university, and emails from his boss at the language center where he teaches English. It seems impossible that with all his ramen-slurping, techno-toy-fidgeting, learning-teaching multi-tasking he could find time to compose a piano piece. But I’m not about to turn down the chance to work with my adult child on one more project. We see each other far too little these days. We clog dance in widening circles around each other and prepare for the day he moves out. It could be tomorrow, next year, or next decade. The uncertainty makes us both a little cranky.

“Look, Curtis, I’m recording in January. It’s already November. If you want to compose something for me I’ll be happy to consider it, but it has to be finished soon so I can get it into my fingers before the first studio date. And no hip-hop. Hip-hop solo piano won’t work for me.”

“Okay, Momma,” he says, rinsing out his ramen bowl and heading down into the music room. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s see what happens. Oh, by the way, if I compose this and you record it, I get money, right?”

“Yes. But it will take a long time before GEMA and BMI royalties kick in.”

“How long?” he asks. “I need to buy some new shoes.”

“A year,” I say. “Maybe longer.”

“Really?” he says.

“Yep. Welcome to the music business. You want new shoes, you really have to plan ahead.”

Two days after his initial trip to the basement music room, Curtis emerges, flushed and nimble-fingered, ready to perform his piece for me. “Are you ready?” he says.

“Sure,” I say.

“It’s in F minor.”

“Okay,” I say. “I like F minor. F minor is good.”

He sits at my 1961 Baldwin grand—a gift from my grandfather—and rips into the composition. I’m right in the middle of hacking onions for lentil soup but I stop mid-chop, because, frankly, what he’s playing is beautiful—influenced by his father’s music but leaning unabashedly in my direction. It’s the best gift he has ever given me. Because of the speed, and because his hands are so much larger than mine, I know it won’t be easy to learn. But now I’m on a mission. One more project.

“What’s it called?” I ask.

“I like the name ‘Mirage,'” he says. “You know, when you think you see something, but it’s not really there.”

“Perfect.”

“What’s up Momma?” he says. “Are you crying?”

“No, no, no. Just the onions.”

“Okay.”

“Okay,” I say, wiping my hands on a dishcloth. “Show me how it goes.”

And he does.

 * * *

I prepare like crazy for my recording sessions—even with five solo piano albums under my skirt I’m not the type of musician who can mosey into a studio and wait for magic to happen without doing my homework. My creative process has never included dewdrops, angel voices, spiritual transformations or sparkling moments of enlightenment. Where, oh where, are those lovely muses in flowing white robes—the ones with lilting accents and fluttering wings who might drop into my consciousness and gently guide me through my projects? I have never met these fantasy ladies, but I hear they’re out there somewhere, probably perusing the flowing robe department at Bergdorf Goodman. If you run into one of them, send her my way.

My recording journey has to be carefully plotted and mapped out, which makes it less like magic and more like work. It’s a process I’ve learned to respect, the same way I respect other things I adore—fierce and foamy waves in an unsettled sea, a bowl of fiery chili peppers, a frosted bottle of really good vodka. I proceed with caution. I practice and pound the music to a pulp, hating it a little before I start to love it. And love it, I do. When the melodies and rhythmic patterns are so ingrained that nothing trips me up—I fluff the stuff back to life, head to the studio and hope for the best. Sometimes, when I’m calm, I scatter my musical thoughts like stardust onto the keys. Sometimes it’s more like sawdust. No big deal—I brush away the detritus and start over again. Unlike real life, the “take over” option is always available. This comforts me. I enter a mental Piano Zone, a warm place that’s quiet and a little bit gilded.

Almost two decades ago, I recorded Somewhere in Time, my first album. It was 1994 and my dear friend Robin Spielberg had brokered a record deal for me with a fledgling record label called Evergreen Music. I didn’t think I was up to the task, but she yanked me into Nola Recording Studios (in the Steinway building on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan) and sat me down at Erroll Garner’s Steinway B. I had been playing in Manhattan piano lounges for eleven years, so I knew I was ready, but still, my knees knocked together, my hands sweat, my heart felt like a metronome turned up to tempo tantrum. I wanted to sound perfect, a concept that now makes me laugh. Back then, at age thirty-five, it wasn’t so funny. Perfect was perfect and that was that.

We recorded about twenty tracks that day. In six hours. Spielberg wore the producer’s hat; she had the lights in the studio turned down low, tea candles on a nearby table, the temperature in the room set at just the right level. I felt like I was in a velvet-lined cocktail lounge, minus the bowls of smoked almonds and tables of chattering orthopedic shoe salesmen. She talked to me between takes—in a way that only a best friend can—and convinced me to play just for her. We soldiered through and got the damn recording in the can. No magic, just trust and a lot of hard work. I kept waiting for the ladies in the flowing robes, but they didn’t show up and we didn’t need them. Spielberg and I toasted each other with Diet Coke and Fig Newtons. Then she bought me an egg salad sandwich, we cried, I moved to Germany, and my music career was punted like a football to the other side of the Atlantic. I arrived in Europe just in time to catch it and run.

My dad always said to me: “The key to sounding good is to know when you don’t.” I like that. Stay focused, stay real, and remember my limitations.  And forget about sounding perfect. Since that day in 1994, I’ve learned to treasure every imperfect minute in the studio. No more anxiety attacks. No more second-guessing or losing sleep. I still have moments of indecision and confusion—all artists do—but I don’t let them slap me down. Or if they do, I slap them back. Many voices crowd into my mental control room during recording sessions—some of them judgmental, some of them kind and supportive, others philosophical or whimsical or whacky. I hear my parents, my best friends, my piano teacher (“curve those fingers!”), my kids (“what’s for dinner?”). In between bouts of intense playing and concentrated listening I hear the roar, the cheers, the boos and hisses, of my personal crowd. If you were beamed into the studio during one of these sessions, you might think I look lonely—there’s something melancholy about a middle-aged woman sitting at a very large piano in a darkened room—but honestly, there’s an invisible party going on in here. Have a drink. Pull up a chair. Tell me what you think. Everyone else does.

* * *

On the day I’m scheduled to record Curtis’s “Mirage” for my Magnolia album, Curtis and I arrive at Topaz Studios in Cologne, Germany. I’ve asked Curtis to sit in the producer’s chair for this session. As any mother will tell you, our children—one way or another—produce our lives from the moment they’re born, so today shouldn’t be any different. He folds his lanky body into a chair in the control room and we wait for Hans Giese, the piano technician, to finish his work. Reinhard Kobialka, the sound technician, chats easily with Curtis about how he has miked the piano and how the recording will proceed.

When Hans finishes tweaking the last few notes I head into the main room and sit at the Steinway. I feel happy here. I’ve been recording on this instrument for so many years—my hands feel like they’ve arrived home. The keys are warm, a regimented welcoming committee smartly dressed in black and white. I play a few scales, a few arpeggios, a few chord progressions. Then, after Reinhard checks the levels of his many microphones, I start to record Curtis’s piece.

I’m here at the piano, Curtis is in the control room, and a thick wall of glass separates us. I close my eyes to play, but my eyelids won’t block the slideshow in my mind. As I move through the piece I see all nineteen years of him, from babbling baby boy, to sullen eight-year-old with skinned knees, to sultry hip-hop teenager, to now. A feeling of calm drops over me and I have the sensation that everything in my life—my children, my marriage, my music—all of it is turning out okay.

Magnolia is just one more project, but right now it seems essential to push the notes out of my fingers and into the world. To get it all down for later. When I’m a wobbly—but hopefully hip—old lady in a lavender lace dress I’ll look back at my audio scrapbooks and be reminded of the things that counted enough to make me run to the piano and play. My records are, in a way, public musical diaries—finger paintings of small moments I want to remember. My albums aren’t really “released” into the world—they break out and escape the boundaries of my control, gallop into the distance, and leave me empty-handed but with plenty of freedom to move on. I guess they’re a little like children.

The music I’m playing is fast but it can’t sound hectic. “Mirage” needs to flow like brook water on a spring day; like amber lava on a steep volcanic mountain; like magnolia petals in a sudden breeze. The song should sound like a nineteen-year-old’s idea of the future—unexpected, forward moving, optimistic. As Curtis has said, the piece should sound like we’re seeing something that isn’t really there.

I finish playing and glance at my son in the control room. He smiles, nods, and says quietly into my headphones: “Let’s try it again, Momma. One more time.”

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. Magnolia is her fifth solo piano recording. Her other albums, Somewhere in Time, Twilight, Songs from the Castle, and Waltz of the Asparagus People are available worldwide. Along with songwriting partner Peter Fessler, Goldsby recently performed for Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. As a solo artist she has played on concert stages in Vienna, New York City (Steinway Hall), Marrakesh, Dublin, Hamburg, Berlin, Stockholm, and Vilnius. Goldsby has also been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. Robin is the author of Piano Girl : A Memoir; Rhythm: A Novel; and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl.

 

  • Kristin McCloy

    Love the analogies, love how you go from a heightened moment into one where you quietly laugh at yourself, & I love, love, love your relationship with your son & the one with your music intertwined. This piece is both lighthearted and deep, casual and as heartfelt as it gets. Pure Robin Meloy Goldsby. I just dig your voice, what can I say?
    Anytime you need a blurb, review, or half a phrase, here I am, woman.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thank you, Kristin! I may take you up on that offer some day. Just knowing you’re on my side —one of my favorite writers, no less—makes me do the happy dance. And there’s not even any music playing. xo

  • Uma Muthuraaman

    A brilliant domestic collaboration! Your words and lyrics bring instant warmth to the reader/listener! Love, UM

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thank you, Uma! Sending lots of summer sunshine and love your way . . . xoxo RMG

  • felice

    Your words and music always lift me up. And now your son’s too!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Felice! Tell New York City I say hello . . . and give N&E a big hug for me.

  • Sharon Reamer

    What Peter said. What a great way to end the piece. I loved it and I’m enjoying the CD equally as well! Excellent.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Sharon! Maybe you can use one of the songs for your next book trailer . . . xoxo

  • Peter

    “Let’s try it again, Momma. One more time.”

    I LOVE that. Made me cry.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Me, too. It made me cry, too. You and I are the big cry babies. Just one of the many reasons I love you!

  • Michele Cozzens

    Robin, you play from the heart AND you write from the heart. Thank you for sharing this story about your son. “Our children produce our lives from the moment they’re born.” Indeed.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Michele. You understand so well the joys and challenges of being a hard-working mom. Sending lots of love to all of you!