By Brad Goins
Wendy Colonna, one of the best known musicians of our area and of Austin as well, just came within a hair’s breadth of giving up music altogether. She was in the midst of a long, grueling tour, and discovered, as she never had before, what a toll touring can take on the body.
Colonna got a fungal lung infection that weakened her severely. Then, she says, “my immune system crashed.”
Yet she continued to perform and follow the demanding schedule without a break. “I was touring heavily. I went to Europe [to perform].”
In November, 2010, Colonna called it quits. “Because touring was my primary income,” she writes in her new book True Stories. Lyrics., “it was a scary prospect to take a break from music to heal, but after several visits to the hospital, I had no choice. I basically walked away from my career and the music because I couldn’t physically do it anymore. And I was broke.”
Both the physical and mental aspects of the situation eventually brought Colonna to the point that she seriously questioned her future in music. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in music,” she says. “It almost killed me.” She writes: “Perhaps the resistance, debt, struggle and more were just not adding up to a sustainable life.”
She was thinking, she says, that “I know there’s something else” — something more than the harsh demands of the big tour.
‘An Amazing Second Chance’
Colonna was at one of those crossroads where people make big, life-altering decisions. “It was a pivotal moment,” she says. “I told the universe or God or whatever, ‘You are in charge. I’m not driving anymore. I’m going to stop being willful.’”
She began to regain her health. She started seeing a nutritionist and training for a half marathon. And she experienced a flurry of new song-writing and performing opportunities.
“When I surrendered, opportunities showed up. To me, it was a resurrection … I was given an amazing second chance.”
During a trip to Belgium, she found herself participating in a “magical” project: a spontaneous recording made with a new band that “happened very quickly” and came together in a highly gratifying manner. (The record, an EP titled Barefoot in Belgium, has been called a “return to a grassroots approach to making music.”)
She continued to ask herself questions about just what she should be doing with music and whether those actions should differ from the ones she’d taken in the past. “What is the music doing?” she wondered. She eventually “realized music is a refuge; a place where people go for permission.”
The Phoenix And The Bee
Because Colonna saw her new, thoughtful, approach to music and living as a kind of “resurrection,” it makes sense that she would say her big new CD, Nectar, is her “phoenix story, in a way.”
Nectar, she says, is also about “authentic relationships, and doing it [in this case, music] for the right reason.” Such musical relationships might include those between song writers, between musicians and producers, between performers. There can even be relationships between songs and people; in True Stories. Lyrics., Colonna describes songs as “unique entities who are born of me [that] evolve as they make relationships with others.”
The CD’s “collection of songs,” says Colonna, “is really human, forgiving of being human, vulnerable. [The songs are about] being OK with being human.” All of this is in sync with Colonna’s aforementioned realization that music is a place for refuge and permission. Of Nectar, she writes, “I had grieved a lot over the previous few years and realized there was strength in the vulnerability, in the scars. It was OK to be exposed.”
Colonna has said Nectar is “my dark record” … “I had a few songs waiting in the wings that were more melancholy than the upbeat stuff on Right Where I Belong and We Are One, and they needed a place.” But she adds that Nectar is also “deep and sweet.”
Nectar is so multi-genre that it wouldn’t make much sense to try to pigeonhole it as having a particular type of sound. Colonna suggests that it could be described as “southern soul,” and more specifically, that it falls “under the big umbrella of Americana.” By Americana, I think she means the many forms of music that have been popular in the various regions of the U.S. down through the years; in other words, “roots music” in a broader sense than the term is usually used.
Nectar, she says, is “a beautiful, amazing record. It’s probably the best I’ve ever done.”
Colonna drew the prominent bee on the CD’s cover, as well as the wild flowers. These are the very flowers you can see in Louisiana right now. (The brown box around the bee and the monochromic colors of the flowers give the cover a nice collage and experimental art look.)
These art works depict “what makes me what I am,” says Colonna, who has an academic background in bees.
Notes On Nectar
As this record covers all the big aspects of life, it’s little surprise that it has a place for childhood. Colonna says the song “The Water’s Fine” is about innocence. And there’s something of childhood in the record’s third song, “Shelter And Be Kind,” where Colonna salutes her personal roots with the lines “I am a great-granddaughter of the Mermentau. / My granny was 3/4 French and 1/4 Choctaw.”
But you can hear the melancholy side make its appearance in the song with the lyrics “Try to remember that the sun doesn’t always shine” — words that were said to Colonna by her grandmother. And there’s a bit more melancholy from Colonna’s past in this song; there are, for instance, words about the time her father, a tank driver in World War II, had his teeth kicked out by Gen. Patton. (Colonna swears the story’s true.)
On a musical note, listen for the psychedelic keyboard solos in this song. They’re a treat. There’s also distinctive instrumentation in the fourth cut, “The Water’s Fine,” which features a strummed ukulele. The song sounds like a 1920s pop song. The leisurely “Dance with the Moon” also sounds like a popular tune from a decade before rock ‘n’ roll. In the background, a musical saw plays quietly; it sounds a bit like a Theremin.
Lines from the song reflect Colonna’s new intention of letting things go as they go in preference of trying to impose her will:
“I watch the fireflies dancing in the field behind the store.
“They are not fighting, in the way I was before.”
If you don’t detect the vein of melancholy in the lyrics of the songs of Nectar, you’ll hear it clearly in the sadly lyrical, off-kilter, major-and-minor-key piano solos of “When Love Comes My Way.” The melancholy is present in both music and lyric in the song “Mother Forgive Us,” a leisurely folk ballad with the lines “Oh, Mother, please forgive us when we know what we know and we still do.”
When I write “melancholy,” I don’t, of course, mean that the music is funereal or anything of that sort. It’s usually quiet and lyrical, occasionally in a sort of wistful way. The CD has enough upbeat pop and folk tunes to keep the mix lively.
“All I do is promote this record …” she says, “[while I] eat and sleep and [am] walking.”
As she started this project in January, she’s devoted a full nine months to it thus far.
And why is she promoting it in Southwest Louisiana — even to the point that she had her CD release party at Luna Live back on Oct. 25. “I wanted to cover the home bases” first, she says. Home, for Colonna, is Lake Charles.
After this initial, regional, tour, the CD will be promoted on an extended international tour. If you want to see where Colonna will be playing, or get a copy of Nectar, visit her site at wendycolonna.com.
Colonna prefaces her book with an imperative from the great mystical poet Rumi: “Unfold your myth.” Each of us does this. Some of us work hard at it; some don’t. Colonna seems to be working pretty hard. It’ll be interesting to see what forms her myth takes in coming years.