I don’t know about anyone else but I’ve always resented people telling me I should listen to, or even worse like, a certain performer because of who they are or what they sing about. Just because somebody agrees with me politically has no bearing on their abilities as a musician or the quality of the songs they write. Some of the worst tripe I’ve ever heard being passed off as music has issued from some of these so-called important singer-songwriters. Giving someone a good review just because of their politics, gender, or skin colour is as biased and unethical as giving them a bad review for the same reason.
I might take things like the conditions under which a recording was made into account when reviewing a disc, but making what a person is more important than what they can do is not somewhere I’m ever going to go. In the 1980s and 1990s I knew people who would tell me it was my duty to like certain, more-often-than-not women, performers because it was a way of showing solidarity with the people you supported politically. There were a couple of them whom I actually liked; Ferron and Holly Near are still names I remember fondly (that doesn’t mean either of these women are dead or have stopped performing, it just means I’ve not heard anything they’ve done recently). The rest of them were all so busy competing for the “more earnest than thou” prize they forgot that music should be an expression of the soul first and foremost and everything else is secondary. Your content can be as politically progressive as Che, but if you don’t sound like you’re putting your heart into it, who cares.
Six years ago I reviewed a disc by the folk duo Wishing Chair and was impressed by both their musical abilities and their songwriting skills. So when somebody contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing a solo recording by one of the two women in the group I said yes. It turns out Kiya Heartwood is just as good a solo performer as she is when working in a duo. Her new release, Bold Swimmer, is a great collection of material that ranges stylistically from rocking blues to what I’d call country, but most would probably call folk.
In spite of the success of people like Bonnie Raitt there’s still a lot of macho bullshit attached to the playing of electric blues and rock and roll. I’d long ago become sick and tired of guitar players obviously in serious need of therapy regarding issues of inadequacy, and never bought into the “chicks are only good for two types of banging – tambourines and me” attitude that still seems to predominate rock and roll.
Unfortunately that attitude is so ingrained that even today the majority of woman performers in the mainstream of music aren’t going to be laying down hot guitar leads while fronting a band. All of which means releases like this one aren’t going to get the attention they deserve. If it were only the consumers who were losing out I’d just say “Your loss, suckers,” but unfortunately it also means Heartwood, and probably countless other woman performers, aren’t receiving the attention they deserve.
One of the first things you’ll notice about this disc that distinguishes it from most other recordings of this kind is that there aren’t any songs about a lover treating the singer badly on it. I don’t know what it is about blues-based rock that makes people think they have to write about being cheated on all the time. If I never hear another he/she broke my heart tune it will be too soon. Can it be so hard for people to think of anything else to sing about? There are eleven tracks on Bold Swimmer and not one of them qualifies as a he/she done me wrong song. Even the love song, “I Love You,” is just a nice and simple tune speaking directly to the subject of why the singer loves her partner without undue sentimentality or any of the histrionics one normally associates with love songs by both male and female singers.
I don’t know if “Cross The Line” is quite what others would call a love song, as it’s a raunchy blues number singing the praises of going that one step further than PG relationships normally go, but it and the song right after it, “Take Me,” are the only other songs on the disc that come close to qualifying. The other thing separating these two tracks from the type of love song you normally hear from woman singers is that there’s not a single note of pleading with some guy for acceptance. No promises to love somebody, faults and all, or any of the other conciliatory statements women are expected to make in order to obtain true love in popular culture.
While these tracks are good, and in fact there’s not really a weak number on the disc, two tracks that really stand out are “Change (is gonna come)” and “Lights Of Austin.” In the case of the former the lyrics were the primary attraction, while in the latter it was the overall sound that captured my attention. Too many political songs are nothing more than self-righteous rants by people feeling guilty for making a killing in record sales and box office receipts. It’s rare to hear someone take the time and effort to analyze their own reactions to events in the world.
In “Change” Heartwood sings about how anger and frustration aren’t the answer and are self-defeating if we want change. Sure there are lots of reasons to be angry, and she lists quite a few of them, but in the long run we only hurt ourselves and those who need our help with anger. Real change can only be accomplished with hope for something better. This doesn’t mean we should just sit back and hope things get better, but we need to find a way to effect change without anger being our motivating force. It’s a powerful message that needs to be heard more often, one that offers an antidote to the rhetoric of hate you usually hear from political types of all stripes in this day and age.
“Lights Of Austin” shows Heartwood is more than just your typical folk rock performer. Musically it might fall into that catch-all category of “Americana” or “roots,” but those labels don’t seem to do justice to the song’s emotional depth. With its simple acoustic guitar introduction gradually being embellished by the other instruments, she sings about the importance of following your dreams, whatever they may be, as far as possible. It’s a topic that’s ripe for being turned into sentimental tripe, but Heartwood avoids any of the musical and lyrical cliches that you’d normally find in this type of material. There are no swelling strings or crescendos of any sort, just a good simple song about living a life which generates stories that can be told long into the future.
Heartwood’s singing voice is ideally suited to the type of material she’s chosen to create. Its roughness suits both the bolder rock and roll/blues numbers and the slower country/folk tunes. With the former there’s the power needed to sound convincing without having to strain and sound like she’s working too hard, while with the latter it gives the material the extra little edge of authenticity required to make them credible. Combine this with her abilities as a songwriter and composer and you have an album of music that is more than just a cut above what you’d normally hear these days from a solo female performer. You have something that’s good no matter who wrote or performed it.
Don’t listen to this disc because it’s something you feel like you should do, like pretending you enjoy eating something because it’s good for you; listen to it because it’s a damn good album. Pleasures don’t always have to make you feel guilty, and just because something’s good for you doesn’t necessarily mean it tastes bad. Kiya Heartwood’s latest recording is proof positive that you can be nourished by music and enjoy it too.