Artist Interview: Songwriter Wendy Beckerman

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I first heard Wendy Beckerman when I began attending the Bay Area Songwriter’s Exchange, which she co-founded. A New Jersey native and veteran of New York’s rich and fabled Greenwich Village folk scene, Wendy modeled the songwriter gatherings after the original New York Songwriter’s Exchange which fostered a thriving community as well as her earlier work. Having become a regular attendee of the West Coast group, now a diverse scene of its own, I’ve come to love Wendy’s fine attention to the craft of songwriting, her great playing and singing, and her keen insight. Wendy — who teaches yoga and meditation when she isn’t playing music — has recorded
four Cd’s of original music, along with contributing many to Fast Folk Musical Magazine. She’s also added vocals to the work of other artists, including one of her mentors, Fast Folk founder Jack Hardy, who just recently passed away. Amid preparing for an opening set at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage, Beckerman graciously answered my questions about her music.

Q: You lived on the East Coast for many years. Did your music life change when you came West?

WB: Actually, my music life changed even before I moved to the West Coast. While I was very committed to songwriting and touring, I didn’t know how to make it work financially. Beginning in 1997, I spent several years climbing my way out of debt by working a full-time office job, and kept playing music whenever I could. I practiced guitar and wrote songs in the parking lot at my lunch hour, and recorded or performed on occasional weekends. This trend has continued, although now my non-music work sustains me spiritually as well as financially.

Q: You’ve been ringleader for the Bay Area songwriting collective. Can you talk about how you started it and how feedback from other songwriters effects (or doesn’t) your songs?

WB: After I moved to the Bay Area in 2001, I was fortunate to co-found a spinoff of the NY Songwriters’ Exchange with the help of Bob Hillman — whom I knew from NY — and Lisa Mandelstein, who was dedicated to the process, and offered up her apartment as a meeting place. There are two main reasons I have continued hosting the meetings (cooperatively with Patrice Haan): The meeting deadline simply keeps me writing songs regularly, and I love the process of listening, and sharing feedback and support in the songwriting process. While the feedback can be interesting and useful, offering different perspectives, it’s the deadline and the community spirit that hold the greatest value for me.

Q: What other artists do you count as inspiration/listen to? Do you/have you had any important mentors?

WB: When someone asks me what my songs are like, I say a cross between James Taylor, Suzanne Vega, and The Roches — I am moved by his warm and comforting melodies, her poetic sensibilities, and their quirky perspectives. Many of the songwriters on the NY folk scene encouraged me and inspired me, but Jack Hardy, who passed away last week (March 11, 2011), was a huge part of my life and my songwriting. I arrived as a fledgling songwriter, and when he heard my first few songs, he made sure he had my full attention, and simply said in his uniquely powerful way, “keep writing.” It was the best advice anyone could have given me at the time, and I am forever grateful for that. After writing a song a week, and attending the Songwriters’ Exchange for a while, my listening skills improved, my songwriting took giant leaps, and to my delight I even began offering valuable feedback to more experienced writers. I am among many who miss Jack beyond words, and feel grateful to carry on the tradition of being committed to songwriting as an ongoing creative process.

Q You teach yoga and meditation full time. Do these practices inform your creative work?

WB: Yoga and music seem to inform and support each other. For me, practicing yoga and meditation is about mindful, present moment awareness, and tapping into an inner source that is outside of space and time. These practices help me pay attention to details, and open to life as much as possible. When I’m writing a song, I’m in that same meditative place of just BEING, which allows me to receive the song, rather than force it to happen. At best, songwriting feels like a co-creation with something greater. A fellow songwriter recently described my songs as “meditations on ordinary moments,” which echoes mindfulness as a way of being in the world. The songwriting process also allows me to tap into emotions, themes, and insights that I can bring into my yoga practice and my teaching. And my yoga and meditation allow for insights I bring into my songwriting. When I bring a meditative focus to performing, I feel I’m at my best. I have noticed that I enjoy another artist’s performance the most when he or she is being fully present, right there with what they are conveying, rather than on automatic pilot. I aim to bring that kind of presence into my performing.

Q: You’ve a show at the Freight on Friday? What can audiences expect?
WB: I’ll be playing solo this time, opening the show for Catie Curtis, a very talented and dedicated singer/songwriter from New England. We have collaborated on concerts and recordings in the past, and it has always been great fun to work with her. I’m excited to have the opportunity to make music with her again, as we plan to do a few tunes together. I might even play the new song I wrote yesterday!

Wendy Beckerman appeared with Catie Curtis at The Freight & Salvage,Berkeley, CA, Friday, March 18, 2011 @ 8pm

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