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  • Valerie Hope

Ep. 29 - Not Quite Strangers: Speaking Your Mind Through Your Music

Updated: Jul 2

Not Quite Strangers | Music

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Not Quite Strangers: Speaking Your Mind Through Your Music

Let's start with Benjamin. What did you bring?


Valerie, I brought This book which is called the Book of American Negro Spirituals. It was published in 1928 by the great James Weldon Johnson.


Alright, we're going to dig into that for a moment. Rachel, what about you? What did you bring?


I brought the title of one of my favorite pop songs, which is entitled. How do you keep the music playing?


I remember hearing that song. I don't remember who it was by, but we’ll hear more about that in a moment. First of all, I want to thank the two of you for saying yes to coming to this wonderful experience of the podcast called Not Quite Strangers. My name is Valerie Hope, I am your host and it's an opportunity to bring two people together who are not quite strangers.


They've never met or I guest met in the last 15 to 20 minutes or so and have an opportunity to inspire curiosity, build connection, and perhaps even challenge the status quo in our conversation. I'm so happy to introduce you to two people who I find incredibly talented individuals and they're both flexing right now because they're sitting at their piano so we know that something special is going to happen today. I don't know what yet.


Rachel, you and I have known each other for, maybe six or seven years. I attend Unity Church here in Dallas, Texas and you have been the principal pianist there for I don't even know how long. How long have you been there Rachel?


Ten years.


It's amazing anytime you play anything whether it's something original or something written by someone else. I've always felt so blessed. You have such a gift for bringing life into that space, especially in a spiritual gathering. Thank you so much for saying yes to being on the podcast. Yes, and Benjamin here. Benjamin, you not only have known each other for maybe a year or two.


That's possible.


Possibly a year or two. You and I met because we both attend and participate as faculty members of the Berkeley Executive Coaching program. I remember specifically I think I went to a reunion of some sort. It was the Coaches' reunion and they brought you in to do some singing and get people connected to their creative selves. For a second I was just, “We're singing in a Coaching Institute? What?” but soon I saw the transformative power of music in that particular space.


Just like Rachel, she also brings people to life in that space is amazing. Thank you for saying yes to being on the podcast such a pleasure to be here. I'm going to start now by asking. We'll start with you Benjamin, you brought this Book of American Negro Spirituals. Tell us what that book means to you. Why do you want to showcase it today?


The book was published by the great James Walden Johnson and his brother Rosamond and they were some consider them the fathers or grandfathers of the Harlem Renaissance movement. They wrote together what was at the time called The Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” This collection which I'm blessed enough to have an original copy of is one of the early collections of Black Spiritual music that was ever published.

There were a handful of collections in the 19th century. But this is the first kind of larger collection of these hymns that were sung in the 19th century by black people before the days of even folks getting credit for what they wrote. All of these were written by Traditional or Anonymous, these are the old songs, the old spirituals.


How does that connect?


I feel deeply moved and honored to know these songs. I feel as though they were handed down from generation to generation to generation. Especially during American Slavery. We're talking about people who were not legally allowed to learn how to read and write. Who couldn't write their own stories, who couldn't tell their own stories, and singing these songs to their children was how their memory stayed alive and how they stayed alive and traveled through these hundreds of years of history. These pieces mean so much to me because they are one of the only touchstones that we have for this 300 or 400-year period of history of Black Americans living on this continent.


Beautiful and I'm sure we'll hear maybe some of it, something from it, or perhaps something that will inspired by it.


We are both at our pianos. Something might happen.


Something's going to happen. Something might pop up. Rachel, you brought this song. Tell us what it means to you. What is it about that song that had you share it with us?


First of all, let me tell you that the story that Benjamin shared is amazing and this sounds self-centered following that because it was such an inspirational story. For me personally, as a songwriter and as a continuing artist having to go through life aging, going through changes and formats of places where I've gigged out and music that I've written.


This song was released, I think back in the 90s by James Ingram and Patti Austin. It was a duet and it was written by Michel Legrand. The music and the lyrics were Alan and Marilyn Bergman, she had a cool radio talk show and she would play little excerpts on the piano for years. It's an amazing song with the two vocalists on it, but the main lyric is, “How do you keep the music playing? How do you make it last? How do you keep the song from fading much too fast?”


I think that's to stay viable in today's world of music, but yet be true to yourself as the type of musician you are and the type of music you sing well, but still have meaning in the world as you go along. That to me, that's what the song means. How to keep it fresh? How to Inspire myself or put myself in positions of new things, new adventures which today is a new adventure doing this podcast so that I remain open to creativity. That kind of song meant to me.


As soon as you said, James Ingram. I'm, “I know this song. Yes. I remember it.” It is beautiful and you've tied it to how we all need to evolve. How do we keep that gift alive? With the two of you, I mentioned already the passion that you bring to the art form and not passion. I think a lot of people know how to play. I mean, I took piano lessons for 10 years. I was not gifted. I was kind of forced to.


I started in the fourth or fifth grade and my teacher there was super fundamental and theoretic. I had Every Good Boy Does Fine, all the basics there, but even the music was kind of boring to me. I didn't think care for it as much and then I remember we moved around a lot when I was a kid. My dad was in the military and every time we moved, my mom would go find another piano teacher and then I remember having one when I was in high school or maybe Junior High who loved jazz.


We were playing a lot of music with minor chords, and I was just, “I don't this. It's not my style.” Eventually, in my senior year of high school, which was the last year I played, I actually found a teacher at my church. She said, “What do you want to play? What do you love playing?” I'm like, “Pop songs, I playing Broadway musical.” She's like, “Perfect. Let's do that.”


Then, every once in a while, some Christian Pop and she let me play that at church for the prelude or the postlude or something. That's why I finally found it connected to who I am as a musician. Now, by no means that I continue playing the piano and developing that but the whole idea of tying music back to something meaningful was impressed upon me. I'm curious about the two of you. What got you into becoming a musician in the first place? How did that kick off?


The piece that I want to catch that you were speaking about is this idea of loving it, wanting to do it, and sitting at the piano because you enjoy and love it, and because it makes you happy to be there. That's the piece that, I don't know Rachel if you've ever taught piano also, but that's the piece that you can't teach.


You can't teach a student how to love the instrument, how to want to be there, and want to make music. There's this conversation that goes around a lot about, whatever you perform and you perform well, “Wow, you're so talented.” “Wow, you're so gifted.” It's not talent and gifts. It's not mostly talents and gifts. It is thousands of hours of work and it's love. It's the love of creating music is what it is.

Not Quite Strangers | Music
Music: It's not just talent and gifts. In fact, it's thousands of hours of work and the love of creating music.


It's not the talent but what it is, is sitting down and loving it. If the first piano lesson you had, you sat down and you loved it, and you wanted to live and breathe piano every day, then everybody right now Valerie, would be telling you, “You're so talented.” Because you would have spent thousands of hours creating music.


True. No one’s saying that to me now, including myself. I appreciate that. I think that's an important distinction to make that it's not talent. It does not come from nowhere. There's a level of dedication and commitment that goes along with connecting it to the passion and that could be such for anything. Sports, be said for writing, it could be said for parenting, even. There are so many things. What drew the two of you to piano specifically and or any other instrument that you play?


Go ahead Rachel you start?


I don't think that I was a little child who wanted necessarily. My mother played piano and she always played Red Cells in the sunset. I remember her playing that song but according to her when I was about seven or eight she put my sister and me who was thirteen months older than myself both in piano lessons. They ultimately did it to find something that I would excel at instead of my sister. Being the elder sister she did everything more advanced than I did.


When we began piano lessons, she was excelling over me. My mother went to the piano teacher and said, “Look, I know my daughter has talent. I want you to do whatever it takes to pull this talent out of her.” The teacher began challenging me with difficult pieces. From that point on, it was never too difficult. I needed that person who would get behind me and present these big, huge songs that might have been too much for a young student, but it was not for me.


However, when I caught on and started learning to play which was classical, I started in. I loved it because it was an escape. For me, it was always in the escape of going into a world, like you said of love, a world of wonder. something completely different removed from my family life and it was a place where I existed as myself. The song, the teacher, and the audience. As I got older, I started realizing I could play by ear. I piggybacked that onto it and then years later, I married the two. The training in piano and the playing by ear.


Wow, when did you start writing your own music?


I was writing before I started piano. I was writing little classical pieces when I was seven and my mother wanted me to begin to develop the classical which is strange because that's not what I followed. I dropped out of that when I became a teenager and then started writing pop music and religious music.


Is that your is that your genre? What's the genre that you love?


How I love a lot of things. Growing up, my father listened to Country Bluegrass music, which I did not appreciate. I listen to artist Sarah Vaughan, I remember she had an Impatiens CD that she would do. I always liked the more Soulful, Jazzy type, heartfelt music. As I got into singing in my 20s, I loved Billie Holiday, loved Ella Fitzgerald. There have been many artists like Phoebe Snow, and Joni Mitchell. Carole King was one of my very early inspirations as a teenager. It's a pretty big genre of different styles that I appreciate.


It is brought but it sounds like it's kind of to Benjamin's Point earlier, you had the right foundation, the people around you who could pull out like, “There's something here that we need to continue to explore.” Then the right instructor so that she could challenge you in ways that were inspiring instead of intimidating to you and then it sounded like everything took off.


Benjamin, I see you nodding over there a lot. How are you going to react to that?


What is there to say about, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billy, we're talking about the big three. There are so many wonderful singers and I love the shout-out to Joni Mitchell too. My mother is also a musician. I also grow up in a musician's house and a Pianist's house. The piano was kind of the center of the house.


When I was coming up with a lot of my friends, the television was the center of the house and everything was kind of gathered around what was happening on the TV. In our living room, the piano was the center of the house and everything was gathered around what was happening at the piano. My mother loved all those Folk Revival artists of the '60s, but especially Joni Mitchell, Carole King is on that list as well.


My mother loved those types, Joan Baez and that type of music and also Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and the jazz singers you mentioned Ella and Sarah and Billy. I've got a hot take about Joanie Mitchell. To me, I feel as though Joni Mitchell is overlooked as the greatest songwriter of the Folk Revival movement. I think that a mantle that was given to Bob Dylan a little bit too quickly, a little bit too willingly.


If you look through Joni Mitchell's category, her songwriting, she brought the lyricism. She knew how to write beautiful, amazing, and mysterious lyrics. Her singing was amazing, a beautiful singer and an excellent musician with a guitar, mandolin, and dulcimer, all these different instruments she played. I feel she was the most complete musician of that era. I love Joni.


Rachel, would you agree with that hot take or do you have a different hot take on that hot take?


I love Joni Mitchell, but she's not an easy artist to emulate. Carole King. I know I can do Carole King. I have tended to listen to a lot more of her things but when I did start listening to Joni Mitchell it was in my late twenties. I was blown away. I had heard her pop hits like Freeman and Paris and those kinds of songs but as I got into exploring the material on her releases.


It's amazing plus now that I'm older, I've watched documentaries on her and her whole life. The way she's been surrounded by so many great love affairs, with these wonderful other musicians, she's lived the life of a quintessential artist her entire life. The very interesting person on top of the musician, a very deep person.


Okay, so you both agree on the hot take. It sounds like there are many more layers than have been given credit for. Benjamin, I come back to you for a second. What so you said, the piano was the central focus for your family. What got you into playing and developing this as a gift and passion for yourself?


I took piano lessons because it was sort of the thing to do at first. I liked it enough to keep doing it, but I hadn't caught the bug yet and like so many other elementary school kids taking piano lessons was one of the things that were happening. I had great piano teachers, but it was still mostly the thing that was happening.


That was true until maybe about Middle School age, maybe about 11, 12, or 13 years old, and for me, it was when I discovered jazz. Jazz music was the music that changed things for me, the idea that you can sit down at the piano, at the time piano was all I played. You could sit down at the piano and make music happen.


That you didn't necessarily need to have your sheet music in front of you. You didn't necessarily need to have a plan, you could sit down and let a thing happen. Around that time, I started doing what I call journaling. Where I would sit down at the piano and I would play however felt and that would be my journal entry for the day.

You could sit down at the piano and just make music happen. You don’t necessarily need to have sheet music in front of you.

That's a matter of sitting down. to sit down at the instrument and make something happen. That sounded a little bit more like a hymn. My style has changed a little bit over the course of time but to journal. to sit down at the piano and let the piano play itself. Once I learned that you didn't have to read music to make music but that reading music is one of the ways in.


There are many different ways to create something beautiful. Once you realize that you don't necessarily need to have the gatekeeper of what some composer 100 years ago told you you're supposed to play but that you can sit at the instrument and make it sing that changed everything. I was probably about Middle School age.


Wow. All right. What you played now, what mood was provoked by that?


What do you think Rachel? How am I feeling today?


It has a movie theme kind of sound to that song to me, but I could hear everywhere you were going and the same thing happened to me exactly how you described it.


I'm a Pisces, so everything is taking place in a movie, It's all, “Life's a stage.”


Okay. Rachel, how do you feel tell us through your keys.


Just as Benjamin described this it's very spot on. My first CD was three songs that I did several years back was called Song Telling and that truly is a lot of what you do at the piano if you know how to Freestyle play. Exactly what we heard, that it evoked that feeling in you. For years before, I started singing I was a pianist and I played in hotel lobbies and weddings.


I would find myself beginning a song, a specific written song, and many long hours in those hotel lobbies, especially at the Fairmont. I would sit there and write music all night on the piano. This was way before cell phones so I lost many compositions that came and went. It came out from the ethers and it returned to the ethers because you don't necessarily remember those things later unless you have the recording rolling as you're doing it.


I love the idea of piano journaling because pretty much if I sit at the piano and I begin to play, there is a melody or there is some structure that begins to happen that I didn't think of or I'm not necessarily trying to go a certain direction with the song. There's another way of writing music too that's much more deliberate where I want it to have more of a pop sound or I want it to be more R&B.In those instances, it's more thought-out chord changes and things but I love letting the freestyle piano melodies and musings come out of my heart as well.


I love the idea of song-telling and piano writing. I love music. I wake up to music, I go to sleep to music. I play music throughout the day and what it tells me is maybe I should journal what songs I played that day. I do that for the year. I have playlists for my year and many years, I would take these playlists and I would burn CDs and give them to my friends at the end of the year.


This is, my year of whatever emotions or whatever experiences I had and they all had different themes and I still do that with playlists. I don't send them out anymore but I think you guys gave me an idea of actually capturing what were the songs of the day that spoke to me. I think that would be very telling and I don't journal. The act of writing down what I think and feel seems so tedious but I would I can spend hours looking at my playlist and playing different songs. Thank you for that challenge.


One of the things you're speaking to Valerie is, having a playlist that kind of goes through your day and having music to wake up to, music to go to sleep to, and kind of having the music follow you through the day. One of the things that I believe that we've lost over the course of generations is it used to be that we created that music ourselves.


That people sang songs when they woke up in the morning. People sang songs when they were doing their dishes and when they were sweeping the floors. There were songs that you sang while you were doing the laundry. That there was so much music making that happened in the mundane small, little moments of human life.


Most of us have grandparents who sang around the house or great-grandparents who sang around the house. If you go far enough back somebody was singing around the house and if you look at more traditional cultures and more tribal cultures, there are songs that accompany everything. There's music that a company's everything and you become your own soundtrack.


One of the things I regret about where we're at in music now is there's this American Idol, you get voted off the island if you're not good enough. It has to be super well produced in order to count and then we have the vast majority of people who think that they can't make music because music is a certain type of elevated creation. That it's not meant for them. My belief is that music belongs to everybody.


Music belongs to everybody, and we can all create it and be a part of it.

That we can all create it, that we can all be a part of it and we can still wake up this morning with a, “Woke up this morning song.” “I woke this morning with my mind, stayed on freedom.” As they sang back in the civil rights movement and that we can still do that. There don't have to be rules about when you sing, depending on who you live within your home of course.


Yes, that is true. Rachel, what are you thinking about right now?


We do that song at our church, but I had no idea that it went back that far. I love it because it's very gospelly. Strangely, when I was in my twenties and very first starting to write music. I had this Uncle who would visit yearly. I had written a song called Jesus Jesus. I wish I could go up. I've got it in a journal somewhere, I'll find it one day but He had heard me sing that song and he said, “Oh, we have to take you to New Orleans tonight.”


Of course, he had a few cocktails. There's always been a little bit of that overflow of that gospel-ly thing mixed into the training in the classical. For me, it's been a big grab bag of a whole bunch of different styles that kind of come together. It's been difficult for me to label myself a certain type of artist.


I'm going back to what Benjamin was talking about, I've had so many friends tell me way back Star Search, “You need to go on Star Search.” “You need to go on The Voice.” I said, “No. Oh, no, that's not for me because it is definitely a stereotypical person that wins it.” Every time, it's a certain type of vocalist that has the runs, the polish.


It's always the vocalist, it rarely features a musician. songwriter, singer, and in that lineup. It's been very interesting to keep myself relevant in today's time, what you're speaking of because so many people do think of talent and singers in a box. Few of them are the Joni Mitchell type or I think in today's world if you had that era of those artists come out, they might not be understood or appreciated like they were then.


I could imagine. I'm going to take a little bit of a turn here. How do race and ethnicity or your culture, and your upbringing influence the music that you're drawn to or the music that you now express? Because both of you have alluded to all these different genres of music and your family traditions, the type of music that you listen to when you're children. How does that play a role today? Both of you express the importance of being self-expressed through music. What are you hearing these days for yourself?


I was very fortunate to grow up in a multiracial family, in a multiracial community, and in a multiracial church. My mother is white and she loved both White and Black music and other types of music as well from the 60s and 70s when she grew up. I fell in love with jazz, which was originally a Black art form and I have a dear friend named Ayani.


My best friend in the world who I call my sister. Her grandfather, Granddaddy Hanna was named Sir Roland Hanna and he was one of the jazz piano players to come out of Detroit. He played with Sarah Vaughan and he played in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, and he played with Charles Mingus. He was a brilliant brilliant pianist from that era, a Bebop pianist.


He was around the family and we got to have Jazz royalty in the family. Also, my mother sang some Opera. I've got an opera singer on one side, I've got Jazz royalty on the other side. It's all mixed up but teaching and learning specifically the music of Black history is something that's been more of the passion of my adult life.


I feel so blessed to have a multiracial upbringing and a multiracial understanding of what music can be. To Rachel's point, the more I discover about music, the more I feel it's hard to put any of it into a box, and even the idea of music, the church used to be segregated in the same way that housing used to be segregated.


There used to be a Pop chart and what they call a Race chart. If you are a non-white artist, your music was on the race chart which later became the Rhythm and Blues chart. It didn't matter what genre of music you were doing, if you were not white you were on the Rhythm and Blues chart up until I believe the 1950s when the first artists started to cross over people. Like Fats Domino started to do songs that would cross over and white audiences would listen.


Anyway, that all aside I feel people creating music today are outside of these boxes more actually, they're such deep, Black music has infused American society so much that white artists are creating music that is fundamentally Black music without even realizing it because of how deeply it's all embedded. I appreciate and celebrate the multiracial nature of music these days. I'm not for more segregation in music. Although as I said, I have a deep appreciation for historic art forms that do come out of certain communities.

Not Quite Strangers | Music
Music: Black music has infused American society so much that white artists are creating music that is fundamentally black music without even realizing it.


That's very profound. I listen to you, and Rachel I'm going to come to you in a second. I'd love to hear the same from you. My upbringing also is very different from Panama regionally to the music that we grew up listening to was in another language. Salsa, we listen to some Latin jazz. My mother also loved Opera. She said her father used to listen to Opera quite a bit too although not necessarily a Latin American Art form, let's say at least historically.


Also, she would listen to Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand, and we listen to Pop, Michael Jackson, you name it. Growing up, there were so many different influences. To this day, what I am moved most by music is listening to this song called “Stand By Me” by a Japanese pop group. I don't understand the lyrics, I don't know what they're saying, although I know they have a video with the translation. I don't even look for the lyrics in English, but there's something about the rhythm and the sound that's so appealing to me that gets me out of bed like this.


That's why I listen to it but it moves me to hear music in any language all over the world that still moves me. The lyrics don't matter that much. Now, granted if I understand the lyrics I'm listening to that part of my brain is also capturing what are they talking about and if I like what they're saying or not.


It's in there, but generally, if I don't understand it and I still move by the music that's I think the most amazing thing you can be moved by something you have no idea what they're saying. That's the power of music as far as I'm concerned. Racially and ethnically for me, I've been exposed to a lot more. Unfortunately, the Negro musicals, the Negro spirituals, for example, I didn't get into until I was in high school because the church that we went to is predominantly Black then.


There's a lot more gospel I was saying there but I mean it was this much in the history of music that I had so it wasn't something that isn't innate within me, but I've learned over time to appreciate it. Rachel, I'm curious about you. For you, when you think about racially, ethnically, or culturally, whatever area you want to look at. How has that influenced the music you play or listen to or how you express yourself?


I have always felt I missed out by not coming up in a Black church. It is probably my dream to sing in a choir like that. I mean, it's so fun, all the voices and the harmonies and the richness of the voices. I came up in a White Methodist Church. As a matter of fact, my mother reminded me of the story the other day that they lost their Church Organist when we were going there. I think I was 10.


Somehow I got thrust up on the stage playing the church organ with the foot pedals. I have no idea how I could have, I think I would run the other way now at this stage. When you have youth on your side, you don't know that you can't do things, so I did it. That kind of music didn't move me at all. I don't think I started hearing things that were more soulful like Carole King starting out.


Then, also not that. Strangely, compared to what you're saying, Valerie, which is that it's the music. When I very first started getting into Pop music as a teenager, it was the lyrics. it was Elton John, Tiny Dancer, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. To me, I think Elton is the king of Pop songwriting. He's it. better than Elton John.


Now, as I've matured and gotten older and older I'm definitely more drawn to what I would call Blue-eyed Soul music. R&B has influenced white artists so much. Starting out with groups like Daryl Hall and John Oates. They were the first of the Blue-eyed Soul groups and the Everly Brothers some of those songs were influenced by The Black Boys. I don't mean it stereotypical. I mean, it is something to attain to. I'm a mixture. I'm a mixed bag, people tell me all the time that I do. I mean Nora Jones is what she's clearly, but she’s soulful even though she's white. it's a mixture.


Nora is mixed because her biological father is the great Ravi Shankar.


She's an Indian mix.


First of all, I think the experiences that both of you brought to the table are very similar. Now I think, “Man, I need to meet somebody who's also a musician from another continent and bring them into this conversation.” I'd love to hear what perspective they might bring. Thank you for the idea for another podcast episode around this.


Perhaps it’s somebody that a couple of people from other cultures. This is one of the things that I'm also curious about you guys. What do you wake up to? When you listen obviously, you've had all these different influences. There's a way of self-expressing through music, but what are you listening to get inspiration? Maybe the better question is, what are you creating for yourself? And from where are you creating?


For me, you can't enter this conversation without acknowledging how we have lived as musicians for the last 15 to 16 months amid the coronavirus pandemic, right?


What do you mean by them?


What I mean is the whole process of what are you creating. What are you listening to for inspiration? How are you making music has so fundamentally changed? Many of us who are musicians have been in a type of survival mode over the last year and a half, that's very very different from what we usually do. The honest answer for me is most of this last year there has not been a lot of inspiration.


There has not been a lot of creation of music. There has been a lot of sitting in front of a laptop and trying to create music to inspire people through a laptop while I am alone in my living room at my living room piano. I can't hear other people singing along and I can't Feel the energy in the room and I can't hear people clapping along.


This has been very much like running a race while you're missing one foot. Creating music over the last year has been hard and to be honest the process of what are you listening to for inspiration and how are you creating music? I personally over this summer. I'm only now beginning to reconnect with music more authentically because I've been trying to hustle as an artist and as a musician in a digital age looking at flat screens and interacting with squares in a Zoom room.


The inspiration is only now over the last week or two, I've waking up with those bubbling up, and some melody starts to come up. Some other type of things starts to come up, but if we're not connected physically in a shared humanity, to me the music mostly shuts off. I go into work mode. So, a lot of teaching, a lot of working, and a lot of trying to create something inspirational to translate across a Zoom screen, but this this was a hard year to be an artist. What do you think Rachel?

Not Quite Strangers | Music
Music: If we're not connected physically in a shared humanity, the music mostly shuts off.


Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. The things though that always inspire me, one of the most recent in our church. Our wonderful Organist whom I shared the stage together, passed away. That set off this long little period of about two weeks where I probably wrote about four songs because one was not enough to capture how I was feeling about him.


Leaving the planet, missing him and what he meant to me and what he may have meant to others and his wife. It's usually events or personal loss that have always been a factor that brought music to the surface. Strangely that affects me a lot more sometimes than happy times. Being in love or feeling good.


Although I have written songs about that, it does seem to be that loss is a catalyst for a song and it's been that way in my life. As I've matured and as I've grown more spiritually. I'm able to take the loss and shape it in a way that is a feel-good message instead of a sad message. I totally agree I haven't gigged with musicians in about a year and a half.


That is something I miss so much. There's something about that when you come together with other musicians and you do a gig and you play together, it's that connection on a soul level. It's the music connection, it's the social connection that has been void in many musicians' lives this past year. It has felt like a bit of a dry spell.


Yes, and that creating music in the face of loss. It's what blues music is. It's why there are entire genres of music where all of the great music sort of derives. Beethoven, as he's going deaf, as he's losing his own way to hear his own music. His music gets more and more emotional and more amazing as he goes later in his life. There's always that connection between adversity and music.


I haven't written a new song since April 2021 because it was the early days of coronavirus and the initial hit of what was happening was inspiring some of that and then eventually the kind of reality that was beginning to set in over the next group of months. It put me into a little bit of a survival mode. I was in a little bit more of a survival mode.


In April, about a month into the coronavirus, I wrote a very simple, “We’re going to be okay. We're going to be okay. We’re going to be Okay. We're going to be okay. I’ll breathe, I’ll breathe. I’ll breathe, Ohhhh, I’ll breathe. Ohhhh, I’ll breathe. Breathe.” I wrote some songs about finding a way to make it through and again taking that adversity and exactly as you say, Rachel. Turning it into something beautiful. Trying to turn it into something beautiful.


Thank you for sharing that Benjamin. Rachel, out of curiosity and I know Tommy, he's the Organist that you were referring to. Extremely talented and the other two of you are a power duo, were a power couple at our church. I'm curious if you're willing. Would you be willing to share anything that you wrote as a result of that period of grieving for you?


I wrote this one. I wrote many but there's only one that I have in front of me right now that I brought. Interestingly, it's kind of like a Bossa. It has a Latin feel, but Tommy DeSalvo loved that style of music, so it's called Ordinary Traveler. “All things come and all things go. Possessions and people, but it’s a changing world. A landscape that’s so scenic.


When the life intersecting, and the love still reflecting. Oh, I’m an ordinary traveler. Wandering through this place. Can it be, there’s others like me? And we’ve all lost our ways. Let’s walk this road together. He travels so great. until we see the way to be free. We have only today and our life is ordinary. We are ordinary. We are ordinary travelers.”


Ordinary Travelers lost our way.


It's saying life comes and it's kind of about the fragility of its life's intersecting even if we are extraordinary, talented, or whatever. As human beings, were ordinary folks trying to make it amid a pandemic and in survival mode. I've been in survival mode and I'm ready to break out of that survival mode. more of a growing but ultimately, we do grow even if it's survival mode. We learn things and we reach a deepness within ourselves as people when we go through these kinds of things.


Ultimately, we do grow even if it's just survival mode. We learn things and we reach a deepness within ourselves as people when we go through these things.

Absolutely. It's interesting, I think this pandemic. I mean, I'm not creating music per se but I feel like I am creating connection. This podcast was born out of that need I kept hearing and seeing other people for connecting and meaningful ways rather than just, whoever's in your proximity. There's so much out there.


I have some of my closest friends who live in other time zones and other continents. The two of you are in separate time zones. Benjamin, you're in Oakland, California. Rachel, you're here in Arlington, Texas. Completely different. I think this idea of us being ordinary people living life as best we can and that we do have an impact on other people by the way, we live. How we show up, and how we allow to receive a gift from other people.


I think that's the way that I would look at it receiving a gift from others by getting into a conversation or listening to something that they have to offer they created. I'm curious now. We're going to start wrapping things up. How has this experience been for the two of you? This is your first experience on a podcast. I'm curious about what you're while you're taking from it or how it's been for you.


Well, you're an awesome host. You've made it pleasant and easy. Honestly, I wasn't a little bit ambivalent when you asked me but we always have something to say and we all say it in a unique different way. That's what I've taken today from hearing Benjamin talk even though you express yourself so eloquently and you're great with words. You're a great spokesman. I so relate to everything you're saying, I get it. I totally am right there even though I don't say it in the same way that you do or probably right the same kind of music that you do.


That's lovely. Benjamin?


It's always good to hang out and say hello. It's all good. Podcast, on the streets, in the Choir, wherever we're at. It's all good.


If the two of you had to describe your experience right now in music or through lyrics what would we hear?


Let's find out. We might have switched to Major by now. I'm not sure. “We’re not quite strangers. We’re not quite strangers. We’re not quite strangers. No. No, We’re not quite strangers. We’re not quite strangers. Whoa, we’re not quite strangers. No, not anymore today. I said we’re not quite strangers. No, we’re not quite strangers. We’re not quite strangers. No more, today.”


That was fun. Thank you.


Not quite strangers. I won't charge her for that one either, Valerie.


Alright, Rachel, go for it.


“Please remember me. Please remember me. When you think about today, When you think about the way, we cross our way. When you think about today, we’re not quite, ohh, ohh, ohh, not quite strangers.”


I may have a theme song in the making right now.


Give us a call.


Phenomenal. I know both of you are prolific. In spite of everything that's been happening. You both have albums, and you both perform. I know that the limitations of performing in very very small groups or online has also been a challenge but if people are interested in hearing more of your music or connecting with you or hearing what you've produced so far, where should they go? How do they get a hold of you?


I have a silver lining for me right now, which is I work with a small Independent Record Label called Love Conquered Records as BenjaSoul, we dropped our first five-song EP so that's exciting. You can look for BenjaSouls Reaching on Spotify and other places, wherever you're wherever you find music look up BenjaSoul and you'll find me. That's an exciting kind of new evolving project and then a couple of years ago. I did an album entirely of traditional Black Spiritual music called Climbing Up The Mountain and that can be found at Those are the two places to look for me.


Awesome. I'll make sure to put that in the show notes with the links as well. Rachel. What about you?


Also on iTunes and all of the regular, usual places. I have a CD that I did a few years ago called City Streets and it's all original under Rachel Avonne and one of the songs on there is I Went To The Mountain. The Songs that are on the CD, but it's a mixture of different genres.


Excellent. All right, and then I'll get the link as well from you Rachel, or email, or if there's a website or something that way we'll put it in the show notes, and people can connect with you. I know it's not the experience of playing live music or, even high-produced and doing it on Zoom, but I'm so appreciative of what you guys brought. Any final words or thoughts or songs to close us out?


I have a final word in a final thought and that final word and thought is to support your local businesses and support your local musicians. Keep it as local as you possibly can as things are finally starting to open up again, your local people need you. Your local down-the-corner store needs you. Your local Mom and Pop’s needs you so much right now.

Support your local businesses and support your local musicians. Keep it as local as you possibly can.


I know that all the online stores have been fun over the last year and a half maybe but we need you out in the community spending your time, your effort, your love, and your dollars with the people who live in your town and in your neighborhoods, we desperately need it. That's my last for all of you. Support and if you see some live music happening on a street corner or somewhere, put a little something in their hand. Put a little something in that hat for a musician. Next time you go out hear it.


Thank you, Benjamin, and Rachel.


That's so great and I agree. stay in touch with us. Give us a call and ask us where we're gigging. It's very easy to be out of sight out of mind. As musicians, we have to always find a way to continually put our faces out there for people to even be reminded of us, but we're still here. We're still kicking and breathing and trying to get back into the groove. I look forward to pretty soon being out in the Dallas scene doing some live.


We're still here, Rachel. We're still kicking, Rachel.


I definitely feel blessed and honored that the two of you said yes to having this conversation, but also sharing, part of your soul with us through the music that you brought. Through the lyrics that you crafted, your thoughts, ideas, your insights as well. I don't take that for granted especially when meeting strangers and a platform like this.


I know it's not a common thing, but that's part of the reason I think Not Quite Strangers is such a passion for me. I want people to know that you can go beyond what you're used to and still connect in meaningful ways. Who knows, you might have inspired someone to look at the piano differently out of that. If I’d heard this before when I was 10 years old and started listening or playing piano. I might have a whole different experience and tell to tell now, decades later.


Who knows what impact this will have but I hope it's a meaningful one to not only the two of you but to anybody that's tuned in. Thank you, Benjamin. Thank you, Rachel. You're phenomenal. For those of you who tuned into this episode of Not Quite Strangers. Thank you as well go out and make music go find a way to not only express yourself, your art, and your talent but also connect with those who are and let them know how much it means to you.


Yes put a little something in the cup or the hat or the case If you can. As Rachel mentioned connect with those musicians that you know and love. Check on them. See how they're doing. Our musicians are not okay. They need you. Please subscribe to to listen to this and other episodes. Thank you all so much for being with us Benjamin, and Rachel. Thanks again. Have a wonderful rest of the day everyone.

Important Links

Strangers: Meet Benjamin Mertz & Rachel Avonne

From: California, USA & Texas, USA

Connect on: Speaking your mind through your music


Connect With:

Benjamin Mertz – LinkedIn


• Benjamin's Music:

o Benjasoul (Spotify)


Rachel Avonne - Linked In


• Rachel's Music:


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