Sometimes even the nicest gift is all wrong, as Julie McGeer learned when she wrote “Hold On” for a friend. Although the song is as warm and comforting as a Hudson’s Bay blanket, its message of change and renewal just wasn’t what its intended recipient wanted to hear.
“The person that I wrote it for and gave it to couldn’t really handle it—couldn’t handle reading it, even,” the songwriter reports, on the line from her Vancouver home. “It was too hard for her, for some reason.
“I was having a lot of struggle with her, and I was telling her, ‘We go through these changes in life and we have to embrace them,’ ” McGeer continues. “But I didn’t realize at the time that she had cancer; it was a secret. I thought she was sort of discounting me, but really what was going on was her own personal struggle with not really wanting to embrace what was to come.”
“Hold On” eventually found a happier home with the Sands, McGeer’s new band, whose debut CD, Beast to Bone, is in many ways the singer-songwriter’s message to herself. Several of the songs have to do with growth and rebirth, whether in the natural world or in their author’s psyche—and most of them concern McGeer’s rediscovery of herself as a musician, after several years away from the stage.
“I hit my early 30s and stopped playing music and decided to have a family, and I never thought I would go back to it,” says McGeer. “About six years ago, however, I did a recommitment as an artist. I started studying music really intensely: studying jazz standards, working with [pianists] Lisa Cay Miller and Marguerite Witvoet and this other person, Richard Armstrong, whose whole thing is about the voice as intent and connection and storytelling. All of that stuff was for me the most freeing experience I could have possibly ever imagined.
“From there,” she continues, “I realized that I’m a very task-based person. So I said, ‘Okay, for three months, every five days I’m going to write a song and come up with some sort of video image for it and then post it onto YouTube.’ So I did that, and then I realized that if I just put my mind to it and have a goal set out, I can probably do quite a few things.”
McGeer’s solo songs can still be found online, but the Sands are something else: a chamber-pop collaboration with composer Peggy Lee, here mostly playing piano rather than her more usual cello. It’s a partnership that, true to form, started as a task—and one driven more by expediency than by artistic necessity. McGeer and Lee first worked together when the latter was writing grant applications for a recording project featuring her own Talking Pictures quartet and Seattle musicians Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb. When Lee discovered that she needed one more original song to fulfill certain Cancon obligations, McGeer was the first lyricist who came to mind.
“We realized that our songwriting together was just completely fluid,” McGeer says of the sessions that produced “Against the Drift”, which Holcomb sang with Talking Pictures on The Point of It All and the Sands reprise on Beast to Bone. “There were never any issues around how to do things, so we decided to continue.”
At a certain point a third party came into the mix: violinist Jesse Zubot, who took time off from his duties with Tanya Tagaq to produce and play on Beast to Bone. He quickly became such an integral part of the team that Lee and McGeer even let him pick the band. Using musicians who have played with everyone from the new-music ensemble Turning Point (trombonist Jeremy Berkman) to trance-improv specialists Inhabitants (trumpeter JP Carter) to alt-rock heroine Neko Case (guitarist Paul Rigby and drummer Barry Mirochnik), the three crafted a sound that is unusually luscious, yet forward-thinking at the same time.
“Peggy and I and Jesse all agreed that it was important to get a cross-section of musical influences in there—not to just go for jazz or just go for indie,” McGeer says. “And that was a really great decision. For me, as a vocalist, it was really fantastic, but also there was this palpable buzz in the room. Being that I’d taken a lot of time off from music, coming back into it was a little tricky, but Jesse just said, ‘These guys, they’re there for you 100 percent. All you need to do is relax.’ That was just the best thing he could have said, and it was completely true.”
McGeer’s not the only one who can deliver an inspirational message, then—and Zubot’s seems to have taken. “There’s just an incredibly vibrant energy around this band,” McGeer reports. “So I’m hopeful that will catapult us into doing another musical creation together.”
The Sands host a release party for Beast to Bone at the China Cloud on Friday (February 6).