Essays-Donna Lynn Caskey

Music Emerging has collected essays from four musical women, a musical trio and myself. A simple word: struggles. I asked these women to send me essays about their musical journeys and their struggles. Hope you find inspiration in these personal stories.

Donna Lynn Caskey-Ventura, CA

 

     Music was a carefree part of my life as a young child. My sisters tell me I was truly a music fan from infancy- dancing in the play pen whenever someone would sing, crack out an instrument, or a song would come on tv. My family put a toy piano outside my crib that I would play through the bars with my hands or feet depending on which way I was turned. I’m the youngest of ten kids, and there was music throughout the house. Though my two brothers, the eldest, had moved out before I was born, they’d come visit and play guitar, banjo, fiddle. I remember sisters playing violin, viola, flute, piccolo, marching bells, piano, and singing when I was little. Whether they played instruments or not, all my siblings had the radio on and shared recordings of artists they liked with me. I remember singing along with Simon & Garfunkel and Peter, Paul & Mary records using my sister Kathy’s curling iron as a microphone. I loved playing piano, singing, and making up songs.

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     Music was such a natural, normal part of everyday life at first, but I started to get self-conscious about it when I began school. Though my family was encouraging in many ways, my temperament was such that I took the slightest teasing and criticism from siblings, my mother, classmates, and teachers to heart and very hard over the years. For example, I remember singing to myself on the school bus on the way to kindergarten, and being aghast when a likely well-meaning sister told me not to because people were going to think I was “weird.” Oh no! Weird?! I worried people wouldn’t like me or want to be my friend.

     I started a new school in 5th grade, and it seemed like I was taunted relentlessly about everything- how I looked, dressed, acted, where I lived, what my father did for a living, the fact I was alive and breathing. The other kids also made fun of me for singing in music class, so I stopped. Then they teased me for not singing. Now I realize it was probably because I was the new kid, the outsider, and not at all personal, but I didn’t have that insight at age ten. I remember feeling extremely anxious, self-conscious, uptight. I got very quiet, wanting to go unnoticed in hopes of avoiding more criticism. I remember feeling afraid to sing in front of people anymore. Singing leaked out at times, anyway. I thought I was humming under my breath, unheard while we were working math problems at our desks in middle school algebra. Then the teacher asked, “who is doing that horrible singing?” A chorus of classmates answered, “Donna!!!” Feeling humiliated, I renewed my personal vows of silence.

     Then there was my experience with piano. I loved playing songs I made up as I went along when I was very little, my mom felt I had a “nice touch” on the instrument, as she put it, so she signed me up for the very lessons she would’ve loved to have as a child given her own musical tastes and talents, but a piano never mind instruction were luxuries her parents could far from afford in Depression-era rural Virginia. I soon discovered I had trouble reading musical notation, however. I could hear that the kid whose lesson was before mine was moving through the exercise books more quickly than I, so I therefore came to the conclusions at the ripe old age of seven that my teacher didn’t like me and I was “bad” at music, after all, despite my love for it. Trying to translate musical notation into what I was supposed to do with my fingers let alone practicing felt like a chore and a punishment. Before long, my mom said she’d be better off throwing money out the car window than to keep paying for lessons, so I quit. I tried piano again later at what I mistakenly believed was the geriatric age of thirteen. I witnessed tiny, seeming prodigies play circles around me at recitals whereas my nervous, clammy hands slipped and fumbled on the keys. I again became the victim of my own false assumptions- this time the beliefs that I clearly needed to have started playing as a fetus in order to have a hope of being “good,” and that I just wasn’t born with an innate talent for beloved music. So I resigned myself to singing along with my favorite recordings while no one was around to hear me. I sang in large choirs at school where I felt somewhat hidden and safe. I compulsively made mix tapes of songs that caught my ear and touched my heart and shared them with friends, family, acquaintances. 

     Though I felt discouraged musically, I did have a knack for visual art and writing that was acknowledged in school, and I had more confidence in those more solitary, less performance-oriented mediums that allowed me to share with people indirectly, without need of being seen or heard. Those became my primary modes of creative expression growing up and as a young adult.

     I headed off to college in the Blue Ridge thanks in large part to art scholarships. I had heard and been around old-time and bluegrass music my whole life to some degree, but I absolutely fell in love with it in the mountains. I was a regular attendee at the local fiddle and banjo club and would hang around the periphery of jam sessions to listen and soak it up. I fell in love with the banjo in particular and found myself getting weepy at the sight and sound of them. I was even dreaming about banjos. 

Photography by Jay Heninger.

Photography by Jay Heninger.

     Around that time, I went to a Mike Seeger concert at an intimate venue, and his stories and approach gave me hope that music might be accessible to me, after all. He played multiple instruments including banjo by ear rather than by notation. He shared beautiful, soulful songs he learned from untrained players who made music as part of their everyday lives. I was heartened by the notion that folk music belongs to everyone, and that everyone can make some kind of music- even, maybe, dare I believe, by me. My explorations of old-time and folk rekindled that carefree, playful, matter-of-fact spirit with which I approached music as a child. Inspired, I soon bought myself a banjo as a college graduation present. My life was so unsettled, it was another couple of years before I actually started learning to play in earnest. By ear. At what I, once again, mistakenly believed was the geriatric age of 24. It turned out I had a knack for banjo. Plunking out those first songs within a matter of days, weeks, and months felt like sheer magic and a dream come true. Within three months, I started writing songs, singing solo in public, and playing shows. I was off and running, learning how to play, write songs, perform, and sing all at once and as I went. I’m still at it nearly fifteen years and soon to be two albums of original songs later, and it still feels like magic. 

     Sometimes I forget the magic when the latest incarnations of self-doubt, mistaken beliefs, and fear come calling in new and various disguises. Yet when I’m in the midst of writing or playing a song for the love, wonder, and joy of it, I can again reconnect with that pure sense of music I first experienced as a young child.

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INSTAGRAM                             MUSIC EMERGING INTERVIEW

Interview: Holli Moon-Objects of Desire Interview by Cynthia Brando

photo by Cynthia Brando

photo by Cynthia Brando

     Walking into Holli’s beautiful Beverly Hills home is like walking onto the set of one of those perfect homes you see in magazines like Home and Garden, which showcases beautifully decorated abodes. It was light and elegant, with her equally elegant pastel-like paintings throughout. Her home is how she describes her art, “my art is Hallmark; it’s like comfort art”…Currently based in Beverly Hills, she also lived in Manhattan for many years and divides her time between the coasts. One of her talented daughters is Hannah Rose of the New York band, “Luna Rose.” Music and artistic talents run in the family…

M.E.  “Were your parents artists?”

H.M.  “My mom passed away a couple years ago and she was my greatest inspiration. She was the reason I became an artist-literally-painting, singing…she had beautiful voice. She put me into private lessons and that was it for me. My dad was an amazing self taught photographer, and he worked for the L.A. Times, and some of the really cool photos that you see-he did; like the old Jane Mansfield photo with Sophia Loren; he also started his own newspaper….My parents were super talented in different ways; I was the one that really took it and ran with it. When I had my kids, Hannah and Abby, they were surrounded by it. When I was first pregnant with Hannah, I was singing full time; studio, film; television and painting on a scaffold 20 feet high while pregnant; so that’s all they ever saw their mom do. I was singing here in L.A. at all the clubs; the Whiskey, Madame Hopsings; some that aren’t even here anymore. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but lived in New York a long time”.

M.E.  “What are the pros and cons of being an artist in New York and in Los Angeles?”

H.M.  “Manhattan is so accessible-Los Angeles you have to be in a car and I hate that. The club scene isn’t as cool in L.A. as it is in N.Y.; all the young and up and coming bands; the indie rock groups like my daughters band Luna Rose; they’re just killing it out there in lower Manhattan; there’s so much more accessibility; Here in L.A.-20-25 years ago; it used to be amazing. Places closed down; the House of Blues-that’s crazy to me; so my thought in moving back to L.A. after being in N.Y. was that I could get a clean slate after a divorce, and I had art contacts here, and my daughter Abby, for acting; I thought this would be a good place. I lucked out-I found a studio in Culver City-this guy David Sigman who is an amazing artist-sculpture artist; I found a cool little vibe over in Culver City and now he’s taking the studio that I’ve been in and renovating it now; but it’s happening here; a real cool area"…

M.E.  “How would you describe your painting style?”

photo by Cynthia Brando

photo by Cynthia Brando

photo by Cynthia Brando

photo by Cynthia Brando

H.M.  “My art is Hallmark art-it’s like comfort art, but  I also love vibrant color; it’s all internal; the art always has something to do with what is going on in my life. You can see in this impressionistic painting of Manhattan; this was me missing Manhattan; that was a day I was so sad…and here you see the Lighthouse-that has everything to do with me and my girls and home base…I was trained by some really amazing classical artists and plein air artists-and I used to live in Carmel. In Carmel it was all little small landscape type paintings and that was too tight for me; so what’s ironic, is that I got back into a gallery in Carmel with an abstract piece; now I’m a lot more abstract then I used to be. These pieces are about balance-I was just really in a zone when I started painting those, and I wanted them to be calming-it was really important to me-I really seek art balance like that. I’m a true Libran quintessential artist I guess! I love Juan Claude Basquiat. So this new piece I’m working on; I’m starting the process of graffiti like art-it’s a start-a funky idea. This is totally different; my Indian Corn. I did a show in Southern Utah and I did all South Western art. I have Cherokee Indian blood in me; so I love the whole South Western theme….If you say things out loud-the universe listens…it really does. I used to say “I’m gonna live in Carmel one day-I will be in New York one day”…and I did it; and you kind of don’t believe it-but it really does happen."

photo by Cynthia Brando

photo by Cynthia Brando

photo by Cynthia Brando

photo by Cynthia Brando

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M.E.  “Besides being an accomplished artist, you are also a singer. How did that come about?”

photo by Cynthia Brando

photo by Cynthia Brando

H.M.  “I started singing when I was in second or third grade, and then got the bug when someone saw me. I started when I was in high school when I was thirteen. I had my first band called Rock Candy-we played everything-Southern Rock, Fleetwood Mac…and that was the bug-and someone saw me perform and then I got my first radio station jingle when I was thirteen. I was so excited. I knew I wanted to do that for the rest of my life”…. At thirteen, it was all rock when I started to write songs; Stevie Nick was my idol and Janis Joplin, and all the rock chics-Tina Turner…and then, later, I learned jazz. Jazz is so intimidating, but I could hear it. I think from having the experience as a studio singer and doing lots of different styles. I didn’t perform jazz until my late 20’s and then when I moved to New York, there were a lot of jazz clubs. Here, I still perform with the jazz people that I met in my 20’s-great people like Tom Zinc and Melvin Davis who played with Chaka Khan and Anita Baker. When I came back here to Los Angeles, I got together with these really seasoned jazz guys; John Mayer, Chris Conner; these guys are giants.”

M.E.  “Do you have any thoughts or feelings about being in the music industry and age?”

H.M.  “To me, it just enhances us and makes us more beautiful from the inside out. I have some amazing artists friends that are so beautiful; like to the core beautiful and I honestly think that if we can keep it going and not stress out over the crap-the stresses of life and finances…it’s not always consistent being an artist; but the key is that you gotta do what you love, no matter what age-I could not do it any differently-people say to me, “I don’t know how you do it Holli, you always land on your feet-you keep it going”, but it's because I’m an artist. If you stop-you’re dead. You have to juggle a lot of things…..I do stuff on the side sometimes like catering; because cooking is my third passion. This is a funny story and is so L.A.-I got a call to cater a dinner for a medium, so I thought, “this will be fun”-and then she said, “It’s a dinner for Estelle Getty, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor-they’re all coming.” So I said, “Ok-cool, this is awesome!” So I did a sit down dinner for eight people; full on chicken cordon bleu….my daughter was my assistant and she said, “what are you doing?’ “Just go with it”, I said…I set it all out-and then the witching hour hit, and there was a camera crew and the medium and the friend; we served the food and the door rang and the medium said, “we would like to welcome Marilyn and Elizabeth and Estelle”…..I’ve done some crazy stuff.”

M.E.  “What’s your biggest struggle as an artist?”

H.M.  “Financial-because when you’ve been doing it as long as I have you’ve got to keep it going, and I’m never gonna quit-but you have to pull that extra income-that’s hard; to do what you want; if I could be a full time singer…that would be it. Honestly, I don’t feel my age…I started out as a singer-songwriter, and I’m going to go out as one.”

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