On the Trail with a Tunesmith

I’m so excited for our cyber hike today with musician and songwriter, Tim Nordstrom! A native of Red Lodge, Montana, Tim and his brother Mike make up Montana Tunesmith, beloved around the state for their tight harmonies, acoustic style, and evocative lyrics.  Their debut album Under Yellowstone Skies was featured on National Public Radio. Montana Magazine wrote, “If I had to put one CD in a time capsule to represent Montana, Under Yellowstone Skies would be it.” Their second CD, Life is for the Living, was recorded in Austin, TX by Grammy winning producer Lloyd Maines. In December, Tim self produced the most recent album, Christmas is Calling, which features Grammy winning piano soloist George Winston, and Tim’s thirteen-year old daughter, Abbie. Tim also happens to be my cousin!


Beth:  Hi Tim! Thanks so much for agreeing to this “hike.” Tell us about the trail.

Tim: Thanks for having me along Beth. The trail is one that the Beartooth Recreational Trails Association of Red Lodge has developed for our community. I like to include this trail on my daily runs. I really like the openness of it, and the Montana “big sky” seems that much bigger when running on the West Bench of Red Lodge. My employer allows me one paid day of volunteer work per year, and I always choose to help work on this project as well.

Beth: I remember going to your house when I was little — maybe seven or eight — and you were playing the piano like a miniature Jerry Lee Lewis. My eyeballs about popped out of my head, as I’d never seen a kid play anything more technical than Chopsticks. Then you informed me you’d written that song. . . called “Wild Mustangs” maybe? It’s hard to remember through all the cobwebs. Anyway, tell us about your start in music. Did you study with anyone? Please don’t say it’s genetic, because that just wouldn’t be fair.

Tim:  Well, I’m impressed with your memory because if it was something about wild horses, I don’t even remember anymore. I took one year with a local pianist Lillian Gardner, who played in my grandfather’s dance band. I would manipulate her into showing me how the song that I would be working on for the next week goes, and then I’d play it by ear. So I hate to say it, but yes it’s all genetic. I’ve always been able to hear something and play it. This is great on one hand but quite a hindrance on the other. I think Willy Nelson said it best. “I play the guitar, I am not a guitarist”. If I could read music well, I’d be a pianist and a guitarist. My ear made it too easy.

Beth: You’ve set to music my memories of life in Montana — family, the ranch, the rivers and mountains — and I know I speak for countless others who feel the same way. What’s your songwriting process like? Do you wake up with a tune in your head and then go hunting for the lyrics? Or is it the other way around? Or a little of both?

Tim:  The best, most fun way is when it all floods out while playing the guitar; the melody, the lyrics flow out to make about 50% of the song. The rest takes some refinement and that can take hours, days or weeks. First Snow was written in an hour.

Another fun way is when I write a poem, and then put it to music. The song usually ends up feeling more poetic (duh) but I end up throwing most of those away- I think because it doesn’t start with the music. I think the most important, strongest part of a song that hits your emotional center comes first from the melody and then the chord structure.  Lyrics are last, they tap more into the cognitive side.

I write a lot of songs just humming as I commute to Billings. I write down a lot of ideas on scrap paper that I end up finding all over the house. Then…when the right mood matches up with the right lyrics that I pick up, a song can come pretty quickly. Another method that is really helpful is to pretend that I am another singer songwriter. Start singing in their style, etc. I’ve written a lot of songs this way because it seems to take away the inner critic, which can really stifle your creative process. It’s funny because you’d think the song would sound like the artist you are emulating, but I’ve tested it over and over and nobody ever says, “That sounds like so and so.”

Sometime I like to write a character sketch, sometimes a story song, sometimes write using chord progressions, or other times guitar licks drive the songs direction. I’m sure you figured out by now that there are many ways to skin this songwriting cat, but the MOST important thing is that after it starts to unfold, you have to let IT write itself, when you start to force it, you’ll ruin it nine times out of ten.

Beth:  Tell us about making your most recent album, Christmas is Calling. What was it like recording with your daughter? How’d you manage to snag George Winston?

Tim:  Abbie has a very fun personality, coupled with a confidence that allowed her to get into the studio and not let the fear ruin the experience. She had horrible allergies, which did hinder her performance, but we both felt that the process was worth more than the product anyway and it’s all relative- we weren’t striving for super polished. If she decides to continue in this avocation (or vocation) the product will continue to become more and more polished as you spend more time doing it anyway. So this was a great start for her.

George Winston is about as genuine and caring of a person as you could meet. I heard his piano style as I was listening to one of my demos one day. I looked up his label “Dancing Cat” and asked them if he’d be interested. He then listened to my first disc, “Under Yellowstone Skies” and he said it moved him. Having grown up in Montana, he could relate to this album, which I consider a “concept album”. In the studio it was really wild because I grew up listening to him. I mentioned to him that I really liked the harmonics that he does on the Summer album. He said “great idea”… next thing you know he was leaning halfway into the grand piano and playing at the same time, making some awesome effects tapping, dampening and getting some cool textures. He was like a mad scientist and I was a deer in headlights.

Beth: You and Mike have put a lot of miles on, performing all over the state. What are some of your most memorable gigs?

Tim: For the “cloud nine” experience, it would be playing a couple of performances with the Billings Symphony. You rarely are able to fully realize what you hear in your head (strings, etc.) when writing a song, so this was special. We played a huge gig in a park in Kalispell one time, did not know what to expect, and it was a very large group of developmentally disabled folks. They had so much fun, dancing, coming up on stage, etc.  It was a real feel good concert.

The backdrops have been everything from the top of Big Mountain in Whitefish, to the Yellowstone River outside Chico Hot Springs, to the top of the Beartooth Pass. But THE most memorable? A gig up at Piney Dell (in Red Lodge) that was SUPPOSED to be well marketed with press releases etc. We showed up, there were kegs of beer, BBQ pits, etc. and I thought it was going to be awesome.  But…the only people who showed up were our parents, Uncle Den, Aunt Mel and Gramma K. No joke.

Beth: That’s hysterical! Knowing that crew, they more than made up for the lack of audience. So what are you working on now? And what’s the best way for readers to get their mitts on your music?

Tim:  I’ve been really into alternative rock, Jack White (awesome solo album as well as his White Stripes and Raconteurs), Modest Mouse, etc. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Jack Johnson, but also more Bob Dylan etc. So my music has been a little edgier, but I am still trying to “write about what you know” like Mark Twain advised.  So I’m writing a lot about social justice, empowering people, etc. I’ve been a social worker for twenty years or so, so I have a lot of material to write about! If anyone is interested I’ll be posting new music and old at facebook.com/timmy.nordstrom (I know, someone already had tim.nordstrom!) Just go to Tim’s music store to listen and purchase CDs or individual songs.

Beth: Tim, thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I’ll be waiting patiently (NOT) for your next album!


On the Trail with Author Paige Stirling Fox

If you’re new to this blog, my “On the Trail” interviews feature people who follow their dreams and live creative, unique lives. If I had my way, I’d jet around the globe and join these amazing folks on their favorite trails, but for now, cyber hiking will have to do.

Today’s guest is Paige Stirling Fox, a life coach and facilitator of personal growth and spiritual programs and workshops. She believes in the power of circles of women, and has created and led many programs including Women Circling the Earth, a year-long retreat and coaching program, and Breathing Space, circles for women who have survived cancer. In addition to working as an early literacy specialist, Paige is also a reiki master, a certified labyrinth facilitator, and the author of The Flowering House.

Beth: Welcome, Paige! I’m so excited for our hike today. Tell us about this lovely trail you’ve chosen.

Paige: Hi Beth. I’m excited as well for our ‘hike’. This trail is close to home in Whitby, Ontario about an hour east of Toronto. It’s in a conservation area, called Heber Down where I used to do creek study in primary school and now hike regularly with my family. It’s where my children have learned to skip stones, studied beaver dams and whittled sticks with my husband. It’s also where we regularly walked with our black labrador, Pumpkin, shown in the picture, who is now too old for long hikes. So, lots of great memories.

Beth: Congratulations on releasing The Flowering House. Tell us all about it! What prompted you to write this book? And what did it feel like to actually hold the first copy in your hands?

Paige: Thanks Beth. I wrote the initial story of The Flowering House over ten years ago, after I had just gone through a major transformation in my life. In the story, Camilla keeps a perfect facade, but lives with the hidden truth of sealed off rooms and a trashy backyard, until the day she hears a ringing bell behind a closed door. The story is a metaphor for all that we hide away and what happens when we courageously open the door and follow our hearts.

The story was simple and inspiring and I initially thought it was a children’s story, but I was conflicted because it seemed to have so many lessons for adults. My life changed and grew over the past ten years while the story lived in a drawer. About a year and a half ago, my Mom passed away and I had a strong prompting to take this piece of writing out. Then it all became clear – this was my story, but also a story for all women who hear the call to ‘something more’ in their lives. I wrote a guided journal or workbook to accompany the story and decided to publish.

It is a joy to hold it in my hands and now to begin sharing it more widely. There is a deep sense of fulfillment and also an excitement for me about the new connections it is allowing me to form with others.

Beth:  Because the story was simmering in your subconscious all those years, did you find that it just flew out once you set pen to paper? What was the process of writing a book like for you? Were there serendipitous or surprising moments along the way?

Paige: Yes, the initial story did just fly out. I like to think that it was a true creative act in that Spirit/Universe/Muse (whatever you like to call that something larger that we tap into) was guiding the story even before I could see the significance and meaning of the metaphor.

Then the real synchronicity is that I was not equipped ten years ago to write the second part of the book. In that time, I deepened my own spirituality, became a life coach, and began creating and facilitating personal growth programs and retreats for women. These women’s lives then informed the book in ways I cannot even fully acknowledge. So when I took to writing the journal workbook it flowed because I had the knowledge, skill and lived experience. This is where I think we are challenged – to really trust in the right timing of our projects. It makes sense to me now that The Flowering House could not have been written ten years ago as I was not yet who I needed to be to be ready for it.

Another wonderful surprise in the bringing The Flowering House to life was affirming how to have intention guide the creation process. So my main intent for the writing and production of the book was “ease and flow” and that anyone who was to touch the project would add more joy and love to what I had already created. Honestly, the greatest joy for me was finding and working with incredible women who added their skill through the illustrations and editing and publishing of the book. And I know that the reader will feel the energy of the illustrations as a perfect complement to the words.

Beth: The community that comes together over the birth of a book is such a gift, and one I never expected to find when I first started writing. The illustrations by Lena Ralston are stunning. How did you find each other? What was it like working with an illustrator?

The Flowering House - Lena Ralston, Illustrator

The Flowering House – Lena Ralston, Illustrator

Paige: Yes, absolutely. It was an unexpected gift for me too. You think of writing as a solitary endeavor and yet there are incredible groups to support you in the writing process and then it is a group effort to publish.

I found Lena online in a portfolio site for children’s illustrators. There were hundreds of portfolios so again I followed my intuition. When the “R’ page opened, Lena’s illustration was at the top of the page and I just knew she was the one for me. I opened her work and saw that she was a symbolic artist as I am a symbolic writer. Of course, it took a little convincing to bring her to take me on as a client – Lena works with traditional publishing houses of children’s books, and here I was a self-publishing author of a book for women.

I got her to agree to just read the story, and that was all that was needed. Lena tells me that the story resonated with her at a deep level and allowed the artwork to just flow for her. And it was so easy to work together – I gave Lena complete freedom because I loved and trusted her work, and she thrived with this freedom which is not always provided when working with other larger clients. Joy for us both.

Beth: Now that the project is complete, I imagine you’re busy with the business side of writing — marketing, book signings, etc. What do you do to satisfy your creative nature? Is there another book in the pipeline? What’s next on your bucket list?

Paige: Yes, it’s interesting… when you’re done with one book, the next one starts to call to you. I do have a series of books in mind about the power of personal story to guide us through transformative life experiences. It’s not just something I will write, but will plan to facilitate workshops for others to learn about the power of their story. So it’s percolating…

I am, however, trying to stay present to all the opportunity to learn from and grow from this experience of bringing The Flowering House into the world. You are right – there are book launches, marketing, promotion, etc. And so far what I’m recognizing is that because this book resonates for so many women, there are opportunities for me to form and deepen connections with women who are telling me about their life transitions and what they are longing to bring into the world more fully.

To satisfy my creative side, I also do soul collage work, and learned yesterday a little bit about felting, so there are some fun things to keep my hands busy as my mind begins to create.

As for bucket lists, I trust new dreams will be born of this experience. I would love to be a Hay House author in the future, and I enjoy public speaking. And it’s a balance of dreaming new dreams while staying grateful for the present. I love my life and I am doing what I love…my family, being a mom, impactful work, great colleagues and friends, lots of women’s groups, yoga etc. I trust that the next part of my life will unfold just as it’s meant to.

Beth: At a conference I recently attended, super-agent and author Donald Maass said that there’s never been a better time to be a writer, in terms of personally connecting with your audience. While Twitter intimidates the crickets out of me, I know that so many great connections can be made there. You’re active on Twitter (@floweringhouse) and Facebook, and I’m sure you’re already experiencing the joy of meeting people who have connected with your writing. How can readers purchase a copy of The Flowering House?

Paige: Yes, Beth, I agree that there has never been a better time to connect with people who are interested in your writing. I too am just at the baby steps of learning about Twitter, but I’ll get there. Facebook is more natural for me.

Anyone interested in learning more about The Flowering House can visit my website at www.thefloweringhouse.com and link directly to my publisher’s website to purchase the book. It will also soon be available widely through online bookstores such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Beth, thanks for the opportunity to chat with you today.

Beth: Congratulations again on fulfilling a wonderful dream, Paige. You’re truly an inspiration! My copy of your book is en route as we speak, and I can’t wait to read it. Thanks so much for sharing your time, and best of luck!

Happy Melty Mother’s Day!

Not jewels, not a gourmet dinner at a schwanktastic restaurant, not a year’s supply of lattes — nothing beats home made gifts for Mother’s Day. I morphed into a soupy mess this morning when I opened the goodness from my wild children. I adore this necklace courtesy of my nine-year old son, and will proudly sport it all day.

My seven-year old daughter made this card. If you look closely, you’ll see that she designed the cover for my novel, formerly called “Disappear.” She nailed important details like an old barn surrounded by overgrown grass, and a girl who fades away as she “spirit walks” to another time. Funny thing – both kids are too young to read it, but they know so much about the story. Mainly from me dragging them on random research trips, like to the Crow reservation, silent movies, or my endless quests for dilapidated barns. In her careful, best printing, the inside of the card read: Dear Mom, I like it when you make spaghetti. I hope you get your book published. Love, Sophie.

I’m an emotional mushball on the best of days, but today? Fugettaboudit. I just try to take it all in and savor the innocence and pure, sweet love from the greatest blessings of my life.

Huge schmoopy Mother’s Day wishes to all you magic mamas!

On Fire about Burning Through Pages

Last week I stumbled across these clever posters designed by artist Mike Andereck for the non-profit group Burning Through Pages. They’ve gone viral, and chances are this isn’t the first time you’ve seen them. Immediately smitten, I visited their website and was surprised to learn that Burning Through Pages is based right here in Denver. Their sole purpose is to “inspire a love of reading in today’s youth by recommending, donating, and discussing books.”

Hark! I thought to myself. I’d never heard of such an organization. I read on. “There are no quizzes, just conversations. If you don’t like the book, you can give it back. If you do like the book, there’ll be another one waiting for you, free of charge. The important thing is that an adoration of reading grows. It’s not what you read that’s important to us, it’s that you enjoy whatever it is that keeps you burning through the pages.”

How beyond cool is that?!

If you’re interested in learning more or supporting this unique organization, check them out at http://www.burningthroughpages.org.