The last time I shared an update on all things songwriting in my life was January 23, 2020. At the time, I had no idea the larger world and my own circle within it would literally come to a halt in the middle of March.
At the start of 2020, I was feeling inspired and enthusiastic about life, music, and the present and future. Our project was gaining momentum. I had been invited in December 2019 to open for a local musician at a venue called Toogenblik in the north end of Brussels. The venue was really fun, with stickers all over the walls, showing musicians who had performed there from all over the world. When I sang the pigeon song, I inspired people in the crowd to coo like pigeons with me! Sarah and I were also invited to perform our songs and interview with two university students who were making a podcast about the new Migration Migratie Museum in Brussels.
We were awarded funding as part of a creative literature in Brussels annual festival called Interlitratour. We had submitted an application and been accepted to offer a poetry and songwriting workshop at the Fedasil Arrival Centre as part of the weeklong event, and we thought it would be fun to put together a booklet of our songs to share with workshop participants. At the event itself, we displayed our enormous “Wall of songs” that we had put together with the many song sheets we had been collecting for the past couple of years. With lots of help, we managed to hang it up to cover an entire wall of the room where we offered the workshop. The workshop was a bit chaotic, with people from all over the world, speaking many different languages. We cast aside our initial plan to talk about our project and instead passed around printed copies of the songbooks and engaged the crowd in a sing-a-long. We then posted blank sheets of paper on the wall for people to write on, and we quickly created a short chorus from the words and phrases to offer a glimpse into the poetry and songwriting process.
Prior to the event, our initial thoughts on putting together a booklet of songs began with the idea to work with Sarah’s daughter on the project because she had graphic design experience. As the project began to unfold, I quickly realized that this was asking far too much. In hindsight, I am so glad I wound up taking on the creative reigns because it took an enormity of time I would not wish upon a third party. Projects like these have a way of spiraling from something small and simple to inordinately grand and complex.
In my previous life as a park ranger, I spent the better part of two years creating junior ranger booklets for North Cascades National Park Complex. Complex was an understatement for the project. There were three different regions of the park, each with their own unique flora and fauna and park rangers with their own unique perspective on the focus of their booklets and the types of activities, style, etc. that should be included. What began as a simple booklet turned into four booklets for four different age groups with different variations for each of the three regions of the park. I developed the activities and themes. Another ranger did all of the graphic design. And there was a team of critics (myself included) who gave feedback for each version of the booklet. Having now spent the better part of two months on our songbook, I feel a new empathy for his plight.
To begin our booklet-turned-book, Sarah and I met at the center on our usual Monday afternoon time to go through all of the songs and choose a few to include in the booklet. You might be able to guess where I am going with this, especially since I already mentioned that the booklet turned into a two-month endeavor to publish an entire book. The afternoon pretty much went like this:
- Sing one of the songs.
- Sarah: I love this song. We have to put it in our book.
- Me: I know! It’s so good. It makes me so happy.
Our first problem was that we were involved in the creation process, so we had zero objectivity. If a song was in a relatively finished state (aka, it had verses, a chorus, and a melody that we enjoyed singing), there was very little chance that we were going to cross it off the list.
Another challenge was that there was a real person behind each of the songs. We had met each of these people at the center. They had shared their stories, vulnerable elements of themselves, with us. We wanted to honor them by putting their song into the finished book. We also wanted their story to make its way out into the world so that other people could make a connection with them. We wanted each person to transcend their status as immigrants and “others” to be seen as real people with hopes and dreams, struggling to create a better, safer, happier life for themselves and their children.
No pressure, right?
So we spent the entire afternoon, singing and proclaiming each subsequent song must be included in the book.
Our initial plan had been a simple booklet with 10-20 pages. The finished product exceeded 70 pages. And in kind with my four junior ranger booklets, we wound up with four different versions of the finished book. A color copy and b&w copy each for the self-publishing company Lulu and Kindle Publishing Direct (KDP). I did a lot of research and decided on Lulu at the start because it seemed to be inexpensive for book publishing. The hidden costs for Lulu came with each update to the book. Any time I found errors (and that was pretty much every single time I looked at the document), I had to upload a new version to my Lulu account. Lulu requires you to buy an author copy of each revised version before you can approve them for sale on the Lulu site or anywhere else.
Because Sarah and I are in the EU, we wanted a version to be accessible for folks over here. Lulu is cost effective for people living in the United States but less so for anyone in Belgium, where shipping and customs can get pricey very fast.
I found a family-owned printer in Belgium with a relatively user-friendly platform. The customer service staff were super-fast to respond as well, so anytime I had trouble (which was pretty much every time I tried to upload a new version and made the platform crash trying to go through the cover design) they simply had me send the revised PDF via WeTransfer and uploaded everything for us. This was fantastic and fit in with our ethical drive to support local business. The problem was that the printing costs were so great that we had to charge a lot for both the color and b&w versions and our profits were next to nothing, maybe 1-2 euros per book. It was in going through this company that we were decided to make both a color and b&w version. With printing costs lower for b&w, the book would be affordable for everyone. And it turned out to be really nice in b&w. Friends and colleagues told us it leant a kind of gravity and somber beauty to the work. Certainly, many of these songs are fairly intense, as they evoke the experiences of people fleeing from war-torn countries and moving through often very difficult situations before arriving in Belgium.
Our hope was to raise money to be able to record the songs, but at the rate we were going it would take a decade or more to reach our goal.
I finally cast aside my ethical qualms about Amazon and gave KDP a try. The platform was very easy to use, and any time an issue arose—like photos never seeming to fit correctly within the printing edges because I didn’t understand the difference between bleed and no bleed for books with images—I sent an email to customer service and received a response within a business day. The best perk of using KDP was the cost of printing was very low, so we could charge less for both versions of the book and raise more capital for song recording.
I spent the entire month of February and into March working on the book. We published a first and second version of the book. I was invited to perform songs from the book at a local venue called Den Teirling (translation: the spinning dice) in Brussels.
Sarah and I began organizing a book launch event and coming up with different places we might contact on a book promotion tour. We stopped briefly at the Fedasil Arrival Centre, where we saw an image of us working on the song “Break the Code” in the fall 2017, which was part of a larger photo collage of people at the center. There were also signs posted about the Coronavirus, and then had a planning meeting at our favorite coffee shop across the canal from the center. We saw one person wearing a mask, though he pulled it down from his nose and mouth to commence talking on his cell phone for most of the time we were there.
I also spent an entire day the second week of March, working on the first step of recording songs, laying down guiding tracks with voice and ukulele. The next day, I put together a GoFundMe site.
I just managed to squeeze in a roundtrip train ride to Charleroi to purchase a secondhand clarinet in order to try to add more instrumentals to the song recording. Then, the entire country went into lockdown, following in Italy’s wake.
This was my first book publication, and I can say from my experience that a global pandemic seems to be about the worst time to try to sell anything that is unrelated to hand sanitizer or masks. While people were rushing out to buy toilet paper and canned goods in bulk, I was trying to promote our book and crowdfunding site on social media. I finally got it together to write a newsletter and send it out to all of the people who have expressed an interested in receiving an email newsletter. Of all the people I contacted, I received a response from about three, which made me sad. Of the three people who wrote responses, only one purchased a book.
I had also purchased 500 stickers to try to sell for a 1-2 euro donation to raise money for song recording, and they just sat in their clear Ziploc bag in a corner of my house since we were not allowed to interact with people outside of our immediate family circle.
In the beginning of the lockdown, I was elated by the few friends and family who reached out to offer support, bought books, and contributed to the fundraiser. I was also completely downtrodden by the lack of response from most people. It seemed that social media (once again) had led me astray. Of the hundreds of people who clicked “like” and “love” on my posts about the production of our book, etc., only a few went so far as to buy a book or contribute financially to the recording project. This did make each book purchase a very intimate and thrilling experience, and my heart fills with gratitude for each person who has invited our songbook into their collections.
In the end, this became another exercise in non-attachment. I did my best to let everything go and ride the pandemic wave. Why would anyone be interested in buying a book when they were afraid of contracting a life-threatening virus? Also, I had to remind myself that while this project was very important to me, everyone had their own lives and interests and songwriting and poetry might not be the top tier for all people.
In order to keep my spirits up, I began a series of “life in lockdown” virtual concerts. I began performing from my rooftop, a space without walls or borders. The freezing temperatures sent me back indoors, where I performed a concert a day for 30 days. On some days, I sang cover songs that spoke to my state of mind and being. Most days, I performed original songs from our Migration Songs project; songs from oral histories of factory workers from my time working at Lowell National Historical Park; and songs from the stories of people I had worked with from around the United States. A friend in Brussels even sent me a video of himself, playing guitar along with me to the Woody Guthrie song, “This land is your land!”
The lockdown has been eased here in Belgium now for a month and a half with signs that we may be going into a second wave of the pandemic, so plans for a book launch and tour are still on hold.
If you are interested in checking our new book, you can find both color and b&w versions on Lulu and Amazon marketplace.
Note: The links I am sharing here are for Amazon.com and Lulu.com, but you can order our books from any Amazon and Lulu marketplace.
Wherever you find yourself in the world, I wish you health and wellbeing, joy and love.