By Kelly Foster
For two years, I lived in an artists’ colony in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, just on the outskirts of Boston. We set up house in a drafty three-story Victorian—me along with six musicians, one painter, one sculptor, and one band manager (in addition to a steady stream of guests, most of them of the musical variety). Most of us kept day jobs and juggled work schedules with tours, gigs, and writing time. I will probably have lots more to say about Boston in the future, but this week I just felt the need to write about one of my friends in particular.
On my days off from work, days I ostensibly set aside for writing, I would sleep in and stumble downstairs to scavenge for leftover coffee, which, I suppose, is how I first got to know my housemate, Reva Williams. She always had the best coffee. After I had got my coffee, I generally ended up sitting across the kitchen table from Reva and her white Macbook, talking for hours and hours and hours about anything—about hunger and love and fear and work and death and hope.
Reva has a rare gift for listening coupled with a self-forgetfulness that makes her able to enter fully with you into whatever dark wood it is you’ve lost yourself in. She helps you retrace your steps, find the crumbs you dropped along the road for yourself, and walks you back home again. She is full of affection as Hawthorne once described it, “the sensuous sympathy of dust for dust.” Also, she makes my favorite nachos, likes good whisky, and is hilarious.
Reva fronts the band Gretel alongside our ridiculously talented friends, Melissa Myers and Phil Dupertuis. In addition to several other members of our house, Reva, Melissa, and Phil all worked at the Contemporary Music Center on Martha’s Vineyard. Reva was the Resident Director and eventually became a sort of spiritual and intellectual sounding board for many of the students—leading book clubs where they read Kathleen Norris, Annie Dillard, Anais Nin, among others. Many of those students would testify along with me that Reva’s kitchen is a place that can mend body and soul.
Last year she was nominated for Best Female Vocalist in the 2007 Boston Music Awards. This fall, Gretel has a new album, their third, slated for release. I don’t know that any album can ever approximate how unbelievably inspiring and cathartic a live Gretel show can be, so if you get the chance to see them you definitely should. If you live near Cambridge, Massachusetts, try to catch one of their month-long residencies at Toad right off Mass Ave. Be on the lookout for the nights they bring pie.
I was a devoted fan of Reva’s music before I ever became her friend, so I can honestly say I think she is one of America’s best living songwriters. Perhaps it is that sense of sympathy that makes her unwilling to shun her simple humanity. Perhaps it is simply a gift for poetry and for precisely concrete metaphors that take on a life of their own. Perhaps it is a willingness to depict, even at times to celebrate, that which is embarrassing, needy, broken in all of us from time to time.
When you know most of someone’s songs, it’s hard to pick a single favorite to write about or even a single listening experience. I could write about the time I watched the sun set over Newfoundland and watched it rise over Ireland on an Austrian Airlines flight listening to the Gretel songs “Mercy” and “Not Tired, Not Afraid” on repeat the whole way. I could write about the time Melissa first played “Heart-Shaped Heart” for me and I caught the line, “Your alabaster skin keeps drawing me in,” and thought, “Who writes like that?!” I could write about the first time Reva played “Can I Still Come Over?” for me after I’d been sitting in the kitchen crying for two hours and how it made me feel like a person again, because it’s a song that acknowledges the naked desperation to be known and somehow that acknowledging is enough. Here’s a bit of the second verse:
I took up smoking to quiet my mouth
I tended my fire so much it went out…
There’s this cathedral, I wanna go,
and wait like a foundling in the first pew row,
some other arms come and take me away,
some other family with some other name,
You are the spoil I wanted to keep,
You’re the midnight oil not letting me sleep,
I am your laundry that never comes clean
Can I still come over?
So if midway through the journey of this life, you find yourself, like Dante (and all too often like me), lost in the dark woods when the straight path has been lost, I hope you have friends like Reva to remind you that all along the way there are crumbs, all along the way there are lights leading to other lights, all along the way you are not the only one who ever feels lost. Like Reva, her songs “kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.” Here’s hoping she keeps kicking.