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The Word from Claudia Schmidt: Spoken Word CD Offers a Marriage of Poetry & Music

Robert Downes - December 4th, 2003
Claudia Schmidt, one of Northern Michigan‘s most dynamic and dramatic performers, captures an audience like no other, whether she‘s performing the folk she‘s nationally-known for, or when she‘s belting out her new-found love of jazz. There‘s an earthful passion to her voice combined with a torch singer‘s heart-pounding delivery that pulls the audience in deep and close, touching the tender spots in the listener‘s soul. You feel as if you too were part of the performance.
Those audiences may be listening even closer with Claudia‘s latest CD, “Words,“ a spoken-word collection that includes 10 of her own poems and seven by other writers, backed by the improvisational music of oboeist Betsy Doriss, cellist Crispin Campbell, pianist Joe DeFazio and bassist Nate Bynum.
This is Claudia‘s 12th album spanning a career of 30 years. Raised in New Baltimore, north of Detroit, she started performing in folk clubs in the early ‘70s. National acclaim on the folk circuit quickly followed, as did tours of folk festivals and appearances on shows such as “Prairie Home Companion,“ where she met her husband-to-be Bill Palladino. After a stint running The Rectory restaurant on Beaver Island, the couple moved to Traverse City three years ago. Today, Claudia divides her time 50-50 between folk and jazz performances, while Bill produced her latest CD.

NE: Why did you decide to record a spoken-word CD?
Schmidt: Well, I can remember the first concert I did where I worked in one of my spoken-word pieces was back in the early ‘80s. I always loved poetry, and had written poetry but hadn‘t thought of doing poetry until I played a concert in Minneapolis at this great old coffeehouse there on the west bank where two storytellers opened for me. I was so blown away by what they did that I spontaneously threw this recitation into my gig that night and the old light bulb went on. And from that time on, I started using my own poems and also other peoples‘ things that moved me at my performances. And the thing is, I‘ve always used it as a textural way to weave songs and ideas together. Sometimes I‘d introduce a poem between songs or sometimes in the middle of a song -- it‘s always sort of changing. It‘s part of the way I‘ve approached performing in that I‘ve never been comfortable just doing a song, get your praise, do a song and get your praise... The idea of being able to actually sustain an experience with spoken-word is so perfect for that, because the music itself kind of opens people up physically and then you bring in the power of words and it goes so deep in people in a way that a poetry reading might not unless they‘re already poetry lovers. People who don‘t normally seek out poetry are really blown away when they‘re open to it and in an environment where they can really take it in without judgement or expectation. It really takes them by surprise.
Probably at this point, 60 to 75 percent of the questions I get after a concert or by email from my website are about the poems. They really want to know more. People who have been coming to my shows for years have been asking me to do something with the poetry on a regular level. But in the recorded medium, it didn‘t work as well for me as in a live situation where you mix it in with the music, so I decided to make a project entirely dedicated to spoken word. This is as much as anything a gift to those people through the years who have been encouraging me to do that. And it‘s not famous poems -- it‘s an album of my poems or friends of mine.

NE: Were you influenced by other spoken-word artists?
Schmidt: There are people like John Trudell, who travel with a whole band that backs him up. His poems are very powerful -- very political.
I just met a woman at my concert in East Jordan who‘s a counselor and therapist there who told me there‘s actually a national association of certified poetry therapists. When there‘s a large cultural crisis like September 11, I remember that a lot of poems were flying around the internet. People were really seeking out poems, big-time. And then last year when we made our pre-emptive strike on Iraq, there was an incredible response from the Poets Against the War website with thousands and thousands of submissions to that spontaneously from all over the country ranging from hermit poets out in the woods to the Poet Laureate. People really seek out that form when they‘re trying to work things out and get comfort and stay grounded. Especially today, when there‘s so much manipulation of language by this administration and by the advertising industry. So much of the basic power of language is being co-opted for egregious purposes, that when people are hit with language in a truthful and soulful way, it‘s incredibly healing.

NE: How are your poems different from your song lyrics? Or are they pretty much the same thing?
Schmidt: It‘s really esoteric, but there is a difference, and I don‘t even know if I can articulate it. I know when I write something out, I pretty much have a sense right off the bat whether it‘s going to be a song or a poem.
It‘s almost as if a song lyric really has a symbiotic relationship with the melody and the music that was created to be with the words -- they‘re most potent together. But there‘s something about a poem -- and maybe that‘s why it‘s so powerful, because the voice is the original wind instrument -- there‘s something about a poem where it‘s almost as though the melody is inherent in the words themselves. In a sense it‘s like an a cappella song and the poem has its own musical structure. Even though I‘m not singing it or playing chords, it has a certain flow when it‘s at its most powerful. Which is why sometimes when people try to put music to poetry, it sounds awkward.
I have a little music behind the poems on my CD, but it is very minimal and very spontaneous. We did it with no planning or arranging ahead of time. In a couple of instances, the musician didn‘t even see the lyrics. We just did the piece as a spontaneous duet, so it has a surprising freshness.

NE: How did the musicians capture the mood? Did you just start in and the musicians had a spontaneous jam?
Schmidt: Pretty much -- we just went into it in the studio. Maybe I‘d say this poem strikes me as a little waltz-like. Mainly, there was very much the sense of evoking musically what the poem was saying. Some of the poems are little stories, so the music is like the soundtrack to the story. It‘s hard to explain the process, but the musicians did a phenomenal job.

NE: Do words come easily to you?
Schmidt: When I finally get around to doing it, it comes pretty easily. The big problem is clearing the proverbial slate of life enough so you can be receptive to ideas. It‘s never a case of writer‘s block -- it‘s getting into that receptive mode that‘s the challenge.

NE: You travel a lot to your performances. Do you do much writing on the road?
Schmidt: They‘re there all the time; I think driving is useful because you‘re a captive audience. More so than on a plane -- for me, being on the land, watching scenery, that stimulous is good for ideas. I get a lot of good ideas, lyric and melodic. This fall, I was on a three-week tour and came back with the beginning of four songs and an essay. It will probably take the deep, dark seclusion of winter before they‘re all done.

NE: Why do you think spoken-word and poetry is popular again? Have artists like Henry Rollins (punk poet and former singer of Black Flag) had an effect?
Schmidt: The fun thing about spoken-word and poetry right now is the awareness of young people to its power. It‘s not a dated thing like certain types of music. It‘s really a part of our spiritual bloodstream, and where it‘s manifested itself in pop culture is in rap, which for me isn‘t my music, but it‘s gotten people fired up about language. And there‘s so much going on beyond the super-misogynist, violent stuff there‘s some pretty exciting rap coming out at deeper levels.
Poetry slams have also brought us deeper levels of performance -- a thing I call tribal poetry. I think that poetry has been inaccessible to people for a long time because it was done by experts for other experts. But when it‘s done in this kind of unifying sense it‘s almost liturgical; it really empowers people, it binds and galvanizes people in a group.

NE: Do you think the song format has been played out in pop culture? Maybe people are just a little tired of song structure?
Schmidt: I don‘t know if that‘s it, but the contrast of spoken-word is healthy. There‘s a formula to songwriting in pop music, and anything that becomes formulaic like that has a level of cynicism and a lifelessness to it. So when something comes up in a new way, it adds a sense of life. Maybe spoken word is kind of a breather or an alternative to the song, because we‘ve come to the point where so many pop songs sound the same.

NE: Are there some poems on the album that mean the most to you? Any that have special significance to you?
Schmidt: They all do, or I wouldn‘t have done them. I have to feel completely unequivocable about what I perform. There are moments on a lot of these that were total goosebump moments when we were recording them. On “Garden Party,“ Joe DeFazio‘s piano is extraordinary. He had never heard the piece before but just took the poem to deeper levels than I had ever experienced than just doing it as a spoken-word piece.

Claudia Schmidt performs Sunday, Nov. 30 at Rhonda‘s Wharfside in Frankfort and will be appearing at venues throughout Northern Michigan this winter. Look for her new CD at local book and music stores, or visit
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