Love songs from the past
Rachel Garlin’s newest album, The Ballad of Madelyne & Therese, is a slight departure for the San Francisco-based singer and songwriter. It’s a suite of songs that tells the story of two women who meet and fall in love in 1940. In the narrative, they struggle with some of the same personal and political issues that still haunt us.
“I’ve always been interested in female identities and female desire through the ages,” Garlin said. “When I came out to myself, during college and the years immediately after, I was searching pop culture for stories about women. I listened to the Indigo Girls song ‘Ghost,’ wondering if they were singing about women, but the pronouns were often missing on their early albums. The motivation for this record was to fill in some of those gaps. I came of age when there was still plenty of hiding going on, both for myself and in the culture. It made me curious about eras when the hiding was more extreme. It’s historical fiction, opening up truths about the time in which Madelyne and Therese lived.”
“I grew up when girls like me were called tomboys,” Garlin added. “I loved playing basketball and other sports. I rode my dirt bike everywhere and wasn’t afraid to get my clothes muddy. I was teased and excluded from groups where conformity was required. As I was writing and the songs took shape, I began to discover the story that wanted to come out of them. At first, it was just another collection of songs but, as I continued working on them, the story emerged. I started investigating what women went through in the ’40s, exploring archival films and photos. Now that the project is ready for release, I’m also pressing the album onto vinyl. It’s my first LP, in keeping with the spirit of that bygone era.”
Garlin’s also been performing the songs on The Ballad of Madelyne & Therese as a one-woman show, linking the songs together with stories about the lives the women led, adding details about their background that are often only implied in the songs. “They’re both married to men when they get together,” Garlin said. “Madelyne is in a practical marriage; her husband is gay. They’re both in the closet, but having relationships outside the marriage with a silent understanding that that it’s OK. Therese is married to her high school sweetheart, but his struggles with alcohol make the marriage rocky.”
Many of the songs on Madelyne & Therese are sung from Madelyne’s perspective, but as Garlin developed the narrative into a stage show she began writing songs from the perspective of Therese, the husbands and the couple’s other friends. She’s also planning to record a second album that will tell Therese’s side of the story.
The album opens with “Having Slept on It,” an intimate soft-rock tune that describes the troubling thoughts that drift through a sleepless night. Madelyne articulates her appreciation for her husband, while yearning for a deeper relationship. Garlin’s wordless sighs and distorted lead-guitar lines intensify the feelings of longing and discontent. “You Don’t Know” is a ballad that combines elements of hip-hop and soul. Sustained organ chords and a syncopated drum track follow Garlin’s speak/sing delivery, describing Therese’s realization of her love for another woman. Garlin and her guitar go solo on “Speak,” a soliloquy that expresses the tension of hiding forbidden feelings of love in a repressive society.
The code words women used to express affection in the ’40s are explored in the song “Please Therese.” The arrangement harkens back to the folk/rock sound of the ’60s, with a memorable chorus. Like the rest of the album, it was written before the “Don’t say gay” law went into effect in Fla. and other Southern states started to revise and redact their high school curricula.
“Creative communication is a survival skill, especially when society restricts and compresses our right to use a full range of vocabulary to describe the way we live,” Garlin said. “Schools may not allow students to express gender, race and sexuality without using the real words that apply to those concepts, but it will not hold. Kids and students will demand clarity in things that are relevant to their lives. It’s hard to understand why schools are under attack for having conversations that are necessary for human development.”
“Codes and creative communication have always been a way to forge a community,” Garlin continued. “Going back to the ’40s, it was hard for people to identify others like themselves. Sometimes, they didn’t even know others like themselves existed until these code words were developed. We may have a new language arise as a result of the current repression.”
Garlin released The Ballad of Madelyne & Therese earlier this month. The songs are available at www.rachelgarlin.com. Garlin will perform a theatrical version of The Ballad of Madelyne & Therese at The Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St. in Berkeley, on Wednesday, Nov. 22 at 8pm. Tickets available at www.thefreight.org.
by J. Poet
Aug 2, 2023 at East Bay Express