Rachel Garlin’s April 2020 album Mondegreens plays like a love letter to today’s precarious times, each song evoking a blend of heartache and hope, social reflection and self-discovery. With no shortage of touch points to our current state of sheltering-in-place, the San Francisco songwriter's latest release includes “Out There,” an evocative story-song about a little girl who’s forced to stay inside. Garlin penned the song for the eponymous augmented-reality musical (Pollen/Wilkins) that premiered in Paris last October and features the voice of Grammy-nominated singer Vanessa Williams. Garlin’s acoustic version paints a poignant picture of a child’s longing for freedom and the fears that stand in the way.
At the center of Mondegreens are Garlin’s nuanced lyrics—image-rich and literary, subtle and surprising—making each song its own snow-globe story that stirs and settles. With nine originals, plus a not-to-be-missed cover of Don Henley’s anthem “Boys of Summer” Mondegreens continues in the vein that won Garlin past accolades at the Newport Folk Festival, in Performing Songwriting Magazine, and for lyrical work deemed "storytelling at its best." (Curve Magazine). The album also showcases producer Julie Wolf’s deep and varied talents; she deftly arranged and produced each track to itensify--without overdoing--the depth of meaning in Garlin's very visual songwriting.
Which brings us to the question: What do you do when you come across a listing for a free photobooth, a handmade version of the kind they had at old-fashioned fairs? If you’re a songwriter like Garlin, you likely salvage the thing, set it up in your garage, and add it to a collection of found treasures displayed to walkers-by on your streetcar-lined sidewalk in San Francisco. You chat with neighbors and strangers, and jam alongside your wife and young kids—improvising lyrics and melodies while finger-picking on an old Gibson J-50 guitar. You’re a visual composer, with a strong dose of color synesthesia, so your songs are pictures; they range from concise musical snapshots to long-developed portraits with details only the darkroom of a poet’s heart can reveal.
Inspired by the photobooth, album opener “Capture Me” explores a dance that every long-term relationship performs. “There’s this push-pull character, a person who holds on and lets go,” Garlin says. “I’m interested in that tension.” Album highlight “Good Morning” is a notable vocal performance, articulate without losing delicacy, playful and profound. The song was spurred by a friend’s 30-year tradition of family members pulling out silverware to form a birthday message to the celebrant on the dining room table. Garlin loved the idea of everyday tools creating something special, and the never-ending beginnings and endings that define family life. “There’s no end product in these relationships—in families. There’s just the process. There’s just the mornings and the evenings. That’s everything.”
Producer Wolf (known internationally as a side-player for touring acts like Ani DiFranco, Carly Simon and the Indigo Girls) assembled top-shelf musicians at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios in the weeks before the legendary music-house had to close its doors. Wolf created her own brand of musical alchemy with bassist Todd Sickafoose (Hadestown, Ani DiFranco), drummer Scott Amendola (Charlie Hunter Trio) and James DePrato (Chuck Prophet Band). Wolf also infused several tracks with percussion from Allison Miller (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Merchant) and background vocals from Vicki Randle (Mavis Staples). Accomplished photographer Irene Young (with 600 album covers to her name) was commissioned to shoot Fantasy Studios’ final days, and the mix of folk-rock and photography became a world of its own, all within the historic building that Garlin admired from afar as a kid, riding the bus home from basketball practice at Berkeley High while artists like Tracy Chapman and Green Day were inside breaking new ground.
With continued and unexpected relevance to our current state of isolation, Mondegreens offers songs like “Radio Silence,” a subdued meditation on the silences of anticipation. Melancholy and strong, it points to unspoken expectations and paradoxes of instability—of waiting waiting waiting waiting—while also reminding us how lullabies can comfort us and keep us grounded. “It’s okay to sit with sadness sometimes,” Garlin says. “We need to feel the distress in our world in order to respond to it constructively and with compassion. Then, ideally we can feel not alone.”
In “Cheers to You,” Garlin underlines the power of vulnerability by giving voice to a child who has grown up too fast, now an addict who’s lost control. The song relies on an insistent, instrumental groove composed by producer Wolf after first she first heard the dark-leaning song in its starkest form. In a world reckoning with its own dangerous edges, there’s meaning in the effort to claim ourselves anew while examining the habits that keep us spinning out of control. Along with the muted march of the band, Garlin sings: “How could I blame you? I claim you—for swallowing stigma and fears on the rocks for years, cheers to you.”
Next up, “Earthquake Town” opens like a film, and we find ourselves seeing footage: the unstable landscape of a rapidly changing San Francisco. DePrato’s playful mandolin melodies collide with the painful reality that “you can’t stick a stake in shaky ground" in this “Golden Gate, heart-aching earthquake town.”
Title track “Mondegreens” is a prescription for finding our way forward in this life, even when fears and regrets recruit our attention away from the well-lit paths ahead. A “mondegreen” is a term for a misheard lyric—the kind that you sing out loud even though the voice coming from your radio is singing something else. In Garlin’s song, mondegreens are beautiful mistakes, not only the wrong words but also the wrong turns that ultimately lead us to fulfillment and understanding. Garlin wrote the song during a workshop with one of her influences: singer-songwriter Patty Griffin. It’s a nod to how we apply our own understanding to the art we love, thereby creating new meaning.
“Dry Creek River” (co-written with Wolf) invites us to fill up our mugs with a warm beverage, or to sip wine while waltzing with undercurrents of violin and accordion. The chorus is a steady meditation on desolation, while the verses offer respect for stubborn beauty from unexpected places: even in barren times, we can grow. From deep dry river beds, through tunnels of uncertainty, to mountain peaks of safety, “Higher Ground” brings closure to this album through a full-band sound and a chorus of collective voices. As Garlin says, “The times we’re in have underlined the need for collective action. Physical isolation can be balanced with human connection, through music, words, and a shared sense of resilience.”
The events of the day have created a sense of foreboding; something is imminent. But rather than flee fearfully from this danger, we might muster the courage to let go, like the birds that fly their way in and out of the silent, shaky, and sheltered landscapes of the moment, landing on rooftops to sing and be free.
Garlin lives in San Francisco with her wife and kids.