Valley singer/songwriter/guitarist Pamela Means was in whirlwind mode last Monday, but she found time to meet for a quick chat at a Florence cafe.
The night before she’d played one of her old haunts from her Boston days, the legendary Club Passim. After our meeting, she had another interview scheduled at Valley Free Radio. And in between she had to run across town to teach a bass lesson.
Much of her bustling schedule is due to her first new album in seven years, entitled “Plainfield.” Means will celebrate with a concert at the Parlor Room in Northampton on Saturday, March 25 at 7 p.m. Northampton singer/poet/guitarist Diana Alvarez opens.
Engineered by Mark Alan Miller at Sonelab in Easthampton, “Plainfield” was recorded live in the studio. No edits, no overdubs. Just Means on acoustic guitar and vocal, totally in the moment, completely solo — which is how she was spending her time in Plainfield when she wrote the ten songs that would end up on the record.
Means had relocated to the quiet hilltown after a devastating year, in which she lost two family members and had a relationship end.
“My brother killed himself, my father died two months later, and then the breakup happened six months after that. So I party moved to Plainfield to heal,” Means said.
She hadn’t planned on writing songs for a new record. “What I intended to do was just make space to be in therapy and reflect on my life,” she said, explaining how Brooklyn (where she was living at the time) and Boston (her old home base) were too expensive, but she could afford western MA, where she’d once lived.
“I was already familiar with the area, but not as familiar with the hilltowns, so I thought I’d give that a try. It sounded really romantic. And it was. It is. It really is beautiful out there. Mostly the stars at night. The Milky Way. The silence. And when I could get it to work, having a fire was pretty cool,” Means said.
“I didn’t have a large community of friends. I was really isolated, really in my head. I was in a raw, deeply reflective, dark period of my life during that time.”
“Plainfield” is naked and direct, with songs about her father, mother, brother, and herself, thinking about relationships while not being in one. There’s some strength in the solitude; being alone is not the same thing as being lonely.
Means saw bears a few times a year near her quiet pad, and the record opens with “Black Bear,” in which she and her faithful guitar simply leave trouble behind and look for something better. “Black bear, gone / black bear, boogie on,” she sings over a groovy and steady acoustic pulse.
The other bookend of the album is “Tuesday Come Early,” which lyrically seems poised on the threshold of either settling back into the same-old, or rushing forward into hopeful new territory.
“Swing over the moon if you have the mettle / savor that swoon, step off the pedal,” Means sings, lightly striking her strings for Michael Hedges-style harmonics that sparkle like stars in a hilltown sky.
Politics is woven into the album’s fabric, especially in the explicit “James Madison,” which uses one of Founding Father’s quotes for its chorus and shows that the idea of “the 1%” is not some new development. “Two party system / seem like one / gold at the top / and the rest on the rickety rackety rungs,” she spits, the lyrics tumbling out over four circular chords. Later she lingers on the line, “We all could use a daily dose of civil disobedience”
Means describes her solitary rural living on the strongly strummed “On My Own,” which hits home for anyone who’s spent a lot of time alone, especially one line: “I laugh to myself / but hardly ever smile.”
Though Means didn’t have anyone nearby while in Plainfield, she started a songwriting circle with faraway pal Peter Mulvey — a close old friend who, like she, is originally from Milwaukee, and inspired her to make the big move to Boston back in the ‘90s — as well as their mutual friend Joe Panzetta.
They individually wrote a song a week for a couple years — each of them finished over 100 songs during that time — and they emailed their tunes to each other. “[We’d] give each other encouragement and gentle criticism if needed,” Means said. “It was great. I really trust those two people. I couldn’t just join any song circle, because songs are so delicate…they can be killed with a sneer.”
Eventually she brought herself back to civilization, playing low-pressure gigs, lining up guitar students, and starting to host a Tuesday night open mic at the Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton (which continues to this day), as well as running sound for some of the venue’s shows.
While Means was working on the “Plainfield” album at Sonelab with Miller, she recorded more than 30 solo acoustic songs — 2 1/2 albums worth of tunes in three days; her next two releases (another collection of originals and a jazz standards album) are ready to go when the time is right.
She described the three fruitful days as deeply satisfying, fulfilling and exhausting: “The song I wrote about my mother (“I Just Called Her Ma”), there was only one take, and then I had a breakdown and we had to pause for a while. I brought everything to it,” she said.
That one intimate, gently sung take is what’s on “Plainfield.”
There’s an instrumental on the record, “Castor and Pollux,” named after the two brightest stars in the constellation of Gemini, which is also her astrological sign. “I really love all things cosmos and astrophysics. I’m really fascinated by that,” she said.
Means even had a “past lives reading” once, which she recounted with a smile. “They said that [I’d been] a man, a musician, and I sold out for success and then felt really bad about it. So I’m around this time to redo…I’m here being unsuccessful, full of all kinds of humility.”
Ken Maiuri can be reached at email@example.com