Art Maker: Pamela Means, musician

  • Pamela Means is an activist and educator as well as an all-around musical talent. Photo by Julian Parker Burns

  • Pamela Means turns her acoustic guitar into a booming, percussive instrument on many of her songs. Photo by Julian Parker Burns

Published: 1/24/2020 9:19:02 AM
Modified: 1/24/2020 9:18:51 AM

Pamela Means has long made her name as a songwriter and song interpreter, a powerful singer and an evocative guitarist, whether performing jazz, folk, blues or anything she else she puts her hand to. The Valley musician has toured nationally and internationally for years, and last year she sold out local shows at which she performed all of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” on solo acoustic guitar to mark the album’s 50th anniversary.

Means can also command the stage with her personality, though it’s a skill she had to develop when she was younger. “I learned how to engage with an audience and make a show an experience, not just a gig,” she says. “I used to stare at the floor and mumble. Now I smile, crack jokes and genuinely embrace my place in an empowering and loving way.”

Hampshire Life: Talk about the work you’re currently doing. What does it involve, and what are you trying to achieve?

Pamela Means: I’m always working on writing songs. I spend a lot of guitar time working on music theory, continually practicing scales and growing my skills across the board, especially in jazz. And I have to intensely review “Abbey Road” on a regular basis to keep it at my fingertips, so to speak.

HL: How do you know when your work is finished?

PM: I get a distinct, sometimes strange, or even mystical, feeling. A new level of confidence sets in and I have the sense that the piece is done, and final edits, if any, are complete. Yet that feeling is what kept me from giving legitimacy to the editing process and the craft of songwriting for a long time [because] my first songs all seemed to come magically.

But I learned it’s okay, important, and necessary to employ all the tools of the craft, which involve editing, scratching out, starting over, digging deeper, and not just settling for the easy rhyme.

HL: Name two artists you admire or who have influenced your work. What about their art appeals to you?

PM: There are many that come to mind, but I want to mention Natalie Goldberg, whose book, “Writing Down the Bones,” immediately changed, and still informs, my songwriting approach. It taught me to “go for the jugular,” as she writes, and to risk being vulnerable and to say all the things. All can be edited later, but get in there and say it, without self-censorship.

I must also credit the brilliant spoken-word artist Alix Olson, with whom I toured extensively. She taught me how to be relaxed, and present, and funny, on stage. To be myself. Even my goofy side. I stopped taking myself too seriously and let the songs do that on their own.

HL: What’s the most recent exhibition/concert/book reading/other event by another artist or group that you’ve attended and enjoyed?

PM: Peter Mulvey. He is one of my dearest and longtime friends. Sometimes we get to share a bill. It’s always inspiring to watch him. To watch a masterful musician, songwriter and performer be in command of what they do. And then we get to hang out and maybe carpool, and talk shop, and life, all the way home.

HL: If you weren’t an artist, what do you think you’d be?

PM: Astrophysicist! I’ve always been fascinated with all things universe. Plus, I was raised fundamentalist Lutheran and, as a child, I was taught that the earth is 6,000 years old and the dinosaurs are fake. I know. Cray cray. It feels radical (and real!) to ponder billions of years and the mysteries of the cosmos. It’s an absolute passion.

HL: What do you do when you’re stuck?

PM: I do everything I can think of to stall and procrastinate, then finally make myself sit down and do the thing. For me, it’s a matter of persistence and discipline and willingness to put in the time, and suffer through blank pages, and pages of verbose crap … until a nugget finally appears with exactly the right word or edit or spark for completion.

— Steve Pfarrer

Pamela Means and her Jazz Project will play Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton on Saturday at 8 p.m., offering original tunes as well as covers of standards by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller of other legends. Her website is

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