‘Walking through the fire’: Easthampton singer Pamela Means releases album focused on systemic racism

  • Pamela Means is releasing a new ablum on Friday called “Live at Northfire. Photo by Julian Parker-Burns

  • Pamela Means and The Reparations. Julian Parker-Burns

Staff Writer
Published: 10/8/2020 4:23:29 PM

Easthampton jazz guitarist and singer-songwriter Pamela Means is a queer biracial woman who grew up dealing with racism every day in her home city of Milwaukee. Her experiences led to her becoming a political songwriter singing about racial injustices.

“I grew up in hyper-segregated Milwaukee and didn’t come out until I was 25,” she said. “I had to be honest with my own experiences, so as a default I became a political songwriter just by writing about the truth of my own life.”

Means is set to release her 10th album on Friday, “Live at Northfire,” recorded live as a trio at Northfire Recording Studio in Amherst with her backing band, The Reparations. The album features political songs about systemic racism and the history of enslaved peoples in the United States.

Songs on the record such as “The Color of My Skin” speak about experiences with systemic racism, “James Madison” is a song about the history of genocide and Black enslavement in the United States, while “Impeachment Now” serves as a political song calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump and was the title track of her previous album released in 2018.

“I believe that artists throughout all history in whatever genre, it’s sort of our job to walk through the fire and sit with feelings and write them down probably so we can survive ourselves individually,” she added. “Maybe if we’re good at it, someone else can use that work to access their own words or feelings for the very same experience. I had to start with getting my own feelings out so I don’t go crazy.”

The six-song album was recorded and mixed by Garrett Sawyer of Northfire Recording Studio on Aug. 24, 2018, originally as part of a filmed local music series at Northfire. The record features Means (guitar, vocals) as well as Cinamon Blair (bass, vocals) and I-Shea (percussion and vocals) and was mastered by Mark Alan Miller at Sonelab in Easthampton.

Although the album was recorded two years ago, Means has been planning to release it for about a year. Most of her records are recorded live because she said it captures the essence of her music best.

On “Hands Up,” Means’ twangy acoustic jazz guitar playing melds with hand drum percussion and bass. When she begins to sing on the song’s chorus, I-Shea and Blair add light vocal harmonies bringing the three voices together.

“They are tremendous musicians and they bring a lot to my songs,” she said about Blair and I-Shea. “I feel that kind of spiritual connection when I play with them. We do have a very special bond and that does come through when we play together. I’m glad some of that was captured on this recording.”

The last time Means performed in front of a live audience was on Sept. 7 at Black Birch Vineyard in Hatfield as an opening act for folk artist and Amherst resident Chris Smither. Prior to that show, she hadn’t played in person since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

“Probably what we all miss is that intangible energy between an audience and the stage and just everybody in a room communing together in this moment sharing this ‘be-in-the-moment’ situation,’” she explained. “I felt a lot of big cosmic kind of love these past few years and I fully expected to be on tour this fall promoting this record spreading the love. And all of that kind of went away. To have a little bit of that on Labor Day was really good.”

Although the recent experience of playing music again in front of a live audience was positive for Means, the ongoing pandemic has proved a struggle for her as a full-time performing artist and private music teacher.

“My whole livelihood was wiped off the table in one blow … and then there was the absence of regular affirmation of what I do in the world and I hadn’t really crystallized it until I had that gig on Labor Day where I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I do,’” she says.

Even though she can’t tour with the new album and perform live regularly, she views the new record as something positive in an otherwise terrible year.

“I didn’t know if I was going to release the album. I had plans to release it in the spring and then COVID happened, but talking with friends and a publicist I realized that people still need art. They need art all the time, maybe even more if they’re home more. Just keep going and push through. What I have to say I believe needs to be heard.”

To listen or to purchase “Live at Northfire” visit Pamela Means’ Bandcamp page at pamelameans.bandcamp.com.

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.
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