One of the most enigmatic and evocative and emotionally intense songwriters ever to hit the Top 40, Laura Nyro’s career survived numerous dips and bends. Known for her late ‘60s smashes, “Wedding Bell Blues” (The 5th Dimension), “Stoned Soul Picnic” (the 5th Dimension), “Sweet Blindness” (the 5th Dimension), “And When I Die” (Peter, Paul & Mary, Blood, Sweat & Tears), “Eli’s Coming” (Three Dog Night), and “Stoney End” (Barbra Streisand), she dropped out of sight at the turn of the decade after releasing Gonna Take a Miracle with Labelle, an album length tribute to the r&b songs she grew singing on New York City subways and rooftops, harmonizing under the moon of love. Quite a departure from the stark and melancholy epics that populated her previous albums, like “Been on a Train” and “The Confession.”
Writing out of personal experience, Laura always stood at the front lines in the battle between the sexes, an emotional firestorm, who moved halfway around the world from the naive bliss of “Wedding Bell Blues.” After her mellow return to action in the late ‘70s, with Nested, Smile, and the live Season of Light, she dropped out again. Five years later Mother’s Spiritual marked a kind of emotional rebirth, a series of songs to and for her newborn son.
Around the release of that album, in 1984, I spoke with Laura, who gave few interviews. But after reading my piece on John Lee Hooker, she agreed to talk to me on the phone about her life as it applied to songwriting, portions of which appeared in USA Today. I had the pleasure of meeting her in person backstage at a Newport Folk Festival just a few years before she died in 1997. “I think that I searched,” she said in a smoky voice conjuring candles and incense, “and I think I traveled far to find something that was very close. People who are going to find their own convictions will all have to go through a certain amount of obstacles. I don’t think I’m different from other people who are searching….to be happy, really. And I’m kind of happy now.”
“When I was very young I remember sitting at a piano and hearing the notes and the chords ring out in the air and I knew there was something special in that sound, some kind of freedom. As a kid I listened to the 50’s songs of urban romance: ”The Wind” by the Diablos, “Oh What a Night” by the Dells, “Happy Happy Birthday Baby” by the Tune Weavers. The first two 45s I bought were “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers and “Mr. Lee” by the Bobbettes. A year or two later my favorite songs were by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. By the age of 15 I was seriously listening to John Coltrane and jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone. I remember one spring afternoon at (the High School of) Music & Art. The weather was lovely and me and my friends were sitting outside looking at a newspaper picture of the Beatles arriving in America. We were listening to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and I felt this thunderbolt in my heart.
“I have a love for simple basic song structure, although sometimes you’d never know it. It’s a musical starting point and you could stay with it or take it to the ends of the earth, because as beautiful as simplicity is, it can become a tradition that stands in the way of exploration. I started off in music with simplicity and then moved into abstraction and some uncharted waters with the exploration of it. Some people would say went off the deep end. I wanted to learn more and I took freedoms with the principles of composition. I used these dark chord structures, suspended chords, advanced dissonances (advanced for rick and roll), rhythms leading to other rhythms within the same song. My jazz background put certain inflections into my songwriting and singing. Throw in all the poetry I’d read since I was a kid and just being a woman, and that’s what made my songs complex and emotionally rich.
“I don’t think you should categorize yourself as an artist. You should allow yourself to grow. Growth is the nature of the creative process. You have to accept it, respect it, and move on. The thing that’s important to me is to express life as I see it. That’s my priority. There’ve been many changes over the years as I saw life differently from age 18 and age 25. You have to remember, I was still a teenager when I made my first record and the world around me started changing at the speed of lightning just because I’d written some provocative songs. The ‘60s started spinning into a whirlwind and outside of some recognition for my music I felt like I was living inside a hurricane. My rhythm of life was more of a free spirited one and then it changed. I kind of felt like I was losing the rhythm of my youth. So many things were happening at the same time. This is how I experienced it. So I started slowly moving out of that scene so I could experience other things in life without a bunch of people breathing down my neck. When I turned 30 my love songs changed from romantic notions to a deeper taste of life. My mother died right before I wrote the songs for Nested. My child was born right before I wrote Mother’s Spiritual.
“The last few years have been so musically abundant that I felt like the Goddess of Creativity. But who knows? Next year I may only write one song, because that kind of songwriting is cyclical, seasonal; it’s the culmination of a deeper experience. It’s like nature, it takes time to seed and then it blooms. Mother’s Spiritual was a wonderful idea that flew through my head in a minute and then took years to manifest because the relationships and responsibilities that were inspiring the music were also pulling me away from it in terms of time. Since I was recording while I was writing it actually took me two and a half years to complete the 14 songs. Most of the songs I wrote a night. I would just wake up in the middle of the night. I had a young baby and that’s when I found the space to write. I didn’t work with a tape recorder. I would write my ideas down. I have love songs written upside down on matchbook covers. I’d write on my hand if there was no paper. Sometimes I might hear a particular instrument, like when I wrote ‘Melody in the Sky’ I heard gypsy violins.
“Once I’m writing I’m very disciplined. I’m there for the music. When I’m writing music there’s a certain magic from the music underlying life. It’s like you’re living at a deeper current. It’s a very complete feeling. You’re taking care of everyday things, but you’re living at the edge of a song.”