Co-writing with the Universe: An Interview with Abigail Dowd

Photo by Todd Turner

Abigail Dowd never thought she’d be back in North Carolina. Years ago, she left her hometown of Southern Pines, where she’d been a town councilwoman and an artist’s muse, fleeing first to Florence, Italy and later to the shores of Maine in search of her identity and her own artistic voice. All the while, she had unfinished business in the land of the longleaf pine.

She returned, guitar in hand, to launch her career as a singer/songwriter. On her 2017 debut album, Don’t Wake Me, she was finally employing her powerful voice classical guitar training in the telling of her own stories, but there was a greater reckoning on the horizon. There was the hurt that had chased her away in the first place and the homecoming still to be processed.

Released this April, her sophomore record Not What I Seem finds her further along on the journey toward healing. She shares stories of trauma both personal, as in the tense unburdening of “Old White House,” or historical, as in “Wiregrasser,” where she plucks the story of an Alabama turpentine worker out of time and space to confront ingrained social structures and environmental devastation.

Track by track, you can hear her come into her own–not only as a storyteller of the highest caliber, but as a woman triumphing over the narratives that threatened to define and confine her. Shortly before the release, on the day of the spring equinox, Dowd spoke to The All Scene Eye about reconnecting with nature and facing her musical fears.

We’re about a week or two away from the album release. How does it feel?

It’s fun to know this album is finally finished and going out into the world. It’s perfect because today is the spring equinox. The album was really healing to write, and it feels like there’s this whole new shift, and even the songs I’m starting to work on for the third album feel very different. I think you always dig deep when you’re a songwriter, but those were especially written from places I knew I wanted to get rid of heavy stuff. It feels like a weight has been lifted to get close to the album release.

You released your debut album Don’t Wake Me in 2017. When did you start writing the songs that became Not What I Seem?

A couple of the songs I had already finished by the time the first album came out, which felt really nice. It was about eight months after I had released Don’t Wake Me that I had Not What I Seem ready to start recording. Even the recording process on this album felt heavier and a little harder, for whatever reason. It was like it wasn’t ready to come out until it was ready to come out.

How do you navigate those moments? When do you know it’s time to do something that heavy?

I have a Kundalini yoga practice that I lean on and I meditate a lot. I’d call it my spiritual practice. I sit with things and I’ve learned to listen when things say “not yet! Stop pushing so hard. Just let go and it’ll come when it’s ready.” The more that I do that, the more I trust it. A lot of the songs on the album also came out of my meditation practice.

How so?

There’s a song on the album called “Old White House.”  I was doing a meditation around triggering feelings–just things I was feeling really heavy about–and one of those was this feeling of shame. I had identified that, and I was meditating on, “when was the first time I felt that?” And I was three and a half, four years old. I had to come to terms with what that was and where that came from, and the song “Old White House” came out of that.

After that realization, how did you approach sitting down and writing that song as a story you were telling?

I didn’t intend to write the song. My aunt had given me a piece of advice, which was, “you’ve got to go back and get that little girl,” and I thought, “I can’t do that!” I often write songs by working on the guitar part. I come up with riffs, or chord progressions, or whatever, and then I start singing on top of them, and all of a sudden, that song just fell out of me. I realized I had been writing a guitar part that was–I wouldn’t call it aggressive, but there’s something going on in that guitar riff that I really like. It really drove out that song, and I found myself sort of surprised.

You made a Tiny Desk Concert submission video with “Old White House.” What has it been like to share that song with people?

At first, I didn’t want to perform it as often because I didn’t want to ruin the mood of the room. It felt like such a heavy song. The more I perform it, the more it doesn’t feel like my story anymore. I like to perform it for anybody that it does resonate with, really knowing I’m on the other side of that and I did go back and get that little girl. I sing it with a little bit of triumph, so it doesn’t feel heavy to me anymore.

I love performing that song, because when people are really paying attention to the lyrics, to see their reactions and to hear people come up afterward and say, “thank you for that song,” I love. Even if you aren’t holding onto the lyrics, I love the guitar picking and the drive of the song. It just feels good, musically, to play that song.

You’ve alluded to the way the song connects with this movement on social media of people trying to deal with trauma in the same way. You also have a background in politics and activism. How has that intersected with this storytelling for you?

This is a really good example of me not trying to control anything and just letting it be organic. There is definitely something going on, whether it’s the Age of Aquarius or a real shift in the empowerment of women–it’s a really cool time to be a woman, and it was the right time for me to heal and share that. There’s a bit of activism in that, for sure, but when I was involved in politics and I had a mission and a drive to make a change, I was not always comfortable with having to use my voice in that way. It was my voice, and it was coming from a place of ego and what I thought was right. With songwriting, and maybe this song in particular, it’s coming from a deeper place that isn’t just about me. We’re all speaking our truth, and it does feel like activism, but it feels a lot truer and it feels more like co-creating with the universe.

There’s a conversation that’s sort of always happening about the value of art and music in activism and in empowering people. What are your thoughts on that?

Oh my God, music is so powerful. I mean, without the vibration of music–or without the vibration of sound–there would be nothing. It holds this whole planet together. To be a musician and to be part of writing songs is so powerful because we hear stories, we find our own stories, and then we find universal truths in those. I think it’s when we find those truths that resonate that songs are so powerful. It could be the same in writing or film, but it really shakes things, and it hits people in places we can’t see, whether they want it to or not. I love the analogy of, you know, if I were to put my guitar on one side of the room and my other guitar across the room and pluck the A string, it’s going to ring on the other guitar. That resonance is something music has the power to do, and when we write a really powerful song, we don’t have any control over the fact that it just hits you.

With the song “Old White House,” to talk about carrying shame and being terrified that somebody will see it in your eyes, to me, that’s such a powerful line. Even when I sing it myself, it hits me like I can’t hide from it. I’ve had so many people say, “oh my god, that’s exactly what it feels like.” You’re carrying around this thing, and you think other people are going to see it, and maybe they can’t, but we carry it with us anyways. In that song, if somebody hears that, it gives you permission to–I don’t know, be human.

There’s an interplay on this album between the universal and those particular personal experiences, and the personal experiences aren’t always your own. “Wiregrasser” is rooted in the narrative of a life that’s not yours.

That song is wild to me. It was another one like “Old White House” where I had come up with that riff, I started singing, and the first line just came out of me. “I belong to no one.” I finished the first verse and realized I had just said, “come sundown, boy, you make your way back home.” And I thought, “oh my god, whose voice is this?” It’s a man’s voice, and I loved it, because I’ve always thought if John Prine could write “Angel From Montgomery” as a woman, you can write from any perspective.

I happened to have a book on the longleaf pine forest on my coffee table. I was thumbing through it later that afternoon and came across information about the wiregrassers from Andalusia, Alabama, and I knew in that instant, that’s the voice of a wiregrasser. Wiregrasser was a derogatory term that they called the impoverished people who lived in the wiregrass region of Alabama, and a lot of them are turpentine workers. They kind of owned the name. They took it over and called themselves wiregrassers, but I grew up in North Carolina, the land of the longleaf pine, so I know those stories of the turpentine workers, and what hard work that is.

You live off the land, but you’re decimating the land at the same time, and I felt that when I was writing that song. I think we do that on so many levels. We think we have to make a dollar, and sometimes we do have to make a dollar, and we level mountains, cut down the trees, and destroy the very thing that shelters us and gives us that sense of awe.

There’s something really complex in that interplay between environmental concerns and the economic reality of poverty and of the options available to people.

It’s so true. I studied anthropology in college and I so wanted to be an anthropologist. In fact, I was applying to grad school shortly before I ended up moving back to North Carolina and becoming a songwriter, and now I find myself writing songs through that same lens an anthropologist does. They really are like little ethnographies–a window into the life of a wiregrasser.

I had a professor at Chapel Hill, Dr. Holland, who I just adored. I remember we studied the logging industry and we had to take both sides. I remember I had to take the side of the loggers. Here I was, this young activist freshman in college who wanted to save every tree and sapling [laughs] and had to defend the loggers. It’s not cut and dry. You learn there’s not really room for judgment if we want to have a dialogue. That’s what I love about the “Wiregrasser.” There’s no judgment. It just is.

“Silent Pines” takes on a similar theme. Can you tell me about that through-line?

That song was written for a play called Bleeding Pines of Turpentine. It was sung by a character, Helen Boyd Dull, who saved the longleaf pines. The land that she saved became North Carolina’s first state park and is now home to the world’s oldest living longleaf pine, which is 471 this year.

That line, “children, rise up, they’ll never tear us down,” is also a reflection of the turpentine workers, who were often former slaves–African Americans or very poor Scotsmen. There’s an echo there that unless you knew the story, you might not know that’s also the anthem, to me, of the African Americans who were not given a lot of say in how they made their living. To say, “children, rise up, they’ll never tear us down,” there’s a strength that I also see in the pine trees. There’s power and resolve and gracefulness in the pine trees that I see echoed in the culture.

It’s the only track on the album that’s completely a cappella. How did you make that decision?

When I wrote the song, I just couldn’t put music to it. When I sing that song, the room often gets quiet, and people stop and listen. There’s a vulnerability about putting down your guitar and singing without any barrier between you and the audience. There’s a nakedness to it. I always knew it was going to be the last track. In my mind, even before I had any idea I was going to put that song on an album–that was a song I actually wrote before I recorded my first album–I knew, “that’s a last track.”

How did you get involved writing music for a play?

That circles back to the song “Goodbye Hometown,” in that I had left Southern Pines, my hometown, moved to Maine, and swore I would never come home. A friend of mine was writing this play, and I would literally not visit, and he invited me to be part of this play. He asked me to play the lead role of Helen, and I did, and that required me flying home to perform. He sent me the script and asked me if I would write the song for the play, and I did.

I loved finding the power in the script and distilling it into a song, and that was the first way I came home. He flew me down for a weekend to perform, and it reconnected me to the land where I came from. I got to let go of all the human baggage I was running away from and truly reconnect with the power of the land, and it’s my homeland. I realized while we often go back home, the older we get, we end up back where we started.

There’s another through-line on the album of coming home and coming to terms with that identity.

There’s a lot in this album that I feel like is a leaving and coming back, but having to leave in order to come back home. The song “Oh 95” I wrote about having moved to Maine. There were so many writers in Maine, and I heard somebody say once how many people go to Maine to heal, and it struck me because I always thought I had gone to Maine because I wanted to go to Maine, and it really isn’t true. I went to Maine to grieve and to heal and to collect myself and figure out who I am, and that ties into the song “Not What I Seem.”

I had been an artist’s model for ten years, and I had really defined myself by being this beautiful artist’s model. Being a muse, being part of the arts, and also being on the town council and being this powerful, strong woman, I identified with all these external things about me. Things I was very proud of, but that weren’t the essential core of me. In order to figure out what that was, I got in my car. First, I got on a plane with my duffel bag and guitar and went to Florence, Italy with no real plan, and then I ended up in Maine.

The Appalachian Mountains are old and worn down, but there’s so much wisdom in them, and that rocky coast of Maine, it just is battered and it is so strong. You feel it in the harshness of the winters and the sweetness of the summers, and that light and dark. It feels like running away to your grandmother’s house [laughs] and being taken care of. That was what Maine felt like to me, but it was the nature that wrapped its arms around me.

It was funny to be in Maine and realize it was also the nature that was calling me back home. It was just something about the land. I really felt sheltered in Maine. I felt like I was gaining my strength back by taking my shoes off and walking along the coast, soaking up that salt air and swimming in that cold ocean. That’s where I became a songwriter.

“Secrets on the Street” is a track where you talk about your experience in Florence. What did you learn there?

Florence was such an interesting experience. My grandmother’s family is from Italy, and I’ve always felt that connection. I had this vision of living in Florence and having a bicycle and riding around the Arno and having a little apartment. When I left, I didn’t have a plan, but I ended up getting everything I had ever wanted–the little apartment overlooking the Arno and the bicycle–and I didn’t know what to do with it. I was horrified. The power of it, and what’s next? I ended up leaving, and it was only years later that I saw somebody post a photo of the art school where I worked, and I thought, “oh my god, I used to live in that world. I had everything I wanted, and oh my god, I gave it all away!” I was too scared to sit and be grateful for it.

I started writing down all the things I loved and missed about Florence, and that was where that song came from, down to all those faces. You always feel like you’re being watched in Florence because there are faces everywhere–on the buildings and statues–and it’s kind of creepy. You can hear footsteps at night from side streets because all the Italians wear these wonderful shoes that make so much noise. You feel like there’s somebody around every corner, and you can hear them, but you can’t see them. It’s got this secretiveness. That’s where that came from, and it was another way of going, “get over it, Abigail! You’re not there anymore! Just come up with something else you want, and you can have it, and be grateful this time.” [laughs]

I want to go back to “Not What I Seem” while we’re on the subject of being watched. You’ve been on both sides of the artist-muse relationship. What have you learned from that?

Everybody I know has an artist in them, and I look back now and realize that I wanted to be part of helping someone else make their artistic vision happen because I knew how important that was, but at the same time, I was running away from pursuing it myself because I was too afraid. I’ve always known I wanted to be a musician and a songwriter, and it took everything I had to have the courage to do it, and that’s kind of where I’ve come away from with that. I’m so grateful for the experience that I had in the art world, and I learned so much, but at the same time, I really was running away from my own muse and trying to substitute that for helping somebody else.

I probably could have done both at the same time. I don’t know, but I also think that during that time, in the song “Not What I Seem,” everything was about beauty. Everything had to be perfect, and now I’m at a place where it’s not all light. I don’t have to be beautiful, and I don’t have to be perfect. We have this notion of beauty in women and what that looks like, and what their personality is because they’re a beautiful woman, and we’re all all of it.

In the song, you reference Ophelia and that image of watching somebody who’s dying, yet trying to call it beautiful in some way. As a woman in art, how have you experienced that mindset?

Yeah, that’s a direct reference to–a painter, Millais, painted Ophelia, and the model got pneumonia. I don’t think she died, but she came close. I just remember, like, you do anything to be beautiful, and the suffering and the pain is part of it. You do whatever it takes to make that beautiful painting or to make that great song, and I just don’t buy it anymore, you know? [laughs] And we do that to ourselves. We say that being a woman is supposed to be painful, and that’s not really the case.

We’ve turned our back on really what it means to be a woman. A lot of the things we’ve been taught were painful and ugly and a curse from God are really where our power lies, and the world has just been so damn afraid of it. That’s what’s really amazing right now: to start feeling the way women are taking care of ourselves, taking care of each other, and realizing our power.

It’s a struggle just to be able to learn how to take care of our bodies and not have somebody tell us we’re hysterical or that our physical symptoms are because we’re stressed out. Our medical system is based on a man’s body, and the way we treat our environment has had a bigger impact on women’s bodies than men’s bodies. We change every week. We’re like the phases of the moon, and men are the sun. The cycle of their body is like a day, and it’s different. As we’ve made a lot of changes to our environment, I think we’ve really hurt women, and then we say the suffering of women is just part of being a woman.

How do we start to heal from that and put things right?

I think it’s starting now in the way women are coming together in real sisterhood. We’re talking to each other and we’re learning to live with nature again. It’s the spring equinox today, and I’m celebrating as if it’s the first day of the year, because it kind of is, if you look at the phases of the moon and the sun. There’s a lot of power to being tapped into the natural rhythms. I think that in and of itself is really healing; you start to shed the things that don’t vibrate as true. We just have to learn to trust ourselves. How’s that?

[laughs] That sounds great, speaking as not-a-woman. I say let’s do that.

[laughs] Well, we have to make room for the men, you know? We need the sun and the moon. I don’t want to see that get out of balance.

How did “Not What I Seem” become the album title?

I had written that song some time ago and just kept holding on to it and rewriting the last verse. Once it was done, I realized, “wow, I’ve really come into my own. I’ve shed so much of what I had identified with and I’ve built this incredible life.” Then I looked at all the tracks on the album, and so many of them are shedding things. “Goodbye Hometown,” I was grieving my hometown, and now I’m back in the south. “Old White House,” it was–I’ve let go of that shame. There was a lot of healing in writing this album, and “Not What I Seem” is almost more “Not What I Seemed.” [laughs] We’re constantly defining ourselves, but I feel like I’m living in the present now more than I ever have.

On a more technical note, can you tell me about the recording process?

I worked with the same engineer that I worked with on my first album, Doug Williams, at EMRR Studios in Winston-Salem, and I really love working with Doug. It’s kind of bizarre. He grew up in Winston-Salem near where I am, but his parents went to the same elementary school I went to in Moore County. Their family is one of those old Irish-Scotch families, and his relatives are buried in the cemetery from the church I grew up in. I feel like we’re distant cousins. The process for recording this was just going in and spending the days hanging out with Doug, getting the songs down, and taking really long lunches to catch up on family stories.

My husband Jason plays the bass guitar and percussion with me, and he was a lot more heavily involved in this album than the first. There are more upbeat songs, and that’s a lot because of his bass and percussion. On the first album, I really pulled from my classical guitar and filled up a lot of space with the way I play. This album, I’ve sort of been given permission to leave room for somebody else, and I love all the things he’s added.

I invited my friend Sam Frazier to play on two tracks, and that was fun because I’ve always played alone. It’s almost been this fear of mine to include other people because I don’t know how to play with other people, so to invite Sam into the studio and learn more and more how to make room for Jason as a duo is really cool. It’s just one other fear I have to face musically.

Do you have a favorite memory from those sessions?

One of my favorite moments was when Sam was in the studio and we were recording “To Have a Friend.” One of my fears has always been, “how do you not be a control freak and at the same time give guidance?” As I was listening to Sam play and listening to the lyrics, I knew exactly how to give feedback, and it just felt so good in that moment to be able to articulate the song. I have so much respect for Sam, and to feel like we were partners on the song–oh, it felt so good.

You mentioned that you’ve already started on the third album. Can you tell me more about where you go from here?

I had the opportunity to meet Steve Poltz in August. He was teaching a class out in Colorado and he talked about fearlessness–about sitting down with your guitar and not being afraid. It goes back to that perfection thing. Ever since I came home, I play whatever the hell I want and I play however I want. Songs are just pouring out of me and I’m not freaking out about whether or not they’re perfect or whether or not so-and-so will like them, and it’s so much more fun.

There’s a fearlessness to this next album of not being bound by genre. I still have this thing where I want everything to be organic, so for the third album, that will not change. We’ll see what happens on the fourth album, but giving Jason more creative license and having fun singing like I don’t care if every note is perfect, that is so liberating. The second album is funny because I’m still shedding some skin, and now I feel like I’ve gotten out of my shell for the third.


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