Lisa Bastoni on Folk Covers and Feeling Alive Again

Photo by Love and Perry Photography

After a ten-year hiatus, Lisa Bastoni returned to music in 2017 with the release of her album The Wishing Hour. Since then, the Boston singer-songwriter has taken steps toward new beginnings in her personal life as well.

Her latest album, How We Want to Live, follows the end of her marriage, taking a hard look at the difficult choices that lead to life’s moments of metamorphosis. In Bastoni’s characteristic folk lyricism–thoughtful and straightforward–it depicts her new reality as she reexamines familial relationships with the support of close friends and a community of musical collaborators. 

When her grandmother passed away, Bastoni inherited a folder of unpublished, never-before-shared songs. That discovery inspired the album’s last track, “Pockets Full of Sighs” and sparked her album-writing process in earnest. The resulting record is courageous and vulnerable, from “Beautiful Girl,” a tender encouragement for her daughter, to “Workingman’s Blues #2,” a brilliantly bittersweet Bob Dylan cover that echoes her own life to an almost uncanny degree.

Before releasing How We Want to Live, Bastoni spoke to The All Scene Eye about embracing creative discomfort and carrying on an intergenerational exchange of art.

What have you been up to between finishing this album, How We Want to Live, and the release date?

Oh, I thought you were going to say, “How am I doing between summer camp ending and school starting?” [laughs]

[laughs] I guess that’s the same thing, isn’t it?

I’ve just been living my life with my kids and doing some promotional things. I really enjoy putting packages together for radio and fulfilling the Kickstarter orders. I’ve been doing a lot of that kind of thing, just getting things ready for a very busy fall.

The first song that you wrote for this album was “Pockets Full of Sighs,” and it came from something that your grandmother wrote. What was that line that initiated the writing process, and from there, how did that song grow?

Well, it was one of my grandmother’s songs that she wrote, but I don’t think she ever played it for anybody. It had the line “pockets full of sighs” in it, and I thought I would take that, weave it into my own song, and use that as the title. So–my grandparents were soulmates. They were so happy. They had a beautiful life together and they celebrated their love for each other through art that they made and valentines that they made for each other, and even so, there was a little bit of a longing or something I was picking up on in my grandmother’s songs. I don’t know if I was reading into it, but it seemed like she was reflecting on her life in a way that we had never talked about, so it was surprising to see that side of her.

I’m pretty much an autobiographical songwriter, I would say, so from there I just started looking at my own life in that way and thinking about what stories I would like to tell. Also, the idea that my grandmother never played her songs for anybody gave me more motivation to stay with my own work and do what I can to get it out there myself, so that was the beginning of writing these songs.

Is there a double-autobiographical effect where you’re not only telling your own story, but also nesting inside it this untold story of your grandmother’s life?

It’s funny, she was a professional commercial artist and she learned how to play guitar when she was about 40, and she just really fell in love with music. She had a lot of friends who were musicians, and we were always listening to records any time I’d go over there–I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house growing up, and there was always music playing. I think she had this fantasy of what her life could be like if she had chosen that path instead, and in a way, I’m a little bit of the opposite. I do visual art more as a hobby, but I’ve invested more of my time and effort into music. She was always so supportive and encouraging of that, and if I ever feel like I want to give up on it, I think, “Well, she didn’t have the chance to do this, and this is my chance to follow my own path with my own work,” and I think this is it. I tried to quit for ten years, but it pulled me back.

Why did you choose that song to close the album?

Instrumentally, it just seemed to fit there. It was the last song that we recorded in the session. We recorded mostly live over the course of two days with a month or so of overdubs afterwards, but that one was recorded live, guitar and vocals. I had sung all of the vocal tracks that day, and we kind of wanted it to sound tired [laughs] and sleepy and a little bit melancholy, and it just seemed to fit there at the end. The other sort of–I’m so old school I think about things in terms of the album, this collection, where it starts with a song called “Nearby,” which was another concept that we started with–to work with friends who were nearby on this album and to record it live. It seemed to make sense to bookend the album with those ideas.

Right before that is “Workingman’s Blues #2,” which has this energetic quality, and then you come back and have this really quiet coda to finish the album.

That Bob Dylan song, it’s–god, it’s such a huge statement, and it’s crazy how it applies to what we’re experiencing right now in our country. It was written in 2006, and I feel like it was kind of this overlooked track, in a way. I don’t know if anybody else has covered it. I’m such a fan of Bob Dylan, and that song hits me a little bit differently every time I hear it. There’s just so much there. After that, to go from the Dylan song to this much simpler, quieter song just felt right.

Bob Dylan has been such an integral part of your musical life. What was it like for you covering Bob Dylan on record?

I really felt like I was studying because it took almost a year to be able to sing the song and [laughs] learn all the words. It’s so long. There’s so much going on in it. It was just so interesting to really dig in and see the humor in it, and the sadness, and just–I am so in awe of his writing. I feel like I appreciate it in a different way after learning it.

The first few times I heard it, I was–a friend of mine, we were talking about, like, “What’s your favorite Bob Dylan song?” And a friend of mine said that was his favorite Bob Dylan song, and I don’t think I had heard it before. I have this weird memory of being on the treadmill on my birthday listening to it, [laughs] just sobbing because I was just about to go through a divorce, we were in the midst of that process, and there’s a line in the last verse, “I got a brand new suit and a brand new wife / I can live on rice and beans,” and for some reason that made me cry, like, every time I heard it.

And then going through, I would hear something different every time. In the third verse, there’s a line about “They burned my barn and they stole my horse,” and I felt like I related to that. My grandparents had a barn in the back of their house that is now practically gone from us. I recently read an article about the song, I think it was on, about how there is no home. Home is just an idea, and as a member of the 99%, we have this nostalgia for something that maybe was never really even there.

It just feels like this strange unfolding of meaning every time I listen to it, and I never get tired of it. There’s something so powerful and compelling about that song.

You’ve alluded to the way it’s a good song for the times. How much do you think about the way your own songs are in conversation with the tone and the tenor of the times?

Well, I wrote the song “How We Want to Live” about my marriage, but as I’ve been playing it–the first and third verses have to do with what our kids are seeing, and the more I live with the song, the more I see that that applies to everything we do. Not just relationships, but how do we want to live in a broader sense? How do we want to govern ourselves? How do we want to treat the planet? [laughs] Maybe a little bit of a stretch, but I do think about that. We have agency in how we want to live, and we’re lucky. I feel really lucky that I’m in a position where I’m able to make that choice, and we are recovering from it. I mean, it was not easy, but it wasn’t as destructive a thing as I had feared. It’s really been a positive change in a lot of ways, so I think about that song as sort of the–well, obviously it’s the title track, and it applies to pretty much all of the other songs on the album too. I’ve been reflecting on all of my relationships with my kids and my parents and friends. It’s been a year of looking through a magnifying glass at a lot of things.

You went through the process of asking all these big questions. Now that you have the finished album in hand looking back, has your relationship to those questions changed at all?

I do feel like there’s been a lot of resolution. In completing the process of the album, completing the process of moving with my kids–their dad, we live ten minutes away from each other, and there’s a resolution there too where we’re still so involved in each others’ lives. It’s changed a lot too, obviously, but it does feel like–when you write a song or put together a collection of songs, it’s a way of framing the experience, and there’s a feeling of satisfaction. I don’t know what’s next, but it does feel really good to be at this point where it’s wrapped up in a way that feels good.

How has it been to share these songs with other people? We’ve never met, you and I, but we’re talking about all these heavy duty things that have happened in your life. How has it been for you to experience that?

It’s pretty uncomfortable, [laughs] but honestly, I feel like maybe I’m doing something right if it’s a little bit uncomfortable because that’s what I want to hear if I’m reading an article about an artist or hearing a song. It doesn’t necessarily have to be their story, but I want to have a feeling of relating to the song or understanding their point of view, and I’m always drawn to those raw emotions and experiences. I feel like it just makes us feel more human and more connected, so if I feel uncomfortable, I think about that. “If I were listening to this, is this what I would want to hear?” If it feels honest, chances are that’s what I would want to listen to or read about, so [laughs] I don’t know. This is all new to me. I hope it’s working.

I feel like I can’t be the only one. I mean, something like 50% of marriages end in divorce. Maybe there’s somebody out there who’s at that point of having to decide how they want to live, and they’ll hear it and say, “Oh, yeah.” [laughs]

As common as it is, there is still such a stigma around it. You would know better than I would, but that’s the impression I get.

Yeah, it’s funny, I was talking to somebody who is just at the beginning of the process, and it’s still so fresh to me. I said, “Are people saying, ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that’”–but maybe that’s not what you want to hear when you’re going through it. Maybe you want to hear somebody say, “Congratulations. That’s a huge step, and it takes a lot of courage. Good for you guys,” you know? It’s not a failure. You’ve come to a different phase, and it didn’t go the way you wanted it to, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s the beginning of a new chapter.

On a lighter note–

[laughs] Yes, please! 

[laughs] There are a lot of features on this album, but one stands out to me. On “Beautiful Girl,” you have a guest vocal from Naomi Sommers, who you previously played in a duo with as Gray Sky Girls. What was it like to work together again?

We’ve had a similar path in some ways. We were both doing music pretty much full time in our early 20’s, we got together and had our duo, we toured around the country a little bit, and then around the same time, we got married. Not to each other [laughs] but to our husbands. She moved to Germany for eight years, I think. She has three small children and I have two, so it’s tricky for us to get together at all, let alone to do music together, but over the past year, she has started writing songs again, and every once in a while, we’ll play a show together. So she came over, I recorded her vocal, I think she–maybe we had a show that weekend. We had the opportunity to spend a weekend together, and I was really happy to be able to have her harmony on there. I’m looking forward to her big comeback because I think she’s working on an album some time in the next year. It’s so essential to have a community of friends that you can write with and play shows with. She’s one of my dearest friends, and I’m so happy that she’s coming back to it too.

You wrote that song for your daughter, and it’s not the first time you’ve done that. For your last album, you wrote one–was it called “Weightless”?

That’s right, yes.

What does she think of the songs? Is she at an age where she can recognize what you’re doing there?

It’s funny, I’m working on a lyric video for that song–I make these illustrations that go with each line and then put them together to make a video. I was working on it last week, and I said, “You know, I’m having trouble for this song. I need to draw a picture of a girl in the woods. How would you draw it?” She said, “Well, do you want me to draw her with a knife and a loaf of bread?” Like, “That’s the line from the song.” [laughs] I didn’t even know that she knew it, but I guess she’s heard it enough. I think I played it for her when I first wrote it, and maybe she’s heard it a couple times since then, but I made sure to say, “This is a song about you and for you,” and I think she gets it. She doesn’t say much about it–she’s a quiet little person–but I think she’s taking it in.

It’s so interesting to see with this album the way that you’re taking something that you inherited from your grandmother and also sending a message to the next generation ahead of you. That three-generational dynamic is so unique.

It’s cool–the guitar that I play belonged to my grandmother, so when I play that song on my grandmother’s guitar for my daughter, it does feel like it’s connected to something bigger than me. When I stop and think about it, it gives me the chills. Maybe she’ll pick up the guitar. I mean, she doesn’t have to, but it would be cool if she did. [laughs]

Have either of your kids shown an interest in music?

Yeah, we have a ukulele, which is more their size, and they pick it up, but they’re kind of shy about it. Like, if I notice that they’re doing it and try to take a video, they’ll immediately stop, but my favorite sound in the world is if I hear them from the other room, like one of them has picked it up and they just start singing or playing something.

What kind of music did your grandmother play when she picked up the guitar?

Emmylou Harris was probably her number one favorite. We would listen to a lot of Joni Mitchell. Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Utah Phillips. The one song she always played was “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten. That was the one that she remembered by heart the longest, I think. Some Bob Dylan and even Grateful Dead. Carole King, Jim Croce–I mean, it must have been the late ’60s, early ’70s when she was really studying guitar.

The other part of that question is–my parents are both very musically-interested people, and when I was growing up, they had what they called my musical education.

Right. [laughs] Like, who would you have to listen to?

Well, you know, it was like, “you’re living in my house, and you will know all the words to ‘Rocky Raccoon’ by The Beatles.

Oh, that’s a good one! Yeah, we listened to a lot of Beatles too. That’s great.

So my question is, what’s the curriculum for your kids? Do you have certain things that you hope they will appreciate the same way you do?

For me, it’s probably Bob Dylan more than anything. The other day we were sitting on the kitchen floor, and my daughter had a pop-up book about fairies, and my son had a pop-up book about dinosaurs, and my daughter said, “You have a Bob Dylan pop-up book.” [laughs] And I do have this book that’s, like, a Bob Dylan scrapbook that has some elements you can take out, like little lyric sheets, or promotional posters and stuff–it’s so cool. So we were all sitting on the floor looking at our pop-up books like, “This is great.”

It’s funny, like, I think about how we listen to music now, and so much of it is through headphones, where it’s such a private thing. I don’t have a CD player in my house anymore, but I do have my grandmother’s record player, and I have her records–the ones that meant the most to me. I don’t have space for all of them, but I took a nice little collection, so if there’s something we can all listen to together, it’s probably a record. I’ve got to work on my collection I guess because right now it’s still Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez. [laughs] We’ll see if I can hook them on that stuff too. I have some Beatles and The Band too.

It’s good that we’re in an age of vinyl resurgence, then. 

I know, I’m so happy that they’re coming back.

Do you have any local record stores that you go to?

Turn It Up! in Northampton is pretty great. I have been meaning to go there again. There’s a thrift store, I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s this indoor flea market that had some great records that I need to go back to. I haven’t really worked on my collection recently, but I was just thinking about that today.

I mean, you’ve had a lot going on.

It’s been a little bit busy. [laughs] 

Another song I was curious about was “Dogs of New Orleans.” What’s the story behind that one?

“Dogs of New Orleans” was about a friend of mine who lived in New Orleans. I spent a year living in Austin, and I didn’t know anybody when I first moved there, so I would go visit New Orleans just because I felt like–I didn’t know what I was doing in my life at the time. I was sort of aimless, unemployed, I had just broken up with somebody–it was not a happy time, and my friend was so generous and kind and welcoming. It was like one of those–you know the bumper stickers for animal rescues that say “Who saved who?” I thought she was kind of saving me, but then I realized she had her own struggles. Like the line in the bridge, “there’s a hole in the ceiling and a gun”–she had attempted suicide. I didn’t realize that things were so bad for her. She was okay by the time I knew her, but just thinking about how we all have our struggles and those moments where you feel happy and connected–you have to appreciate them because we need those moments, and sometimes they’re hard to come by.  

It’s such a strong theme of this album, with songs like that and “Take The Wheel.” You dig into those life-saving friendships, or at least very crucial and supportive friendships that are sometimes what you need when other things are not as reliable.

One of the things that ties the songs together also is making the choice to leave my marriage, which had reached a point where neither one of us really felt alive in it anymore. Letting go of that allowed me to feel more alive and the full range of human emotions, like really strong connections with friends and family, feeling supported in that process, and feeling so grateful for that support. The process of making the album was an extension of that. It felt so creatively alive too, just in the process of recording these songs with close friends and then reaching out to other musicians that I didn’t necessarily know as well, but I was really excited to work with. Everything just meant so much to me, and I can’t express enough how grateful I am to everybody who was a part of it.

Who are some of the non-musical artists that inspire you?

There’s an artist named Margaret Kilgallen whose work I really love. She lived in San Francisco, she was most active probably in the early ’90s, and she died really young. She was 33 years old and she had just had a baby, so her whole story is really tragic, but her artwork is so beautiful. She talks about–that if you make it by hand, it’s always going to be a little imperfect, but her famous quote is that that’s where the beauty is, and that has always stayed with me. Lynda Barry is a writer and artist whose work inspires me a lot. She’s a comic book artist, but she also–I love her visual artwork as well, and she has a series of books on writing and drawing that have helped me a lot. I’ve been reading this book, Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle. It’s just about being brave and vulnerable and living your life, and that helped me when I was going through my divorce and everything.

You’ve alluded to the fact that in your personal life, you don’t know what’s coming, but as an artist, what’s next for you after you release this album?

Well, I think there are different phases to creative work. I really would love to write more songs, but I’m also really excited about getting the songs that I have out there, so I’m going to be doing some touring in the next year with these songs and then hopefully finding some time to write new ones. It’s a little bit daunting because with this most recent batch of songs it was so clear  what I would be writing about, and now it’s just the great unknown. I don’t know what’s next, but hopefully a lot of shows with these songs.


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