For as long as she could remember, Jerri Higgins wanted to sing, but all the single mother and survivor of physical abuse heard from others was, “No, you can’t do that.’’ Then an icon of both the Boston music scene and nascent MTV era told Higgins otherwise.
Robin Lane found success and critical praise in the late ’70s with her band the Chartbusters, whose signature hit was “When Things Go Wrong.’’ Lyrics from that song - “Your deep emotions inside yourself/ They’re hard to face/ But you must try’’ - proved prescient as Lane, in a surprising second act of life, is helping people write and record songs as a means of healing the pains of various traumas.
With Lane’s guidance, Higgins painstakingly pieced together her first song nearly a decade ago and today is not only still singing and writing, but also acting in theatrical productions around her Greenfield home. Yet, these artistic endeavors are not about finding fame or fortune. Instead, Higgins simply wanted to feel better.
“Before I walked in there, I felt worthless,’’ she says.
Lane shares that goal of healing not just with Higgins but with countless other women and children in various states of crisis. Lane began casually working with trauma survivors after moving to the Pioneer Valley in 2001, and is now ready to introduce a more formalized nonprofit organization known as Songbird Sings.
“Robin has been carrying the burden herself and we need to go beyond that,’’ says Susan Wagner, who assumed the role of executive director for Songbird Sings. A veteran public relations manager for both arts and charity events, Wagner says her volunteer role is to help organize Songbird Sings in such a way as to ensure its growth and longevity.
Up until now, Lane has been funding the songwriting workshops and recording sessions by applying for grants and performing house concerts (which she will continue to do).
Lane’s work, especially with children, caught the attention of two music-minded philanthropies - Theo and Paul Epstein’s Foundation to Be Named Later and Ernie Boch Jr.’s Music Drives Us - which further spurred her work into the public eye. Lane and a group from the Home for Little Wanderers, for example, earlier this month wowed an audience at the Hot Stove Cool Music concert that raises money for the FTBNL with their original composition “Be You.’’ Lane’s performance with the Del Fuegos on Wednesday at the Paradise Rock Club and her own concert March 24 at the Bull Run in Shirley are also raising money for Songbird Sings.
As Songbird Sings sits poised to soar, Lane is happily surprised by how this endeavor of hers has grown, especially since she basically made it up as she went along.
Lane’s music career began with her appearance on Neil Young’s 1969 album “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.’’ Lane left the Laurel Canyon scene and headed to Boston in the 1970s. She formed Robin Lane and the Chartbusters with a couple of members of the Modern Lovers, and the band caught traction with the hits “When Things Go Wrong’’ and “Why Do You Tell Lies.’’ The group disbanded in 1983, and Lane made a few solo albums and wrote for other artists. (Chartbusters drummer Tim Jackson is at work on a Robin Lane film documentary called “A Woman’s Voice: The Robin Lane Story.’’)
Lane began her instructional workshops in the 1990s, first working with kids and teens. After a bitter divorce, Lane moved to the Pioneer Valley in 2001. That’s when she happened into the Turners Falls Women’s Center.
“I just walked in looking for some information about health services in the area. There was a writing group going on and they asked if I wanted to participate. I said sure,’’ Lane recalls.
The writing group was a tool women were using use to work through issues brought on by physical abuse. When the other women learned of Lane’s background and her work with the youth songwriting groups, they asked if a songwriting workshop could start at the center.
Trauma - be it from abuse, sickness, or loss - was the common thread among Lane and her new songwriting collaborators.
“They are stuck. They are shut down,’’ says Lane of the women entering the workshops. “I start by letting them talk. Then I play songs by Tori Amos and Laura Nyro. I tell them to feel the music, to open up, to be ready for their own emotions.’’
Lane works through several drafts of a song to make it pass her professional muster. She’ll record the song on a portable recording device - usually singing and playing the instruments, though sometimes sharing the microphone with her writing partners - and flesh out the results in friends’ studios, typically yielding a good, polished song. Lane has gathered some of the songs on a series of CDs.
A group of incarcerated women created the Neil Young-ish rocker “Everything Changes.’’ Another woman saw a thick folder of notes transformed into the hard-edged, liberating “False Memory Syndrome.’’ Higgins demonstrates how she found her voice through the song “Rock of Gibraltar.’’
And then there’s “Journey Girl.’’
“That’s my story,’’ says Deb McGranaghan of the jangle-pop tune about finding home.
McGranaghan’s story begins in New York, where she was working in advertising. While pregnant, she was diagnosed with cancer.
“I felt lost,’’ she says. “I had nowhere to go with the experience, and it was hard to talk about.’’
McGranaghan relocated to Massachusetts and found one of Lane’s songwriting workshops.
“Robin creates the conditions for people to find their own paths into healing,’’ says McGranaghan, who went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from Springfield College and now works at the Brattleboro Retreat, where she advocates music therapies. She is also part of the organizing effort to grow Songbird Sings.
Lane does not pass herself off as a therapist, but she has participated in various workshops about using art for healing and learned how to mitigate problems that can occur once raw emotional nerves come exposed.
The success of songwriting as a therapeutic tool has been borne out in clinical studies and with the results Lane and her supporters see firsthand. The need for such a tool rests in statistics. Looking at just one source of trauma - domestic abuse - Wagner points to figures generated by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence showing that in Massachusetts, 33,000 women and children in 2005 were served by community-based programs addressing violence and sexual assault.
Those programs dot the state in locally based women’s centers, well-known agencies such Jane Doe, Inc., and other community resources such as YMCAs, any of which would be suitable partners for Songbird Sings, says Wagner.
“This is about long-term healing. It’s a key for participants. I’ve seen how the songwriting lets people tell their stories. The music somehow gets it untrapped,’’ says Maria Tarajano Rodman of the Western Massachusetts Training Consortium. Rodman has worked at the women’s center and maintains a relationship there through the umbrella social-services agency where she currently works. Rodman believes in Lane’s project to the point where she joined the fledgling Songbird Sings organization in the role of treasurer.
When Lane’s workshops caught the attention of Hot Stove Cool Music and the Foundation to Be Named Later, it brought the artist deeper into Boston, and she was encouraged to do more with teens and young adults overcoming problems brought on by poverty and abuse. In addition to writing and recording with teens involved with the Home for Little Wanderers, Lane also cut a couple of tracks with young women at Roxbury Youth Works.
“Everybody was outside of their comfort zone,’’ recalls Lane of the sessions that produced the hip-hop tracks “Stronger’’ and “Survive.’’
But Katie Carlson of Roxbury Youth Works calls the workshops a triumph.
“I saw how nervous they were the first day and how their confidence grew as they worked with Robin,’’ Carlson says of the teens who participated in the workshop. “It was really something special for them to be treated like professional songwriters. Robin turned our conference room into a recording studio. It was exciting for everybody who was watching it happen, too.’’
For those who believe in the mission of Songbird Sings, the goal now is to make it financially sustainable and create a framework that allows other musicians to share their know-how as facilitators, though it may be tough to do it exactly as Lane does it.
“Robin has a gift with this,’’ Rodman says. “It’s her calling, not her job.’’Scott McLennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.