Announcing Our New Music Era!
We're about to boogie down :)
Hello to all our wonderful readers around the world! Today I’m coming to you as Editor-In-Chief of Womancake to announce the addition of our new Music Editor, Celia Chavez. You may remember Celia’s stunning poem, “Midlife Rhapsody” that we published last month. Celia’s gift with words also extends to her extraordinary career as a singer-songwriter. I’m honored that she will be joining us to write a monthly music column, and oversee all our musical offerings. On a personal note, I’ll add that Celia is my life-long friend, and the coolest and wisest person I know. I’ll let her take it from here:
It wasn’t until someone said to me “Hey Celia, I want you to be our music editor/columnist, why don’t you write your first column as an introduction to our readers?” that I ever deliberately thought about my experience in music and what qualifies me to write about it. Since Alicia Dara (editor-in-chief of Womancake) invited me to write for this community, I’ve been grateful for the chance to reflect on the many ways that music has been a shaping force in my life, and to share my perspective as an artist in Womancake’s reader demographic – a woman over the age of 40.
I never met my grandmother, my Lola. She died of complications of childbirth when she was only in her 30s, early in the 20th century in the Philippines. I have only seen one photo of her, and she was no silver-haired granny. I would love to hear her stories of what it was like in the Philippines at the tail end of the nineteenth century, what her life was like with my Lolo (grandfather) during the Japanese occupation in World War II. Her perspective is lost along with any hindsight she would have had in her later years. I wonder if she had music in her, like my mother. Like me.
My own journey begins at birth with being named after St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. My mother baptized me in her own eclectic record collection, PBS simulcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera, and endless years of piano lessons. She seemed to employ theme and variation by truncating my first name and pronouncing it in the Spanish/Filipino way: “SEHL-yah.”
My favorite red plastic transistor radio was a magic portal to weekly Top-40 countdowns, and the difference in sound between those tiny, tinny speakers and the rich sounds from our hi-fi sparked the question (why does it sound so different?) that eventually led to my engagement with audio engineering and EQ bandwidths.
The rhythms and dynamics of classical and popular music came to me through my study of piano, which translated music into tactile and measurable sensations – what some musicians call getting the music “on your hands.”. Harmony teased its way into my ears and my brain over many years of listening to girl groups, the Beatles and Beach Boys, as well as singing in church choir, school vocal ensembles or just reproducing duets with friends.
I suffered deep depression and painful longing from abandoning music for “practical” reasons in my twenties. Conversely, when I eventually leaned into my dream and embraced my talents as a singer and a songwriter, I enjoyed the miracle of a late-blooming career beyond my dreams, in spite of my limited vision. My passports are covered in stamps from about 50 countries where singing was the jet fuel that got me there – mostly as a backup singer supporting other artists’ creative visions. During that time I put my own creative projects mostly on hold. Eventually, even singing to nearly 100,000 people in Olympic-sized stadiums still left me wanting. So I turned back towards my own artistry and vision of myself as a music creator. Last year I finished a collection of songs under the artist name Babilonia that began my journey to connect with others, including my ancestors, through my own voice and writing.
My passports are covered in stamps from about 50 countries where singing was the jet fuel that got me there – mostly as a backup singer supporting other artists’ creative visions.
The main purpose of this column is to spotlight women over the age of 40, in alignment with Womancake’s mission, and to share how music has influenced their own life and work. I have one specific memory that spurs me to keep going: I had just left an abusive marriage, one where I was actively discouraged and distracted from pursuing music professionally. After the divorce, I followed a close friend to New York City to see how far I could go if I really committed myself to practicing, writing and performing. I was still aglow with the excitement of my move when I shared my goals and hopes with an older man at a Manhattan party. He surprised me by asking me point blank how old I was. “33,” I replied. He shook his head. “You are way too old. Nobody is going to want to touch you.”
I remember thinking, is that true? And also gosh, if that IS true, what happens to all the songs that women over 33 would have to sing, the stories they would tell? The perspective they would have on a situation, compared to what a 20 year old might think was the end of the world.
One of my favorite illustrations of the breadth in perspective from one stage of life to another is two performances of the song Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell. The original version, written when she was 23, is voiced in the agility of her youth. Her voice is a perfect folk soprano, clear and lilting; I find myself marveling that someone so young could conceive and perform a song so perfectly bittersweet. She sings in a moderate rhythm, she just tells the story and releases it to float on a cushion of breath.
Fast forward to a live performance of the same song when Mitchell is 57. Her voice – bearing the scars of a lifetime smoker and former cocaine user – has become low and textured, diffused and open as padding footsteps on a dirt path. She gleans even more meaning out of the lyric, elongates ad libs into newly created space. The song opens up and blooms at a slower tempo, with freer phrasing and the richness of orchestral accompaniment. Even more powerful than in her younger version, Mitchell’s voice — dropped 4 semitones down from the song’s original key and colored by the effort needed to sing through the physical change of her vocal apparatus – tells the story of a woman still marveling at the weighty lessons of life, a woman who perseveres and continues to find new meanings between the same lyrical lines.
Even more recently, at the 2023 Newport Folk Festival and the 2024 Grammy Awards telecast, Mitchell is still performing Both Sides Now – this time, surrounded and supported by a posse of younger artists, including Brandi Carlile and Allison Russell, to whom she has been an inspiration. They play accompaniment that she no longer can after suffering an aneurysm in 2015. At 80 years old, she is a lifeline between generations and musical era. She is a queen coronated by endurance.
Seven years after my career was pronounced dead on arrival at that New York party, I was singing “So what, I am a rock star / I got my rock moves / and I don’t need you” alongside P!nk at the MTV Video Music Awards on an outdoor set on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California – four months before I turned 40. My life as a professional musician and a performing songwriter is not only a joyful act of defiance to that assessment of my value by a male stranger at a party. It is a reclamation of my life and gifts that I had abandoned, ironically, in my twenties.
Seven years after my career was pronounced dead on arrival at that New York party, I was singing “So what, I am a rock star / I got my rock moves / and I don’t need you” alongside P!nk at the MTV Video Music Awards on an outdoor set on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California – four months before I turned 40.
I wonder what my Lola would say if I could tell her that I’ve sung my way across the globe, and that this past year at least a quarter of my income came from song royalties. My grandmother’s loss of a life beyond her thirties is part of why I said yes to writing this column. I am one of many women making music in a passionately vital way well into midlife, and beyond. High time we shook off our invisibility and the general assumption of our improbability. There are just as many women craving love songs for non-ingenues, headbangers for those who pogoed through the punk era, or slow jams for the cool grans. I look forward to discovering these stories along with you, curious readers, and sharing the perspective of music as a fan, student, creator, teacher, and postmenopausal child-free woman.