If her new album What You Keep is any indication, life is good for Barbara Kessler these days. After taking a decade-long hiatus from record-making and touring to focus on her family, she’s back with 10 gems wrapped in her exquisite voice and shining with the joy that comes from aging, acceptance and boatloads of gratitude.
“What You Keep emerged after taking a serious break from my touring career to raise my family and rediscover my passion for music,” says Kessler from her home outside Boston. “A few years ago, my husband Phil completed work on our 1850′s barn to turn it into a family room/recording studio, and I got to work. In the years since I’d been home with my kids—after a long stretch of silence—these songs slowly started to appear until they formed into a scrapbook of my life. The title is inspired by the proverb ‘what you give away, you keep.’ These are simple love songs, inspired by the simplest things in life.”
Highlights are the sweetly sentimental “Even Trade” (Call it an even trade/this person you see here today/is not who she used to be/gone is the mystery) that removes the veil of newness to lay bare the beauty of that which is familiar. “Wishing Me Well” is a cello-kissed exploration of the healing power of time: (Knowing you’re wishing me well/There’s a peace now between us where silence once fell/And although I don’t know, I can tell/You’re not angry anymore/I know you’re wishing me well). And then there are “Way to Be Brave,” “A Little Good News” and “Always Singing Now” serving up miles of smiles and choruses ripe for singing along.
Kessler entered the professional music scene several years after graduating from Cornell University, entering some of her first songs in Rounder Record’s songwriting contest at Great Woods in Massachusetts. She caught the eye of judge Christine Lavin who invited her to attend the Martha’s Vineyard Songwriter’s Retreat. A song recorded at the event, “The Date,” landed on Rounder/Philo’s CD Big Times In A Small Town. The song received national airplay and led to the recording of her first CD, Stranger To This Land. Soon, Barbara was touring the country playing at coffeehouses and colleges.
Kessler’s career soared even higher when famed drummer Jerry Marotta saw her perform at CB’s Gallery in New York and offered to produce her second album, Notion. A review of the CD by The Boston Phoenix said, “It’s not the hooks, the Froom-like production, or even the songs that make this album one of the best by any contemporary songwriter in years. What puts her over the top is her voice. A smoothly subtle and sometimes jazzy, versatile soprano full of surprises.”
Putumayo seconded that opinion by choosing the album’s haunting title track, “Notion,” for inclusion in its classic 1996 complication, Women’s Work, a theme that weaves its way through all of Barbara’s CDs. “I wrote ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ (on Stranger To This Land) because she was a role model for me. She wasn’t a character’s wife or secretary. The show was about her trying to live an honest life as a single woman in the 1970s,” she said. “Women’s life choices seem more complicated in a lot of ways.”
Barbara made her own difficult choice in 2000.
After sharing the stage for nearly a decade and a half with artists including the Indigo Girls, David Wilcox, Shawn Colvin, Arlo Guthrie, Dar Williams, Richie Havens, Christine Lavin, Livingston Taylor and many others, she decided to stop touring with the impending birth of her second daughter, Elaina. “I became a stay-at-home singer-songwriter so I could be present for my two daughters,” she says. “Trying to be a Super Mom-Singer made it hard to do either job well.”
The post-touring years included a self-awakening that Barbara credits for moving her singing and songwriting in a new, deeper direction. She also ventured into improv and musical theatre, even appearing as a double in the movie, The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Her songs have been placed on TV shows including NCIS, JAG, Passions, One Life to Live, The Young and The Restless, All My Children, Ed, Felicity, and MTV. “Dreaming My Way Home,” the song she co-wrote and produced for the SONY PlayStation game, Rogue Galaxy has introduced Barbara to an international audience of all ages. She’s also coaching young artists on performance and songwriting, as well as producing their CDs in the studio she and her husband built.
Now that her daughters are settling into their own lives, she’s eager to return to the live performances and audience interactions that she loves. What You Keep is born of these years at home, joyful and ordinary, and the songs testify to this simplicity.