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Remembering Laura Nyro

| October 18, 2014 | 16 Comments

— By Paul Zollo

“And When I Die,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Save The Country,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Eli’s Comin’,” “Stoney End.” These are just a handful of the gems Laura Nyro gave us. Songs that start playing in our heads just by reading their names. Songs that bring back memories of a certain day or person or event in our lives.

Laura left us on April 8, 1997 after a battle with ovarian cancer. She was only 50 years old. But today, on October 18, we celebrate her birth and all the great music she gave us. Songs that will live on as her mark on the world. Below are excerpts of a 1993 interview with her from a Performing Songwriter issue in which we paid tribute.

Happy Birthday, Laura. You are so very missed!

Your songs all seem so remarkably natural and unforced. Did they emerge at times from your life, or were they the result of sitting down and writing?

I think that it’s important, sooner or later, to get on a disciplined schedule with writing. I’m finding that very important. Once I’m on that schedule and working every day, or whenever I sit down and write, there are just those times when something comes together, that just feels kind of natural. And a little bit made in heaven. It’s just a feeling you get about the song. And, really, those are the songs that I kind of wait for. To happen in the writing. And those are the songs that I get more serious about and I would record that kind of song.

Your songs are quite harmonically complex. What kind of music did you listen to growing up?

I come from the arts in a certain way. I was not, let’s say, raised on mainstream songwriting. For instance, when I was a teenager I listened a lot to John Coltrane. To Miles Davis. This was along with soul music and rock and roll that I was into. But I listened a lot to those incredible jazz minds. So interesting chord structures and chord progressions that were off the beaten track just are natural to me because I listened to so much of that music.

At that time were you considering being a songwriter?

Well, I just knew that, in life, music was the language that I wanted to speak. I was very drawn to the arts because I perceived something divine happening there. As opposed to your more mundane kind of perceptions. So I really felt that. I felt heart and soul energy in music. I guess I was a natural singer, you know? And I used to sing, actually, with street groups on street corners when I was a teenager. That was a wonderful thing that was happening then.

You’d sing doo-wop?

Yes. Starting from when I was 14 or 15. It was an every evening occurrence. That’s what was happening. Out on the street. Right on the street. If it was winter, then it was happening in hallways or down in the train station. Which put a lot of echo on the sound. That is a wonderful thing to grow up with…that was the delightful energy, going out singing. I used to sing with this Spanish guy’s group. I kind of invited myself into the group (laughs). I was sitting at the top of the steps and they were down in the train station singing. I mean, it was beautiful. And then I just started hearing this other harmony that I wanted to sing with them. And I just started singing. And they didn’t ask me to leave (laughs).

Did you start writing songs at that age?

Yes. I was starting to write.

Do you remember the name of your first one?

No. I know two songs I could tell you for sure, because I recorded them. “Wedding Bell Blues” and “And When I Die.” Those were songs I wrote as a teenager. In my late teens.

Really? That’s amazing. I would have thought you would have had to work up to something like “And When I Die.” Those are pretty advanced songs to have written as your first ones. Were you surprised when you started coming up with songs at that level?

I was reading poetry from the time I was really young. And I really liked poetry. So by the time I started writing songs, I was in a poetic frame of mind. And musically, I guess I have just been passionately listening to music since I was so young. Like I remember a cousin of mine played me “The Wind.” I must have been twelve years old. “The Wind” was one of the most beautiful early doo-wop songs. I listened to that and it just went right to my heart. So that’s what I was interested in.

So by my late teens, when I wrote “And When I Die” and “Wedding Bell Blues,” I was deep inside of music already. Because I was listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis then.

Do you recall if “And When I Die” came to you easily, or was it something you labored over?

I don’t think I labored over it. And I think, also, that that song has a certain folk wisdom that teenagers have. They have that certain folk wisdom, under it all. So I think it just came through the song.

You said that you were attracted to the arts because in them you could sense the divine. Do you think in coming up with songs like those that you were tapping into the divine?

Yes, I think so. I really do. I think that in music there’s a oneness, there’s a sweetness. Or there can be. What I call music, anyway, the music I like. I go to it for that oneness and that sweetness. If you look at the world, there’s so much separation. It’s all polarities, wars. But to sense a oneness and a sweetness, I mean, that was it. That was the ultimate. The best thing in life. And I did sense that in music. So that’s what is divine to me. That’s a form of the divine.

—Interview by Paul Zollo

Excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 24

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

Comments (16)

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  1. Kevin north of Boston says:

    Only listened to Laura’s music over the last year. It is so good. Glad I finally discovered it!

  2. Sally Greenberg says:

    I love knowing there are fellow Laura Nyro fanatics! I fell in love with Eli and the Thirteenth Confession in high school. I read that Michelle Kort had written a biography of Nyro and i just read it with my Spotify at hand and re-listened to every song. I never liked New York Tendaberry but i discovered her 1993 Walk the Dog and Light the Light t and fell in love again. it’s melodic and original and beautiful. She does her songs and other people’s songs better than anyone.

    • Leif Williams says:

      Sally, how was it possible to not love Tendaberry with songs like Time and Love, Gibsom Street, Save the Country, Tom Cat Goodbye, Captain Saint Lucifer, and Mercy on Broadway… it’s my favorite Laura record (if forced to choose one). Sheer genius. Love the first two also.

  3. Jack says:

    Listen almost everyday. Laura’s music helps me to remember my life. I cannot believe how she remains virtually unknown. I have many photos in my office at work and anyone brave enough to ask gets a Laura Nyro 101 from me. I have past on the gift of Laura to many people.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Love the CD released in 2014 called “Map to The Treasure – Reimagining Laura Nyro”. Billy Childs and the other wonderful artists who collaborated on that CD really interpreted her music in the most beautiful way!

  5. David says:

    I heard Laura Nyro’s demo of “Stoned Soul Picnic” recently and the demo was as good as the one on Eli and the 13th Confession. She was a true genious.

  6. Dig The Rock says:

    I vibrate when I hear Laura Nyro! 13 times.

  7. Melanie says:

    The blessings of her amazing gift that keeps on giving are too beautiful and numerous to enumerate…but, in a few words, I simply say, sweet peace and harmony…with a dash of NY angst…oh, and as to why she didn’t continue at Geffens label? Again, she wanted peace and harmony and complete control over her music and her professional and personal life..

  8. Lisa says:

    Just curious why she left David Geffen, he really was a true force…

  9. Susan says:

    Words can’t describe Laura’s art, for me.

  10. Alex Allan, Brazil says:

    Laura Nyro was a truly original artist. Her unique songwriting is still influencing artists today. Her name in The Hall Of Fame was although belated, completely deserved.

  11. Daniel says:

    A truly great and influental artist. I have always wondered if her jazz tinged compositions had a huge effect on Joni Mitchell. Right about the time Laura Nyro hit it big, Joni went from a straight folk musician to a much more layered and textured sound. Both artists had associations through David Geffin.

  12. moondingo says:

    thanx so much, really enjoyed the interview and songs along the way! ;)*

  13. Artamus says:

    For many years, I thought The Fifth Dimension’s version of “Stoned soul picnic” was perfect – until quite recently, when I heard Laura’s original. Now Laura’s is the only version I care to hear, same with all the other covers. Laura Nyro has quickly become my all time favorite Female Artist, a truly amazing talent!

  14. Gordon says:

    Still listen,always.

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