Little Miss invisible
Feb 16, 2015 11:20AM
● By Kerigan Butt
Courtesy photo Gina Degnars
By Richard L. Gaw
The moonlight carries it so fair
Through white noise, it’s barely there
but a whisper, a whisper…
Somehow, you hear
The channel is clear
We come together
In ancient recognition
When the perfect chord is struck -- say, for the purposes of this profile, when it is heard on a piano -- and then followed by a voice that seems to carve the words it is singing into an arrangement designed to be heard only for us, the harmonious melding between lyrics and music is powerful enough to tear right into our guts, and remain there.
We, the listeners, can very easily point to songs that do that, the ones that hold the mirror up to ourselves, the ones whose choruses and verses are so reflective of our deepest emotions that they have entered a permanent place in our bloodstream. They are rarely reserved for others; it's not that we don't want anyone else around but these songs are best heard solo, in front of lit candles or in a car on a highway somewhere at night or when we bloodlet our vulnerabilities. They're truth without rockets, meaning without pretension, and they haunt us. Can we hear them now?
For nearly the past 20 years, Gina Degnars has lived in the rarified air of local singer/songwriters who have been able to write songs that infuse both the dark and the sensual twin points of experience -- the haunting tapestry of both heartbreak and rebirth. With achingly personal songs backed by the talents of local musicians and sharp studio mixing, she has already showcased her sound with two critically-acclaimed recordings, and is currently at her home studio developing a third. Supported by her current band, Little Invisibles, she has played venues as far away as New York City and as close as the mainstage of the Queen in downtown Wilmington, and even through the din of these crowded houses, her songs retain an intimacy best suited for a living room concert.
If songwriting is the art of pulling clarity and narrative from many sources, then for Degnars, her songs are the lyrical aftermath of her most honest -- and sometimes painful -- experiences. They run all through songs like "Breathless," "What Once Was" and "Closer," and listening to them is like holding up a proverbial mirror to one's self.
"I'm drawn to dissonance, and I find that less dissonant my life becomes, the less dissonant the music becomes," said Degnars, who also teaches piano and voice at Accent Music in Newark. "For me, the writing is a channeling experience. It is this feeling of anxiety, like being impregnated, when I know that it has to come out, and when it does, it's a flow, and I try just to follow it. Sometimes the work is intuitive or a premonition.”
"When I'm writing, if I'm getting to the place, to the heart of it, to the gut of it, it will bring tears, and that's when I know when it's right. That's when I best feel a sense of accomplishment."
Leaving tiny footprints on the side of the mountain
We are all born with a spoonful of hope and lifetime of rope
And we climb
Watching those above us, those who got a head start and they ride upon horses
Their spoonful of hope, it was shiny and silver, all their wishes delivered
And they ride
Hand of God, be with us, be steady, guide us
You carry us and you bleed
And we rise
The Degnars home of her childhood was one filled with music -- a continuing jam session of experimentation and sound. Her father, a pianist an organ player, would host impromptu hootenannys with his brother, and his son Rich, a drummer, would often sit in with his uncle and father. Not Gina; she was dragged into piano lessons when she was 7, in connection with the Degnars family getting a new piano. Lesson after lesson, her teacher Lisa Papili would work with the young girl over notes and keys.
"Learning the piano was never about wanting to acheive any fame from it, but simply to be able to someday get pretty good at it," she said. "Lisa ended up being a very important person in my life. She set an example of what's possible when you work hard at something. As I got a little older and teenage laziness kicked in, she continued to push me along anyway."
By the time she entered the University of the Arts in Philadelphia to study piano performance after graduating from St. Elizabeth's High School, the piano had become both her identity and her protective shield. She could hide behind DeBussy's Concerto de Formatura and Chopin's nocturnes that could take her to another place. There, behind the keys, the piano was a machine she could use that could formulate the timid beginnings of her musical life, and allow her to do it completely removed from the barriers that manifested in the form of self doubt and fear.
"The piano empowered that feminine and creative source inside of me," Degnars said. "When someone first thinks of themselves as an artist, he or she opens themselves up to a vulnerability, where there's a judge and the judge is mean and a bully and aborts the process of creativity. It was the deepest fear that I won't be good enough, and that I won't matter."
"Gina was always fearful to improvise years ago," said Rich. "Her training in the beginning was classical, and her approach was to learn a piece and create the perfect sound, instead of just riffing and seeing what would happen. She later learned about jazz in college -- Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett -- and combined it with classical and eventually, made it her own sound."
Degnars and Rich formed the band Stygian Veil in the late 90s, largely on the back of her early songwriting efforts. The material for the songs wasn't hiding in the recesses of her imagination; it was right there in front of her in the band. At the same time she was writing songs, performing in early gigs from Delaware to New York City, and unveiling her work to the band's first audiences, Degnars was also in the middle of a long-term relationship with a fellow band member. She was not only performing with him, she was writing songs about him, and when he questioned who they were about, Degnars retreated, and the tension continued to grow.
"I found myself in relationship nightmares, within the band and in myself, but the music is what kept me going then," she said. "I was finding that the only way to get it out was to write it out and once I had this music in front of me and audiences wanting to listen to my songs, there was nowhere to go. It had all become the same thing. My relationship and the music were feeding off of one another."
"Sometimes the tension was really thick when we were recording," Rich said. "Being the leader of the band and having a relationship with someone in the band made it so that it wasn't a very fun experience for anyone. I used to think, 'Why are we here doing this?' but what came out of it was a great album."
Crawl in the sand on the shore and you dig and you dig
And you come up with imaginary maps that lead to nowhere
I chip away at pieces of myself, give them all to you
And they disintegrate into your palms
Stygian Veil's acclaimed 2001 album Poison Berries, contains songs that grew out of that difficult period in Degnars' life. "It was reflective of where I was," she said, " and it's out in the world, and I had to have gone through that to get to where I am now, and I will have had to get through where I am now, in order to get to where I will be years from now."
Before forming Little Invisibles with Rich in 2009, Degnars released a second recording called "Closer," a five-song album of her original songs that features her piano, vocals. "Degnars falls somewhere in the triangle between Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Bjork vocally, drawing a lonely strength from a sublime combination of vulnerability and certainty," wrote a review in Wildy's World of the recording. "'Closer' is probably destined to be under-appreciated in light of current mores, and unfortunately so. Degnars is a singular talent as both a writer and performer."
That she is able to write these songs is no mystery; performing them live on stages for nearly the last 20 years, however, is. Perhaps the largest juxtaposition that can be said about Degnars, and the one she still has not reconciled with herself, is the tug-and-pull bout for supremacy between her inner self -- the writer who disappears into the rolling thunder of her lyrical verse -- and the necessary evil of having to share them with 150 people whose eyes are all focused on her. Given the platform that so many crave, her stage presence is, in contrast, the very act of folding up, trance-like, wholly surrendered to whatever journey her songs are taking her.
"I want to share the experiences that I'm having with the music's that coming through me," she said. " The music sounds different than what it used to be. The messages that are coming through are so powerful, I want to share them with others, in an effort of creating synergy."
Over time, Degnars has pulled back from the road warrior mentality of Stygian Veil and become a selective performer, and although her shows with the band are fewer in number, they are richer in content. She's also begun collaborating with other local artists. Her song, "Each Star Speaks, I" appeared on the soundtrack to the film, "Yes, Your Tide is Cold and Dark, Sir," written and directed by her long-time friend and fellow musician, Chris Malinowski.
"In terms of the left brain hemispheric approach, most of the time, Gina and I are there as a comfort to one another," Malinowski said. "There's always that challenge for us, because we both make music that's a little less accessible than most of what we hear nowadays. We've been the proverbial shoulder to cry on for each other, sounding boards when it comes to dealing with the disappointments on making music that comes from the gut."
In addition to working with Malinowski, Degnars has begun an artistic collaboration with fellow singer Sharon Sable who, along with her husband Shawn Qaissaunee has released several recordings of new and traditional songs. Most recently, Degnars performed a set with Sable at the 2013 Ladybug Festival in Wilmington in August, as well as a full concert at the Queen in October.
"Gina is really fearless in her writing, and everything she writes is so authentic," Sable said. "Working with her is so easy, in part because she's super talented when it comes to knowing music and also in terms of what to say."
Sable recalled the first time she saw Degnars perform, at the Queen's main stage with Rich and the other members of Little Invisibles in 2011. "I stood in the middle of the floor hysterically crying over the power of her songs, and ever since then, I've never been the same," she said. "I felt truth and beauty, and all of a sudden it kicked in for me as to how stunning an artist she is.
"That performance was so beautiful and healing, and it just hit me in the heart and the gut, and it's been that way ever since," Sable added. "Her writing continues to evolve into different colors...Being a part of her music is honestly exactly where I want to be. There is a sense of value and authenticty there, and there is zero vanity in it. It is simply a thing that she knows she has and needs to do it in order to live."
Dare to walk the golden line
Or dare to sleep and fall behind
Listen to your soul
She will bring you light
If writing, recording or performing forms one half of her music, then teaching fills up the remaining spaces. Degnars has been teaching piano and voice at Accent Music for the past decade, where she says it gives her the opportunity to share her knowledge and love of music in a unique way. "There, I can witness 8 year-olds write songs, and witness the beauty in how precious that is," she said. "These kids come to me with such expectations, and I have this responsibility to encourage their beautiful young minds and watch them develop and flourish and see who they become as artists and musicians. It's not always successful, but when it is, I feel the same pride that a mother may feel."
"Gina is a piano teacher and therapist, even if the students aren't aware of it," Rich said. "She works on the whole person, not just the music. Sometimes a student will come in and have an issue that they are dealing with, which may prevent them from performing at their highest level. Gina understands that, and she helps those who are willing to share."
Her home studio in Wilmington is not only filled with a new piano, there are microphones set up and various sorts of recording technology. There are 100 songs in various stages of completion for her to sort through, polish and pare down. In the coming months, she'll record 10 songs that will appear on the album, and then turn them over to Rich to add drum mixes in the studio. Although she has not set a drop date for her new recording, she knows that she will eventually begin performing again, only this time, she said, rather than unveiling them in crowded beer taverns, she wants to bring her music to quieter places, like home concerts and yoga centers.
"My friend Leah asked me once why I perform," Degnars said. "I told her, 'It keeps the songs alive.' Then I thought about her question for a while later on, and thought, 'It keeps me alive.' There are moments in performances, with as much anxiety and fear I have and as many times as it hasn't gone as well as I'd hope, some of the best feelings I've ever had are in performing."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.