Noel “Paul” Stookey, Eliza Gilkyson Help Bring Music to Life As ‘Hope Rises’

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Protest-driven and activism-minded music have existed well before now. However, seeing a long-term initiative like artist-empowering non-profit, Music to Life, come into being under times of such widespread socio-political strain and public crisis, speaks to how much today’s artists continue to value the power of creativity in the face of hard times and poor odds, just as much as those who paved the way before them. Launched in part because of Noel “Paul” Stookey – someone who knows plenty about singing in support of crucial causes through his time with Peter, Paul, and Mary – Music to Life and its debut release, Hope Rises, combine the insight, inspiration to action, shared passions, and musicianship of artists across generations.

“The hills are alive with…the sounds of concern,” Stookey says. “[Music to Life is] doing what we can to make them public. Both in communities and over the airwaves.”

Stookey, for his breadth of perspective on issues that have spanned several generations – from before the Vietnam War to the evolving conflicts of now – notes that Music to Life has its ear to the ground for the pulse of problems affecting the present, which drives what the organization focuses on.

“I would say the three or four of the most pressing topics [are] Climate change, racism, immigration – which is loosely linked to racism – and yeah, those are those are the themes surface most, I think, in people’s consciousness,” explains Stookey. “Therefore, the music of these days is going to come to reflect that as well, at least, the caring involved. Music to Life has kind of concerned itself with those matters.”

These priorities, at the very least for Stookey, remain constantly backed by a broader awareness of who and what outside of music and the arts, can more easily enact change for the betterment of everyone. “[P]olitics needs a good slap up the side of the head to be reminded that democracy, while it is the voice of all the people, also shares the responsibility to be the care of all the people and, to make the field more level between the haves and the have-nots.”

Hope Rises might only be one milestone accomplishment in one part of Music to Life’s activism-rooted mission and objectives but the former’s development was, and continues to be, treated with the same reverence and respect for its intentions, as the actions Music to Life takes outside the studio.

“We’re in Austin, Texas working with the homeless,” Stookey says. “We’re in Portland working with [people with] addiction problems.”

More than a simple compilation album centered around songs calling for change or hoping for better times, Hope Rises is the artistic embodiment of the core values held by Music to Life. Stookey, along with his daughter and co-founder Elizabeth Stookey Sunde, brought together a panel of artists inspired by activism and social change, that includes singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, in order to assemble a lineup of emerging voices who are taking up the mantle for the newest generations. The review and selection processes were long, meticulous, and given a deep amount of thought in part because, according to Gilkyson, seeing artists’ concentrated demonstration of commitment to their causes beyond just recording a song, was crucial.

“It was really hard,” Gilkyson says. “I teach songwriting and I – from my point of view – it’s really about not judg(ing) but find(ing) the beautiful jewel inside of every offering because there is a jewel inside of every offering. What ended up making (a submission) really pop was whether it just hit me in the heart and the genre didn’t really matter. It’s like, ‘Did I have an emotional response to it?’”

Though the selection of the artists and songs for Hope Rises was delegated to folks like Gilkyson, as opposed to Stookey – who instead wore a co-producer’s hat for the project – his own life experiences, even going to back the heyday of Peter, Paul, and Mary, echo the kind of dilemma that arises amid music made with an activism-minded purpose, regardless of what time period it’s written in, or for whom the music is intended to speak.

“After the Vietnam War, the number of (public) issues seemed to increase exponentially. And by that, I’m not saying that they weren’t always there but, they were not so easily categorized into one lump,” Stookey explains.

“Peter, Mary, and I began to notice, you know, as early as 1965, that really, the civil rights issue was a human rights issue, and human rights (involved) everything from concern about the environment to the anti-war (cause). And so it became very, very broad and inclusive. The downside of that, is that if you’re a songwriter and you’re trying to have a particular cause dealt with, you’re gonna have to buck a lot of competing causes. I mean, there are going to be a dozen niche concerns that are competing with your opportunity to say what you have to say.”

It was from a combination of reflection on past passion for altruism and observations by Liz Stookey Sunde that a bar of dedication and commitment really solidified the idea of who could best take the purpose of Hope Rises to heart.

“Liz said (to me), ‘Some of these singer-songwriters want to take a more positive action into their community.’ And there began the transition into the activist artist,” says Stookey. “(M)any times, (songwriters) couldn’t have produced the song, he or she could not have produced the song that they created, without walking the talk, without living living the concern, or living the pain, or living the hurt.”

The album, which spans causes and artists from across the country and is steered by no one arrangement, reflects the individuality of each musician’s artistic identity as much as it exudes each of their lived experiences. Given this large swath of variety, it’s fascinating to hear the character built from the album’s production didn’t so much involve shaping the individual songs as much as it was rooted in less flashy – but no less vital – aspects of assembly like mastering and track sequencing.

“These songs that were submitted for Hope Rises were, I would say, all 15 of them were quality already. Some of them needed some mastering and that was Neale Eckstein’s––that was his beautiful job. And he did a great job because, particularly with acoustic music, you need to be sensitive to what limiting can do,” Stookey says.

He continues, “Limiting allows you know the loudest signals to be squashed back into the softest signal so that everything is uniformly L-O-U-D. But sometimes, you know, acoustic music has a kind of vulnerability to it and so, was did a beautiful job mastering these 15 tracks. But also, there’s a hidden quotient. (T)he 15 artists are very eclectic, very different, and there’s a broad span of genres expressed on this album. I’m not sure people are gonna enjoy it in much the same way that I enjoyed the challenge of sequencing.”

Though folk music is often regarded for its carefree creative and performative processes, Stookey goes on to emphatically point out not only the many nuanced attributes that can be considered in the process of sequencing but, in doing so, the folk icon inadvertently unveils some candid excitement around the sheer challenge and inherent puzzle that comes with it.

“You also want to (alternate) male female (artists),” he explains. “You want to keep it provocative. You want to take a slow tempo. You have to watch out for keys. Yeah, there are a lot of things that need to be juggled but, they’re fun – just like doing sudoku. You know it’s going to work. It’s all going to add up to nine, you’ve just got to figure out where the digits go.”

“(T)he idea is to bring someone into the listening experience and give them a gradual immersion into the perspective of the artist,” Stookey says. “How do you do that with 15 different artists and all of these different genres? Well, you know, amazingly, I think in this case (it works), because the intention (of the music) is so out in front, because it’s all about making better. It’s all about. It’s all about hope – even songs that decry the circumstance.”

Gilkyson, who shared that the listening and evaluating experience was something “very solo” as opposed to an amalgamated committee experience, also picked up on the inherent strength that some songs arrived equipped with at the door. “I went with (songs) that felt that they didn’t need me to come in as a songwriter and move things around or make suggestions; they were really, you know, well crafted from start to finish,” she says.

In some ways, knowing that Hope Rises began with compositionally and sonically solid pieces of music might make it seem like it was armed with a slight advantage going into release. There’s that much less to worry about and Music to Life could focus on honing the album’s visibility and discourse around the music. That, of course, would be an easy way to look at the situation, so long as the added strain of the pandemic, cries for change, and increased socio-political conflict aren’t factored into the picture. Still, Gilkyson, Stookey, and the rest of the team involved with making Hope Rises come to fruition, went in confident that the album as an individual project and the music community as whole, would not only endure, but thrive, regardless of the many hurdles that have piled up in front of both this year.

“(The drive to make music) has always been there – as long as there’ve been cab drivers and Uber drivers and and waiters who want to go on Broadway,” Stookey says.

“I think there’s safety in numbers when you have an entire project like this,” says Gilkyson. “I think it gives it a little more weight. I mean, you see it as a collective and that may give it more legs and a little more steam to get through the naysayers and the doubters, you know?”

“But I think in general,” she continues, “what we’re looking really at, is younger people coming up and and having a voice, and having a place to go with it, and and giving them a sense of strength and encouragement and empowerment so that they keep going. Because doubters, naysayers, roadblocks (and) trolls at the bridge, that’s going to be the story of your career if you’re an activist in music. There’s always going to be resistance to change and it comes in a million different forms. So, you have to find your network of like minded people; they’re out there. And you have to find your like minded artists who give you that sense of community. And then you have to build some muscle and some self confidence.”

Though Gilkyson speaks to the somewhat harsher realities of being a creative person in pursuit of change, Stookey – who has plenty enough reasons of his own to brace for difficulty – buffers his acknowledgement of today’s realities, especially the pandemic driven ones, with a keystone of endurance.

“(W)orking through a computer and a little zoom box, is not really a welcome compromise, or welcome substitute (for live arts.) I mean, the capacity to keep one’s body alive, while the spirit is yearning to do something else, is a ongoing challenge for anybody in the arts.” Stookey says.

“(However,) I don’t really despair for the artistic community. I know that (it) will just pivot and find other ways, in order to express (itself.) The arts open our hearts and that changes our minds. Ultimately (the arts) make us more compassionate, more understanding, (and) more relational.”

HOPE RISES is available on CD Baby, Spotify, Apple and Amazon Music via https://hoperises.hearnow.com.

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