Lessons and Lovers
by Roy Peak
A Movement Towards Heart
Last week we featured a review of Lessons & Lovers, the latest album from Wonky Tonk and the High Life. Since the worldwide pandemic began a few months back, Ms. Tonk has been staying in Ecuador. Here's a short interview we did via email.
Roy: First off, for those new to Wonky Tonk, how about a short introduction?
Wonky Tonk: Wonk is a movement towards heart. Tunes are a byproduct, a language.
Many people ask “what genre is this?” I say: Wonk. (magic)
There isn’t a particular genre or style because Wonky Tonk is transformation, love, creation, surrender.
It is a performance, it is honesty, it is an unmasked mirror.
The choice to see things as they are, imperfect and full of possibilities.
And what got you interested in picking up a guitar and writing songs in the first place?
There are a multitude of versions of answers to this question. My uncle Tony aka Sleeping Bear bought me my first acoustic when I was a child, as far as I can remember it disappeared behind a trailer park futon, its existence was so brief that I question if it was a memory or a dream.
When I moved in with my dad, there were guitars around and musicians buzzing in the basement. In high school I took “guitar lessons” which was music theory from a guy with a red mullet and bald top who talked about friggian mode and demonstrated via an unplugged cherry red V guitar.
On of my favorite bands growing up was the Moldy Peaches; for a chemistry project my Junior year I picked up the guitar to form the band The Wonky Donkeys where we rewrote chemical formulas in the melody of “Anyone Else But You.”
Blah blah blah, I “played” guitar in VFW’s with punk band called the Green Angles. I started booking solo shows before I had any songs and started out just improvising in front of folks. Won some awards and got on some impressive festivals (WHAT?!), heartbreak, betrayal, college graduation, more heartbreak, depression, anxiety, suicide, the psych ward - then! In my despair, a Groupon tarot card reader told me to give up my idea of love, because it would kill me and travel the world entertaining people.
Long story short, that rock bottom discount reader of the cards, that do or die moment; that is what started it all, for real for real.
It's mentioned on your website that several of these songs are "Highly personal and not personal at all." Care to explain and clarify?
We are living all realities at all times, the one’s we define ourselves are the ones we CHOOSE to see. In this way, the songs find me but generally I open myself up to the universality of the topics, and the root is often vulnerability and surrender.
Sure, folks like to party, drink whiskey for a heart break, love their country and or god, celebration, mourning. The songs, where they come from are the heart, not the mind … I hope this clarifies.
Some songwriters have stacks of notebooks they work out of, others write mostly stream of consciousness style when the inspiration strikes. What's your modus operandi when writing a song? What do you look towards for inspiration?
Without sounding like a pompous blah de blah, the majority of the tunes are not mine. I believe songs are my tribe, my guardian angels. If I open myself up, they sing through me, and if I do the work and am lucky, years later I will hear the guidance I need in that moment, from my own voice. I know this sounds foo foo, it is the language that I choose because I love Dr. Seuss and fairy tales and imagination.
I am merely a channel, and it is my job to give the songs their best life. Other songs like, ‘Everyone’s Got a Brian’ is an attempt at transforming that which does not serve me - anger, heartbreak, etc - into something buoyant and universal.
Honestly, the more I play music, the more I listen to silence.
One of the things I enjoyed about your album is the ensemble playing. The band rocks! They're not afraid to get noisy and their dynamics are perfect for your songs. Would love to hear you live with the band sometime! Where'd you find these guys?
Thank you for noticing, they RULE. We found each other. These folks, unlike the sea of “MUSICIANS,” are musicians. They play for the sake of the song, they listen for the sake of the song, their heart plays the instrument, not their ego. And thus, a gorgeous representation of how the songs dreamed to reach your ears, not as people and their skills and insecurities, but as pieces of ourselves and each other dancing with no attachment, becoming one voice. Music, Medicine.
The first track on the album, "Patti Smith," seems mantra-like to me, full of positive vibes and forward moving energy. What's this song mean to you?
“I'm going to promote myself exactly as I am, with all my weak points and my strong ones. My weak points are that I'm self-conscious and often insecure, and my strong point is that I don't feel any shame about it.”
My entire life I have lived in a world of gaslight, to which I heeded, and drown. This quote found me at the moment of my life I needed to choose myself and trust my truth, no matter how lonely that made my world or how “crazy” folks perceived me.
No shame, dancing in chaos, embracing imperfections, turning shit into gold = Wonked.
I do believe in fairies, I do, I do! haha.
"Wonk On" could be a theme song for your life. I'm glad you wrote it as "Wonk On" and not the ordinary "Walk On." Where did this one come from?
I actually just silently released an incredible music video for this song, a mantra through Grief. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but for the life of this video, and because you asked about it, could you please mention or link the video?
Sure thing!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mB7962x5mVQ
When the chorus for "Wonk On" fell out one April in 2015 I remember recording the voice memo and writing "this one is the 'hit.'"
Still in the aftermath of the world that created "Stuff We Leave Behind," I was learning how to pick myself up and remember my Wings.
Years later, practicing with my incredible music family, the HighLife, we revived the chorus and tried to build it into a full blown song, but no matter what I did I couldn't escape the Wonking On was a thing we do over and over again, so why did it need any more content? I fought with my ego on this: my ego telling me I was lazy and folks would get bored, but my heart was screaming "THIS IS WHAT THE SONG WANTS. this is what they need to hear." ... And as I am in the service of the song, I listened to my heart and began to Wonk On, over and over and over again.
In creating the video, Rich & I had many ideas about the passing of time and such, but none were feasible with the time we had and our two - person wonky crew, so I sat in his office opening my heart to listen and I heard: "Wonk On is movement through grief, BECOME it."
So I picked out outfits and began to embody the 5 stages of Grief, completely surprised by how each felt - especially the insanity of Denial.
"Lessons & Lovers" was quietly released during the onslaught of pandemic, and "Wonk On" has been sitting here whispering: "wait, wait ... wait until the world is ready." During this Pandemic I have been quarantined at an Equator where I uprooted in order to hear my heart more clearly. I have witnessed the world from the center, and my "life" from a far.
The fear and anger, denial and depression, of quarantine, of virus, of social unrest, of injustice, of every single part of our "concrete" lives diminished to sand and beckoning to become a community of sandcastles with acceptance of the newly forged materials. Propelling us through Grief - rapid fire - in all aspect of our lives, bodies, minds, spirits and souls.
"Wonk On" is the sound of choosing life, choosing love, choosing to move through the grief and learn the lessons; to trust our hearts and what they are singing, to love our bodies and to remember our dreams.
Keep on Wonkin' in the Free world <3
The song "Everyone's Got a Brian" is hilarious. As both a performer and a sound engineer, I can imagine what happened to inspire this one. Anything you want to tell us about the event which inspired it?
Haha, I am happy your name's not Brian - we always have to speak a disclaimer before playing this one live, assuring anyone named Brian, this tune is not about you… probably.
Basically, sound people, musicians, venue owners, bartenders - WE ARE ALL ON THE SAME TEAM. The music business is this whole guardians and peacocks of ego, we exist because of each other. I can understand musicians can be difficult, but I am not a musician, I am a person. I understand that you deal with jerks and folks that don’t respect you or see you. I understand that the hustle is real. Also, yes, I am a woman AND a musician AND a competent and kind human.
This song is about a jerk sound person, it takes energy to be a jerk, and whatever energy he had, he put it into that.
One of my mantras is “turn the shit into gold,” so we took this experience - the anger, the frustration, the human FAIL, and turned it into a buoyant ballad of how EASY it is to NOT BE A DICK.
In music world, in ordinary life, we forget that we are in this together and we project our shit onto other then others believe they have their shit and your shit, and we are all just shitting so much that we forget that the shit also begets FLOWERS and beauty, and that if we just choose to love ourselves and take care of our own shit, music and life is a beautiful world of flowers where people are people and not miserable dick heads.
You're in Ecuador right now, how did that happen? What have you been doing to keep busy? What's the music scene like there right now with this worldwide pandemic happening?
Ecuador. The center of the Earth. How did this happen?
I have struggled with depression, anxiety, suicide, mental and sexual abuse, cancer, all kinds of things. After 30 years I decided I was tired of this particular story and wanted to write a new one. I began searching for long term help with depression - this was either jail (because sadness is a sickness and a dangerous crime) or fancy pants retreats that only Brittany Spears could afford.
Maybe I deserve a retreat? A month long body detox and meditation? For almost 20 years I have trained as a kickboxer, yoga was for Hyde Park green juice rich moms. Progress HURTS, I am Julia Roberts in ‘Pretty in Pink,’ peace is reserved for the rich and privileged.
The months for follow was latent with dreams filled with snakes, a person named Kali and Ecuador. I googled this and bought a ticket. 9 months later I am a registered yoga teacher and teach at the school of shamanism, tantra, theatre, mantras, kundalini. A bunch of weird and bonkers stuff.
Ecuador has been shut down since March, I have had 4 planes “home” cancelled. The music scene here is us at the school singing mantras and medicine songs. A medicine sweat lodge is a far cry from a bar filled with Brians, so I am forever grateful for this time to remember why I love music, outside of the bullshit game of the business that urges us to forget: “Industry of Cool - Almost Famous.”
Do you think you'll ever get back to the states, and whether you do or not, what's next in store for Wonky Tonk?
Back to the States … thank you for saying not “get home.”
I am in search of my home, and at this point the States are a heavy place of delusion and slight of responsibility. My initial flight back was 4/12 to arrive for the release of “Lessons & Lovers,” a tour and shows with folks like Justin Townes Earl, Wonk Beers distributed - flight cancelled, my grandma is getting eaten by cancer and flight cancelled, then another, and then another. I over share this information because all dreams, expectations, plans and back up plans are burned in the fires of COVID, which now beckons me to simply listen and dance in the moment, for the moment.
What is in store for Wonky Tonk? To continue to listen, to continue to be a channel, to continue to dream, to continue to remember my heart and remind others of theirs.
Keep moving, keep dancing, keep creating and share. Less ambiguous, there is a new record called “Breaking Patterns” in the oven, the title says it all.
You can find Lessons & Lovers on Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, and all those other digital outlets, or order a compact disc or vinyl straight from Ms. Tonk's website: https://www.wonkytonkmusic.com/
You can check out the video for "Wonk On" right here
Exploring the 5 stages of grief
Explore other articles by Music Editor Roy Peak: Book Review of All I Ever Wanted, Music Review and retrospective of Bill Sheffield, and even fiction!
Roy Peak is Sacred Chickens' Music Editor. He has played electric bass in more bands than he cares to remember for more years than he can remember. He wrote the theme song for the Utica, New York radio show "Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn" on WPNR-FM. His solo debut album, All Is Well, has been called "Loud, cacophonous, and beautiful by a truly unique artist." His short fiction has been published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and he writes music reviews for the King Tut Vintage Album Museum of Jacksonville. Roy writes music reviews for the Rocking Magpie among others.