by John Ziegler, Duluth News Tribune | February 7, 2008 | www.duluthnewstribune.com
Sara Thomsen has created a recording that is subtly captivating and seductive in its fragility. “Everything Changes” is a personal record that magnetically pulls you in.
Some artists write big, bold anthems that can overwhelm a listener. This record quietly beckons.
Enter this world to find a woman daring to go into those vulnerable, dark places that we all like to keep hidden. Thomsen does it with courage, eloquence and dignity, while translating the contents of her soul into musical form. She infuses these songs with the same unostentatious love and warmth that she generates in live performances. Then she augments the music with the help of friends old and new.
An array of the Northland’s finest musicians add their fingerprints to these songs. Camaradas from The Three Altos — Paula Pederson and Amy Bernstein — highlight several tracks in spine-tingling, almost familial vocal harmonies with Thomsen.
A rhythm section (a first for Thomsen) features pianist Ryan Frane, bassist John Thorene and drummer Dan Westerlund. They add some density to select tunes and give the overall disc a much fuller soundscape. Dobro and banjo picker Lance Rhicard, cellist Kathy McTavish and fiddler Rachael Kilgour are stellar with judicious note choices and uplifting accompaniment.
Thomsen learned the title song, “Todo Cambia” (“everything changes” in Spanish and sung in the language), during travels through Latin America. Composed by Chilean Julio Numhauser, the template for this track is the version sung by Argentinean activist Mercedes Sosa. “Hope distilled” is how Thomsen describes what this song has meant to her during difficult personal times and how it has encouraged her to not back away from bigger social issues. That hopefulness comes through in her performance of the title track.
Sometimes, something intimate in its origin needs support to reach its full potential. In just this way, Thomsen called on other musicians to help pull more out of her vocally on “A Woman’s Place.” The song succeeds marvelously as the rhythm section, additional voices and the sound of a trumpet add color and push Thomsen to reach beyond her comfort zone. For a commission from the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., Thomsen’s fun but daunting challenge was to compose a piece for a program called “A Woman’s Place In the World.” Her song weaves together rabbis, teachers, potters, politicians and engineers to say that a woman’s place is wherever she wants to be.
Some material on “Everything Changes” was begun many years ago and tucked away into drawers and file folders. “I Remember These” is a loving tribute to a nurturing grandmother who encouraged a young Sara to pursue her creative impulses. They agreed to collaborate on a book in which grandma would write the chapters and granddaughter would draw the illustrations. The book wasn’t to be, but this tender look back intertwines love and sweet memories of someone gone but not forgotten.
The starkness of “The Morning After Your Heart Breaks” is disarmingly beautiful. The completely laid-bare lyrics, the achingly honest vocal reading, the angst of the cello lamenting along with the voice and the frailty of the sparse arrangement paint the picture of someone whose heart has been shattered. Thomsen’s message is that you are not alone.
For her fourth solo release, Thomsen didn’t return to her native Sioux Falls, S.D., to record. Instead she chose Sacred Heart Studio in Duluth, whose regal confines add texture and whose engineer, Eric Swanson (co-producer on this project), added just the right touch by allowing rather than forcing the music to happen. Although the recording process stretched over more than two years, the result never seems disjointed or out of synch.
Thomsen’s heart has weathered upheaval and come out bigger and fuller. In “Everything Changes” she has produced a self-portrait that is radiant with elegance, grace and honesty. It weaves its way into your soul.
JOHN ZIEGLER has worked as program and music director at KUMD-FM for 31 years. He produced seven compilation discs from some of his 3,500 in-studio sessions. He reviews music for the News Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.