Sing your life

By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  November 24, 2009

Uninterested in the melodic potential lurking within banana bread recipes or directions to the King's Highway, Spearin decided to structure each of his interviews around a central topic: happiness — what it is, where to get it, how to hang onto it. Given the role of chance in these recordings, it seems fortuitous enough that happiness is derived from the same root as words like happenstance, mishap, and haphazard. But again, Spearin's choice was more musical than literal.

"Talking about happiness, I find, allows people to access their philosophical side without the pitfalls of religion or politics," says Spearin. "People can try to find something meaningful to say without having to look for backup. It adds a comfortable element which I think translates directly into how they speak. People tend to sing their thesis."

Thus, the album gets straight to the point with "Mrs. Morris" — a sax-driven ersatz abstract of the project's premise: "Happiness is love," she declares, echoing a tiny sax figure. The two instruments then proceed in unison, the breath through the horn precisely matching Mrs. Morris's gratitude for her caring neighbor, the fact that he invited her over to talk, the fact that someone cares about her, how happy that makes her. A low bass plods out Spearin's faintly audible questions in the background as Morris's sincerity soars like a solo: note for note, word for word, she's carried by music, and it's hard not to smile along. Not much melisma, but loads of charisma.

Elsewhere, a chatterbox named Anna muses tunefully on the challenged women she counsels, how they always seem so happy no matter how bleak their circumstances. A trumpet traces her rambling uncertainty exactly, and the melody is jarringly familiar in how thoroughly modern it is, stable and sensible despite its lack of composure — it's like the polar opposite of Auto-Tune. Her realization, that "it's like they don't ask beyond of what's present" situates itself behind a surly piano as the song's central refrain and lasting lesson. "Marisa" calmly grapples with the question of happiness over a patient harp, whereas "Mr. Gowrie" recalls his upbringing in a family of 14 over an unaccompanied Afro-beat guitar line that delicately recalls his past.

Most striking of all the portraits is "Vanessa," who has never considered her lifelong deafness as an obstacle to her happiness, but, rather, as "just the way the world works" for her. As she compares life before sound (when the slight movement of air within the house was her indicator that someone had just arrived home) to life after getting cochlear implant surgery (when she discovered that "sound is electricity"), the music does all it can to contain the flurry of new, unarticulated questions: what is sound? What is music? What is the voice? What is it to hear? To listen?

"I'm very fortunate to have Vanessa as a neighbor," Spearin says. "We've become great friends. She told me this story of getting the implant surgery done in NYC. When it was done, and she had left the doctor, she kept thinking she was hearing music. So they'd walk around the city searching and searching for the music — and it turns out it was just traffic. The whole judgment of what qualifies as music and what's just sound is purely philosophical. In science there's no difference. It's fun to blur those boundaries."

THE HAPPINESS PROJECT + DO MAKE SAY THINK + YEARS | Middle East Downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | November 27 at 9 pm | 18+ | $12 | 617.864.EAST

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