In 2009, Baltimore singer/songwriter ellen cherry was temporarily sidelined with a nasty throat infection.
Unable to sing, she sat down at her upright piano and began writing the songs which would later become her new album, "Please Don't Sell the Piano." It's about as bare-bones as you can get; while there are a few string arrangements, most of the album is just the piano and cherry's intimate, heartwarming voice.
Produced by Baltimore Americana singer/songwriter Caleb Stine, "Please Don't Sell the Piano" is cherry's most personal album. This weekend, she's celebrating its release with two shows at An die Musik Live. Growing up, cherry learned to play music on the piano, but in recent years she set it aside to focus more on the guitar. Now, she is eager to talk about reuniting with the piano, and some of the songs the partnership produced.
What's the story behind the song "Please Don't Sell the Piano?"
When I was a child, my parents bought piano lessons for me and my two sisters. When we got a little better, they bought us a really nice 6-foot Wurlitzer grand that I loved and played for years. But I don't live in Texas anymore, and my sisters don't play it. I'm the only one who plays it — like, four times a year when I visit them.
So they told me a year and a half ago, they were like, "Oh, we're going to sell the piano." I was like, "What? You can't sell this piano. What am I supposed to play when I come to your house?" It struck me.
I started messing around a little bit, and I thought this would be a great topic to write about. It's circus-y sounding, and it just became this plea to my parents. But you realize the piano has its own character. It served as my diary, and if my parents were to sell it, then there's this really dangerous chance that somebody else would be able to figure out all my secrets if they played the piano too.
What happened to the piano?
It's still there. It's not a good time to sell the piano, so luckily for me, they haven't been able to sell it. People just say, "Well, why don't they give it to you?" but shipping a 6-foot grand across the country is really, really expensive. Right now it's still in our family. So, lucky me.
Caleb Stine produced this album. What was it like working with him?
This is the first time I've ever had a producer. So that was a new experience — just having somebody take me to task, talking about these personal, emotional, intimate moments, but describing them in a way that were understandable to the listener. That was one of Caleb's most wonderful, revealing things. He'd say, "That's great — if I know you, that makes sense. Or if I'm in a relationship with you, that makes sense. But it has to make sense to the person who has no idea who you are."
He really pushed me hard to make these metaphors and images crystal clear and evocative, but still mean something to me as a writer. Some of the songs, it took me just a year to be able to play them in front of other people. … Being able to play it in front of people is kind of amazing and thrilling. A little bit like jumping off a building. Although I've never done that. So maybe it's not like that.
What's it like writing such personal songs?
It's kind of like revealing yourself to yourself. And that's a hard thing, to look yourself in the mirror and be like, "Oh, that's what I really look like." Or read your diary and realize, "Oh these are the things I'm really thinking." Once you have that realization, you're closer to the person you actually are.
It feels great to have those realizations about yourself. Maybe that's something that just comes with age and wisdom and experience. But to write about it and reveal it to other people is kind of scary, and also really thrilling. Maybe I'm just a thrill junky that way.
Your song "SacBe" has a Mayan tie-in?
Yes, it's a Mayan word — it means 'white road.' I was in Mexico in 2008, and I love the Mayan culture; I think it's fascinating. They built these thoroughfares between the major cities, and they put limestone rock on these streets, so that in the moonlight, it was bright enough to see. They were very, very straight roads, mostly for commerce.
I thought, "What a great idea, to go from point A to point B. How simple it is to see your goal and head straight for it." But I've never been that person. This is a song about forgiving myself for not being an A-to-B person. I get to B — it's just that I visit the other letters first.
This is supposed to be a big year for the Mayan calendar — this is when it all ends, when time runs out.
I'm so glad I got the album done before the end of the world. I feel like I can relax the rest of the year.
If you go
ellen cherry's CD release shows for "Please Don't Sell the Piano" are 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at An die Musik Live, 409 N. Charles St. $15. Call 410-385-2638 or go to andiemusiklive.com.