Autobiography

Laura Siersema

I was born and raised in Virginia with music all around me…my parents’ folk music group, church choirs, popular and classical recordings, music theatre productions.  I was taught to play the ukelele, guitar and piano when I was small.  It was the piano I loved.

I didn’t know music was to be my life until I went away to college.  During classes I wrote lyrics on napkins, between classes I stole away to the auditorium to play the piano for hours. I even played for my nursing class graduation.  It was the most natural thing in the world to do.

My first job as a nurse was on the ophthalmology unit at Shands, the teaching hospital at UF. The following summer I left Gainesville to work in a summer sports camp in the Berkshires, and that fall moved to New York City — 14th Street and 7th Avenue — where I lived for seven years, working as a nurse on a psychiatric unit at St. Vincent’s Hospital and in hospice at Cabrini Medical Center.

While living in NYC, I went to my first open mikes. One night, standing next to the bar inside a dimly lit Folk City, waiting my turn to play, I had an epiphany: “This is where I belong.” I wrote my first really good song after getting mugged.  I bought a piano, gave lessons, accompanied New York Women’s Chorus for a few years…and took my first classical voice lessons with Natalie Burgess.

Finally, in 1987, I threw my nursing books down my apartment building’s incinerator, put my piano into a U-Haul, and moved to Boston with my two precious cats to attend Berklee College of Music for songwriting. There I discovered I was a poet.

It was also that summer that I met my partner in life, George Touloumtzis.

Despite performing when I was a child, I became petrified as I grew up.  My voice went into hiding and the only way I was going to recover was to find a vocal teacher.  John LaBella, a New England conservatory grad, was a genius. We worked together for seven years. He taught in the bel canto tradition: here, for the first time, I experienced the full range of my voice, with all its blessings and vulnerabilities — coloratura soprano to soprano belt. I sang with his ensemble, New England Vocal Arts Ensemble, got church jobs, and did a lot of auditions. Later I studied briefly with Phyllis Curtin, the internationally known soprano.

During my time in Boston, other epiphanies came. One Sunday, as a “ringer” (paid substitute) with the choir at First Church of Boston, while listening to the soloist, something within me said clearly “I want to sing like that.”   Her voice was beautiful and pure.  Another time, at St. Peter’s Church in Weston, while rehearsing with the choir, I remember vividly the transcendence I felt singing the high, floating soprano line in Mozart’s Requiem Mass.

After Berklee, I worked as a choral and theater production accompanist in the Newton school system.  I was soloist at Elliot Church in Newton for four years. I loved to sing acappella spirituals from the balcony. My poetry was published in national journals. Deep down I knew I was bound to be a songwriter, but when? And how would I adapt this long sought voice to my own material?

Only when Jenna Drey asked me to write lyrics for her songs did I realize how much I wanted to write my own. Beginning in 1998, I was out on the folk circuit. I opened for John Gorka, Connie Kaldor, Cheryl Wheeler, Dana Cooper, Brooks Williams and Lori McKenna and played at art festivals scattered around the country. My first album, “when I left loss“, was released in 1999. The second, “Love Flows Like the Blood of a River“, in 2003. Beginning in the summer of 2005, writing over a period of 13 months, followed by 21 months of recording and production, I worked on what would become “Talon of the Blackwater,” my third album. Only as we recorded did I really feel like a songwriter and arranger. When I first heard the songs on our working demo, I believed someone else must have written them. Though my poetry and my voice had become fully a part of my music, it was not yet familiar.

I love…Hejira, Debussy, Michael Hedges, Messiaen, Villa-Lobos, Phillip Glass, George Crumb; and as a child Bela Bartok, to name just a few…just sitting down to play the piano…Rilke, George Eliot, Thomas Merton, the writings of Helen Luke and Carl Jung…riding my bicycle…my life with George…our three cheeochees and our home in the beauty of western Massachusetts.

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