The town of Ludlow lies in the county of Shropshire, on the border of Wales, 4 hours from London. Medieval Ludlow Castle overlooks green hills and the River Teme. Catherine of Aragon lived in the castle and surely walked the paths with the butterflies and bunnies along the river. It is a place composed in another time altogether. Deborah Rose leaves Ludlow and her cozy flat often, traveling for weeks and sometimes months at a time to share her music, her gift, her magic. She is not a witch, but a songwriter, casting not spells, but songs. She makes a yearly pilgrimage to the States and on one such journey, I happen to find her, only it is no coincidence, but the very alignment of planets. It’s God and we both know it still.
On a September day in 2018, much like this one, we meet for the second time in Nashville. She will stay with us for four weeks in our spare room, aptly named the music room. While she is there we move the piano out to make room for her luggage and the air mattress. She is a shameless over-packer, and you want to laugh at the size of her massive suitcase. Already she has been to LA and New York (where I will see her next) and from here will go farther south to Baton Rouge to visit a prison. This breadth of experience characterizes her and her music. The lush canyons of LA down to the steel bars of Angola.
She has come to Nashville for many reasons, one being to record at Ocean Way Studios on Music Row — a church-like structure I have passed many times. This time I go in. This time I will play the piano that sits in a small phone booth structure with a glass door. We finished the song just the night before. She had a notion for it, a seed and some lines and we flesh it out. The melodies fly out of her already attached to the lyrics. It is an easy collaboration. There’s trust there and we have shared so much already. This give and take is no chore. Shallow Waters will go on the album if we can finish it and we do. It is her anthem, caught from Anais Nin, “I must be a mermaid, I have no fear of depth and a great fear of shallow living.”
When I arrive at the studio after work, Deborah has been here with the engineer for hours already. Neither of them have eaten but for the biscuits and jam provided by the studio. It is one of the smaller studios but the soundboard still stretches across the room. The microphones are attached to long thick metal arms. The violinist is here and Deborah invited the writer of one of the songs to come from Canada and be a part of bringing the song to life. It is called Butterfly and will go on the album. The old expensive microphones are worth every penny and the ballad emerges as a balancing act on the verge of a whisper. Deborah’s work is a shared and sacred process. There is room for many at the table of creativity. This is rare and special and I have benefited from her creative generosity many times.
When Deborah arrives back in the UK, she goes to Featherstone Prison, just in time for Christmas. She moves between these worlds effortlessly, perhaps more comfortable in the one with no expectations, no pride and pressures, only generosity. She earns the men’s trust simply by showing up and caring. They call her an angel, a Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn of their very own. Her last visit to Featherstone ended in an album and documentary, a powerful representation of her work there. Some of the men take her course again. They have learned in a few days how to turn their stories into songs. In the UK there is a budget for this process, which never ceases to amaze me.
She is conscious of the nature of her work, which can become self centered and promotional in the music industry. It is antithetical to her nature and she battles with this side of her craft. She has watched its effects; it would be easy to succumb to them. Some will follow it and perhaps if she had less of a heart she could as well. “Believe it or not, I’m quite shy,” Deborah tells me. And I believe her because I can relate and because I know her. She is not so much shy as humble, wanting to serve the work and also survive as an artist, which becomes increasingly difficult for anyone. Perhaps these prisons keep her feet planted on the ground, in touch with a reality that in some ways is more true.
Deborah’s music is more than personal. It is the essence of her life. Each song is a place she has been, a memory, an image from a poem, a person that resides in her small frame. She is no more than five feet tall and we joke about the “tall women.” She tells me she met a super model once and couldn’t believe how small she felt next to this “giant woman.” I am unsure if I have acquired a taste for British humor or just her humor and either way, we get on swimmingly.
When I first heard Deborah’s story of the church in Scotland where she and the Queen happened to attend on the same Sunday, she was telling it to a group of songwriters, myself included. We had gathered for a workshop led by Mary Gauthier. I met her shortly after or shortly before that story, I cannot remember which. Maybe it was her accent and my affinity for them, but there was something that told me we would meet and when we did I had known her my whole life. These occurrences are rare, but blinding miracles if you can think fast enough to snatch them when they happen. They will change your life.
From the beginning, conversation is never forced. It is deep but natural. I drink English breakfast tea but once a year when Deborah comes to stay with us. I’ve not been able to manage the habit and slip it into my routine otherwise. But when she comes, time changes and it fits quite naturally, as do the places we go and the people I meet when I am with her. Synchronicity follows her like a loyal animal. I am both amazed and unsurprised by its frequency because it is the way in which our friendship began. It feels like magic and planets and sorcery, but it’s just a brilliant heavenly tapestry, the threads of which we discover together.
“I feel restless” she says of Ludlow, “but it is home.” She wonders where she will go next and I can relate to her artist’s restlessness. There’s such a rich history there, in the castle walls and green hills. Walls built in a different age and hills formed over centuries. But her own past is more complex than rivers and roads. “There’s so much history.” But as she tells the men in prison, music is healing. The making of music with others is a balm. She will continue this process—with the elderly, the incarcerated, children in Africa, her friends and musicians, and all who wish to sit at the table and bring their story.