Life hasn’t always followed the exact course Seattle sing-songwriter Robert Deeble has thought it would. It’s even been painful sometimes, and required taking a long break to focus on family and self. But it’s led Deeble to deeper understandings about what it means to be human, and about change. After several years away, Deeble decided in 2011 to return to the studio and turn this wisdom into the album Heart Like Feathers, which releases on Feb. 7.

As with his earlier recordings, Deeble’s latest full-length album lulls listeners into a beautiful world of gentle, lazy-sounding guitar, and vivid lyrics that are honest and sometimes even slightly haunting. There’s sadness in many of the songs, but it’s ultimately a triumphant story about finding one’s self and cherishing relationships. Featuring Deeble and the contribution of many of his longtime friends, Heart Like Feathers sensitively captures the shades of life’s pain and joy.

Deeble spoke with Apsara about the album, his life and music, and about his enduring friendship with Emily Dickinson.

You’re originally from Long Beach, but have lived in Seattle for several years. How have these two places influenced your music, and as a musician do you identify more with one?

I never felt at home in California, although I have a soft spot for San Francisco and Long Beach. Rainy dock towns better match my personality and also my heritage (my family traces back to Wales). I think I was alluding to this in the “Boy with the California Sun” (Thirteen Stories).

The new album’s title refers to Emily Dickinson’s famous poem “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” and the poetess even appears in a song on Thirteen Stories. What is the significance of your latest album title, and has Emily Dickinson had a larger influence on your music?

Emily just sort of came along for the ride in my career. We met in the song the “Secret Life of Emily Dickinson” (Thirteen Stories) after I was introduced to her in a poem by William Carlos Williams.

From there Emily and I learned a bit about each other, and grew to appreciate each other over the years. Her phrase “Hope is the thing with feathers” is one I probably conjured subconsciously in the title of the record. I had been writing what would become the title track when I fell into the phrase “Heart Like Feathers,” which perfectly described what I was trying to say. The song is about the battle between the head and the heart, with the heart gradually getting free. It was later as I read a review by Image Journal of the record that I realized the similarity to Emily’s poem, so it is nice to know she is still hanging out with me.

Robert Deeble (Xeandra Wescott)

What are some of the most important elements from the past six years listeners can find in the songs on Heart Like Feathers?

It is a very human record yet one that tips its hat to the spiritual, but always in an earthly manner—not in a dissociated way. The material covers a lot of very real struggles from depression, marital issues, fear, and anxiety, with some slivers of light that finds its way into those dark places.

Was This Bar Has No One Left, your previous shorter release, part of the creative process leading up to your new album?

Yes, that really is the preface to Heart Like Feathers. In my mind it was supposed to be one record, but then it started as an EP which was supposed to move into a full length—life does not work the way we plan. The EP came out and I traveled extensively supporting it, but I felt things beginning to slip in my life. It started with my label but soon afterwards my life seemed to show the cracks of potential collapse. I think I started to see my life as a reflection of my art instead my art as a reflection of my life. I needed to take some time off and reboot. I found myself shutting down, retiring a band, and stopping writing for awhile.

I spent the time during that hiatus rebuilding who I was at home more than who I was on the road. This included paying more attention to my marriage and the changes in myself as a man, and I eventually found a restorative way to reintegrate my artistry.

Who are some of the key individuals who lent their creativity and voices to Heart Like Feathers?

Well there are a lot of them starting with a new band. About three years ago, I gradually started writing and playing with some guys that I had built really good relationships with. All us are in committed relationships and most of us have children, which always makes a band more difficult but I like how it reflects who I am as a person. Naturally we all make significant sacrifices to be in a band together and yet we all totally respect how not to let it compete with the rest of our life. As I got older, I wanted to integrate the two and be with others who were in the same boat.

So for the band it is: Jeremy Summer (also part of the Whiskey Swillers) on bass; Jeremy Dybash (an original member of Velour 100) on drums; and Neal Vickers on guitar and strings. And then I flew Lili De La Mora, my backing vocalist, up from California to record the album.

Our producer was Dylan Magierek, who runs Badman Recording Co. Dylan had come to see several of my shows over the years when I was on tour. And I have always loved the kind of artists he associates with, so it seemed fitting to ask him to be a part of he project.

Then there is an amazing array of guests on the album. It meant a lot to me that so many folks would come out of the woodwork to celebrate a new album with me. Stephen Hodges, who plays percussion,was my musical mentor over the years. He currently drums for Mavis Staples and was known as Tom Waits’ drummer during the Rain Dogs years. Victoria Williams, one my favorite folk heroines, returned to join me on the song “Sunflower.” Ric Hordinksi (Monk), originally from Over the Rhine, had a big part in encouraging me to write and record this record and he offered up two guitar tracks for the album. Anna-Lynn Williams (Trespassers William) is an old pal from my California days and she did an amazing vocal with on the song “Undertow.” And lastly, we pulled a choir together with some great friends from over the years. Daniel G. Harmann, Kate Tucker, John Vecchiarelli, and Adam Selzer—just to name a few—are all some wonderful folks from my musical past that came together to sing on the last track.

Most of the sessions were filmed by two great film makers: Todd Zeller and Tommy Harrington. So we got a lot of great footage of the album, which we hope to feature on a limited edition CD.

“Sun Flower”

Here comes the bird to eat the worm, 
but he’s hiding ‘neath the corn
Big black cat hanging underneath the tree, 
waiting for the bird to meet

where did you go?
did you know?

Humming bird never hurt no one,
troubadour strayed away from home
All of life under love and toil,
two hands digging in the soil

There’s a garden in our souls, we forget to water
all those storm clouds coming north
I guess we’ll get that shower
So rise up now… let’s shine

I miss you so
Sunflower did you know?

Desert storm across the plains
we dug a ditch to direct the rain
Bright red tractor in the mud
teach us to tinker with a flood

And I just got your weather report
I’m so sorry about it girl
All those dark clouds around your porch
I think they’re blowing over
Let’s rise up now and shine


Flowing steadily through countryside and city, the mighty Nile River connects 10 north and sub-Saharan African countries. It is a source of life, history, and culture for the citizens of the countries surrounding it, but how much do they know about one another and about the invaluable resource they share? What can they learn from one another about the cultures and environment of the Nile?

Sunrise on the Nile River, Uganda, Jul. 2010. (Flickr/Andrew West)

Mina Girgis and Meklit Hadero, two San Francisco-based visionaries originally from the Nile region, have set out to connect the countries of the Nile through music and dialogue. Their multi-phase Nile Project involves an album, performances, a TEDx event, curriculum materials, and more. They hope to raise $10,000 through a Kickstarter campaign by Feb. 1 for the first phase of the project, a scouting trip to find the musicians who will become the heart of the Nile Project.

Girgis, an ethnomusicologist and founder of the non-profit music organization Zambaleta, spoke with Apsara about the ideas behind the project.

How did you and Meklit Hadero first come up with the idea to collaborate on the Nile Project?

This was last September. Meklit and I had not seen each other for months. I had just returned to the Bay Area from two months in Cairo, and she had just returned from a tour in Ethiopia. We met at an Ethiopian concert by Debo Band, and I was sharing with Meklit how I only came to discover Ethiopian music after moving to the United States. This lack of cultural exposure among East African countries is a bit strange seeing we are neighbors and we share our lifeblood—the Nile. So we decided to embark on a new project where we would bring together musicians from various Nile cultures to perform along the river and abroad.

Mina Girgis

What do you most hope to achieve?

Well, we definitely hope to make good music. But we have other ambitions. Through these cross-cultural musical collaborations, we hope to foster cultural connections among the people of the Nile to help us tackle our water-based environmental challenges. So the Nile Project is both a musical project and a platform to spread environmental awareness and inspire social change among Nile citizens.

The Nile flows through 10 countries that are diverse, yet are also linked by historical and cultural ties and present-day politics. What role will music play throughout the different stages of the project?

There are some problems only the arts can help solve. And in the Nile Project’s case, there are two challenges we hope to tackle through music.

I come from Cairo. And when I look around my hometown today, I see that we have become so disconnected from both the river that runs through our city and the people who live down that river and drink from the same water. To most Cairenes, the Nile is either a natural barrier you have to cross, a reservoir of water you cannot live without, or a demarcator of privilege for those who can afford waterfront real estate. When we lack such a visceral connection to our immediate ecosystem, how could we be aware of our environmental impact? Bringing back this visceral connection will not happen through intellectual campaigns. But it could happen with music.

The other issue is a cultural one. Because the Nile is so crucial to our livelihood, it has become the domain of political discourse. When we began working on this project, we were asked the question: “Do either of you work for the government?” We obviously do not. But the question shows you how polarizing the Nile has become. One way to rekindle our cultural connections is through the music we will make.

What will you do during the Lincoln Center presentations in 2013?

We will definitely have a performance series to showcase the many musical collaborations we are developing. All of them will feature cross-cultural performances among Nile musicians. We will also have presentations by scholars, artists, and social entrepreneurs who work on the Nile. We also hope to collaborate with other river projects.

What issues will be discussed during the TED conversations, and who will participate in them? Is any part of the project intended to get at the subject of water control along the Nile?

TEDxNile will feature scholars, social entrepreneurs, and artists who will share their expertise and ideas about the Nile. We hope the videos will help spread these worthy ideas and bring more attention to those who are coming up with solutions. We also hope these solutions will inspire others to come up with more ideas.

The Nile Project is not a political project. It is an environmental and cultural project. We want to spread a new paradigm that overlooks the political boundaries among our people. We like to think of the Nile region in a holistic way, as an ecological and cultural system that predates nations and states. And we believe the solutions will come from this outlook. In our book, the only way towards sustainability is equity. But we are not in the business of fighting over water.

The Nile Project Kickstarter Campaign Video 

Feb. 4, 2012, Sarah notes: I’m excited to share that the Nile Project surpassed its goal by Feb. 1—thank you to everyone who helped support it!


Since first hearing Nick Takénobu Ogawa’s album Exposition this past summer, I’ve been a fan of this versatile cellist. I was surprised and excited to discover his December release of an album based on a famous Japanese folktale I grew up with.

Cover of “Momotaro” (Art by Iris Scott)

Japanese folktale hero Momotaro’s (Peach Boy) life begins inside a giant peach floating downstream, where he’s found and raised by a kind elderly couple. After growing up, he successfully subdues the fierce ogres of Oni Island with the help of a dog, monkey, and pheasant—and magical millet dumplings. Triumphant, Momotaro and his companions bring home riches, and they all live happily ever after.

Cellist Nick Takénobu Ogawa’s instrumental album Momotaro lovingly retells this story from his childhood. Sensitively composed and performed though it is, Momotaro isn’t really a children’s album. It’s a serious set of compositions well suited for fans of contemporary classical and electro-acoustic music.

Nick Takénobu Ogawa live in concert (Kate Orne)

A one-man ensemble, Ogawa (or simply Takénobu on stage) uses a laptop and loop pedal to create intricate layers of staccato and rippling sound. It’s Ogawa, and only Ogawa on this album, although the looping technique gives the illusion of multiple performers.

Each track depicts a scene or character from the story, with the opening song track conveying the loneliness of the childless couple before they adopt Momotaro. For the first few measures, Ogawa plucks the strings of his cello to resemble the pentatonic sound of a koto. The song builds into intense bowing before transitioning into the lighter moment when Momotaro’s peach appears.

The album’s tracks are composed to flow seamlessly from one into another, which they do with just one barely perceptible pause in between. For example, the excitement of the “Voyage Home,” when Momotaro and his companions sail back across the sea from Oni Island, blossoms into the victorious-sounding “Hero’s Welcome.”

Ogawa’s Momotaro is a short, but lovely album that’s a good introduction to his music. He also sings on several tracks on his two earlier albums, which are absolutely worth checking out.

I look forward to seeing what Ogawa does on his next cello-bending album, and hope to catch him in concert on the West Coast one day.