For Manhattanites, “bridge and tunnel” is a term of superiority if not annoyance, directed at the millions who come in from the ‘burbs or the outer boroughs every day to work, play, eat, or see a show. For those suburbanites, however, the gateways to the big city – particularly when they’re jammed with traffic – symbolize their position on the outside looking in, a gauntlet to be run in order to get Where the Action Is (or to get away from it).
Singer/songwriter (and onetime Manhattanite) Linda Draper now lives in not-so-glamorous Woodside, Queens, but she titled her new album Bridge and Tunnel as a matter of metaphor more than fact. In the song of the same name, they represent light and darkness – two possible options for a girl struggling to figure out her next move. As an allegory for her own career, “bridge and tunnel” represent Draper’s own options – to continue the struggle for commercial success as a recording artist, or to pursue a livelihood with less glamour but better odds.
So far, she’s chosen both. Even as she released Bridge and Tunnel this month – it’s her sixth album overall, and her third on Virginia Beach-based Planting Seeds Records – she’s finishing up a long-delayed degree in Music Therapy at Molloy College on Long Island. Indeed, the new album’s release was timed to give it a few weeks to build awareness while she prepares to graduate next month, at which point she’ll set out for a few weeks of touring before returning home to begin job-hunting … and to get married in August.
Draper’s new songs speak to everything that’s going on in her life — sometimes abstractly, as on “Bridge and Tunnel,” and sometimes with a more straightforward voice, as on the hopeful “Sharks and Royalty.” In a recent interview, however, she spoke with clear-eyed realism about her prospects both personal and professional – which is to say, she’s keeping expectations for the new album in check.
“I’m certainly open to making my career as an artist, and not doing anything else – but at this point I can’t really expect it,” she says. “Two years ago, when I finished up a tour on the West Coast after my fifth CD (Keepsake), I had one of those ‘what’s next?’ moments. You know, at some point it makes sense to take a step back and say, ‘OK, this isn’t the most lucrative of fields – where do I want to take this?’
“I can’t put this part of my life away — I’m always going to dedicate myself to recording and writing new songs, and playing out as much as I can. I’m ready to keep doing it, but at same time I need to be realistic. So far it hasn’t been a career, as much as I’ve tried, and I want to at least be in control of how I’m making a living.”
To that end, after years of working office jobs she is now close to completing an academic path that she had given up a decade ago. Her tenure at the State University of New York in Purchase, which is renowned for its performing-arts programs, ended when she “got impatient and thought, ‘What kind of useless degree is this?’” she says. “I mean, it was a great program, for what it was worth, but I don’t think I was ready to hear what other people had to teach me – I just wanted to get on with it.”
She did just that, putting out three CDs in three years. (Only one of them, the terrific Snow White Trash Girl, is still easily available, but it’s well worth seeking out on eMusic.) She finally signed to Planting Seeds in 2005, and released One Two Three Four later that year – along with an interesting video for the track “Needlessly.”
The label has helped facilitate Draper’s inclusion on several compilations through the years, including a Rick Nelson tribute album for which she recorded his “How Long.” Planting Seeds “have been great,” she says. “They’re incredibly supportive of what I do, and they’ve never tried to take control of the creative process. That’s been the greatest reward, that they’ve stuck by me even though we’re only breaking even on my records, at best.”
Additional support recently has come from producer Brad Albetta, who helmed Bridge and Tunnel after previously working with Martha Wainwright and Teddy Thompson (with whom Draper played a few dates in 2007). Albetta fleshed out the arrangements of such tracks as album opener “Limbo” and the wonderful “Broken Eggshell,” while allowing her plaintive voice and inventive guitar work plenty of room to spark the tricky “Pushing Up the Day.”
Comparatively simple guitar-and-voice settings like those on much of Draper’s previous work can make a producer’s efforts seem superfluous, but Draper says that even as Albetta surrounded her with more instruments, he brought a new intimacy to her songs. “A producer can definitely mess things up, if he wants to, and this was new for me because it’s probably the most full-band sound I’ve had,” she says. “Brad had the idea of playing some songs live in the studio with all the musicians, to get a different feel – I hadn’t been able to do that before, because the studios I’d recorded in were always too small.
“You can’t really match the cohesive quality you get from playing live in the studio, no matter how many knobs you twiddle around with.”
As he brought more instrumentalists into the studio, Albetta had to overcome Draper’s inclination to go it alone. “I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea of playing with a band, and I’m learning to trust other people to bring their own elements into the music,” she says. “It’s always been easier for me to play alone, especially on the road, because of the logistics of getting a bunch of people from place to place. Mostly, though, I’ve felt that if I play on my own I don’t have to rely on anyone else.”
Next month Draper commences a monthlong spate of shows that includes several West Coast dates, beginning June 4-8 at various clubs around Los Angeles. Draper will be trying to avoid the logistical nightmare of her last trip west, when, she says, “It was our first time out there, and we just did any gig anybody offered us. It was like, ‘You want us to be in L.A. tonight and Portland tomorrow? Sure!’
“I think we have our shit together a little better now. At least this time we’re going to try to travel in just one direction.”
After the tour, though, it’s on to wedding plans and a job search – Draper hopes to use her degree to begin a career working with developmentally disabled children. Though she’ll continue to pine for an opportunity to quit her day job, she recently has felt a growing kinship with artists who’ve achieved greater popularity. “If I can one day make a living selling records, that would be great,” she says. “But these days, with the economy like it is, even a lot of people who are on major labels seem to be broke. So maybe I’m doing exactly the right thing.”
Buy Bridge and Tunnel at Amazon.