For Manhattanites, â€œbridge and tunnelâ€ is a term of superiority if not annoyance, directed at the millions who come in from the â€˜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 â€“ particularly when theyâ€™re jammed with traffic â€“ 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 â€“ two possible options for a girl struggling to figure out her next move. As an allegory for her own career, â€œbridge and tunnelâ€ represent Draperâ€™s own options â€“ to continue the struggle for commercial success as a recording artist, or to pursue a livelihood with less glamour but better odds.
So far, sheâ€™s chosen both. Even as she released Bridge and Tunnel this month â€“ itâ€™s her sixth album overall, and her third on Virginia Beach-based Planting Seeds Records â€“ sheâ€™s finishing up a long-delayed degree in Music Therapy at Molloy College on Long Island. Indeed, the new albumâ€™s release was timed to give it a few weeks to build awareness while she prepares to graduate next month, at which point sheâ€™ll set out for a few weeks of touring before returning home to begin job-hunting â€¦ and to get married in August.
Draperâ€™s new songs speak to everything thatâ€™s going on in her life — sometimes abstractly, as on â€œBridge and Tunnel,â€ and sometimes with a more straightforward voice, as on the hopeful â€œSharks and Royalty.â€ In a recent interview, however, she spoke with clear-eyed realism about her prospects both personal and professional â€“ which is to say, sheâ€™s keeping expectations for the new album in check.
â€œIâ€™m certainly open to making my career as an artist, and not doing anything else â€“ but at this point I canâ€™t really expect it,â€ she says. â€œTwo years ago, when I finished up a tour on the West Coast after my fifth CD (Keepsake), I had one of those â€˜whatâ€™s next?â€™ moments. You know, at some point it makes sense to take a step back and say, â€˜OK, this isnâ€™t the most lucrative of fields â€“ where do I want to take this?â€™
â€œI canâ€™t put this part of my life away â€” Iâ€™m always going to dedicate myself to recording and writing new songs, and playing out as much as I can. Iâ€™m ready to keep doing it, but at same time I need to be realistic. So far it hasnâ€™t been a career, as much as Iâ€™ve tried, and I want to at least be in control of how Iâ€™m making a living.â€
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 â€œgot impatient and thought, â€˜What kind of useless degree is this?â€™â€ she says. â€œI mean, it was a great program, for what it was worth, but I donâ€™t think I was ready to hear what other people had to teach me â€“ I just wanted to get on with it.â€
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 itâ€™s well worth seeking out on eMusic.) She finally signed to Planting Seeds in 2005, and released One Two Three Four later that year â€“ along with an interesting video for the track â€œNeedlessly.â€
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The label has helped facilitate Draperâ€™s inclusion on several compilations through the years, including a Rick Nelson tribute album for which she recorded his â€œHow Long.â€ Planting Seeds â€œhave been great,â€ she says. â€œTheyâ€™re incredibly supportive of what I do, and theyâ€™ve never tried to take control of the creative process. Thatâ€™s been the greatest reward, that theyâ€™ve stuck by me even though weâ€™re only breaking even on my records, at best.â€
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 â€œLimboâ€ and the wonderful â€œBroken Eggshell,â€ while allowing her plaintive voice and inventive guitar work plenty of room to spark the tricky â€œPushing Up the Day.â€
Comparatively simple guitar-and-voice settings like those on much of Draperâ€™s previous work can make a producerâ€™s efforts seem superfluous, but Draper says that even as Albetta surrounded her with more instruments, he brought a new intimacy to her songs. â€œA producer can definitely mess things up, if he wants to, and this was new for me because itâ€™s probably the most full-band sound Iâ€™ve had,â€ she says. â€œBrad had the idea of playing some songs live in the studio with all the musicians, to get a different feel â€“ I hadnâ€™t been able to do that before, because the studios Iâ€™d recorded in were always too small.
â€œYou canâ€™t really match the cohesive quality you get from playing live in the studio, no matter how many knobs you twiddle around with.â€
As he brought more instrumentalists into the studio, Albetta had to overcome Draperâ€™s inclination to go it alone. â€œIâ€™m becoming more comfortable with the idea of playing with a band, and Iâ€™m learning to trust other people to bring their own elements into the music,â€ she says. â€œItâ€™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, Iâ€™ve felt that if I play on my own I donâ€™t have to rely on anyone else.â€
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, â€œIt was our first time out there, and we just did any gig anybody offered us. It was like, â€˜You want us to be in L.A. tonight and Portland tomorrow? Sure!â€™
â€œI think we have our shit together a little better now. At least this time weâ€™re going to try to travel in just one direction.â€
After the tour, though, itâ€™s on to wedding plans and a job search â€“ Draper hopes to use her degree to begin a career working with developmentally disabled children. Though sheâ€™ll continue to pine for an opportunity to quit her day job, she recently has felt a growing kinship with artists whoâ€™ve achieved greater popularity. â€œIf I can one day make a living selling records, that would be great,â€ she says. â€œBut these days, with the economy like it is, even a lot of people who are on major labels seem to be broke. So maybe Iâ€™m doing exactly the right thing.â€
Buy Bridge and Tunnel at Amazon.