Timing Is Everything

Brown eyes.
Silver earrings.
Twelve-string guitar.
Voice like butterscotch.

If you ask, Ann Reed could craft these words into a song. Maybe a beautiful ballad offering gentle inspiration. Or a jazzy little tune that spins a favorite phrase till you fall away dizzy and laughing.

She's done it before. She sat in a booth at the State Fair early one morning taking suggestions for snippets of lyrics from radio listeners -- then wrote a song complete with references to Pronto Pups, butter heads, and crop art -- and performed it on the air. All in three hours.

"There was one person who said that the pig snouts feel like warm erasers," Reed recalls. "If I could have worked that in, I would have loved to."

So, she might appreciate the challenge. But most days Ann Reed would probably rather keep writing songs based on her own experiences.

Actually, her own experiences are the basis for only a portion of her songs. Reed, 43, also draws ideas from what she observes around her. Her friends say no subject or detail from a conversation -- occuring in her living room or an on-line chat room -- is safe.

"I'm a terrible eavesdropper," she admits, with a touch of pride.

Few experiences seem too trivial or traumatic for Reed to explore in her work. She has a way of capturing the frustration of finding a parking place, the tentative excitement of a new romance, and the sorrow of saying good-bye to a longtime partner, and then weaving those emotions into a song with equal parts melody, sensitivity, and skill.

It is that ability, along with her polished-as-mahogany voice that prompts fans living across the country to board a flight for Minneapolis when she announces another album-release concert. And it is that ability that causes Mary Ehleringer, a normally low-key human-services worker in St. Louis Park, to call herself an avid Ann Reed groupie.

"From the first time I heard her, I've been totally captivated by her music," says Ehleringer. "Her music speaks to me. She writes about strong emotions that are elicited by very common situations, in a very artistic way. She makes me say, "Yes! I know exactly what she's saying.'"

Ehleringer says that feeling has only grown stronger in the 50 or so performances she's seen, and in the years she's been following Reed from bar gigs to cozy auditoriums to the Guthrie Theater.

"She stays focused on a part of life that interests me."

Ehleringer is not alone in her appreciation of Reed. Readers of the Minnesota Women's Press recently selected her a "feminist find" in Twin Cities entertainment.

"I think the thing about Ann Reed is that she is homegrown and authentic," says Cynthia Scott, editor of the St. Paul-based Women's Press. "By authentic I mean I don't think Ann has ever, ever tried to be anyone other than who she is in her music.

"And of course, part of who she is is a lesbian," Scott continues, "and that's always been a part of her music. She lets us see who she is, and in so doing, we are able to see a part of ourselves."

Throughout the past two decades, Reed has grown steadily as a performer, gaining confidence and honing her skills in writing, performing, and producing. She rarely shies away from an opportunity to extend her range, handling folk, blues, jazz, and soft rock. But it is her versatility in subject matter that has won her fans.

"She can be inspirational, she can be romantic, she can be very, very funny, and she can bring you to tears," says Scott.

But no musician can live on the support of fans alone. Being out on the road, as Reed once was far more than 200 days a year, costs money. There are motel bills. Meals to buy. Upkeep of the trusty Honda Civic.

It was Lin Bick, Reed's business partner and manager, who helped get Reed's career on firm financial footing.

"Back when Lin and I started working together in 1989, I was right at a point where I thought maybe this should be a hobby," says Reed. "But Lin brought a lot of energy and she believed in what I do. Things started moving."

By 1992, the Civic had given way to a Chevy van dubbed "Muffy," and Reed and Bick jumped in it and drove to Nashville in pursuit of a deal with a major label. They spoke with several executives and got a glimpse of more than one contract. But something was amiss.

"It just didn't sit well with us to have someone telling us where we can record, where we can tour, and how I should look," says Reed, who describes herself as a "fairly independent type."  

After an exhausting but fruitless search for an acceptable deal, they came home to Minneapolis to regroup and rethink.

"We decided being smaller is better," recalls Bick.

Shortly afterward, they formed their own corporation, wryly named A Major Label, and focused on developing and marketing a line of T-shirts, posters, and other items Reed calls "widgets," which many fans fondly recognize as the "Ann Reed Boutique." Bick and Reed hawk those widgets at concerts and market them through mail-order catalogs. This approach might seem overly promotional for the low-key Reed, but it allows her to control her own musical destiny.

"Now we can take a gig in Rice Lake, Wis., where they want me to sing at a domestic violence vigil and they don't have any money," she says. "We can go there and set up our little boutique and make enough so it's worth the trip.

"With a label, you're restricted where you can play, especially in Nashville. They have this idea that you'll want to play rodeos," she says, as a sly smile crossed her face. "That's just not anywhere I ever dreamed of playing."

Bick underscores Reed's sentiment: "We have the luxury of saying making money is an important thing, but not the most important thing."

So instead of dyeing her hair blonde and opening for country stars, Reed devotes about a fourth of her touring schedule to benefit organizations that support women's and children's issues -- a commitment that has not gone unnoticed. She was named the "musical ambassador" for the 30th anniversary of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and was selected to lead the Great Girl Scout sing-along in Washington, D.C., honoring the 85th anniversary of scouting.

Those honors nicely complement a guest spot on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, a pair of appearances on "Good Morning America," and a trio of awards from the Minnesota Music Academy, including Artist of the Year in 1991, Female Songwriter of the Year in 1993, and Folk Artist of the year in 1997.

Reed also has contributed music to a number of videos and exhibits, including a KARE-11 TV special on girls in sports, in which her song "Heroes" was a centerpiece. The song, which refutes the idea that there are no suitable role models anymore, names 40 women who led by example in their lives.

"I'm a stamp collector and I'd made a framed thing of all the stamps that had women on them," says Reed. "So, when I was making this list of women, I looked up there at some of the women on the stamps. There sat Lucy Stone and I thought to myself, 'Who is she?' So I started reading about her and I thought, 'Hey, she was cool! She was out there fighting the good fight long before any of us.' So writing the song was an education for me too."

"Heroes," released in 1993 on Reed's Hole in the Day CD strikes a chord with audiences. "I've seen any number of people tear up when they hear that song," says Ehleringer. "Heroes," and "Every Long Journey," a moving tribute to Reed's friend, arctic explorer Ann Bancroft, are among the most-requested in Reed's 200-song repertoire.

"I feel very lucky to have two songs out there reaching people in such a positive way," says Reed. "Sometimes you just hope that songs will go out and have lives of their own. Send 'em off to camp and hope they write home."

Even if they haven't written home, fans have. "I've received more letters and response from that song than anything I've ever written," Reed says. " I have teachers who write to me. Parents will say 'My kid loves this song. We all had to go to the library and look up all the women.'"

Currently, Reed is busy with several new projects. She's doing more of the engineering of her own releases, even going so far as to record her most recent, Timing is Everything, in the living room of the home she shares with her partner, Jane, and Bick and her partner, Kathy.

She's also recently learned to play the piano -- a skill that comes in handy, given her newest preoccupation: arranging her music for choruses and choirs.

This summer, she'll perform several pieces of her work with One Voice Mixed Chorus, a community gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender choir, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. Reed will join the 60-member chorus and also perform a solo set during concerts on June 13 and 14.

"We had to do something special," says Jane Ramseyer Miller, director of the chorus. "The theme for this concert is journeys, and much of Ann's music deals with traveling, coming home, and change."  

Among the songs the chorus will perform with Reed are "Every Long Journey," "Walk," "What Made You Love Her," and "I Think That God is Sleeping/You've Got to be Carefully Taught," as well as two other songs written by other artists.

For her part, Reed is looking forward to the One Voice project and is happy to be moving into arranging.

"We found out there's a real need for music for gay and lesbian choirs and for women's choirs, so we've been working on that, and it's something that's very exciting to me," she says.

"When I write a song, I can hear the parts, and on some occasions, I put the parts in myself with harmonies and so on. It's just that you're looking at the different textures of the sopranos, the altos, the tenors, the basses."

Bick expects that Reed will continue to work with choruses for some time, since she receives several calls a week from interested directors.

"We're getting ready to offer a portfolio of choral music," she says. "That way Ann's music is arranged the way she wants it. That's easier and more emotionally satisfying that beating your head against the music-business wall."

Reed has not forgotten those who just want to hear her sing, however. She's scheduled to appear at the Twin Cities Pride Festival on June 28.

If you miss that performance, you'll either have to join the groupies who follow her all over the country or catch her next year when she returns to the Guthrie Theater to release her 12th album. Nope, it's not recorded yet. Not even written.

But after 18 years in a business that Bonnie Raitt once said "eats its young," Reed isn't about to stop now.

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