Smile when your heart is breaking

One of my favorite songs is Nat King Cole’s version of “Smile”. I first heard it as a little girl, and it made a big impression. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned about the singer’s life. The poor son of a butcher turned Baptist minister, his musical career was set against the racism of mid century America as the black civil rights movement was taking off.

Of course, Nat wasn’t the only black musician making beautiful music over the pain of his life. Billie Holiday sang the horrifying testimony to racism “Strange Fruit” (which incidentally was written by a Jewish teacher named Abel Meeropol).

Louie Armstrong grew up a fatherless child in a desperately poor part of New Orleans. A boy from as far on the wrong side of the tracks as one could be, he left school in 5th grade to start working, and ended up in a group home for a while. His musical success was something of a miracle.

Not that success eased everything for him: like other black musicians, he was not welcome to sleep in many of the expensive hotels he was hired to play. After the show was over, he was expected to leave for a black hotel on the poor side of town. He also adopted and took care of a brain damaged child. Yet his voice made the song “Wonderful World” iconic.

I once heard an interview with famous Fado singer Mariza. Fado is a traditional kind of music, native to Portugal, which always sounds a bit melancholy. I really like it. She was talking about the origin of the songs, and said that in Portugal, Fado was music people sang when they were sad. The act of singing somehow lightened the burden and let some light in.

Perhaps this is like the blues…. I can’t think of too many blues songs about happy subjects, but somehow singing and playing them is cathartic. Music does that. It has the power to change the colour of a mood, the tone of a moment, or even your perspective on life.

There is a great TED talk by Amy Cuddy on body language and its effect on the brain and behaviour. We all know that our internal moods affect our external gestures and attitudes. It’s less obvious that the reverse can also be true. So maybe this is why singing or playing music can lift a case of the blahs or the blues.

Next time you’re feeling low, try to put a smile on your face. Listen to your favorite tune. Or better yet, sing it!

Grandpa’s Vinyl

Louis Armstrong Jazz

I grew up listening to classic jazz. It was really all my grandfather’s fault. He had an infectious love of this music, and when he put those vinyl records on he never just sat and listened. He was always up on his feet, snapping his fingers, singing along, and invariably, dancing. (I got into swing dancing too, but that’s another story.) I just remember this music, especially when he would look at me and start singing, out in the park or at the breakfast table.

Perhaps the song I remember best is Louis Armstrong’s version of “When You’re Smiling”. Grandpa would look at his five year old granddaughter and begin to sing this — even doing his best Satchmo impersonation. This was quite a feat, considering he had a strong Hungarian accent! He liked the Rat Pack too, particularly Dean Martin’s rendition of “That’s Amore”.

As I got older, I began to explore jazz on my own. There are so many types and styles under this umbrella now that there is always something new to uncover. It’s constantly evolving, and full of cross cultural influences.

I recently discovered electro swing for example, in a fantastic track by called “In the Mood for Trouble” by Marcella Puppini which incorporates influences from Klezmer to Django Reinhardt.

Still, there is something about the old school jazz of my grandfather that retains a special charm. I think it’s the pace. Somehow there’s something slow, warm, and romantic about it.

Maybe it’s because it comes from the era before auto tune and all the special effects we’ve become so used to in studios now…

Maybe I’ve watched too many movies set in the 1940s…

Still, whenever I hear this music play, something in me begins to unwind, and a smile slides over my face. Try listening to Louis and Ella sing “They can’t take that away from me” and see if you feel any different.

Maybe the pace comes from a slower time. A time when people sat on porches and chatted with their neighbours, or sat down together for Sunday dinner. There is a sense of place in a lot of these lyrics too, which I don’t hear often in more contemporary music. “Tenderly”, “April in Paris” and “Summertime” are full of the trees, the light, the fields and streets which inspired them.

We spend so much time absorbing the world through screens —now more than ever— that perhaps we don’t notice these things as much anymore.

So here’s to music that reminds you to slow down and enjoy the texture of the moment. “Songs for a Ladies Man” is an album inspired by my grandpa’s vinyl, and the effect that old school jazz still has on me. If it gives you that same feeling, then it has succeeded.



Let’s not pick out curtains
Life’s moved us too far
To think of shared addresses
Or quarrels in the car
There are too many pieces
Now to rearrange
But if I tell you this
Will you think it strange

There’s a hidden place
No eye can see
Sheltered from the storm
Of reality
And when I close my eyes
That’s where I’ll be
In the secret world of you and me

We will never work out
How to pay the rent
Or have conversations
About how much we’ve spent
You’ll always live about it
In a place no one can find
A permanent companion
In the landscape of my mind


You’ve got to travel your road
I’ll be walking mine
Waking up beside you
Is not in the design
But the place I keep you
Has an everglow
Safe from all the wearing
And the dust of the road


The Man Who Isn’t There

Well you’ve driven me to music
I hope you’re satisfied
I’m drunk on a longing
That will always be denied
I write these songs like sonar
Or stones into a well
I’m looking for an echo
But the silence tells

And I’m singing in the dark
For a man who isn’t there
But I’ve learned to love the aching
And the wistful smile I wear

I’ve studied all the poets
But you don’t read that stuff
Pages of perfect sonnets
Would never be enough
I’m looking for the words
The right combination
To crack your jaded heart
Some magic incantation


If I could sing like Ella
Or Billie Holiday
Or write a great novella
You might look my way
You’ve given me the music
Though it’s dipped in shades of blue
But I’m always singing
When I think of you


Voodoo Magic Man

I got a fever
Can’t clear my head
All I want to do
Is crawl back into bed
I called the doctor
But he didn’t have a plan
The only one left to call
Is the voodoo magic man

Oh….the way he works
Is something I don’t understand
But he leaves me feeling better
That voodoo magic man

He mutters about chakras
And evil spirits too
Even said my aura
Was looking kind of blue
He said, “We got to treat this
With the laying on of hands”
I said, “Do what you got to do
voodoo magic man.”


He said, “It’s gonna make you sweat
The medicine is strong.”
And then he started working
And it lasted all night long
Feels like he’s got me pinned
He cast some kind of spell
Must be that voodoo magic
He does so very well


Bring on the Blues

There’s always blood on the leaves
When they cut sugar cane
No pleasure’s ever offered
Without a taste of pain
You’ll always be alone
Unless you open up your door
But when the guest is gone
The quiet’s louder than before

But there’s no joy without complications
Headaches chase intoxication
You’ve got to pay your dues
So bring on the blues

When the ballerina dances
The music is complete
She pirouettes on satin shoes
That hide her bleeding feet
You’ll never feel that major thrill
‘Til you get close and bare
And nothing hurts the way you will
When you’re left waiting there


Well fire will set your face aglow
But very soon you’ll learn
If you let it light your soul
You can’t escape the burn
Someone who can make you sing
Can make you sing the blues
You can’t ride a river
Without a storm or two



Like the rain in June
Or the day the cherry blossom trees
Burst into bloom
I find within my heart
The start of something new
And everything is spring
When I think of you

Like a flash of falling light
Or a nightingale
Singing through twilight
I was unprepared
For the magic rushing through
My ordinary world
When I encountered you

The burdens of the days
We have yet to live
Or their weight of pain
I’ll remember this
When my skies have lost their blue
The music in my heart
When I found you

Never Touched the Ground

Well I was hungry and cold
Living proud and alone
With the carcass of love
Nothing left but the bones
And just when in desperation
I thought I’d throw myself away
You came like an answer
To a prayer I didn’t say

And my feet never touched the ground
Took a leap and kept on flying
I keep waiting for the landing sound
Oh – be gentle if you let me down

Pile of dreams in the corner
Motionless and blue
But I still heard the echo
From the days when they were new
Yet somewhere there was music
As from a distant room
And when I opened a window
That’s when I saw you


I was trapped in a tower
The walls looked like stone
Each year grew colder
Had no room of my own
And just when I had decided
Love was a prisoner’s game
Oh I made my plan of escape
And then you came calling my name


Bread and Chocolate

You can’t live on bread alone
That’s what the Good Book said
Though without your daily share
You aren’t getting fed
But I can’t help wanting more
Than strict necessity
And for me you are
A taste of luxury

Oh you’re like chocolate
Bliss on my tongue
I’ve got to have some

You’re an indulgence
Smoothing out my day
Oh I’ve got a craving
That doesn’t go away
You’re the guilty pleasure
Behind my secret smile
I like my bread and butter
But chocolate drives me wild


Oh I can’t help myself
When it comes to you
You know what I mean
If you love chocolate too
I’m gonna try moderation
Like the doctor said
I like the thought of you all day
Though I know I need my bread

But I want chocolate…. Mmmm
Bliss on my tongue
I’ve got to have some


Somewhere— in some other place
Far, far from here
If I had seen your face
Would it have been clear

That you and I
Have so many things to say
That the hours of the day
Seem to vanish when you’re near
That you’re marvelous, my dear.

If I had seen you glance at me
On some crowded city street
Could I have guessed the alchemy
Were we to meet


If I had watched you thrill a crowd
Would I have stayed
As long as time and space allowed
Suspicions raised
Would we have danced the night away
You and me
Or passed without a thing to say
Where would we be

Somewhere in some other place
Far from here
If I had seen your face
Would it have been clear