Published Date Written by Timothy Gillis
Slaid Cleaves's concert at One Longfellow Square Friday night is sold out. The popular singer-songwriter owes much of his success to tunes that are melodic ballads of hardscrabble life. Brought up in South Berwick, he often writes about working-class people with tough roads to hoe.
Nicole St. Pierre, a friend and classmate at Marshwood High School, has co-written two of his hits and says the collaborative process is one with which they have always felt comfortable.
"We met in eighth grade. We were in the same homeroom," she said this week, gearing up for his show. "Our parents were friends. My brother and him were friends."
The relationship is one that has lasted even though the singer now lives in Austin, Texas. Early on in his career, he returned to his Maine hometown often, to play for St. Pierre's students and discuss music with them. St. Pierre taught eighth grade for a while, and is now curriculum coordinator for the Old Berwick Historical Society and Marshwood schools.
"There are still students of mine who write on Facebook that they've gone to see Slaid in California, Oregon or Texas," she said. "They still follow him, and he's still part of their musical lives."
Cleaves would return to South Berwick for their "Hot Summer Nights" concert series for eight years after he moved away. Inevitably, he'd see a familiar face in the crowd, or run into his old kindergarten teacher, she said.
"When he came to Marshwood, every year our theme song was "The Rain Song," said St. Pierre, singing a few lines. "'Know your rights, right your wrongs. ... You can start over, it won't be the same. Hold your face up to the rain.' One year, we lost a freshman, Michael Wile, in a snowboarding accident. Slaid did a benefit concert for the family, who bought his headstone with the money that was raised." On Cleaves's new CD, "The Rain Song" has been remade into "In the Rain."
St. Pierre co-wrote "Below" (2006) and "Gone" (2012) with Cleaves, and says the writing process was distinct for each of the songs.
"'Below' came about because Slaid's a story-teller," she said. "I saw an article in a magazine about the town of Flagstaff and Dead River, flooded by CMP back in the time before regulations of electricity were really nailed down. CMP wanted to build a damn, create a reservoir and sell energy out of state." The 18,000-acre area in Eustice became Flagstaff Lake.
"When the Depression hit in the 1930s, CMP sent agents to buy options on property," St. Pierre recalls from the article. "The area was already depressed. Some people jumped at the chance (to sell), and the town began to decline."
Some people refused to sell, but their properties were flooded or CMP burned the houses, she said. Graves were moved to New Flagstaff, and church windows were moved to a new chapel next to the new cemetery.
"I had a friend who was 80 at the time — Paul Colburn. He was there the year of the flood. We did a talk at the Old Berwick historical society. Quite a few people from Flagstaff came down, and then invited us to go to their Old Home Day the following year. By then, the song had come out, and people were interested. It was a pretty moving experience. We had people in the audience who didn't even know this had happened and people who had been forced to move."
The other song she worked on with Cleaves is called "Gone," inspired by a friend's grandmother, who lost her car keys and said in disbelief, "I put them there, and they were gone."
The line led St. Pierre to wonder how it would work in a country song. "I thought: what a great line, or hook. 'There she was, gone.' I was flying out to Colorado for a class, talking with Slaid about topics, about this friend's grandmother. It turned into a long love story, of a person with Alzheimer's, from young love through parenthood into the older years."
St. Pierre said she starts her writing process with a poem, "and then we talk a little bit about the content, sometimes we just write back and forth about it, and then he puts it to music. I have very little to do with the music. I'm more at the wordsmithing end of the partnership."
South Berwick is the home of several noted writers including Sarah Orne Jewett, Robert Pirsig ("Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"), songwriter Rod Picott, and the novelist Nicholson Baker, who mentions Cleaves in "The Anthologist."
"It's a gift to have someone like him," St. Pierre said of Cleaves. "People don't give themselves enough time to write, so it's really a nice connection we have to be able to do that."
She received a royalty check for "Below" from Bose speaker company and showed her students, saying, "See? You can make money from writing."
She is working on a song now called "Pandora's Train" about this dream she had about a woman who wanted to leave her life and run away. She waits for the circus to come to see the fortuneteller who tells her Pandora's train is coming. She asks what does it cost and is told, "you don't know until you get off." At the end of the song, the woman is climbing up stairs, and you don't know if it's the stairs to her house or the train. "We're going to leave it like that. Slaid likes to leave things to the audience, likes things to be more shadowed," she said.
Another song she started a while ago is called "Malaga Island," about an island off the coast of Maine populated by some freed slaves and some mixed race children, during the time of eugenics when many of them were labeled as simple.
"When the wealthy wanted the island for their homes, the people were transplanted," she said. "It's another one of those 'kicked out of your homes' songs that makes for good country fare."