Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Debra Lynn Alt.
Ms. Alt is the author of “Each Moment We’re Alive: A Musical and Photographic Story Inspired by Cancer Survivors” (Balboa Press)—a 78-page hardcover book of 36-full color images taken by the late Monica Schwartz Baer accompanied by song lyrics and packaged with Alt’s CD of the same name. The recording includes the title song plus nine other tracks recently produced in Nashville, Tennessee. Alt, former lead singer for Rolling Stone Magazine’s house band, has written several songs for causes such as Habitat for Humanity and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), for which she received a citation from the Connecticut Attorney-General stating her “enduring and profoundly significant contribution and dedication to the fight against drunk driving.” Her previous albums include “A Spirit Mother” and “In Broad Daylight.” Ms. Alt makes her home in Lyme, Connecticut.
“Each Moment We’re Alive”—which is currently averaging 5-stars on Amazon—carries a cover endorsement from Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, New York Times bestselling author: “Beautiful, just beautiful….Debra’s song brought me to tears.” Reader Ricki Hagerty praised, “This book represent hope, life and love – and a friendship that transcends all … A must own!” Further, LDiamond noted, “Find yourself INSPIRED by this glorious book/cd set. These photographs are so compelling, and the music just exudes a healing vibration that is sure to ripple throughout the planet. This is truly Art for the Heart, and is a must have for not only survivors of the big ‘C’, but for anyone who is mindful of appreciating ‘Each Moment We’re Alive’….”
Now, Debra Lynn Alt takes readers behind the music …
John Valeri: What was the origin of “Each Moment We’re Alive” as a musical and photographic story?
Debra Lynn Alt: It was when my friend Monica asked me to lunch as she had a big favor to ask of me. The loss of my father who struggled with leukemia was still fresh, so when she asked me to write a song for cancer survivors I jumped at the opportunity. She was looking for a special way to help celebrate her 5 year milestone of remission from breast cancer, and as the Chairperson of her town’s Relay for Life event, she wanted to plan an extraordinary ceremony.
Monica gathered survivor friends for me to meet and interview them. I sat and listened and took notes and wrote the song based on what I felt was their collective voice. After having recorded the song in Nashville where I laid the tracks for my second CD, the song played on the loudspeaker as the survivors made their way around the track, as was their tradition. I have since then performed it many times at other survivor support and fundraising events. Some months later, Monica discovered her cancer had metastasized and that was the beginning of a slow decline for her. We spent as much time together as possible, traveling, having adventures, sharing holidays. I began to see that Monica’s passion for photography was not unlike mine for songwriting and the idea was formed to combine our art forms and help create the legacy she always wanted to leave through her photography. With much brainstorming, and what I like to call heart-storming, we developed the idea for an old fashioned coffee-table style photography book that would be illustrated with the lyrics of the song. Monica chose 36 of her favorite photos and we paired them with the lyric that fit. Over time and with very careful attention to her dissipating energy levels, Monica told me the stories behind each one and I wrote them up as captions depicting each l life-affirming moment through her eyes.
The first soft-cover edition was published quickly as an upload to the best online publishing company I could find at the time. We got the books in time for us to have a book-signing event at RJ Julia’s (I always assume Connecticut people are familiar with the iconic bookstore) preceded by interviews and local publicity. That was Monica’s last outing, and she died weeks later.
I had promised Monica I would find a way to get a publisher and get the book out into the world in a beautiful hard-covered edition. I always had the vision of the book being one beautiful to hold and feel and peruse. In the interim my mother died of cancer, and I was more motivated than ever to complete the project. I went to a Hay House Publishing conference to learn more about avenues of publishing and while there was asked by Dr. Wayne Dyer to sing the song the book was based on. It was a spontaneous moment that ended in a standing ovation and moved Dyer to tears, which is how my book is now endorsed….“Debra’s song brought me to tears”….The book evolved to include the late Dr. Dyer’s endorsement and my latest CD of original songs. That moment was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, (perhaps more so than when then Rolling Stone Magazine editor Jann Wenner “discovered” me after belting out a song at a Publisher’s conference in 1979.)
I tell the story of how Monica and I met in the book, and I also have a video on my website that tells the story with great footage, in just under five minutes. It is nice though to take the time to sit back and reflect again upon the origin of a project I care so much about and have put so much into.
JV: Tell us about your friend, Monica Schwartz Baer. In what ways did she inspire you – and how do her award-winning photographs complement the book’s message?
DLA: Monica and I shared a deep connection. She inspired me every time I was with her in the way she underscored the natural beauty of the world through different angles and reflections of light, in the way she would ask a multitude of unrepressed questions and help me look at myself in a way no one else could, in her exquisite exuberance and in her unapologetic way of looking at the world and approaching life on her own terms. She celebrated holidays and birthdays of loved ones with the fanfare of devotion. Her photographs were peak expressions of everything she held dear and wanted desperately to share with anyone who wanted to open their eyes to see life painted with a Monica Baer signature, that of quintessential passion. As a the child of holocaust survivors Monica suffered a miserable childhood and we discussed our belief that she and other children of survivors carried emotional and even biochemical scars of that dark time. Together we placed art on a pedestal of love and saw it ultimately as a beacon of light and hope and healing for so many of humanity’s wounds. I wrote in the foreword that the song and photos are offered as a tapestry for a world we refused to surrender to total darkness.
JV: As a songwriter, how do you tap into emotions and/or conditions that you may not have experienced personally to find the truth within them? Also, what are the particular challenges and joys of writing “songs for causes”?
DLA: I have come to believe that the more present we are to compassion, the more we are able to open our minds and hearts to others’ experiences. Once I discovered that writing and singing songs was the highest form of expression I could imagine, I pursued a path of becoming the best possible songwriter I could. I found that once I made a decision to write about something or someone, I used the tools developed through years of meditation and journaling (now over 40 years’ worth) that have honed my ability to bring forth or channel what I relate to as universal feelings and truths. I learned that relying on waiting for moments of inspiration was relatively non-productive, and that setting aside time conducive for writing and inviting the muse was a discipline, like meditation yoga and journaling, and that it allowed for creativity to spring forth and gush. In that space of allowing, surrender and intention, the natural sensitivity for others I’ve always felt is ignited by the drive to express and reach others through songwriting. An example of this is when I was commissioned to write a song for a woman to give to her adopted daughter. I realized that the essence of the gift for her was that she wanted to express that she was a mother in the most important way, and that became the title, and the song filled out from there to become “In the Most Important Way”. When I set out to write a song for M.A.D.D (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), I met with a woman whose boyfriend was killed by a drunk driver. She had his vivid blue eyes tattooed on her back. Her pain was easy to translate to a universal story. It seems that the more personal a story is, the more universal it becomes. And so it was for my song for Habitat for Humanity. I volunteered at a restore after discovering the nature of that volunteer work through my daughter’s participation with Habitat when she was in high school. With my nephew Sam, I imagined what he might want to say about being locked away in autistic silence, coupled with witnessing the challenges my sister and brother-in-law faced with him. That became, “Voice for Sam”. In the same way, “Each Moment We’re Alive” arose from the interview with the survivors coupled with the feelings evoked watching my father struggle to live with leukemia.
The joy of being a vessel for the symbiosis of music and verse that captures a personal/universal experience is transformative. For example, even though singing “More Than Remember” at a MADD candlelight vigil in a gorgeous church in Hartford for those mourning their loved ones would not be typically characterized as joyful, it was one of the most perfect moments of belonging and rightness in my life. When all the hard work is done crafting a song, singing it time and again, recording it and listening and sharing it, is about as fulfilling a job as I can imagine. Some of the challenges for me are getting the balance between the truth and the telling in a way that is listenable, not tawdry, upbeat without betraying the seriousness of the issue, mellow without melancholy.
JV: In your opinion, what are the benefits of creativity – and how can such output be used both in achieving catharsis and raising awareness of specific causes?
DLA: In my opinion creativity is nourishing on a soul level which I have come to believe is more deeply important than I previously thought. The more I learn about the emotional or metaphysical origin of disease, the more I have come to see creativity and productivity and purpose as essential components of well-being for so many of us who are so inclined. One can be creative whether writing a song or preparing a meal, choosing what to wear, addressing an envelope even….I see creativity as the highest form of being or self-actualization. And that certainly has its cathartic elements.
As far as raising awareness of specific causes, I feel that music can draw someone’s attention and reel in their heart in a way that words alone simply can’t. When they are combined it is a powerful effector of change, movement, emotion, inspiration. The creation of songs is made more wonderful by the fact that they live forever and can be modified and used for background, inspiration, generating interest, attention, fundraising, and ultimately awareness of how others live and what other situations may not be at the forefront of consciousness. “Decent Shelter” is a good example I think. In our daily lives we often may not think about how fortunate we are just to have a roof over our heads, let alone the beautiful homes many of us aspire to and are fortunate enough to live in. Yet if hearing the song reminds us how hard some have to work to meet that basic need, and it can be heard in an upbeat caressing way, maybe it could move someone to lend a hand at a Habitat build, or donate at years end or at least increase ones’ compassion toward the homeless.
JV: You’re currently running a holiday special for those who wish to purchase “Each Moment We’re Alive.” Please share the details …
DLA: The book and CD has been packaged as a gift I envisioned as one ideal to share with loved ones and their caretakers dealing with cancer, as well as a beautiful life affirming gratitude depicting gift for anyone. I think it’s a beautiful gift to own and share. And it comes with the satisfaction of knowing that donations are made to cancer research and support for each book purchased. I feel it’s priced well at $18, which has spiritual significance because in Hebrew the number 18 also translates as “Chai”, and is traditionally the denomination of celebrations of life. If ordered from Amazon the tax and shipping are automatically included. The holiday special is my offer to sign and/or wrap in time for Christmas if ordered by the 15th. To further encourage the idea of gifting these books, if someone orders by email to debrasong.com, I will cover the shipping and tax, a savings of $5. I also discount multiple copies via email at email@example.com.
With thanks to Debra Lynn Alt for her generosity of time and thought and to publicist Lisa Saunders for helping to facilitate this interview.