Stories... the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell others... the ones we make up, the ones we live through... all these stories are our past and our present, our hopes and our fears, our sins and our salvation. They are who we are. And for singer/songwriter Abigail Dowd, they are more than who she is; they are what she does.
On her new album, Not What I Seem, Dowd steps through the looking-glass of not just her own story, but others', as well, positing the notion that, sometimes, all any of us needs or wants is to feel heard and seen. But that hearing and seeing must be unburdened by judgment, if it is to be true. As the Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.” To arrive at this place, we must step outside of ourselves, through forgiveness, and into a space that is free from the shackles of shame.
Throughout this song cycle, Dowd takes those steps and tosses aside her own protective veil, so that she might finally know and share herself fully with the world around her. To do so, Dowd takes her cues from her Anthropology studies and zooms out to the bigger picture so that she might see all sides of the story.
In the rough-hewn “Wiregrasser,” she relates the destruction, at the hands of the turpentine industry, of the longleaf pine trees. Meanwhile, in the gently driving “Chosin” tells the tale of her maternal grandfather, who took part in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War. Indeed, Dowd spends a fair bit of Not What I Seem at an arm's length from her subject matter. With its steady, smoldering chug, “Desire” was sparked by a conversation she had with her mother and brother, who is a fireman, while the breezy folk of “The Other Side” offers advice to a friend who needs to take a different tack.
Not What I Seem turns its gaze upon its maker, too, though. In the haunting title track, Dowd casts off the expectations and assumptions about who she is so that she might finally know. Paired on the album and in their themes, “Goodbye Hometown” and “Oh 95” are two sides of the same leaving home coin — one depicting departure, one recounting return.
But one of the most potent moments in the piece is the defiant personal reckoning that is “Old White House.” Call it Dowd's #MeToo moment, if you must, but it's more than that. By sharing these parts of herself, Dowd lets them go. The letting go, however, gave her yet another gift. There was forgiveness, to be sure, but then there was freedom.
With Not What I Seem, perhaps Abigail Dowd's story actually has led her to Rumi's field: “When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about,” he wrote. “Ideas, language, even the phrase 'each other' doesn't make any sense.”