By Joel E. Siegel
From the liner notes of "Eva By Heart"
Georgia O'Keefe once observed "Singing has always seemed to me the most per fect means of expression. It is so spontaneous. And after singing, I think the violin. Since I cannot sing, I paint." Unlike O'Keefe, one of her idols, Eva Cassidy never had to make a choice. Her talents as singer, instrumentalist and visual artist are radiantly evident on Eva By Heart, the legacy of a woman who brought beauty to the eyes, ears and hearts of everyone she encountered.
A deeply though unconventionally spiritual person, she viewed her talent as a gift and an obligation. Clearly, she inherited a predisposition for creative expression from her parents. Her father, Hugh, who taught special education at Prince George's County, Maryland, public schools, is a bassist, cellist, and sculptor. Her mother Barbara, the couple met in Germany in 1960, comes from a family of craftsmen and decorators. When Eva, born in 1963, began drawing at 2 and 1/2, her sensitivity to form and color were immediately apparent. At 9, she became serious about music, singing and practicing guitar hour after hour. Hugh taught her the rudiments of guitar technique, introduced her to folk music, Buffy St. Marie, Josh White, Pete Seeger, and formed a family ensemble that combined four-part vocal harmony wth his bass, Eva's guitar, and her brother Dan's violin. (A highly accomplished fiddler, Dan, who plays on the opening and closing tracks of this CD, now lives in Iceland and performs throughout Europe.)
In her teens, Eva sang and played with a pop group, Stonehenge, and spent a summer performing six shows daily with Dan as part of a country band at Wild World, a local theme park. On weekends, she bicycled from Old Town Alexandria to the museums on Washington D.C.'s Mall to study the works of Vermeer, Van Gogh and other favorite painters. After high school, she enrolled in art classes at Prince George's Community College but was frustrated by the instruction she received. ("I'm not learning anything," she complained to her mother. "The skills of the old masters are being lost.") Abandoning her studies, she worked as a plant propagator at a nursery, a job that engaged her love of nature. Each October, she and a bicycling friend camped out on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. "Nature was her soul," recalls her friend Ruth Murphy, the mother of a new-born daughter named Cassidy. "She respected and nurtured everything that grows, crawls and flies, even worms and slugs."
Eva was a complex person, painfully shy, vulnerable to criticism and subject to seasonal depressions, yet opinionated and stubborn, unyielding in her personal values and artistic principles. She loved solitude, bicycling, movies and Cheetos, hated high school, dresses, aggressive drivers and the exploitation of women in advertising and television. She was obsessive about her art projects, painting, drawing, sculpting, designing jewelry, decorating furniture and clock faces. Extremely self-conscious, she had little interest in pursuing a professional career in art or music, preferring to surround herself with supportive friends who served as her advocates. She had few possessions and modest goals, sometimes she spoke of wanting to live in a cottage by the ocean, and no sense of money. She didn't have a checking account until she was 30, and worried that material success would threaten her identity. Battling the melanoma that took her life at 33, she told her mother "All I want to do when I get well is sing and travel around with my music"
In 1986, she arrived at bassist Chris Biondo's Maryland recording studio to sing for a demo by Method Actor, a soft rock band headed by her high school friend, Dave Lourim. "It was the middle of winter," Biondo remembers. "She was so insecure, I had to go out to the parking lot and coax her to come inside." He was impressed with her singing and invited her to return so that he could record her as a soloist. "For the next eight months, she'd come by on her day off from the nursery to sing and play. Just hearing her voice made me feel happy. She had no career goals in mind, except maybe having a demo cassette to help her get gigs as a backup singer."
Biondo played Eva's tapes for musicians, and soon she was singing on Go-Go, rap and pop sessions. One day, Al Dale, whose job with the National Park Service included booking entertainment for outdoor concerts, dropped into Biondo's studio. "I heard this wonderful, soulful voice but couldn't see the singer from where I was sitting in the booth. When the musicians took a break, I was expecting a black woman, but instead out came this blonde, blue-eyed white lady. I told her how much I loved her singing and gradually we became friends. When I offered to help her with her career, she seemed astonished. The first thing she said was `Why would anyone want to pay to hear me sing?' She had no idea how great she was."
Encouraged by Biondo and Dale, she formed the Eva Cassidy Band in the spring of 1990. At first, she felt uncomfortable on-stage, keeping her eyes downcast to avoid making contact with the audience. But as she came to realize how much people enjoyed her music, she gradually evolved into a more confident, outgoing performer. The group's appearances at Blues Alley, the Wharf, the Birchmere, 219, Fleetwood's and other D.C. area clubs attracted a hard-core following.
After a recording session, Biondo played Eva's tapes for Go-Go godfather Chuck Brown, who remained in the studio until dawn listening to her voice. "The first four or five notes and I knew this lady really had something," Brown recalls. "She was singing `Stormy Monday' and `God Bless The Child,' songs I grew up with. She sounded so sweet and mellow, and had so much soul and feeling. I've earned my living playing r&b and rock and roll, but never considered myself a jazz or blues performer. When Eva agreed to make an album with me, she gave me the inspiration and confidence to try something I used to lie in my bed dreaming about but was always afraid to do." The result was The Other Side, a CD of ballads and blues duets released in November 1992, which led to concert appearances with Brown at the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap. "Eva opened a lot of doors for me. Performing with her was the most exciting part of my career. She will always be in my heart."
Dale approached record labels to sign Eva as a solo artist, but her eclectic repertoire, jazz, blues, folk, standards, gospel, pop, confused short-sighted a&r directors. "Eva was a pure artist," Dale observes. "She chose songs that moved her, that allowed her to express her feelings. Record companies wanted to dictate her material, to fit her into a certain mold so they could target a specific market. But she wouldn't go along with that. She refused to compromise her music to make it more commercial."
Frustrated by the record industry, Biondo and Dale decided to showcase Eva's music on a self-produced CD, taped live at Georgetown's Blues Alley in January 1996. Characteristically, she was unsatisfied with the results, and begged them not to release the album. After considerable persuasion, a compromise was reached. She agreed to let them issue the live CD if she could immediately begin working on a follow-up studio album. Her insecurity about Live At Blues Alley was unfounded. When the album appeared in June, Washington reviewers hailed it as one of the most accomplished solo vocal debuts of the decade. The public's response was equally enthusiastic. Despite minimal advertising and limited airplay, Live at Blues Alley became one of the D.C. area's best-selling records of 1996.
Eva By Heart is Cassidy's artistic testament, demonstrating the scope, versatility and depth of her talents. She was attracted to songs that express profound themes (love, loss, transcendence, redemption) drawn from a diversity of musical traditions which she transforms into haunting personal statements. Words are inadequate to capture the crystalline splendor of her singing, her pinpoint intonation and effortless control, her luxuriant multitracked choral backgrounds, her astonishing dynamics that range from the opalescent caress of ballads to full-throated, roof-raising blues and gospel shouts. The wonder of her sound is complemented by her fluent skills as an instrumentalist, guitar and keyboards, and the resourcefulness of her arrangements, which enfold her voice and guitar in layered harmonic textures. But even more impressive than her musicianship is the sheer, heartfelt emotion she conveys, cutting to the core of feelings all of us experience but can only stumblingly articulate.
One of the greatest voices of her generation, Eva Cassidy never regretted failing to achieve the recognition she deserved. People who knew and loved her feel that this private, stubborn, sensitive woman would not have tolerated the intrusions and inconveniences of celebrity, and probably would have pedaled away from the limelight on her bicycle. Eva By Heart is the treasure she has bequeathed to us. Its appearance commemorates an extraordinary creative spirit and marks the beginning of an inspiring musical legend.