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NY Times on the Web

May 25, 2007

SONGWRITER'S VOICE A VORTEX ON HANCOCK PLACE
by Iris Arno

IRVINGTON -Being connected is profoundly important to Lisa Lynne Mathis, an Irvington singer, songwriter, and pianist. It seems fitting, therefore, that her first full-length CD, "Hancock Place," which pulled together a web of local musicians, neighbors, and colleagues, is named for the street where their energy and talent coalesced.

It was shortly after she moved to these parts five years ago that a friend introduced Mathis to Scott Freiman who had just opened a recording studio -- Second Act Studio -- on the third floor of his Irvington home. "We hit it off right away," he said. "And after we had talked for a few hours, she sat down at my grand piano and blew me away with a combination of great playing, great singing, really good insightful lyrics, and very original songs." Over the next few years, they went on to collaborate on several live performances and a recording.

In 2005, Al Cattabiani of Dobbs Ferry founded Garagista Music with the aim of showcasing Rivertowns musicians, and Freiman soon became his partner. Two of Mathis' songs were chosen for an early compilation CD, "Rivertown Voices," and it wasn't long before the three were discussing the idea of producing a full album of her music on the Garagista label. "Lisa a genuinely distinctive talent, the real deal," Cattabiani said. "She's as good an artist as we would have found if we had searched the whole nation, but she's right here in our back yard."

Mathis, 37, is an intriguing combination of the glamorous, the down-to-earth, the passionate, and the spiritual. While a recent CD launch party found her seated at the shiny black piano, wearing a stunning, form-fitting glittery dress, another day she's at Dows Lane, rolling up her sleeves to volunteer at the school's publishing center. She is quick to get up on her soapbox about politics, or the star-obsessed nature of American society, yet Wednesday nights, in a more reflective mode, solos in the Gospel/Praise service at Manhattan's Riverside Church. On Saturdays, Mathis mentors teen musicians and leads a contemporary Christian service at a church in White Plains, and year-round, she sings with Broadway Inspirational Voices, helping raise money for HIV patients through the non-profit organization Broadway Cares.

Music for her soul

Finding solace in music is something she has been doing since her childhood in the Washington, D.C. area. "My little upright piano in the corner was my calming place, my happy place," she said. "It was always voice and piano interwoven and that always was what my spirit needed to release and get me through. You can call it prayer, meditation, my journal, or whatever you want to call it."

College brought an intense career-oriented involvement in musical theater. After earning a a BFA in the rigorous, competitive conservatory program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, she tried to make a go of it in New York and Los Angeles. But she wasn't happy. The lifestyle and values didn't jive with her personal beliefs and she felt worn thin.

Then she met her future husband, Gil Kirkpartrick, and his banking job took them to the Netherlands for three years. There, Mathis rediscovered herself while playing and singing in a tiny church in Amsterdam. "It was like my slate was wiped clean, and I was stripped of all my need for the American world marketing machine to affirm who I was," she said. "I just played and sang and wrote for something more -- for connectivity, for meaning, for worship, for hope."

During the next five years, while the family (which by then included two daughters -- Hannah-Grace, now 10, and Audrey, now 8 1/2) lived in Chicago, Mathis studied classical voice; lent her alto to a number of professional group; and toured with rock ringers Liz Phair. Then came the move to Irvington.

A hybrid of 'creative vision'

When "Hancock Place" started taking shape just over a year ago, Freiman contacted Doug Epstein, a Dobbs Ferry sound engineer, who soon became a co-producer. Hastings guitar star Jay Azzolina was brought on board; Tony-nominee Michael McElroy (who Mathis works with in the Broadway Inspirational Voices) wrote background vocals for the Broadway singers he brought to the sessions; Freiman devised lush arrangements for a string quintet; and a horn section with musicians from Blood, Sweat and Tears was added to the mix. Even Cattabiani, Freiman, and Epstein couldn't resist jumping on guitar, percussion, keyboards, and accordion. It just felt like everyone's project.

"What was great was the people felt they could contribute their creative vision," Mathis said. "They had some very basic charts to work from and we created this music together. For example, I thought the song 'Hotel Civilization' would be left on the cutting room floor. The music just wasn't jelling. Then my drummer came in and said, 'You know, I kind of hear this funky New Orleans vibe,' and the next thing you know, in comes the brass, there goes a bass lick. So, laying the vocal down on top of all that was a piece of cake!"

It was this collegial and collaborative working atmosphere, plus the frequent presence of friends, family, and neighbors streaming in and out of the house last summer, while the recording was going on, that inspired her to name the album "Hancock Place."

Mathis -- who counts among her influences Billy Joel, Elton John, Tori Amos, Carly Simons, and Carole King -- aims for authenticity and meaning in songs that are her take on the joys and challenges of life. For example, "Anchor" was written in response the Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, exploring the question of "whatt someone thinks and feels coming out on the other side of disaster." "The Greatest Embrace" grew out of a desire to help a friend survive the death of her child and become a powerful tool in the healing process. "Comfort Zone" -- inspired by her two daughters -- reflects Mathis' amazement over the power of love, and "Prepared to Be Wrong" is about faith and tolerance.

"The gift of music for me is about really finding the combination of a turn of a phrase linked up with a melody line that just makes you have to pull over on the side of the road," Mathis said. "It's just a moment and it's very private, very personal. I love that I can somehow be able to give that gift to somebody."

"Hancock Place" can be purchased online at www.lisalynnemathis.com and www.garagistamusic.com as well as through amazon.com and iTunes. Mathis will share the bill with Jay Azzolina in a concert Oct 5 at Irvington Town Hall Theater, sponsored by the Rivertown Arts Council.

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