I am standing on the corner of Smith and Bergen. This was never my neighborhood, but I’ve come to know it well: For the last six years, I’ve babysat a girl here who has become my family. I’ve watched her grow from age four into double digits, her initial mistrust of me blossoming into an unshakeable kinship. I don’t live in the city anymore, but every time I’m back in Brooklyn, I always arrange a visit. She is the only one who never asks how long I’ll stay. Maybe it’s a child’s sense of time, so much more elastic and endless, that allows her to dive deep into the moments we have together without giving too much thought to the beginning and end. Each time I arrive on her doorstep—always with a new haircut and a gift from my travels—time collapses around us. We revisit the intricate story world we’ve built together over the years: the kingdoms and characters, in constant defense against the evil White Witch and her armies. I am grateful for the chance to be so contained, when the rest of my life extends in a sprawl of arms and legs and wants and dreams; a parade of vagaries; near-constant travel.
I flip my coat up against the cold and get to walking down her block. As I go, it’s as if the air is parting, one seamless curtain drawing aside to allow me onto the stage of my life. Here is the comfort of familiar performance. I have been here so many times before, it’s easy and it’s right. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert argues that the things we create can love us as much as we love them—that ideas have energies, and those energies are shifting, transient, and alive. Why should a city not be the same?
When I lived here, I never felt that New York loved me. Who was I, but yet another frantic young artist eager to prove her worth? I didn’t deserve the love of one of the greatest cities on the planet. I came here to be whipped into shape, not loved. A tipsy young masochist on a subway ride to some higher purpose. But returning to the city now—older and more self-assured, learning the pendulum’s arc of coming and going—I sense the energy of Brooklyn settle on me like a skin. We are old lovers, this city and I. And we always want what we can’t have.
It was on the corner of Smith and Bergen that the opening lines of what was to become the song “Back in Brooklyn” flew into my mind:
Back in Brooklyn for the night
It’s easy and it’s right
It’s freezing and it’s bright
It’s everything I like
I wrote “Back in Brooklyn,” the third single from my band Half Waif’s new album Lavender, in the period when touring and making music became my actual profession for the first time in my life. In late August 2016, I quit my day job, packed up the Crown Heights apartment I shared with my partner, and committed myself to the road and to a life filled only with writing, playing, and thinking about music. Of course, that dream—once it entered our earthly realm of human bullshit—came with its own set of challenges.
A six-week tour in Europe (my first overseas) was so wrought with anxiety, discomfort, and tension that, when I returned stateside, my soul felt like a scrap of dirty velvet rubbed the wrong way. I felt deformed by such unanticipated intensity. I was unmoored and questioning everything—not least of all my decision to forgo the stability and community I had cultivated in New York for something more ephemeral. So I crawled back home, only to remember that home was no longer the city I had lived in for five years, but Bloomfield, NJ, at the house of my partner’s parents. These dear sweet people took us in and gave us a place to rest for a week or two at a time between the rapid-fire tours. It was on the piano in their living room that I wrote “Back in Brooklyn.”
Coming back to Brooklyn for the first time since moving away brought familiar joys as well as new grief. After hundreds of unknown streets in dozens of other cities, here were the streets I knew. “We often talk about love of place,” writes Rebecca Solnit in The Faraway Nearby, “but seldom of how the places love us back, of what they give us. They give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our own lives to remain connected and coherent.” I knew this, and yet a key component of the landscape had changed for me: I was pained to discover the rifts that had opened up between my friends and me, between my new self and the old. I could not explain what it felt like to be on tour to my non-touring friends—I recognize the privilege of not having a 9-to-5, making my days around the one thing I love to do. But there is a loneliness about this life that is hard to describe. And there is a sour taste to learning that a dream, when attained, is not all pastel and smoke. Reality has a way of tearing the mask off everything, and the face beneath is what we artists hold our mirrors up to.
Returning to the piano, which I began learning at six but shied away from for years, to write “Back in Brooklyn” gave me comfort. As a way to honor that space, my bandmates and I purposefully made it the most naked track on the record, with no sonic baubles to disguise or distract from the heart of the song. Save for a bit of rumbly synth bass in the third and final verse, the only sound besides piano and voice is a field recording I made of a subway horn. I visited the city sometime in the summer during the recording of Lavender, and while listening to an early version of “Back in Brooklyn” on the subway, the horn blared and cut through my headphones. Magically, it was in the key of the song. I stopped the track, opened up Voice Memos, and recorded the bellow. It may be a little too on the nose (the sound of Brooklyn in a song about being back in Brooklyn…) but sometimes we just have to honor the universe’s hand in our designs.
You can hear it now, at the peak of the song, as I call, Listen for me now: The city is calling back to me.