The Story of "Happiness", Me & the ALDC

I wrote "Happiness" two years ago, in 2012. Writing music is a very subconscious process for me, and over time songs evolve and arrangements shift, and I "workshop" them until I get them to a point where they feel, finally, completed and then I go into a studio to record them.

With "Happiness", it started with a feeling of elation and hopefulness, after I saw a wonderful concert by one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Glen Hansard, at The Beacon in NYC. On my way home on the subway, I got a little melody in my head, that was eventually to be the tune to the intro and the verses of the song. I wasn't at an instrument and didn't want to forget it, so on my walk home from the subway I tried something that a peer band of mine - The Paper Raincoat - seemed to do in a lot of their music, at the time; I started humming and clapping out a melody, to help me define the rhythm. I think, looking back, if I'd started writing the song at the piano it may have ended up slower and more like a ballad, so I'm glad I didn't have that option! Once I had the chance to play my keyboard, I sat and tried to flesh out the music more, until I had a very classically-inspired, but still rhythmic/uptempo piece of music that was to be about 1/3 of the song. Sometimes I write a whole song immediately. Other times it can take a while for lyrics come, they come partially, and they evolve.

During this time, I had become a big fan of the show "Dance Moms" and all of the very talented young ladies who performed week after week on the show. Being a former ballet dancer myself, and also having become aware that a lot of my music had been circulating throughout the competitive dance community, I thought it would be an inspiring exercise to try to compose something for a specific dancer, and the one that captured me the most at the time was Maddie Ziegler. As a young girl, I attended The School of American Ballet, where Balanchine technique, and a certain kind of technical prowess matched by an extreme swiftness was very much revered. On the flip-side, I was always drawn the most to dancers in The New York City Ballet who not only had wonderful technique, but a soulfulness and an expressive ability to convey emotion, and to sweep us away by making it all look very effortless. As I was completing the song lyrically and began to perform it at live gigs, I "saw" Maddie dancing to it, and I would often talk about it at my shows with the audience, and ask folks if they were familiar with the show. (At one show, I even invited a professional tap dancer up on stage to tap to it).

I've rarely talked about this, but my closest friends and of course my family know that I had a friend at School Of American Ballet who was a child prodigy, very similar to Maddie; she had a joy in her dancing and performed with an emotional and physical range far beyond her age. Her name was Julie, and we all loved her and were inspired by her. She was also a sweet, loving person without a trace of arrogance; I think she knew herself that her abilities were a rare gift, and somehow that awareness kept her humble as a person. One day, her parents came to speak to us and to her teachers, to explain that she had developed a rare sarcoma in her arm (a type of cancer). We didn't completely understand, but we knew it wasn't good. Eventually Julie became very sick, and she passed away before she reached her thirteenth birthday. Her parents came back to the School Of American Ballet, and had a kind of memorial where we all watched her incredible dancing on TV screens in the hallways, and talked about how she'd inspired us. Of course, we cried and felt how unfair and cruel it was that she was taken so soon, and with such enormous talent - easily the most talented student within the whole school. I never forgot Julie or her gift, and I don't think I'd ever encountered that kind of natural ability and pure joyfulness in a very young dancer, until I saw Maddie Ziegler perform on television!

While lyrically, many of my songs focus on romance and draw upon my personal life, "Happiness" was a bit of a different process. I played it live for two years, and it went through several versions before I recorded it. While I was making my 11th record, "Blue Roses", a strange, coincidental thing happened: through a leak on YouTube, I found out that Maddie Ziegler was going to be dancing to one of my songs, "Birthday". It was a wonderful opportunity, and a stroke of luck; I was thrilled when I saw her performance in January 2014, and incredibly moved by how deeply she seemed to feel the sentiment of the music. After that, the show used several of my other songs from my last album, with Maddie as well as all the other girls performing beautifully to various songs of mine in solo, duo and group dances.

After that happened, I thought it would be neat to record "Happiness", produce it in a more classically orchestrated way, and present it to Abby Lee Miller to see if she'd like to have Maddie dance to it. Several months later, that's exactly what I did! I sent a message to Abby on Facebook, to thank her and her team for dancing to (by that point) eight of my songs. I expressed my gratitude, and also mentioned I had a song that I felt would be perfect for Maddie to dance to, and that I hadn't recorded it yet but would like to send it along once I did. She immediately responded, very enthusiastically informed me she'd been using my songs for over ten years even before there was a reality show, and that yes, she'd love to hear it when it was complete. Re-energized and inspired by the possibility of something I'd only imagined, I set to work in the studio and recorded the song with a string section and orchestral percussion, and did my very best to perform the piano and vocal parts in a way that would suit Maddie's personality,   and portray the kind of joyfulness she conveys whenever I've seen her dance. I worked hard on the arrangement and the mix and thankfully, when Abby and her music supervision team heard it, they liked it and felt it would be a good piece of music for Maddie. Once I was informed that she would dance to it later in the season, I was not allowed to tell anyone so I wouldn't "spoil" anything that would happen on the show before it aired; I didn't even tell my own family, which was not an easy secret to keep!

All in all, "Happiness" has been a fun song for me to perform the last two years, and to finally record this Spring. It has been a dream come true to have such a gifted dancer to interpret it in a lyrical dance, and it was a pleasure to meet Maddie and all the incredibly talented girls at the ALDC, when I was invited to visit there in May. It's impossible for me not to envision dance when I write music, because that's how I learned to play piano by ear...by listening to classical music in dance class, since I was three. I dance around by myself in my apartment and choreograph in my head constantly. To be able to present a specific song you've imagined a specific dancer performing to, and actually have it become a reality, is really a huge honor, and something I will definitely never forget! I hope that I have the chance to compose for other talented dancers.