By Letitia VanSant. Self-released (letitiavansant.com), 2020. 9 tracks. $15/CD; $10/digital download.
When chronobiologist Franz Halberg was asked how he invented the word circadian in 1959, he said it was a combination of the Latin circa (about) and dies (day) and that it implied that there are physiological rhythms close to 24 hours. These daily physiological rhythms influence all life on our planet.
Circadian is a perfect title for this album, which certainly has rhythms. It has its own musical rhythms as well as levels of physiologic and psychologic rhythms.
Letitia VanSant is a singer/songwriter from the Baltimore, Md., area who happens to be a Quaker. She’s been making music for a while. Her debut solo album, Breakfast Truce, was released in 2012; followed in 2015 by Parts & Labor, recorded with her former band, Letitia VanSant & the Bonafides. In 2018, Gut It to the Studs came out with original songs and covers (including a powerful rendition of Stephen Stills’s “For What It’s Worth”). Circadian is her strongest effort to date.
Paste, a digital magazine that covers music and entertainment, named her one of its “10 Country Artists to Watch in 2020.” I think “country” is a bit too limiting: her style and appeal are much broader than that category. Paste also said: “her gentle singsong may strike you as sweet, but listen a little closer, and you’ll realize she’s spitting fire.”
That assessment is spot on, especially as regards Circadian. Most of the track titles don’t give much indication of this fire-spitting, but a few do, notably “You Can’t Put My Fire Out,” which starts soft: VanSant’s voice at its sweetest and subtlest. As the song goes on, her voice strengthens and grows in volume, as does the song’s accompaniment:
I taste your words inside my mouth
Like broken glass I spit them out
I’m the one who’s speaking now
You can’t put my fire out
It’s clear she is “the one who’s speaking now”; there’s no holding back. Also powerful is “Most of Our Dreams Don’t Come True”:
The seats all are empty now and the curtain is drawn
No one’s here to witness if you’re right or if you’re wrong
Can’t you find a reason now that you should carry on
Backstage in the dark it’s between you and your God
The title track, “Circadian,” sounds benign enough when you read its title, but it reveals a deep understanding of Halberg’s concept:
The fireflies a-blinking cannot seem to find their mates
The birds a-flying south cannot seem to find their way
They’re blinded by the lights
The city’s halo night
And they’re lost and lonely as I am
The song, says VanSant, was inspired by an article she’d read on light pollution in cities. That’s certainly something I’ve observed, even though I live on 40 acres 25 miles southwest of a major city’s downtown area. The fireflies (or lightning bugs, as we call them) are still blinking here and finding mates but not so much in town, my friends there report. And I know that due to the light pollution, the stars are harder to see here than 15 years ago as the city creeps nearer. There’s not the darkness at night for either me or the critters who live here.
The album is a nice mix of sounds—some a bit countryish, others more modern folk, others Americana, and some that defy categorization. All are capably done, and VanSant’s voice fits perfectly with the themes and arrangements. Her voice is one that is eminently listenable and enjoyable. It’s also compelling, drawing the listener into the tunes and their carefully crafted lyrics. Recorded in Nashville, Tenn., her vocals and guitar work are ably backed by superb session musicians Juan Solorzano, Will Kimbrough, Michael Rinne, Neilson Hubbard, with harmony vocals provided by friends and collaborators David McKindley-Ward and Mia Rose Lynn.
Circadian is well-produced and a joy to listen to—even when the subjects are difficult. In that way it is perfect. Instead of being hectoring about subjects such as abusive relationships, it invites us to think on things such as the need to simplify our lives so that fireflies can live, emotional isolation, poisoning of the earth and our bodies, and more.
I’ve been listening to Circadian for the past couple of months and find something new each time I listen. One of my favorite tracks is “Something Real,” in which VanSant sings: “Someone give me a song to sing that sounds like something real / I want the whole world to know exactly how I feel.”
Someone gave VanSant a song to sing that sounds like something real—and we know exactly how she feels. Lucky her. Lucky us.
Brent Bill is the former lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Johnny and the Stingrays who now lives on Ploughshares Farm in rural Indiana and writes the occasional book. His newest title, Hope and Witness in Dangerous Times, will be released as part of the Quaker Quicks series in summer 2021.