Skip to content

Interviews for Lisa Bigwood

Rochester Living - Democrat and Chronicle

Healing Words, Jeff Spevak, Staff Music Critic

"With her songs drenched in pain, Lisa Bigwood tries to overcome years of abuse" The night was another sleepless one for Lisa Bigwood. You can tell by the weary look on her face as she sits down in the dim sum restaurant on South Avenue. She slumps back into her chair until the wall catches her. The coffee that she pumps into her system keeps her going on days like this as she make her early morning rounds as an adult-care nurse, helping elderly people keep their daily lives in order.

It's the living nightmare of her former life that does this to her. Six years ago, Bigwood walked away - no, ran away from a 15 year abusive marriage, finally finding the strength to jump in the car and peel out of the driveway in a cloud of dust as her husband scratched at the car window.

She left behind a man who broke their furniture in a rage, threw her around the yard, threatened suicide and said he would kill her if she ran away with the kids. He tried to strangle her when he found out she spent $400 on a steel-string guitar, the one that eventually made it onto the cover of her two albums.

Bigwood performs tomorrow at Blue Sunday, a Henrietta coffeehouse and used-book store, where she'll be joined by Maria Gillard and Beth Ely Sleboda. The show is a benefit for Chances and Changes, a battered women's shelter in Genesco.

"It's hard for me to talk about in public, with a bunch of women I know", says Bigwood. "But I'll probably talk about it at the show Saturday. I'll probably talk about it a lot." When battered women talk about their troubles on, say, The Jerry Springer Show, you're watching from a distance. When youve had enough, you just walk away from the television.

But when you're sitting across from a victim, with little more that a small table and a plate of spring rolls between you, and the subject is brought up once again, the pain in her face is so real that it shakes you up. You don't get up and walk away.

It's tougher for the people closest to her, such as fiance Mike Roberts. He's a divinity student who's taking up family counseling. That's all the sensitivity training a guy could need, yet... "I wake up screaming", says Bigwood, "and he's the one who has to deal with it."

She doesn't have those nightmares as often anymore, but they're still one reason she doesn't sleep well some nights.

Counseling was never given a serious chance to silence the demons: "Frankly, I was too terrified," she says. But perhaps in songwriting she had an outlet that most other people don't have.

Her moment of epiphany was her first public performance, at an open microphone night. "Me and my girlfriend went and got drunk, and then she got up and said, 'This is Lisa, and she wants to sing'", recalls Bigwood. She says the audience was just the two of them, plus local Irish duo John and Joe Dady and the bartender.

"The whole thing was just a white-out of terror", she says. "But my whole life now, everyone I know, is because of that one scene."

On this day in the restaurant, Bigwood talks about folk festivals, where the likes of folk legend Pete Seeger have been in the crowd; he has even sung Happy Birthday to her. That's the kind of circle Bigwood moves in now. She doesn't look like a victim. She's tall, with long red hair that needs several ponytail holders placed in strategic positions to keep its unruly spirit in place. She exudes an outdoorsyness, living on a farm in Naples with her horse, her 14 year old son and her fiance.

Yet Bigwood doesn't look like the typical young singer-songwriter, chasing a record contract. At age 39, shes a late bloomer in the music business. Once she got away from her ex-husband, with new surroundings, Bigwood blossomed.

Her two albums are brilliant. She says she has written four songs in the last four days, about 152 songs over the last eight years. Influential people in the folk music are behind her, such as Rich Warrens, host of National Public Radios folk forum, Midnight Special. Both of her albums the 1995 release, Like No One Else, and 1996s Woodland were considered for Grammy nominations.

As a musician, Bigwood's on a roll. The anger seems to have abated some. "My songs are still very real, but they're not as pained," she says. "People used to bitch at me, Why dont you write some happy stuff?"

She's surrounded by happier influences now. There's her son and a 96 year-old patient named Marie. "I said to Marie one day, You've been around so long, you must remember some amazing stuff," says Bigwood. "And she told me this story how they used to keep Italian prisoners of war in Rochester. She told me about how they used to visit them and slip them candy between the wires."

So out of Maries recollection, and a little young, romantic agony that her own son was experiencing, Bigwood created a song called Under the Wire.

But unlike the easy-going personality of many folk performers, most of Bigwood's words hit with the chilling impact of accusations. Her humor consists solely of wry observations. And, new songs or old, the primary influence in her life remains clear. Having written a rather sweet song about POWs and remembrances of things past, she points out that one survival mechanism shared by prisoners and women in abusive relationships is a fantasy life. "Maybe thats why I'm a good writer," she muses.

So much so that a record label owner cried at a folk convention last week in Memphis, Tenn., on hearing her new song, Sweet Oasis.

She's unique. Bigwood's voice seems big and husky , but the words tumble out more as whispered confessions and moaning asides. Its as though she's guarding her feelings, as you would expect of someone whos been hurt, even as she spills her secrets.

Experience has made her characters in songs such as No Shame grow stronger, so that they can now turn and face their tormentors: "You say you have sorrow/ You say you have pain/ You talk of tomorrow/ Like you have no shame."

Her songs keep returning to the theme of cycles of violence how generations pass on abuse. "I never hated him," she says of her ex-husband, who underwent counseling after she left him. "He was abused as a kid. He's not happy about what happened." The cycle of violence had to end somewhere.

But why couldn't it have ended sooner? That's what people always wonder about battered women: Why couldn't a smart women such as Bigwood have walked away earlier?

My personal favorite, Bigwood says wryly of that common question. She recalls an essay she read on abuse, comparing the situation to a wire bird cage. If you look at one wire of the cage, people wonder, 'Why doesnt the bird just fly away? But you have to step back and see the whole cage.

Kids, money, a lack of self-esteem they all could be wires in that cage. Places such as Chances and Changes give victims a place to fly to. And it needs the money generated by donations at tomorrows show.

"Sadly enough", says Bigwood, "they have to expand."


Grammy almost came calling for Lisa Bigwoods albums

Jeff Spevak, Staff Music Critic

Lisa Bigwood's name wasn't mentioned at Wednesday night's 40th annual Grammy Awards. But she came close, again. Two years ago, her debut album, Like No One Else, was considered by the Grammy committees as a nominee for Album of the year and Best Contemporary Folk Album. Her second album, Woodland, was considered for the same categories this year, a fact her record label was happy to tout to the press.

She didn't make the final list either time losing out this year in the contemporary folk category to a songwriting royal court of Bob Dylan, John Prine, Guy Clark, Iris DeMent and the Indigo Girls but it's always nice to be thought of.

"It blows my mind," says Bigwood, "thinking of her name being bounced around the same room as Dylan and Prine." And then she thinks of what it would mean to take that next step with her next album, and perhaps gain an actual nomination. "I'm certainly readier than Iv'e ever been," she says. "But it would be a shock."


1- Backwoods Woman (Approx. 3:17 Minutes) 'Live' in Kerrville, Tx. May, 1995.

2- Charlie Asher (Approx. 5:18 Minutes) 'Live' Recorded from Kerrville Folk Festival, Tx. May, 1995

3- Lisa Bigwood Interview with Sally Cohen (Approx. 3:28 Minutes) 'Live' on Channel 9 Rochester, N.Y. Sept 1996.

4- Woodland Band (Approx. 3:08 Minutes) 'Live' from The Merle Festival, April, 1997. Song Titles that appeared on Various CD sampler's 'Backwoods Woman' 'The Ballad Of Charlie Asher' 'Woodland Band' 'Livin On A Budget'

bigwood5