Mimi Cross

Talking About Her Musical Home

After searching for a music scene which she could bring her music to, Mimi Cross stumbled upon Asbury Park. Years later, Cross, a native of Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, now calls Asbury Park her musical home.

Many music fans in Asbury Park have become familiar with Cross' spiritual, poetic songs. She has made frequent appearances at local venues like the Saint and those close to the music scene at the Jersey Shore are familiar with her name. Many are receptive to her bare, sometimes solely acoustic approach to presenting her songs. Her lyrics can be sometimes political, yet at other times thematically simplistic. Cross conveys her musical message with clarity, while still leaving enough space open for the listener's interpretation.

Cross continues to approach her craft with an originality many other songwriters have vacated in their own effort to approach or remain in the mainstream. Her sense of what sells clearly takes the backdoor to sincerity. Despite Cross' tendency to remain true to her craft, she still has been no stranger to success. She has already built up a strong resume of national acts whom she has shared the stage with, including Chris Whitley, Jill Sobule and Jeffrey Gaines. Even more impressive are the names of those she has opened for at the PNC Bank Arts Center, a list which includes Sting, Lauryn Hill, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.

Cross' music travels into areas which are dark and those which are light, but she always finds a way to touch a listener. The emotional state of which her songs were born is clear in both their structure and delivery.

Chorus and Verse recently asked the veteran of the Asbury Park scene just how she creates her songs and her methods of reproducing them to live audiences.

When and where did you first play in the Jersey Shore? What brought you to the area?

I grew up going to Long Beach Island and I loved it there. So, as soon as I was out of college I moved there, got a job teaching music in the schools part time and a job in a record store. The thing is, if you live on Long Beach Island I really believe you become an alcoholic or an artist. I wanted to write songs for my whole life and I always sang. Also, I started playing guitar at around 13. I wrote every other thing - stories, poems, journals - but it wasn't 'till I lived isolated on that beautiful barrier island alone that I really became a songwriter, an artist.

Problem: No place to play and NYC was two hours away. Asbury Park, though, was right in the middle. Asbury Park, mostly shuttered up as it was, became my musical home. After a few years of performing there, making the trek to play in NYC, I decided I need to pick a place closer to more music, but still near the beach. I picked Red Bank and moved there, just as it was turning it's corner. So there were lots of artists, lots of people playing music, making art.

Did any one or group of people help you build a career here?

Yes, definitely. Scott Stamper, co-owner of the Saint in Asbury Park, gave me my second gig, opening for Loudon Wainwright III and he's given me my favorite gigs ever since. He's got the biggest heart of anyone I've ever met in the music industry and he always has positive things to say about my music and original music in general. He's "The Saint," you know. Also, Peter Scherer of Highway 9. Way back in the days of Mr. Reality, he and Gordon [Brown, guitarist in Mr. Reality and, later, Highway 9] and Rob [Tanico, Highway 9 bassist] were an inspiration to me. But, that is the beginning of a song story.

What do you think Asbury has that is different from other scenes?

The presence of Bruce Springsteen [and] the history of great song writing that's here because of him. When you want to become a writer, any kind of artist, you have to study. So you study the work of the greats. Bruce is one of the greatest songwriters alive and a very important artist because he does what the very greatest artists in all mediums have done throughout history: he has documented a time and place, and he has done this, capturing the smallest human details as well as some of the most important political events. He has done this in ways that are excellent - craftsmanship, universal feelings, rock and roll and the guitar - he brings it all together. He's an inspiration and because of him there's a scene here that is unique and wonderful that is recognized in many places in the world.

We're so lucky, too, that because of artists like him and venues like the Stone Pony, Asbury got put on the map as a stopping point for groups that are about to hit Europe. We get great bands here because, since there's a scene, touring artists know that they're gonna have an audience.

Tradewinds was a good warm-up spot for acts about to head to Europe, but we still have the Pony.

Is their anything specifically that helps inspire you in your creative process? How long does it usually take you to write a song?

Hmmm... It's always so different. My songs often come in groups of three. I've discovered that it's important to finish all three. Then, if I'm lucky, one's a keeper.

Sometimes the song comes fast, all at once. Sometimes just a piece, like a chorus, hangs around for a while before the other parts come. The very coolest thing that happens is when your song teaches you something. You start to write and when that second line comes out, or that chorus comes out, you are amazed - blown away - "Wow! I didn't know that!" That's when you learn about yourself. The process reveals something that was hidden inside you. What's really trippy, though, like Rosanne Cash says, "Wait 'till you write something and then it comes true."

Activities that are repetitive, like practicing, or sometimes cleaning - not too romantic, I know - and especially walking, these things inspire me sometimes, the rhythms, and repetitive motions. Listening to other people's stuff also helps inspire my creative process. A lyric that I love, and I think "Oh, I would have said it this way." Or, a chord progression that I try to figure out that goes through my filter and then some chords get lost, some switched out. Reading and movies really fill my well and hand me creative scenarios, lines even that lead to song possibilities. Also political events or people that I've met who move me.

Is their a certain satisfaction you get playing that song before an audience?

That's an interesting question for me. I think of myself as a writer who loves to sing. Performing just happens to be the last step in my creative process. I mean, if you write a song, what are you going to do with it? You can't just let it sit in your notebook. That's not respecting the muse. That's not carrying out your end of the bargain. You've been given this thing, this gift, the desire to create and then the creation. You've got to put it out there. You write it, then, as Lyle Lovett says: "You've got to be enough of an asshole to get up and play it". And then, yeah, sometimes there's this thing that happens. You play the song. It ends. There's a moment. In that moment you feel both you and the audience, together, hearing the song. There's a connection.

But I'm not so into performing. I mean, I don't really feel like a performer. I feel like a maker of music. Of words. I don't play out to the audience and they mostly seem pretty cool with that. It's more like I'm saying "Hey, you guys, I made this thing, I made it out of feelings and I think you might feel those things, too. You might like it, too. Do you want to listen?" So far the answer has mostly been yes.

Do playing some of your older songs still bring out new feelings?

Yes. Sometimes I think about how I felt when I wrote the song and I still feel that same feeling. There it is, strong. But, other times I purposely think about something else, a different meaning for the song.

Having new ideas and new thoughts about the song makes me feel new things. But, you know, a feeling is pretty strong if it inspired a song, or made you want to write about someone or something. Those feelings often never fade.

Is there ever a point where you feel like you have played one of your songs too much? If so, do you shelve it for a while or attempt to rearrange it a bit?

I guess it has happened. I mean, it's my responsibility to reach deep and find the beauty or meaning in a song if it has somehow faded. But, if I can't, then yes, bringing in some new stuff and putting that one away for a while works.

I'm not big on rearranging. I try to serve the song. So, if it's written a certain way, that's the way it is. The song is the song. Some of my songs that may not be as strong as others, well, they may not get taken back into the fold, make it back onto the set list. Or maybe that's the way it's supposed to go for that particular song. It served its purpose. It was there for just for that moment, that gig, that night, and it wasn't meant to be around forever. But it's funny how your best songs always work for you on some level. Sometimes it's just a matter of playing it solo, or with a band. Or in your room or in front of three people, instead of 50 or in front of strangers or friends.

Repeating your songs is like doing the same yoga poses over and over, which is like life. I mean, it's new everyday. Otherwise you wouldn't enjoy your morning coffee, you know?

So, each note is always fascinating if you allow yourself to be fascinated. Each note is new. It's up to you. Life is best if you are full of wonder.

Which of your songs are most important to you?

That's a tough question, Josh! Two songs that come to mind immediately are "Anymore" and "Easily" from my CD, Monkey Trap. They were both songs of personal discovery for me. And "Ghost Inside," which is also from that CD. Another song, "Hungry Wolf," which is a song about the muse, the appetite and desire of the muse, the muse being more like a fierce life sustaining force rather than some little fairy on your shoulder and was on my recording "Demos".

Also, the title track to my new CD, "I Slept...," is very important to me and the last song on that CD, "Satisfied Life". I wrote that song in the morning, three days after 9/11, and it's a prayer of gratitude for my life.

[ Website: www.mimicross.com ]

Josh Davidson

Josh Davidson has written music feature articles for Jersey Style and served as the Jersey Shore rock columnist for Steppin' Out Magazine. Other music writing credits include Aquarian Weekly, Jersey Beat, Backstreets and njcoast.com. He has written free-lance for the Asbury Park Press' Community Sports section and has written featured articles for its news section, as well as covering campus news and sports weekly for the Signal, the College of New Jersey's (formerly Trenton State College) student newspaper. He has worked as a staff writer for The Independent, and his work for Greater Media Newspapers has also been published in the News Transcript. He is a former beat reporter for the Ocean County Observer who presently is a news writer for Symbolic Systems Inc. supporting the US Army's Knowledge Center. His music writing covers a vast range of topics, from the current cover band craze, highs and lows of the original scene, to the early days of the Jersey Shore rock scene in Asbury Park. He is also a musician, having written hundreds of songs as a singer/songwriter, and playing them out as a solo/acoustic artist. He has also played with cover bands, including It Doesn't Matter, and several original bands, including as the guitarist for the solo project of singer/songwriter Dave Eric. He continues to work on solo material and is presently the guitar player for Jersey Breeze.