An Englishwoman in New York
New York is a city of dreams. It’s the place where people go to make their dreams come true. In September, musicians from all over the world converge on New York for the CMJ conference, looking to get signed and get noticed. This story is about Gena Dry, an Englishwoman who came to New York is search of fame and fortune. An Englishwoman who ended up living through a pivotal moment in American history.
Gena Dry is a London native who teaches at the London School of Music, “teaching teach singing to people who think they can’t sing as well as artists, ex-prisoners and ex-offenders.” Dry has her certificate in Jazz and Popular Musicianship from Goldsmith College. Gena’s own music has been described as Bjork meets The Velvet Underground by way of P.J. Harvey, or a Kate Bush for the 21st Century. Gena says her unique vocal style is “me trying to sing like Whitney Houston, I just don’t manage it.”
“In London, being in a guitar band is really bad right now,” Gena told me about her decision to come to New York. “It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like this. I’m afraid of heights and I’ve never really traveled, but I thought, ‘I’ve really got to go to America.’ A friend told me, ‘if you want to go to America, just book a plane and go.’ I did just that in May. I bought a ticket and was staying on the sofa of someone I’d never met. By that Sunday, I was playing at an open mic night at the Knitting Factory. After that first trip, I knew I had to come back.”
“I came back to New York in July and put together a band here,” Gena continues. “I’ve been sofa hopping and walking dogs. I’ve played CBGB’s and the Anti-Folk Festival at the Sidewalk Cafe.” Her performances with her New York band garnered the interest of some major players in the music business, and Gena got an invitation to play at the CMJ Festival.
Then came September 11th.
“I watched everything on the television,” Gena admits. “I was staying in an apartment looking after two dogs for this girl who went to Spain. I was staying alone in an apartment on the Lower East Side. I didn’t watch things from my window.”
“I was in the area that got cordoned off, Gena continues. When you went out into the street, there were people in the street wearing masks because of all the smoke. Everybody was in a real state of shock. Then you saw the posters on every street corner, ‘Have You Seen My Wife? She was four months pregnant. She was last seen on floor 105.’ Every time I saw a poster like that, my heart broke. On every street corner, people were putting up posters and lighting candles and putting up poems. We would go to the park and light a candle and talk to the other people. I gathered with some people from my street and we lit our own candles.”
“The thing that struck me was feeling so helpless,” Gena continued. “Being European, I couldn’t give blood. A lot of the lines where we tried to volunteer, they didn’t need any more volunteers. I just had the feeling of being helpless, wanting to help but not being able to do anything. Going out and playing music seemed such an inappropriate thing to do.”
Reflecting on her stay in New York, Gena recalled her impressions of the World Trade Center. “When I first got here,” Gena remembers, “I was bowled over by the view from the Staten Island Ferry looking back on lower Manhattan. I was in tears because it was so beautiful. Subsequently, I went up the World Trade Center, which, as I’m terrified by heights, was quite a big deal to me. I stood at the bottom wondering, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ I shook all the way up. I went to the edge and I looked straight out. I couldn’t look down. Now, I’m amazed. Any one of us could have had a reason to be up there. They had concerts up there in the evening. There was a bar up there. Anyone from the city could have been up there. Any number of tourists could have been up there. That part of what makes the disaster so shocking.”
“The thing that really helped me was being on the Internet 24 hours a day,” Gena admits. “Everybody from London e-mailed me to ask if I was OK. ‘Well,’ I told them, ‘I’m a musician. I wouldn’t be up at nine o’clock. You should know that!’ Once they found out I was alone, they were e-mailing me with whatever was going on in London just to keep me sort of sane. It’s one thing to be on the other side of the world, but to be away in the middle of that kind of thing. I’m fine when I’m doing e-mail, calling people, and doing business. All that just stopped. Now, I seem to be in a war zone. That’s an amazing concept. I thought I came here to play a festival.”
Getting back to something approaching normal has been hard for everyone. For entertainers, it’s even harder. Gena rationalized returning to performance saying, “people enjoy concerts because it takes them out of reality for a moment. Sometimes, the artists can express things that people can’t express on their own. Currently at the Sidewalk Cafe, there are a lot of people playing songs about the disaster. I wrote a song called “Change,” which is the one I’ve chosen to play when I go out on my own. That’s the song that I feel passionately about. Something has to change and we have the power to do it.”
Talking about the need for change, Gena related it to her own life. “When I started singing, I couldn’t sing a note, but I learned. In order to do that, I had to change myself. Now, I feel that something has to change in the world. It’s not all right that things are all right in this country or that country. We need to do something to make the world change. The thing that Bob Geldof did with Feed The World, was a remarkably good effort at raising peoples’ consciousness. I guess it’s a wake up call to see what’s going on in the world.” Later the same evening I spoke to Gena Dry, I saw Gena’s concerns for larger worldwide change echoed by none other that British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In an address to a Labour Party convention, Blair called for rooting out terrorists, but also ending the conditions that breed terrorism. It seems we really are at a crossroads.
“I decided to stay here to play the CMJ Festival,” Gena says in conclusion. “I put in all this work, I might as well stay and play. I play my CMJ show at the Sidewalk Cafe on October 13th. Then I fly over to London where I have two days to rehearse my London band before we have to be in Amsterdam for Access 2 Amsterdam. That will be quite tight. I’ve been playing with the people in London longer, so it should be all right. As long as I can get a flight.”
To check out Gena Dry’s music, check out http://www.genadry.com. ◼