As far as career accolades go, Lisa Reagan’s 20 year run with the Washington National Opera will no doubt always be at the top of the list – but for the multi-talented spinto soprano, veteran voice educator and all around creative expressive, it was merely a foundation for the ever-evolving artistry that has driven her career as a songwriter and recording artist over since the early 2000s.
After a series of acclaimed classical crossover albums, the singer’s eclectic output over the past six years has been particularly fascinating. Enlisting fellow National Opera alumni Suzanne Jackson, Lisa’s duo Shunia – named for the state of being meaning stillness (of power, not passivity) and receptivity (quiet, present alert) was a new age/global music project merging chant, opera and polycultural rhythms into a fresh sonic fusion. The two have manifested their desire for the music to bring healing and connection over the course of two acclaimed albums, Ascend (2017) and the self-titled follow-up (2021).
Loyal fans who wondered what surprising realm the muse would take Lisa next have been amply rewarded with what can best be described as a soul-transportive event rather than simply another standout album among many. Fueled by her lifelong passion for poetry, What We Need Is Here is and epic collection pairing Lisa’s transcendent vocal prowess and engaging melodic and rhythmic composing skills with classic pieces by some of the world’s most renowned, inspiring and quoted poets.
Though the 10 pieces all started out as rough piano and vocal demos in Lisa’s studio, they all came to magical, dynamic and sweeping life via the sonic imagination of Tony Award winning and Grammy nominated producer and orchestrator Jamshied Sharifi. Lisa tapped him to help bring her visions to life on the heels of the powerful production he created for Shunia. Reflecting the expansive scope of the collection, Lisa’s performances soar above a 14-piece string section (eight violins, three viola, three cello) and an ensemble featuring oboe, French horn, bass clarinet, bassoon, and ethnic instruments like the Uillean pipes, Irish drums and didgeridoo.
“Once I felt that the music I wrote matched up with how the words made me feel, I emailed Jamshied, remembering the great work we had done previously,” says Lisa. “He was busy with his usual Broadway and film projects when I first wrote him, but the down time during the pandemic allowed him an opening to work on my poetry songs. I sent him rough demos of what I had, he made comments, and we talked back and forth about how to complete bridges and other parts of certain tunes. Then he made synth mock-ups of his arrangements and how he envisioned the production. It became a full-blown collaborative effort. Once Jamshied came on board, I knew this would be a viable recording project.”
Considering the fresh musical poetry concept and enormity of musical details ultimately involved, one might be inclined to think Lisa started out with a grand vision for What We Need Is Here – yet the truth is much more organic. Knowing she was a poetry fan, Jake Johnson, her friend, colleague and Professor of Musicology at Oklahoma City University’s Wanda Bass School of Music (where Lisa is a Professor of Voice), introduced her to the works of poet Wendell Berry and gave her a copy of his volume This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems.
This metaphor stuck with Lisa as she read Berry’s poetry. “Most of the poems in that collection gave me a feeling of closeness to the earth,” she says. “Berry talks about the intelligence of nature and the planet we live on, how it’s all around us and all we have to do is open our eyes and pay attention. When we walk in the forest, we should just be quiet and listen to what it’s saying and even allow ourselves to smell the scents underneath us. He spoke eloquently of the aliveness of the planet and took me there in my emotions.”
One poem from Berry’s book that stood out to Lisa was “The Wild Geese.” As she read its piercing images of the transition from summer to fall, she began “doodling” at the piano in her studio (a practice she has engaged in since the age of five!) and began playing a lick, then a rhythm pattern she heard in her head. She found notes on the piano to connect these elements and soon, to her great astonishment, had a full melody for the second verse. She did the same with a second Berry poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” and, taking advantage of her down time from teaching and performing during the early stages of the pandemic, became a voracious re-visitor and explorer of classic poetry.
The two Berry-inspired pieces, “The Wild Geese” and “The Peace of Wild Things” are the foundation of the album, whose title What We Need Is Here is the final line of “The Wild Geese.” Though it’s the last track on the album, “The Wild Geese” is actually the perfect entry point to the experience of Lisa’s aesthetic. It opens with a harp strum and the call of Uillean Pipes, which sets the lively dazzling Celtic styled accompaniment in motion and opens the door for Lisa’s gentle intimate vocal to rush in. The track rolls like a playful, percussive dance behind Lisa’s increasingly percussive, then sweetly harmonized vocal patterns.
Lisa’s favorite line of Berry’s in “The Peace of Wild Things” is “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” This line and others merit thoughtful meditation as we listen to Lisa’s gently wafting vocals (which ultimately rise to a low key version of her trademark operatic heights) over the mystical swirl of harm and orchestral strings.
Unlike most track-by-track discussions, this collection is perhaps best experienced poet by poet. Lisa’s fond high school remembrance of Robert Frost’s most famous poems manifests beautifully on the back to back bundling of “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken.” Her and Jamshied’s dreamy and ethereal yet subtly melancholy approach to the first piece was inspired by the atmospheric aesthetic of one of Lisa’s favorite contemporary composers, Iceland based Olafur Arnalds. At first the poem struck her as a happy poem but when she considered it another way, she tapped into the inherent sadness of “the woods are lovely dark and deep” and took this darker direction.
Written for a friend who was being indecisive about his life, Lisa’s interpretation of “The Road Not Taken” is a hypnotic, meditative gesture that taps back into that soulful, melancholy flow, but with a mystical, cautiously hopeful twist as her surreal vocals fly to the heavens.
Lisa also engages another of her favorite poets, Irish symbolist William Butler Yeats, in a couplet of sorts, placing one other track between a soft spoken yet reverent and majestic Celtic swirl through “The Two Trees” (which begins with powerful imagery of a holy tree and holy branches within the human heart) and the blend of Celtic whimsy and sacred sweetness given to “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.” During the swelling orchestral interlude in the middle, the listener is free to contemplate Lisa’s interpretive question inspired by the poem, “What do we have to give that’s more precious than ourselves?”
Along this precious, gilded and heavenly path, Lisa also taps into the enduring blessings of English Romantic William Wordsworth via one of the loveliest and most exquisite, Celtic flavored renditions, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Its final line “dancing with the daffodils” finds Lisa communing with nature directly, imagining a long past time in her childhood when she would lie on the grass on a summer’s day and watch the clouds roll by.
No musical poetry collection would be complete without nods to the romantic side of Shakespeare, via “Shall I Compare Thee To a Summer’s Day,” whose familiar first stanza is warmly rendered by her mesmerizing choral four part harmony a capella vocals; and English Romantic John Keats, whose “Bright Star” is treated to a dreamlike, glistening opening that reflects the stars in the sky and the charming lilt of Lisa’s ever-soaring vocals before sorrow sets in at the close.
“In choosing these poems, my criteria were pieces that moved me, opened my heart to exciting new possibilities and inspired images and movies in my imagination,” Lisa says. “I love the fact that with What We Need Is Here, I was able to accomplish my goal of creating music that reflects exactly how the emotional journey of the poem makes me feel. Thematically, I also embrace that most of these poems are about us redirecting ourselves back to the brilliance of nature and letting that be a much needed healing force for us as we navigate the modern world.”
For more information and a deeper immersive experience into What We Need is Here, please visit What We Need Is Here (lisareagan.com)