The Jewish female songwriter who connects me to my late mother and gives me permission to be strange
May is Jewish American Heritage Month. Here, HG contributor Jordana Rosenfeld celebrates singer-songwriter of the ’60s and ’70s, Laura Nyro, who showed her that young women can be bizarre and in control of their own artistic labor—commercial success and traditional beauty standards be damned.
I had been a fan of Laura Nyro’s music for most of my life, before I had any idea who she was. I first loved her work when it was sung by ’70s-era pop-soul group, the Fifth Dimension, known for their soaring harmonies and flower-power vibe. The Fifth Dimension were much beloved by my mother, who died after a long illness when I was just a kid. Because we only had 12 years together—and I remember, at best, seven or eight of those years—moments that might seem inconsequential are thick with meaning and emotion for me. My memories of my mom are in her car, an early 2000s Subaru Outback. We’re listening to music and I’m panicking as my mom takes her hands off the wheel to gesture emphatically to the rhythm. In those moments, we were probably listening to the Fifth Dimension’s take on “Stoned Soul Picnic,” a song I’d learn was written by Laura Nyro.
Laura Nyro wrote and performed complex, emotional songs that were commercially successful only when other artists recorded them. If people in their early 20s like me know Nyro at all, it’s probably as the talented songwriter behind a slew of late ’60s and early ’70s hit singles that other artists took higher on the Billboard charts than she herself ever would (Blood, Sweat & Tears, Three Dog Night, and Barbra Streisand included). When I learned that Nyro was the woman behind so many of the songs that had underscored my childhood memories, I was surprised to find that she had originally written those songs for herself. I assumed she’d have every reason to suffer from impostor syndrome in a music industry that didn’t seem interested in her own expressions of her own work.
But by all accounts, Laura Nyro, a woman of Jewish and Italian heritage who died in 1997 at age 49, was an artist of great integrity. She was motivated not by a desire for fame or attention, but by a desire to express her authentic self. She didn’t care that other artists became known for her songs; she just wanted to write her music.
For all of these reasons, Laura Nyro’s music will forever take me to a place of bittersweet longing, unhampered joy, and wild self-assuredness.
As I learned more about Nyro, I was happily shocked to discover the extent to which she was unapologetically self-possessed and bizarre.
Her signature musical style combines jazz, soul, gospel, and rock influences in intricate, haunting compositions. There are lots of rhythmic shifts and abrupt stylistic changes. In the biography by Michele Kort, Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, one of her music producers says, “She would play the ‘wrong’ bass notes, which would make the chords sound unusual.” She was mostly self-taught on the piano without much formal training in composition, and she often described desired arrangements in terms of color (a sign of synesthesia). Her lyrics were deeply poetic: “Cold jade wind/not an angel in the sky/just cold jade restless wind/somethin’s comin’ I know/to devastate/my soul.” She wrote tender and metaphorical descriptions of women; some later listeners called those lyrics representations of queer desire: “Move me, oh sway me / Emily, you ornament the earth for me.”
Laura Nyro was successful at a young age, recording what most consider her best work before she turned 23. That astonishes me. Comparing myself to others, especially in their artistic pursuits, is ultimately fruitless and toxic—but I’m 24 and hope to God that I’m not doing my best work right now.
But her youth was an asset to her songwriting, never a reason to pipe down or doubt her creative voice—an important lesson for so many young women to heed.
Nyro spoke in a 1989 interview with NPR’s Scott Simon about a special kind of “folk wisdom” that young people can access—like in the song she wrote at 16, “And When I Die,” that speaks with arresting openness about death. She trusted herself, so she was confident while being deeply unusual, openly emotional, and creatively experimental, both in her own right and in the context of the music industry. In Soul Picnic, Kort notes that Nyro wrote and performed her own songs at a time when notable female singer-songwriters were a rarity because male producers, writers, and label-heads held the artistic power in the music industry. In this landscape, the degree to which Nyro demanded artistic control over her own commercial releases is truly remarkable, even more so given her youth and lack of money. According to that biography, managers at Nyro’s first record label tried to make her more commercially legible, but she was disinterested.
Nyro is quoted as saying, “I do need a lot of help and direction but I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.”
But Nyro’s creative control at a young age isn’t the only inspiring thing about her.
I’m not comparing myself—a shower singer who was told at age 9 by the cantorial director of a synagogue youth choir that she has “a pitch problem”—to one of the mothers of contemporary rock music, but I do immediately recognize myself in Laura Nyro, another young Jewish woman.
Nyro’s strange and nonconformist persona resonated deeply with my lifelong sense of being wrong in so many ways: My body is the wrong size or shape. I’m dressed in the wrong clothing. My feelings aren’t valid. I take up too much space, physically and emotionally. We know from some of Nyro’s personal writings and in remembrances from her friends that, despite her remarkable ability to stand in her creative truth, she struggled with her body image. More than once, I’ve seen her described as zaftig, a Yiddish word describing a body that is pleasantly plump, literally translating to “juicy.” After seeing it ascribed to Nyro, I’ve decided to adopt the term as a preferred descriptor for the weight I’ve gradually gained over the last few years. In photographs of Nyro performing, you can see that her weight fluctuates, but she is always soft, rounded. Those are attributes I see in my own body that I often fail to accept or value.
She also cultivated the aesthetic of a dowdy Morticia Addams, adorning herself with dark, flowing fabrics, and sometimes wearing Christmas ornaments as earrings. One of her first managers, David Geffen, was among many who felt she had terrible taste in clothes. In Soul Picnic, Geffen recalls picking Nyro up at her apartment to go to a business meeting and finding her looking “ridiculous” in “a ball gown with plaster of paris fruits sewn on, like bananas.” Horrified, he ordered her to change but she refused, informing him, “When I looked in the mirror, just like when you looked in the mirror this morning, I thought I looked great or I wouldn’t have come out.”
Although I’ve never adorned my formal wear with faux fruit, I’ve worn more than my fair share of strange and criticized ensembles. Learning this anecdote about Nyro feels like being told that it’s okay to trust my innate “fashion sense” and run with it.
After everything I’ve read about Nyro, I get the sense that she created for an audience of one—herself. Although I’ve been writing, performing, and engaging in other strange artistic projects for most of my life, I’m not sure that I really know what it’s like to create solely for myself. To pay no mind to how others will receive my work. As a freelance writer, I often wonder if I spend too much time trying to write pieces that I know I can sell rather than responding to my creative interests in a self-directed way. I might even be afraid of what my truly unbridled creativity would look like.
If I don’t know what my true creative self looks like, at least Laura Nyro has given me a model of how to go about finding her.
Rosanne Cash, in her forward to a 2004 collection of Nyro’s lyrics, called Laura our “collective matriarch,” who by “making no apologies, not being a victim, celebrating the voice and exploring how the voice connected to being a woman in the real world,” worked “to make sure we are more comfortable in our own authority, to encourage and defend, to give us permission.”
Laura Nyro’s music and memory give me permission to free myself from the shoulds—what I should be doing or thinking or feeling—in order to live for myself. Her work asks me for my desires and curiosities. Her work makes me think, “Am I writing to make money and to be published in prestigious magazines, or am I writing to satisfy my emotional and intellectual needs?” Nyro offers a possibility where I don’t stop to ask myself if I am an impostor, where I can draw inspiration from others without comparing myself to them because my work is my own, where I can define the terms of my success. She shows me a time when I am in closer, more loving contact with myself.