When you step into the life of Claire Pearson and Don McCollister, you know you have entered a special place. Their chemistry is tangible, their passion for life is contagious, and their talent is undeniable. Theirs is a love story forged through music over time and space and the benefit goes to us.
On their own, each has led a creative life, and now together they have formed an artistic bond called The Ormewoods, named after the section of Atlanta where they joined together. Their style of folk, pop, Americana, and country music reflects the bringing together of beautiful, heartfelt songwriting with tight harmonies and inventive, creative production.
Claire has been a songwriter for as long as she can remember. When she was in high school, she followed her idols, The Indigo Girls, as they toured around the Southeast. She did not know it then, but her future husband, Don, was working on that same tour. She grew up with music. Her father was a Navy pilot fighter during the Vietnam War, but also a folk singer, often singing protest songs of the era. She spent a lot of time with her father who introduced her to great songwriters who were also wonderful story tellers such as Peter, Paul and Mary, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez.
Don has worked in music his whole career and focused on making music, sound engineering, and production. Claire says of him “There is not an instrument that he can’t pick up and play.” He has produced many well-known acts, such as Sister Hazel, Indigo Girls, Third Day, Michelle Malone, Shawn Mullins, and Billy Pilgrim among others. He won two Grammy’s for his work with Third Day.
Their love story developed over a long period of time with starts and stops along the way. They began as friends in the 90’s Atlanta music scene. When Claire announced she was getting married, Don told Claire that she should not marry her future husband, but she did anyway. They had a 14-year break in communication, living their lives separately, both married then divorced. In 2012, through the magic of Facebook, they reconnected and rekindled their friendship.
When they finally met up face-to-face in 2014 it took only a date or two to see that there was a deeper connection. Claire was playing at the Red Clay Foundry in Duluth with her songwriting partner Heidi Higgins. Don was living nearby and saw the event on Facebook, but it was too late for him to catch the show. He sent her a message and she suggested he call. He did, and they talked all the way on her drive home from Red Clay and the years melted away. Don says “We only stopped talking because she got home. But we talked a lot more over the next few months.” Because Claire had a heavy travel schedule, it took almost two months for them to get together for their first date, but they spent many hours talking on the phone and had already begun to develop feelings for each other. In the meantime, Don had moved back into the city, coincidently just a few blocks from Claire. He would come hang out at the house and eventually asked Claire’s kids for permission to take her on a date. They said “yes” and even helped plan the date.
Where do two musicians go on a first date? After dinner, they ended up in the music studio of one of Don’s friends, all part of Don’s master plan for the night. Don gave Claire a guitar and told her to play. After an agonizing moment of trying to choose just the right song, Claire decided to play Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” Claire said “I was feeling a bit intimidated, I mean, he’s the real deal. I’m an indie artist. I didn’t want to do a cheesy cover, but didn’t want to do an original he wouldn’t know, so I settled on Tom Petty. When I hit the first chorus, he harmonized with me and it was really a moment. We locked eyes and I was like, ‘oh daaaamn.’ For me to have the experience of our voices matching perfectly – it was a moment.” Claire continues “I have a low voice and it is hard to find a man who can harmonize with me. When Don and I sang together that night, our voices just clicked, it was like magic.”
There are some benefits to finding each other when you are older says Claire, “the great thing is you know who you are, you know what you like.” Don says, “People are messy. We are who we are. You have to take it all.”
They continued their courtship and Claire documented it in her journal. “The Ormewoods became a project because we started dating and I started writing. The songs were just pouring out of me. We didn’t set out to make an album, we both had our musical things. I was a songwriter and running a songwriters group; he was in a band. But as I was writing, they were just coming, and as I shared them with Don we realized it was something.”
Claire wanted to make sure that Don was going to be okay with her songwriting. She had experienced conflict in her first marriage regarding the openness of her lyrics and it was important to her that Don be okay with her style. “I asked him ‘Have you ever dated a songwriter? I need you to know that I am going to put our lives out there and you have to be ok with that.’” Don said he was fine and says “She has no filter. There is no line. Sometimes I cringe for a minute, but it is real, and we do it. What Claire does so well is write reality. Life isn’t always perfect. There is a lot of the good of our relationship on our record, but also the bad. It’s cool that she can capture both sides.”
What resulted from this time is a debut album of beautiful songs, The Bedroom Sessions, that documents the growth of a relationship, the intimacy, the struggles, the fear, and the joy. Claire would write a song, record it, and e-mail it to Don. Don would listen, make suggestions, and add his perspective. Initially, Don set up recording gear in their bedroom to capture the close, personal, intimate nature of some of the songs and the pair ended up recording all of the album in their bedroom, thus the album title.
The first song they recorded for was “Hey Babe.” As Don recalls, “We recorded it in one take. Start to finish in one take. I created a guitar loop and Claire sang it straight through, and when we were done, we both knew it was really good.” It is the song of being early in a relationship and the feeling of falling in love quickly and completely. It captures the excitement, fear, and anticipation of something new.
While they were working on “Hey Babe”, Claire was writing another song about her ex-husband and the thought of mercy and letting peace take over. As she was writing what became “Year of Mercy”, she recalls “Don starts bringing gear over and he says ‘We are recording that right now.’ I was like, ‘It’s not even finished.’ He’s like ‘Yes, it is.’ He starts bringing instruments and equipment in. He brings in a dulcimer, which is crazy that a) he owns a dulcimer and b) knows how to play it. He plays this song so beautifully, perfectly with no practice. He just blew me away. He can play any instrument, he can play by ear. He played my song better than I could. He laid down the dulcimer track, then the acoustic guitar track, and I watched him just build the song layer by layer and then he was ‘Okay, sing.’ And it was amazing.”
That process somewhat mirrors their overall creative approach. Claire writes the song, melody, lyrics, and sends it to Don. She says, “He has a really good ear. He knows. He plays around with chord progressions and so on.” They are still working out sharing the production piece. Claire says, “I let him go with it and let him add everything his heart wants and then I go back and edit.” Don has a natural ability to take something unformed and see what it could be. He says, “She is playing me a song, and I am already thinking about mike placement and what kind of guitar I want to use. I can see where it needs to go right away.”
Claire continues, “We have very different aesthetics, and that is what makes our music interesting. I like very pared down sparseness, and Don is famous for being able to embellish.” Don adds, “Yeah, I like lots of layers, the kitchen sink. Claire will hear something sometimes and tell me to mute it out and I will be like, ‘Oh, but I like that’, but then when we take it out, I can hear what she hears, and it is almost always better. I think we land in the middle and it works.” Claire says of Don, “If he has an idea, he records it. He has the philosophy of recording everything. He has really cool ideas – clever ideas and fun ways to capture his ideas. I like having so much to choose from. If I don’t like something or don’t think it works or make a suggestion, he doesn’t get defensive about it.” Don says, “It’s kind of like painting, the more colors you have to paint with the better. It’s great to have a variety of ideas.”
They have completed recording their second album, Not Your Mama’s Folk that will be released in early 2019. According to Claire, “This album is not completely rooted in our relationship. There are a couple of songs that reflect that times that we are living in and the experiences we have in life. As artists we are both absorbing a world that is in a lot of turmoil, and that is reflected in some of the songs on this new album.”
Due to both of their deep experiences coming up in the music industry, they have a unique perspective on how the changes in the industry have impacted the quality and variety of music today. They really have opposite experiences. Don was a “label guy” and worked with top artists and record labels where he could focus on the creative process. Claire, as an independent artist, was always a bit of an outsider and had to have more of a boot-strap approach to pursuing her music.
Don says, “All the ways we used to finance records has gone. When that happened, it rocked my world professionally. On one hand, it has made it a lot easier for independent artists like us to get exposure, but it took out everything I knew about the record business. To keep a studio open these days is financially untenable, especially at the level that I was used to. It’s kind of sad, as those were heady times, when a band would sit in a studio with all the equipment and make music together, that is where the magic happened, whereas now much of the capturing process is all computerized. I miss that a lot.”
Claire’s perspective is that what is required to be successful today is a DIY approach. “You have to write your music, record your music, book your shows, market yourself, run your merch table. You have to do it all. And that makes it hard sometimes to keep focus on the creative side.”
Although from a marketing standpoint they know many espouse releasing a string of songs as singles, from an artistic point of view, an album has more meaning for them and they have chosen to release their music in album format. Claire is a storyteller, she says “We recorded the songs as a group, there is an underlying theme among them. Where they are going to go on the record matters. The songs have a narrative. We have been told we need to be dripping singles out, but the continuity of that theme is critical. I write thematically, Don produces thematically. The context is important.” Don says, “Production wise it’s fun to play with the sequence of the songs and when we move things around, I might change the front end of how a song starts or the back end to make the transition different. It all matters. I like a record start to finish to be a ride. That’s the stuff you lose when you don’t put out material as an album. One of my favorite times, is when you make an album start to finish and it’s the perfect ride. It makes an album listenable. Those little moments in the studio just feel like triumphs.”
As for the future of The Ormewoods, Claire comments, “We are two creative people and we need creative outlets. We both do creative things outside of music. Don builds beautiful furniture and light fixtures. We have done design work together. We like working with other artists. I am a songwriting coach. He selectively produces.” Claire says, “We are thinking about how we expand The Ormewoods to be more encompassing of all our artistic interests.”
In fact, their best-selling Ormewoods merchandise is a line of essential oils that Claire created. Last year, they launched them on a whim, thinking them a good fit to offer at a festival geared to artisans where they were playing. In addition to the traditional T-Shirts and CD’s they sold these essential oils that really took off. They quickly sold out and so Claire and Don are determining how to produce them on a larger scale.
Claire and Don both believe The Ormewoods is just in its early stages, Claire says, “I think we would like The Ormewoods to be a vehicle for us to express ourselves in whatever way is inspiring us at that moment. If it is time to make a new album, let’s make a new album. If it’s time to build furniture, let’s build furniture. If we can develop our audience and they can hang with us through all our expressions that will be great.” Don says, “We like things to come together organically and feel right.”
But not to worry, The Ormewoods are still making music together. They are working through a few mixing tweaks on Not Your Mama’s Folk and will release their new album early in 2019 and then schedule area shows supporting it.
In addition, they will be back on the festival circuit in 2019. Claire says “We really enjoy doing the 30A Songwriter Fest, and we just did our second year there the weekend of January 18. We also have enjoyed the other festival settings where we have played. It’s a really fun environment, getting to meet other creative people, hearing music that inspires you personally, but it also challenges you to be really good. You’re playing with some of the biggest and best artists, and for people who may have never heard your songs. We want them to remember us. We are gearing up to do more festivals in 2019.”
To both Claire and Don, success is being authentic and doing work that makes them feel fulfilled and doing it together. Claire says, “We like it being just us. We had an great experience on tour, where we got so good at reading each other and flexing with each other. There’s something really magical about it.”
Legend has it there’s an intangible string of fate that binds two soul mates destined to be together. Artists with their own singular talents on paths that diverged then merged, there is a sense of this string of destiny with Claire and Don, not only in their complementary personalities, but also in their ability to collaboratively forge new art as The Ormewoods bigger than their individual selves. Theirs is a wonderful partnership to witness and we cannot wait to see what this authentic couple creates next.
– Melanie Siewert
|Grapevine Profile: The Ormewoods|
|5 Desert Island Discs||Don:
1. The Byrds - Sweethearts Of The Rodeo
2. U2 - Joshua Tree
3. Indigo Girls - Indigo Girls
4. Billy Pilgrim - Time Machine
5. So many other close contenders, a fifth choice regularly changes
1. Indigo Girls - 1200 curfews ("Also an album Don was working on when I was following them around.")
2. Soul Miner's Daughter - The Sacred And Profane ("Weirdly, another Don produced record.")
3. Beastie Boys - Ill Communication
4. Brandi Carlile - The Story
5. The Orb - Adventures Beyond The World
U2 - The Unforgettable Fire Tour
Huey Lewis & The News
|Favorite concert in Atlanta||Don:
Amesty International w/ The Police and U2 at The Omni
Sugarland's very first show at Variety Playhouse. ("Everybody was there. It was such a perfect moment of people coming together and being even greater than they were apart. You knew they were on their way.")
|Favorite area restaurants/hangouts||Bennett's Market & Deli (Claire co-owns), Soba for their fried tofu, Paris on Ponce, Southern Consignments, Roswell Parks and Recreation hiking trails, Superica, Ikea|
|Memorable gigs around town||To many to pick!|
|Favorite Atlanta music site||Atlanta Music Grapevine!|