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The warrior of the inner landscape

Jan 05, 2015 02:26PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt

Courtesy photo Picara performs one of her songs live on WSTW.

(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Spring 2014 edition.)

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

She is a ballerina and a vagabond and a monster.

Her eyes are heavy with black mascara, and beneath the fiery red dress she has selected, she is barefoot on the stage.

Save for the necessary noise of the employed, there is barely another sound at the Queen Theatre in downtown Wilmington on the night of June 13, except for the voice of Noelle Picara. She and a backing band are here to perform the entirety of Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes as a fundraiser for the Delaware-based S.O.A.R., Survivors of Abuse in Recovery, Inc., but before all of that, Picara lightly touches her electric keyboard and floats through a few of her own songs, and through this din of silence, she sings and repeats, “I am alone, among all of you.” 

Courtesy photo Noelle Picara.

And this, right here and right now, is her testimony, the rising sting of the words sung over the weep of a violin or the pulse of a four-piece drum, and for the next 90 minutes, with every single lyric – whether it is hers or that of Amos – the audience becomes the witnesses to a woman who, after decades of silence, is now fully and truly alive.

"You can't see the glass wall around me/ I keep it very clean..."

"Alone With All of You," by Noelle Picara

Since the debut of her five-song EP, "Realer Than Reality" in 2011, Picara has become a fixture on  the local singer-songwriter scene, largely on the back of her intelligent lyrics and the theatrics of her stage persona, all of which have drawn audiences who wish to both see and hear her perform. In the last few years, she's performed at the Ladybug and Ladyfingers festivals, at the Cape May singer songwriter conference, and at musical venues and clubs from Wilmington to Philadelphia.

Picara's admirers can expect more of the same on her upcoming EP, "My Own Frankenstein," due out in October and available through various on-line music sources and at her shows.

Attending a Picara show requires the willingness to accept non-conformity and generally toss the stereotype of the singer-songwriter aside; it's the in-your-face thrust of Amanda Palmer and the cleverness of Ani DiFranco, with a reflection of Joni Mitchell's wisdom tossed liberally throughout. Like the best art, it's not always easy to be around, because her music is about power and sex and monsters and somtimes broken things -- the exposed vein debris of our unconsciousness, suddenly pulled to the surface.

"Not only is Noelle a wonderful musician-songwriter, pianist and singer, she also creates an entire theatrical experience during her performances," said her contemporary, Jessica Graae. "I really admire her bravery and her willingness and ability to tackle difficult subjects that some people might regard as taboo." 

"For better or worse, I find that what I'm really interested in writing about is by looking inward," said Picara, who also teaches choir, English and musical theory at the Tatnall School, where she also directs musical theater productions.  "I consider my music to be about inner landscapes inside of each one of us. I'm interested in what happens in our own bodies and minds and emotions. Some people may think that’s narcissistic, but that's just what I'm interested in.  I want to know how we make the choices we make.

"I like pushing buttons. I enjoy making people face things they don't want to face. I tell my students that if there's something we're really uncomfortable talking about in a book we're studying, that's what we should probably talk about. That's the point. When we find the places where people are scared, that's the important thing we want to talk about."  

There is in Picara's possession an oversized coffee table book entitled, "Speak Truth to Power," in which the stories of people who have stood up against the status quo of massive acceptance are told. Most of the people profiled in the book are unknown. No matter; she loves to red the profiles in the book. They have intentions, she said. They inspire her.

To hear Noelle Picara speak about her music is knowing that in one hand, she holds these same intentions in her lyrics and in her performances -- to personify survival through strength. She calls her songwriting like being a warrior of the inner landscape, and yet, in order to truly know where this comes from, is the need to explore what she holds in her other hand. In the last year, she has opened her other palm to the world. Revealed, it is the silence that went on for almost all of her life.

"My garden behind the wall/there's nowhere I can fall/no god to punish me/so I swallowed the key/no one will discover me/and deep inside a well I'll hide myself..."

"Put Up a Wall," by Noelle Picara

Noelle Picara wrote her first song when she was five years old. It was called, "Cluck, Cluck, Cluck Goes the Chicken." When she was a child, she spent a lot of time sitting before her elderly piano teacher, working her way through classical piano lessons, or in her bedroom, reading books about fantasy and mythology -- the same symbolic and illusionary stuff she was seeing in the Jim Henson films she was enjoying at the time. "Labyrinth." "The Never Ending Story." Her childhood was gorgeous with imagination of being in far-off places, the daydreaming escape from who she was and where she was. 

Courtesy photo Picara performing at the Ladybug Festival in 2013.

In many ways, this is the way it had to be.

She was the victim of sexual abuse by her biological father.

It is said that the scars that sexual abuse leave in children are mostly invisible. The ones that made Picara feel the worst told her that she was bad. That she was worthless. Everything was imagined in her mind, and some if it, she felt, was confirmed. Through Concord High School, through college, it was as if a hand -- hers, perhaps -- were held against her mouth and kept there, with not a sound able to be heard. There were many years when she said she thought of suicide as being the only method of relief.

"I felt there was something wrong with me," Picara said. "Wherever I went, I felt that everybody knew. I felt I was the only one going through what I was going through. When someone lives through sexual abuse, you don't know that there are others going through the same thing."

She shared her story with no one. Only two voices broke through the silence: the first, something like a far-off whisper telling her to take in the smallest of beautiful moments -- a sandwich, for instance, or a pile of autumn leaves on a sidewalk. The other was that of Tori Amos.

Picara heard Amos' "Little Earthquakes" for the first time when she was in the seventh grade, and by the time she had reached high school, she was listening to Amos' music almost exclusively. The songs she heard did not just resonate with Picara; they became the voice she could not find. She sought out any Amos recording she could find -- live, studio, bootleg. Amos sang of survival, fear and mutilation, and in one particular song on "Little Earthquakes," "Me and a Gun," Amos shared the story of the time she was raped at knife point by a man:

"and I sang "Holy Holy" as he buttoned down his pants/You can laugh it's kinda funny the things you think at times like these/like I haven't seen Barbados so I must get out of this/Me and a gun and a man on my back..."

"Tori Amos was really a big part of me feeling not so alone anymore," Picara said. "I eventually realized that sexual abuse was not my fault. I am realizing that I don't have to live this way, so if I can share my experiences with other people, like Tori Amos did. That's what's important for me. I didn't want others to go decades like I did without talking with anyone."

Amos' music had not only helped guide Picara emotionally, it inspired her musical journey. "Hearing what she was doing with the piano was totally different than anything I had heard before or been taught," Picara said. "That opened up my mind to a totally different way of playing. After that, I was practicing all day."

By her early 30s, Picara had begun to write songs and perform them in front of audiences. As she carted her electric keyboard to each show, however, she heard songs coming out of her mouth, but it was is if they were separate from her body. She tried to fit into the singer-songwriter mold, but the whole thing felt like an absolute lie. The EP "Realer than Reality" was out and yet she was dead inside, and the residue of sexual abuse and the silence that came from it was still hammering away at her life.  

Then one day in 2012 she sat down and wrote, "Zombie Girl."

"Zombie Girl she's not your flower/Zombie Girl seeks to destroy/Zombi Girl has got the power/you better run, boy..."

"Zombie Girl," by Noelle Picara

In the vernacular of rock and roll, "Zombie Girl" cooks. Zombie Girl has become Picara's identity, her playful alter-ego, one that she personified in a video shot last year in downtown Wilmington. Filmed at the White Studio, Picara performs her song while a small army of female zombies prance about the performance space. At most of her concerts, Picara will accessorize her music by dressing in character. Often, it's an extreme one, like a zombie or a Medusa-like image.

"I can express who I am more through a character and connect with the audience more," she said. "Before I started doing characters, I felt I was being the singer-songwriter person who I should be. It was creating a distance, and I wasn't being authentic. On the other hand, playing characters free me up, I feel I can easily express rage or anger."

Last April, Picara stood on a Wilmington stage and said that for the next 30 days, she vowed to tell at least one person that she was a sexual abuse survivor. At another show, she had one of her students wear a mask and hold up photographs of two young girls who committed suicide after photographs of them being sexually assaulted were posted online.

After nearly three decades of silence, she had removed the hand from over her mouth.

"Admitting that wasn't easy to get to, but I thought if there's going to be a poster girl for sexual abuse, then I'll be the poster girl," she said. "I felt that there has to be somebody to make this more public, so that people don't feel like there's something so wrong with them that they can't talk about it.

"A person who survives breast cancer can easily stand on a stage and say that he or she survived breast cancer, and everyone cheers and is happy. I want that to be the same for sexual abuse survivors. I want to be the wheel who breaks the cycle.”

"I'm stitching up seams 'til I pass for human again/I'm stitching up seams 'til I'm my own/my own Frankenstein..."

"My Own Frankenstein, by Noelle Picara

"We all have monsters inside of us," she said. "We all have things that we are ashamed of, and if we bring those things out and share them, that's a way of connecting with other people."

Many times, the 34-year-old Noelle -- the teacher, the songwriter, the performer, the recording artist -- has imaginary conversations with the 18-year-old Noelle.

"I think that maybe, the times I felt hopeless and had only a little bit of hope to keep me going... I know now that little hope was me, now, speaking to my younger self. I think about how happy I would be back then if I knew that there was a bright future ahead for me. I never believed my life could be so good now."

To learn more about Noelle Picara, visit www.noellepicara.com.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail rgaw@chestercounty.com.

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