Healing Art

A former nurse, Amber Norgaard uses music to help keep people well

Amber Norgaard's passion for her music is evident in every song she sings. Her soulful voice rises above her guitar and piano, and her stories of the down-and-out and uplifted are, for her, a creative turn on her career path.

Norgaard used to be a registered nurse, and has worked in the Dominican Republic and Alaska's bush country, but music, she's found, is an even better way of helping to heal people.

"Nursing is a healing art; this is another healing art in a different vein," explained Norgaard. "In some ways, it can touch more people. Toward the end of my career, I got into prevention, trying to work upstream as opposed to downstream, but I feel that this is another prevention sort of upstream thing, because it's helping people connect emotionally."

Norgaard--voted the TAMMIES Up and Coming Artist of the Year by Tucson Weekly readers--has always played music, but, she explained, it took years for her to realize that it was something she could do full-time.

"I grew up on a farm, and I didn't really know you could make a living as a musician," she said. "When I was in high school, I started secretly, covertly writing songs, and I thought people would laugh at me if they ever knew. I went to nursing school, and I used to sneak into the arts building, downstairs where there was nobody, and write music on the piano.

"And then when I became a volunteer, I went to the Dominican Republic and then the Pacific Northwest, and I started picking up the guitar, because I couldn't take the piano with me. I realized it was a really great tool to help connect people, especially because in the Dominican Republic, I didn't speak much Spanish, but once I pulled out the guitar, everybody talks that language or somehow relates to that language."

While in Alaska, she helped bring touring independent musicians to the small community she was living in, and was inspired by their ability to make music their life.

"I think having that whole roster of people who came through really influenced me to (think) ... either I can continue to work in health care and do what I know, or I could just give this a shot, see what happens," said Norgaard. "Because songwriting and playing music is something I have to do to keep me balanced; it's part of me."

And once she started more actively polishing and focusing on her songs, the accolades started pouring in. She met drummer Andrew Steele, who had been a session drummer in the '70s (and who was also a member of the Herd with Peter Frampton). Steele was impressed, and having support from someone who had experience in the industry was self-affirming.

"He was a huge reason I dared to pursue my dream, because he'd been in the industry; he knew it, and he believed in my music and was always very positive and encouraging for me," said Norgaard.

The compliments didn't stop there. Once she moved to Tucson--a place Norgaard loves because it's both connected to a road system and close to wilderness--she gained the support of local musicians Sabra Faulk and Namoli Brennet, and when she brought the songs she'd recorded in Alaska to Jim Pavett at Allusion Studios, he heard potential.

"He heard the stuff, and he was like, 'Wow, you know, if you had a professional mix on this, it would make the difference between night and day,' and I had no clue; I was a nurse. I mean, I had bought some nice equipment before I left my day job, but I didn't know how to use it, really, so I started working with him, and then he hooked me up with this band, and they have really helped me a lot. Doug Floyd in particular--they're the ones who have made my band sound professional and helped with some of the arrangements and stuff of my songs."

With her full band (guitarist Floyd, bassist Jay Trapp and Pavett on drums), Norgaard recently competed in the Winery Music Awards in California, where Jake Hooker, the writer of Joan Jett's hit "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," told her she was original and focused. "He in particular came up to me and said, 'I love your music,'" Norgaard said. "It was validating, that in the world of music, my music is good to people who have been doing it for a lot of years. That was a really neat experience."

Norgaard's first album, Soul in Motion, recorded mostly in Alaska and then finished when she moved to Tucson, is a perfect balance of stripped-down acoustic and piano and more produced songs. "Camino del Diablo" tells the story of migrant workers crossing the desert, and "Still in Here" tells the story of a homeless man through Norgaard's full voice. It's her ability to work these kinds of stories into melodic songs that makes her a true folk singer.

Said Norgaard, "I think my life experience is unique, and if I tap into it, I can connect to people on all different levels."

Norgaard takes this even further on Rising, her 2006 album recorded and produced by Pavett at Allusion Studios in Tucson. The full band helps Norgaard's songs fully bloom and sound better the louder they're turned up. Hints of Ani DiFranco peek through; elements of Melissa Etheridge, Patty Griffin and the Indigo Girls are all present--what Norgaard calls a "mosh pit" of influences.

For her next album, Norgaard is planning on combining the more acoustic sound of her first album with the quality of production of her second.

"Now it's time for me to start defining my sound and having an actual goal when I go in to make an album," said Norgaard. "So I'm learning about that. I'm going to do a lot of the preproduction work at my house to see what kinds of sounds come out of me, to really define what I want it to be about instead of leaving it up to other people. So we'll see, because I'm going to have to search inside to see what sound is best to help people connect to the song."

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