In her new solo album, “Is Fortune a Wheel,” singer-songwriter Monica Pasqual explores the pain and confusion of losing her lover of 17 years. Not to death, but to an incurable disease that turned him into a different person in the same body, someone she no longer recognized as the man she fell in love with.
Pasqual’s career with Blame Sally, a popular local four-women singer-songwriter band, was just beginning to take off when her live-in partner, Tom Erikson, a successful San Francisco music photographer, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that damages the brain and spinal cord, causing a range of symptoms, including loss of physical coordination and psychiatric problems.
“It was incredibly painful,” she says one morning this week at a bandmate’s hillside home in Larkspur. “It’s not a picture that can be painted very prettily.”
Except in music. “Is Fortune a Wheel,” a concept album recorded with her new quartet, the Handsome Brunettes, is a haunting meditation on love, loss and the stages of grief.
The title track recalls the onset of Erikson’s disease during what had started out as a joyful hike in the hills above Pasqual’s sister’s home in Spain and turned into an ominous portent that life as they knew it was about to change, and not for the better.
“Tom started to have strange symptoms,” she remembers. “We ran into a gypsy woman who said something bad was going to happen to a dark man in my life. Tom, who was normally this boundless ball of energy, stumbled on the trail and was so exhausted he couldn’t continue. I thought, ‘What’s going on?’”
In the song’s chorus, she sings, “Could fortune be blind/Be cruel or be kind/A fate that’s been sealed/Or is fortune a wheel?”
In the song “Wild,” Pasqual uses the Book of Days as a vehicle to remember Erikson in the tempestuous first blush of their young love affair.
“We adored each other, and we had so much fun,” she says. “But he was wild and crazy. It was always a difficult relationship.”
The rocker “Golden Cuff” was originally inspired by the unexpected death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, but, as was the case with so many of the songs on the album, it soon became about her own experience of being on the road with Blame Sally and wanting never to come home. In 2009, the band had just signed a six-figure record deal and had embarked on an arduous touring schedule in the U.S. and Europe.
“For a long time, I saw being on the road as an escape from what I had to deal with with Tom,” she recalls. “I loved going to Europe. Everybody else wanted to come home, but I wanted to stay there because I was coming home to something so sad and so hard to face. I felt drained and exhausted and like I needed to rest, but instead I’d come to problems and messes to clean up.”
As her personal life spiraled downward, her professional career was on the rise. A classically trained pianist, she won three Independent Music Awards with Blame Sally and two for her 2010 solo album, “This Cold Desire.”
Anyone who has had to navigate the labyrinthine American health-care system can understand her frustration and confusion as she tried to get help for Erikson, whose short-term memory was disappearing as he became more and more childlike.
“I had no idea how to handle it,” she says. “Trying to figure everything out on our own as a couple of struggling artists, there wasn’t a lot of support or money or anything. I felt like I was chasing everything constantly.”
Two years ago, on the brink of a nervous breakdown, she realized that she couldn’t help Erikson or anyone else if she didn’t first take care of herself.
“I had to make the choice because he wasn’t in a position to make it,” she says. “I had to make a choice, either to save my own life or dedicate it completely to him.”
In her song “Saint in the Yard,” she sings, “No one can say I didn’t try/But nothing you say is gonna make it all right/No nothing you say can make this thing right.”
She moved Erikson, who was 44 when he was diagnosed and is now 55, out of the home they shared in Oakland and set him up in his old photo studio in San Francisco’s Mission District with professional caregivers to look after him. During the day, he goes to a center that offers activities and serves him lunch.
“He lives a little bit in a bubble, and we have wonderful people who are able to take care of him,” she says. “He can still walk and he’s super happy. Whatever happened to his brain, in some ways he’s happier than he used to be. On a mental level, I was probably the one more tortured about everything. And yet he’s the one who’s lost so much.”
Free from the burden of being Erikson’s primary caregiver, she began to write songs again and developed an invigorating musical relationship with a young cellist, Josh McClain. Blame Sally has cut back on its schedule, giving band members time to pursue outside projects. With McClain, Blame Sally percussionist Pam Delgado and guitarist Velvy Appleton of the band Spark & Whisper, Pasqual formed the Handsome Brunettes. She and the band will open for Essence, Marty O’Reilly and Danny Click at 8 p.m. Aug. 25 at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.
A kind of Proustian elegy to what used to be, “Strings in My Human Heart” is one of the most poignant songs on the new album. The chorus: “There are strings in my human heart/That can pull apart, they can pull apart/I could leave everything I know/I could let it go, I could just let go.”
From the Marin IJ. Contact Paul Liberatore at email@example.com or 415-382-7283, follow him @LibLarge on Twitter, read his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/marinmusicman