Carmen Sandim Quit Sleeping to Create

Carmen Sandim celebrates the release of her new album, Play Doh, with one show in Denver and two in Boulder.
Carmen Sandim celebrates the release of her new album, Play Doh, with one show in Denver and two in Boulder. Courtesy of Fully Altered Media

When pianist Carmen Sandim received a grant from Pathways to Jazz three years ago, one of the stipulations was that she needed to record an album by the end of 2017. But between raising two children, now four and six, and teaching at Metropolitan State University of Denver and the University of Colorado Denver, she could not even find time to sit down, let alone record.

Then Sandim, a Brazilian native who moved to Boulder in 2005, saw Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. She saw just how obsessive-compulsive the saxophonist was about practicing. Sandim started thinking that she could just try to stay up late like Coltrane and finish the album that way. The night after seeing the film, Sandim made a bunch of coffee and locked herself in the studio with the baby monitor on.

“The first night was the first time I had this experience of not having the self-critic and the fear about writing,” she says. “I think it’s because I was so fucking tired. Like after 2 a.m., I was just writing and it was just coming out. And it was easy, and it was fun. I remember thinking, my inner critic goes to sleep around 2 a.m., it seems like. Then there’s just me left. I think there is something there, of just being too tired to engage more parts of the brain and the ‘just do it' attitude.”

The next day, she was really tired but happy. She says it was very different than having to stay up all night to feed her babies, when she’d wake up the next morning feeling pissed off. And so, for the second half of 2017, she scheduled two nights a week where she didn’t sleep at all in order to finish the album, Play Doh, whose release she's celebrating with a concert at Dazzle on Thursday, October 24, and at Caffe Sole on Friday, October 25, and Saturday, October 26.

“When I started doing that on purpose, I would wake up energized,” she says. “I would go to my first classes and teach, and I was happy. I was exhausted but super-happy.”

Sandim started writing some of the songs on Play Doh — which the New York imprint Ropeadope is releasing — not long after she finished her debut, Brand New, released by Dazzle Records.

“Then I started having babies,” she says. “Then I became a single mother. So things took a lot longer. Then, by the time I was able to actually get into it, I had a bunch of new things in mind and started playing with new, different people that inspired me to write differently.”

Meeting drummer Dru Heller inspired Sandim to write more intricate drum parts. Her mentor Art Lande, who also produced her two albums, connected her with guitarist Khabu Doug Young and bassist Bill McCrossen. Also on Play Doh are Kneebody trumpeter Shane Endsley, reeds player Bruce Williamson, and trombonist Alex Heitlinger.

“Some of the basic ideas for the songs are really old,” Sandim says. “But most of the songs ended up so different in how they started because of these guys. And of course, my experiences I went through in the past few years as a mom and all of that. It all feels very fresh, honestly, but more as a group of work than one thing. Everything felt like it belonged together, even though the instrumentation changes some during the album.”

While Sandim was dealing with a breakup during the recording of the album with Colin Bricker at his Mighty Fine Productions studio, other musicians were also dealing with some kind of intensity, like the death of McCrossen’s mother on the day of the session.

“When I listen back to the album, I really kind of hear the passion of intensity in it,” Sandim says, “that everybody was really kind of processing their shit through it.”

Sandim says that you can hear it on songs like “Me Gusta La Angustia,” a song she wrote as a peace offering for anxiety, or “Undergrowth,” which she says was like a breakup song.

“It feels like it was an intense couple of years for everyone involved, and that album was a chance to be cathartic in a lot of ways," she says.

Since a lot of the songs on Play Doh are fairly complex, inspired by Brazilian music, modern jazz and rock,  Lande suggested that Sandim write a simple song. When she came home that night, her kids were playing with Play-Doh and repeating a song they'd sing like a mantra whenever they used the modeling clay. The simple melody got stuck in her head, and she turned it into the title track, which turned out to be one of the more complex songs on the album.

“Then it kind of took it out of my kids after they listened to it so much at home from me working on it,” she says. “They don’t sing it anymore.”

Carmen Sandim's CD release takes place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, October 24, at Dazzle, 1512 Curtis Street. Tickets are $10-$20 and available at Dazzle's website. She also plays at 7 p.m. Friday, October 25, and Saturday, October 26, at Caffe Sole, 637R South Broadway in Boulder; tickets are $15. For more information, go to the Caffe Sole website.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon