Nearly two decades before releasing her 1997 debut, Angels in the Crowd, singer-songwriter Wendy Woo was an eight-year-old kid learning how to play poker from Beat poet Gregory Corso. Woo’s parents, Bataan and Jane Faigao, were founding faculty members of Naropa University, and other Beat royalty, such as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Ken Kesey, were regulars in the family’s Boulder living room.
Woo references Corso teaching her and her older sister to play poker on her song “Plane to China,” from The Immigrant, her first solo release since 2005's Angels Laughing. Woo, who has released a few albums with her band and trio over the last decade, says the songs on The Immigrant are the most personal that she’s ever put on record.
And “Plane to China” might be the most personal track on the album. She wrote it in 2015, three years after her father, who had moved to America from the Philippines when he was a teenager, died while on a pilgrimage to China.
“Their deaths were different,” Woo says of her parents. “My mother’s death [in 2001], when she died from cancer, was very dramatic, and she invited people and planned it all out — whereas my father just left and died in another country.”
Woo opens the poignant ballad, on which she plays piano, with lyrics about cleaning up her father’s life’s work and sorting through dust and dirt before going into the line, “When they told him he was dying, he took a plane to China/He bought a one-way ticket/He took a one-way train…”
Woo says “Plane to China,” which features cellist Hannah Alkire of Acoustic Eidolon, was such a personal song that she didn’t put it on an album for three years because “it was a little too heavy.”
The Immigrant mixes introspective songs with lighter fare. While her cover of Stevie Nicks’s “Landslide” is particularly moving, she tried to balance the album with the more bluesy “Dust off the Piano” and the less serious “Insatiable." “The Weather” is somewhat ethereal, and “Vic’s Coffee” is steeped in jazz.
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“I try to make a balance of it; I always have, my whole life,” Woo says. “If I write something sad and serious, I try to mirror it with something upbeat and fun and make sure it’s not all down.”
The nine original songs on The Immigrant, written by Woo over the past decade, are about family, change, growing older and death.
“It’s kind of a nice life chapter,” Woo concludes, “especially as I get older and as my fan base gets older and has children of their own that hopefully get into the music. I feel it tells a real generational story.”