This Friday, singer-songwriter Thea Hopkins will be performing on the Payomet Performing Arts Center’s Drive-in stage, offering the rare pleasure, these days, of experiencing a live musician in concert on the Cape, especially one of such high caliber.
“I grew up in the small town of Shrewsbury, Mass.,” says Hopkins. “I spent my summers at my grandfather’s house in Martha’s Vineyard, then moved to the suburbs of Worcester, which was all woods and beautiful.”
Hopkins started writing poetry at a young age. Her mother, a commercial artist, was supportive of her artistic endeavors and had a vast collection of opera and musical theater records.
“I was a strange little kid,” she says. “My favorite singer at the age of eight was Édith Piaf. I was really invested in listening to the opera Carmen when I was seven. I was in my own little world.” She played the violin in school, but a career in music wasn’t really on her radar.
“For everybody, there are turns of events that propel you in a particular direction,” says Hopkins. “I thought that, by the age of 30, I would have my doctorate in psychology and be a therapist. That was really what I was focused on. But when I was 20, I lost my best friend. That shifted my world dramatically. I picked up the guitar, because I had to find a way of expressing my loss.”
Hopkins attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied composition. After that, she took a break from music and went into the corporate world. When the company she was working for was bought out, “it was one of those turning points,” she says. Taking a leap of faith, she decided to record her first album, Birds of Mystery. That was about 20 years ago.
“I was very fortunate that Peter, Paul, and Mary came across ‘Jesus Is on the Wire,’ a song I wrote about Matthew Shepard, and they liked it enough to record it,” says Hopkins. They actually recorded it twice: first in 2004, then in 2010, with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. “I thought, maybe, this is a sign,” says Hopkins. “I’m going to do what I love for the rest of my life.”
“Jesus Is on the Wire” begins with the lyrics “Run-down church, red clay/ River covered in a smoky haze.” The smoky timbre of Hopkins’s alto voice complements the words, while at the same time retains a bell-like clarity that brings out their assonance and sparseness. At the high point of the song, Hopkins’s blunt lyrics are heartrending: “They said that he slept with guys/ They said that he was gonna die.”
“I love a lot of imagist poetry,” says Hopkins. “I love William Carlos Williams, I love Emily Dickinson, but I appreciate a lot of different writers. I was reading some John Steinbeck short stories last weekend. Really, whatever piques my interest. I love Leonard Cohen. He is one of my literary, musical heroes. I like the economical use of words. I try to keep things really concentrated.”
When writing her songs, Hopkins says, sometimes they come together immediately, while at other times, disembodied melodies or lyrics float around until they are united. “I tend to like writing and rewriting,” she says. “I find that that’s where you really know when a song is completed, because there is a sense of closure.”
Hopkins calls her music “red roots Americana” — Americana encompassing blues, country, folk, and bluegrass, and “red roots” for her Native American ancestry. “I’m a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe,” says Hopkins. “I am also Nottoway Iroquois, African American, Irish, and Portuguese.”
Several of Hopkins’s songs are about her indigenous heritage, including “Tamson Weeks,” which is about her great-great-aunt, a medicine woman. And she doesn’t shy away from social issues. Her song “The Ghost of Emmett Till,” about the black teenager lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman, on her 2018 album, Love Come Down, contains a lyric that’s all too pertinent right now: “You can get away with murder, in this country still/ If the boy looks like Emmett Till.”
While Hopkins has collaborated with a number of celebrated musicians in her albums, including Noel Paul Stookey — the Paul of Peter, Paul, and Mary — and violinist Mimi Rabson of the Really Eclectic String Quartet, she will be performing solo at Payomet, offering an intimate live experience.
“I will be doing some songs about my indigenous background, but I will also be doing some covers and songs that I happen to love,” she says, including those by Johnny Cash, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. “There will be some works in progress,” she adds. “And I’ll be doing at least one new song.”
Red Roots Americana
The event: Thea Hopkins live in concert
The time: Friday, Sept. 18, at 6 p.m.
The place: Payomet Performing Arts Center’s Ballfield Drive-in, Highlands Center, 29 Old Dewline Road, Truro
The cost: Pay what you can, $25-$55, in advance at payomet.org