When we got word Kwamie Liv was coming from Denmark to New York City, we tried to find a wine cellar where we could shoot a performance video. After dozens of phone calls and rejections, we decided to settle for a tunnel. We met in Central Park and started setting up in the first tunnel we came across. I was worried. It would be getting dark soon, and while we got the cameras ready we had no idea how this would sound, if the lighting would be right, or if all the surrounding noise and action would ruin this intimate performance.
Kwamie lifted her acoustic guitar from its case and stepped outside near the entrance of the tunnel to tune it—it needed to be tuned down for this song, and she admitted that this particular guitar hadn’t been played in months. She came back and said it was still out of tune, but she’d try it out anyway.
People kept walking through the tunnel—a group of bicyclists, children on scooters and in strollers, curious onlookers with cameras, and two separate groups of Danish tourists (Kwamie exchanged words with one group, but I’m not sure what she said. Probably something like, “Oh, you’re Danish? Me too.”)
I wanted this to be perfect, and there was so much extra Central Park shit going on that it seemed like an impossible feat. The people, the car horns, the squawking birds, the sirens, the heartbeat of New York City pumping through this sturdy little tunnel that has lived her since the mid-1800s.
And then Kwamie Liv started singing.
Suddenly, everything was in harmony. Every little piece of background noise became part of the performance, like it was all there just to provide support for what was happening under this bridge in Central Park. It couldn’t have been arranged more perfectly, even if we had control over it all.
Maybe this was all just in my head. I hope that it translates for everyone who watches.
The song Kwamie is singing is Tom Waits’ “Fish & Bird.” It’s a love song, and one that she’s always admired for its simplistic, almost childlike approach to such a heavy topic.
“Is it a sad song to you?” I asked her after she sang it.
She thought for a few seconds. “Is it sad to you?”
A song of a little bird
That fell in love with a whale
He said, ‘You cannot live in the ocean’
And she said to him
‘You never can live in the sky’
But the ocean is filled with tears
And the sea turns into a mirror
There’s a whale in the moon when it’s clear
And a bird on the tide