About a dozen years ago, the singer/songwriter Jill Sobule received a vintage charm bracelet as a birthday gift. She had no interest in wearing the bracelet ("not really my style," she would later comment) but nonetheless became obsessed with it. As she wrote on her website in 2012:
Who was the original owner? What did she do? I do know her name was Dottie, as there is a round engraved "Dottie" charm. ... She was not from a wealthy family — the 22 charms are pewter as opposed to silver or gold. She traveled domestically, gathering mementos from Florida to Mackinac Island to New York City. She played piano. She liked big, sculpted poodles. She liked cowboys. She was a working girl; there is an ABWA union (American Woman Business Association) charm and an office chair. She was Jewish — a mezuzah. I keep saying “was” [but] maybe Dottie is still alive. Who knows?
Totally Permanent Record, right? Sobule decided to use the charm bracelet as the organizing theme for a concept album: a dozen songs, each relating to one of the charms on the bracelet, forming a fictional (but plausible) composite view of Dottie's life. But she didn't write the lyrics herself. Instead, she enlisted a bunch of writers — mostly novelists and academics like Jonathan Lethem, Luc Sante, and Rick Moody — and had each of them write a set of charm-based lyrics. She then added the music. The resulting album, Dottie's Charms, is being released on vinyl this weekend (in conjunction with Record Store Day) and will be available digitally on May 5.
Interestingly, Sobule had already been contemplating a similar project before she hit upon the charm bracelet idea. At one point she had considered purchasing a random old high school yearbook on eBay and constructing a concept album around that. But the charm bracelet idea ended up working out better.
The collaborative nature of Dottie's Charms has echoes of the Significant Objects project, in which the writers (and my friends) Rob Walker and Josh Glenn acquired about 200 cheap thrift store items, assigned a writer to create a short story about each of them, and then auctioned off the objects and the stories on eBay. (The stories were later packaged into an excellent book.)
You can learn more about Dottie's Charms in this article, and Sobule will be playing a record-release party for the album on April 24 at City Winery in New York. As she recently wrote on her blog, "Maybe Dottie will show up."
Incidentally, a few years ago I considered writing a song about the Manhattan Trade School report cards that formed the basis of the Permanent Record project. I figured I'd write some lyrics (something I'd never done before), and I asked my friend Lianne Smith — a great singer/songwriter who also happens to be a big PermaRec fan — if she'd be willing to come up with the music and then add the song to her repertoire. She was agreeable, but I never came up with a full set of lyrics. Only managed to do the chorus, the bridge, and part of a verse. This is all a good reminder that I need to dust off that project.