Taking aim at debt, singer finds opening through music

New York (AFP) - Taking her often deeply personal songs to clubs around the United States, Pauline Pisano found an opening. She began speaking about personal debt -- and was surprised by the response.

The songwriter, whose music ranges from piano pop to folksy rock, had been studying the crushing debt faced by many people and placed fliers at her shows, inviting fans to confide in her their experiences and views.

"If I'm connecting with them musically, then I think they felt I was safe somehow," Pisano said at a coffeehouse in New York, where she lives.

"It was almost like, in a weird way, that with the music, they could see me being vulnerable. And if they can see me being vulnerable, they can feel vulnerable," she said.

Pisano, whose tour took her to conservative pockets of the United States, found the occasional skeptic. But she mostly found common ground, especially when discussing the massive medical debts that can be incurred in the market-based US health care system.

"It was interesting that there is some kind of solidarity with people when it comes to medical expenses," she said.

"I also said to myself, I don't think we're that divided in this discussion. I think we're being told that we are divided, but when I went to talk to people, I felt that we were able to have this discussion in a way that is very open and honest," she said.

In the United States, households held nearly $13 trillion in debt at the end of September, a record that surpasses the level during 2008 financial crisis, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Some 80 percent of Americans have debt, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts. While some debts such as mortgages are expected, the survey found a growing number of young people saddled with student loans.

- Feeling an 'awakening' -

Pisano found less sympathy when discussing other common debt, such as credit card bills. But she believes her conversation offered hope about finding solutions, even beginning dialogue on ideas that seem politically infeasible such as a debt jubilee write-off.

"I didn't think I would ever talk about debt. It wasn't even in my periphery. I was going to be a musician and play keyboards and sing about robots," Pisano, who also teaches music in New York, said with a laugh.

Pisano felt a stirring last year when she became active in the movement against the Keystone XL pipeline, where authorities in North Dakota deployed rubber bullets, pepper spray and a food blockade to stop protests led by Native American activists and environmentalists.

"Everything for me starts with that awakening -- why in 2016 are we shooting rubber bullets? That really changed my perception of everything."

Pisano took up studies of income inequality. Around the same time she ended a five-year relationship, leading her to retreat for 10 days into a family cabin in New Hampshire.

She brought her instruments and wrote her newly released album, "Inside the Wheel." Exploring her break-up, Pisano crafted an album of multiple characters -- including a voice of wisdom sung in a lower octave and a Greek chorus akin to the mythological Furies.

"I feel that I lost my mind, but in a good way. When you spend a lot of time in solitude, you see different aspects of yourself," she said.

Pisano has since been working on music about the debt crisis.

"I've been telling myself, I'm not a journalist, I'm not a scientist, I'm not an economist, I'm not a social worker. Do I have the power to have this conversation?

"And then I realized, well, I'm a human being and an artist and I live here on the planet," she said. "Maybe that is enough."