Sierra Drummond: the Gonzo Today Interview

Sierra Drummond, photo art by Kidman J. Williams, photo by Kira Drummond

by Kyle K. Mann, Gonzo Today Contributing Editor and Publisher

“First off, Sierra… what is your earliest musical memory?”

Sierra Drummond looks at me a moment and smiles gently. “Exiting the womb.”

With anyone else, I’d consider that answer flippant, but Sierra’s mother happens to be an extremely talented musician, keyboardist and singer-songwriter: Mary Harris. 

Mary and Sierra’s dad Burleigh Drummond are members of the active legacy prog-rock band Ambrosia, but Mary Harris’ extensive musical experience also includes years with other major acts, including perennial concert favorite Jimmy Buffett. (Sierra notes later, too, that her brother, who like their father is also named Burleigh Drummond, is one of her favorite songwriters.)

So when Sierra starts out with a line like that, I feel it. And I nod yes.

Earth Day, April 22, 2021. To me this is historic, the first artist interview anyone has ever done with Sierra Drummond.

She is pleased and flattered by my request. We are having drinks on the extremely comfortable black couches in the Drummond/Harris home in Southern California. I’m elated, having visited first with the rest of her family. Sierra is sipping her beverage slowly, and notices me noticing. 

“One drink and I’m forgetful,” she tells me. “But… early musical memories. I remember singing “Building Bridges Instead of Walls” at school.” She explains a bit more about the serious impact of her childhood singing as I write in my notebook, looking up occasionally.

“My mom brought me up [at age five] on stage at a gig… she was urging me on.” We smile. Great first gig! (A photo of the moment is available and is literally worth a thousand words.)

Sierra’s music developed quickly as a child, with her playing guitar, keyboards and singing. In middle school Sierra was a member of a band of youngsters called ‘Topanga.’ 

“That band was really fun, and Juliette Goglia was talented, she was a year older than me.” (Juliette, the daughter of artistic parents Carmine Goglia and Susan Stokey has since gone on to have a successful career as an actress and singing musician.) 

Thinking back about her middle school band, Sierra smiles again. “We came in second in the battle of the bands.”

Sierra attended the University of Southern California as a sociology student (specifically “NGOs and Social Change”) not forsaking music entirely, but focused on humanities and studying “systems of social inequality.” Then, a big shift.

“As a senior in high school, I developed vocal polyps. I became vulnerable. It was misdiagnosed by the doctor as vocal nodes, but it was polyps. It took 3 years to diagnose correctly.” During this period Sierra sang infrequently, needless to say, and usually briefly with her parents’ ongoing project, their band Tin Drum.

I take a hefty belt of my drink, musing on being unable to vocalize. Being misdiagnosed for 3 years when your singing is on the line? Yikes! She explains that taking a break from singing was prescribed, but…

“Vocal rest is antithetical to my personality; surgery was the only way to remove the polyps. And it did leave scar tissues.” 

We discuss her unique vocal sound, and she agrees the operation had an effect. In my opinion, her ability to transcend the trauma of vocal surgery is simply heroic.

One way Sierra kept a hand in the world of music while in college was by becoming a radio deejay. “It was about two years and I started by interning on a show called “Pieces of the Phunk.” The radio show examined the roots of funk music.

Too cool, I think. “You must have played a lot of James Brown.”

She grins. “James Brown was my favorite. After I interned, I got to host my own show called, “Wax and Gold.” On that show I did a segment on music from countries Trump had banned immigration from. At that time I was exploring the field of ethnomusicology my brother and dad had introduced me to.” 

Sierra pauses. “My brother told me about the Ethiopian concept of “wax and gold,” which refers to the political meaning of their lyrics. Wax is the superficial meaning, and gold…” She nods, and I get it, loving the phrase. “My music now is an escape from politics. It’s more personal.”

Once out of college, still limited in singing by her vocal recovery but wanting to give back to the world, Sierra joined the Peace Corps for a multi-year term in Thailand. Her friends and family were stunned but acceptant.

I ask if she still was promoting her own music. “The Thai people have a concept called “greeng jai” which means feeling like a burden to people. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad.”

Throughout this period, and for nearly a decade, Sierra’s beloved cousin Darcie had been battling recurring lung cancer. Numerous musical benefits were hosted by her family and others, including her parents’ band Ambrosia, to raise money for Darcie’s costly medical treatment. “It felt weird to not be here for Darcie.”

On Sierra’s Facebook page are posted numerous photos of her being surrounded by groups of adoring Thai children. It’s obvious she made a huge impact in her teaching with the Peace Corps. But after 17 months there, COVID-19 hit, and after briefly visiting home for a cousin’s wedding, Sierra was unable to return to Thailand to resume her Peace Corps service.

“Now I’m trying to jump back into music fully. It seems selfish not to go after the things I want, especially in the context of Darcie.”

I ask about the impact of her return to the USA. “I was really nervous coming home. I wrote [one of her new songs] ‘Silk’ in 15 minutes on the plane. The lyrics were just me.”

“A lot of your lyrics are mysterious,” I comment. She nods in agreement.

“I’m proud that I just did it, posted it.”

I look up from my notebook as she continues “One of my lyrics… in Thai the phrase is ‘nam-jai’ – ‘water my heart when it runs dry.’ It’s water of the heart. It means generosity. Nam-jai… it means take care of me.”

Phew, I think. “And, Darcie…”

She gives me a look. “The passion she felt… she was the best teacher and friend. She took care of children. After she died… you know when people die, others say things like ‘she left us for heaven, she was called back, she died for a reason…”

We are both choking up. Sierra takes a deep breath. I’ve known this young woman since she was an infant and I’ve never before seen this level of intensity, deep sorrow mixed with anger.

“I don’t think there is a meaning in her death.”

A shuddering indrawn breath and Sierra fiercely continues.

“She shouldn’t have died.”

*****

Silence. We are both in tears now. I ask myself if we should finish the interview some other day when, with perfect timing, Sierra’s boyfriend Danny walks in, giving Sierra a hug. He’s a sincere, likable lad a year or two older than Sierra, wearing glasses and Beatle-like long hair, his smile a blend of curiosity and concern. He asks if it’s ok to join us, and we nod. Saved!

I exhale.

Sierra and I wipe our eyes, as she says to me with sudden gratitude “Darcie is part of why Danny and I are together.”

I raise my eyebrows in inquiry.

“I had met Danny in high school but hadn’t seen him in a long time.” Now they both smile. “I was with Darcie and I said to her, “I think I know that guy.”” More smiles: I wait for it. 

“Darcie made me go talk to him.”

I grin. Great segue! She continues: “He was like the funny senior in high school. Smart, but also a goof-off in class.” Now they are both shyly and very slightly smiling. “I felt guilty starting a relationship during COVID. But..” They both laugh suddenly.

But isn’t her song ‘Deep End’ about the discomfort of being young and single?

“‘Deep End’ was more like..” She pauses. “When I was in the Peace Corps I met someone…” Another pause. “I was looking for a love I didn’t wanna keep.” Still another pause. “It took me a long time to know who I am.”

She’s rolling now, anchored by Danny sitting next to her, I sense.

“The lyrics were just me. In that song I’m making a lot of demands, mostly talking to myself. I was longing for a partner. I needed to love myself more. The song was written before I re-met Danny.”

Tin Drum, the band founded by her parents, held online video concerts over the last year, working to display their art in an era of no live concert performances. Sierra performed ‘Deep End’ live on the streaming video.

“You looked and sounded great, but it looked like you were squirming a bit.”

“Danny and I had just started dating, but I’m excited about the way my friends feel about Deep End… the 20-something girl blues.”

“A raw feeling,” Danny adds. “You should hear her new song.”

Sierra continues. “I like ‘Deep End’ now but at one point I thought it was hokey.” I laugh, as she abruptly looks puzzled. “Is that the right word?” She and Danny discuss correct phrasing as I laugh again. These two are good together. “Drinking makes me lose my voice.” Danny gets her a glass of water.

We briefly discuss Sierra’s amazing 5-year old niece Kira, who has also, like Sierra, appeared onstage with Tin Drum at a very young age. “I think the way my [ten year older] brother approached me, as a kid, is similar to how he parents Kira. Spending time with them is the greatest gift of being home from Thailand. Before Danny, I spent all my time with Kira. She’s certainly a fireball!”

 *****

So. We finish up our interview with a song I have listened to and marveled at dozens of times now, my current favorite Sierra Drummond song to date, ‘Mom,’ a tribute to the now-family matriarch, the aforementioned impossibly beautiful singer-songwriter and solid-as-a-rock keyboardist Mary Harris who also plays grooving keyboard bass, and sings backups with Sierra featuring the special unity that singing family members can achieve.

“Singing with my family is my favorite thing. “Mom” was written on this couch, all of them were made in this house.”

Seriously, now. Trust me. You will have to listen to the song, readers. Sierra’s voice is shockingly unique. It’s a slow mellow shuffle, paced by world-class drummer and brilliant father Burleigh Drummond, and a tasty keyboard solo by the song’s subject, her mom… It’s indescribable.

“Mom… I feel she had to go above and beyond to prove herself.”

How does Sierra feel about ‘Mom’ now that it’s released?

“Just posting it makes me want to write all week.”

I rub my mask-covered jaw.

“I haven’t really promoted it yet.” We discuss Spotify and CD Baby. “I’ve only promoted it to people I know.”

I purse my lips and look at her. She’s summing up now.

“It’s cool to think that people might want to watch me get better.” Shimmering silence for an instant.

“I’m excited to keep doing it.”

And, spiritually?

“I’ve always really enjoyed something my brother said when he was a little kid. My Dad often mentions it. I guess one time my Dad had asked him his opinion on God, and he responded, “God is the way we treat each other.” That makes sense to me, and I feel like music is an extension of that concept.”

God is the way we treat each other, I think to myself. Yes.

I drive home slowly. Coming down. 

by: Kyle K. Mann

Topanga

May 4, 2021

Buy Sierra Drummond’s music. CLICK THIS LINK!

3 Song Lyrics by Sierra Drummond

Silk

Soften me and ease my brain

Sand me down I’m ready to be safe

Smooth me out revisit scars

It’s a silky sickness, to love what you are 

Take away my wasted words

Thrown away like business cards

Tell me what I should believe 

I’m tired of drifting through endless dreams

Sell all my stories

’Til I’m sold out

Sell all my worries

’Til I’m all out

Tell me what food to eat

Cut it up piece by piece

Lay me down when days are done

Settle my fears one by one

Sell all my stories

‘Till I’m sold out

Sell all my worries

‘Till I’m all out

If I fall down, fall down with me

If I break down, won’t you break down with me

Show me what clothes to wear

Make me feel like I’m here not there 

Water my heart when it runs dry

Tell me it’s fine if I wanna cry

Soften me and ease my brain

Sand me down I’m ready to feel safe

Smooth me out revisit scars

It’s a silky sickness, to love what you are 

Deep end

Looking for love wherever I can find it but 

sure am not to keep it

looking for love wherever hearts are beating 

but moments are sure to be fleeting

(hmmm-hmmmm-oooooooh ) 

Looking for love but only on the weekends 

cause week-nights are made for the deep-end

Of burdens, & blisters, and bad bad news

It’s the 20 something girl blues 

(hmmm-hmmmm-oooooooh) 

20 something 

girl blues

Lost and lonely 

Without any clue

Of what I want from you I’m 

looking for love wherever it’s hiding

Inside me, beside me, behind me

looking for love but if I find it

Would I want it, would it want me back too 

Would you?

Would you? 

20 something 

girl blues

Lost and lonely 

Without any clue

Of what I want from you

piano solo

Outro: Looking for love (Repeat)


Mom 

Mom builds cathedrals out of men’s broken egos

Smooths out their mountains of shame 

& still they try to tell her she don’t deserve all her acclaim

Mom clears the beaches of things other people brought to shore 

Builds sandcastles made for others to adore 

Still she tells herself that she’ll always owe them more 

Mom built a house out of worries for her children

Electric circuits shot by a love that weighs her down

Still she don’t believe that they’ll always want her around 

Solo

Mom built a house out of worries for her children

Electric circuits shot by a love that weighs her down

Still she don’t believe that they’ll always want her around 

About Kyle K. Mann 74 Articles
Kyle K. Mann is the pen name of a contributor to, and publisher of, Gonzo Today. He lives high atop Topanga, California, where owls hoot and coyotes howl. A radio broadcaster in multiple fields in the 80s and 90s, Kyle sometimes supports himself part time as a Union film crew member in Hollywood. His articles and interviews first appeared in Gonzo Today in early 2015, and some of them are fairly good.