Artwork for podcast Si Yo Fuera una Canción (If I Were a Song)
Cat Quinn (Original, English)
Episode 323rd April 2021 • Si Yo Fuera una Canción (If I Were a Song) • Elisabeth Le Guin
00:00:00 00:25:48

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A community health nurse who co-directs a Santa Ana-based non-profit, Cat talks about women building community, and the persistence of hope in the face of hardship.



Greetings and welcome.

Today’s interview, in English, is with Cat Quinn, who is the Field Program Coordinator for Concern America, an international non-profit based right here in Santa Ana that works with underserved communities worldwide, building health care, clean water, education, and economic opportunity.

I came to know Cat through my roommate Teri, who also works for Concern. But even if I hadn’t had that connection, I think I would have run into Cat sooner or later around town. She is one of the most committed people I’ve ever met—to her work, to her community, to her friendships and family, to justice, and—very importantly—to good food.

CQ. So my name is Cat Quinn and I am forty-nine years old. And my preferred pronouns are she, her and ella. I came to live in Santa Ana…it's been 10 years now. I moved here from Chicago and I came to live here to work with a nonprofit that I had been volunteering with in Guatemala. And then over the years I was asked to move here to SanTana to take on more of a leadership role within the organization.

ELG. Okay, so as you know, there are three questions that are kind of the armature or the skeleton for this process, the first of which is the one that sounds simple, and is the least simple. And that is, Where are you from?

CQ. So when I was thinking about that question…The first thing that really ties to the music I picked is—and I think especially more now that I live in California—I really see myself as a Midwesterner, and all that that has meant for me in my childhood. I mean, I was born in New York City, but I really identify with the Midwest and the Midwest of my grandparents’ farm in Illinois: learning how to can, the potluck mentality, the…there's always enough food, so everyone can come. And baking, and bringing jam to your neighbors. So I, I just really as I'm getting older, I’m identifying more and more with that.

ELG. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Of course that that leads us so elegantly into the second question, which is, What is the song or piece of music you've chosen to share with us today that represents what you've just told us about?

CQ. Well, it's funny. I actually, as I'm sitting here, I have a stack of CDs on my lap because it was kind of hard for me to pick a song, because there's so many songs that are memory songs for me, that bring me back to the Midwest or that are so much a part of what I would listen to when I would can with my grandma, or what I would listen to when I can now as an adult, or cook, or things like that.

But I did end up—it’s a newer artist for me, Brandi Carlisle, who I just love as an artist and what she's doing for women in music. And she's really taken on the Country Music scene and having all [her] music be produced by women, for women. And the song I picked reminds me—and it's funny, when I was playing with it, my daughter said, “Mom, this song is so you,” because I always want to have a home where everyone feels welcome at the table.

And it just brings back memories for me of, again, that, my Midwestern upbringing. And so that's why I picked that song. It is on the HighWomen album, which was four women artists that came together. It just, to me, captured the Midwest and what I was thinking about.

[Song clip from The Highwomen, “Crowded Table”]

I want a house with a crowded table

And a place by the fire for everyone…

ELG. I am curious…you know, you mentioned that you're from Chicago and your identification with being a Midwesterner. But I don't think of country music and Chicago in the same sentence.

CQ. [Laughter] I know, that's so true, but my memories of being on my grandparents’ farm had a lot of fairs and, like, fairgrounds, but we would always go to see the entries and the music was always like that. So it just I, I have this—which people are like, “I can't believe it, Cat!” But I have this real connection to country music. And I don't know why, but when I would hear the songs, even though the singers are from not, you know, a small farm in Illinois, [laughter] there's just a familiarity about what they're singing about. So I think that's why I was connected to it.

ELG. Yeah, yeah. Why would people now say, “Really, Cat?” about your connections to country music? What's operating there?

CQ. Well, I think in part when you think—I mean, it's not fair, but sort of a stereotype about country music, which is why I love Brandi Carlisle so much and actually why I always have loved the Dixie Chicks (that are now called the Chicks) and female country singers, and then really gotten into Dolly Parton, and a lot of these women that tell these amazing stories about women. And so I've always been connected to that, I love the stories they tell, I can relate to it. It reminds me of stories that my grandma would share with me.

And so…but I think when you think of country music, it's more, it's male, which is interesting too, why I love the HighWomen, because that's their whole point, is that for every 20 songs, that's on country radio, it's a man to one woman’s song. So I think I love that. And really, when you listen to a lot of the older country songs, too, they were really radical in what they were talking about. When you listen to Brandi Carlisle’s songs, that really comes out, too.


I asked Cat to recommend an example of an old-style country song that told such a radical story, and she hit me with Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover.”

ause she first released it in:

[song clip]

ELG. Yeah, this song, “Crowded Table,” does not strike me as--well, I shouldn't, I shouldn't say that! I mean, what's radical about this song? Maybe I'll turn it into a question. What's radical?

CQ. Well, I think not so much radical, but this idea… of community, which to some is kind of radical. I mean, it's not radical when I think of, like maybe how you and I are thinking radical. But this idea, which is something that I was really brought up with and then really felt when I lived in Central America and then the time I spent Mexico, just this idea that everyone is invited, everyone is included. And through food, you really get to, get to…

ELG. Mmhmmm.

CQ. …get to know somebody and experience something. And I feel like that's what that song—And there's the part about the garden…but it's definitely is a song that is this, when—definitely, to the question you asked, it just is like, That is it! Like everything they're talking about is what I think of when I think of parts of where I came from.

ELG. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And, and I—I like thinking about this, you know, this image of the crowded table and the, the welcoming doorway and the fireplace that, everyone's allowed to sit at this fireplace, you know, to think that these these images of warmth and capaciousness are, in fact, radical. Because it's, instead of insisting on hierarchies and insisting on power and power-over, it's like, hey, come, come into our space, you know? So that's a pretty cool place to come from. [laughter]

CQ. Yeah, I agree with that, Elisabeth. I think it's so true that… You know, I tell the story [of] when we moved here, I baked bread for all my neighbors and brought jam. And when I brought them to their door, the one of my neighbors said, “Do I owe you anything?” Like, “How much are you charging?” And then the other was like, “What is it you want me to do with this?” And I'm like, “No, I mean, I'm here, I've just moved into the neighborhood.” I mean, that idea of community, that I just want to break bread with you, in a way was so frightening for some people. Like I somehow wanted something.

And I think that, you're right, that is the radical… like I think that I…well, I know, for me in our world, we've just gotten really far away from that. Just that everyone's welcome, and bring what you have, just sit and let's have a meal together, and, and…I want everyone to feel like they are welcome.

ELG. Yeah, it is it is also interesting, I think, how that particular brand of radicalism tends to fall to women.

CQ. Hah. Isn’t that true.

[Song clip from “Crowded Table”]

If we want a garden

We’re gonna have to sow the seeds.

Plant a little happiness,

let the roots run deep…

ELG. We're going to sort of pivot now and go to your next song, I think. But one thing that really struck me as I was getting acquainted with your two songs, preparing for this interview. is that the first one is entirely women's voices, and the second one is principally a woman's voice. There's a little bit of very discreet backup singing by a man. But, but yeah, you chose women's voices in both. I think that's, you know, that's not casual.

CQ. Mm-hmm, no, absolutely. I, I've always really…What I think of actually, every artist that's sitting next to me here on the couch, I have their CDs here next to me! Because I love getting a CD and opening it and pulling up a little leaflet and looking at the words. And I know it's on other forms of Spotify and things, but I like to feel music that way. And—they're all women. Yeah, that's really my where I get my strength. Part of, you know, my tie with Midwest and then the journey in my life where I then found myself working in Central America…

I remember that the first song that I understood when I was starting to learn Spanish was the song that I picked, which is from Guardabarranco. The song is really beautiful. The two artists are incredible. They're from Nicaragua.

But I remember when I began to understand Spanish, I could make jokes in Spanish and I had my first dream in Spanish. And then I listened to the songs, and I picked it [this one] because I felt—and again, there were other artists, I thought about Mercedes Sosa, Silvio Rodriguez and music that touches my heart and gives me so much hope—but I picked Guardabarranco, because it was such a time, when there was so much going on.

And I felt just incredible hope that—I mean, not only that I was hopeful that now I could learn a second language and understand what people were saying to me--but also just the hope of the work that I was a part of, and the people that I was meeting, and this whole new world that was opened to me, that was really…Just when I think of that, and when I hear their songs, it totally brings me back to that time, and just then my life path changed.

ELG. Yeah.

CQ. So it's just really hopeful. That's why I picked that song. Yeah.

[clip from Guardabarranco, “Mi Luna”]

My moon, you’ve seen so much,

when I sing to you

your silver [light] surrounds me

like it does the saints…

ELG. Wow, there's something about that song that, although it is not technically a sad song, it makes me feel like crying.

CQ. [Laughs] You know, Elisabeth, I was just sitting here thinking--my memory--I will tell you, when I picked the songs, I picked that [one] but I haven't listened to it in a while. I was waiting to listen to it today. And as I'm saying, “This is hopeful,” --It's actually kind of a sad song. I was tearing up, too.

ELG. Yeah, well, it walks an interesting line, I feel, between hope and, and…

CQ. And despair.

ELG. --and despair and desperation, and the desperate people that it mentions.

CQ. Yeah.

ELG. Ahh, yeah, songs to the moon, man. [Laughter]

CQ. I mean, isn't that interesting? But I can remember… I mean, I was listening to [it], I was thinking, wow, people are going to be like, well, I don't know how hopeful that song is, but, you know, I can't describe it, when… I remember listening to that song, I remember listening to this album in really hard times. I mean, I was living in Honduras, working in communities, doing HIV and AIDS work, which was hard because at the time in San Pedro Sula, it was the capital of HIV and AIDS in Central America. And so…

ELG. Wow.

CQ. --but yet when I listen to these songs, and then, just like having these songs, there was incredible hope. And I think you just said something that's so important and that hope, but that's tied to that sadness, is something that I always find incredible in people. When things are so hard, that there is just this like, you know, “But we're going to do it!” You know, “We're going to go forward,” and telling jokes or singing songs or, you know, again, sharing food. I think that's where that whole piece comes in for me when I hear this song and other songs that they sing, which do have a sad piece to it.

ELG. Yeah, yeah. Like, hope that has its roots in all the terrible things that are wrong with the world. You know… that is a very profoundly rooted plant…

CQ. Yeah.

ELG. And it just keeps coming back.

I love that you chose this song and I love many things about this song. It's…one of the things that really grabbed my attention [was] because it sounds to me almost like it was recorded live. I think it was probably recorded in one take, like a single track. She's got the mic really close to her mouth. It's, it's what I would call in in terms of the kind of things you find on Spotify, it's under-produced. I mean, it has this quality not of being a performance, not of being a slightly glossy work of art, but just like she was in your living room and she really needed to sing this to you. And that's very striking to me. It's quite a contrast to the first song, actually, which is no less sincere, but much more highly produced. Yeah, and there's something about having the artistic courage to, to release a song this way, you know, that does have a little bit of that living-room quality to it.

CQ. You know, that's part of why it really reaches my heart. Yeah, I totally agree with that. And actually the two singers are brother and sister. Oh yeah. And they…Yeah, I totally feel that, too, like you could even see that at one point there's like the rain-stick noise, you know, or I don't know if that was a stick, but that kind of idea. And like, that you could almost see them sitting on the couch with their mics and like, “Everyone, be quiet.” And it brings me back to my childhood of, like, pressing Record and Play on the tape deck to get… That's cool. And yeah, I agree. I love that feeling.

ELG. Yeah. Yeah. It's a little bit the quality of of this recording that we're making right now. [Laughter] Oh, goodness.

So I just wanted to ask you a little bit more about the lyrics of this song. It is a song sung to the moon, and the moon is being addressed directly. And who—who is she, do you think?

CQ. I don't know, I mean, are you referring to who's the moon or who is the person looking, or...?

ELG. I was wondering, who is the moon?

CQ. Oh, that's interesting.

ELG. Who is she that she that we want to address her in this way? Almost, almost like supplicants.

CQ. Yeah. I mean, when I hear the song again, that moon is…I mean, moons are hopeful, you know, moons are…She's reliable. She's there. And there's something hopeful about that when there's nothing else. It's that, to me, that—like, accompaniment.

And I've heard people say that when they're really in a dark place or if, [they’re] you know, living outside because they don't have a home, or they're traveling far or…this was actually from Nicaragua. But people often share stories during different civil conflicts—

ELG. Right.

CQ. --that a moon is, is that friend, is that something that's reliable. That's walking with you…Well, yeah, I don't know. That's how I would interpret it.

ELG. You know, this is a way of thinking about the moon that you have encountered in people that you've lived among, worked with, is so interesting to me because there's a whole way of thinking about the moon, which I have to say chiefly takes place—we get back to the gender thing here—in the work of male poets and lyricists, to the effect that the moon is inconstant, you know, because she changes. She's never the same one night to the next, and she moves around in the sky, and she never looks the same. And so she becomes this very coarse, general metaphor for the supposed inconstancy of women, and, you know, what you're talking about is, it's the obverse of that. It's totally the other way of looking at it, which is, her changeability is just part of her constancy, like any living being.

CQ. Yeah. And that—I mean, when you look at our world right now--Change, I mean, you know, people always say that “The one thing you can count on is change.” But I do, I mean, definitely for me, the moon is female. It's fascinating that when you just described how the moon is described by maybe male songwriters or poets, because for me, what I hear in this song—and it's written by a woman, is that the moon, it is changing, but she's there. You know, she's always going to be there. It's going to change, there may be times we don't really see her, but…and that was like in the lyrics, like, “When I have nothing and I look up, but I just know you're going to be there,” and whatever form near you, you know, to me that's a positive…

[2nd clip from “Mi Luna”]

CQ. Well, you could even go deeper, I mean, right, you know how we use the moon, and even just how women are seen, and the menstrual cycle and all that's connected to the moon is seen as such a negative thing. But it's really a powerful, amazing thing. And so you really could do almost a whole podcast on that.

ELG. Oh, man, I well, I gotta tell you, I mean, to some degree, every single interview is… I feel like people are just hungry to be philosophical. And music is a great portal to being philosophical. So I believe… I love it.

Well, thank you so much, Cat. It was fun. Thank you for the quality of your conversation and of your insight, and for this beautiful and amazing music you shared with me and with our listeners.


Here we ended our conversation, though honestly it would have been easy, and delicious, to have continued exploring of the themes we raised.

Since our interview, I’ve returned various times to Cat’s remarks about that human capacity to keep nourishing Hope in the midst of the most desperate situations—joking, walking on under moonlight, and of course, singing. It reminds me of the words of Victor Hugo in his novel, Les miserables: “Car où il n'y a plus l'espérance, le chant reste.”

That is to say, “Where there is no longer hope, song remains.”