Becoming pregnant at 20 was initially a shock for Vasheena Lambert. She was in university and planning for her future. The pregnancy triggered many fears: that she’d have to give up her dreams, that she might not be able to give her daughter the nurturing and guidance she’d need. It also brought back memories of some of the challenges she experienced growing up as the child of very young parents.
A nurse suggested Lambert visit Jessie’s Centre, a hub in downtown Toronto that supports young parents with prenatal classes, an on-site high school and housing, meal, respite childcare and parenting programs. It was there she learned about the Lullaby Project.
The Lullaby Project began at Carnegie Hall in 2011, and is now offered in 37 cities around the world, including Toronto, where it runs as a collaboration between Massey Hall and Jessie’s. The project pairs expectant or new mothers with professional songwriters and musicians, who guide these moms in creating a unique lullaby for their child.
“Every time I sing it, she smiles. She just lights up. That’s how I know the song is special.”
Vanessa Smith, Manager of Education and Outreach at Massey Hall, started the Lullaby Project in 2017. “What I love about the project is that it’s about creating a piece of music that will build a bond between parent and child that they’ll keep for a lifetime and that will continue to inspire that bond,” said Smith.
Musician and songwriter Cathy Nosaty has been part of the program since it started. Sometimes, she says, they start with words or symbols that are meaningful to the mom, and then they build the song from there. Some moms have created songs around the nickname they’ve given their baby, or lullabies they were sung when they were children. Another approach is to write a letter to their child describing how they’re feeling right now and their hopes for the future. “This whole project is about creating something that’s true to the mom,” said Nosaty.
Lambert gave birth to her daughter, Jaliyah, a little over a year ago. She was scared, but she remembers her perspective changing the moment her daughter was born. She felt like her life had a new purpose. Lambert’s lullaby, “Jaliyah, My Love,” came as naturally as her love for her daughter, she said. Lambert arrived at her first session with Nosaty with a melody and lyrics already in mind.
“It’s kind of a popular song, but it’s got a little bit of a gospel feel, too,” explained Nosaty. “She basically had the chorus already in her. So we built the chorus and then tried to create the verse. The joy that she’s singing — it’s just one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.”
Humans have been singing lullabies to their babies for millenia. Experts believe lullabies may have been an early way for parents to show undivided attention to their babies. And research shows that singing to babies can create a deeper connection between mother and baby, increase positive emotions from the child to the mother, and have a soothing effect for both the child and the mother.
The soothing nature of The Lullaby Project was put to the test this spring when the pandemic hit. In normal times, mothers and songwriters meet in-person at Jessie’s and are able to access on-site childcare while they develop their songs. Those attending the on-site high-school even get a credit for songwriting. They then got to have the experience of recording the track in a professional studio.
When the lockdown started, Massey Hall was able to move the program online. Luckily, Lambert and Nosaty had already had their first in-person songwriting session and established a bond and a plan, which made the transition easier. In the following weeks, they continued to work together over Zoom.
When they were ready to record, Nosaty dropped an iPad off at Lambert’s house and walked her through how to record herself singing the lyrics over the bed track. Lambert had to balance that task with caring for Jaliyah, but she managed to do it during quiet times, pausing when Jaliyah needed her attention. Nosaty then recorded backing vocals and worked with musicians and an audio engineer to finish the track.
“When people hear the word lullaby, what comes to mind are small songs of comfort. But when you give these young parents the opportunity to express their love for their children and tell their stories, we’re getting these really raw, authentic expressions of emotion. They get into complicated feelings. They’re really, really meaningful. The lullabies are much deeper than I think most people expect. They’re really a way to care for their baby,” says Smith.
Lambert agrees. She says the song brings her back to the moment when she was giving birth to her daughter Jaliyah and that shift in perspective she experienced. Every time she sings it, it provides a shortcut to that constellation of emotions, and singing the gospel-infused ballad allows her to relive that life-changing moment:
Listen to Lambert’s song, “Jaliyah My Love,” below:
“The song means a lot to me. Having it on record, it brings me back to that moment [after giving birth], that change in me. It’s a reminder of how much joy my daughter brings me. And every time I sing it, she smiles. She just lights up.
“That’s how I know the song is special: We can listen to it 20 years down the line and it will still capture that initial bond we had.”
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