Westword (2021)

Jenn Cleary’s Family Album All Together Now! Envisions a Better World

Boulder blues musician Jenn Cleary created her new children’s album, All Together Now!, with her adopted daughter, Dorje Dolma, her mother, Margaret, and bluesman Mark “Mad Dog” Friedman. The LP addresses everything from environmental and social consciousness to what it means to be a family.

“I didn’t start with this intention, but these are big topics right now, and I love being out in nature,” Cleary says. “Over the years, it has been devastating to watch our environment be so compromised. I grew up playing in the woods and climbing trees, and loved swimming in the lakes and oceans. I attempted here to write with positive messaging…that we do have the ability to make a difference. I feel that mixing that in with fun, danceable music makes it easier to convey that message.”

Growing up in Boston, Cleary volunteered and held fundraisers for nonprofits since she was a child.

“I held annual backyard fairs for the Leukemia Society growing up, age seven to seventeen, that raised thousands of dollars,” she reminisces. “It was a festive event that many in the town looked forward to year after year. Creating a nonprofit to help those in need was always a goal.”

Her work eventually took her to Nepal.

“I was in my third winter of volunteering with street kids in Kathmandu, Nepal,” Cleary recalls, “and I was working in the Rokpa International medical tent when Dorje’s parents came in with their ten-year-old fatally ill child after walking a month from their extremely remote village at 13,000 feet in the Himalayas. Dorje had a severe case of scoliosis and had about two years to live. One thing led to another, and I was able to bring her to America for several life-saving surgeries. After a couple of years of medical work, her lungs were still too compromised to return to her high-altitude village, so I adopted Dorje, and she became part of our family.

“With my mother and my partner, Steven Harrison, I wanted to create a nonprofit to help people in need around the world,” she continues. After her father died in 1996, she says, “we took a bit of his inheritance to start a charity. We started All Together Now International and brought over five children from Tibet, India and Nepal for extensive life-saving scoliosis surgeries. It soon became clear that we could not sustain bringing kids to the U.S., and we eventually helped build up a hospital in Kathmandu that can do these life-saving surgeries successfully.”

All Together Now International brought sustainable-health and economic-sufficiency programs to Nepal, India and Tibet from 1996 to 2010.

Dolma recalls how she was in awe of Cleary’s compassion for others.

“I can write a whole book about how inspiring and generous my mom has been to me and so many people, particularly children,” Dolma explains. “My mom, only in her thirties, took on one of the most daunting and uncertain challenges. [She] took actions fast, because I had less than two years to live due to my severe scoliosis. She wrote endless letters to Nepal government officials pleading with them to let me go to America so I [could] get the surgeries I needed. Next, she visited many doctors and hospitals and wrote many letters in America asking them to help me.

“Through my mom’s determination and hard work, she was able to find generous and kind doctors and hospitals in Colorado that agreed to help,” she adds. “I had four major surgeries, and I remember one of the doctors saying, ‘You are lucky Jennifer brought you here soon. You had less than two years to live.’ My mom stood by me through all my surgeries, doctor visits, and welcomed me to her home and family with [an] open heart and home. She has become my teacher, mentor, adviser, friend and a wonderful travel companion. She listened to my story and took a chance on me 25 years ago so I can live longer. That is her greatest gift to me!”

Dolma and Cleary co-wrote the song “Families of All Kinds” to celebrate families outside of the norm.

“I wanted to write a song that embraces family diversity as long as the child is safe, loved and protected,” Dolma says. “For eight years, I was a preschool teacher in Boulder, and I had students that came from all kinds of families. I had students raised by mom and dad, two dads, two moms, single parents, grandparents or adopted like myself. Each child had their own unique story, and they all had loving and trustful adults caring for them at home, which to me is the most important thing.

“I was amazed how my mom was able to turn our thoughts and ideas into a musical form,” she continues. “And now I have a big appreciation for songwriters. I feel honored to be part of a special project that can be enjoyed by others. I am really happy with how ‘Families of All Kinds’ turned out.”

Cleary even used one of Dolma’s artworks, “Healing Heart,” as the All Together Now! album cover.

“‘Healing Heart’ and ‘I Am Happy’ are some of my most popular greeting cards on my Etsy shop during the pandemic,” Dolma explains. “I generally like to create artwork that symbolizes love, peace and healing, because there is so much sorrow and pain in the world at the moment. The heart represents love and compassion for humans and nature, and to me, that is the whole theme of All Together Now!”

Cleary says the song “Love Right Now” was inspired by her mom as they were taking a morning walk through the community gardens in north Boulder; the goal was to put emphasis on life’s hardships.

“Life is hard for all of us in some way or another,” Cleary declares. “There is no way around it. Whether it is emotional, physical or practical, we all have our good days and bad days. So in the midst of all that, why not try [to] also understand this mutual challenge and try and be supportive of one another?”

Cleary says the album is for people of all ages.

“My past albums have been along the lines of more adult-themed traditional folk and blues,” she says. “All Together Now! is a cohesive family album filled with positive messaging and good ol’ rock-and-roll fun that the whole family can enjoy.

“[It’s meant] to encourage people to appreciate the beautiful aspects of our lives, support one another and to take care of our planet,” she adds. “If we can do that, life can be wonderful, no matter the difficult challenges that we encounter.”

Dolma believes children, in particular, will enjoy the album.

“This is [my mom’s] fourth album, and I have been to her shows,” she says. “It is so fun to see children dancing or singing her songs. Whatever my mom does, she always finds ways to touch someone’s life, because she thinks about being supportive to one another no matter what we do, which is incredibly moving to me.”

Jenn Cleary’s All Together Now! album releases on Amazon on June 4.

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