After many years of touring, Bari Koral is loving her new Saugerties home, complete with a picturesque pond.
Just Being Bari
From young rebel to kid-rock star
By Deborah J. Botti
Photos by Philip Kamrass
SINGER-SONGWRITER BARI KORAL, deemed “The ‘It Girl’ in kids’/family music” by New York Magazine and “The Sheryl Crow for kids” by the New York Post, says that while growing up, her family often wondered if she was an alien – or at the very least, adopted.
The oldest of three girls wasn’t like her father, who sold appliances, or her mother, who taught bridge. Rather than conventionality, Koral says she was fueled by creativity. Comfortable in the company of her imagination, she’d make up stories, songs, plays and even board games.
Koral’s musical gifts weren’t unwrapped at home, either. Koral says her mother hated music – and even made her turn off Elton John.
“Can you imagine? Elton John,” she says.
“I guess I was about 8, learning a song at camp, which I got quickly. The counselor said, ‘Now we know what Bari can do.’ That was profound.”
So a few years later, she was hanging out with the East Meadow theater crowd during her high school days on Long Island. It was there she also had her first date with husband-to-be, Danny Melnick. (But the second date didn’t happen until 15 years later – and he would subsequently break up with her at a Phil Lesh concert on Valentine’s Day, saying, “I don’t love you and can’t imagine being with you” – until reconnecting a third time with the Bari Koral who had grown into herself.)
‘Running against the pack’
Singing was the constant in her life. Along with an eclectic group of friends, Koral was exposed to high school productions, children’s theater and some off-Broadway work, too.
“I was a rebel, running against the pack,” she says of her penchant for artists, vegetarianism and a few years later, yoga. “I had an epiphany in college, though, Syracuse University. I saw my parents as people … and despite our differences, we have an amazing relationship. … And they love my Saugerties home.”
As do Koral and her husband, who acquired the pristine four acres with a pond in December. Koral knew from the moment she savored butternut squash ravioli at the Bear Café in Woodstock many years ago that Ulster County was her destiny.
A musical awakening
Her journey there was far more complicated, though, than just taking the Thruway from the family apartment in Manhattan – her home after college, where there was still another major awakening.
“Six months before graduation, I picked up the guitar,” she says. “In college, there was no accompanist, so I wasn’t singing. I was also smoking pot, which doesn’t lend itself to the sunshiny music of musical theater,” she says of her embracing the music of the Grateful Dead instead.
“But when I picked up the guitar, all the singing I had done came rushing to the surface. It changed the course of my life. I played all day, until my fingers had blisters,” Koral says. “I started writing songs immediately. Within a day, I became a singer-songwriter.”
She landed a gig in six months – all her original music – which was her segue into the Zen Tricksters, a Grateful Dead cover band from Long Island.
“They were doing well, but couldn’t write their own music,” she says. “I hooked up with the guitar player (Jeff Mattson) – literally.”
And the Bari Koral Band surfaced around that time too – a venue for her songwriting. “I was organically following my nose,” she says.
As she was doing seven years later when she accepted quite a different offer.
“‘We want to cut your band, but it’s too hippy dippy. We want to put you in with studio musicians,’ ” says Koral of the development deal placed before her. “It worked for Linda Ronstadt.”
But not so well for Koral – and caused some strife with the Tricksters, too. But it did lead to an article in Billboard magazine and a call from a booking agent, who arranged for her folk/pop sound to be heard on the college circuit for the next 10 years. She did hundreds of shows, primarily in the Midwest.
“I’d come home to New York for three or four weeks, and then be gone for months. I really learned my craft,” she says. “But it went from great to bad to ugly.”
“Great” was connecting with the Jayhawks – and Melnick for the second time.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was in Aurora, Ill., performing outside the cafeteria,” Koral says. “The mike would cut off, ‘Order No. 49, your pizza is ready.’ That’s when I knew it was time to move on. But to what? I hadn’t created a base. If I had no tours, how would I make a living?”
Koral was also broke and had $20,000 in credit-card debt.
Uniquely Bari Koral
In mid-May, the Bari Koral Family Rock Band released its fourth album, “The Apple Tree and the Honey Bee.” Additionally, singer-songwriter and yoga instructor Bari Koral also recently finished filming 52 episodes of “Yogapalooza,” a music, movement and kids yoga program aired on Veria, a health and wellness network, which is not currently carried by Time Warner Cable, although she’s working on it.
“So we have no local air date yet,” says Koral, a big fan of Tom Petty and for whom the music is just as important as the movement. “I hate a lot of that music on traditional CDs. I strive for a good rock sound that’s not sappy – but has a good message.”
While she still avails herself of a New York City apartment, Koral’s trying to shift her base of operations to Ulster County as much as possible.
“We recently shot eight new music videos at Nevessa (Production) in Saugerties and used a cast of 20 children, almost all from Ulster County,” she says.
“We do a lot of regional and national touring, but now that I’m up in Ulster, we plan to play much more in the area, of course,” she says. “I will be doing a benefit for Byrdcliffe soon; we are working on a kids/family day date.”
And to keep the movement going, she’s actively involved in training teachers in using her songs.
Koral will be a keynote speaker at the first annual Kids Yoga Conference in September in Washington, D.C., sponsored by YoKid.
She’s also responsible for De-Stress at your Desk, a lunch-and-learn program to introduce adults to yoga and meditation, which has been taught at dozens of Fortune 500 companies since 2007.
And what she’s cultivated over the years is a realization of the potential of “now.”
“A successful future is really a series of successful nows,” she says.
And her “now” includes being in nature in Saugerties: looking at trees, marveling at her pond or swinging on a porch with a new friend.
She loves cooking – incorporating the region’s rich bounty – and is looking forward to soon harvesting her own herbs and vegetables.
She credits the love found among her audiences with allowing her to experience all that she does in the Hudson Valley.
“I feel so lucky with how much joy they’ve brought me,” Koral says. “I love to sing to the children. I love them so much; they’re a lasting legacy.”
Bari Koral does a yoga pose with Starla and Roxy Bolle and Aidan and Roan Johansen.
Finding her Zen
So she decided to spend a month in a monastery in California. She was 38 and lost. Her friends were married with children, and she couldn’t even say the word “marriage.” She hadn’t had a long-term relationship since the Tricksters.
“‘Zen Buddhist.’ That sounded nice – but didn’t have a clue,” she says of the monastery she selected. “I worked like a migrant worker there. I never cleaned a bathroom in my life before. Even when I was in debt, I hired someone once a week. But I cleaned the bathroom and washed so many freakin’ dishes …”
She also met Dizzy Gillespie’s grandson at the monastery. He candidly discussed how Koral was perceived.
“ ‘Your energy sticks out here,’ he told me. I was the flirty girl who could go home with anybody,” she says. “But I wanted to be the composed, reserved, patient girl. I knew I wanted to cultivate her.
“But I still had no answer to the one-million-dollar question: What was I going to do? I thought I was going to starve to death once I returned to New York.”
She even flirted with joining a wedding band.
Thankfully, she didn’t have to.
Koral ran into an old friend just a few days after returning from California, who suggested Koral take her classes to become a yoga instructor.
“Yoga has been a big part of my survival,” she says. “For those three hours on Monday nights back in New York, I was peaceful and optimistic, inspired and creative. The rest of the week, I was a mess.”
She still had no career, no man, no future within her grasp.
She learned a prosperity mantra that she chanted for 11 minutes each day for 40 days.
“It takes 40 days to change a habit, 120 days to instill a new belief,” Koral says.
She also read “The Secret,” a best-selling 2006 self-help book, based on the “law of attraction” and claims that positive thinking can create life-changing results such as increased wealth, health and happiness.
“I used to think my thoughts didn’t matter.”
But she learned otherwise.
She then connected with the Long Island Children’s Museum. The director of theater performances was from the Midwest and knew folks from her days in the college circuit. He was impressed with her impromptu song.
Another friend, John Medeski, of Medeski Martin & Wood, gave her the keys to his Woodstock cabin for the weekend after her decision to write children’s songs.
Since her butternut-squash ravioli day, Koral periodically returned to Woodstock for a creative charge. She wrote most of her songs at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony – aka the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild – although she ignored the responses from nudist colonies to the ad she placed after her Bear Café dinner seeking a creative hideaway.
She had a clear purpose – one that was not to be daunted by the fact her car had been towed in New York City right as she was on her way to Woodstock.
“And I owed $1,000 in parking tickets,” she says. Koral had just about that much money in a savings account. She paid the fines and headed freely up north – crediting the prosperity mantra she’d been saying with allowing her to simply move forward without a sense of despair at cleaning out her savings account. Instead, she was grateful it was there, and moved on.
“I wrote all weekend – and some of my best work, including ‘A Day at the Beach,’ which became a very big hit on Sirius/XM and launched me pretty firmly into the world of kids/family music,” she says. “Jim at the Long Island Children’s Museum basically gave me a grant.”
The Bari Koral Family Rock Band – “The band name always comes back to Bari Koral” – was formed with bassist Dred Scott and drummer Eric Halverson. And after her father saw the almost-sold-out first show, he loaned her the money to produce the band’s self-titled first album.
“I didn’t want to play music at kids,” says Koral of her commitment of strong lyrics and beautiful melodies that parents get into, too.
“It was crazy. A year later, I was debt free and on my way,” she says, acknowledging the bounty of green lights the universe sent her way, green lights that propelled her from an upscale cookie cutter neighborhood of female pop singers to a unique locale with its own identity: hers.
“Bari now had a point of view,” she says.
Koral also had emerged from the graveyard of ex-boyfriends and into a new light that dazzled Melnick.
“He’s a producer and promoter of festivals and tours, including the Saratoga Jazz Festival,” she says. After they reconnected, he proposed under the moon on the beach, and they were married in October 2009 at a vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island.
Since planting roots in Saugerties, adopting a baby has entered their equation.
Koral continues to meditate every day, using mantras and affirmations to chase away negative thoughts. She parallels meditation to playing a guitar upside down. The brain is screaming at first, “Turn that guitar around,” while conscious thought is focused on how to play in that unconventional position. Eventually, the neural pathways will be “rewired” to regard playing the guitar upside down as the “right” way.
“Meditate means to focus,” she says. “Every day is a new opportunity to find a way to live more peacefully.”