Expecting parents Shonnece Hill and Elizabeth Cheeves (left) collaborated with Oakland musician Cava Menzies (right) to create a lullaby for their unborn daughter, Stori. (Left: courtesy of Elizabeth Cheeves/right: Capriece Batchelor)
Shonnece Hill and Elizabeth Cheeves first started working on their lullaby while they were on a road trip. The San Francisco couple and expecting parents were collaborating by phone with musician Cava Menzies to create a special song for their unborn daughter.
The connection on the freeway was super spotty. But despite the technical challenges, the trio swiftly managed to get into the songwriting zone.
First, Hill and Cheeves shared some lyrics over the phone (“We want you to know that two moms are better than no moms”) while Menzies took notes in her Oakland studio. Then, Menzies threw down a couple of R&B-laced piano chords; Hill in particular is a big fan of the genre. The trio traded ideas back and forth for a while. And in less than an hour, they had the makings of their catchy new song.
“I know I'm going to be singing this song,” Cheeves said. “I'm gonna put it on YouTube!”
“It's a hit already!” Menzies said.
This small musical jewel is one of a bunch of songs to have come out of The Lullaby Project so far this year. The national program, new to the Bay Area and run under the auspices of San Francisco music presenter Noe Music, pairs unhoused and low-income caregivers with professional musicians to write a lullaby for their unborn or new babies.
“It helps you channel the energy into the positive, into the hopes and dreams for the future, as opposed to focusing on what is so hard right now,” said San Francisco-based project director Meena Bhasin, who first became involved with the initiative around the time it was founded a decade ago at Carnegie Hall in New York.
Bhasin said the COVID-19 pandemic created an even greater sense of urgency for launching the program here in the Bay Area.
“We thought, why wait, let’s do this now when mothers are really isolated and really need it,” she said.
“In addition to social connection, families feel heard because this is a project that they are leading,” said HPP program manager Guadalupe Valenzuela. “Their voice matters.”
Menzies, the musician who worked with the couple, said participating in the Lullaby Project renewed her sense of human connection after more than a year of insular living during the pandemic.
“To be able to do something that creates a bridge between strangers is really amazing,” Menzies said. “And I got to discover something new through their story.”
"Story" is a word that figures prominently in the lullaby that Menzies co-wrote with Hill and Cheeves. It’s not for nothing that the couple named their unborn daughter Stori.
“Stori with an ‘i’ instead of a ‘y,’” said Hill. “And this is a story. We have so much to tell.”
Speaking from their home in San Francisco's Mission District a couple of weeks after completing their lullaby, Hill and Cheeves shared their story.
The couple are both in their early 30s. Cheeves said they first met when they were kids growing up in the Western Addition.
“I knew Shonnece since I was 14 years old, and I always wanted to be with her,” Hill said. “But we never really got the chance to be with each other.”
For many years, they stayed in contact but lived separate lives. Hill has a son, Jah’vion, who’s nine, from a previous relationship, and Cheeves co-parents her adopted five-year-old, Benjamin, with a cousin. (The boys get a mention in the lullaby with the lyric: “Two brothers are waiting for you / The three of you stuck like glue.”)
Then one day six years ago, Cheeves said she and Hill ran into each other at a gas station, fell into a long conversation and realized their feelings for each other ran deep.
“So we got with each other, then we got engaged in 2018,” Cheeves said. “And now we’re here.”
In the song, Hill talks about the joy of being able to conceive as LGBTQ parents. (“The way you were conceived was so wonderful and beautiful / You can always count on me to be in your corner.”)
But she admitted bringing a new life into the world has been far from easy.
“We went all the way broke to pay for the baby,” Hill said.
IVF costs tens of thousands of dollars. Hill and Cheeves were already struggling to figure out how to pay the bill when the pandemic hit. And then they both lost their jobs. Grants were scarce. The couple said they couldn’t get loans because their credit wasn’t good enough. And to top it all, Hill was in a custody battle over her son.
“This has been a crazy time,” Hill said. “Crazy.”
Things are getting better, though.
Cheeves got a new job—she works in construction—and Hill won full custody of Jah’vion. The song’s chorus, with its easy-going groove and optimistic lyrics (“Honey to my bees / My shining star / Our blessing / My gift from God / Our Stori / Our Stori / Our blessing / Our gift from God”) captures the couple’s excitement about the new chapter opening up in their narrative.
In this part of the song, Cheeves can be heard singing along with musician Menzies, and Hill's voice can be heard reciting some lyrics near the start. Parents aren’t required to perform the songs they write as part of The Lullaby Project. But Cheeves and Hill both really love music and they want their daughter to take the song to heart.
“I wanted her to hear my voice on there and know we both made this song for her,” Cheeves said.
“It’ll be stuck in her head because we’re going to play this for her a lot!” added Hill.
Menzies, who's a mom herself, said “Stori’s Song” and the real-life story behind it expand notions of what a lullaby can be.
“The idea that lullabies have to be slow and in a particular way sort of reminds me of that stereotypical messaging that we get about what it means to be a mother and what the first musical soundtrack should sound like in life,” Menzies said. “And the truth is that everyone has these different stories.”
Baby Stori is due in early June. Menzies said she can’t wait to meet her in person.
“I want to be able to be in the room with Shonnece and Liz and their two boys with Stori and listen to this song,” said the musician. “That would mean the world to me.”
In the meantime, Stori’s parents said they plan to play the song at their baby shower. Menzies is on the guest list.
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