For anyone who has lived in Kitchener, Ontario since the 1980s, it’s a safe bet they know the enigmatic graffiti adorning a prominent railroad bridge that simply states, “Twas Now.” No one really knows who put it there or what it means, but for the duo of Mike and Diana Erb, they’ve found a message within it that has come to embody their approach to making music.
In adopting the name Twas Now, the Erbs felt it encompassed their vision of combining the oldest forms of folk and country music with modern lyrics and attitude. They proved definitively how capable they are at mining the past with their 2018 Canadian Folk Music Award-nominated debut album Old Fashioned Way, which featured songs by the Carter Family, the Louvin Brothers, Hank Williams and others. Now with Flesh & Bone, the pair put their own songwriting talents on display while musically adhering to roots traditions.
Teaming again with producer John “Beetle” Bailey, whose resume includes work with Serena Ryder, Alex Cuba and Molly Johnson, the Erbs laid down the 11 songs on Flesh & Bone in the relaxed atmosphere of their family cottage, beginning with just their voices and acoustic guitars. Mike began the overdubbing process afterward, which was finished through the help of renowned local players such as fiddler Shane Guse, upright bassist Mark McIntyre, and pedal steel guitarist Steve Wood.
One of the album’s most powerful songs is “Black Coffee,” which Great Dark Wonder is sharing exclusively. Diana Erb has written the following essay that tells the story of the song’s origins.
The Story Behind the Song: “Black Coffee” from Twas Now’s Flesh And Bone
By Diana Erb
At 24, I was blessed with a baby boy. He was an unexpected gift in my life before I even knew what I wanted life to look like. Becoming a mother to him was a defining moment for me. Motherhood made me a better woman. I treated my body more carefully, I considered my own desires less and developed greater compassion for others. I lived every moment of my existence in those early days, weeks and years for my child with all of my choices centered around what would be best for his growth, development, sense of self, and experience of love.
When I found my match in Mike Erb my boy was two years old and about to turn three in a few months. Mike always wanted to be a father, and was a natural step-dad. They had a great relationship from the start. Elliott called him “Mike-Daddy,” and later on just shortened it to “Daddy.” When we got married two years later we expected to have more children. We wanted to start right away so that Elliott would have siblings fairly close in age to him. We bought a house around the corner from a school in a small town. We planned our life as a growing family; I would be home with the babies (hopefully one or two) for the first few years and teaching painting workshops and art classes part-time… if I wasn’t too tired. I thought maybe once all the kids were old enough and settled into school I would do my master’s degree in fine art. Mike would teach his full roster of guitar and drum students, and keep gigging in the local circuit.
It didn’t happen for us. Each month, each cycle kept passing with negative results. Why was it so hard? I wasn’t even trying to get pregnant the first time, but now I was prepared for it. I knew what to do. I was healthier. I had a house and a partner. I had my driver’s license. I had a plan. I had all of Elliott’s old baby clothes, toys, books, a breast pump, a baby food grinder, a carrier, a nursing pillow—all neatly packed away and waiting to be used again. I tracked my cycle. I knew when I was ovulating. Nothing.
We tried to stay positive. We were still young and had lots of time. We sought help and got our reproductive systems analysed and got an official diagnosis: Infertility. I was 29 when we did our first cycle of IVF. We skipped over the artificial insemination step that most people under 30 pursue first. It wasn’t a viable option for us. We jumped head first into IVF with ICSI—that’s when they choose the best sperm and inject it directly into the egg, keep it under observation for a few days while the cells begin to multiply before transferring the embryo back to the uterus—giving us the best possible opportunity to achieve a pregnancy. During this process the goal is to end up with several embryos which can be frozen and stored, in case the first one that’s transferred doesn’t take. Then you don’t have to begin the whole IVF process again, you can simply get prepped for a frozen embryo transfer which is much easier on the body. Sadly, all but one of our embryos stopped multiplying in the first couple of days. We transferred one “good” embryo and one embryo the doctor basically said was a write-off. But why not give it a shot? Then we had to wait two weeks before taking a pregnancy test to see if it worked, unless my period started first… which it did. So, we were left with nothing to show for the effort we were putting in. Again. Only this time, I was far more broken than before.
After about a year I felt recovered enough to try again. In the meantime, each month had been a disappointment. It seemed that women all around me were pregnant, throwing baby showers, and spending time together with their babies. I saw adorable dads wearing their babies in front carriers everywhere. Mike would be such a great dad to an infant. Was this a new trend? Why did everyone have a baby? Even people who didn’t want babies were having babies. I was all alone. I thought, surely this time it will work. The outcome couldn’t be any worse than last time. And I was right. We ended up with four viable embryos. Unfortunately, we had to delay the embryo transfer because I was suffering with ovarian hyperstimulation. Pregnancy could make that painful condition even worse and land me in the hospital with a high-risk pregnancy. Once my ovaries calmed down we started prepping for our first frozen embryo transfer. We still clung to optimism and took care of our hearts by spending all of our time together and avoiding pregnant people and babies. I walked my boy to school, spent my days in bed, then walked him home and spent my time cooking and being a mommy. The transfer went well. I was very careful. The two weeks of waiting passed and I took my test. It was the first positive test we’d ever seen. We were so excited and happy. All of our waiting and hard work was finally paying off! And, so it should, we deserved this. We kept our blissful secret to ourselves, feeling like we were going to burst, as long as we could. Once it was safe we told Elliott he would finally be a big brother. He was so happy and proud!
A little while later, just before Christmas, I had a miscarriage.
“Black Coffee” is the story of grief following that loss.
by Twas Now
Daylight kicks dust from my floor
Mornings’ brought truth back once more
Sleep hid the secret of yesterday’s end
Now we remember again
Along with my morning prayer goes
The dream of my sweet baby Rose
Heart of my heart, the twinkle of my eye
Gone in a heartbeat, a sigh
Pour me some black coffee, dear
Pick me up and we’ll get through the day
Strum your guitar, dry my tears
Your song takes my sorrow away
I can imagine her face
Smiling and free in this place
Would she have brown eyes or would she have green
Beauty to never be seen
Out to the garden I’ll go
Tear drops and longing I’ll sow
Muster the strength and I’ll break up the ground
Bury the pain to which I am bound
Springtime will come once again
Hushing my sombre refrain
Fragrance of Roses will soon fill the air
Calling me to meet you there