The Loud(er) Year

Around this time last year, I wrote and published a blog post entitled The Loud Year, in which I lamented the divisions of 2016 and suggested a series of resolutions to make 2017 better. I proposed that we preemptively call 2017 “The Quiet Year.” Adorable, I know. There are plenty of memes that could succinctly communicate the difference in my perspective then vs. now, but to honor a recent hero of mine, I will only include one:

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2017 wasn’t a quiet year.

That’s evidenced by the number of times I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone, or by the relationships I lost or strained as a result of “always talking about that stuff." It’s the meals I ate in my car because I didn’t have time for a table, the coffee conversations that didn’t end in handshakes or hugs, the number of unread texts in my inbox, the rotating supplements in my medicine cabinet, and the scores of unfinished documents in Evernote. As evidenced in last year's blog post, I counted on 2017 to be a prolific year for me. I thought that what my chaotic landscape required of me was a greater creative output. A burning house, I thought, needed more water. And that's when the hose went dry.

I didn’t publish my books this year. The darkness of the world around seemed to swallow me up every time I sat down at my computer, demanding some more direct course of action. What good is a fiction novel for a burning house? I thought. And yet, I couldn't decide what a more direct course of action might be. Nothing felt quite direct enough—nothing, that is, except for reading. I did a lot of it. After counting the books, I realized I read more this year than I had in the past 5 years combined, and from a wider range of genres. And when I didn't have time to stare at a page, I discovered podcasts. I’d been mostly ambivalent toward this art form until I realized that it was essentially a way to download information straight into my brain matrix-style, at which point I became all-consuming. I think I spent a lot of time in between the words of great minds believing that if I could just gain the right knowledge, I might be able change people's hearts and minds like my heroes had changed mine.

The thing is, I didn't do much of that, either.

I couldn’t stop the burning house.

I couldn't even make a difference. Of course, it was arrogant to think I alone could when so many others have already been trying for much longer than I have, and doing a better job of it. But when I finally got tired of fighting and took my eyes off the flames, I realized the others were there. They stood tired and burned, too, on every side. By the close of the year, I ended up spending much more time in their company than I did with a garden hose in my hand, which felt both deeply nurturing and yet, in an immediate sense, as inefficient as writing fiction. What good is a few good friends for a burning house?

I didn't realize the the lesson 2017 was trying to teach me until I heard it from the lips of Rose Tico in The Jast Jedi. (Yes, somehow I brought this train back to Star Wars, y'all).

"That's how we're gonna win, not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”

I wasn’t sure whether or not I liked this line until I talked with my friend and brother Gemikal, who reminded me that putting out a burning house means nothing if I'm not invested enough in the people I love to help build new homes from the ashes. Our need to love each other will still exist even after all that we hate is destroyed.

I stepped up to 2017 like,

Here I am, use me.

To which the year curtly replied,

You’re not ready. Cultivate your love. Hone your craft. Let your ideas ripen. Stretch your mind and feed your own soul. Dare to start a family again. Give yourself up to “unlikely" relationships. Never stop asking yourself why it is you're fighting.

All of those lessons are lifelong undertakings. I mention them because, as I carry it all forward into the new year, they will inform how I go about the more concrete resolutions I have. And I have many of those.

Here are 4 things to expect from me in 2018.


1.  “Telescope” Music Video

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I recently got the privilege to work with Joshua Lockhart on a killer shoot in which we pretty much turned my entire house into the Upside Down for a day. The video perfectly captures the disparity between the faces we often project to the world and the storms that rage inside us.


2. The Lark Descending

My debut fiction novel (the first of four already-written manuscripts) was probably ready for publishing a year ago, but I’m incubating it just a while longer until it feels properly hatch-worthy to me. If I haven’t surrendered it by the end of the year, someone's going to need to call me out for being an insufferable perfectionist. 


3. Record #2 + Documentary

This project has morphed so much and has already required so much of me. In August, SueAnn and I traveled to my hometown to gather footage, and I’ve been working closely with many of those whose stories we’re telling through song. Most of those songs have already been written, and some crucial songs are still in the works. It's really challenging me creatively.  This record falls more squarely in the "concept record" camp than The Present Tense, and will take many more chances both musically and lyrically. 


4. Podcast

This fall, I wrote a 16-episode fiction podcast about monsters, ghosts, and who gets to decide how history gets told. I’m hoping to produce this on a low budget this year with the help of my community.


Thank you. 

As always, thanks for reading and listening. 2017, with all its difficulties, was also the most successful year I've yet had musically. Thanks for putting me on your playlists and bluetooth speakers and radio stations. 

The San Francisco Remixes

The San Francisco Remixes

Summer 2017 was a pretty crazy season for me here. Between traveling outside the country to learning the ins and outs of documentary filmmaking, to attending my TEN year high school reunion, my calendar stayed full—like, right at the almost-too-full-to-carry-the-cup-around level of full, which is, whether I like it or not, where I tend to both thrive and burn out.

By far, the most exciting part of this summer was seeing San Francisco get remixed by DJs across the world. Earlier this year, the song was picked by Indaba Music to host a remix contest, which garnered over 200 entries, which I thought was pretty darn cool, until it came time to judge them all. That whole process took me a while, and in the end, I had to settle on only three.

Here are the winners of the San Francisco remix contest, as chosen by me and all the wonderful listeners over on Indaba


Green Onions

Green onions. I pause in the middle of the frozen goods aisle, blinking at my own scribbled writing, and I curse.

Stuffing the grocery list into my pocket, I dig through my current haul, searching with my fingers. Sweet potatoes, yes. Chicken, yes, and broccoli. My fingernails scrape the bottom. I curse again, feeling lazy and belligerent. The frozen vegetables are nearby, and for some absurd reason, I scan them, perhaps hoping that the onions might appear if I communicate my inconvenience well enough to the universe. They don’t appear. I head back to produce.

I pass the registers en route. A store manager is chatting with one of his cashiers near an express checkout lane. Two black men. They are smiling, chuckling at times, observing every aberration of their Saturday routines caused by this rare Nashville snow day.

I don’t need green onions, I decide. I start toward the two men. Yet at the same time I decide this, a couple emerges from an aisle ahead of me, much closer. They carry only a small handful of things and they, also, are black. They arrive at the register. The manager steps forward.

“Need a place to check out?”

“Yeah,” says the man. The manager clasps him on the shoulder and smiles to the woman, who smiles back. The cashier takes their things. They chat about the snow. I slow to watch.

On paper, there’s nothing unique about this exchange, yet it is altogether different than anything I am used to. I am transfixed. Magic starts seeping out of them. There are words being said beneath the words being said, and I hear it as one recognizing a foreign language without knowing its meaning. The cashier tells a joke in that language, and the woman laughs. It is an unrestrained laugh, unapologetically loud. It flies through the room like sunshine.

The sound infects me and I giggle, but then, feeling self-conscious, stop myself. I decide to keep walking and to remain unseen. I know this magic is not mine. I've witnessed it countless times before. At work, for instance, in the jokes two men of color tell each other before I approach—before changing their manner of speaking to address me. It’s in the way I hear the word “girl” from a black woman’s lips.

If I am being honest, I covet this magic. I do. I covet it even while believing that it's rightly inaccessible to me. And I think that’s one reason white people continue to commandeer the cultural artifacts of people of color—we hope those artifacts might give us the magic. 

I remember looking for it all my life, growing up, trying to be all things for all people, striving to be exceptional at every endeavor, desperately hoping to earn admittance to some group that might share its identity with me. I looked everywhere. Sports, drama, choir, honor society—these and others were the coteries I gave my rotating devotions to. But since I refused to promise exclusivity to any of them, I was always denied full acceptance. By participating in everything, I belonged to nothing. This pattern reiterated itself until the murky desires of my heart began to surface, and then materialize into words, a sentence, a question:

Who are my people?

I keep my head down. Green onions would be nice, wouldn't they? I push ahead toward the produce section. I grab a plastic bag from the roll. I put on a podcast in my headphones, but I’m not hearing the words. That perennial question has possessed me. I feel it sinking down into my stomach, undigestible, crooked and thorned.

"What is this feeling?” I ask myself. “White guilt? White fragility?” I am an artist—a connoisseur of emotions—and I can’t discern the truth. It’s a longing, yes, and a type of mourning too, that seems true enough. But what am I longing for? Connection? Belonging? Yes, both—an escape from my own catatonic individualism. Access to some form of magic.

I once tried looking for magic in the pages of my own family history, daring to hope that I might uncover my people there. In my imagination, I followed the routes of Scandinavian royalty migrating to the new world and watched Irish indentured servants earning their freedom with their sweat. I spied on the secret love affair between a man named Mundle and his Spanish bride. I felt my heart swell with their stories. Those people possessed their own unique mysteries, and those mysteries seemed strewn before me, waiting to be taken up by my own hands.

But if I studied long enough, I found that each of those stories ended the same way. Whether king or servant, my ancestors reached the same end, becoming enticed by the rumor of some new form of magic—one that had been made by men, created to endue them with unmatched power and absolve them of the sins that always accompanied such ambition. They should have known (and we should now know better) that things like magic could not and cannot be manufactured by humans, and that the endeavor only ever produces a crude and sinister imitation. And it's never without consequence.

To possess this new power, it required two things of my ancestors. First, it required that they relinquish ties to any former identities, and second, it required that they wear white skin. Perhaps they counted these costs. Perhaps they didn’t. Regardless, each of my ancestors ended up making the exchange, and the peoples and the magic that they forfeited in their ascension to whiteness are now lost to me. I don’t greet the Danish people I see in the grocery store with inside jokes and unrestrained laughter. I don’t feel less alone in the wider world when a person of Irish descent walks into the coffee shop where I’m writing. I mostly feel nothing. I don’t know how to recognize my kin.

But at least I still have my whiteness. 

Even from the produce section, I can hear the woman when she laughs again, her husband joining her this time. Where does their magic come from? I can only guess that the ties that bound African-American communities together after centuries of slaughter, exploitation, and oppression were forged of their shared suffering. Their magic comes from their pain. It was not manufactured. And what are the bonds of whiteness? Power. The infliction of said pain. Our desire to control and insecurity of losing control links us together, and since we don’t like to talk about those things, well . . . 

We put ourselves to work denying any notion that some shared group identity exists, because if we have one, it must look monstrous and bear a great responsibility. Perhaps my descendants, in another time and context, might find it possible to derive goodness and joy from some group identity someday. I cannot. I must and will use the magic of whiteness against itself, even if I am alone.

I find the green onions. I stare at them. “Where do I belong?” I beg them. Years of dehumanizing others has dehumanized me.

I go to the checkout—to the cashier I saw earlier—and ask him, through my gaze, the same question. He stares back as if to say, This was never my responsibility.

I nod. I know.

I take my bags and walk to the car, chasing my breath across the parking lot. Tantalus. 

Once inside, I turn the key and pause the podcast. Silence. Then I remember a song I often play in times like these and, not knowing what else to do, I flip to it. I don’t drive. Deeper magic is nearby, somewhere—perhaps in this parking lot, so I lean back in my seat. I close my eyes. I breathe. How often I forget about the deeper magic.

The song starts with clapping, and then a guitar. I try to place myself back there, six years ago, when it was recorded, in that stuffy auditorium in the middle of summer. My feet and my hands grow warmer from the memory. The snow around me melts away and I am there.

Every seat is packed and the air is thick with the incantations of the saints. People I know and love adorn the stage. Many more dot the rows before and behind me, and beyond them, countless others stand, raising their different voices—voices molded by the magics of many tribes and many nations. Among them, I imagine that I hear a familiar baritone. It is the Kroger manager, and beside him are the others, their songs as unfettered as their laughs.

The voices threaten to shake the ceiling loose, each word in unison a powerful charm. I sing the words too, but a greater part of me is still troubled, still asking, still begging, the question.

The instruments drop out unexpectedly. Those on stage are swept out into the congregation. I am breathless, staggered by the enormity of the realization that we all are, very literally, one—united before and cherished by a power that subverts every other power.

“I am bound,” we all sing. Our different trajectories converge on a single point. “I am bound for promised land."


The Loud Year

Everyone seems to be saying it—2016 wasn’t the best.

It's like the one thing we're all willing to agree on. I’m not sure whether we’ve latched onto the sentiment as one last ditch effort to find something unifying during a time that’s been admittedly divisive, or whether there truly was enough crap to go around for everyone this year. I can only say that for me, these past twelve months have indeed been particularly difficult—for both societal and personal reasons that need not be totally unpacked here.

But to sum it all up, all of the woes of 2016 seemed to find me laced with calls to action. I found myself not simply asking how I was going to recover from them, but what I was going to do about things afterward. Because of this, my plans for 2017 began to take startlingly clear form, and I can say with both excitement and nervousness that I’m launching into this year more resolutely than perhaps any year before.

So, I guess, thanks for all that crap, 2016. It really lit a fire in me.

Here are 3 things you can expect from me in 2017:


1. "The Present Tense" Release

On Jan. 20, my new record drops. It’s a project that’s taken me two-and-a-half years, showcasing 13 songs written about the life stories of 13 friends. In a year that felt lonely and isolating at times, I hope that this record helps remind us how vital community is. I realize recent years has also been unkind to the word “community”—turning it into a buzzword with an increasingly vague definition. But I’m talking about those people we call in emergencies, those who shepherd our secrets, those who’ve been around us long enough to grow bored with us and yet refuse to abandon us for others more temporarily exciting.

Cheers to 2017 being a year where you find your people and wrap your soul around them.


2. New Novel - "The Lark Descending"


Since the unexpected success of Little Mountain in 2012, the question I’ve been asked more than any other is whether or not I’ve got another memoir in the works. The answer is no—and I sincerely hope my memoir-writing days are behind me. But that’s not to say I haven’t been writing.

Over the last four years, I’ve been hard at work on a series of four young adult science fiction novels. They are finished, and if all goes according to plan, 2017 will be the year Book 1 gets published.

From what I can tell, another reason we hated 2016 was because it took people from us. Every year does, of course, but this year seemed especially merciless, stealing away friends, families, and beloved celebrities alike. You were lucky if you made it to this point without feeling death in the room. 

Coincidentally (or not), my series’ central theme explores death and what we are to do with it. The story is set in a world where everyone’s days are numbered and a person’s passing never surprises anyone, so the world’s population has naturally become inoculated to grief. Loss is neither good nor bad—it simply is. And that’s all well and good, except for the fact that one twelve-year-old boy does feel bad. He feels scared. And angry. And he doesn’t understand why he’s the only one feeling all of it, so he steals his parents’ vehicle and heads to the heart of the city for answers. Along the way, he must eventually confront the central question: is death an enemy, or a friend? Is it worth a good fight?

Cheers to 2017 being a year where we’re unafraid to live, not only by thriving, but by grieving our losses. Sadness is simply an acknowledgement that what is gone was good. May it be a year we push back against the darkness.


3. Record #2 + Documentary


Yep, you read that right.

After wrapping up The Present Tense this fall, I began thinking about what to do next. I’m not usually as eager (a word which here means “irresponsible”) to start in on a second project so soon after the first, but I suppose one of 2016’s many qualities it bestowed upon me was a sense of urgency. It brought out my fighting spirit. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so resolved at the outset of any project before—not even The Present Tense. And that’s a good thing; this one’s going to be a lot bigger.

I’ll lay my cards out: this year I’ve become yet more aware of so many insidious forms of injustice happening within myself and within the world I reside in. Those around me struggle to talk about these injustices. We lack good tools to do so, and we lack the practice. We shout, and shout, and keep shouting, perhaps because we're afraid to listen to the important conversations happening around us.

I want to engage those conversations.

In 2017, I will be getting together with friends and acquaintances whose lives have been marked by injustice because of either their race, gender, orientation, religion, or disability. I will sit and be with football players, with musicians, with teachers, with unemployed and homeless, with pastors, with bartenders—people I’ve talked to, but haven’t really talked to. As a member of the privileged class, my first concern is to ask how I’ve contributed to the injustices in their lives. What things have I turned my ear from? What things have I remained obstinately blind to? My hope is to swap stories, and like with The Present Tense, turn those stories into songs that communicate the paradox of sharing deeply in our humanity while owning very different experiences. We will work together to do so.

My friend SueAnn Shiah (documentary filmmaker/activist/incredibly thoughtful, intelligent, and talented human) will be recording the journey to later craft into a documentary. I have no doubt this will end up being a delicate undertaking, wrought with pitfalls. But there are few people I trust more than SueAnn to be sensitive to them, and to have clear vision in all of my many blind spots. I expect to say the wrong thing, and I expect to make mistakes, but in a way, that’s the point. We want to remain open to critique and we value feedback.

I think that, in my older years, I’ll remember 2016 as the Loud Year. The Year of Shouting—the year we truly took up talking like our tweeting, nursing grand perceptions of worldwide audiences while transcending the importance of having accountability for our words. The Year of Word Abuse. The Year of Ear Neglect.

But cheers to 2017 being a year of listening and perspective-taking. Of reconciliation. May there be new peace treaties between friends and new war charges against oppressors. May it be the Quiet Year—though not silent, not void of activity, but quiet the way a voice sounds when it says, “I’m sorry,” and means it.