It’s been a long time since I slept well. I know sleep is supposed to be a time to reset and recharge, but I’m often fighting it off, trying to get a little more done, or trying to squeeze a little more enjoyment out of the last moments I’m awake. Sometimes, though, I try to welcome sleep. It’s unfamiliar and odd, like a relative you haven’t seen in a while. You try to hug them from the front, but they go for more of a side-hug, and it’s awkward for everyone. Here I am, staring at the ceiling, trying to make myself lean into sleep’s weird side-hug.
Sometimes, my mind is roiling with awful news from afar, like Ukraine, or closer, like what’s happening to families with trans kids in Texas. (Then I get my phone and try to do something, at least, by giving to organizations that are helping. Join me and donate to HIAS to help displaced refugees from Ukraine, and donate to TENT to further transgender equality in Texas.)
Most of the time, I’m ashamed to say, the hamster wheel is just spinning with thoughts about my own life, my career, my dreams—how I’m falling short, what I could have done differently, what disappointments lay just beyond my control.
These days, in those moments, the only thing that slows down that anxiety is my wife, Lindsey. She’s usually already asleep, on my left. As I listen to the quiet rhythm of her breathing, the volume of my internal monologue slowly lulls and recedes to the background. If she happens to still be awake, though, I sometimes ask her to sing something. She doesn’t usually agree to this, but when she does, it’s always the same song that she sings: ”Unknown Legend” by Neil Young.
I tried to write a song of my own about this exchange between us—the turbulence of my anxiety, the lullaby of her presence. That song came out today. It’s called “Stillness.”
One of the things that’s kept me up a lot this past year is the idea of coming back to music; making music of my own again. Is it something I can still do? Is it something anyone besides me even wants? And if not, should that matter? I don’t know. I’m still turning the questions over, even as I try to move past them: “Stillness,” along with the two other songs I released in the last few months, and a few more new ones, will be on a new record of mine. Rooms I Used to Call My Own, an EP, is going to come out on March 30. (!!!)
I co-wrote “Stillness” with my friend (and soon-to-be-tourmate) Jenny Owen Youngs. As I write this, I’m at Jenny’s house. She and her wife Jess are asleep; my own wife is across the country, in a different bed and time zone. So I’m still awake, and working.
It took a few tries and several months for me to figure out how to turn the idea of the song “Stillness” into an actual recording. I finally enlisted the help of a few other people whose work I really admire: Jimmy Tamborello, Jonathan Snipes, and Kimbra. And with those contributions, I was able to make it come to life, and hopefully capture some of the push-and-pull I feel most nights. In the recording, I sing quietly, but there’s a pulsing electronic undercurrent threatening to break through; and then, in the choruses, it does break through. I tried to figure out drums that would be loud enough to express the swirling chaos of my late-night panic, but I couldn’t do it with actual drums; in the end, I sampled movie sound effects from a library of “impact hits.” I had some ideas for transforming my own vocals into something inhuman, so I went to Kimbra, who is a master of that. She also had an idea for this keening note ringing out in the background, and she sang that in the recording. Jonathan, from the band Clipping, took hold of some of my basic electronic ideas and re-wrapped them in a sinister, fuzzy wash, and added another layer of transformed vocals. Jimmy lent me some of his signature Dntel production and made a drum break for the verse, and played a beautiful, off-kilter melody synth line that repeats at the end of every chorus.
As I’m typing this, I’m realizing that sinister, off-kilter, inhuman, are probably not words you would want used to describe a love song that was written about you. (Sorry, Lindsey.)
Here’s the cover art for Rooms I Used to Call My Own:
In other news:
One of my favorite artists, Phil Chang, is having an opening in Los Angeles this weekend. A photographer by background, Phil makes conceptual art that deconstructs what counts as a photograph. He uses all the media of digital photography to create works on paper or canvas, but no camera. Or, he makes photographs without using fixer to stop the paper’s exposure, so there’s only a limited lifespan to the image before it disappears. I’m so excited to see all of his new work in person.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you — and I hope you’re finding your own way to get some decent sleep. Come see me and Jenny on tour! COVID won’t let me hug anyone, but we can have a weird side-hug from afar.