Lowland Hum answers that nagging question “but, what does it mean?”

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My parents were in town for a Lowland Hum show at my Washington, D.C. group house several years also. They made conversation with my friends before the music started and paged through Lowland Hum’s signature handmade lyric books song by song. My love of music comes from my dad, so I assumed they’d like it enough. After the show I asked for their impressions. “I liked it,” my mom said, “but what does it mean?”

Have you ever posed this question to an artist? I did once, and, because of their unwelcome response, still regret it. Often, they don’t even know. It meant one thing, then something else later. Or maybe the true meaning is too personal to share. I still find myself pondering it as I listen to music, though. I think this mystery is part of music’s magnetism.

Along with the release of their new album, Thin, Lowland Hum shared a track-by-track explanation of the stories and meaning behind the songs. The folk duo from Charlottesville, Virginia has been an open book since day one, often leaving time and space for audience questions during their live shows. Perhaps this lifestyle of authenticity and self-reflection is what allows them to shed light on the meaning behind the result of their creative process. In the article, Lauren Goans says: “A big part of what we hope to do with music is to create vulnerable spaces. There is such a pressure to come across composed and if you can’t pull that off, then there is pressure to put forth a sort of mussy nonchalance. I wouldn’t describe us as very cool people and I would definitely not call us composed and so we feel we have an opportunity to share in a way that doesn’t result in us coming out on top of things.”

I have to admit that knowing the “why” makes me appreciate Thin all the more. And the album’s simplicity, just guitar and percussion accompanying two voices,  leaves room for the listener to observe the honest and thoughtful songwriting that Lowland Hum is known for; to sit down for a meal with this couple that is very transparently working out how to be people in this world abounding with both beauty and ugliness. They’re asking “but what does it mean?” too.

Favorite Music of 2016

In spite of all of the bad news, 2016 was a great year for music. Here are my top 10 favorite songs released in 2016, in no particular order: (and here’s a link to the list on Spotify)

1. Home in Your Heart, Elephant Revival

Alex and I had a front-row view of Elephant Revival at the 930 Club in April. They began the show with an acoustic rendition of Ring Around the Moon that rendered the venue hauntingly silent from the first note. Seeing Bonnie play the washboard live added a new dimension to my appreciation of their instrumentation. I bought their (then) newly released album, Petals, at the show and nearly scratched a hole into “Home in Your Heart.” I’m a sucker for strings and simple harmonies with words about home.

2. Damn Sure – Laura Gibson

Also in April, a friend and I ventured to IOTA to see Laura Gibson touring her (then) newly released album Empire Builder. Her performance was as emotionally raw as the album, which draws on the aftermath of her cross-country move to New York City for graduate school. “Damn Sure” is about the irony of leaving good things behind.

3. Best Kept Secret – case/lang/veirs

I discovered case/lang/veirs shortly before Newport Folk Festival and angled to get a good seat for their set. While recent festivals haven’t been as politically charged as the years of Baez and Dylan, with The Staves’s loud and clear “don’t f***ing vote for Trump” as an exception, k.d. Lang’s closing refrain from “I Want to be Here with You” echoed pre-election hopes.

The hungry fools
Who rule the world can’t catch us
Surely they can’t ruin everything

4. Vincent – Car Seat Headrest

Will Toledo starting making records in the back of his parents’ car, hence the name Car Seat Headrest. Vincent is on Toledo’s twelfth album, which he released at the age of 23. The song reminds me of the rock and roll my dad played for me

5. Life Crisis – River Whyless

River Whyless played an earnest set at Newport Folk Festival and were my most-listened to band in 2016. In addition to Life Crisis, Bath Salt, Miles of Skyline, and Cedar Dream III are favorites.

6. Wendell Kimbrough, formerly Director of Worship Arts at my church in DC and currently Artist in Residence at Church of the Apostles in Fairhope, Alabama, released a highly anticipated album of original hymns this summer. He gave me a rough cut of the album when we visited last fall, and “Eternal Weight of Glory” quickly became an anthem of hope during a difficult season in my career, this verse in particular:

Oh eternal weight of glory!
Oh inheritance divine!
We will see our Lord redeeming
Every past and future time.
All our pains will be transfigured,
Like the scars of Christ our Lord.
We will see the weight of glory,
And our broken years restored.

In line with the name of the album, Psalms We Sing Together, Wendell toured the album in churches on the east and west coast this year. Wendell has a gift for writing songs to be sung by a congregation and shared how he uses Sunday mornings to experiment and iterate.

7. Hey Big Star – Kishi Bashi

Kishi Bashi’s third studio album, Sonderlust, was released in September 2016. Though Sonderlust was written during a season of heartbreak in Ishibashi’s life and is more reflective in tone than his previous work, Hey Big Star reminds me of the poppy hooks that make me a fan.

8. Ophelia – The Lumineers

Ophelia is another delicious ear worm from the Lumineers. This episode of Song Exploder tells the story of how it was created.

9. Sia – Cheap Thrills Remix

I first heard this song during the leg series in a Monday night pilates class of which I was a frequent flier, and it made me smile every time. I chose the Spanglish version because lyrics are distracting when you just want to dance.

10. Become Younger – Peals

Peals sent their first album, Honey, to Bob Boilen on a thumb drive inside of a jar of honey. Sounds gimmicky, but the music’s good enough to justify it. This song had me tapping my feet from the first time I heard it on All Songs Considered. The interwoven, rolling melodies remind me of what Sufjan Stevens did with strings on his early albums, and the electronic instrumentation on the Broken Bells’s self-titled album.

I was giddy to discover that Spotify created a list of my most-listened to songs in 2016. It looks about right to me; these are my go-to tunes for that extra boost of energy at work or a soundtrack for a weekend road trip. In my opinion, fun things like this, in addition to avoiding the obnoxious and sometimes uncomfortable (!) ads, make that $9.99/month subscription totally worth it.

My “Why” for Blogging

I’ve hemmed and hawed about blogging for years. Do I have anything unique to say? And if I do, need I share with the world? What will people think?

For the following reasons, I’ve decided to JUST DO IT:

  1. I’ve written professionally for 7+ years, but never as myself. I’ve ghost written for an international trade advocacy organization, community health center, and now USAID Learning Lab. It’s about time I find my own voice, and say what I want to say.
  2. I’m turning 30 in about six months and don’t care what anyone thinks about me anymore. This is a new revelation. Remember when Facebook had a place for you to list favorite music, movies, quotes, etc.? Afraid of being pigeon-holed by my preferences or regret them later, it took months for me to decide how to fill that out. I know that I’m running the risk of being embarrassed by my current thoughts and opinions down the line, but I know that I’m on a journey of understanding myself and the world, just like everyone else, and I don’t need to apologize for who I am today. In his Michigan essay, Sufjan Stevens argues that it’s okay to be found wanting and still want to be known. We often spend so much time fixating on who we want to be that we miss out on being known as we are.

“Perhaps we don’t like what we see: our hips, our loss of hair, our shoe size, our dimples, our knuckles too big, our eating habits, our disposition. We have disclosed these things in secret, likes and dislikes, behind doors with locks, our lonely rooms, our messy desks, our empty hearts, our sudden bursts of energy, our sudden bouts of depression. Don’t worry. Put away your mirrors and your beauty magazines and your books on tape. There is someone right here who knows you more than you do, who is making room on the couch, who is fixing a meal, who is putting on your favorite record, who is listening intently to what you have to say, who is standing there with you, face to face, hand to hand, eye to eye, mouth to mouth. There is no space left uncovered. This is where you belong.”

3. I love the creative process. It’s how I work, how I cook (sorry/thanks Alex!) and how I like to think about the world. Iteration is my M.O. I find these words from Ira Glass so freeing and inspiring:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

4. Reflection helps us learn, and writing helps us reflect. If I’ve learned anything from my job on the USAID LEARN contract, it’s the value of stepping back. As an Enneagram Type 1, I’m always doing this, but I often spin and spin and don’t go deep in my thinking or document it. So this is an attempt to do that—to record what I’m thinking about and learning.