It has occurred to me that the phrase “album release” must have been coined by the artists themselves. There’s something about the word “release” that feels so true. It’s not that you just make the album and then start selling it. No, you make it and then hold onto it for a while. You sit with it and talk with it and think about it and try to ignore it and get upset with it and make up with it and then feel so close to it at this point that you just start hugging it so tight…and then it gives you that all-knowing look and finally says to you kindly, “It’s time. You can release me.”
And as much as I still need convincing that it’s ready to be let go, I know that it’s time. I don’t think this album is all grown up yet, but I know it’s strong enough. We’ve made each other stronger, this album and I. It’s time to let it live its life.
Hopefully, it’ll release me, too. Because I am exhausted.
In the spirit of release, I think I should start sharing elements of the album I’ve been holding for myself (whether you care about it or not. This is more selfish than anything else). So here’s my heart and mind behind the songs and creative arc of “Altars.”
The album opens with “Stained Glass Beats,” a pop-y dance track. When I wrote this one, I pictured the Catholic Church I grew up in. There’s a smell of incense in the air and rainbow light coming in through the stained glass windows (particularly the one depicting St. Cecilia, the patroness of musicians). The ritual standing, sitting, kneeling, singing, and eating becomes a dance. There’s a lot of heart in that dance. This scene morphs into the evangelical church of my adolescence. There’s a born-again excitement here…and a lot of heart. The bridge sees me standing outside those churches, no longer allowed inside as my whole self, a “practicing homosexual” (for the record, I’m actually a bisexual…and I’m not “practicing” – I’d like to think I’m quite good at it). The song ends with a confession and an invitation: “I’m a little sharp on the edges. Forgive it. We’ll make something sweet.” And so the album begins, remembering where I came from and challenging that place to come with me to where I’m going – to embrace what it is as one stained glass heart made of all these colorful pieces with rough edges…and to keep beating.
The next songs get a little more pointed – even a little angry. “Control” is about my glorious lack thereof, and a criticism of those faithful people who refuse to believe in anything big enough or crazy enough or not-them enough to be out of their control. Ahem. “How Could You” is a breakup song addressed to the ever-so-popular, straight, cisgender, white, patriarchal, abusive, narcissistic God. This song is inspired by John 3:30, which says that “He must become greater; I must become less.” If you can’t see why this might be a harmful mantra, go search #MeToo on the social media platform of your choice, or just turn on the news.
“What Did I Do” was written the day after the U.S. 2016 election, which was also the day my now-fiance and I publicly came out as a couple. It was the first time we felt like our identities were a form of protest. It hurt a lot that we were made to feel that way by a group of people who I believe are capable of really sincere love: white evangelical protestants. It is unclear to me how this group of people can cry “persecution!” when their votes yelled “Crucify Him!” My white evangelical friend, you should know how that story ends. Those who are institutionally disempowered, those you deny knowing, those you kill because you find it blasphemous that they claim their humanity is also divine…they just need three days before they rise up. And then they will break bread to share with you, refusing to fight your war on your terms…whether you like it or not.
“On Whose Shoulders” is the opposite side of the same coin. None of us is only one thing. I am queer, but I’m also white. I am in debt, but I also live a middle class life. I am a woman, but I am also cisgender. In this song, I sing the words “do I know you?” three times, and in the same interval as I sang “deny me” three times in the previous song. I’ve been betrayed, but I’m also the betrayer. “Kyrie, eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”); “Laoi, eleisate” (“Humanity, have mercy”).
I wrote “Sometimes” many years ago when I wasn’t sure if religious doubt was okay, and the only person I knew how to talk to about it was the God I didn’t know if I believed in. I learned through this song that doubt is basically fine, and that it’s a beautiful offering in itself. This song begins to move the album out of disenchantment and deconstruction, and into a place of reconstruction. It’s what happens when we assess all the harm that’s been done and figure out what to do with all the raw material we see in the rubble.
“My Body’s Alive” considers the bodily rituals that unite us, particularly in the Christian Church. Even if you attend a church that’s anti-ritual, I hate to break it to you that you still have ‘em. You sit, stand, sing, talk, shake hands, hug, walk into and out of doors, and your denomination probably requires you to eat bread and drink grape juice together periodically. The Catholics do all this, too (except they have real wine). The Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, Unitarian Universalists, Nones (and nuns), atheists, black people, brown people, white people, hybrid people, queer people, straight people, trans people, cis people, poor people, rich people…we all do some, if not all, of these things with our bodies. And we might try to ignore the existence of one another ideologically, but I may be eating and singing at the same time as you on a Sunday morning. If our bodies are performing the same rituals, can we really ever be rid of our togetherness?
“Grandma” is written in memory of my mother’s mother. She was Japanese, living a very white American life, and I never thought anything of it. I’m thinking of it now, and I want her to know that. The motif played by the violin is a minor-ized version of the beginning melodic motif in Meditation from Thais, my Grandma’s favorite piece that I played on the violin (hear that piece here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QtGOWemQhY).
“Knotted Up” is a neat little presentation of the ideological mess that preceded it on the album. It’s all very problematic and tied up together. “Find the end of a string, and follow it into the middle of everything. Holding hands with the enemy, dine with your regrets and with your dreams.” This is followed by “Give It All,” a beseechment for all of us to continue giving of ourselves to one another.
The album closer, “You Are,” is me standing where I wish to be, and giving a big ole hug to who I very often am. I tell my faint-spirited self that “you are sown to be grown. You are clothed in a robe made of dreams sweeter than home…made of more than you ever hoped.” It isn’t about telling me to be any different; it’s just about knowing who I already am. And who you are.
I feel sufficiently disclosed and a little bit released now. Do find a way to hear this album on February 23rd if you think it might make you feel a little more connected, heard, and human. If you’ve read this far, I trust I’m releasing it into good hands.
All my love,
My love said this morning that she can’t seem to focus on any one thing today. This feels true for me, too. Thoughts are scattered and probably related to one another, but I can’t seem to get my head to do that work. So here are some of my scattered and related thoughts:
I’m in love with Whitney and have been for well over a year and half now. Dreaming about marriage has been fun because we’re artists and psychologists and theologians who enjoy wedding the romantic with the real…so we think we’d enjoy wedding each other. But half the country just showed us they would have an issue with that. Like, they might bring us physical harm if we were to try.
I’m really mad at the Church. I’m in seminary, and I guess I have this hope that the Church could love people. I want to work with the Church to love people. And then I saw some numbers today that said white evangelicals – white Church people – are the ones responsible for the outcome of this election. They’re the ones that chose their own comfort over loving people who don’t look or feel or believe like they do. I guess I’m a white evangelical. And I’m giving my life to the Church because I thought we could love people. So I’m really mad at the Church right now.
I guess I believe I should love people who believe differently than I do – including the 4 out of 5 white evangelicals who are responsible for stealing my sleep last night and making my air a little too thick to breathe. But I’ve gotta be honest – I don’t love them right now. They’re not even sorry.
They’re not even sorry.
Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison…on what? I don’t know.
I feel so betrayed. And scared. And I’m white! And I’m a Christian! And I’m cisgender! I’m so sorry, everyone. I’m so sorry.
I was bullied in middle school. I think I was smarter and probably better looking than my bullies, but they somehow found and highlighted the parts of me that already made me feel different – my poofy hair and inability to put together an outfit – and managed to reduce me to that “otherness.” This feels a little like that.
You know the part in the Bible where Jesus says that to get to “life,” you have to go down a really narrow path and through a tiny gate? I’m just wondering how this grand majority of white evangelicals with big voices is gonna fit. Like, they’re a little larger than “life” right now…bigger than the path. But I don’t think their feet are on the ground – maybe they can fly over the gate. I don’t know. In any case, I do wish they’d come down to the ground for a moment and look into the eyes of the ones they’ve crucified.
Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison…on what? I don’t know.
Here are some song lyrics I wrote the other day. There’s a melody, too…but it’s a work in progress. I hope you can hear the words without it:
What did I do to you? When I told you I’m a human, too?
When I broke this bread to share with you?
Why would you disown me?
Did I hurt your Christ?
Did my freedom weave his crown?
Did my love nail him down?
Was it too much for him to rise?
What did I do to you?
Did my claim to worth threaten you?
Did my crimson stain your red, white, and blue?
Were you frightened by my empty tomb?
What did I do
Are you dying here?
I’m dying here
What do I do?
I was telling my mom yesterday that I’m pretty much not worried about anyone’s soul, unless they’re a real asshole. I was saying that my everything changed when I stopped seeing Jesus as a little box for us to make sure everyone gets into, and started looking for him wherever there is love. Wherever there is goodness and truth and peace and joy…I don’t believe those things can exist outside of the Divine relationship. Those are the mysteries of life and the mysteries of my faith, and they don’t make sense, and my senses tell me there is no reason they should exist, except for the fact that there is a Dance into which we’ve all been wrapped up. And so smiles and songs and wiggles and hugs just happen. They pour out. It’s nonsense, and we rational humans are not to blame. The culprit is most certainly that foolish love that binds together Father, Son, and Spirit, and all of humanity with it.
So instead of the hostility it requires to make sure that everyone gets in the box – that everyone “believes” Jesus is who we say he is – doesn’t it make much more sense to just see him where he already exists, outside of that box? It’s freedom, really. I saw that “unbelievers” were showing me more of Jesus than my pastor was. They invited me over and cooked me dinner and let me hang out in my pajamas. I felt peace, knowing that they were saturated in the foolish love that I believe – in my core and in my creeds – only comes from Jesus. That peace is much more fruitful than the anxiety that comes with “loving” people into believing their way into the Jesus box. The Bible tells me so.
So I’m pretty much not worried about anyone’s soul, because I believe it is mentally and spiritually and emotionally and theologically and biblically healthier to identify Jesus’ presence where love already exists. There’s more to that, but that’s what I was telling my mom.
And then today happened. Guns and bigotry and death and tears and shock happened. Fingers were pointed after the guns, and identities were crushed in the crossfire. Some people pointed at religion, some at race, some at sexual orientation, and some just pointed upwards…maybe there’s someone to blame in the sky. A lot of my brothers and sisters pointed there, as well, but they were looking for hope. I want to point somewhere, but “up” doesn’t seem good enough, or even accurate. That’s a small box, and I told my mom that I’d find good things outside of it.
But the Dance isn’t showing up. I don’t see smiles, songs, wiggles…goodness, joy, peace, hope…where is it?
It seems there’s a different kind of nonsense. A different kind of mystery. It’s not just joy and goodness…sometimes it’s tears and blood and senseless suffering. And I have to believe – in my core and in my creeds – that in the mystery of suffering, Jesus is present.
A friend of mine edited Psalm 118:24 for me a long time ago: “This is the day that the Lord has made; rejoice and be glad…weep and be sad.”
So I’m looking outside the box, mom. I’m trying to find Jesus where he already is, and to be present there.
Today, and for many days to come, he is in the suffering. So that’s where I am, and it’s all I can be right now. I am here.
I know it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these. It’s also been a while since I’ve posted a video. Or played a not-background-music show. Or created music with other people. Or took an “I’m so excited about this show” selfie. It’s been a while.
I haven’t been giving you very much of myself, and I hate that. Me holding back has never been the way any of this works. So what follows is me being honest in an attempt to give you more of myself.
As you probably know, I moved to northern California last August. Before I say anything else, please hear this: I’m happy I moved. No ragrets. Not even one letter.
Lots of you probably thought I was moving to California to be a rock star. That’s where people go to be one of those, right? Sure. But friends, as flattered as I am that you thought I would be gutsy (and silly?) enough to move across the country where I have next to no musical connections, no established fan base, and there is no demand for my music, the fact is that I am not that brave or naïve. There was a glimmer in my eye for my music back in Michigan, yes. I am a dreamer, yes. But I knew that glimmer would be dimmed by practicality when I made the decision to go to California. That particular glimmer was not the thing that made me pick up and move.
The truth? I moved to California to work in a new church. To be fair, they lured me with “plenty of space and time for songwriting and performing,” and I probably would not have moved if those things had not been available. BUT. I moved for the church. It’s a baby church. Brand new. The official launch of real, weekly services doesn’t happen for a few more weeks. I mean, this thing is NEW.
That’s what got me to move. When I heard, “Wanna come help us start a church?” I heard the Church saying, “Come create.” And I needed in on that. Because you see, the Christian Church and I have a complicated relationship. The more we learn about each other, the messier it gets. We’re both very stubborn, and change doesn’t come easily. And yeah, it seems like it might be healthier to walk away from this relationship, but you have to understand how beautiful She is. The more flaws I find in Her, the more I feel the need to stick around. Her less pretty parts make Her better at holding mine. And you have to understand that in this instance, when I heard Her say, “Come create,” I saw Her making room for me to come in and change something. It was like She was saying, “I know you and I have some things to work out. And I don’t want to lose you. So come on. Let’s work on things.” I couldn’t pass it up. There was a glimmer in my eye.
To make a very long story short, the Church and I still have a complicated relationship – maybe even more complicated – even after these many months of “working on things.” I’ve spent so much time and energy being upset with Her for letting social injustice exist within Her rather than giving myself and others sanctuary from such systemic evils. I’ve thrown tearful fits about witnessing and experiencing more discrimination here, within the arms of the Church, than I ever did working or learning elsewhere. I’ve been really privileged. That’s a truth I wish I weren’t learning from counter-experience in this of all settings. It makes it painful and confusing and naive to admit that I’m still in love with this thing.
So that’s what I’ve been up to – learning those things, and trying to make sense of those lessons. Not becoming a rock star.
I host an open mic every two weeks. That’s not a paid gig – it’s at a nonprofit coffee shop directed by the pastor of the church I’m helping to start. In addition to developing a community of artists and musicians, part of the purpose of me hosting these events is to build bridges with people who might be interested in checking out our new church.
There are probably a lot of ways to think about something like that. I’ll spare you all of my thoughts, as those should be saved for conversations between me and the other church leaders, many of whom I know have perfectly legitimate thoughts about it, too. So for now, and for honesty’s sake, I’ll just say that it can really suck to feel like my stage personality is only useful here insofar as it attracts people to a church. Obviously, that’s the most cynical of ways to view the situation, and it really does misrepresent the heart of our little church that doesn’t even fully exist, yet. But in all honesty, working in the Church has dimmed the glimmer in my eye a little – that glimmer that was only ever there because I thought that the Church was actually inviting me to work on this small part of Her to effect change or to help create something good or…to find something better in Her than all of the bullshit we see everywhere else in this world. But that hasn’t happened. Yet. And the glimmer is almost gone. And it all sucks.
But I keep doing these open mics. Why?
Because if I can somehow forget about my duty as my church’s representative and enter into the space of familiarity that is the stage, the microphone, and the mess of faces staring back at me, I can find Love. I can find home. I can try out new songs and say more than I should into the microphone and make people laugh and make people listen and try to make people comfortable. Because that is where I am comfortable. I can actually say “I’ve fallen in love with someone,” and no one in the audience asks who it is or thinks they’re entitled to tell me that falling in love with that person is or is not okay. All anyone wants is to hear the love song that came out of it. Giving myself, my art, and my experiences to an audience…creating that space together…that’s home wherever I go – Michigan or California.
So those are the things I’ve been doing and dealing with and thinking about. I hope you can understand why I haven’t been giving you very much. And I apologize.
But I also want to thank you for being that home for me. See, if you’ve ever sat there staring back at me, hearing me try new songs and say more than I should, laughing with me, listening to me, relishing in the love song without questioning my falling in love…you’ve given me a sanctuary. You’ve joined me in a space of hospitality, comfort, and Love. You’ve shown me that there’s something better than all of the bullshit we see everywhere else in this world…
You’ve given me a glimmer in my eye.
And for that reason, I’m not leaving California. Or this baby church that has its fair share of humanity. Maybe when we launch our first service in a few weeks, we’ll laugh and listen and try new things and say too much and be a sanctuary…maybe we’ll find Love.
So even though you haven’t heard from me in a while, even though it seems like I might be done with the music thing, and even though it sounds like I shouldn’t stick around in California for this church thing…I’m not giving up on any of it. I promise. Because when Love finds me, I don’t care how complicated the relationship is. I follow it.
The most frightening and beautiful thing about releasing an album is that people listen to it. And then they respond to it. When I released “Vapor” this May, I had a pretty good idea of what people would say about it. So at 7:45am on the morning of the release (I had an 8am biology class. But don’t worry – I’m graduated now, and I sleep until 10 like a responsible adult), I prepared myself with some deep breathing exercises in the quiet of Jethro, my trusty sidekick (car). When I was ready/had no choice, I stepped out of my car and onto the still-groggy campus. Per my usual routine, I headed for the coffee shop, and sure enough – there was a human in there. And I knew him. He immediately jumped up to give me a hug. “Oh, Jenny,” he said, mid-embrace, “Your album is beautiful…and so sad.”
There it is, folks.
I’ve gotten that a lot. “It’s just so sad.” My mom likes to reassure the people who come to my shows, “I know it all sounds sad…but she’s really had a great life.” And she’s right – I really have. So why all the sad songs, you ask? What a great question! Let us seize this opportunity to learn about the songwriting process.
Unlike prose, songs freeze time. They capture moments. At least, mine do. Some people can write songs that tell entire stories, but I haven’t quite figured out how to do that without getting overwhelmed or writing lyrics that don’t really say anything. So you’re not going to get the big picture with any of my songs. Instead, you’ll get a snapshot. You’re not going to hear, “I had a rough day today because of this, that, and the other thing, but you know what? At the end of the day, I counted my blessings, and I know I’ve got some really good friends and a roof over my head, so I can’t complain.” No. You’re going to hear me walking around inside of one single moment, looking in all the corners, staring into the people’s eyes, trying to put my finger on what that smell is (oh, Monday night fajitas), laughing about the familiarity of fajitas, listening to the voices upstairs, soaking up the way your voice sounds just like home but somehow different now, watching words fall out of your mouth and noticing them turn into sharp objects as they head right towards me, trying to understand why they’re so sharp, how you threw them so fast, wondering where my shield went and why it didn’t work this time, throwing a tantrum when it makes no sense, when it doesn’t hold up, when it’s not fair… “I can feel your red-hot fears, burning through your mouth and through our silly silver lining…”
You see, it’s a snapshot. A very true snapshot, even if it doesn’t give you the whole picture. The songs literally isolate a moment in time and put you inside of it, paying no mind to the surrounding picture. I mean, have you ever looked back at who you were and thought about how foolish you used to be, now that you’re so removed from it that you can see the big picture and be rational about it all? But then have you tried to step into who you were – to really remember what it was like to be you? What you were thinking? What it felt like? That’s what a song is. It puts you back there. It helps you remember not necessarily what happened or what is factually true, but who you were. It allows you to empathize with that one, isolated moment. It helps you remember what was, at one point, absolutely true.
I think that, in a way, songs help me love my past self. They help me capture what was true without losing who I was by only seeing the big picture.
Thus, my favorite comments about my album have been from people that have said, “I really get it – thank you.” I hear that response from people I would never expect to understand. I hear it from people I would ordinarily want to push away because of how different our big pictures seem…but here they are, doing the opposite – leaning in – because they’re made of similar snapshots.
So releasing this album has taught me a little about humanity – how we’re all so different, but we’re all really the same. Sameness is shocking. The fact that people who seem so different from myself can empathize so well with me is maybe a little offensive – I don’t want to believe that we can have something so precious in common. But it is that sameness with such different people that makes us human. We depend upon each other to understand. Humans need each other to lean in when everything else tells us to push away. We need the human moments of sameness – the moments our truths match up, even when we don’t.
And, obviously, the sad moments aren’t the only ones we’re made of. A lot of times, the truth in one moment of my life totally contradicts the truth in another moment. Recording “Vapor” was an interesting process because I was no longer living in the moments I captured with those songs. I was already being removed from them. I was still crafting an album centered around the idea that everything is vapor when someone promised me that they’d never evaporate. I was singing songs about needing to push away when someone very dear to me reminded me that they have always leaned in.
Those were profound moments for me – realizing that I have someone who leans in, and believing someone’s promise not to evaporate. They are frozen moments in time that might make up my next album (once I get the hang of writing not-sad songs). They will go in my library of honest snapshots, many of which seem to contradict each other. But the fact that many of my moments contradict each other doesn’t make any of them less true – it just makes me more human. It gives me more snapshots to match with yours.
So, I don’t know how I can so strongly believe that everything evaporates while experiencing the opposite now. I don’t know. But I know both are true. And I know that my job is to write about moments that are true. So I will continue to take snapshots – to freeze time. Because you and I might have very different big pictures, but we might have one moment in common – maybe just one. And no matter how small a moment it is, or how ridiculous it might seem now, there is no denying its truth. So I think my greatest hope for my songs – my snapshots – is that they will give us reasons to lean into each other, even when everything obvious suggests that we push away.