This Companion Stories Series features essays which look at my album The Work and each of its songs in detail, going behind the scenes to de-mystify what artists too often try to keep mysterious.
Listen on Spotify here.
On Christmas Day 2016, I unwrapped a stack of books. I am a huge fan of literature and had asked for a lot of reading material that had been recommended to me. I picked one arbitrarily out of the stack that night, sat on the sofa facing the Christmas tree, and began to read The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.
I remember that scene vividly because it was such a huge turning point in my life. I sat there with Baldwin for hours, looking up from time to time too stunned by something I’d just read to continue. I made notes of all the immaculately articulated ideas I wanted to process fully later. I felt like Baldwin understood parts of me that I couldn’t yet face - and he had no interest at all in whether I was ready to hear it or not.
That book began a soul-shifting journey of self-reflection that would later include The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and all the personal development work that eventually resulted in this album. I devoured other books by Baldwin, one of which was called The Devil Finds Work. In that, I found this line: “…when the prisoner is free, the jailer faces the void of himself.” A version of it became the opening line of The Void and the album overall because, as Baldwin taught me, the art (and extremely difficult work) of knowing oneself is where everything begins.
The Void consists of three verses and no chorus (unless you count the percussive motif). I did this to evoke the feeling of a book instead of a song so the listener might pay more attention to the lyrics. I wanted the words and ideas to build on each other as they would in a written work. So the first verse is a presentation and extension of Baldwin’s metaphor. By the way, “the shattered glasses of Bemis” line is a reference to the famous Twilight Zone episode about a man who hates people but loves reading. When the apocalypse comes and he’s the only person left, he’s overjoyed, surrounded by his books. But then his glasses slip from his face and shatter. What has Bemis left to do than face the void of himself?
What happens to so many jailers
When the prisoners all are set free
What happens to shepherds for saviors
When gone are the penitent sheep
What happens to time-honored masters
When they hear the chains rattle and fall
The shattered glasses of Bemis
With nothing but time after all
Imagine these men for a moment
Looking and finding no help
And for the first time in their lives
Facing the Void of themselves
In the second verse, I go deeper: I consider Baldwin’s exhortation in the context of my own life.
And what of myself in my bedroom
When all men have come and gone
With no one to tell me who I am
I realize I never have known
When I tire of calling myself victim
A coat I have worn like a skin
Still none of the things that I yield to
Can heal the unyielding within
There are so many cures for this ailing
And hundreds of ways to stay dumb
Thousands of empty distractions
And millions of ways to be numb
When I wrote this song, I had recently read Shelby Steele’s book White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. Like Baldwin, Steele emphasizes that a lot of us hide behind ideologies and addictions and excuses to prevent exploring the void within us, creating a sort of cage for ourselves within which we never live our lives fully. After moving from the theoretical to the personal in the first two verses, I wanted to tie it all to the universal:
The light in a dark place is painful
It shows what we can’t bear to see
But most of us patch up the rupture
And take darkness, its sharp-edged relief
The scariest thing about freedom
You can no longer cry to be free
The source of your strength has departed
And taken your identity
So tell me what have we to bind us
When freedom grants each one his own
Without duty or demon to blind us
Who the hell are we alone
These ideas have been so powerful for me, and writing and recording this song was my way of processing and expressing them. There are a lot of musical Easter eggs in here, too (the vocal hanging in a musical void at the end of each verse, for instance) that also made it such a joy to create.
Join me next Friday for the companion story for my song Weakness and Truth (it’s a really good one :D).
Words are the backbone of my music. They often reference powerful ideas that strike me in my readings or develop from my life experiences. The creative expression of these ideas sometimes begs for musical form, and other times it comes out on the page. Here is a selection of my lyrics, poems, essays and other writings.