I’ve interviewed lots of musicians, but nobody made me more nervous than Neville Quinlan. The lead singer and principal songwriter of the Toronto band NQ Arbuckle, he’s been the target of a strange sort of crush that I can’t explain clearly. Let’s call it a songwriting crush. Everything he says feels very real; it’s rooted in Toronto places that I drift through, it’s naked, full of angst and uncertainty.
I remember the day I interviewed him very well. It was in January 2010, and we met at the Cadillac Lounge on Queen Street West. I had to go directly from work, and tried hard to look decent and not frazzled. Hard to do when I was held up on my way by a huge accident that re-routed the streetcar. When I got there, he was half done his first pint. Not a good start.
Then I made the mistake of suggesting his songs were exactly as I said: hopeless and full of angst. “No way!” he responded. “I think the opposite, that they’re full of hope. Love is all about being hopeful.”
So it is.
Those who are close to me know that the last year has been difficult; those closer know that the last month has been among the hardest in my life.
While doing exactly what NQ does in his songs, drifting through Toronto in a bit of a haze, I’ve come upon the busiest period of my year fairly unprepared. This year it was made worse by having to travel to rural Ontario to deliver an intensive course in the middle of it all. Still, I was looking forward to it; I met these students in January and liked them all immediately, and wanted to reconnect with them and hear about their research on spiritual music.
What I knew would be an great experience has turned into two of the most intense days I’ve had in a long time. Student after student got up to present; many on a song that had guided them through experiences like youth addiction and suicide in their communities, the recent loss of family members, including their own children, and the continual struggle for Aboriginal rights in Canada. I spent much of the two days trying to fight tears, feeling both empathy for their pain, and connected to them through my own. And every song they played had a message of hope, redemption, or faith, though they weren’t all explicitly religious songs.
One might read this and think we spent the two days drowning in our sorrows, passing around a kleenex box and consoling each other. Not so. The class was marked by uproarious laughter for the most part; these are students who, despite considerable hardship, maintain the outlook that positive change is always on the way. No matter what adversity they face, their spirit endures.
A blog such as this can’t express the intensity of what I experienced this week. Nor does it suffice in explaining my personal changes. One theme that came up repeatedly in discussion in class was how can music articulate that which is inarticulable? For these students, music has enabled healing when nothing else would work, and its capacity to say what words fail to make it a force that guides us through pain, kind of inexplicably.
A song like this, one of my students’ choices, and despite being a Christian hymn, might answer questions or express sentiment you couldn’t otherwise. It might make you a believer. At the very least, it is a song of thankfulness and hope.
Since I started by talking about NQ, it’s worth looking at how he deals with hope. I love the song “Angels and Devils”. Lines like
“And you kiss me back, surprised
And with my drunken hands drunk drivin’ through
And I am realizing that I
Never wanna go to sleep again…
…Drag me home, just to fall asleep
In your arms, goodnight”
are all about the hope embedded in sloppiness of messy, drunk love, capturing the moment when it starts but knowingly acknowledging that it’s probably just a moment that will end as messily as it began.
Then there’s “I Liked You Right From The Start”, which focuses on moments when love is the only thing that’s clear.
Or how about “Autumn Leaves”, where he pines for a girl who’s not quite available (haven’t we all…) in a kind of stream of consciousness style:
“In a quiet voice, she rubs her feet
And I drop dead when she smiles
I lose my mind for a little while…”
And on it goes.
May a song give you some hope, in the middle of all this mess. Time for a nap.