Kelly Joe Phelps: A Pilgrim’s Year
Kelly Joe Phelps has just returned from California, having played his first show since the diagnosis of ulnar nerve damage, eight months ago. At the end of the week he picks up where he left off last January, touring Great Britain for a month with Brother Sinner and the Whale, released in August of 2012 to the respect and enthusiasm of critics fans and peers.
The shift from private to public, from recluse to performer, is not always an easy adjustment for KJP, but his foray back into the world of touring will prepare him for his return to an even brighter spotlight. On October 5th, which happens to be his birthday, he will be inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
In light of the events of the year, including the challenges of his injury and the pending official acknowledgement of his musical pilgrimage, this piece has evolved into observations and ruminations evolving out of a series of conversations between KJP and myself that began on the 2nd of December at The Minstrel Café in Kelowna, B.C.
A small club embraced by a big tree, The Minstrel in Kelowna B.C. has a reputation for being the place to hear inspired and inspiring music by artists from all over the continent. When folks heard Kelly Joe Phelps was coming to town tickets went fast. It was the first Monday of Advent, a cold evening in December. The grapes had long ago left the vines, the apple boughs were slick with wet snow. We relinquished ourselves to the deftness and magic of a guitar and voice that drew us gently toward the songs, like a blanket or a bright kitchen table draws travelers. We needed the warmth.
Brother Sinner is a rustic collection of songs written in the language and rhythms of the old hymns, country blues and ballads. It fits Jim Lauderdales’ definition of Americana as music full of an ‘ancient earthiness’. And yet it hovers, as if the singer never quite landed. Or accepted his earth-bound being. His songs vibrate like a frightened animal, afraid to hang around. They are heart-rending, like a friend revealing a story of a near-miss, last kiss or bad dream. They are lullabies for troubled sleepers. They are the raw poetry of a man tired of tricking himself, of a wanderer exhausted from resisting surrender, of someone who has nowhere to go but downward and in so doing, knows he will eventually find his knees.
These songs are sung by a pilgrim who has known what it’s like to find home and has gone and gotten lost, again. And so, he redoubles his efforts to stay on the right trajectory by stating, ever clearer, his destination. Neither the singer nor the songs can afford the luxury of irony, nor the post-modern tropes of masking, branding, coolness and trendiness. His emotes from a place great singers throughout history understand, a place deeper than sentiment, from his very temperament. The opera singer Maguerite D’Alvarez described temperament as: one`s very life and soul…bound to sweep everything before it.’
This stuff really works
KJP began touring with Brother Sinner last September. Then, one January morning, waking up after a show in Minnesota, he woke to find his picking hand had gone completely numb. The next day he visited a doctor and the following day, instead of boarding a plane bound for Great Britain and a month of shows, he flew back home to Vancouver, WA to seven months of convalescence.
Living up to his reputation as a recluse, KJP passed the months in well-spent seclusion, reading from the shelves and stacks of books collected over the years, redoubling his time spent on his biblical studies. The stories, symbols and spirit of the Bible have been informing his music since the beginning of his career.
“I’ve always swirled around biblical imagery and biblical themes because I find a huge sense of spirit in the world. So I am forced into dealing with that by nature of my own sensitivities”, he says. “Over the last couple of years I’ve really applied myself to trying to figure out Christianity. Trying to figure out literalness versus metaphoric and mystical aspects of it rather than whatever the opposite of mystical would be. And I keep coming back, time and time again, to the subject of forgiveness; it’s a through line through the whole thing. It’s monumentally huge, this study, so I don’t want it to sound like I’ve found the answers other people haven’t. I’m just saying that a lot of the things that I’ve been writing and doing musically have to do with forgiveness because it’s something I keep coming up to and realizing that its massively huge. When I start applying that sense to my life, that’s when I start to see all the ways when, where I start to forgive people I should have forgiven a long time ago, then these little streams of peace start to show up in my head and in my heart and soul and I’m extremely grateful for that and then when I start applying the same thing to myself the same thing happens. So then the world, in that situation, starts to make more sense to me and it starts to be a softer place and I think that opens a door for hope to show up as well. Because to honestly experience these little clouds of whispers or streams of peace is like: “Wow! This stuff really does work!”
Book of Jonah
“This stuff”, this work to be honest with help from ‘the world of Spirit’ through study, reflection and prayer, is evident in KJP’s new songs, which are like prayers themselves. They are inspired by the Book of Jonah, a brief book in the Old Testament containing all the existential trauma, doubt, and resentment we encounter in our lives going back to childhood days. (The whale, pictured on the KJP’s cd cover in Hatch Show Print style, is the whale of childhood picture books.)
Since listening to the album I’ve read The Book of Jonah several times and my understanding of it alters with each reading. While I’m tempted to sum it up in fridge magnet version as : You can Run But You Cannot Hide,( a version given me by a pastor friend), here`s my latest take on it:
A man is asked by God, and life, to do something he’d rather not. It involves delivering a message of warning and a chance at redemption. He runs in the opposite direction and gets into deeper trouble, he gets swallowed by a whale, or, as it’s often described in many contemporary interpretations, he hits bottom. He is alone, in darkness, and in a strange place. For three days he sits ‘in the belly of the whale’ with himself and his despair. Eventually he is shown mercy and lands back on land, facing once again the task and his God. And so he begrudgingly does what’s asked of him, successfully and to the letter. But here’s the thing: after he warns the potential victims of disaster, God decides to have mercy on everyone involved! The victims are spared and Jonah is furious. After all that work and for what? And Jonah’s resentment against God increases.
Three days in the whale, three days between the old moon and the new moon, three days between crucifixion and resurrection: the motif of birth and death shows up in most myths and religions. But the Old Testament Jonah never gives the impression of having had a re-birth. It`s not that he hasn`t been changed; he just doesn`t seem to notice the changes.
The Only Ones Who Matter
The great WWI poet Wilfred Owen said “All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poet must be truthful.” The songs on Brother Sinner warn, worry, breath, lift, drop, carry, pray, hope, despair; they take on all the combinations and permutations of Jonah’s story. From ‘Hard Time They Never Go Away’, to “Goodbye to Sorrow”, from “Hope in the Lord to Provide” to “Down to the Praying Ground”, the songs flow back and forth as streams of peace and deeply troubled waters.
KJP reaches deep into Jonah’s story and offers us something more precious than answers; he poses more questions. They are age-old questions that so many contemporary artists, musicians, seem to have stopped asking: Where did I lose my way? Why do I choose to suffer? Whom do I serve? What has meaning for me? How can we help each other? Why am I alone? To where am I running? From what am I hiding? What am I hiding? And, in ‘Sometimes A Drifter’, he asks one of my favourite questions of all time: “Why do we think we are the only ones who really matter to everyone in the whole wide world?”
The degree to which KJP revers the muse and the spirit of the music, not to mention the instrument he plays and the time and consideration it takes to do it all justice, is reflected in the ways he answers questions. He considers each word carefully and will backtrack down a thought-path for the purpose of clarity. If a question intrigues him he will give of his time. (If not, he moves quickly to the next. He barely suffers fools, and he will not satisfy them with a prepared response. He gives a look of: tell me you didn’t just ask me that, and in fact has said just that to interviewers who ask flippant questions.) If the question is vague, but intriguing, he will ask the questioner to rephrase it. Some responses come out so thoroughly thought-out, they roll like poetry, complete with all the modifiers intact. Others cause him to stumble and struggle. When asked if he was “comfortable living in the questions” he makes a few attempts before launching into a reply:
Yeeeaah…Um…Am I comfortable?…No. Well…yes, I am comfortable…. That is, I’m certainly content in it. I don’t know if comfort is the word for it, which is why I’m hemming and hawing on that word comfort, because I don’t think it’s necessarily about being comfortable, although I am comfortable in asking the questions. But more accurately, there’s a contentment in knowing that that has to be the way I go about this because I can’t turn off thinking about it, I can’t turn off feeling about it, and I can’t turn off being confused or wondering- all those kinds of things. So, it’s like seeking and searching all the time, it’s in my nature. So, I’m comfortable in my nature, but I’m not exactly happy about it…. Maybe.
Weird decisions and hard questions
Along with the hard questions are some raw statements as well, some fashioned from the Bible. ( True to his scholarly nature, his website supplies scriptural ‘footnotes’ to his songs): “Heartache and sadness, they look to be my friends”. “I don’t have to fight temptation on my own.’‘ “Years and years of trying with little to understand’. “Makin’ all kinds of weird decisions”. “I’m afraid I’ve gone the wrong way again”. “Hold my knees on the ground, Lord, help my faith.” “There are days when I can’t feel a thing, there are days when I can’t stop singing”. “ All of heaven is buried in your heart”. “May we find in our togetherness honest joy.”
These are contradictory statements. The ghosts and lost souls of his songs are resigned to despair yet immersed in wonder, reaching yet suspicious of the light, defiantly self-reliant yet believing in an honest, joyful togetherness, unable to forgive self completely, yet adamant in forgiving others, confusing compliance and surrender, less comfortable with human love than God love.
Room for Mystery
True artists resist the adulation that makes saint of them, preferring to keep the focus on the art, keep it art clean. If they begin to slip into the realm of anticipatory art- the world of formulae and trend and ultimately celebrity culture- Their art is no longer art. It’s product. However, they can often become their own prophets, making art that makes no sense to both themselves and their audience until much later. Their art runs on ahead of them, like a finger pointing toward the moon, or doubt toward faith. The trick for KJP, he says, is to ‘allow for doubt because that’s what points to faith and makes a space for Mystery’. Asked if he has managed to maintain a sense of wonder he says:
It seems to me I have maintained it, and in fact, in a number of ways it seems to continue to expand and at the same time becomes more critical because I pay a lot of attention to it. And in the course of my life- not to say I’m soon to kick off, but I’m not twenty-seven anymore- when I look at this desperate need to question things and look at them from every angle imaginable and try to understand them on as many levels as I can figure out, then I think that’s how my sense of wonder and my approach to living, and consequently my approach to songwriting, expands because I find more ways to look at it. And I think because I’m getting older and I’ve done it longer I start to maybe understand- or maybe it’s just experience – but I start to see why people do the things they do and say the things they say, including myself. So there ends up being a lot of ways of looking at these things. That’s the expansion. The criticalness is that, along with this process, I’m getting older and if this is my life’s journey, well, I’m starting to see the finite aspect of this journey, because now I’m fifty-three. Also, when I find more ways to look at things I find more ways to let go of things. And everybody kind of gets left off the hook then.
An absolute purity of existence
It takes intense focus for KJP to perform, to be, as he puts it, ’a servant to his gifts’. He has to shut out the rest of the world, not just in the minutes before a show, but, while on tour, often for days and months at a time.
“I don’t have a blueprint. I don’t know any other musicians who do what I do. It’s emotionally and spiritually exhausting. I have to be prepared for the Spirit to enter me every time and play. But then I just put my head down and the music comes. It’s the closest I get to Spirit, to God. And when I’m finished I am physically exhausted too….I’m a pauper. My clothes are dirty. I’m hungry and exhausted. I’m a tiny man going down a tiny piece of an alleyway and all I want to do is get one foot in that alley and if I can just get one foot in there then this particular experience will happen one more time. It’s the only place I’m not asking for forgiveness. I’m praying. It’s a total and full union. An acceptance. An absolute purity of existance.
And then, it’s back on the road again. Alone, sleeping in hotels, looking for healthy meals. “It’s not a glamorous life: always tired, always hungry, always lonely.”
Keep out the Noise
To stay focused KJP needs to “keep out the noise”, so prefers to not talk with people, before or during a show. “I don’t talk up the crowd. That’s not my job. My responsibility to the audience is to climb as deep inside my music as I can. Dylan doesn’t chat. Neil Young doesn’t chat. So I guess I’m in good company.” Normally someone who works hard at trying to understand or analyze how a thing works; he can’t explain what happens to him on stage. “It’s like a rainmaker, only I don’t actually make rain, but I release it and then I get wet, and if you’re in the room, chances are, you’ll get wet too.” Whatever does rain down on the listeners, he hopes it’s been worth their while, but he can’t afford to worry about whether or not they like him or his music.
All his choices, whether to do with language or musical execution, reflect a need to engage intimately with the music. They are not always the easiest choices, but they are the purest and cleanest. His sound comes out more ‘honest’. The use of microphones instead of pickups, his fingertips instead of fingernails, the original language of scripture instead of the platitudes of pop culture are all efforts to get to the soul of the music, thereby making his connection with the spirit of the music as unmediated as possible. As far as language goes, he has this to say: “I don’t know how this works exactly, but I know how to do something and what I can do is express something poetically. I can find just enough of the right words to express an emotional place in the same way poetry can. There are a few things really deep in the world of Spirit that I have been shown that make sense to me but cannot be described.“
While most songs ask for forgiveness, he keeps his transgressions to himself. In Brother Sinner the theme of ‘the rhythms of living and interacting with people’, shows up like a singed animal circling a central fire from a dark wood. The wounded animal might be wolf, might be lamb. He lives in the liminal space, the fine-line world between carnality and piety. In Portrait of Lincoln with the Wart Rosanne Cash stressed the importance of moving beyond the ‘boy-meets-girl’ song when writing about human relationships. For KJP
The boy-meets-girl statement is about eight or ten steps before I even get to writing the song. It becomes something more like: boy-meets-girl-and-everything-great-for-a-while-and-then-things-get-really-strange-again-and-very-little-about-it-makes-any-kind-of-sense-and-I can`t-even-write-a-sensical-song-about-it-but-I-have-to-say-something-about-it-because-I`m-really-confused. That becomes a central theme….And so, in the most broad sense of it, the recurring theme is journey toward finding an answer but embracing the fact that it`s very likely I won`t find an answer but I must keep looking. Otherwise, I feel like I`m doing nothing. Or so it feels like to me.
The Haunt of Jazz
KJP started his career playing jazz. He still does. If you’ve seen him play you know he never plays the same song twice. He improvises a lot. The tempo, the interludes, the settling-into bits at the beginning, even sometimes the words, are momentary decisions. It’s one of the benefits of playing solo. But it also is how prayer works.
Ted Loder is a Methodist preacher and essayist. His book ‘The Haunt of Grace” is a collection of his sermons. In the sermon/essay “More Than Enough” he says, ” Jazz keeps asking that question, our question of each other, perhaps, or of life, or of the universe, or of God: “Do you love me?” Something in jazz plays the answer, and the answer is “Yes”.”
It takes another artist to spot the subtle, enormous choices that KJP makes when he plays. The Edge, Steve Earle, Leo Kotke are just a few of the guitarists who count themselves admirers. (His songs are loved by writers as well. Russell Banks sees him as a journeyman- bringing a ‘bucket of nails with him’ when he gets down to work.)
KJP admires Glenn Gould, who “breathes life into music. He’s an interpreter of music. I chose interpreter influences. And improvisational influences, people who improvise interpretations. The improviser understands that creation is about the seed. The seed gets planted and from it springs life. There is no seed on the side of the replicators, it’s an exhumation.”
KJP also appreciates Gould’s understanding of public performances- the absurdity of performing music live for applause and approval. Gould’s perspective on art: “The justification of art is the internal combustion that ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” (Gould even joked about developing a doctrine critiquing live performance which he called: “GPAADAK”, the Gould Plan for the Abolition of Applause and Demonstrations of All Kinds.)
Pre Post-modern hats
His near-obsessive attention to detail and precision is also reflected in his wardrobe- there is a timeless classic sensibility that nods to an era when men frequented haberdashers and wore wool. The hats, the boots, the 1940’s suit jackets or thick flannel shirts all reflect a time pre post-modern, when not everyone and their mother was bent on becoming a celebrity and when humans were still referred to as souls, though soon to become citizens, but not yet consumers. When true artists didn’t ‘re-invent’ themselves, they evolved, or if lucky, transcended.
KJP is known for his hat collection: cowboy hats, fedoras and trucker hats. Often the envy of cowboys and bluesmen, they serve him well through the shifting weathers of the road. But he also uses them as a protective shield between himself and the world. When not on stage he appears furtive, skittish, which, given the constant hunger, loneliness and lack of sleep could just as likely be the specter of exhaustion. That evening at The Minstrel he wore a worn brown sharecropper’s fedora with a small tear along the pinch. It disintegrated that night, actually. “I had to wear my cowboy hat for the rest of the tour. But just as well, because my next stop was Calgary and stepping onto stage I heard a whisper from the front row: ‘Wow! Look at that hat!’” He has the appearance of dustbowl era farmer, or a character in a Willa Cather or Flannery O’Connor novel. His look reminds me of Casey the preacher in Grapes of Wrath. He can appreciate the reference. He empathizes with the character, his torment and the tension between being in a state of belief and unbelief.
He appreciates, also how clothes can become another nail in the coffin of image. “You run the risk of becoming a gestuse,” he says, “one who becomes all gesture. You look like a blues player, therefore you must play the blues. The clothing becomes an appearance which puts the visual experience at the centre. The whole experience becomes a gesture.” Most often billed as a blues musician, KJP “ never wanted to fit into a genre or a category.“ I just wanted to make music. The minute you call yourself something you run the risk of being a replicant and then it’s all jive. Inappropriate, and misaligned.”
While he can be accused of being aloof, personally; when playing he is all-out exposed. Because of his ability to open to Spirit the moment he sits and lowers his head, what comes out is pure existence. On first seeing him play I was both mesmerized and touched by the movements of his body, so vulnerable was he to the energy flowing through him, or so I interpreted, that he moved like someone who`d been zapped by an electrical current, or an autistic child. He seemed so exposed, like his soul was on the line.
KJP is full-disclosure when it comes to his sources. In keeping with the American literary thematic tradition of Loss and Redemption , he gets some of his best stuff from the psalms. It makes sense to him to go back to the faith of his childhood, opening his heart to, and plunging his hands into, his Christian upbringing and coming up with crashing waves, broken bones, the elements, stormy weather, unceasing prayer, wrong turns, good intentions, constant slippage, blessed reprieve: the language of pilgrimage.
My first memories as a child, aside from hearing country western music being played at home, was going to Seventh Day Adventist Church, which was what my father was, and I can certainly remember being scared to death by some of it. But how could a person ever discount that fact that at three, four, five years old you`re being taught that your soul is alive and that the world is essentially operating on that level. And then, over the course of your life, trying to rectify that somehow. It`s probably impossible to let go, but I know people who have worked their entire lives to try and let go of it, but I don`t really see any reason to let go of it.
It`s been an ongoing subject of fascination and writing for me to look at the ways sacred themes can penetrate the minds and spirits of listeners in ways that the spoken word simply can`t. Here`s what KJP has to say about singing sacred:
Music has the possibility to be very transcendent. Music speaks a language we understand. And this is an example of how we are souls first and bodies second. I could sing about something very benign and if I found a way to climb inside this benign message and give it some kind of life, particularly in a mystical way, then it becomes a moving experience strictly through performance, through emoting, I mean. And that does a lot of things invisibly, which brings us back to why the gospel message being sung is somehow more embracing than the gospel message being spoken. It allows people a chance to come in. It allows people to understand there’s an invitation to come and join and we don’t have to really understand this, nor do we have to pretend that we know the truth or something. It`s more than that. We`re saying, by singing this stuff: why don`t we just drop all our fears and anxieties and worries about all this stuff and just drift away with it and know that we sing about these nuggets that are there and we all know that we struggle and we all know that we fight with and we all know we have suffered from personally and culturally and all kinds of things. All that stuff has the capability in the experience of being sung to slowly drift off, like little bits of cottonwood tree and then we`re singing about the very things that we want for ourselves and everyone`s lives around us: peace, truth, acknowledgement, justification of the human soul, validation of everyone`s uniqueness and beauty. All those things have the potential to show up, in whole or in part, when it`s happening musically. When it`s happening just through the spoken word- the spoken word always carries with it a challenge we have to deal with. And we might decide to take on that challenge- which is worth doing-but it`s a challenge nonetheless. And when that same challenge is sung it seems that challenge is gone and we`re able- we have to still accept the invitation, each one of us- but if we are able to accept the invitation we are able to deal with this message with no challenge whatsoever. Music is just magic that way. Not only do we find this sense of peace but we find ourselves embracing those around us at the same time in the same way and it`s interesting because those are the powerful messages of Christ: this is available to us in our lives. Somehow we sing about this stuff, it makes sense. But when we talk about it, everybody gets all crazy!
You don’t need to get religion to ‘get’ religion
Journalists are notorious for having a blind spot when it comes to religion. And yet so many of today`s top stories revolve around religion. From the civil rights movement to terrorist attacks, much of human behaviour has been religiously motivated. And yet we tend to negate it`s import. And music journalists are no different.
If you read some of the reviews of Brother Sinner you will come across self-appointed apologists for KJP’s Christian themes and lyrics, comments like: ‘don’t worry, he’s a musician first, a Christian second’, (which isn’t even accurate) or ‘even though the language can be off-putting, the music is great’ (would they feel the urge to say the same about the inane representation of love in most pop music) or the dismissive flippant hipsterism: ‘ hey, I’m just an ungodly heathen, what do I know’.
This kind of incomprehension and indifference makes for `bad journalism,’ says Michael Gerson, one of the authors (of varying faiths and philosophies) of ‘Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion.’ He reminds fellow journalists that `the more sophisticated our knowledge of religion, the more sophisticated our knowledge of the world….Good journalism should be concerned with all of life, including our nationality, our professions, the places we live, and the interests that engage us. But journalism is radically incomplete without covering the creeds we hold about the cosmos in which we live.”
And there’s another, more pressing reason, journalists need to write from an informed place about religion: Christian `literalism ‘is taking precedence over Christian `literacy ‘in North America, and perhaps the world. This is the point theologian Marcus Borg makes in his book: `Speaking Christian’. Religions are `cultural-linguistic traditions’, he says. And the literalists have created of this tradition `a heaven-and-hell framework that sucks the meaning of Christian language into it, changing and distorting it.’
When artists like KJP immerse themselves in the study of Christian language, looking to redeem it`s symbolic clout, only to have journalists gloss over it, as if they were doing him some kind of favour for not engaging in his well-wrought lyrics; the art is not given its full consideration. In other words: the poet deserves to be heard with the same open and eager ears with which we hear the craftsman.
A Boundless Complexity and A Fortunate Rhythm
The New Yorker`s Alex Ross, in his second collection of writings about music, “Listen to This”, says that musicians find themselves, in a strange way, both enshrined and enslaved. As one who writes about music all he can do is show the ‘boundless complexity that gives it life”. The poet David Whyte, in `What to Remember Upon Waking“ warns “the great tragedy of speed as an answer to the complexities and responsibilities of existence is that very soon we cannot recognize anything or anyone who is not traveling at the same velocity as we are.”
There is both complexity and velocity in KJP`s playing. But, even though KJP’s fingers move at a break-neck speed, his voice brings us slow-breaking news from the subtle world of Spirit. His tempo is like that of a mountain stream in Spring, melting its way to the sea in the way a kid runs down the staircase at Christmas morning. The joy in the strings makes us giddy. But the words and singing bid us sit by that very stream and watch what lingers on the banks, or how the stones, who have been there for years, day and day out, find different ways of reflecting the sun’s light.
It takes a light touch in a heavy-handed world to make that kind of absorption possible. It strikes a balance that creates what the mythologist Joseph Campbell calls ‘a fortunate rhythm’, when the aesthetic experience comes from beholding the harmonious rhythm of relationships. And when a fortunate rhythm has been struck by the artist, you experience radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest. And there is an epiphany.
Psalm 84: Blessed is the man whose heart is set on pilgrimage: Pilgrimage`s Reach
Tom Cahill in write, in the opening pages of ‘Mysteries of the Middle Ages’: ‘A pilgrimage was a defining event and one of the principle satisfactions of a well-tuned life. You went on a pilgrimage in thanks for a favor granted, or to ask for a favor, or for penance. But even a penitential pilgrimage was full of incidental pleasures.’
Today, it’s not uncommon to hear people say: ‘ the journey is the destination’, thus making ‘incidental pleasures ‘the whole point of life. But pilgrims have a hoped-for destination. For KJP, the destination is ‘ to be united with God in the realm of the soul, spending Eternity in the glorious mystery of The Eternal. The journey is the living part, but I don’t think it’s the destination. It’s the act and the action, but not the resting place. It`s the woods but not the cabin or the hearth’ to pilgrims along the way.
Art, like pilgrimage, demands a kind of energy few of us are willing to dredge up; it asks we dig deep. It takes time and consideration, forbearance and tenacity. Which makes KJP and artists like him international treasures. What artists of KJP`s ilk do is provide a space for us – a place to enter into and remember Spirit. Hopefully the space becomes internalized, and therefore portable, for artist and listener alike. Otherwise, both art-maker and art-appreciator end up, as Alex Ross says, enslaved and enshrined.
The pilgrimage asks us not only to give but to receive- be it a room for the night or the unexpected gifts of nourishment, and of course, the reward at the end of the long road when we drop our heavy burdens. The manifestation of Spirit through KJP`s music is what we, and hopefully he, can receive, long after the songs have been played.
The Posture of Prayer
At the end of the night KJP retreats to the parking lot for a smoke. He stands in the corner farthest from the door, under a tree. He stands like a child’s drawing – straight-up stick man, lightning rod, head tipped upward. This is not a contra postal, cool dude posture, checking out the world checking him out. This is the posture of prayer.
An old timer once told me that `prayer is a posture we can take in life’. Brother Sinner is an album of prayers. Of questions and self-reassurances, remonstrations and releases all swirling around love, God and human relationships. The voice behind them prays for “honest joy”, but the dynamic tension in each song seems to come from a teetering between compliance and surrender, exclusion and embrace, between accepting the Love and accessing the Grace that makes acceptance possible. Between the “Pilgrim’s Reach” and “The Praying Ground”, Brother Sinner is Jonah, Job, David and Lazarus all in one. Brother Sinner is an album that could be a bottle in which to put our tears.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and radio doc-producer. Her award-winning “She Moves Between World;Remembering Lhasa de Sela” and “Portrait of Lincoln with the Wart; Defining Americana Music” can be found online.