On ‘Laysongs,’ Chris Thile Explores Community and Communion
Photo by Josh Goleman
When the world went into lockdown in spring 2020, Chris Thile’s radio show, Live From Here, which he had hosted for four years, was canceled, his touring stopped, and he was both relieved and terrified of the prospects of having so much time.
He had been thinking about making a solo record, so he began combing through ideas and songs, thinking about what kind of album he might make. He recalls a conversation he had with Bob Hurwitz, the chairman emeritus of Nonesuch Records: “He said, ‘Man, you have been talking about this God stuff for a long time; it’s all over your records.’”
Thile admits that he had been exploring questions about religious devotion all through his music, but that he had been a bit “self-conscious” about addressing it head-on for an entire album. “To have the green light from someone at the top of my record company and someone who doesn’t sit around thinking about organized religion all day encouraged me,” Thile says. “I started rewriting things that I had and combing through my memory for songs I felt like would help me represent the questions I wanted to present and to put those things into a cohesive piece of actual recording.”
“What I really missed,” says Thile of that time, “was singing with people, making music with them.” The title track, which opens the album, invites people to come into communion, to raise their voices in song, expressing joys and anguish, hopes and fears together. Over claps and a cappella, the song’s introduction asks: “O but then what shall we sing? / Tell us / O but what then shall we sing? / As we gather together.”
“We start with ‘Laysongs,’ which is sort of the invitation at the start of a church service, a call to this sort of secular worship that I am looking for in my own life,” Thile explains. “To be clear, I still go to church sometimes, but I still feel so much and still love talking about it with people that I know who are still religious; there is far less separating religion and nonreligion that we’re led to believe.”
Thile is no stranger to organized religion, and he’s animated by the conversations he has with friends and family about religious and spiritual questions. Growing up, his parents were devout fundamentalist Christians, but Thile points out they didn’t convert until after he and his brother were born. “I think they wanted answers once they had us,” he reflects. “They were a little bit messed up, and they didn’t want to mess us up.”
Thile still recalls the day his father got baptized at church camp called Camp Maranatha. “My little brother said my dad was getting marinated,” Thile laughs, “and he was getting marinated in the Holy Spirit.”
After his father had converted, Thile says, “I remember my dad coming to us late at night and talking to us about Christianity. ‘If you ask Jesus Christ to be your personal lord and savior you’ll live forever.’ As an 8-year-old that sounds pretty good; what’s the catch?” When the family moved to Kentucky from Southern California, they joined the Christian Community Church in Murray, Kentucky, a rigid fundamentalist Christian church.
“A lot of this record feels like returning to being an adolescent in that church with very, at least on the surface, exceedingly devout people all around me and feeling so alone while singing these kind of praise and worship number CCM [contemporary Christian music] songs,” Thile says. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I am pretty sure this music is bad and I am going to hell for thinking that,’ and ‘I am going to hell for thinking that if there’s a God, would he like this music.’”
Although Thile says that he was not a rebellious kid, the veneer of organized religion eventually started to crumble, and he began questioning much of what his parents had taught him. Thile credits his friends’ openness to his questions and struggles with faith and doubt. One of the threads weaving through Laysongs, he says, is how important it is to keep asking yourself questions. “You might not know what another person or even you are going through, and any human being around you might be able to throw you a lifeline.”
He’s also intrigued by “how inseparable spiritual musing seems to be from music-making and by the connection between both pursuits and our innate yearning for community and communion.”
Darkness and Light
The narrative arc of Laysongs moves from the invitation to community on the opening title track through a period of darkness and doubt on the three-part song cycle “Salt (in the Wound) of the Earth” to a joyous affirmation of community in the closing song, Hazel Dickens’ “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me?”
Thile wrote the first draft of the title track for Live from Here. “We were doing our first themed episode of that show, which was ‘Singing Together.’ That opening, with stomping and clapping, felt really interesting. When I was thinking about this record and what material I wanted to assemble into a cohesive whole, I kept wanting to revisit the song,” he recalls. The lyrics for “Laysong,” with its “What shall we sing?” refrain, felt especially poignant in the face of the pandemic’s forced isolation, a sudden barrier to our desire to sing together. Thile recognized that singing together invites openness to one another and fosters community — a purpose that organized religion once provided — and also cultivates healing: “O let your medicine ring / We need it.”
The album moves to a sprightly tune, “Ecclesiastes 2:24,” inspired by the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin in E Major. “The back half of that verse in Ecclesiastes says that it is good for a person to eat and drink and to take pleasure in their work; that’s my kind of Bible verse,” Thile laughs. “This guy’s searching for beauty and meaning and he’s gonna get there any way he can.”
It’s one of two instrumentals on the album, a form Thile says is well equipped to get at abstract ideas. “In a way it’s like instrumental music can be pure, almost like freestyle meditation, whereas music with lyrics is like guided meditation, but you better like your guide,” he laughs.
A demon shows up on the “Salt (in the Wound) of the Earth.” The song cycle is inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. “I love the device of demons corresponding with one another,” Thile says. “I would love to think we’re all out here searching for beauty and meaning but we get distracted by needing to feel good about ourselves, and one of the easiest ways to feel good about yourself is by comparing yourself to someone you’re think you’re doing better than. That’s how those demons are working on me. I keep looking for people to feel better than and that makes me feel disgusting. ‘Salt’ is hunkering down in that feeling.”
On Bartok’s “Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz. 117: IV. Presto,” “it’s as if the demon in “Salt’ stole my mandolin and started playing,” Thile laughs. He had been obsessed with the piece for a long time, and he suddenly had time to learn it. “I sent it my wife, Claire Coffee, who co-produced the album and she’s my unofficial editor. My instinct was to give people a break after ‘Salt,’ but she said, ‘No, double down and dig in.’”
“Won’t You Come and Sing for Me” is the album’s benediction. “I love that [Dickens] sings ‘for’ there, even though I thought it was ‘with’ and sang it that way for a long time. It’s a hymn to listening: At the end of my life I just want to listen to you.”
Laysongs carries us on a spiritual journey, and the spareness of Thile’s mandolin and vocals creates an atmosphere that opens us to a palpable yearning and vulnerability as we explore our relationship to ourselves, to others, and to the divine.
“Obviously there’s so much incredible spiritual music that’s amazing,” Thile says. However, one of the reasons this record exists, he reflects, is “because I feel like there’s a blurred line…between just coming together over any sort of live music and church. It feels very similar to me; there’s something very spiritually uplifting about coming together over something that is not any one of us.”