A Burning Ember to a Grove of Trees

A Burning Ember to a Grove of Trees CoverHere we are, less than ten months after releasing our album Dust Among the Stars, with a surprise EP. It combines new recordings and previously released singles in one collection, most of which share a message of (cautious) optimism despite our current social calamities, and it was important to me to get this out before the 2016 Presidential election. These are our most political songs, and I’m sure I’ve never written an “important” song, but these are probably as close as I’ve gotten.

The EP kicks off with a brand-new song “In the End,” which was written in response to the constant howl of this election season, and recorded the first week of October. So that was, like, last week. It was the unexpected chance to jump in the studio and record this song that made the EP possible.

I’m basically a folk singer, and I felt like I had to get something out there about all this noise. Because the thing is, the votes are going to get counted and one of the candidates is going to go away, but we’re still going to be stuck with each other, and I think people have lost sight of that. I’m not a political party kind of guy, I care about human beings. I care about empathy and I’m terrified at how easy it is to lose that for other folks. You know, Woody Guthrie wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitars, but Pete Seeger wrote “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” on his banjo. I think that second one is the sentiment I was going for the most.

To go along with the track, I also made an immersive, 360-degree music video shot inside the studio, showing four of me performing all of the instruments. This’ll probably hurt your head:

Lyrically, “In the End” focuses on all of us bearing some responsibility for how we treat each other, and the fact that when people are hurting, we have to turn *to* one other, not turn *on* one another. That sentiment ties the track to two previously-released songs on the EP that come from the same emotional place – “Just to Win the Fight” and “A Mile of Ground.” Both of those were released in slightly different forms in 2012 and remastered for this EP. They focus on the human aspect of struggle and conflict, and the human cost.

Two cover versions of folk standards “Goodnight Irene” and “House of the Rising Sun” round out the EP. Our take on Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” is being released for the first time, and was recorded during the Dust Among the Stars sessions.

The title of the EP, which has more words in it than the release has songs, is a metaphor for fear, which we could all do with a little less of, and is adapted from a line in “Just to Win the Fight.”

"This Machine Kills Fascists"

As I’m slowly writing songs for a new album, other outlets seem to be popping up, like the Walk a Mile campaign back in July we were asked to participate in. And last week I recorded a new song, called “Just to Win the Fight,” that I felt would be better off heading out into the world now, rather than waiting for an album release much later. You can listen and get the song for free right here.

See, it’s a presidential election year, which means that everywhere I look there seems to be a lot of poison going into the well. I am not a fan of the business of politics, but I am kind of a news junkie, so I find myself inundated with all of the election-year back-and-forth despite the taste it leaves in my mouth. It was probably inevitable, then, that I’d wind up writing some kind of song expressing my basic displeasure with all of the name-calling, truth-evading, and generally unenviable behavior on display in the run-up to November. We’ve reached the point where James Fallows in The Atlantic is lamenting our new post-truth era and people admit to not even trying to tell the truth on the campaign trail anymore, relying on the old lawyers’ trick of the jury not actually being able to disregard things they’ve heard, whether they’re in the official record or not.

It was with trepidation that I wandered into the political, but I mean, I’m a folk singer, it’s kind of my business to be outraged by stuff like this. From Woody Guthrie writing “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar, Pete Seeger’s banjo inscription “This Instrument Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender,” to Bob Dylan’s advocacy for Ruben “Hurricane” Carter’s freedom, the American folk tradition has always been to hold up a mirror and say “Guys, we can do better.”

I have two young kids, and it is with some regularity that we have discussions about telling the truth versus telling lies. I let them know I expect them to tell the truth, even if they’ve made a mistake, and even if there are going to be consequences. That’s the example I try to set for them. And I don’t think it’s too much to ask of our leaders. The truth is too valuable a thing to throw away just because we don’t want the other guy to win.

On a happier note, I’d like to point out that this song marks the recorded debut of my 12-string guitar and the (very) used banjo I found in my neighborhood music store. I hope you dig it.

The New Album is Written

I finished writing the new album tonight, which will in all likelihood be called “The Ghost of John Henry.”

If you are not familiar with the legend of John Henry, it goes like this, more or less:
In the 1870s, as technology was rapidly advancing and railroads were linking the United States in a way that had never been possible before, railroad tycoons began experimenting with steam-powered drills that could chisel into the rock of mountains supposedly faster than the “hammer-men” who had been doing this back-breaking and deadly work for years.  John Henry was the most powerful of these hammer-men, and when a steam-drill showed up at his work site — just one of a number of new technologies that threatened to make the men on the line obsolete — John Henry challenged the drill operators to a race.  When the day came, John Henry took a hammer in each hand, and attacked the rock like no one never had before.  The steam-drill threatened to make better time, but it broke down, plagued by mechanical problems, and John Henry emerged from the tunnel, victorious.  Then he laid his hammer down, collapsed on the track, and died.

Possibly not the most obvious choice for a concept album, but I will re-post what I wrote a few weeks ago, when I first shared a couple of demos of the new material here on the blog:  “The Ballad of John Henry is a folk staple, done by everybody from Woody Guthrie to Pete Seeger to Johnny Cash to elementary school choirs throughout the South (this is where I first heard it — in third grade), and I think maybe because of that omnipresence the essence of the story has sort of lost its meaning to a lot of people. It’s an amazing story of loss, professional frustration, heroism, and man’s place in an increasingly technology-centric world, which I think all speaks to us today.

We will go into the studio in a few weeks and begin work.  Look for the album in early 2012.  And please, feel free to check out the tracks below and spread the word if you like the direction we’re taking this thing.

Sci-Fi Romance – A Broken World by Sci-Fi Romance

Sci-Fi Romance – My Love Look Up by Sci-Fi Romance