Got a minute? Well, a few?
Settle in. I need to tell you a story.
One evening late last summer, at autumn’s threshold, I turned onto a 17-mile stretch of road that dead ends in a town called Hope, and I heard a poem.
But let me first share that I sat then on what seemed at best a stalled, and maybe wandering-lost recording project. I had by this point in 2013 nearly convinced myself that by picking up the guitar some months earlier in Anchorage, leaning again into an impulse to write and record more songs, I’d embarked on what only amounted to a fool’s errand. (Perhaps engaging the creative process is always a fool’s errand on some level, but you probably understand what I’m trying to say.)
While we had the rough skeletal outlines of eight or nine songs in place, something still came up missing in the batch. I had two or three others we could record or try to make fit with the others, but something in them didn't hold up. In short, they fell too easily into the groove of my 2012 album, But So Beautiful, and I was frankly tired, a little burned out on the tone and mood of that record. However, nothing in the songs we had culled together and tooled around with served a nucleus function for the rest; none magnetically drew all the other songs towards any glowing, electric center of the work, if there was one. (And some of us exhaust ourselves trying to achieve or find that.) There was no North Star, and so we were stumbling, aimless, no compass…
Evan and I had also hit numerous scheduling conflicts in the seven months since we’d started the project, and so – while I can’t speak for him – I carried in the back of my mind an ever-expanding feeling that I held at most only a limp batch of songs without an identity, the loose threads of a project without a shape or a name.
My sons, Sam and Matt, had a few days earlier returned from Russia with their mom, where they spent the summer, and we had some catching up to do, and a new school year around the corner. For my part, the past couple months had been riddled with compounding challenges: The day before the boys left for Russia a couple months earlier, their mom and I had finalized our divorce – a process that continued to bewilder me even two months following the court's dissolution. My father had spent a lot of the spring and summer hospitalized back East, where I’m from, addressing a health matter, and my distance from the situation left me uneasy and distressed. My employer in Anchorage, meanwhile, had recently declared bankruptcy, and our Board tasked a ragtag group of us with trying to keep our mental health social service agency afloat, to salvage it, to keep the organization from capsizing.
The best of times – after all, although it was slow going and at a stand still, there was music, and it was summer in Alaska – but it also seemed the worst of times in many ways, too.
On this particular evening, the boys and I got a late start leaving Anchorage. Late enough that nearly an hour from our destination, my five year-old, Matt, fell asleep under a blanket in the back seat, mouth agape and face smashed on a pillow against his window. But it was not so late that Alaska’s summertime midnight sun was gone. Fading, yes, and quickly, as it starts doing every August, but the landscape blushed, and Alaska’s evening light played paintbrush on the mountains and trees and highway and cast unexpected splashes of color all over the horizon. The mountains and valleys would glimmer given one bend of light and then in other moments duck into the lengthening shadows as we hurtled towards Hope.
Nearly a half hour from our sleepy little destination, Sam, then nine, announced that he, too, couldn’t stay awake any longer and disappeared under a pile of sleeping bags and pillows.
To bide the time, and ward off drowsiness, I put a CD in the stereo that a friend gave me a couple years earlier, that I had until then never considered listening to, but the subject matter of which seemed suddenly relevant. It was a talk, a lecture about engaging with poetry during periods of difficulty and challenge in our lives, particularly as we veer towards (or collide with) “midlife.” It’s the kind of thing close friends of mine will tell you I’m the target audience for, the ideal demographic.
We were turning onto that 17-mile stretch of road when the lecturer read a poem. Does it matter which poem? It might. It mattered to me, of course. (There's a picture of the poem below here & I imagine I’ll also post a photograph of the poem at the Jonathan J Bower Music page on Facebook, and probably also on twitter and Instagram. In other words, you’re welcome to read it at any of those outlets. You know where to find me.)
The author/speaker on the disc read Derek Walcott’s “Love after Love,” and given where I was at the time, it met me in a place, an inner-room where the blood pulses a little quicker, warmer - a space that seems to glow with a hot white light - a place mostly reserved my entire life for music, poetry, laughter with good friends, sleeping somewhere in the open air under the stars and, if I’m lucky, with the sound of a river, creek, ocean, or stream singing nearby.
That's an admittedly awkward attempt to try and note or pinpoint where the poem went inside me – where it reached, or how it traveled through me. Anyway, I don’t know what to make of what we term “conversion experiences” most of the time, but when I heard it, something in me noticeably shifted. I don’t know and can’t say exactly what shifted. And I don’t feel like I need to know just now either.
Another poet, Charles Wright, in his poem “October, Mon Amour” writes:
…Whatever untwisted your heart
is what you will leave behind.
When I heard Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love” that evening, it seemed a critical untwisting occurred. Or began to occur. Did it? Can I say for sure? How to know?
We weren’t far along the winding road leading us into Hope, when I played it again, stunned and slack-jawed after that first listen, and perhaps wanting to try and absorb it even more than I did that first time. Or maybe I simply wanted to revel in it and ponder it some more as the language, the rhythms of the lines drifted through the speakers. And it was then that Sam came up from under the amassed pile of his sleeping bag and pillow in the back seat, and wearily asked me, “Pop? Do you think you can write that poem down so we can read it when we’re at home, too?”
Out of the mouths of babes.
I’ve gone long. And you’ve been so gracious already. But we’re nearly there. Scout’s honor.
I won’t walk you through the weekend that followed. The song, ‘Hope, AK,’ plays around in that weekend a little bit, with snapshots of other moments occurring in my life during that period, too.
A few days later, with the rough sketch of some lyrics and a melody, I recorded a rough draft of a song titled, ‘Becomes Me,’ on my laptop and sent the demo to Evan. It was me pitching a kind of nearly-desperate, “Here’s this. But I don’t know what to make of it or anything right now.” His enthusiasm on the heels of my email took me entirely by surprise. In fact, I’ve never had a rough draft of anything I’ve written more readily or enthusiastically affirmed or “believed in” than the early sketch of that song.
A couple weeks later, playing back the first mixes of "Becomes Me" in Evan’s Wolverine Den studio, we stood watching his monitor play through our afternoon’s studio work and an idea flashed to mind. I told him, “Let’s title this one ‘Hope, Alaska.’” The words were barely out of my mouth and a part of me squirmed inside. So, what, now the boy from Philly was going to stake a claim in Alaska? Evan was quiet, didn't immediately respond. A noticeable but silent beat hung in the air, and then Evan said, “You should title your album ‘Hope, Alaska.’”
I wasn't looking at him when he said it, but I bit my lip, because I was fighting back the queen mother of all smiles. (On a related note: I've found it's hard to be homesick, to miss family when I'm working with Evan. Mostly because he's come to feel like family in many ways. Also, if you ever find yourself homesick or a little beside yourself alone in Alaska, strike up a conversation with his parents, Margaret and Steve. You'll feel like you just reunited with a long lost aunt and uncle, the distant family that long ago left Wherever, USA, to pioneer and adventure in the Great Frozen North.)
A couple days after recording ‘Hope, AK’, the photographer, Michael Wilson, posted to Facebook a photo album documenting his recent trip to Alaska. I wish I could say I’m one of my Michael’s biggest fans, but I don’t see how that’s remotely possible. Everyone I meet who knows, discovers, talks with, or works with Michael strikes me as his biggest fan. He and his work are easy to love, and I have followed and been smitten by his photography for over two decades. (This past summer, Over the Rhine paid Michael what may prove the greatest tribute an artist could pay another when Linford Detweiler called Michael Wilson Over the Rhine’s single greatest musical influence.)
It seems that not long after I combed through Michael Wilson’s Alaska photo album (and hastily emailed him), things really took off. Over the next couple months, nothing less than a cascade of remarkable moments and minor miracles followed.
Not a bad way to spend the otherwise darkest months of the year in our Northern climes.
Rilke wasn’t kidding: Patience is everything. Or, as those wise young women in the band First Aid Kit sing, “Things don’t grow if you don’t bless them with your patience.” (‘Emmylou’)
At the same time, it seems I’m forever fated to learn and understand those truths only through my daily, wildly spectacular bouts with impatience and restlessness. But that’s another story.
I’ve said a lot here, but in the end, there really are no words to properly convey my thanks to you for your part in actualizing this project - in bringing it the last, critical steps needed to launch the record into the world.
You’ve supported a work that on one hand tested every inch of my faith in the creative process and in what bewildering notions I possess re: the songwriting vocation. As someone who’s only ever known how to honor and enjoy his time on earth by trying to “make things,” each of you have nearly done ‘the impossible’ – or, at least more than I grew up ever knowing was possible – and supported one man’s effort and intention to craft and then release into the world a thing aspiring towards beauty. Music has, as far back as I can remember, been my favorite thing to make; and songs, my favorite thing to write, though I enjoy writing in other forms, too (such as drafting lengthy "open" correspondence to friends, family, fellow working artists, former classmates, complete strangers, and gracious patrons of the arts).
My heart is full, which I've said time and again through the campaign. Full with gratitude, for starters, and more. We trust you’ll enjoy the record and all the other things accompanying it. I’d say, “We Hope” you’ll enjoy it (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), but there’s a ‘knowing’ accompanying this album that reaches beyond hopes. I’m proud of this effort. I know everyone appearing on the album brought the best they had to offer to the sessions leading to the finished recording and, given that, I know it stands, it holds up.
Finally, I know this, too, because you all threw your full-hearted support behind it. For which there truly aren’t enough words…
So, to each of you, without whom…
P.S. Derek Walcott's 'Love after Love':