This Companion Stories Series features essays which look at my album The Work and each of its songs in detail, going behind the scenes to de-mystify what artists too often try to keep mysterious.
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I can’t believe we’ve come to the last story in my Companion Stories Series! What a timely story this happens to be.
When my producer and I were deciding which of my songs to put on the album, I was adamant this would not be one of them. I had written it in an inadvertently kitschy contemporary-church-choir vibe, and the music lacked the impact of the lyrics. Truthfully, though, I was terrified. This song is so personal. I still get a lump in my throat if I allow myself to be still and listen to it.
The image that comes to mind about writing this song is driving alone in my car, slowly, down N. Carrollton Ave in New Orleans. I was working at a coffee shop after my disastrous music school experience. It didn’t feel like I could make music again, and I didn’t know what to do with my life. I couldn’t hold down a relationship, and there was so much I feared. Even though I was only in my mid-twenties, I felt like I would never figure it out, that I was already too far gone somehow. In my car, I remember thinking with tears in my eyes but with a strange conviction in my heart -
And for some reason, that felt important.
My producer Pete convinced me to put the song on the album, but to make it simpler. It took us an agonizingly long time to get it to the form it was released in. What we call the “bug track” – the beautiful harmony of insects, water and other nature sounds that opens and flows through the piece – is a field recording I took in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. I think it encourages the listener to sit and be still.
I eventually agreed to include I’m Here because I realized how profoundly universal the feeling is that I describe. Learning about the atrocity of the Direct Provision system in Ireland was crucial to this. Direct Provision is the country’s way of “managing” refugees which sees the vast majority of them – mostly people of color – holed up in crowded hostels, some in the middle of nowhere far away from necessary resources, without permission to work or drive, with set meal times and no food choice, with curfews and an insulting stipend for “living expenses”, and with some languishing inside for as long as eight or ten years. In a situation like that, where the past, present and future must seem largely bleak, what solace can you take but in the fact of yourself? That you are still here, despite everything? That even if no one else seems to see it, you have value?
I met Ade when he was on a panel raising awareness of Direct Provision. He lived through the system, and I was both devastated and inspired by his story. I asked if we could talk, and if I could feature some of his words in this song. He graciously agreed, and what was supposed to be a 20-minute conversation turned into hours and hours of passionate discourse on racism, nationalism and the perseverance of the human spirit. I chose the particular words for the interlude because I think they are the absolute essence of the message.
And the message is this: whoever you are, whatever happens in your life, whatever happens in the world during your life, and however powerless that makes you feel -
You are here.
Sit in that, and feel that power.
You are here.
To my friends, my countrymen and women, who are fighting for the right to exist in America right now without the cloak of white supremacy over you, you are here. There is a point to that. You are seen, even if it seems to be only by the life force itself. Let “I’m here” be your meditation, your incantation. Sometimes it’s all we have.
The last four repetitions of the words “I’m here” are simply my voice, without any instrument or effect, for the last and only time on the album. I wanted myself to be completely bare. I wanted to be ‘here’, fully. I wanted mine to be a voice in the void, singing, repeating, making meaning.
Thank you to everyone who has joined me on this Companion Stories Series journey. I am so grateful for your support and for you, here, as you are.
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Words are the backbone of my music. They often reference powerful ideas that strike me in my readings or develop from my life experiences. The creative expression of these ideas sometimes begs for musical form, and other times it comes out on the page. Here is a selection of my lyrics, poems, essays and other writings.