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.
Weakness and Truth
Listen on Spotify here.
In the fall of 2018, my friend Chuck and I were driving through the Namibian desert. On the road trip of a lifetime, we had recently left the capital city of Windhoek and were headed north to a remote campsite in Kamanjab. Chuck, expert traveler that he is, had suggested before the trip that we download some good songs for our long car journeys, as we couldn’t count on internet service in most places we were traveling throughout southern Africa. As we rolled through the bush, one of Chuck’s chosen tracks started playing.
You know when a song is so good you kind of lose the run of yourself? You sort of squint your eyes and turn down the corners of your mouth and start grooving your whole upper body involuntarily? That was this song. It was bassy and funky, with a hip-hop beat at just the right tempo and a total earworm of a top synth line. “What is this?!” I demanded of Chuck. “It’s a band on John’s label,” he replied, John being Chuck’s former roommate, a consummate guitar player who had recently moved into the business, and a mutual friend of ours from New Orleans. “I think they’re called The Grid?”
About a year earlier, I had written my song Weakness and Truth, leaving a long instrumental in the middle where I envisioned a rap break. I was about halfway through recording my album when we left for Africa, and parts of it were heavy on my mind. Since my own rapping leaves a little bit to be desired, I knew I needed to find a collaborator, but I was worried because my standards can be almost impossibly high. Whoever was going to rap on the song needed not only the right vocal tone but also words that spoke meaningfully to the theme and the ability to deliver them in a powerful, compelling way. I had been searching for many months.
The first song ended, and a second gem started. Chuck, bless him, had downloaded The Grid’s whole EP Evasive Maneuvers (link at the bottom of this post). The first verse surged forth: a clever, immaculately paced rap from a velvet voice with exactly the right timbre for cut-through. I pointed at the radio and turned to Chuck. “That’s that guy. Whoever that is, that’s the guy.”
I did some investigative work and found the voice belonged to Tampa rapper and producer Mike Mass (he got bonus points for the fantastic name). I didn’t have his contact details, so when we got back from Africa I messaged Mike on Instagram. To my delight, he agreed to hear the song and see if he could contribute. I told him what the song was about – a former relationship in which I felt my authenticity was being rejected, and my will, though fallible, to keep my integrity even when others seem to think of it as weakness - and asked him to respond to it in his own way.
Mike came back the first time with exactly the rap that’s on the album. He blew my standards out of the water and brought nuances out of the song I didn’t even know were there. It occurred to me that this is part of the essence of creativity and artistry: two people travelling different paths coming together to express a common idea with the utmost respect and imagination.
The idea of collaborating was probably the scariest part (among many scary parts) of creating my first album. All the writing of it took place practically in secret; I was terrified to let anyone hear my work, afraid they would think it was bad or wouldn’t “get it”. Mike totally got it, and he drove home the importance of letting other people in creatively. We’ve still never met (modern music-making is such a trip!), but I’m so happy with what we were able to achieve.
Be sure to check out The Grid, Mike Mass, and John's label Bubble Bath Records. Stay tuned next Friday for my next Companion Series installment for the song Tides.
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.