The Stuff We're Made Of, Part 3: Where Do We Go From Here
If you’ve read the first couple of essays, you know it’s been an intense process for me, getting to this new place of forgiveness and reinvention. Along the way, working so hard to find acceptance, redemption and validation as an artist, I lost myself. I lost my voice and my identity. I was definitely at a place in my career where I was throwing shit against the wall, hoping something would stick. Of all the music I’ve created over the years, the stuff I’m most proud of is the stuff that’s the most real; the most raw; the most vulnerable and typically, the most unexpected. (That’s also the stuff people respond to the most.) I believe that inspiration is a divine influence and my job as an artist and songwriter is to do my very best to deliver the intended message in any given moment. In my opinion, what makes the best songs is the degree to which everybody in the room is willing to be honest and brave. It can’t be about the money.
My new EP, What If There Is No Destination, makes me feel like I used to feel about my music. A kid in my bedroom again, with my dual cassette jambox learning to play every Indigo Girls song or listening obsessively to Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” pretending I was playing lead guitar in the band. I was fearless, and I was hungry for it. It was just me and my guitar. Nobody telling me what I should do or how I should sing or that I should record it differently. I never second-guessed myself in the beginning. Don’t get me wrong - I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the best and most talented producers and engineers in the industry over the years, and I’ve learned a shit ton of invaluable tools from them, but I needed to empower myself to trust my own voice and vision on my own terms this time.
I knew I wanted to perform each song live and then color the tracks around the performances. I wanted to create a sound and capture a moment in time, and I wanted it to feel authentic. So, I set up an Avantone CV-12 tube mic for vocals and an Ear Trumpets “Edwina” large diaphragm condenser mic for the acoustic and went for it. I played and sang to a click and only allowed myself 3-4 takes each. Then I picked the best ones. My goal was to get full takes of each performance - I really didn’t want to comp anything together if I could help it. I learned a lot by throwing myself into the fire, and I love the vibe that urgency created. I’ve made so many polished sounding records - it was nice to immerse myself in playing again and just let it be whatever it wanted to be.
Over the years, no matter what kind of records I’ve made, people always tell me they love the stripped down solo acoustic approach the best. I think there’s an energy in the live performances that is hard to capture in the studio. It’s a living, breathing thing, and you can hear the humanity in the music, and that’s part of what makes it great. My guitar became an extension of me as soon as I picked it up. I took it everywhere and I played it all the time. When I had nobody to talk to, I had my guitar. I cried into it, slept with it, sweat on it, sang to it- that instrument knows everything about me. We created a big, dynamic sound, just the two of us, and I’ve never had to think about it.
“Easy Mark” is the first song I had written by myself in… I don’t even know how long. I’ve been so comfortable co-writing that writing alone is intimidating. I had to challenge myself to write a song a month for the first half of last year just to prove I still could. This particular song came out of the desert of loneliness and anxiety I had been living in, sorting through a hoarder house of emotional baggage and beginning the arduous process of forgiveness and letting go. Writing it reconnected me to who I am. There’s something familiar about it that brings me full circle from where I started. I remember sending an earlier version to my manager and his response was, “I love it! It sounds just like you.” I’m pretty sure that’s the best compliment he could’ve given me.
I wrote “Hollow” on the piano after returning from the first leg of the Joe Purdy tour last year. We were in the trenches together out there. Our country was just beginning to show signs of unraveling, with the looming election and building tensions, there were terror attacks and discriminatory bills being passed targeting the transgender community. I’m not transgender and have never struggled with wanting to change my sex, but I certainly know what it’s like to be glared at, stared down and excluded for being different. I know what it’s like to be treated unfairly just because you’re in the minority. I know what it’s like to have to make your own kind of beautiful. The obvious hypocrisy of people who have everything and don’t want to give up anything to help others is impossible to swallow. I have never understood the concept of going out of your way to hurt somebody else. To take away what they have just because you’re in a position of power to do so. Every self-righteous Christian wants to quote verses from Leviticus about homosexuality, but nobody wants to quote the verses about Jesus turning over tables in the temple over greed and idolatry. Nobody wants to talk about why Jesus chose to sit down with the woman at the well. Yeah, it’s a sweet story now, but I’m sure at the time everybody was watching in judgement. He had everything to lose by showing public love to that woman, and he didn’t give two shits about what anybody thought. She had a huge hole in her heart that needed filling, and that’s all that mattered.
To whom much is given, much is required, and if you’ve never known that kind of isolation and despair, you can’t know the relief of somebody taking that weight off of your shoulders, even for a moment. Somebody making you feel worthy when you feel worthless inside. When love has always been conditional, true love is hard to take. You learn not to trust, and it takes a lot of work to undo that damage and reprogram your heart. After I wrote “Hollow,” I started telling the story onstage of how it came to be. I had never been so candid in my storytelling. I know I’ve never had much of a filter to begin with, but I took it even farther, talking about the church and talking about being gay. I talked about being rejected by the Christians who preached love and inclusion to me. I can’t tell you how overwhelming the response has been. I thought that opening myself up pushed people away, but I’m realizing that being vulnerable is what draws people in. We all have a unique story to tell, and there’s power in telling it. If we ever hope to change, we have to lean in to the things we’re most afraid of, and we’re gonna have to start listening to each other so we learn how to love again.
“The Lucky One” was actually written for another project I was working on with my friend and collaborator Adrianne Gonzalez. We were in Nashville on a writing trip, and we wrote with Alex Wong that day. I love this song. Everything about it encapsulates the journey for me. All my life as an adult, I’ve struggled with seeing the forest for the trees. I guess sometimes it’s hard to see the fact that I’m still in the game as something to be proud of. The fact that I wake up every day doing what I love. It’s not always perfect and there are definitely parts of my history I wish I could change, but I made it through to the other side of the war, pretty much intact. Everything I’ve been through is helping me to move forward, and I’m getting closer to the things I really want.
When Jeremy Silver, Liz Huett and I were writing “Tough Girl,” we had started with a different idea and a different vibe altogether. Whatever it was, there wasn’t much to it because we never landed on anything we could sink our teeth into. Usually that means it’s not worth pursuing, but if you can work until you break through the wall, you land on something real. That’s what happened here. We landed on “Tough Girl.” I thought we were writing for Liz’s upcoming Interscope Record, but it turned out I needed this song for me. Not that two people can’t record the same song, but I just connected so much with the message on this one. I also realized that it’s the mirror image of a song I wrote when I was 19 called “Ugly.” I was dying behind a fortress of pain, and I felt exactly the way I sang it. I’ve worked hard to get to a place where I’m okay with being open to being okay with letting other people love me. And it’s exhausting being angry all the time. Hahahaha! I mean, it’s true. I’m so grateful to have been a part of writing this song, and Jeremy and Liz are two of the best songwriters and people I know. The great thing about music is that this incarnation of the song wouldn’t be what it is without the three of us exactly. It was meant to be. I love that kind of magic.
Once a friend in Nashville told me, “Garrison, there are some doors in life you have to walk through alone. It’s scary, and it’s lonely, but if you can do the work to get through it to the other side, you’ll never be the same.” That’s what’s happening here, through my story you’re witnessing. Thank you for being a part of my journey. As Greg Holden said to me the other day, “It’s not what you envisioned, but it’s just what you asked for.” Just like writing these essays. Who would’ve thought this would be something I’d be doing in conjunction with the release of a record? Yet, here I am, telling my story in my own words with people willing to listen. Don’t ever stop believing in miracles. The hope is what keeps us alive.