I keep writing these songs
I released a 25-track album this week. Here's where the songs came from.
Yesterday I released a 25-track album of songs I recorded at home from the years 2009-2021. The title is Words Are Fragile Vessels, and you can listen to it all or download it for free at camellias.bandcamp.com.
I’ll get back to regular programming next week, but for today I’m going to do a little shameless navel gazing. I’ve written some digital liner notes for each song below. I also recently recorded an interview with my friend Eddie Newman about the album, so go subscribe to the Comfort Monk podcast if you want to hear that conversation when it comes out.
1: What Large Letters (written August 2020)
The first line and title come from Galatians 6:11: “See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand!” I wrote this one about the loneliness I was feeling five months into the COVID-19 pandemic. (Five months! Hahahaha.)
2: Captain Martin’s Favorite (December 2014)
This song’s title comes from a variety of camellia that was cultivated (or at least named) at Magnolia Gardens, a former forced labor camp in Charleston. The plantation was converted into a world-famous tourist attraction, creating a template for a lot of grotesque romanticizing of the antebellum South over the ensuing decades. At the time I wrote the song, I was struck by the story of the Rev. John Grimke-Drayton, who inherited the plantation in 1825 and had the camellia garden planted for his wife Julia, a native of Philadelphia, in order "to create an earthly paradise in which my dear Julia may forever forget Philadelphia and her desire to return there." The gesture was either romantic or a sign of deep insecurity, depending how you look at it.
3: When the Daughters of Song Are Brought Low (June 2013)
This song is based on the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, which includes a long meditation on aging, decrepitude, and death. It’s the only song on the album to feature my friend Jesse Hildreth on the trombone.
4: Grubby Claw (c. 2010)
When I was in college, I did a couple of summer internships at the daily paper in Charleston, including a few weeks on the crime beat. At nights I chased mayhem and death with a police scanner in hand, and in the mornings I questioned why I was doing such grubby, intrusive work. I wrote (what I now recognize as) a reflexively self-defensive poem about those feelings and then turned the poem into a song.
5: Home at the End of the Earth (July 2013)
One of my all-time favorite songwriters, Josh Ritter, wrote a love song called “The Temptation of Adam” that’s set in a nuclear missile silo during World War III. I decided to write my own love song in an unlikely location, and I chose an Antarctic research station as the setting. My friends Jesse, Gardner Beson, and Anna Catharine Brooks recorded this with me while standing around my battery-powered Zoom recorder in the living room. We were rehearsing for a concert at The Sparrow, if I remember correctly.
6: Ash Wednesday (March 2014)
I wrote this song after my friend Jim Miller died on Ash Wednesday 2014. We worked together at the Charleston City Paper, where he was the distribution manager and I was the staff writer. I had the honor of writing his obituary, which included these lines: “He was like a tall tale to us. How could one man exude so much peace and joie de vivre? He was onto something.”
7: Fire and Fury (August 2017)
I thought about the prospect of nuclear annihilation slightly more often than usual during the years we had a TV-addled game show host as president. Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, we are all in danger until the most powerful empire on earth gets rid of its nuclear arsenal. This song is about that.
8: Black Square (August 2021)
I made this instrumental song with a beautiful Gibson SG guitar that my friend Andrew Peters handed down to me, played through an array of interesting effects pedals I borrowed from my friend Eddie Thompson. The title comes from a Kazimir Malevich painting.
9: Hartsville (April 2015)
Several years ago I batted around some ideas with my friend Mike Mewborne (of the excellent dream pop band The Lovely Few) for an album of songs about South Carolina history and geography. For some reason I wanted to write a song about the Hartsville fertilizer plant fire, which burned for a week starting on Valentine’s Day 2011. Our project never reached fruition, but I hung onto this demo because I liked the guitar riff I wrote for it.
10: Trucker Mama’s Lament (August 2014)
A friend posted something on Facebook about making a long drive home to see his significant other, and he used the phrase “tweezing my eyebrows in a truck stop bathroom.” There was something so sweet and funny about that phrase, I wrote a goofy little power pop song around it. (Please don’t Bad Art Friend me about this!)
11: In the Year 2012 (2018 edition) (written June 2012)
I was on a Pete Seeger kick in 2012, and I liked the song “Peg and Awl” so much I tried to write my own take on it. I recorded a slightly extended version in 2018.
12 & 13: False Hope (March 2014)
My wife is a nurse who takes care of cancer patients, so we’ve had a lot of conversations about hope, specifically about how false hope can make people miserable. In the second version of this song, you can hear my friend John Orgel jumping in and harmonizing on the fly.
14: Hydrilla (October 2016)
The first time I visited a Florida natural spring was on a bachelor's weekend with some friends from college. The water was stunning, clear blue, and cold, and I dove in and felt alive. Later, the wedding got called off, two of my friends fell out with one another, and another of the friends was killed in an attempted robbery. The song is about the impossibility of going back to the way things were. It’s also about the pollution of Florida’s springs.
15: Addicted to Meaning (November 2019)
I spent several years torturing myself with the belief that my work had to have meaning and purpose. This song is about letting that illusion go.
16: Day to Day (Psalm 19) (July 2019)
My pastor asked me to write a song for church one Sunday. I asked her what the scripture passage for the week was, and she said Psalm 19. The first verse comes directly from the psalm, and the rest is a meditation on creativity and idolatry.
17: Crooked Cross (2018)
I can’t remember the original source, but someone referred to the Nazi swastika as a “crooked cross.” That’s not the literal origin of the symbol, but I appreciate the idea that fascism twists Christianity for its own purposes. (Side note: If you listen to the Brutal South podcast, you’ll recognize the guitar solo on this song from the theme music.)
18: Delilah (September 2009)
This is the oldest song of the bunch. I wrote it in college after serving an uncomfortable stint as a street evangelist, leaving the “ministry” such as it was, and doing some heavy thinking about God and the patriarchy. At the time of the recording, my friend Haley Dreis had asked Gardner and me to open for her album release show at the White Mule in Columbia. She graciously agreed to sing this grim little song with us, and we recorded our rehearsal in my apartment. The first line refers to clove cigarettes, which were banned by Obama’s FDA that same year. What a relic!
19: For the Hard-Working Honeybees of Dorchester County (April 2017)
In 2016, with the blood-borne Zika virus in the news, the government of Dorchester County, S.C., sent out crop dusters to spray for mosquitoes. This is common practice, especially in rural areas, but normally the government contacts local beekeepers ahead of time so they can protect their bees from the insecticide. This time, someone at the county neglected to contact the beekeepers, and Dorchester County killed approximately 2.5 million bees in a single day. This is a labor protest song for the bees.
20: One Last Everything (September 2014)
I felt some heartburn about quitting my first post-college job at the alt-weekly newspaper in Charleston. How had this thing that I loved taken such a toll on my mental health? What did it all mean, if anything? I ate a peach on the roof of my new workplace and stewed on those questions, then I went home and wrote a breakup song for my favorite job.
21: PHANTOM (June 2019)
I wrote this instrumental song while I was unemployed after losing my second job, which was at the daily paper in Charleston. The title comes from the label inside the nylon-string guitar that I bought at a yard sale and used for the recording.
22: Keep Me Around (February 2019)
This is the coda to a maudlin, self-pitying song I wrote during a depressive episode. I kept this recording because you can hear my son giggling and horsing around on the porch beside me, and when I play the audio now, I remember feeling joy for the first time in days.
23: Joseph (December 2018)
This is the first of two Christmas songs on here. I wrote it from the perspective of Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, starting at the moment when he found out his fiancée was pregnant and the child wasn’t his. They let me play this in church!
24: Simeon and Anna (November 2016)
This is a Christmas song with verses from the perspectives of Simeon and Anna, the elderly prophets who were promised they would see the Messiah before they died. Their stories aren’t included in a lot of traditional narratives about the mystery of God’s incarnation, but my dad has always loved their part of the story.
25: All My Worship (October 2020)
I worked in the kitchen at a Chick-fil-A during the summer after my senior year of high school. The work was sweaty, difficult, and frantic during the lunch rush, but I had some lovely coworkers. One of the guys in the kitchen was married to a harpist, and on Customer Appreciation Day that summer, we dimmed the lights, set out white tablecloths, and lit candles while she sat in the corner playing heavenly music. The whole event was silly and over-the-top, but somehow profoundly moving.
Most days the music wasn’t that good, though. I’m not sure if this is still the practice in Chick-fil-A dining rooms, but back then they piped in cheesy instrumental versions of praise and worship songs from the ‘90s and early 2000s. I grew up singing those songs from the bottom of my heart, so any time I went out into the dining room to take a lunch break or wash some trays, I would involuntarily start humming along. I don’t even like those songs on an aesthetic level, but to this day they remind me of the certainty I used to feel about God. I wrote this song about the phenomenon of worship as a conditioned response.
The album art is by me. Words Are Fragile Vessels is free to stream or download on the Camellias Bandcamp page, and there is a Name Your Price option if you would like to leave a tip.