Story of an album

A disclaimer: last month, I let you know that my wife and I welcomed a baby girl into the world. That means I’ve done a lot of sitting around in the middle of the night. And thinking. Which is bad news for you, because late night thinking = long newsletters. 

Basically, before we play some shows and head into the studio next month to record a whole new batch of songs, I wanted to talk about the last batch, as I hadn’t really done that properly when Another Other came out last fall. 

 And instead of a New Year’s Resolution this year, I’m making a New Kid Resolution.  These days, I’m resolving to take things slower, to not check my phone very much, to stop watching the Bachelorette,* to listen to more vinyl, to write more, to read the entire article and not just the click-bait headline, to watch the river go by. 

 In that spirit, here are some thoughts, for when you have a second.     

I’ve told the story of the Another Other album cover before.  There are a bunch of wild boys, my dad trying to control said boys, my dad telling me one of said boys was the drummer for the Police, me crying out ‘fake news!’ and then being proven wrong when said drummer actually responded to our email and confirmed it.  Me shutting up.  That’s all fun and good. It’s just not why I really love the photograph.

Another Other album cover

What I love about that photograph is that it forces me to challenge my assumptions. When I first saw it, I didn’t recognize my dad. I assumed the picture was shot somewhere in America, and all the people in it were white (probably Christian) Americans.  In fact it was taken sometime in the early 1960’s on a mountain in Lebanon; you wouldn’t think it was Lebanon because of that country’s reputation.^  The campers and counselors aren’t just American; the younger boys came from the US, as well as different countries in Europe.  The older boys – including my dad – were Arab, both Muslim and Christian.  I was so shocked to learn that the smiling guy was my dad not just because I hadn’t recognized him^^, but because all of my assumptions were wrong. The only thing I got right was that it was old.

I was so wrong, so it was perfect for the album cover. For me, songwriting is about looking yourself in the mirror and calling bullshit. This band got serious after my father died, about nine years ago.  I had been a closet songwriter, never thinking my stuff was good enough to put out there. For all of the sketchiness it brings, Craigslist brought Nick and I together as roommates, and having heard my songs in the house, he thought we should play together. So he picked up the bass, my father lost his battle with cancer, and we got serious.

Naseem in studio 2

In those months, I was disconnected. I was working a job of little consequence, interacting with few people.  I was reassessing, wondering what to do with my life, thinking I hadn’t done enough.  I was wallowing in my own muck, aware of the outside world only as a vessel to promote my own ego. I was stressed. And I found a friend in performing. I suddenly started doing open mics, which I hadn’t done too much before, and singing, loudly.  I felt a release, and in the process, felt more connected to whoever would listen. I would share, and then hear stories, and this music thing started to become a real salvation.  Suddenly, we have a band and we’re playing four hour shows at the Rhumb Line in Gloucester, to 6, then 12, then 30, then 72 people (that polling is correct, buleev me).  We’re working and sweating, and in the process, connecting and remembering what true living feels like.

Since then, and especially in the past couple years when the songs on Another Other came about, I’ve been thinking that in order for there to be connection, there needs to be knowledge.  I need to know who I’m connecting with, and I need to know myself.  Songwriting is a means of salvation because it’s the ultimate check.  It forces humility, forces you to step outside and empower yourself to look back in and call it as you see it, good and bad, true and false. Another Other is my first foray into such reflection; after years of songwriting and exploring bigger topics and others’ stories, I thought it was time to get smaller, apply the same lens to myself and analyze just how true the stories I’ve been telling myself are.  It was only then – when I got smaller and more honest – that I could think bigger and truly connect. The outside world was not just a vessel to promote ego, rather a source of learning.

And of course, I found some bullshit.  There’s the dwindling idealism in “Thick of It,” the all-talk-no-action charity in “On My Mind,” the false sense of virtue in “The Bridge.”  I needed to do that work and challenge myself, otherwise I would’ve been stagnant, not curious, ignorant, lazy.  I would have just been standing still as a songwriter.

Naseem in studio
(photo by Kate Connell)

That work was hard. It required humility and it required empathy, which –  from the disconnect we see in our country between city and country, ‘flyover’ and coasts, ‘rednecks’ and ‘elitists’ – is sorely lacking in the wider world. We’re looking outside of our self-made bubbles transactionally, closing ourselves off to the possibility that there is value in human connection, in difference and in diversity. If we’re not displaying that empathy, occupying someone else’s skin and imagining the world as them, then we’re not doing that work.  We’re being lazy, and we’re missing out. And that’s just boring.

So that’s the current mindset, and that’s why I love the photo.  That’s the same mindset I’m bringing to a new batch of songs we’re working on now, and will continue to throughout the year.  It’s not easy and it’s uncomfortable, and it’s exactly what we need to do. To call bullshit. To see what’s out there. To not be lazy. And in these divided times, maybe others will feel they need to do that work too.

Onward,
naseem

 

* That one might be asking too much.

^ At some point in college, I played a game called Beirut. It was basically beer pong, packaged probably by some entrepreneurial government major as a reference to the brutal Lebanese civil war of the 70’s and 80’s, “dropping bombs” into red solo cups full of Natty Light. Clever, right? Right.

^^ Hard to imagine, since we have the same gloriously large nose