Though I love The Clash and I can listen all day to Joe Strummer shout about the Sandinistas, in general the records that most affect me are personal. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Ani DiFranco’s Dilate and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions all tell larger stories: about American economic bleakness in the 80s, or the arc of a doomed relationship, or the struggle to live and love while navigating systemic inequality.
But they do it by getting very personal, either in confessional lyrics or through the use of characters, which humanizes larger issues and makes them relatable. I’m nowhere near as moved by a set of statistics about employment losses in the rust belt caused by outsourcing as I am by a Springsteen song about one dude spiraling into alcoholism and crime after his job disappears.
“Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late last month
Ralph went out lookin' for a job, but he couldn't find none
He came home too drunk from mixin' Tanqueray and wine
He got a gun, shot a night clerk, now they call him Johnny 99”
On top of being emotionally compelling, these albums are all just freaking awesome records. They are catchy and sad and triumphant and musically wonderful.
That’s the bar I’m striving for with my new album. It’s a high bar.
I’m a confessional singer-songwriter. I write about my own life and stuff I’m trying to figure out. And right now, at the top of the list is racial inequity and the ways in which it continues to wreak havoc and division in our American lives. (Not that we’re alone in the world in this.) We live in a time when everyone claims to see themselves as non-racist, but being “anti-racist” is politically charged. So as I volunteer and register voters and write letters in order to facilitate more political equity for everyone, I’m also doing a lot of soul searching.
What can I learn about growing up white that I didn’t understand when I was younger? What has being white given me? What has whiteness taken from me? What am I scared to let go of? What assumptions am I making about what equity for everyone would mean for me?
I can’t speak for anyone else. I can’t say anything definitive about racism in America. I can only speak for myself.
So my new album – the one I’ve been working on through the pandemic with Mark Hallman – is called A White Album. (Yes, I’m piggybacking on The Beatles’ album title.) It’s a record that comes out in early 2022, and it’s also a play or a theatrical musical performance (directed by the esteemed Kim Maxwell). It’s got an amazing list of special guests which you’ll be hearing about over the next few months. And it ROCKS. I’m very proud of what Mark and I have created.
The project is a sequel of sorts to my hippie memoir Cinderblock Bookshelves, and it looks back at my same childhood and family through the lens of race. To do that is really something. You see things you never saw. You may recognize how deeply segregated your daily life is. You may see elements of interactions you had in the past that you now regret. You may understand things about events and people you never did before. You may find new empathy.
I appreciate all of you who are on this – for want of a less overused term – journey with me though music and film and theater and all the other stuff that brings you to my website and mailing list. As this project comes to fruition, I invite you to join me in wrestling with this fraught topic. Thanks for being here.