Hi Michael, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Hi, VENTS, thanks for hosting this conversation. It has been an exciting spring! Over the last six weeks, I launched a single (“Sun Son, Moon Son”) and a website (onerivermusic.com), to support the release of the debut album, “One River,” which dropped June 1st. I played in Toronto for Canadian Music Week, and in New York City to celebrate the release.
Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Sun Son, Moon Son”? Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
Yes! One evening around the dinner table, when my daughter was seven years old, she said to me out of the blue, “Papa, you’re the Love Papa!” My heart melted on the spot. Then she said to my wife, Kala, “Mama, you’re the Peace Mama!” She turned to her twin brothers and named them, too, “You’re the Moon boy… and you’re the Sun Boy!” I said, “What about you?” Without missing a beat, she proclaimed: “I’m the star girl!”
I was struck by he loving nature, and the wisdom that is only available to the innocent among us. “Sun Son, Moon Son,” poured itself out in the studio that night. It includes a nod to John Lennon because my daughter loved to listen to “Imagine” at the time. The first time I played the song for Kala, she added harmony to the chorus, and it was complete.
The single comes off your new self-titled album – why naming the album after yourself?
The album is named after a book by the Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist, Wade Davis. In 2010, when my father’s father died, I was reading One River. In it, Wade coins the term ‘ethnosphere’ to describe the totality of the different ways of knowing that exist on the planet. His celebration of how the indigenous communities of the Amazon inhabit and experience the world—close to nature, to Spirit, and to the ancestors—offered a comfort to my grief, and provided a welcome context for my experience. My grandfather was no longer physically present, but I felt him with me. Thats when I wrote the song. Over time, it called forth an ensemble—or project, really, because sometimes it’s just me—by the same name of One River. I gave that name to the album, too. One River is an image of our interconnectedness across space and time.
How was the recording and writing process?
The album is the fruit of a two-and-a-half year recording process that straddled the US-Canada border, the 2016 national election, and even the Atlantic Ocean. The idea for a record emerged after I invited my friend and producer, Hugh Christopher Brown, to play at a weekend retreat I was leading for Hearthfire (the non-profit retreat organization I founded with my wife in 2011). Afterward, Chris called me up and suggested we explore a recording project that could capture some of what we had created together.
Many of the songs that ended up on the record emerged out of retreat work, as well. They emerged at pivotal moments of my journey, and became thresholds for me to pass through, as I wrote and sang. The record touches themes like departure and homecoming, longing and belonging, gratitude and flow. Often, my first audiences and collaborators were the circles of friends, artists, and seekers, who gather regularly at Hearthfire to cross thresholds of their own. Magic can happen when we gather in a circle to mark life’s passages with song.
The record feels ripe for release at this moment of cultural, political, and ecological upheaval. Such chaos demands our fullest presence, because significant inner and outer transformations are underway. I hope the record encourages wholehearted presence, first and foremost from myself.
What role does Hudson River Valley play in your writing?
I love the natural beauty, and the history, of where I live. There is no better model for the creative process that the the way the seasons continually transform the landscape of the Northeast. My studio has a large, western-facing window that looks out across pastureland and hills, trees and stone walls. I can’t see the river itself, but I can see the way the Sun sets over it every night. That may have something to do with the lines in the song, “Who I Am”:
I used to want to change the world, was sure that I could do it.
Now I watch the Sun go down, and offer no improvement.
The other place we recorded the album was on Wolfe Island, Ontario, a jewel set in the Saint Lawrence River, so we were never far from inspiration.
You brought a wide group of talented musicians – did you handpick them or how did they come on board?
It’s true, I feel blessed by the gifts of many talented friends, old and new, each of whom shaped this project into an experience of learning, healing, and joy. About half of the musicians who play on One River are friends I know through Hearthfire and kindred organizations, including the Hero’s Journey Foundation and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. The other half were friends of Chris’, and longtime collaborators with Wolfe Island Records. The musical intersection of those communities and individuals lends the record a unique spirit.
How does acting influences your music and the other way around?
I can’t call myself an actor anymore, but my greatest curiosity and most profound learning have always been sparked at the threshold between inner life and outward expression. The thrill of discovery is what drew me to my training in theatre, and later, poetry. There is something devotional about returning to the same text each night, to experience what new life it might reveal. In that way, the creative process, regardless of medium, is like a spiritual practice.
What aspect of our social and political climate did you get to explore on this record?
One River is my best answer to the fear, division, trauma, and violence being enacted in our world right now. Those shadows have some particularly toxic external representatives–but they exist in each of us, and must be met within each of us, as well as in the public forum. Their source is suffering, and they are here to be healed. I am a beginner confronting these challenges, but I do believe that art, as a vehicle for Love in its many forms, has an important role to play.
That’s why I chose Timo Lieber’s photograph, THAW #1, as an album cover. Timo is an arial landscape photographer, and his THAW series is a collaboration between art and science to highlight, in beauty, the devastating reality of climate change. The cover, which depicts a blue lake of glacial meltwater on the icy, white surface of Greenland, bears a striking resemblance to a crying eye, as if the planet itself is weeping. Our neglect and destruction of our only home, which is really an extension of our own bodies, is a striking, and dangerous, result of the disconnection we suffer and perpetuate.
Any plans to hit the road? What else is happening next in One River’s world?