November 12, 2013

it’s the simplest of love songs / but it’s all our hearts can take

2013.07.27: Noah Gundersen @ Timber! Outdoor Music Festival - Ca

I’ve been thinking a lot about cynicism. I’ve been asking other writer-friends to define the word for me, so I can add to my functional understanding of its complexities and what different people perceive it to mean. I’ve asked friends earnestly if, really, shouldn’t I should try to develop some cynicism, a shell, a coating, a veneer? I’ve thought about the difference between a familiarity with the nastiness of life, a healthy respect for the damage-possibilities, and the choices we have within that maelstrom to live strong and brave and beautiful anyways.

I’ve been thinking a lot about cynicism in music. You don’t have to have been a reader long to know that my heart tends to bleed everywhere. I love those shiny songs and mindless songs and fractured songs, but the ones that seem to stick with me the longest are the ones that are the most bald-faced in their lack of cynicism, in the way they take advantage of the unique medium of music to assert …some sort of hope, some wrestling with life, some refusal to lay back in the muck and let it swallow us. It’s the reason that I picked this quote from Nick Hornby’s Songbook to be on the top of this blog since the beginning:

“I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there’s something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It’s the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part…”

I’ve been trying to write this post since July, when I went to the Timber! Outdoor Music Festival. For the second summer festival in a row, the set from Noah Gundersen was the one that made me sit in a stunned silence on the dirty ground. Noah and his siblings and his band amaze me in everything they do. There is something foolishly generous and wholly beautiful in all of his music, and in their performance of it.

That Saturday night in July, for the final set as the ground vibrated and the sweat of the day dried, the show suddenly stumbled into a clearing of something magnificent and unvarnished. It was something so pure and strong that it almost doesn’t make sense when I try to explain it to someone else, but that dissolved me so that when it was over I couldn’t speak to anyone at all, and all I could do was head directly to my top bunk in the yurt and cinch myself all the way tight into my sleeping bag. I needed a cocoon around me, warmth to stop the shivers, like my skin had been peeled off.

It happened when they launched in to this song, and specifically around 1:09.

Garden – Noah Gundersen

I have read that you have to be careful after rescuing a starving person not to give them too much rich food too fast because it will overwhelm their systems. I thought of that when everything cut out during that set under the pines, as Noah and Abby together sang: “…but wait. Wait. See how the morning breaks; it’s the simplest of love songs ….but it’s all our hearts can take.” There was so much generosity there.

In that moment, in unintentional defiance of cynicism, I was obliterated.

Noah’s live performances always feel like the summation of things I forgot. As they sang this song, I sat there and I thought something blazingly bright and clear and frustratingly ambiguous. I found myself thinking, “Because this moment in this song exists: …________.” For four months I haven’t been able to finish articulating the second half of that equation.

Last night in Boulder I slogged it out with Noah over some whiskeys and I tried to finish wrestling out the rest of what is true in the unfinished second half of that equation, and how it has been chasing me for months. Noah smiled and he said, “but I think that’s the thing, the not filling in that second half. That ambiguity is beautiful.”

For you it might be another song, and for me it was this one, on that night, in a campground by a river in Washington State. It was the moon. It was the certainty of something ineffable, that I have not yet forgotten.

It reminds me of some of the final lines in the magnificent book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, her story of her solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the southern border of Washington state, after a shit-kickingly hard period in her life. She writes at the end of her trek about sitting on a bench by the Bridge of the Gods, finally accomplished in what she set out to do in those months, despite the seeming-insurmountable difficulty. She writes about how all the blissful things yet to come in her life were unknown to her as she sat there bloodied and bruised and strong from the miles and miles she had walked. It was all unknown to her — “everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true.”

Now that’s a statement borne out of whatever the opposite of cynicism is; hard struggle and finding your way back to the person that lives under the bruise of life hovering on the surface, maybe. It resonates with me, and so does the purity in this song.

It’s the simplest of love songs, but it’s all our hearts can take.

[top image from Timber! by Jason Tang]


  • What you write is beyond beautiful.
    Thank you.

    Tina Dunnington — November 12, 2013 @ 6:50 pm

  • Wonderful piece. What you write touches what is so true and beautiful, music that speaks to you is a certain jigsaw fitting way, moments that help you come together like no other.

    For me it was a show from The Head and the Heart at the Crofoot ballroom in Pontiac, Michigan. My cousin and I had slugged back a few whiskeys and were stomping and clapping and singing to rival the side stage amp.

    Then Josiah started in on Josh McBride, and the room of 300 fell completely, pin-droppingly silent. All that song speaks to for me are the things I want in love, someone to come to the cold just to see me, call me darling, speak magic, unutterable words.

    In a period of romantic turmoil, I thought this would make me sad, a cathartic release. But just the opposite happened. Looking at Josiah’s face strained with emotion, feeling the thickness of music and the beauty of words, all I could feel was calm and hopeful. Feeling that whatever love I’m looking for is already there, fundamentally there, and the rest of those beautiful things are just treasures waiting to be unearthed.

    Hope among bleakness, clarity and knowing beyond knowing that what you want most will find you.

    Meggie — November 12, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

  • Please stop wrestling, your ramblings are too inane. This is what I’d expect from a 15 year old full of juvenile angst. Nice song though.

    Simon — November 13, 2013 @ 12:38 am

  • Thank you!!!!!

    Michael — November 13, 2013 @ 4:56 am

  • @Simon…Didn’t anyone teach you that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all? If you don’t enjoy the writting in the blog, don’t read it!

    On a more positive note, thank you for sharing this @FuelFriends. You have opened me up to a beautiful artist and I love hearing your perspective!

    STAYHUMAN — November 13, 2013 @ 10:07 am

  • Simon is dead inside. Thanks, Heather!

    Pete Brown — November 13, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

  • Wow, beautiful musings… I love those moments where you really get slammed by the poetry in everything.

    Not knowing what’s ahead can be the biggest source of fear in some people’s lives, but it should be a source of adventure!

    Corey Lennox — November 14, 2013 @ 7:48 am

  • I began listening to Gundersen’s music after reading this post, partially because I’m grateful you managed to put into words what I’ve been trying so desperately to say myself about recent experiences. I found your blog after listening to your chapel session for a band I stumbled upon almost by accident, but whose live performance began to shake me out of a year-long depression. I’m terribly thankful I did.

    Then…this post. Gundersen’s Garden and Jesus, Jesus in particular left me stunned, quaking, heart in my throat. It was deliciously unsettling, in the very best way. :)

    Erin — November 19, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

  • Thanks for this post, quite inspirational :)

    BrothersP — November 20, 2013 @ 7:33 am

  • These are the sorts of blog posts I wish I could write every day. Thank you.

    Veronica — November 24, 2013 @ 10:37 am

  • Heather – this is fantastic. I struggle with the balance between cynicism and authenticity all the time. I hadn’t heard of Gundersen before this, and I’ve spent the last hour listening to every song I could find, thanks to you.

    Thank you. Thanks.

    John Barber — December 11, 2013 @ 7:05 am

  • Just come across your music blog now, I’m liking the music you talk about! ((:

    Stephen P Brown — December 20, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

  • I was always looking for a blog that has this sort of stuff, I have now found yours thanks! :)

    FarmboyBeats — January 1, 2014 @ 7:11 am

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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