“I heard Bruce Springsteen say something along the lines of ‘the beauty of a song is that the meaning changes from person to person.’ So why take that away from people by spelling out how I wrote this exactly about that? I’ve done that, but I’m starting to lay back on it a little. A song can mean so many different things to different folks. I have some songs that I wrote when I was 24, and now that I’m 30, some of the meanings have changed for me.”
That quote, from a 2015 East Nashvillian interview with Lilly Hiatt, has been hanging out on a text file on my computer, staring me in the face every time I’ve opened my laptop for the past three months. Beyond it are two paths of thought in the document, each circling around the songwriter and her Trinity Lane LP. The first thought is a broad one concerning my relationship with music and writing; the second is more focused, related to Lilly’s message and the person I’m trying to become.
Musically, Trinity Lane is a twangy rock record – think roots music inspired by ’90s alt-rock. And as a fan, it’s my favorite of Lilly’s three albums. (Rolling Stone Country just positioned the album as one of the year’s best country and Americana releases.) However enjoyable a listen as it is though, the reason Trinity Lane really stuck with me has a lot to do with the intention behind the process of its creation and release.
Talking to The Boot in August, Lilly explained how her label asked her to write a synopsis of the album, which she obliged by coming up with something “really vague.” “I read it to my boyfriend, and he said it wasn’t very compelling, so I wrote this huge chunk about it where I addressed all of those personal things. I opened that door on my own because I was at a place where I was ready to talk about this stuff and be honest about it, especially because if someone was facing the same struggle, I wanted them to be able to relate to it… This was something I wanted to share.”
“Every time I wanted a man,” reads the final version of that synopsis, “I picked up my guitar. Every time I wanted a drink, I picked up a guitar. Love will take you to the darkest places but also to the most honest places if you let it. Learning how to love myself is something I’ve always been lousy with, and I spent some time on that. I thought about my sobriety, what that means to me, the struggles I’d had throughout the years, since I was a 27-year-old and hung up my toxic drinking habit. I thought about my mother, who took her own life when I was a baby, not far from my age at 30 years old, and I related to her more than ever. As you can see, there was plenty of time spent on my own. I didn’t talk to that many folks, albeit a few close friends, and leaned into my family. I stayed away from men, and danced alone in the evenings looking out my window observing my humble and lively neighborhood. I found power in being by myself.” Trinity Lane is poetic vulnerability with a sense of purpose.
PopMatters has an audio interview with Lilly from a few years ago, and in listening to it you can hear how sweet she is. She’s humble, particular about what she says, and thoughtful of how she reacts to questions. In person she’s the same. I met her briefly after her August in-store performance at Grimey’s. She extended courtesy to everyone who lined up to greet her, and she did the same with me, pausing in consideration of what I was saying before greeting the words with a hug. On my record she wrote, “Chris, you stay strong!!!”
“Gonna hang on a little bit longer, sleep well, work a little harder; put my faith in something I can’t see,” sings Lilly on the album’s title track. That song is what first attracted me to her music. I’m in recovery, too – a few months into my third year (this time around) as I write this.
Lilly and I are about the same age and both grew up idolizing Eddie Vedder. I wanted to tell her my whole story, but without rambling like some crazy person I shared just a couple sentences, hoping only to communicate my gratitude for putting herself out there the way she has with this album. Lilly has called herself an empath. I feel like she got me. That afternoon, driving back home, a lot of what had been building up inside of me began working its way out. I’ve never done anything like this before, and am not sure what compelled me to do it then, but when I got home I walked to my bedroom and positioned myself in child’s pose at the foot of my bed. I proceeded to bawl my eyes out. All I really remember is feeling compelled to just to let it go. I don’t know what any of it means, but only that it’s part of where this album has taken me.
For several years I made a living from writing about music. That’s not quite right, actually. For several years I tried to do as little as possible to make enough money as I could blogging about music, so long as doing so would also allow me to continue the destructive habits that were consuming much of my life. At that I was a great success. I did this while making sure to not challenge myself to become as good a writer as I perhaps could have had I pursued the profession with the same sort of dedication as I did my drinking. Priorities being what they were, that seemed like the right approach at the time.
This year I picked up writing again — the first time I’ve tried in a couple years outside of my journal — though to this day, an awkward tendency stands out to me about my process: I’m typically quick to publish a thought without much consideration for who it might affect or how it might land. I’ve been writing in some form or another for almost 14 years and to this day I have that problem (there’s a good chance I’m doing that here). The most glaring instance of this came in 2012. At the time I’d stopped drinking and put several months of research into the writing of a short book about recovery, which really should have taken me several years to write had I approached it with a more sincere level of thoroughness.
Before long though, I missed what I had. Or, at least, I missed the external validation that previously accompanied the blogging process. Having an audience made me feel valuable. So in 2014 I started this site with two missions, one public and one private. Publicly I had a somewhat delusional concept I shared with some friends about about building a one-stop local music hub. Privately I wanted to feed my ego. It was never black and white though.
This article about Sturgill Simpson might be one of the better things I’ve written, but it’s also one of the best examples of this struggle: I care so much about Sturgill’s music, and am eternally grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with him for it, but I allowed myself to feel some twisted self-importance when he shared it with his fans. Hell, that opportunity only happened because someone on his team got a kick out of an earlier blog post I’d written and showed it to him. For the longest time the value of my work hasn’t been in the work itself, but in whose profile I could glean a little shine from or how widely broadcast my work was shared online. Even then I recognized how ugly that was, and frustrated with myself I gave up on the blog after a few months.
Three years removed from that time I decided to try this again, genuinely believing that I could use this website as a platform to tap back into the local music scene, or maybe even get out and meet some interesting people. As I began writing again I sent a pair of emails to Lilly’s label asking for an interview. In retrospect, I’m glad those requests went unanswered.
As I dug into the album and began researching online, reading about Lilly’s life and what she now hopes to accomplish with her music, I began to recognize something in myself. A few months ago I was having a terribly difficult time speaking from my heart to other people and felt trapped by my own inabilities to do so. ‘How in the world can I communicate someone else’s truth on their behalf if I can’t do that for myself?’ I kept thinking to myself. But as no interview came, the urgency to further contemplate my Trinity Lane notes waned. I still knew there was something in there I had to figure out though, which is why they remained on my desktop. Waiting for me.
Months now removed from the first time I heard it, I can’t help but think the music on Trinity Lane has come to mean something different to me than it might mean to a lot of other people. Shortly after that day where she played Grimey’s I started to recognize what I was getting out of the album. Lilly has talked about how she had a hard time communicating with other people, which is something I feel I also struggle with, but that day she cracked jokes and seemed so vibrant and outgoing. She was so happy there. I remember looking up at the ceiling during the performance, taking a deep breath to hold off the emotions that were coming to me. It was so uplifting to see someone who had struggled so much come out of all that emitting such positivity.
Maybe with a little more literary finesse I might be able to get away with a musical comparison here, reflecting on being trapped in the groove of a record that skips, returning to the same place over and over again before an external force nudges the needle forward to play out the remainder of a song. But all the same, Lilly did nudge me. She was in a dark place, but came out of it only to communicate her story of inspiration with other people through a medium that would allow her to share her heart. And her doing so has helped redirect my efforts away from this space to healthier arenas. Doing so is allowing me to share my voice and time with others who might need to hear whatever my personal version of Trinity Lane is. Active recovery is the sound of moving the needle forward. I so admire Lilly and hope that she knows she’s made a difference.
Now it feels safe to delete that text file.