On his quietly stunning new record Pretty Songs about Death, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Mage performs what is probably the original human magic trick: transforming the knowledge, the witness, the experience, and the dread certainty of mortality into art, philosophy, deepened human connection, and renewed energies for living. While its title leaves open the possibility (and while he certainly has the compositional chops for it), this record doesn’t flirt much with an Edward Gorey- or Weill/Brecht-inspired stylized macabre. A kind of wincing humor and necessary leavening do occur occasionally throughout these nine frequently uplifting songs, but make no mistake: Pretty Songs About Death is a sustained, unflinching and (sorry) dead serious meditation on the Big Fact.
The record represents a fruition of a lengthy period in the artist’s life during which he found himself in close quarters with the dying and with the business of death. “I wrote songs to comfort dying loved ones,” he writes, “which we sang together in their final hours. I searched for a spiritual language that would resonate with a friend who was an avowed atheist at death’s door. And late at night, I wrote to come to grips with my own mortality, and to wake to life in all its beauty and absurdity. Without meaning to, I discovered I’d written an album.”
Born and raised in New Paltz and still well connected to the regional musical community, Mage traveled widely as a younger man before settling into the New York City player scene, often in pursuit of musical inspiration and hands-on tutelage. His fluency in many dimensions of what is rather paternalistically called “World music” has been an enormous advantage in his career as a sideman (keyboards mostly) and in his current role as a songwriter and recording artist based in his wife’s native Switzerland. In its minimalist and song-forward arrangements, Pretty Songs About Death speaks in multiple musical tongues. Undercurrents of Latin, raga, gospel, and Celtic music appear, fully digested and never forced, as dimensions of Mage’s complex native soil.
To take this journey with Mage means first to get comfortable with his “everyman” singing. When receiving wisdom and spiritual consolation, most listeners expect it to come in the voice of God or Mahalia Jackson. A mountaintop voice like that would certainly be a commercial advantage in a world where pop singers “go to church” at the slightest provocation, but over the course of this highly conceptual and sonically intimate record, Mage’s vulnerable and unvarnished (though not at all unpleasant) singing is transformed from possible liability to the point itself.
Mage’s deft handling of arrangement and dynamics makes this possible. Each song typically features as many as four elements and seldom more: in the foreground a lead vocal and a primary accompaniment part on piano or acoustic guitar; in the background, some subtly propulsive beds of percussion; on the fringes — finally, imported from the heavens — the authority of choral background vocals, often touched with heavy ambient effects. Mage sets his relatively small and utterly human voice in conversation with some angels. It works as beautifully here as it did for Leonard Cohen throughout his career.
Pretty Songs about Death is carefully plotted in its combination of subjects, perspectives, and levels of diction. The opening “Let Me Go” is a candid family story that could double as a PSA on behalf of euthanasia. The groovy, dark “Ride the Gutter Down” reminds us that death and dissolution are the very essence of the carbon-based bargain of life. “My Kind of Dead” — which one suspects is the atheistic hymn referenced in the record’s press materials — sounds the record’s central theme, rejoicing in the transience of human life and the immortality of energy. The gorgeous piano ballad “You’re Going Home” once again materializes the theme of release, turning over the particularities of a single life and consciousness to a grander terrestrial and cosmic narrative. “Walk with Me” achieves the record’s high point of Gospel-infused, oratorical power; the deceptively jovial “Didn’t Get Around to It” pivots into its darkest and least consolable point.
JB: You wrote and recorded this album in Switzerland, but in any way do you perceive the Hudson valley and our shared hometown of New Paltz as the spiritual setting for Pretty Songs About Death?
JM: The project is connected to a sense of place for sure. For one thing, living many thousands of miles away from my parents and other close, aging family is one of the defining tones of our life; I love living in Switzerland, and we have a great life here, but sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking of someone I haven’t talked to for a few days or weeks, and wondering if this will be the time I missed the chance to ever talk to them again.
I think the project partly emerged from the need to come to terms with the fact that I might not be there as much as I want to when my loved ones are facing death. My heart does ache for the places I grew up. On the other hand, being a bit more mindful of mortality than I might otherwise be focuses me when I’m back home in New Paltz. I think it’s helped me be a better son, be more likely to de-escalate conflict. My mom might argue with this assessment. But I do feel like the upside of being mindful of mortality is to be deeply grateful for the time we have. I frequently check myself in interactions: If this is the last time I talk to this person, will I be ok with how I acted, how we left it? This doesn’t feel morbid to me; it feels helpful.
JB: In the course of this extended project, you’ve been dwelling on death for so long now, were there ever moments where it felt macabre or ghoulish to you? Where it felt like you were letting life’s big secret too much into your life and maybe you had lost some essential balance we must maintain between acknowledging/accepting death and distancing it?
JM: I think about this most in relation to my older son, Elio. It’s pretty intense for a six-year-old to be around these songs. He was my engineer when I recorded “Walk With Me” (I have a great out take of him shouting “RED!” because I told him to shout if it went into the red), and last week he was sitting there at the rehearsal for the release concert singing along with five singers in harmony, “We All Gotta Die, We All Gotta Die.” It clearly has an impact on him. He’s a super curious kid and asks so many questions; in fact trying to come up with answers to those questions that feel both honest and helpful is an animating force behind the project. I feel good when I can point him deeper into the mystery; many of the songs are about that anyway.
I guess even for a kid, death is always lurking on the edge of consciousness, and if I sort of let it step into the light, and point to everything we don’t know, and some of the amazing interactions between finitude and infinitude, the individual and the ‘all’, I hope gives Elio a sense of place, and of magic, the sweetness and specialness of life, and even a tiny hint of a sort of Buddhist fully engaged but un-attached approach that I have found enriching. Nonetheless, when we came back to that outro later in the rehearsal, I told the singers, “Ok, this time let’s say, ‘we all gotta pie’.”
I am no expert on death, on mourning or on loss. I’ve lost deeply loved people, people who make me who I am, but some of the people reading this will have lost someone completely central to their lives, perhaps decades too soon, perhaps unexpectedly. That’s something else. I can’t even type the next words because I am too superstitious. Suffice it to say that I have a great deal of respect for the horrifying, devastating, and destructive aspect of death, and I in no way wish to make light of it with the title/philosophical bent of this record; So I engage in certain rituals, and dialogs with my ancestors to make sure that I am honoring death, that I am humble before it.
JB: When we spoke a few years ago, you were floating the idea of raising awareness of this project in the palliative care and hospice worlds, elder care and skilled nursing environments, in short in the death professions. That›s a novel, targeted marketing idea. It also suggests that you believe the lived, experiential component of this long project has value, utility, apart from and in addition to its musical and artistic value.
JM: I am still in the process of pursuing that idea. I decided that, unlike the “music industry PR” timeline, there was no reason why it made sense to do that reaching out before the record was released; Easier to just say, “hey, here’s a song that some of your patients might find comforting.” So I’m doing that outreach now, and trying to build a team to help me in that. Please, if you know anyone in the end-of-life/palliative care professions, tell them about the record, put me in touch. I’m talking to people who are administrators in these fields, to figure out what form would be best for sharing the songs.
One thing is clear: People gravitate to music when they are facing death. I’ve seen it over and over again. There is a gap when it comes to truly comforting, embracing songs about death that don’t require belief in capital G God or an afterlife. “The worms go in, the worms go out, the worms play pinochle in your snout” is just not gonna cut it when you or someone you love is at death’s door. But neither is “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” if you don’t believe there’s a better home awaiting in the sky. So a huge impetus for these songs was when atheists and agnostics among my friends and family were dying, and I wanted to offer something as spiritually nourishing, as invitational, as healing, as all the incredible gospel songs that I’ve had the chance to perform over the years as a professional church pianist and organist.
I’ve witnessed highly emotional responses to these songs from people facing these situations. This confirms my belief that for some people facing death, either themselves or of people they love, these songs will have utility. But it’s a bit of a balancing act, too; like, when you lost your mom recently and announced it on Facebook, I wanted to share one of the songs, because, that’s what they are for. But that’s a very strange role, sort of a musical hearse-chaser. Yikes. Still not sure how to approach that.
JB: As someone who knows and greatly appreciates your previous full-length (Jeremy Mage & the Magi), I am struck by how different the stylistic parameters are on this one. It is still very much on your sweet spots as player/singer/writer, but it is so strict and spare in its focus. What were some of your guiding considerations in the recording, arrangement, and development of these songs?
JM: “Don’t F*&* it Up” was the main guiding light as a producer. Just let the songs speak for themselves. You know, each of these songs has multiple other versions, most of them with denser instrumentation; each of these mixes have dozens of muted tracks: elements that I tried, but in the end the simplicity won out.
There are a few reasons for this: I wanted the songs to feel pretty close to how I could do them live. We just had the release concert last week here in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland, my wonderful adopted home town. It was in one of the converted wine cellars in the old town, complete with arched stone ceiling, precipitous stairway, and with four singers, each harmonizing and playing a bit of percussion, and me on piano or guitar. It was already as full or fuller sounding than the record! I love that.
I don’t have a giant voice; it’s a storytelling voice, and when I try to make it into a soaring voice over a big arrangement, it feels less real. My voice is a little odd, so it enjoys pairing with idiosyncratic instruments; The 100-year-old Bechstein that made its way to me after being taken by the Nazis from a Jewish family in Berlin, the 1968 Gibson Country and Western guitar that my dad gave me. These instruments aren’t clean, they are flawed, full of character, a bit rickety, and I wanted to let that come through. It felt like it fit the subject matter.
Listen to Pretty Songs About Death at https://jeremymage.bandcamp.com/
For more on Jeremy Mage, visit https://www.jeremymage.com/