Visionary songwriter and Sony Classical recording artist Joseph LeMay talks to RNRG about his debut LP and journey with bipolar disorder.
A creative process littered with personal turmoil, from death to mental landmines, SONTALK’s debut long-player Stay Wild is as indebted to the darkness as new-found light. He’s weathered unimaginable horrors, the kind that stirs a ferocious appetite in your gut, and lived to impart every ounce of collected wisdom across 12 songs.
Musician Joseph LeMay doesn’t even try to avoid the unavoidable. He confronts the bad and ugly of life head-on, often breaking off his lyrics to slice deeper and to the heart of human suffering. “I’m still on the journey [through brokenness] to be honest, but things are much better now than they were during the writing and recording of Stay Wild. The first part of this journey of managing my brokenness and moving through life with it was extremely scary and difficult,” he considers. “I got through it somewhat intact by telling myself that things could and would get better eventually even if I didn’t believe it at the time, as well as leaning heavily on my support system (my doctors, therapist, my wife, family friends) and being 100 percent honest with them about what I was going through.”
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Mental health remains a thorny discussion these days, but the veil is slowly lifting. As hyperbolic as it may seem, music certainly is a healing agent of sorts. “Writing and recording [this album] definitely contributed to my moving toward wholeness. I’m not sure how exactly,” he says. “I think being completely transparent emotionally when writing these songs and not shying away from exposing my shittiness made it a little easier to be open to the process of getting better, mentally and emotionally. It also gave me a record of how I felt and where I was at when my bipolar disorder really got dangerous, and that helps me know where I don’t want to go back to.”
Stay Wild, produced by Jeremy Lutito (Chuck Berry, Colony House), is a resolutely visceral statement piece. In turning over his pain as broken stained glass in the sunlight, LeMay may not be totally healed but he’s at least more OK with his emotions than he has in a very long time. Songs like “I am Mountain,” “Jesus Honey (God, I Hate You Sometimes)” and “Julian” are exercises in excavating the deepest of wells in order to understand humanity and this so-called weary life.
LeMay spoke with The Globe about his debut album, coming to terms with things, ongoing battles and duality of faith.
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What imperfection was the hardest for you to accept of yourself?
Probably accepting that I had Bipolar. Getting that diagnosis and being hospitalized made me lose confidence in myself and question my foundation. Like, what thoughts could be trusted, and what decisions big and small throughout my life were influenced by mania or depression? Could I write songs if I wasn’t manic? And will people think of me as the stereotypical bipolar caricature and how will that affect my work and social life? Like, how could I expect people to trust me or work with me, if I have this reputation of being crazy. Not to mention the embarrassing and damaging shit I’ve done while out of my mind. I’m still calibrating how to feel about it all, honestly.
Your interactive quiz that pairs specific imperfections with album tracks is such a cool way to provoke conversation. What led to that creative choice?
I’ve got a lot of super passionate people on my team who understand that I want to do way more than just entertain people with my music. I want to make lives better. So, we had a big brain storming session discussing various ways of achieving that. Some of the college students we work with brought up this idea, and I loved it.
In wrestling with bipolar disorder, did you find this music to soothe you or become more of a burden, emotionally?
It definitely felt good to get these songs out of me, but it’s so convoluted it’s hard to say. What I mean is, I was super manic while writing the songs and the writing process — specifically, the intoxicating feeling you get when you know you’re channeling something powerful and other worldly, and you just keep writing good shit — contributed to me going psycho and having to be hospitalized. I actually finished writing “I Am a War Machine” in the hospital. But I was super healthy when me and Jeremy started recording, and in that season, recording the music helped me move toward acceptance and helped me own my brokenness. It gave me some closure on that season.
During this process, a suicide occurred in your family. Did that add other psychological and emotional layers to your own journey?
Absolutely. Losing my best friend and father-in-law Wendel completely rocked me. I was too messed up to work, and we had to stop working on [the album] indefinitely while I got help. Finishing a record just didn’t matter to me compared to everything else that was going on. Then once we got back in the saddle, the record had a new meaning and an almost prophetic quality to it in the light of losing Wendel. It was super eerie and overwhelming and comforting all at the same time.
Did you come closer to understanding the things you were feeling and doing through this music?
Yes, I did. And what it didn’t help me understand, it at least helped me get rid of the shame I had about it all.
VIDEO: SONTALK – Baby, I’m Gone (Live at Big Light Studio)
You’ve said working on his music was much like an out-of-body experience. Did that allow you to step back and dig even deeper with your lyrics and the truth of what was happening?
I think the semi-lucid state I was in for most of the writing process of this record helped me get out of the way and freed me from a lot of unhelpful stuff like self consciousness and fear and ego stuff. It made it easier for me to write about myself, objectively, and express my feelings as if I were writing about someone else.
This album deals readily with life’s duality. “Hosanna (God, Damn My Soul)” seems to bask in faith’s glow (“We sing hallelujah, amen / God, save my soul,” you sing on the final chorus) and then with “Jesus Honey (God, I Hate You Sometimes)” you cry out to him (“Why do you hate me?”). What was your journey in faith and a higher power as presented with these two back-to-back cuts?
“Hosánna” is actually the oldest song on the record. I started writing it in 2010. And I wrote “Jesus Honey” a few days before we started recording. So, I really like this question. I guess these songs more or less reflect the sometimes complicated nature of my relationship with God. “Hosánna” is about moving from youthful sarcastic indignation toward God, to shame and uncertainty of where you stand with God, to finally sincerely asking for God’s help.
And “Jesus Honey” was an attempt to understand my relationship with God by expressing my feelings about God through the lens of my romantic relationship with my wife. I feel like we experience God in large part through our human relationships. So, it helps me understand both of them by blurring the lines a bit. Sometimes, “Jesus Honey” is all about me and God, but sometimes, it’s about me and Molly. But it’s always a conversation with interruptions, contradictions, misunderstandings, passive aggressiveness, and everything that comes with a real relationship.
For the longest time, there’s been a stigma around sharing emotions and actually having open conversations about mental health. Why has it taken us so long to get to this place?
I think it’s partly because the problems caused by mental health/emotional issues look like problems caused by defects in personal character, especially if the mental health issues lead to self medication with drugs or alcohol. It’s easier to understand why someone with a broken leg stays in bed for weeks or has to miss work for an extended period of time than if the same person were struggling with depression or PTSD.
What questions do you want the listener to ask of themselves through this album?
Oooooh…maybe how they could see themselves as the main character of the album.
You bookend with “Julian,” which is as haunting as it is hopeful. Is Julian your inner child to whom you’ve written this album as a set of open letters?
Yes! Or innocence embodied as a child named Julian. It’s super weird, but the name Julian actually means “youthful” or “youth” or “childlike.” The weird part is that when I wrote “Julian” with my friends Cheyenne Medders and Sara Beth Go, we had no idea what the name meant. We actually didn’t even mean to write a lullaby to a child. We wanted to write a song from a child’s perspective seeking wisdom from someone named Julian, but it just kept taking shape on its own until it became what it is now. It was a really profound spiritual experience for me feeling this song sort of tell us what it needed to be. Still blows my mind to be honest. One of my most cherished writing experiences.
Where do you go from here — in life, not just music?
Who knows?! I’m just gonna keep writing and recording and touring and spending as much time with my family and friends as I can. And be as present and grateful as possible while doing all those things.
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