I was born in the land of Prince, man-eating mosquitos, and winters so frigid your face would freeze into an ice sculpture before your mouth could finish forming the words "what the F..."
For the uninitiated, that is Minnesota.
When I was seven, my grandpa gave me a violin that he bought from a nun named Sister Max in Mankato for $100. My favorite memory of that time is when my mom tried to help me learn by playing along at my first few lessons (did I mention she was ordained a saint?). It was the mid-eighties mind you, so big hair and even bigger nails were all the rage. One day my violin teacher looked at my mother's hands and began speaking to her in a trepidatious but grave tone. “Ah hem," she said clearing her throat. "If you’d like to keep playing along, you’re going to have to cut your nails.” She took one look at me, eyebrows spelling out OH-HEYL-NO across her forehead, and handed the violin over. “Sorry, kid. You’re on your own.”
So off I went. By high school I had started teaching myself guitar and singing. Long before the days of the internet, I would wear out cassette tapes training myself by ear. Rewind, stop, play, rewind, stop play until I learned every last angelic triplet of Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” and each aching vocal swoon of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams.” I sat on the edge of my bed and churned my melodramatic adolescent journal entries into melodramatic adolescent song verses.
My first gig was a three-hour slot at a coffeeshop/bookstore in Hudson, Wisconsin. They paid in pastries, so obviously I was in. At the time I booked it, I only had about thirty minutes worth of material, so I raced to learn as many cover songs as possible - Nirvana, Bonnie Raitt, Carole King, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Jewel, The Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, Tina and the B-Side Movement, Ani DiFranco...
I’ll never forget that first show. It was the dead of winter, my exhales spilling out dry ice as I climbed the stairs, guitar case bruising my shins with every step upward. I told a bunch of people at school about the show, but I didn’t really fit in with any particular clique, so I had my doubts as to whether anyone would actually come. To my great shock, horror, and joy, when I turned the icy gray doorknob that led into the coffee shop, my world exploded into Technicolor. The whole place was packed to the gills. Every table occupied with an unlikely combination of jocks, orch dorks (term of endearment), math whizzes and grunge rockers. I couldn’t believe it. With shaky hands and a chest racing with adrenaline, I set up my mic and amp and played my mainly covers set list. The time evaporated into a dream I never ever wanted to wake up from.
And from that moment on, my mind was made up: THIS was what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
So began the recording records, booking concerts and touring the country. Minneapolis and Saint Paul were twin sorcerers summoning all their musicians to play on each other’s stages, come to each other’s shows and get played on the local radio stations. It was the kind of community and camaraderie most people wouldn’t believe was real, a modern-day Brady Bunch for bands. I was playing anywhere and everywhere I could around town, then gradually rippling out regionally and made some loops round the broader US. Sometimes solo, sometimes with friends, these were long drives with no guarantee of people or payment at the shows. They were nights of falling asleep in Walmart parking lots, playing for free dinner (yes, I am highly motivated by food), and one time even being awoken by ferrets running across my face after sleeping on the floor at a publicist’s house in St. Louis. They were days of living with my mom well past the age that was culturally acceptable, loud rehearsals in tiny rehearsal spaces, and taking every gig available, playing three hours for fifty bucks without batting an eyelash, singing like it was the end of the world for the ten people who would come out to see live music on those subzero midwestern weeknights.
After cutting my teeth in my home state and being on the road for about a decade, I said goodbye to my beloved bandmates and local community to take a plunge westward. My sights were set on Los Angeles.
I moved in with my dear friend and musical collaborator, Jessy Greene, who was touring with the Foo Fighters at the time. I hit the ground running meeting all sorts of dazzling people and getting to play with some incredible musicians. I can remember feeling the electric undercurrent of possibilities walking down Sunset Boulevard as I ogled The Roxy, The Viper, The Whiskey, and the Troubadour just a few blocks south. Before long I was chatting with DJs from KCRW at secret studio parties in the Valley. I began writing with Alain Whyte who penned half the Morrissey songs I grew up blasting on my tape deck in high school. I was doing Pete Yorn’s make-up for a video shoot. I was seeing Aretha Franklin sing at the Hollywood Bowl. I was making Tracy Chapman her first vanilla latte (she was very nice about it despite only having taken one sip). I was meeting with fancy producers and music label executives. I was laughing with Taylor Hawkins in Topanga Canyon. I got to hug Bill Withers!
The music world kept getting smaller and smaller. There was a palpable momentum forming that felt too good to be true. I was living the dream, and everything was happening.
That is, until everything came to a screeching halt.
It was a morning like any other morning, a Tuesday I think. I remember I had slept well, there was a full day of work ahead of me, I probably smiled like I often did at the slice of sun peeking through the window curtain.
But when I placed my feet on the hard wood floor and tried to take a step, I face-planted. The left side of my body was exploding needles, totally numb like when your legs fall asleep, and the slightest movement would cause me to seize up in paralysis until the blood rushed back to where it was supposed to be; except, it didn’t come rushing back. My limbs were catatonic. Meanwhile, the right side didn’t respond to any sort of command from my brain. At all.
I was in shock. I was alone and had no idea what to do. In total denial, I somehow managed to limp to the bathroom and tried to brush my teeth, but my toothbrush would land on my forehead because my brain couldn’t tell my hands where my mouth was. I ran the shower, but I could not gauge the temperature of the water. My arm couldn't figure out how to brush my hair.
It all became very scary very fast.
I wasn’t able to hold a pen let alone strum a guitar. I had to use a cane to walk across a room so I wouldn’t collapse. Eventually I would be pushed through airports in a wheelchair while able-bodied people peered down at me with looks of pity, confusion, and more often than not, complete avoidance.
Within a matter of minutes, all of my previous priorities revolving around living the proverbial dream felt not only frivolous, but futile and proceeded to disappear a million miles in the rearview mirror. I didn’t care about anything except being able to walk again, or to stay awake for more than two hours at a time, or to be able to bathe and feed myself.
I was 28 years old.
This was supposed to be the part in my life when I was going to make something of myself. But instead, I was destined for hospital rooms, high dose steroid IVs, demoralizing insurance battles, suicidal depression, and no one being able to tell me what the hell was going on.
It wasn’t until five years later I got diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, commonly known as MS. People tend to gasp when they hear that, as it’s a deteriorating neurological disease with no cure (yet) that has earned great stigma for the severity of its debilitating symptoms in many cases.
I am very grateful the worst of my symptoms proved temporary and reversible. I am extremely lucky I had good doctors. I am indescribably fortunate I happened to be diagnosed at a time when there were life-changing medicines being put on the market. And I am speechless when I think of the family and friends who loved me through the most harrowing days of it.
I haven’t had a relapse in over eight years and counting thanks to the miraculous progress of MS researchers and medicine. And since said miraculous medicine currently costs $192,000 per year and counting, I am deeply thankful to have a day job with very good insurance.
In many ways, Walk with the Night is a process of grief and reprieve. A coming of age in total uncertainty, an appreciation of how comforting and soft shadows can feel when it’s too much to be seen in the piercing light of day, and who you become when hard things happen.
I hope these songs will feel like a companion to you in the same way they have been to me.