Best of 2023: Brian Helgeland on Sahn’s The Mornings

The Oscar-winning writer-director, whose latest film Finestkind is released tomorrow, on a new album with a deep meaning for him.

I know Simone Ledward, who performs as Sahn, through her late husband, Chadwick Boseman, who I worked with on 42. Every once in a while, Chad would call me and say, “Hey, you want to go get tacos?” And we’d go to Sky Tacos in Los Angeles, which is great, and just hang around and eat these little tacos for a couple of hours. One time, when I had known Chad for two years or so, we went to Sky Tacos; I remember the billboard for Get On Up, the James Brown film he starred in, was above his head, and he didn’t even realize it. That day, Chad said he wanted to tell me something, and he told me he was in love. When he talked about this woman, Simone, and I could see how happy he was, I immediately liked her, despite having not yet met her.

As it turned out, Simone was the person Chad needed and he was the person she needed. And really, there’s no better reason to fall in love than that. She was with him until the end. I don’t know if you choose the person that you fall in love with, but he couldn’t have chosen better. His bravery all through the end of his life was her bravery also. And he needed that. She was his rock.

I always knew that Simone was a singer, and I loved talking to her when we’d meet, but I never heard her sing while Chad was alive. But then a month ago, her album – which I didn’t even know she was working on – came out. I played it and I was smitten with it. I found it very emotional. It was as if she brought Chad back to life in this record. She conjured him. I listened to it and thought, “Oh, she’s not just a singer. She’s an artist.” It was revelatory.

The Mornings is an album about grief and loss, and she’s taken all that pain and made something beautiful out of it. There have been other great albums about loss, but I think this one belongs with the best of them with its raw intimacy. The first track is an instrumental, “Chad’s Prayer,” featuring Dontae Winslow on trumpet; if you knew Chad, you hear it and say, “Oh, there he is.” The first vocal track is “Wake Up, My Love (A Lullaby),” and it’s about trying to wake someone up. Of course, a lullaby is something you sing to put someone to sleep, which shows Simone’s ability to play with ideas and turn them on their head. She understands what she’s doing. It’s a lullaby to wake someone up who you can’t wake up, which is such a beautiful way to express what she was going through, in a way anyone listening could touch.

Knowing Chad and loving him changed her life, and then losing him changed her life, too. I think you feel all of that in the music. It’s a beautiful, tragic thing. I remember as the record unfolded, it just knocked me out. It gets you thinking about a lot of things, like how the stronger you love, the greater the grief is. And how only one person has to go through this incredible loss; the person who goes first never has to grieve for the other person. They have to say goodbye, but they don’t have to grieve. And how grieving is not a linear track; it can feel like it’s getting less and less, and then surge. It’s three dimensional, in a way. I was so impressed that she was going through all this, and found a way through to make music out of it. The cruel joke about grief is the person you most need to talk to about it is gone, but in a way, this album has brought Chad back. She’s found a way to talk to him and she’s found a way to see herself through to the other side of the pain. There is hope here as well.

I listen to music all the time, almost always as a way to create a writing space, so often I feel it without listening to the words. But I found that The Mornings really demanded that I listen to the lyrics and the rhythm of how they’re delivered. It made me listen so intently because Simone is saying something, and it’s important and universal and you need to listen to it.

I think my favorite track on The Mornings is “Better with You,” as it somehow captures the whole experience of grief. It’s interesting, because in my opinion Simone almost writes it from Chad’s point of view, from the point of view of the person who is asking, “How are you going to be without me?”

It says:
“Tell me how you’d feel if I never came back
Tell me tell me would you heal if I never came back
Would you finally know it’s real if I never came back?”

And then comes my favorite line in the whole album: “Could I trust you at the wheel if I never came back?” That’s him talking to her, and she’s conjured him. If you knew Chad, that’s how he would say he cared about somebody – “Are you going to be okay?” And somewhere he’s smiling that crazy beautiful Chad smile, because he knows she’s got the wheel and he can more than trust her there. She is in control in the best way.

Simone makes music under the name “Sahn,” because she feels like that’s the best version of herself that she aspires to. In a way, she’s the phoenix that’s risen up out of Chad’s ashes, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. And she’s brave and strong and beautiful.

Brian Helgeland won the Academy Award for his screenwriting of L.A. Confidential. He was also nominated by the Academy for his writing of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. His directorial work includes the films Legend, starring Tom Hardy and Taron Egerton, 42, starring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford, and A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger and Paul Bettany. He is the writer of Tony Scott’s Man on Fire and Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone. Helgeland is also the recipient of the Writers Guild of America Award, the PEN Center Literary Award, the Edgar Alan Poe Award, the USC Scripter Award and the Sidney Lumet Award for Integrity in Entertainment. (Photo by Maarten de Boer.)