On Music, Grief, and the Religion of Nature

Wila Frank writes about how songwriting helped connect her to her father after his passing.

Why do we make music? Music is the language of mystery. The language of misery, heartache, love, and grief. The language of the divine. Music is a way to express the soul when other ways fail. Sometimes I think every song I’ve ever written falls into the category of a prayer or a confession. A song, like a message in a bottle for someone else in the universe to find. Maybe because it has the potential to live beyond us, music possesses this sacred quality. One day I’ll be gone, but my art has the ability to travel in time and touch people in the future. Like love, it lives on beyond us.

The closest thing I have to a religion is nature. I was raised in a small bohemian community in rural Oregon. I was your typical hippie kid making fairy houses in the forest with moss and leaves; catching frogs and salamanders with my friends in the pond behind our house. The sweet melody of the creek. My parents encouraged us to contemplate the mystery of life, find solace in the wilderness, and express ourselves through art. For the first five winters of my life, we caravanned south with friends to Baja, Mexico where we lived off the grid in a tent, boating from beach to beach with all of our gear. The wildlife in Baja was extravagant and I made friends with barnacles, hermit crabs, and beluga whales. I remember early feelings of spirituality looking out at the vast, mysterious ocean. The rhythmic sound of waves. I felt very small at night when the stars were so clear and abundant it was difficult to find a patch of true darkness. 

It was in Baja that I learned about death, when we came across a beach where dead whales had washed up on the shore. The putrid smell of them was dizzying, but more powerful than that was the stillness emanating from them. Dark emollient creatures rotting in the sun. Sleek shadowy masses with no visible face, cracked open for the flies and birds to flock around. My memory of it feels like a strange dream. Otherworldly, like finding a dead alien or mythical god; proof of the existence of an unknown world. Do the dead move on to an unknown world?

I remember having a conversation with my dad about how we would die if we could choose the cause. I said that I would prefer to die peacefully in my sleep. My dad said that he would like to die in the act of saving someone, and for his body to be thrown in the sea. Perhaps he got his wish, for when I was 12, we lost him to the Pacific Ocean in a tragic accident. I never saw him again. 

How does a child process death without religion? Alone, in nature, I began writing songs in an attempt to weave my pain into music. Most of my early songs contained imagery of birds, clouds, stars, the sea, and different forms of light. Symbols of the great mystery of life. My lyrics were often elusive to me. I didn’t understand their meaning or register what they were about. But looking back now, I can clearly see that they were orisons of a broken heart suffering in silence. Pleadings with the universe to take away my grief. Grief like the wind getting knocked out of your soul. Grief like a punch to the gut, frozen in time at the moment of contact. A black hole forming inside of you; a black cloud looming above you. This is the ominous feeling at the heart of the title track of my debut album, Black Cloud

Black Cloud is based on a song I wrote when I was 16. It’s an admission of the discrepancy between the brokenness I feel and the serene mask I wear to hide from others. Finally facing my pain and exposing it. I’ve always struggled to communicate my grief to others in words. Death is such a taboo in Western culture. It makes most of us deeply uncomfortable to face our mortality. Talking about my grief has always felt like putting a burden on others. But creating sounds and lyrics out of it turns it into something beautiful and connects me to others. I think the point of music is to make us feel something. When we let ourselves feel, we can process and move on.

Death is seen as a dark and frightening thing, but I can’t seem to un-tether the existence of death to nature and to love. These are fundamental facts of life. When I think of everlasting love, it is always coupled with death in my mind. If you really love someone forever, the reality is that you will lose them or they will lose you. These are fundamental rules of nature. But why not embrace this mysterious darkness? It is only a reminder that the time we have together is finite and precious.

Is there a language in which we can communicate with the dead? When I miss my dad, I play music. Sometimes I feel like he can hear me. When I miss my dad, I go outside and watch the clouds form and unform. I can feel his presence in birds, in trees, in the sky. Nature is my church and music is my gospel. A song, like a message in a bottle traveling to an unknown world.

(Photo Credit: David Pineros)

Wila Frank was raised on a farm in a rural bohemian community near the Oregon coast, where she formed a passion for classical and folk music. At 18, she moved to Nashville to record and tour with indie-folk duo Paper Wings and Civil Wars alum Joy Williams. Now 24, her debut album Black Cloud, out May 12 via Tone Tree Music, was inspired by artists like PJ Harvey and Anna Calvi just as much as the brooding soundscapes of Massive Attack and Radiohead. Though just eight tracks, the album is a resounding statement of intent, an introduction to a fully-formed voice and perspective that boasts a freewheeling ability to jump between genres and textures.