Q: Do you have regrets about getting a late start or do you accept it as the way your life and your personal narrative was destined to unfold?
A: I think ultimately it’s the way my personal narrative was destined to go, and I couldn’t change it. There was nothing I could really do. I’m lucky to be here at all considering that I probably should be dead, given the way that I lived my life, and with that early trauma undiagnosed and untreated for so long. It was just a raging fire. But then there’s a part of me that feels like, God, if I just had another 20 years I could move this thing. It just takes a long time when you’re writing this kind of music. It’s not on the radio, it’s not pop, there’s not a big machine pushing it. And there’s an ambitious part of me that wants to connect with as many people as possible and, quite frankly, sell as many records as possible, to reach as many human hearts as the art I make can possibly reach. So part of me is like, damn it, if I just had started this a little earlier I would have had a different trajectory.
Q: But you couldn’t have.
A: I couldn’t. And then there’s another part of me that says just chill out. It’s not a numbers game. That’s how the business keeps score. And I am a businessperson. I have owned many businesses and I want to succeed in that realm as well. I have to just calm that part of me down sometimes. That’s where the advantages of getting older and being clear-headed are tremendous.
Q: As somebody who has been immersed in 12-step programs I’m guessing you know all about the things we can’t control.
A: And looking at my art and at my life as one of service, which is the fundamental idea behind all the 12-step programs.
Q: Back when you were writing the songs for The Foundling, were you thinking of it as an act of service or as an opportunity for personal healing and catharsis? Or both?
A: Both. I knew that if I could nail it, there would be a lot of people who struggle with the words around this subject matter that would see themselves in it. And I knew that it would, in some way, affect their life. I also knew that because I struggle with the words around it, it was an act of desperation on my part to express this. It’s like a giant soul bruise that you walk around with and don’t talk about. And to express it is in some way to liberate yourself from it.
Q: This is such unusual, loaded subject matter. Was the songwriting process itself different?
A: Yeah, it was a two-year process of sitting at my writing desk almost every day. I’d sit here and then go for a walk. There’s a five-mile hike with some pretty good-sized hills on it about two miles from my house, so I’d sit here for four or five hours and then put on the headphones and go listen to other people’s songs as I did the hike. Or listen to the stuff that I had thrown down with just voice and guitar and see if it was any good. I’d write and hike, write and hike, write and hike, for about two years, and try to sort through the layers. I read upward of 60 books on adoption, reunion, trauma, poetry. I read Alice Miller who has written a lot about child abuse. I absorbed myself in the greatest books so far written on this subject. And just really took it in. You know, it comes off as a personal story, but there’s a lot of stuff in there that came from the reading that I did and the research that I did on the subject matter. And the history of it and how it came to be what it is in the United States. It was almost like writing a thesis. It was almost like I was in a Ph.D. program or something.
Q: So there’s the community of people who have dealt with adoption directly in their lives, but there are a lot of people who struggle with issues of abandonment and feeling entitled or not entitled to be loved. Do you think The Foundling resonates beyond the story of adoption?
A: It sure does. I think that the orphan is an archetype in literature and poetry and always has been. And you can’t have a superhero who wasn’t an orphan, from Harry Potter back to Beowulf, all the way back to Moses. And I think it’s a metaphor, fundamentally, for the human condition. The adoptee lives it literally but I think we all live it in some degree or another. It’s a wonderful rich story. And once you get past the trauma of it, it’s a fantastic place to create from.
Q: You made a phone call to your birth mother, you tried to reach out and establish contact, and she rejected you. It’s like trauma piled on trauma.
A: That one shut me down for three years. You know, I didn’t even tell anybody I made that call. I had to sort through the fact that it wasn’t my fault, and there’s not something wrong with me, and I’m not broken in a way that makes a mother reject me. I just took on her shame. There’s this whole psychological trauma called borrowed shame, I don’t know the exact term, but I took on her shame, as if there was something fundamentally unlovable inside of me. And I had to work through all that. And it was not fun. And I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. But getting to the other side of it, I have moments of rage but I do have compassion, as well, for what women in general went through in that generation. No men have shame about this and the women’s lives were just devastated, just destroyed. She’s stuck in that place. You bore down deep into it, it’s a feminist issue.
Q: That’s right.
A: Like, she was married to a man for 27 years and couldn’t tell him that she had had a child and put it up for adoption because she was afraid he would leave her? That’s not just happening to her, that happened to her generation. And that didn’t just happen to me, it happened to my generation. And it’s a feminist issue. It’s what Gloria Steinem and all those brave spirits were fighting against with all the might inside of them. And it’s where we’ve seen such a dramatic improvement over the last 30 years.
Q: How are people responding to the record?
A: Interestingly, I’m getting some powerful responses from adoptive parents who had no idea what they’re getting into when they adopt a baby. Nobody uses the words, “You are about to receive a highly traumatized child.” But in my opinion — and I know that I’m right, it’s not just an opinion, but I’ll qualify it as an opinion because it is seen as an opinion — every adoptee is traumatized because they’ve been ripped from their mother and baby and mother are one. There’s going to be a hole in that kid, and that kid’s going to act some shit out that you don’t expect and nobody’s telling you about. And there’s going to be attachment issues and there’s going to be sorrow that adoptive parents cannot, no matter how good they are and how much they love that kid, cannot fix. And nobody is telling anybody the true story yet. And so I get adoptive parents who come to me and tell me, “Thank you, I finally understand what my kid is going through.” I could have never predicted that. So on that level, fantastic. Commercially, an utter failure.
Q: Is that right?
A: It’s too heavy for most people. And it’s too challenging. But that’s okay. What can I do? If I had to choose, what would I choose? Hopefully, I’m big enough to say I would choose the path that it’s on. It’s got a life to it. It’s not going away. It’ll keep doing the work for years to come. It’s a slow, slow, slow burn.