A couple of years ago, singer-songwriter Harrison Lemke was playing a small house show in my living room. My husband and I had rearranged the furniture so that our little house could accommodate two dozen people. Our four kids were sitting on pillows and local friends as well as a few folks we knew through “Catholic Twitter” (including Lemke and his wife Magdalene) occupied our chairs and couch.
for all the wrong reasons and you heard me.
and you showed me some weird kind of mercy.
Lemke introduced one haunting song with the story behind it. As an elementary student, Lemke had procrastinated on a school project and prayed earnestly that he wouldn’t have to turn it in the next morning in class. The work was still undone. An unexpected windstorm arrived, causing a blackout. His prayer was answered—school was cancelled! Although saved from a minor academic crisis, Lemke was wracked with guilt. Was the storm and the damage it caused his fault? Had his prayer caused this catastrophe?
We laughed at the story of his childhood spiritual dilemma, but the themes were poignant as well as hilarious. “Windstorm Blackout” is a perfect example of Harrison Lemke’s craft, reminiscent of The Mountain Goats or Sufjan Stevens (if Sufjan didn’t take himself quite so seriously).
Like me, Lemke is a Catholic convert and a Texas transplant. He comes from a musical family—both of his older brothers are also songwriters. And he works a day job as a programmer. In his free time, he writes and records music.
As with all the best songwriters, Harrison Lemke is a storyteller. His songs are tied to specific experiences, grounded in powerful details and a strong sense of place. I asked Lemke some questions about his music and his perspective on Catholic art.
Do you think our Catholic faith calls us to the power of story in some way and calls us to be storytellers? How does this play into your songwriting?
Harrison Lemke: Even without the lens of faith, I think storytelling is inescapably human, a function of how we experience the world as time-bound and sensory creatures. It’s how we remember and how we assign meaning to what we remember. Of course, the Gospel adds a special dimension by positing a real, though hidden, underlying narrative to the entirety of reality—a drama of good and evil, sin and forgiveness, loss and gain, longing and satisfaction that pervades even life’s minutiae. It’s these minutiae that, I suppose, I feel most drawn toward: the inelegant and desolate parts of life, the small and weird and humdrum edges of human experience that nevertheless occupy a place inside the mind of God. It’s easy to place great cataclysms like birth or death or falling in love inside a spiritual drama; it’s harder to place, say, a lonely winter afternoon spent stuck in traffic. To me, this is a deep mystery and the spiritual problem my songwriting is most concerned with.
Your music asks questions that aren’t all tied up with a bow. Why should Catholics embrace art without easy answers? Why is it perhaps even more important in an increasingly secular culture to truly wrestle with our faith?
If the Church is truly catholic, it must embrace the full breadth of human experience, which means embracing the experience of darkness and uncertainty, which is one of the dominant modes of our lives. The Holy Scriptures and the writings of the saints are no stranger to this; the cross stands in the very midst of it. A faith that is easy—a faith that doesn’t search or feel the weight of questions and sufferings—is something other than Christianity, even a betrayal of the cross.
Your latest album Forever Only Idaho is deeply anchored in place. Do you think that emphasis on place is important on a spiritual level as well as for effective storytelling? What’s the importance of place in an increasingly isolated, remote world—a world in which we’re pilgrims and never fully at home?
I’m not sure there is anything that is part of the human experience that isn’t also important on a spiritual level. If we weren’t meant to attach importance to places, we would be made differently than we are. We’re inherently bound to place and time. As far as what exactly that significance consists of, I’m not sure, but for myself, I would say I’m drawn to place as a profound expression of human limitedness. A person can travel and see many places (or, perhaps, look them up on the internet), but not without some kind of loss. We can choose to make a home in a single place or to forego a home entirely, but there is no third option. To make peace with this is difficult in a society that is being eaten alive by varied and contradictory longings. But this is a strain against our very nature, a tragic thing.
Why should Catholics create art, even if it’s not going to pay the bills?
This is something that should need no defense, I think, though of course not all see it that way. Art and creativity are a fundamental aspect of being human. The degree to which they have become commodified and the province of a few experts in many people’s minds is an unfortunate product of a society that is excessively prone to evaluate things in terms of money. Creation, self-disclosure, and self-revelation are expressions of the divine image and an opportunity to know each other more deeply and become more awake to the mystery of our own lives at the same time.
I’ve been thinking about the Advent house shows you’ve played for us in Waco. How do you think Catholics can cultivate those kinds of experiences (community and art being shared)? And why do you think those experiences should be a priority for Catholics?
If Catholics want to cultivate a richer Catholic culture, they need an openness to culture and art in itself. For myself, I’ve found plenty of support from Catholics for whom deeply appreciating art is already a part of life. It has to start there—with a love, an interest. I don’t think all Catholics need to be interested in this, necessarily. But if the Church is truly catholic, truly universal, it should, in its varied members, embrace the full breadth of human experience.
Maybe it’s a lack on my part, but I don’t know of a lot of Catholic musicians beyond praise and worship type folks or liturgical music for Mass. Why do you think this is? How can we support Catholic artists who are connected to the experience of coming of age in tumultuous, exhausting times—who can speak to the experience of watching a generation leaving the Church in droves?
The honest (probably unprintable) answer is that Catholics have retreated from the world. Society has to some extent rejected the Church, and the Church has responded in kind. There’s a distrust of media that delves deeply into ambiguities, maybe arising from a sense that the purpose of such art is to undermine an objective standard of truth or morality. Some art is made with this intent, but overall I consider this a category error. Art presents something for the delight or confounding of the senses . . . Artists are drawn into dark and dangerous waters—suffering and sorrow and death—because these are the most confounding mysteries of our lives. True religion has a respect for this, if not always the taste or attention for it. When faith is shy of suffering and prone to comfort-seeking, it is set on edge by the possibility that art will ask too many questions or press too many buttons. Maybe, in short, art demands openness and a willingness to be disturbed, to see things from an outside perspective, and Christians don’t always cultivate this openness.
I’m not knocking them, but there’s also the fact that praise and worship and liturgical music are marketable; their function is clear; they are in a sense more easily consumable than art that exists to set on edge, to question, to journey, to demand a more quiet and uncertain sort of encounter.
Harrison Lemke’s albums run the gamut of topics. They might be about the Advent season or the experience of his high school classmates after graduating in their small town in Idaho, but they are always thoughtful, sharp, and challenging. I’m going to see if Lemke will play another show in my living room, but perhaps I can encourage readers to listen to Harrison Lemke’s newest album, Forever Only Idaho, and his other music on his website, HarrisonLemke.com.