I took every secret that I'd ever known and headed for the wall

I took every secret that I'd ever known and headed for the wall
The Yukon River in the late spring, with the winter still holding on

I am returned from a journey home, and if you have ever moved away from home and then gone back to visit you know exactly what I’m saying when I tell you my chest is still recovering from the journey.

It was a good trip, kind of the perfect “go home and visit family” journey; 4 days long, my dad’s 70th birthday, and the weather was just nice enough to comment on. It was nice and it was fine, it was beautiful and it was tiring.

This is due in part I’m sure to going back to the Yukon after wrapping up the drafts of two very different books that both move through the streets I grew up on in the Yukon. I’m in the revision stage of my book The Dad Rock That Made Me a Woman now. It’s been reviewed by peers, notes have been given back to me. I know the people who asked me to write it are so far pleased with the results but there is always time for me to fuck it up. I have also sent the very rough draft of my first attempt at writing a novel, Girls of Summer, to my agent to read, so he can gently tell me literary fiction might not be my strength after all.

Nervousness and fear conspire to tell me that this will all be bad before I get anywhere near the gate. I don’t come from this world, and often I worry I don’t belong within it.

On April 22, the writer Claire Shaffer tweeted an enquiry asking if anyone else has been on a Gillian Welch kick lately. I was hitting play just one more time on Welch’s 2003 record Soul Journey. An album that lives in this stack of memories that you can almost take for granted. Something so beautiful and perfect that often slips exhaustedly back onto the shelf to hide, worn thin from repeated listens and eager for a break. Just a long enough rest to beg to be remembered.

Every now and then “Look at Miss Ohio” will just appear in my mind like a phantom, I’ll be making coffee or feeding the cats and I will catch myself humming the melody, effortlessly singing “oh me oh my oh…” to no one and everyone while dumping a quarter cup of dry food into a slow feeder. Our oldest cat is a fast eater, but maybe she is just ravenous for the thing she loves and who can blame her. Look at miss Ohio.

My work trades in showing people who I am – with a little artifice and subterfuge to protect my more private corners – and yet it’s still hard to give over thousand of words about who I am to people for the explicit purpose of critique. It’s hard enough just to tell people who you really are, about all the bones in your body built of love, fear, doubt and repression. See here, these all my tender and breakable parts. Look at who I want to become. Please be gentle.

Writing a lot about my younger years, and into the older ones, showed me parts of myself that even I was surprised by. The memories that came back, and the way these pieces made sense and fit into a bigger puzzle. All the things I left and lost, and all the parts that came back. And this is always the hardest thing about going back to a very small town where I was perceived as a very different person, where I made a lot of mistakes that range in severity, and where I now visit as this masquerade of a renewed lease on life.

Nothing ever feels quite real when you trade too much in the past.

Soul Journey was a slightly different record for Gillian Welch. Her previous record, 2001’s Time (The Revelator) is beautiful, but a different build of beautiful. Slower, sparser. Guitars and Welch’s voice, her partner David Rawlings the only other person in the room with her in all the corners of the record. It is, for a thousand very good reasons, one of her greatest records. But a change happens, as change always does.

It happens within Soul Journey . It’s here and the same but now a little bigger, the rooms are more full. Like a party late in the night with instruments and eager bodies about. The first thing you notice are the drums. High hats and snares carry an easy rhythm, brushes on skins pulled perfectly tight create the wind for Welch’s voice to soar upon. Guitars are here still, but buoyed and flanked by strings, an organ — maybe a Wurlitzer but maybe not — Someone will tell me the details and specifics I have wrong. Thank you for your email.

Its sounds a bit like digging through records in the basement of my house before it was renovated, carpeted, changed. My mom telling me about Emmylou Harris. Old visions of memories seeing pictures of Emmylou, faded by time on an old dust jacket that was surely once new but now with time and love has weathered and become a memory of a time when it felt exciting to love something new.

Welch moved to something new with Soul Journey, and as it always is with folk purists they were unhappy with whatever emerged from the grooves dug into wax. This sounded new, and purists are never happy with new. An electric bass and those blasted drums. A fucking organ for crying out loud. We live in a society and we are bound by tradition.

Small towns are a bit like that when you come from them. Bound and set in their little ways. Streets that live like memories, they haunt and taunt you without uttering a word. It was a nice and fine trip back to the concrete I know by directions but not so much by names and it was tiring. People that half-remember me that know me well enough to still say hello, can never remember what name I have anymore but they know my concrete still. They know my turns, remember my place in the history of all this.

People forget what gender to recall me by. My family, bless their trying hearts, waffle between referring to me in he’s and she’s and I just let it all go. It doesn’t really matter, even though it hurts a little. Haven’t they seen how much I have grown and changed and become something new. Can’t they hear just how much adding the rhythm of a drum to whatever lives beneath me has made me bigger, louder, something so beautiful.

Sometimes it doesn’t really matter, you can always be measured by the mark of your past days. And it was nice to see them all. My mom looks happier than the last time I did and I think for the first time in years that maybe her health is getting a little better. My dad turned 70 and still seems younger than me sometimes. My sister and brother in law the kind of couple you aspire to be, who got married young and seem just as in love now as I have ever seen them. Their three kids, the oldest graduating from high school this year making me feel impossibly old.

We are all as we remember ourselves, but we are all always something new. We have drums below us now.

Sometimes my memory tells me I love a record, and sometimes I am let down, but never with Gillian Welch. I posted “Look at Miss Ohio” in my Instagram stories and the DMs flood from people who similarly love this one, or they love “Lowlands” and its haunting rhythm, how it feels like a classic song being written right in front of you. The traditional songs on the record that Welch makes her own — “Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor” and “I Had a Real Good Mother and Father” — that you would be forgiven for thinking they were her own.

The added layers, the drums and the strings and electricity of it all, are what makes this record, taking the established idea of who Gillian Welch was, paired with her longtime partner David Rawlings. It ends with rapturous applause, with “Wrecking Ball” very much the pick up and play jam happening in a living room on fading furniture and tired instruments hammered on by worn thin fingers. Welch’s voice swaggers and shines, feels like it’s reaching for something at times, and at others is just giving a voice to the night. Playful, tender, pained and yearning all at once. Instruments follow along, as they have all throughout the record. An electric guitar adds fuzz where there has never been before, and that organ bounces in one last time. You can imagine yourself singing along to words you don’t even know. New memories peaking through the concrete.

"Wrecking Ball" is Welch preparing to meet the critique of how much she has changed. A nod, perhaps, to Dylan going electric in the opening with the line look out boys, I'm a rollin' stone. More than anything though, Welch sounds like she is looking back on the places and people she has emerged from. All the roads that led here, a young deadhead, farms and pastures, the promise of a education that never came to measure in the end. A past bright with colours saturated by drugs and time. Not lamenting, just remembering. The strength in the present as we process the past.

In an interview in the Boston Globe, Welch says "Everything's not supposed to sound the same, you want it to reflect change and growth."

I am back home now, my found home in Toronto with Lysh and our dog and two cats. Tired and a little tender but just a little. More than anything glad that I went, happy to have been there, the memory of the little moments that hurt will fade on the dust jacket and become something static and hidden away. They don’t really matter, what matters is all the ways we continue to emerge for folks to see and to hear.

This idea of something new, growing and changing, adding new layers to old memories will never be perfect, never be for everyone. It might hurt when people only remember you as the faded thing you have left behind, but there will always be the triumph at the end of the night when all you have built for yourself, so new and full of dynamic promise, comes together to make something beautiful.