February, 2017 began uneventfully. The middle of winter has never been my favorite time of year, and so as you might expect, I was longing for Spring. I was planning out The Dawn, but there was nothing pressing on the horizon. I was scheduled to play at a few funerals, so I was kept busy with music memorization and piecing together routine Sunday morning services. Everything was typical… pretty ordinary.
Until February 15…
I returned home from providing music at a funeral and went through the motions of practicing for the upcoming Sunday service. Then I made my way into the kitchen to prepare dinner. It was while I was waiting for my meal to finish cooking that I checked Facebook. And that’s when the world came to a devastating stand-still.
I was scrolling through friends’ posts when I saw something that stole my breath. There were several posts regarding my friend, John. I scrolled down his timeline, reading things like: “RIP,” “You will be missed,” “I love you…” The posts went on and on, and I began to shake. This couldn’t be real. But the more I read, the more I began to comprehend that it must be real. All of these people were mourning the loss of my dear friend, and I didn’t know anything.
What had happened? Had he been ill? Where was he when he died? These may not seem like questions a close friend would be asking, but the truth was, I didn’t know a lot about John’s activities. He was a concert organist, and quite often, he was traveling. Although we stayed connected through Facebook, email, texts, and phone calls, we didn’t see each other in person very frequently. He lived in New York, and I was in Wisconsin. Throughout our seven-year friendship, we had only been together in person on two occasions.
We may not have connected often, but when we interacted, it was meaningful and memorable. John was one of those people who made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. Music brought us together, and he was my cheerleader of sorts. When he learned I was a songwriter, he made it his mission to ask about my creative process.
“Have you written any songs lately?” he would ask early on in many of our conversations.
“No,” I would often respond. “I’ve been really busy.”
Sometimes, I would make other excuses: I hadn’t been inspired, it was too difficult, I didn’t have any ideas, etc. But John didn’t accept those excuses. “You’re a songwriter,” he would tell me. “Songwriters write songs. So go write something.”
I’ve said it before. Songwriting doesn’t come easily to me. I really have to be intentional to make it happen. In the seven years that I knew John, I only wrote a handful of songs, and you’ve probably guessed it by now, but the excuses continued. When I started leading worship at FRC, crafting arrangements and memorizing songs took priority, and songwriting was shoved to the back burner.
When I learned that John had passed away, I trembled at the reality. I had never made any contact with John’s family, so I had to rely on the posts from friends to piece everything together. It was weeks before I saw an obituary, and it wasn’t until I read the words “funeral” and “in memory,” that it began to sink in. It was hard to imagine that my songwriting cheerleader would no longer call me again and encourage me to create. The loss was staggering.
It was a week after reading those initial Facebook posts when I woke up in the middle of the night to a striking, haunting melody. The lyrics “Please, will you stay with me” were a constant refrain in my consciousness as well, and I found I couldn’t sleep any longer. Frustrated, I rolled over and willed my mind to calm so I could get some rest. I think I dozed off, but it wasn’t long before the melody and lyrics returned again. I recognized that this was probably a song that needed to be written, but I was tired and I longed to sleep. I told myself that there was no way I could forget a lyric that practically begged to be remembered: “Please, will you stay with me.” I rolled over again and tried to sleep.
At 7:00 a.m., I could no longer fight it. Sleep had eluded me, and the melody had etched itself so deeply into my heart that I didn’t need to record it to retain it. I stumbled into my home office and forced myself to put pen to paper. It was the typical songwriting process for me— messy and meticulous, but I stuck with it. Somehow, I knew this song was a gift, and John wasn’t far from my thoughts as I crafted the lyrics.
“Let the Music Linger” was unlike anything I had ever composed before. It was a song of longing— missing and loving someone deeply. It wasn’t a worship song, nor was it rooted in my typical lyrical style. In a way, it served to give me the encouragement to carry on, to write again, and sing— even as tears streamed down my face. It was startling to think that even in death, John had cheered me on to compose something so special that I longed for him to hear it.
In the coming months, I worked on the album at a feverish pace. “Let the Music Linger” was the fourth song we tackled in the studio, and it was set aside pretty early on so we could focus on the songs that needed more immediate attention. It wasn’t until August, 2018 that we started working on final mixes, and I heard “Let the Music Linger” in its completed state for the first time in months.
I was alone in my living room, multi-tasking because the Packers were playing pre-season football and I had an album to finalize. The TV was muted and my noise-cancelling headphones were in place. The song began to play, and I was transfixed. I was concentrating on the details: balance, volume, reverb, etc… But when I heard the organ enter as the final chorus began, I was reduced to tears. I sobbed for a long time. You see, I hadn’t grieved John’s passing in a healthy way for months. I had been so busy, so focused on the album, that I had forgotten how to embrace the music and the gift that this song had given me.
“Let the Music Linger” was a song that needed to be written. It wouldn’t let me go that first night in my bedroom, and as we finalized the album it still had a grip on me. As I dried my tears, I played the song again on repeat. I found myself smiling, and suddenly, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I had hope that the songs contained on the album would have an impact— that somehow my lyrics and lines could offer comfort and share God’s love from the depths of my own loss.
“Make the melody a memory. Let it never fade away. Let the music linger. Let it live. Let it stay.”