I’ve always believed that during our times of greatest celebration, and our greatest adversity, music is what helps get us through. And at its heart, Music Diaries is a celebration of how art and artists reflect the tone and tenor of their communities. All of which is to say: What a crucial time for the return of this series.
Music Diaries At Home is a two-part special in which we catch up with the artists we met during this show’s first season to see how they are navigating these unpredictable times, and to see what it looks and feels like when they perform from their intimate at-home environments. This episode features the conscious South LA rap of Def Sound, the harmonious sunshine pop of JEMS, and the soulful roots of singer-songwriter Sam Morrow.
At first, we figured our hands were full just speaking to the circumstances of this pandemic: how was the coronavirus affecting these artists’ creativity, their livelihood, their relationships with their fans, and also just their day to day existences? And then George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police brought another transformational energy to a centuries-old problem, and the nature of this series, just like the nature of all of our lives, began vibrating on yet another frequency.
“My duty, as an artist, like Nina Simone would say – the artist’s duty is to tell the truth of the time, to be the truth of the time,” Def Sound told me, addressing the reckoning around race in this age of pandemic. “There are some people who have not been treated as full human beings. Black people have not been given the full range of opportunity.”
For Def, who chose to shelter in place at an artist co-op during this COVID-19 outbreak, the themes he has spoken to as a spoken-word poet for years are now at the fore of a broader cultural conversation. But despite the severity of these twin pandemics of coronavirus and racism, Def said it’s also important to bring “black joy” into the equation. With that in mind, he shares with us his new song “Struck!” with frequent collaborator Annabelle McGuiness.
For the trio JEMS, whose aesthetic (and friendship) is reflected in closely bound harmonies, this time of forced separation presents its own challenges, especially as the trio is preparing a new album. Their performance for us, however, takes things to a lighter level.
“We filmed ourselves in our most natural quarantine state and have kind of embodied all the various activities we’ve been experimenting with during quarantine,” Jessica Rotter says, though just transcribing that quote doesn’t quite communicate how cheeky it is. (You have to watch the performance to understand.) “And we did a song called ‘Take Me Back,’ which is about being free, a time when you didn’t have to restrict yourself - and ironically, we are singing this song during our lockdown.” (That time the cheek comes across just fine.)
And finally, we have Sam Morrow, whose journey to the top of Rolling Stone’s top country artists to watch list had its share of adversity, which has given him a wellspring of confidence and perspective to face these strange times.
“I think the important thing for creatives right now is not trying to put too much pressure on yourself,” Sam told me, a message of hard-earned forgiveness in a time that’s challenging many people’s sense of identity and worth – adding that he’s spending time meditating, and watching Netflix, and of course, singing and songwriting. On that front, he gives us a new one called “Sit Crooked,” a gritty gut-check in which he duets with himself on slide guitar.
Three artists with different life experiences, bringing us a panoptic look at life during a pandemic. In a way, this half-hour is a time capsule of how we all are internalizing our rapidly reorganized reality – through social justice, interpersonal hijinks, and introspective expressionism. Thanks to Def, JEMS, and Sam for the time, the thoughtfulness, and the laughs. You can catch all three of them on Instagram.