Below is our interview with The Last Optimist, a singer/songwriter, poet, and activist from Massachusetts, recently featured with the EP This Moment Is Gone.
The folk sound throughout your new EP, This Moment Is Gone, plays with an intimate sincerity. The opening “let go of this breath” plays with an empathetic relatability, conveying how panic attacks can arise with debilitating effects. What inspired your decision to so eloquently capture the feelings of a panic attack, in audible form?
First, thank you for the interview – I love Obscure Sound’s critical role in connecting indie musicians with their tribes. And thanks for the question. I never intended to play ‘this moment is gone’ publicly much less record it. But then I started to realize a duty to help in a time where 1 in 5 – literally tens of millions of people – are struggling with mental health, most doing so in complete isolation and without support. This song wants to create empathy for things that are hard to see and understand if you haven’t stood quaking in those shoes “locked up, all thoughts are blacked out, hit panic and run now, don’t talk just get out, heat flash and a wet brow, then dropped like a wet towel, betrayed by my own head, a castaway exile.” This song tries to create connection and compassion among those who have been there, have done the work, have fought their way to the other side, and who are now turning around to help those behind them. Empathy is hard to access when we can’t possibly imagine what something really feels like – but music can do that for us. This little song has some work to do in the world.
The following track, “beneath a towering tree,” reminds me of feeling grounded within nature. With lines like “a tree saved my sister’s life,” — what is the track’s thematic focus?
‘beneath a towering tree’ is a true story. A long time ago my sister was in a car accident and was crushed by a truck after the driver had fallen asleep, crossed lanes, and ran over her little car. We did what all families do and we held vigil around a hospital bed for many desperate days. I think it was my brother who told me I needed to get some air and go walk my sister’s dog. In the very early morning light, I walked into the woods a few miles from the hospital and for reasons I still don’t understand, hugged a big tree. Now I’m not a very religious person but in that moment I was filled with some sort of incomprehensible something – energy maybe. I carried it back to the hospital bed and somehow transferred every ounce of it to my sister. She turned a corner that day and started her long fight back. She is alive and thriving today. Turning all of that into a humble song I am grateful for Sam McArthur who brought in the grand piano part that draws forth the feelings of that time. There is much about nature that we don’t know and in the song’s own words: “so perhaps when you stumble, upon a tree hugger, tread quietly away, and leave her be – misunderstood, small and trembling, beneath a towering tree.”
Your day job is in helping state governments reform behavioral health delivery systems, and helping mental health centers and hospitals perform critical care roles. Do you typically jump right into a songwriting/music role when arriving home after work, or do things tend to ruminate more into off days?
The music gets its own lane and I fit it in where I can in the early mornings, late at night, and on the weekends. In my day job I serve my mission to improve behavioral healthcare with the traditional tools of strategy and system reform. In my off time all the trappings of the day’s work fall away and I tap into the creativity of songwriting and music. Lately the mission throughline has been the same in all parts of my life and I am finding that things I cannot change through my job can be approached completely differently with a guitar and a microphone.
What advice would you give to someone frequently experiencing panic attacks, especially if it’s a new occurrence for them?
The first time we come upon any form of mental health challenge it is pretty scary. I guess my advice is to realize you are in good company (more than 1 in 5 of us are in that boat with you) and go talk to people about it without fear. It’s a surprisingly common occurrence and lots of normal people deal with these challenges every day. One of my mistakes, and one to avoid, is a fun little word called ‘catastrophizing.’ That’s when you take something and blow it all out of proportion until you are sure you are on the path of being a crazy person exiled to the fringes of society to die alone and afraid. That’s just not going to happen if you stay connected with people, get some help where you need it, and remember that your ability to cope with adversity is far stronger than you realize in this moment.
Do you have a specific process or ritual when creating new music?
Yes! It’s one part ritual, two parts hard work, and one part luck. My ritual starts in the dawn’s light with making a cup of coffee and sitting down with a blank piece of paper. Sometimes I stare at blank sheet for an hour and that’s ok. I try to remember a very specific part of my life that has a lot of emotion attached to it (love, anger, shame, joy) and then the words bubble up. I grab the words as fast as I can when they want to flow – that’s the most important piece for me. Later, I pick up my guitar and start piecing together the song. I’m a drummer too so I think about the rhythm like a drummer then try to make the drum part come out through the guitar line so I can play the song solo or with a band. Then I walk around for weeks on end with the song swirling in my head, I figure out what makes the song fun to play and I revise the awkward bits or toss them out. I love that moment when you put a new title on a set list and realize a song has been born, its alive and growing, and now it’s time to let it out into the world.
Any favorite artists or albums you’re listening to at the moment?
Right now I am surrounding myself with the new music coming out of my own community. Kimayo is putting some brave songs forth right now with her queer faith tour. Danielle Pinals just released her new single ‘mice and men’ that is nostalgia captured perfectly in a song. Susan Levine continues to write brutally honest music that pulls directly on the heartstrings. Old Tom & the Lookouts takes on some challenging subjects and always does so with meticulous orchestration. There is so much right in our backyards when we look for it.
If you could collaborate with any artist, alive or dead, who would it be?
You know what would be fun? Teaming up with Julien Baker and Courtney Barnett. Julien is absolutely fearless in sharing her hard personal work and I would love to write lyrics together that connect with all of the teenagers and young adults that are facing off with mental health right now. Courtney brings to the party an uncanny ability to channel 70s punk 50 years in the future, Australian storytelling, and a left-handed Fender and Marshall stack that can blow the walls off any room. That would be a tour!
What do you find is the most satisfying part of being an artist?
I write and perform music to put new ideas in people’s heads, to shift perspectives, to challenge how we perceive our world. I’m also always on a mission to help better humanity and music provides a platform to speak truth and a medium to reach hearts. I am deeply satisfied when I get to play a song that is beautiful and sing lyrics that connect with and light up those who are with me.
What is the biggest challenge you find in today’s music industry?
I am most challenged by the near impossible task musicians face with finding and connecting with our tribes. The positive trend in music is that we now have almost complete ‘democratization’ of the industry and anyone with interest and effort can put music into the world. The downside is how crowded everything has become. I am extremely grateful to the readers of Obscure Sound who put effort into looking for new artists, who find joy in discovering a sound they have never heard, and who make it a part of their identity to wrap themselves up in good music as it is happening. That’s rare and it just may be the only thing that keeps independent music afloat.
What’s upcoming for the project?
A new album is percolating! The muse spigot is flowing freely right now and I am able to write a new song nearly every week. Several people have challenged me to write some counterbalance to the very ‘sad folk’ songs on ‘this moment is gone’ and I’m reluctantly rising to the challenge. I am someone who is allergic to super happy music – it just sounds inauthentic to my ear and it seems to miss the depth of human experience with all of its beautiful flaws. Lately though, I’ve found the middle way and am writing songs that are still challenging but doing so with major chords and traditional rhythms. I wrote a song last week that was 75% major chords and it wasn’t terrible – it didn’t hurt – and it may even be fun to listen to. So that’s the project – a new challenge – a new album – a new tour.