Grammy Nominated Artist Seth Glier On Grief and Action
The aftermath of loss forges way to activism and power within the music of Seth Glier, a Grammy nominated and two-time Independent Music Award winning artist performing in Saratoga Springs on Nov. 26 at Caffe Lena. On a brisk Tuesday afternoon, I jumped into a whirlwind of a fifteen minute phone call with the man himself. We talked the imprint the hand of grief leaves on a soul, and the call for activism apparent in today’s society.
Glier embodies purpose in the light of grief with a kind, New England twang to his voice manifesting understanding. Glier’s latest album, Birds, is a response to the grief inherent in the cruelties of an unjust culture. The record follows the passing of Glier’s brother, who had struggled with Autism his whole life. His death resulted in an influx of writing, a way to work through the complex thoughts Glier was experiencing.
When the world knows nothing but despair, how do you beg someone to return to it? In the sixth song on the album, “Like I do,” Glier begs for an apology from an unnamed entity, wishing they would feel the hurt and grief he does in light of ultimate loss. This growing feeling pain and utter hopelessness builds into a frustrated plea for help.
“I was both equal parts grieving him and wanting him to come back into this world and grieving the world I wanted him so desperately to come back into. 2016 was quite a year for all of us, and when I started writing for this record. Leonard Cohen has this wonderful line that ‘Your songs come from a state of crisis.’ Any expression kind of comes from this state of crisis,” says Glier concerning his music and lyricality. “They can be therapeutic, but sometimes they can just be a springboard to something. I really am always trying to link -- a lot in this record -- where my own grievances are and where there is a universal commonality of grievances.”
Every morning while Glier headed over to his piano to work on melodies and ideas, birds from a nearby dormant smokestack would fly over to perch on the windowsill. These interactions influenced the record’s opening song “Sunshine,” as well as “Birds” -- the birds become companions, creatures welcomed into Glier’s world without overwhelming him with the space they take up.
After some time, Glier began to talk to these birds, claiming “they behaved a bit like mediators between this world and a spiritual one. I was able, almost like therapy, to get my thoughts out.” With these creatures, Glier was able to reach an honesty within himself concerning the depression sinking its teeth into his flesh, singing “the truth is, I can’t take more rain.”
The spirituality and the presence of nature that these birds provided elevate the tone and melodies into moments equivalent to the coziness of rainy sunsets. From birds to water and sunshine, nature weaves herself into each lyrical achievement. She provides an uncertainty that motivated Glier’s creations in accordance to the beauty he saw gathering around his window each morning.
“I’ve spent the last several years talking to birds and getting a tremendous amount of meaning from that interaction. Whether they were saying anything to me at all, or whether they were hearing me or maybe they were just looking for food, all of that to me is somewhat irrelevant. I found a beauty in just being able to pay attention without looking for any particular meaning. I find just as much excitement in doubt as I do with certainty. I think I find more excitement in questioning things than I do about concrete answers.”
Birds acts as a medium in which Glier could take the grief left by his brother’s passing and “make some meaning from his life than just being over.” From the age of fourteen, Glier acted as his brother’s care provider, which instilled an indescribable bond between two human beings no matter their blatant differences. This style of relationships has stuck with Glier since then.
“I was navigating the process of really understanding through empathy what someone else’s needs are and how to navigate that. [This understanding] changed my job as an artist, and I think that I am lucky enough on a daily basis to be given a mic[rophone]. I think that comes with responsibility to use it to help amplify others’ voices, not just my own.”
As a self-declared storytelling pop-artist, Glier puts a significant amount of pressure on himself to elevate the underrepresented voices. His music has always been a source of activism for him, but with this latest album the messages resonate all the more powerful with gritty songs like “Justice for All” and “Water On Fire,” which interrupt the melancholy with punches of infuriation.
“There’s a lot I think we should be proud of. As for social justice, there’s being an amazing amount of change in a positive way, but it does seem to me that we are criminalizing the symptoms while spreading the disease in just about every facet, when we need policy change. Part of my job, I think as a storyteller, is to help unpack and share the ideas of why we are and what we are. I tell stories so that people begin to hear their own [stories]. I think that’s my way of trying to level the playing field.”
As for his writing style on display in Birds, there is not a single song that sounds the same -- each song has its own reality in which it breathes. Glier perfects the combination of melodic ballads with gritty moments of rebellion, finding inspiration from the greats, including The Beatles.
“I love big melodies and am really inspired by the classic singer songwriters of the ‘70s like Jackson Browne and Carole King, I really love the craftsmanship of their songs. I also believe how you tell a story has the power to change a story; much like Woody Guthrie and those really classic storytellers. So I try to do that in a more modern fashion,” explained Glier.
The honesty inherent on this record demands vulnerability not only from Glier, but from each listener who finds themselves in contact with Birds. Each song is a moment that bleeds truth, frustration, love as they pass along from his mind to our hearts.
“Sometimes I’ve felt like I’ve had to put on particular clothes for an album, because it needs to be a cohesive body of work. But on this one, I sort of just threw out all of those rules and decided to just record the songs I was most proud of without any preconceived contexts of genre,” explained Glier.
Placed among his most personal songs, there is a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” When I asked Glier about his purpose in including this song nestled between such empirical pieces, he explained that he and his tourmate performed it for the first time without proper accompaniments, stripping away unnecessary elements until just lyrics remained.
“That same week Philando Castile was murdered as well as the Dallas five police officers. People were, I think, finding the sides they were on. And they were no longer listening. They were assuming their position in whatever echochamber that much of our society has become. I just felt like that song had a power in its nostalgia; that this is something from fifty years ago and maybe we haven’t gotten that far. The old dog learned new tricks, and here we are trying to figure things out.”
Glier is about halfway through his touring for Birds, and will be in Saratoga on Nov. 26. His music is transcendent, but has hit its mark now -- luckily for us. Glier leaves no prisoners, emotional or real, as his songs sway gently like trees in the wind. There is a beautifully heartbreaking connection between raw grief and a call for justice when we listen close enough to the birds sing.