This is not a scenario I have often found myself in, yet it was the exact situation presented to me by Anna Joy Tucker during our writing and concept production. Anna’s close friend (let’s call him David) had been diagnosed with ALS, also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”. Slowly, he had begun losing functions in his limbs and was well on his way to being fully paralyzed. This is truly a despicable disease. ALS is a death sentence and, for those diagnosed, it brings with it the mental fatigue of watching your body slowly shut down and become a tomb. Your motor functions. Your speech. And eventually your life…
But there is another dynamic to all terminal illness; the suffering of family and friends staying strong for their loved ones. David’s wife (let’s call her Grace) was forced to hold in her grief and sorrow and pain in order to be a rock for her beloved.
Anna had received word that the ALS was days away from taking the life of the long-suffering David. Anna had been working on a concept for a song in empathy and solidarity with the immense difficulty of their situation and she wanted to share this piece with the both of them before he passed. As she often does, Anna had been reflecting on a verse from the Bible – Romans 7:24 -“Who will deliver me from this body of death”. While the Bible is often figurative… for David and Grace, it didn’t get much more literal than that.
As we sat down together with guitar and piano, we tried hard to relate and empathize; having your own body of death; standing proudly and supportively next to the body of the death of the one you love; trying to find hope and joy in this life, while the death of your body loomed. Anna wanted to not only express the despair but the hope that she had seen from her two friends.
What slowly rose to the top was a word. “Still”. As an adjective, it means “not moving or making a sound” – precisely what David’s body was becoming. As a noun, it can mean “a deep silence or calm, stillness” – the type of stillness Grace was forcing herself to suffer. And then, as the ever-poetic adverb, it can represent a “continuation of a situation” or “nevertheless, all the same”. We began to use these three parts of speech to form a tension pivot within the lyrics, going from a noun to an adverb, to an adjective, and then back again. Anna then applied her “Songs for the Storm” concept and used water/drowning paired with lost/cold to bring a physical texture to the “still” concept.
Paired with the tense lyrics, we formed our chord progressions and structure to use suspensions and half-step clusters. Landing on the relative minor but never giving a peace with a solid major one chord. As we developing the track we wanted our drummer and bass player to help us continue the building tension alongside the chordal instruments. In verse 2, We asked Brian Wolfe (bass) and Keith Hall (drums) to try and speak to each other with a dying body. Try and say something; try to bring out a phrase, then stop; fall apart; skip a beat; get angry; get sad; get frustrated; talk over each other and get stuck.
Then came the first chorus…At first, the chorus was to be the hopeful “still” section. But we realized that this could not be the case… in this tense situation, everything wasn’t going to be “alright” just by looking to God. Again, Anna found inspiration from the Bible; from the Hebrew tradition of questioning God; from a plea of desperation; It was not an answer to the tension. Rather, at last, the first coherent thought. And it brings us to our first relative major one chord harmonically. It became a formal recognition of suffering and a beseechment as to its end.
This verse and chorus combination felt right. It felt real and natural. Honest. But we wanted to find a way to incorporate that third “still” element; the hope. The hope would finally arrive in an ending coda Anna began to play. A simple right-hand ostinato with a confident cadential melody in the bass, all in the relative major key. Lyrically, we wanted it to be as simple as the verse. To use the word “still” but in contrast with the despair. It didn’t seem right to simply offer a melodramatic happy ending or even a response from a God who is right in the midst (which could have been beautiful too). Rather, we decided to focus on the choice
that Grace and David had to make in the midst of their tension and anger – “Still I will love you. Still I will trust you” and the most beautiful line of all – “Still I will find a way to gratitude”. To choose to find the light in the darkness; the hope in the despair; to try and be grateful, even if it seems impossible. Of course, Anna took this simple concept and used her natural talent and instincts to make the coda rise and grow in hope. We then decided that a soaring instrument to accompany this building towards light and hope would be a wonderful addition. So we asked Lydia Schubkegel to improvise in the upper-register of her cello, bringing a perfect cap to this hopeful coda.
In the end, this was the ultimate theme of “Still”. The relief of tension by our choice to hope and trust and thank even in our darkest places; even when there is seemingly no reason to do so.
David and Grace did get to hear the song. The stillness finally came as David passed away soon after. “Still” will be part of David’s legacy passed on through the eternal medium of music and poetry. Hopefully, David and Grace, and the many others who suffer in the “stillness“ will connect and, perhaps, will find a way to love, trust, and thank in the midst of that storm.