Michael Lesousky’s (Grassland String Band) debut solo record, Deep Shade of Blue, is a collection of bittersweet narratives about small town isolation. “Hope & Desolation,” is a mid-tempo meditation that sounds like John Prine singing with Sufjan Stevens’ earnestness, In the song, Lesousky’s accompanied by the gentle warble of an upright piano, and the delicate harmonies of Athens songwriter Mamie Davis. You can listen to here.
SC: “Hope & Desolation” is a beautiful song. I love how the speaker’s isolation in the first stanza “there are people who won’t look me in the eye”—transforms into the chorus’ declaration of “here I am. / Take me where you want”. How do you view the tension between isolation and acceptance working in the song?
ML: Seemingly, I’m a very extroverted person. I can make small talk. I can say hello to my many acquaintances on the streets. However, I’m at the same time very shy and I work hard everyday to deal with my inability and pressure to withdraw from human contact. The hardest part of being a musician, artist, creative type is putting yourself out there. I might be well received on the outside, but on the inside feel desolate and alone. There is a great duality to fame, for instance. I see artist who rise to prominence and they are fully accepted and loved for what they do, but nobody really knows who they are and it causes a great instability on the inside of the artist and leads to depression or apathy. I know that I am good musician. I know that I am good songwriter. I know people like me and they enjoy hearing what I play and sing. But, I also have a great fear that I am not known. The greatest acceptance is of one’s own self and personal imperfections—unconditional love. I feel that I am daily coming to terms with my own self, my frailty, my struggle to see behind others eyes, my hope for a better day, my fear that I will never be satisfied mixed with the anxiety of satisfaction and feeling the oncoming apathy of the American dream. I don’t know. This song is basically seeing past all these ideas and thoughts, past the ideas of fame or famine into a place where I can find rest in who I am but also who those around me are and who my creator is. I feel I really want rest; to be taken out of control because I always mess things up - not to mention I have terrible sleeping habits. I don’t want the power, I want to bask in the glory of something greater than myself–and hopefully get a consistent good night's rest.
SC: Dynamically, the song feels symphonic compared to the bare bones simplicity of the rest of the record. Why did you choose “Hope & Desolation” as the closing track?
ML: This song was what started my recording process of Deep Shade of Blue. I felt a calling to record Hope & Desolation one Sunday at church. Thus, birthing the album. It is symphonic. I find as a musician the struggle to be heard leads pushing for more and more volume. Ever since my work with Sye Elaine Spence on her records, I’ve practiced being quieter, resting in my melodies, and becoming more delicate. I love being loud, I love punching people in the face with my voice, but a wise teacher once told me that you can really see the strength of musician, in a storyteller, when they play slow and quiet. That’s the purpose of this song, to tell the story of desolation I experienced in my life through song. There was no option besides Hope & Desolation to end the album because it lifts the album of the ground, out of the pit, and delivers hope to the listeners—and to myself as the composer.
SC: What was your writing process like for this song?
ML: It began in the car. Like a lot of my songs, they appear in my head. I can see the image. I am a very image-driven writer. I love attaching my songs to concrete places. I’ve actually spent time on the corner of broad. I think this song developed as I searched for it. I’ve gone through volumes of different songs with similar messages and different lyrics and approaches until one day I realized this one captured the essence and directness of how I wanted to tell the story. To me the song fits perfectly in my head, and when I sing it feels right. As with all my songs, I always let them simmer and see how they evolve. I’ve always thought the best writing, the writers I love the most, have stories that evolve with the listener. I found “Hope & Desolation” evolving with me and capturing different emotions whenever I played it back through my demos, that’s ultimately why I chose it as the song to tell the story of coming out of depression.
SC: How often do you write? Do you keep a songwriting schedule or do you wait to be inspired?
ML: Luckily for voice memos, I see the dates and it’s often around the 20th day of the month, roughly speaking. Typically, I don’t have a writing schedule. For me songs need space. They need to know they are free. Sort of like a dog, it’s best to stand at a distance with a treat and let it seek you out. So, I let my songs seek me out. With that said, I write a lot. I feel that it because I don’t hold too tightly to songs, I let them be themselves and they know they have a safe home with me. A lot of writers, namely Patterson Hood, writes as if he is receiving it through an imaginary antenna. I feel I am often receiving a transmission and am always on standby. Sometimes it’s a clear signal, like a song I wrote called “American Flag” just poured through me and it just happened. Other times, it’s hazy or I don’t listen and it gets lost. It all depends, but one thing I will tell you is that it’s definitely something supernatural and otherworldly and I am honored to be the medium for these mystic transmissions. My brain is basically an FM radio—or Sirius XM depending on which one you subscribe too.
SC: How does your community of songwriters influence your writing?
ML: It influences me in a subtle way. I don’t co-write (with for a few exceptions). I’ve been writing for over 10 years. I have a certain way I like my songs to feel or I get a lot of ideas and I work them out myself. The biggest influence my community has on me inspiration. I get to hear sounds they make and approaches they take and say “Hey, I should try to incorporate a dissonant note here, or I should phrase this melody like this, or I should write a lyric that makes me feel uncomfortable.” My community is too diverse to know how deeply it affects me because I would not be a good, sane, grounded artist without the concept of other acclaimed artists who write incredible songs and reach for the unknown.
Right now, I live in Athens GA [Editor’s note: Michael has since completed his move to Nashville] and there is an amazing ability and opportunity to be whatever you want to be here. If I wanted to wear a yellow wig and play avant-garde jazz will soaking my feet in a salt bath, that would be cool and people would get a kick out of it. If I want to Michael Lesousky the Americana dude (trademark) with chukkas and a snap-button down shirt singin’ songs about whiskey, that’s cool too. Soon, I’ll be relocating Nashville Editor’s note: Michael has since completed his move to Nashville] with my wife. The community will be different and the allotted “freedoms” might change, but I feel my identity is grounded and I’ll be able to grow from whomever, or, whatever is lurking the deep hollows of Nashvegas. And I’m excited to co-write (maybe?), because I hear that’s a big thing up there.
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