Son of Cloud and Being Not-Alone

Musicians use funny names, sometimes with little rationale. Jonathan Seale has a story for his. […]

Kendall Gunter / 5.30.19

Musicians use funny names, sometimes with little rationale. Jonathan Seale has a story for his. When his parents were missionaries in Venezuela, members of the Yukpa tribe gave him the name “Son of Cloud.” Now as an adult, he’s embraced it in his self-titled first album.

Seale has been producing for a number of years, for artists such as Josh Garrels, Feist, Fleet Foxes, Lucius, and Andrew Bird. He waited to release his own work, though, until he felt he had experienced enough of life to have something to say:

The songs that meant the most to me growing up were the ones that contained a kind of raw humanity powerful enough to communicate to the listener that they are not alone. I decided I didn’t want to release a record until I felt I would be able to give that feeling to someone else. These songs have been my journal entries for the past ten years, marking family milestones of birth and death, marriage and separation. Now I’m sending them out into the world to find new homes in the hearts and ears of other people who need songs in the way that I do.

He wants his music to give us a sense of belonging. And that’s how this album feels.

My favorite track is “Requiem For Dana Lynn.” It sounds like a spiritual, and like the rest of the album, it’s littered with biblical allusions and quotations. (Chalk that up to missionary homeschool life.) “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone,” Seale begins, in an elegy for a relative who died. The rhythm is measured and calm, but the experience that spawned it was violent and dark. According to Seale, Dana had suffered severe intellectual disabilities that caused her physical harm for much of her life. Yet the volatility and degradation of his family’s pain Seale refracts into peace, which is how the other songs feel, too—the throb of anxiety and longing made melodious.

I listened to this album alone. Others were in the room, but I had my headphones in. Yet even if they’d heard it with me, how does an album really make me feel not-alone? The artist isn’t there with me. Can his sentiment be anything more than nice words?

I think Seale wants it to be. And what this album evokes is more than a passing emotion. Were I a pretentious literato (which I unfortunately am), I might call it Sehnsucht, that deliciously German word for yearning. It’s a sense of loss, and a longing to recover what we can’t anymore. It’s oriented toward the past, but only as our losses haunt our potential futures. Which is where the hope comes in, the hope of real connection.

As in “Requiem,” the whole album is shaped by a Christian vocabulary. Seale says, “As I wrote this album, I thought often about the biblical mandate for humans to be agents of healing, both physical and spiritual. … The biblical theme that has always resonated most with me is the idea that no person or city or system is ever beyond redemption.” As the album continues, a kind of hope shadows these songs. It’s eschatological, even—it looks forward to renewal, in this world. But it starts by acknowledging the fractures, in and outside of ourselves. First there’s the frankness of “I Am Not An Island”:

I was a stubborn prideful man but you have made me understand that
I’m just a man out here in the darkness walking
And I need you out here walking beside me

This song, with its hunger for companionship, was how Seale proposed to his wife, in fact, so already the isolation he describes is giving way to intimacy. And that’s where the album turns next, in “Parade” and “Restoration Song.” Earlier, in “Requiem,” Seale tells Dana, “your mother is calling you home to her side.” Now, in “Restoration,” he seems to speak in the voice of all the departed parents: “Welcome home, little one / You are safe in our arms.” The first stanza expresses that welcome, the second describes the sorrow—“But the garden was lost / And the well has run dry”—and the third announces a restored hope, part fairy tale, part prophecy:

But the people in darkness
Have seen a great light
Where the winter has lingered
Again there is life
The young have seen visions
Of a life without struggle
That the old may lay dreaming
In the arms of their lovers
The hungry will eat from the meat of our table
The thirsty will drink from the fruits of our labor
The cycle was broken in heaven and earth
And the sting of the grave has been traded for birth

Seale’s album does feel like some kind of welcome, like being not-alone, because what he does is sigh with us. He’s on the other end of the record, of course, and we don’t know one another. But by professing his hopes so openly, it feels like they aren’t so distant after all.