It was the last day of school. 8th grade, Landisville, Pennsylvania. The bell rang. It was officially summer vacation. But in the first hours of that summer vacation, I stayed at school into the evening to finish painting my mural of a horse outside of the science classroom.
At the time, I still wanted to be a veterinarian, and I liked art, so it felt very relevant to my future. And it was fun to get to put a little paint on those middle school walls. That horse mural really took it out of me, though, and once I made it out for summer vacation, I pretty much quit making art. The veterinarian idea faded away too.
Instead, by the time I graduated high school in 2008, I couldn't describe or determine what I possibly wanted to do. I felt called to discover the world beyond desks and walls, so I traveled for months, living voluntarily close to nature and the unknown--- a car across the country, then a van, and then with little other than a backpack, a bike, a fiddle, and a friend.
I learned to pay attention to medians and alleys and strays and stars. I shook Hillary Clinton's hand on Grafton Street in Ireland, and the hands of train hoppers and farmers and artists. I played my fiddle and sang. Jacob played the spoons. I didn't know it at the time, but I was learning the unshakeable alchemy of music. I followed the music all the way to a a firepit on a hidden cove in the Canary Islands, where I sang "Oh, Susanna" in between my fumbling, bumbling Spanish. Music was language. I had played the violin in the orchestra since I was 9 years old, and loved it, but this was one of the moments I became a musician. It was December 2009. I was learning.
Suddenly, it was December 2015. The Stray Birds had just finished recording the music that would become Magic Fire. My bandmate Oliver and I were up late with Oliver's dad Tim, hanging out in the kitchen making nachos. Tim laughed about how all you have to do to make nachos is "wave the magic fire stick". My ears had been wide open for any words that might capture the essence of the collection of songs The Stray Birds had just recorded. We needed a title for the record, and a record cover. "Tim," I exclaimed, "what did you just say?"
It was officially the holidays. I had an idea, and unlike most of my ideas in the past ten years, which have been content to exist in the medium of pen and paper and story and song, this one took me right back to that middle school science hallway state of mind--- visualizing a swirl of color and feeling where there had been a blank space before.
I asked my bandmates, and Yep Roc Records, if I could take on the album artwork for the new record. To my surprise, and delight, and terror, everyone said yes.
I came across a photo I'd taken on a hike in Georgia. My friends Jacob and Caitlin had left the trail to walk up a fallen tree. As my traveling and busking companion for many of those months, I had watched Jacob walk into the mystery time and time again. What is it that compels any of us to walk up a fallen tree? To leave the familiar ground, to inch our way into the aliveness of imbalance?
I couldn't see the path yet, but Jacob was my humanity. I was going to give him a magic fire stick and send him up that tree into the unknown. Humankind holding fire is one of the things that separates us from the rest of the animals. It has fueled nations, revolutions, stories, feasts. And it melts the cheese on nachos.
One day in December, we had asked, "Justin, how did you learn how to do this?" He maneuvered the maze of knobs and wires and microphones in his studio with such ease and grace.
Justin was the engineer for Magic Fire. He did live sound for Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble for many years, and engineered a few Grammy-award winning albums along the way. And he is a great cook.
"I watched a lot of youtube videos," he said.
So I got on youtube. I watched a lot of videos on carving and printing. And I went to the art store and asked some shy questions. And then I just sat by the wood stove in my parents house -- the same chair I was sitting in when I wrote "Radio" (one of the songs on Magic Fire) and literally started chipping away at the cover art. It was so daunting that it was peaceful.
I've used my hands to draw melodies and rhythms out of instruments, and to set up tents, and to drive thousands of miles, and to turn the key to my new front door in Nashville, but I was feeling my hands in a new way. Or an old, forgotten, beloved way.
I became obsessed with capturing the energy you feel when you are willing to go into the unknown. The more I carved, the more I was able to wander a new landscape of focus in my mind-- different than the landscape of my mind when I am looking out the window on a drive across the plains, or on stage singing to one pair of smiling eyes, or speaking aloud "I am a musician" when I cross the border to come home to the United States.
Working with simple black and white prints, the colors were still an exciting question. I watched a few more youtube videos on the colors we do not see, the frequencies we do not hear, all of the undercurrents and rustlings and shades of this living planet that we may never experience. Through the eyes of birds and bees, the trees may well be ultraviolet!
We fall in love with singing together. We catch a spark, we make a band. And now we travel through thick and thin together. After the storms, when the wood gets wet, we patiently dry out the wood together, huddling by the fire, telling stories.
The fire comes roaring back again, and we welcome others to come enjoy the warmth, and tell a story of their own. When the fire is roaring, and you pull a stick right out of that fire, and walk into the darkness carrying a light that you have cradled and nurtured with your own time and patience, who knows the new things you will see when you carry your magic fire into the unknown?
"The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized... poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action." -Audre Lorde