A record of deep loss, raw humanity, and vulnerability, Ian Wayne’s haunting ‘Risking Illness’ captures grief with stunningly visceral alt-folk finesse.
Stream: “Gimme Something” – Ian Wayne
One doesn’t wrestle grief, nor does one confront it. Grief is not something to be fought or accepted, and it can’t be denied, either. When it comes our way, it washes through us like a torrential storm, soaking us to the bone with painful drops that don’t hit all at once, but rather come periodically – in waves. Grief is like nothing you’ve ever felt before, and once you know it, you will never un-know it; it is permanent and everlasting. The best we can do is learn to live with our grief – to persevere through it, with it, in spite of it and alongside it. This is the painful reality at the heart of singer/songwriter Ian Wayne’s new album: A record of deep loss, raw humanity, and vulnerability, the haunting Risking Illness captures grief with stunningly visceral alt-folk finesse.
Gimme something, gimme something
What could it be you put to your face
Gimme something, gimme something
Do you recall if everything was falling apart
If everything was falling apart
Gimme something, gimme something
I’m looking for a place where we can become undressed
Gimme something, gimme something
When I have got no love to give
Or if everything was falling apart
If everything was falling apart
Released September 18, 2020 via Whatever’s Clever, Risking Illness arrives just two years after Brooklyn (by way of Portland) based singer/songwriter Ian Wayne introduced himself through 2018’s debut album A Place Where Nothing Matters (itself the follow-up to the previous year’s At Home EP). A dark and tender outpouring, Risking Illness is heavy – an embrace of space with room to breathe, think, and process. Such depth feels only natural, considering the profound grief lying at its foundation.
“I’ll start with a story because we’re humans, and humans tell stories to process their grief,” Wayne says, diving deeper into that grief and its import and relevance to the music. “In July of 2017, a close friend wrote to tell me that she discovered almost out of the blue that she was dangerously ill; needed surgery; might have a scary form of cancer. When we spoke on the phone, there was fear and sadness but also joy and weird bouts of laughter from both of us. I told her I thought she was brave to see the joy and humor and beauty in her life and not be overcome by fear and sadness. She told me something that has become essential in my life: That the grief was cyclical; that sometimes it was out of her control, and sometimes she could put it in perspective. What’s more, she said, she had learned about grief’s mysterious waxing and waning from another friend the year before, that she was grateful to have seen those cycles before she had to feel them herself. Two months later, my nephew was diagnosed with leukemia, and two weeks after that he passed away suddenly. My friend had surgery and with much effort recovered — her life and her perspective on it remain permanently altered, I think.”
“How does a person process the information from a summer like mine in 2017? Call me on the phone if you’d like me to name the ways. I ask the question above with all honesty, in order to convey how this grief, which has been the most intense and all-consuming in my life so far, has also expanded my world immeasurably, and permanently. It’s covered every surface of my globe, torn back the paper and uncovered new places.”
Grief was for a long, long time, overtaking me. It isn’t now, but it will always be part of me.
Those who have experienced profound grief – whether through loss, pain, illness, or some other form – know the immeasurable power this feeling can hold over us. It is all-consuming; a terrifying, spellbinding force that forever changes us, redefining who we are and how we approach the world. Consider Risking Illness, then, a piece of the artist’s process: His vessel to understand what he had experienced, and what he was experiencing, in a way that is as personal as it is universally relatable.
Musings on grief and loss of all kinds are naturally and expectedly dark, yet Risking Illness does not drown its listeners in a hopeless void; rather than dwell in the ether, it seeks to build a musical and sonic balance between darkness and light.
Don’t expect to come away hopeful – we are sure to learn a thing or two about our own perspectives on life through these songs; but the fact that such a painful topic can inspire reflect is itself a gift to appreciate. Risking Illness‘ album title comes from its penultimate song, “Winter’s,” in which Wayne sings a humble, forlorn tale alongside what starts as sparse backing from guitar, and slowly builds into a full band endeavor:
Risking illness I sit on the stones on winter’s coldest morning
Waiting on not a knock at the door
Risking illness unknown to me now, I get up in the morning
The thought now remains
I can look back and say
From the edge of the stage
I was here when his life slipped away
Unfurl the thought that was plain – he could be there in the morning
Your thousand-yard stare
I didn’t feel him there
He’s gone for me now
For you, he’s around
I was his age times nine
27 on the day that he died
“[It’s the most explicitly autobiographical song on the record,” Wayne explains. “My nephew’s death seemed impossible. It was impossibly sad, but was also almost illogical — it was to make sense of what happened. In the following months, I had the recurring thought that life was fragile, breakable. The thought came in waves. I felt unprotected, felt unable to protect anyone. I wrote “Winter’s” from this place, where it felt brave to be alive in the simplest ways — working, sitting outside in the dark, having a dream. I’m still proud of the optimism in that notion. The songs that aren’t about my grief are still about loss (of love, or of direction, or of self). To show the lightness of those shadows — to show doubt or sadness or fear as an expression of bravery — is important to me. So the title is a way to bridge the thematic differences between songs, but also show the multi-dimensionality of powerfully dark feelings.”
Wayne approached Risking Illness with the intent of being true to reality and true to him and his band; there was to be no sugarcoating, and the intent was to be as organic as possible. “The band and I were in agreement going into our session that our main musical objective was to capture faithful representations of our live performances, which had become spacious and dark,” he explains. “Having a pretty clear vision going in meant we more or less got what we were after. We had been playing most of the album for at least a year on stage, and we felt like we were hearing one another well, so I was confident we’d get something worth keeping. I think there was a consensus on the sonic ‘world’ of the album too, and we figured we knew how to achieve it. So the vision was to track the album in one big push, which we did: basics, vocals and most overdubs for the whole album were done in 11 days. I didn’t expect to feel as fried as I did at the end of the session, but otherwise I think we, kind of, got it.”
With the help of his bandmates Keith Nelson on keyboards, Andrew Stocker (Horse Teeth, Ben Seretan) on bass, and Dan Knishkowy (Adeline Hotel, Ben Seretan) on drums, Wayne brought this heart-on-sleeve group of songs to life. “I was lucky to have a batch of songs that felt cohesive from the jump — even as demos, I could see how they might relate,” he reflects. “Again, I was lucky to have a band that saw that throughline more or less intuitively (because they are incredibly good listeners, and understand my songs sometimes better than I do)…“
“I am proud of my songwriting on this album,” the songwriter eventually states. “I tried to have clarity about each song — how it felt, what it said — before I brought it to the band, and we managed to be faithful to and trusting in those skeletons as we tracked and overdubbed and mixed the record. I also wrote these songs with a certain economy of language which was new for me, but that I think comes across well in songs as sparsely decorated as these. Ultimately, making a record is really just a steady stream of small decisions that contribute in important ways to the end result. Even if you’re a really incredible performer or writer, the unity of a project and fluidity of a project song to song has more to do with production decisions than performance. So if this record works, it’s because it was just intentionally- and well-made from the ground up.”
While best listened to from start to finish for the full emotional, psychological experience, Risking Illness does have certain unmissable moments. The tender “Coyote” opens into the rollicking, feverish “Gimme Something” – and while these adjacent songs seem to deliver on almost opposite ends of the sonic spectrum, they are two halves of the same whole. The record’s midpoint “Baby” is a dramatic upheaval of heavy, tempered overdrive and inescapably naked singing. It is one of the most powerful reckonings on a record that is quite full of these special and intimate moments with oneself:
Baby, I will always love you
In between the times that I do not
And after all my lonesome dreams are captured
I’ll bemoan the loves that I have lost
And would you be one of them
And would I start to
Here we find us in another chapter
In your building tapping at the walls
And washing in with peels of sundry laughter
And in the change from our love’s freeze to thaw
What I have lost
To think of this
What I have sought
What I would miss
While that has one means of stunning, Wayne finds another way to leave his audience breathless in his finale, “This” – a fragile musing whose bare poetry feels at once helpless, drained, and ready to put the matter to bed for now.
I wouldn’t mind some help with this one, babe
To do no harm in breathing minutes
While we delay to finish it
Stuck on the losing end of this green light
And out of season, bells are ringing
It’s just your voice singing
Wringing the rag of my last thoughts on this
The bells ring out of season
And I have no reason
Wayne cites three favorite moments of his own:
The cymbal hit (the one and only in the song) in the second verse of “People”: an almost-comically minimalist decision by Dan Knishkowy (of Adeline Hotel) on drums, but enthusiastically and universally endorsed by the human beings of Planet Earth. Verse 1 and 2 of “Aperture,” bass guitar and piano department: hearing Andrew recording this bass part, I could barely stay seated. Viscerally, I think the best music on the record from all of us happens in the last two minutes of “Winter’s.” I personally enjoyed recording the overlapping lead guitars in that song more than anything else album-wide.
As we continue to live with a certain degree of isolation, Risking Illness arrives with the invitation to be still and soak in the stillness.
An intensely poignant reverie, the record is not for the faint of heart – but those who do venture into its folds will come away refreshed, renewed, and with an invaluable kind of catharsis. “I believe that these songs should be untied from my purposes in writing them,” he’s written on the record sleeve. “I think the pain we’re trying to escape boomerangs back no matter how hard we throw it. I think love can make us blind to our loneliness. Other times, in our loneliness, we miss one another by inches. I believe this will be true for all of us, in some respect, at least once. There is a stark difference, I think, between the loss of a person’s life and the grief that accompanies it. Life ends. There is the moment when they are gone — that tangible thing. Grief though, has no such threshold.” Read the full sleeve here.
Speaking to Atwood Magazine, Wayne further expresses a humility around the music. “I’m thrilled for the conversation about my intentions for the album to quiet down,” he admits. “I hope that folks fill these songs with their own meanings and find their own resonances.” At the end of the day, isn’t that the hope of every songwriter – for their songs to be whatever they need to be, for those listening?
People walking by and we are talking
In the streetlight by the Polish grocery
Trying just to tie up a little tangle
You and I from such different angles
We could be anyone
People walking by and we are talking
Older than us, their-own-business keeping
You and I decide the way it catches
How it empties, if it scratches
It could happen to anyone
We may not be able to run or hide from grief, but we can’t let it consume us, either. Risking Illness is therefore a vessel for processing grief: For experiencing it firsthand, and “soldiering on,” so they say. It is dark; it is full of whatever depth you want it to have; and it is here for you, if and when you need it.
Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside Ian Wayne’s Risking Illness with Atwood Magazine as the singer/songwriter goes track-by-track through the music and lyrics of his sophomore LP!
Stream: ‘Risking Illness’ – Ian Wayne
:: Inside Risking Illness ::
My nephew Merlin died suddenly, about two weeks after being diagnosed with leukemia in September 2017. He was almost four. We celebrated his birthday that November by eating heaps of ice cream in his honor; a celebration we hated and one that we needed, too. It was incredibly painful to do so soon after losing him. In August, nothing had been wrong.
I mention this to convey the sense of confusion and sadness that dogged me at that time – after Merlin’s death and after I was back in New York, across the country from my family in Portland. It’s that state of mind that my song “Coyote” describes. I was untangling the thought that he could have survived the cancer from the fact that he didn’t. I felt helpless in my own life, and useless to my family. I was adrift in the City. My usual haunts and attitudes were trivial — they came back to me like the words to a song I wished I didn’t know. I was predator and prey. And yet in strange moments, I saw that this was my life – mine to hate, but mine, and I needed it.
I always had a sense the record would open with “Coyote,” and that we’d build it around a few complimentary guitar parts. For me it’s the darkest, densest minutes of the record.
I wrote “Gimme Something” in the storm after my nephew’s death, but this song isn’t about me. It’s about being destructive, about oblivion-seeking behavior, about needing help. I think the pain we’re trying to escape boomerangs back no matter how hard we throw it. This song is about how pain returns, sometimes in perfect detail, when we want to be farthest from it. It’s also about that out-of-body feeling that accompanies hopelessness, a feeling that (in an ugly way) permits you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. Grace and disgrace, that’s the idea.
Since just about the first time we played it, “Gimme” has been one of my favorite songs to do with the band. Like most of the album, this recording is pretty faithful to our live performances of the song. We just try to release tension evenly, from sparse staccato 16th notes to a big, splashy, wall of sound.
Now Is Was
One of my greatest goals as a writer is to capture the experience of realizing you’ve caused someone harm. It’s awful, something I hate to do. It’s also beautiful though, to find yourself in an honest moment with another human, especially one you care about. In “Now Is Was,” the last lines of each verse rhyme. I like them as a couplet: “The lines tied to my diversions give warning/ While you, becoming the roses you’re holding.” The song is also about the desire to make it through conflict, to look back on that pain as something you’ve both benefited from. The phrase “Now Is Was” tries to convey the clunkiness of that proposition: would that we could make the present the past; would that pain could be something to relish.
This recording is representative of a larger challenge for us in this record: how to keep sparse songs interesting. For me, it became an exercise in staying relaxed — I’m someone who is perpetually wound up — and trusting that the framework the band had built was all the song needed.
Was/ Just Was
I remember hearing “That’s Us/ Wild Combination” by Arthur Russell for the first time in my tiny bedroom in Brooklyn about 7 years ago. I immediately became obsessed with the lyrics of the song. They feel like the passing thoughts from idle moments, or just before sleep. They happen like memories. They’re fleeting but frozen in time. “That’s Us” is able to both conjure crystal clear scenes and leave space for them to mean whatever you need it to; it’s been a gut-wrenchingly sad song for me at times, at others euphorically happy. Anyhow, this is what I was after with “Was Just Was.” I tried to make terse bits of imagery do the talking in the song, and leave my own story out of it.
This is the only song on the record we were really figuring out during the recording process. Dan Knishkowy, who plays drums in the band, wrote his drum part the first night of our session, while Keith was still setting up microphones and setting levels for the room. I came up with the piano part Keith plays listening back to our rough mixes. Given that so much of the record was conceived the opposite way — through months and years of repetition, playing as a group — I’m really happy with the result.
“Baby” is about an imagined longview of life in love. I believe that all relationships can end, and that they might even if they shouldn’t. I believe that we can also revolve into past relationships if the conditions are right, and that such actions may or may not prove disastrous. I think love can make us blind to our loneliness, and at other times, in our loneliness, we miss one another by inches. I believe that love is guided by optimism, which makes the gnashing of teeth along the way even sadder. I think this will be true for all of us, in some respect, at least once. “Baby” is written from this perspective.
We wanted this song to feel very raw – tempo oozes here and there, there’s plenty of bleed between microphones in the room, and we tracked vocals live.
After many years of being mostly single, “Aperture” emerged. It’s one of the few songs on the record we were performing on tour in the week before my nephew died. The longing it describes is of a world that feels unfamiliar to me now, a world where longing was the biggest, oldest feeling I knew. I think the song speaks for itself. It’s about knowing that the strength of your feelings towards another person cannot change them. I love singing it to crowds — the words feel like what I’d say to a stranger in my wildest dreams. Relatedly, And yes, my favorite song is “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt.
This song exemplifies the selflessness of this band. Andrew’s bassline is perfectly complementary to the melody of the song; I think Dan nailed his part (this was one of only a few that had overdubbed basics) on the first take; Keith’s piano flourishes that close the song are so, so haunting and perfect.
“People” appeared in a different form on my first EP, a solo endeavor recorded with Keith and released in 2017, but quickly became a band favorite. Our approach — emphasizing its framework but otherwise leaving the song bare — was a bit of a turning point for us stylistically, one that is well-represented in songs across the record. The song describes a discreet break-up taking place in public. A tender and significant moment, one that’s universal enough for passers by to understand by small enough for them to miss. Imagine all the quiet stories ending on street corners the world over – to me that’s not such a sad thought!
There’s a stark difference, I think, between the loss of a person’s life and the grief that accompanies it. Life ends; there is the moment when they are gone, that tangible thing. Grief, unlike life, does not turn on and off. It is mysterious, tidal, at times surprising both in its absence and presence. The moment my nephew died marked the beginning of a new way of being in the world for me. It feels like a dock I jumped from, the instant when my world changed. And yet that moment was not my harshest pain or my greatest confusion – in fact I don’t know that I can drop a pin at the place where I felt the worst or the deepest, or the most lonely. I want to control my grief in the same way I want to control my life. I want to understand both — and I know I am not alone in these desires. I wrote “Winter’s” grasping for signs of my pain that I could show – that I was on tour and not with my nephew during his last few weeks of life, that I can’t feel his absence as strongly as my sister, his mother. I was writing about guilt and calling it pain — the two are easily tangled.
The record’s title, “Risking Illness,” comes from the opening lyrics of “Winter’s” and briefly bears explanation. Soon after my nephew’s unexpected sickness it occurred to me that simply being alive makes one vulnerable to death. There is a desire to shield oneself and loved ones from harm, a task made more difficult if harm can reach us anywhere. And so, I came to feel brave for choosing to live despite the risk of illness.
I’m proud of the lyrics to “This,” a song about deteriorating romance. I’m a lousy pianist, which makes for a fitting accompaniment to a song about being a lousy partner. To know in your gut that a relationship must end, but to not know why – it’s a simple enough picture to paint, but one I heartily believe in. “This” was also the first song we recorded and — similar to my certainty about Coyote’s place — I knew the album would end with it.
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