Chris Wells: Three songs in the key of hope and joy

25.04.2021 - Karina Lagdameo-Santillan

This post is also available in: Spanish

Chris Wells: Three songs in the key of hope and joy
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

INTERVIEW/MUSIC

 

 

 

  Pressenza interviewed Chris Wells, one of the singer-songwriters and producer, featured in the album, Songs for Sala, released and available on bandcamp: https://salasongs.bandcamp.com/releases

Chris Wells is a songwriter, actor, teacher and Siloist based in New York City.

Karina L. Santillan: Could you tell us a bit more about yourself? As a teacher, musician and Siloist living in New York?

Chris Wells: I live in NY with my wife Julie. We met in the early 90s when we were participating in neighborhood projects as part of the Humanist Movement, an all-volunteer international movement launched by Silo working for deep social and personal change through the methodology of active non-violence. I have two children. My son is 23 and my daughter is 20. I was a professional actor for many years and I teach acting at a wonderful artistic community and professional school in NYC called The Barrow Group. I’ve been writing music and songs off and on since my 20s, for the last 2-3 years more consistently. I participated in the Humanist Movement for about 20 years and was the spokesperson for North America before and during the World March for Peace and Nonviolence. More recently, I have participated in the community of Silo’s Message, a loosely organized community of friends engaged in spiritual search.

K.S. You have been a Siloist and humanist for many years. One of the songs you’ve written is inspired by Silo’s message. What is it about Silo’s message that resonated with you? How has it shaped or inspired you on a personal level– as a musician, a teacher, as a human being living in these times?

Chris Wells: Silo has been the most important influence in my life–  on my beliefs, my values, and my goals. In my view, he has given valid and well-founded proposals for positive change on both the social and the personal levels. And these visions or proposals for change are integrated. That’s what I meant to convey in the song Silo: May 4, 2019, with the lyric “change the world and change yourself and change the world …” etc. He developed an extraordinarily rich body of work and ideas on a range of subjects from psychology to myths to the economic and political. But for me, the heart of his teaching is the search for certain experiences that change something inside of us for the better. And I feel that those experiences have penetrated deeply into my being and that they still give me a certain direction even when I forget about them or regardless of the ups and downs of my process of spiritual search.

My songs are inspired by my experience and I simply try and convey them as truthfully as possible, including struggles and failures as well as inspiring ones, and to craft them into a song that I hope will be pleasing. And many of those experiences are related directly or indirectly to what I have learned from Silo. As far as my teaching goes, I think being a Siloist has helped me shift my focus from seeing acting as something egocentric to something more guided by what is being communicated to others. I think stories are one of the most important ways that human beings understand our lives and communicate our experiences and I think that acting is largely an exercise in compassion; putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. And I hope that my spiritual practice helps me to be more centered, more awake and more kind to others.

KLS: You recently collaborated with other musicians and artists to produce an album, Songs for the Sala, a collaboration between songwriters on five continents inspired by the projects and teachings of Silo. Could you tell us more about this project and its purpose?

Chris Wells: Songs for the Sala started as an idea meant to help raise funds to build a meditation hall at the Hudson Valley Park of Study and Reflection in Kingston New York. By the way, that project is ongoing and we would welcome any support! One of 50 Parks of Study and Reflection that exist around the world, Hudson Valley Park is a sacred space dedicated to the search for profound inspiration and the teaching and learning of nonviolence. Like all Parks of Study and Reflection, it is inspired by the teachings and work of Silo. (https://www.hudsonvalleypark.org/hudson-valley-park/)

The album was originally going to be a collaboration between Mark Lesseraux and me but at some point, it was suggested that we consider including music by other Siloists from around the world. At that point, the project began to take on a really wonderful life of its own and we were so happy to connect with this community of musicians in all corners of the world who have been writing songs inspired by these same kinds of ideas. The album is beautifully diverse, with musical styles ranging from rap to pop/rock to Latin American dance music and ethereal soundscapes but it is unified because all of the songs in a sense spring from the same source.

KLS: Could you tell us a bit more about the inspiration behind each of the songs? What message did you want to express? What were your musical and lyrical inspirations behind each of the songs?

Chris Wells: I began writing “Silo: May 4, 2019” on the 50th anniversary of one of the most important first public talks Silo gave, called the Healing of Suffering which was given in Punta de Vacas, Argentina, way up high in the Andes mountains on May 4, 1969. Part of what I wanted to convey in that song was how the message that he had launched still moves within me, still guides me and inspires me. So it was mostly a kind of testimonial song of thanks to this extraordinary person. I also had the good luck to meet Silo personally several times and I was always very moved by his extraordinary kindness. I think he is the kindest person I have ever met.

> To listen to the song, click on this link: https://salasongs.bandcamp.com/track/silo-may-4-2019

Silo May 4, 2019 (lyrics)
Translation of audio – “Spurred by desire, the violence in a person does not simply remain like a sickness in the consciousness of that person—it acts in the world of other people…”
50 years ago today a man said what he came to say
No more, no less
Cow Point, what a place for a sign of hope to surface
He made a mess
He named the violence ready to explode
Pointed to the exit, it was down the inner road
And all these years later, it echoes in my bones
Echoes in the deep space with faint overtones
A simple truth but a rocky path and every day we start
Change yourself and change the world
The light of meaning heals the heart
The junta said talk to the stones and so he went but not alone
He knew his way
Hundreds gathered in the heights, machine guns had ‘em in their sights,
who was more afraid?
He told a tale about the baggage of desire
How suffering and pleasure turn and drown the sacred fire
And all these years later, it echoes in my bones
Echoes in the emptiness that hums a silent song
A simple truth but a muddy path and every day we start
Change the world and change yourself and change the world and change yourself
The light of meaning heals the heart
Bryant Park, 2010; just a gentle breeze
Closed my eyes to say goodbye, store my thanks inside
Saw him getting younger as he walked along the path
Turned into a ball of light and flew
Celestial gymnast
And in the stillness, as if on cue, a sudden wind
Like in the Andes
Many times I’ve lost the way,
failed to say what I came to say
Or do what’s right
Felt the violence inside
stink up the place like something died
Infect my life
The old world is over, yes, and many mourn the dream
We have failed and failed again “pero insistimos” (but we insist)
And all these years later it echoes in my bones
Echoes there where freedom lives and nobody walks alone
A simple truth, we share the path and every day we start
Change yourself and change the world and change yourself and change the world and change yourself
The light of meaning heals the heart, heals the heart …
Translation of audio: “My brother, my sister, keep these simple commandments, as simple as these rocks, this snow, and this sun that bless us. Carry peace within you, and carry it to others.”

“Every Single Person” is kind of like my version of “Imagine”; asking how the world would be different if we actually saw and valued each and every person we encounter. The idea for the song first came when I was walking in New York City. This was before the pandemic so it was very crowded and I noticed how I tend to see other people as an obstacle or an irritation. As the song developed, it expanded to touch on the terrible injustice and violence of the world and also of the way in which we may sacrifice our true values for the anti-values of the “system” and how ideas and narratives are manipulated for ends that have nothing to do with what makes human beings happy and free.

> To listen to the song, click this link: https://salasongs.bandcamp.com/track/every-single-person

Every Single Person* (lyrics)
Hup! New York City. Bodies all around
Man, the clueless tourists make me nuts
Pass a girl with watchful eyes, staring at the ground
I guess every life takes heart and it takes guts
Every life takes heart and it takes guts
Refrain: What if every life could be witnessed?
What if everyone was loved (even a little bit)?
What if everyone could be solid in their soul?
Every single person in the world
Every single person in the world
What about the ones who kill? The ones who hate?
The ones who prey on others from afar?
Sometimes I’d like to see them suffer the same fate
But that’s not so different than the way things are
not so different than the way things are
What if every child was nourished?
What if every home was safe?
What if every heart was as fierce as it was true?
Every single person in the world
Every single person in the world
Would we still be liars?
Would we still be cruel?
Would we still seek refuge in success?
Bow to the rule?
Some say it’s not the world, evil lies within
And we will all face judgment when we die
I say we should think about the stories we take in
think about who’s telling them and why
think about who’s telling them and why
Repeat Refrain

“Gentle Little Joy” was inspired by a surprising experience I had one day. I was washing the dishes and for some reason, I suddenly felt calm and present and happy just to be doing what I was doing. Most days I spend a little time writing about things having to do with my “internal“ process and I was writing about that experience and the phrase “brushed against a gentle joy” occurred to me. And I got excited because I thought it was a wonderful line for a song. I wanted to express something about the experience itself. It was very simple, very soft. And I also wanted to explore how those experiences are stored in the body as memories that keep influencing us in subtle but important ways.

Gentle Little Joy (lyrics)
He was running, he was racing
‘Gainst a world that had outpaced him
Trying just to buy a little time
Time for what? He was not exactly sure
Something that was his
Something in the corner of his mind
In the middle of the din
Of his reveries and worries
Something subtle shifted with him
As if he could see through the need to hurry
And he brushed against a gentle little joy
brushed against a gentle little joy
Well these gifts they don’t last long
In a moment it was gone
Swept away by things he had to do
And it might have just got lost
Written off with all the other costs of living
But it left a little trace, a little clue
In a synapse or a cell
Somewhere deep inside his body
Sensation of a memory gels
Sending tiny signals that seem godly
He brushed against a gentle little joy
brushed against a gentle little joy
It was soft
It was simple
Like it’s been here all along
In the middle of the din
Of his reveries and worries
Something subtle shifted with him
As if he could see through the need to hurry
And he brushed against a gentle little joy
brushed against a gentle little joy
brushed against a gentle little joy
brushed against a gentle little joy
Why do we
need so much
When we don’t need anything?

Musically, I was influenced by some of Stephen Stills’ acoustic stuff for this song. He’s one of my favorites, along with Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Paul Simon (I grew up in the 60s and 70s!) and more recently I have been inspired by Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, John Hiatt, Madison Cunningham, Jonatha Brooke, Gillian Welch, and Jason Isbell. I like songs that tell a story and that have really strong lyrics. I try not to be too cryptic in my lyrics so hopefully people can get a sense of what I’m talking about on the first or second listen but without it being too obvious. Usually, I start with an idea for lyrics and then try to compose music that fits. I hope that the music opens the heart of the listener so certain things can hopefully enter, and maybe also to touch certain “registers” that go with the meaning of the words. Sometimes, it takes a long time to find the right music and I may go through several versions. Ultimately, I just hope that the listeners will find the songs comforting, or moving, or inspiring and that they ring true. Of course, I am never completely happy with the result! But, the process is satisfying.

*”To feel that which is human in the other is to feel the life of the other in a beautiful, multicolored rainbow that moves farther and farther away the more I try to stop, to seize, to capture its expression.” Silo – Regarding What Is Human – in Silo Speaks (www.silo.net/collected_works/silo_speaks)

**Music and lyrics for all songs by Chris Wells

 

 

Categories: Culture and Media, Humanism and Spirituality, North America
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