“Sorrow” is the eleventh song (of twenty-five) in my Atlas: Year Two series, and the second of four songs written for the basic human emotions, Joy, Sorrow, Anger & Fear.
If you've heard any of my music, it will come as no surprise that I love sad songs. Always have and probably always will. When it came time to write a song for the emotion, Sorrow, I felt very at home. I wouldn't consider myself a very sad person, and I'm certainly not a fan of heartbreak, but I think it's the vulnerability of sad songs that I've always been drawn to. To have a broken heart and open it up enough to let others in - that is such a beautiful and truthful lens to create something through.
We can all recognize a "sad song" when we hear it, but outside of minor keys and sorrowful words, I've never really thought about what "sorrow" actually sounds like. I decided that of all the musical instruments, the Cello must be crowned as the most sorrowful. Followed, of course, by Violins and Violas. Third place: a dark, muted old Piano, I think. And somewhere weaving in between those sorrowful instruments, would be the human voice. That's what I decided sorrow sounds like to me, so, those instruments made up my pallette for writing this song. You'll hear them appear in that order as well throughout the song too- it begins with a brief, single note of cello, followed by violas and violins, then piano and finally voice.
Just as "Joy" was a short song (around 3ish minutes) to represent the often ephemeral experience that joy is, I knew right away that "Sorrow" should be on the longer side, at least 5 minutes in length, because sorrow often overstays its welcome.
I approached writing "Joy" and "Sorrow" as two sides of the same coin, (I'll do the same for "Anger" and "Fear") as I feel they go hand in hand- can't have one without the other. So I made some subtle connections between the two songs:
"Joy" begins with the lyrics "it is the calm water..." and "Sorrow" begins with a similar but opposing image "it feels like falling, it feels like rain" - both of which are definitions of the emotion they represent. Both use the visual of water. Both use the song title as the unsung start of each opening lyric, by beginning with "it" - so they read: "JOY, it is the calm water in the middle of anxious sea" and "SORROW, it feels like falling, it feels like rain." There's also some overlapping weather, clouds and breathing references that link them together as well. I had a lot of fun weaving them in and out of each other via the lyrics.
That opening line:
“it feels like falling. it feels like rain”
... is a reference to adding insult to injury.. it’s bad enough to just fall, but to fall and it begins to rain is what I was trying to express here. That's what sorrow feels like - a domino effect of loss. I've mentioned it before, but a great example of this is in the film It's A Wonderful Life, where the main character, George Bailey is at the end of his rope, sitting at a bar having no idea what to do next to fix the troubles in his life, and he begins to pray. At that desperate moment, he gets tapped on the shoulder and punched in the face. I still have no idea why that feels like such an important and meaningful analogy, but anytime insult to injury appears in my life, I think of that scene and find a little comfort.
"but at the foot of this mountain,
i only see clouds."
I recently noticed that when I'm talking to friends and family about how I feel about certain challenges in work, life or otherwise, I often compare it to climbing a mountain and just when I reach the top, realizing it was actually just a foothill and the real mountain is still ahead. I don't mean to keep repeating myself, but apparently I can't help it. Hopefully by putting this in a song, it'll get the analogy out of my head!
"i feel out of focus,
or at least indisposed
as this strange weather pattern
inside me takes hold."
While researching sorrow, I learned that people in seasons of sorrow are proven to have improved judgement, memory and focus. I think it's so interesting that in times of sadness, we feel like our world is a blur, even down to the physical experience of crying and blurring our vision, and yet, studies show that we are actually a little sharper in our focus and judgement in sorrow than we are in joy. So the line "i feel out of focus, or at least indisposed" is a reference to those studies... we FEEL out of focus when sorrow is upon us, but leaves with a gift of added clarity too.
I also came across a lot of information about depression (though sorrow and depression are incrediblydifferent things!). I heard someone explain depression as more frustrating than any physical illness, because there is no physical thing to point to and say "THAT is why I feel this way" - so the "strange weather" lyric above is a nod to that incredibly hard realization for anyone who has ever wrestled with depression.
“every brave step forward,
i take three steps behind”
When you look at the four basic human emotions, it seems so strange that there is only one positive (joy) and three negatives (sorrow, anger and fear). Isn't that kind of a bummer? BUT those three to one odds are actually responsible for our appreciation and experience of joy. These poor odds make goodness rare and precious. The lyric above is a nod to those discouraging, yet beautiful odds.
When I recorded vocals for this song, I did a few takes in my normal singing posture - standing upright. In listening back, I felt like the vocals weren't matching the heart of the song.. so I decided that the correct posture for sorrow would be of course to sit down. Slouched even. I could hear how it changed my performance of the song.. suddenly the vocals and the music came together. You'll notice that as the song progressed, there's a bit more hope in the lyrics - like coming out of a fog. For those hopeful sections of the song, I stood upright to sing again. I usually don't think that stuff matters all that much in recording, but in the case of this song, my singing posture was very important.
Later in the song, I sing:
"I don't want to fight. I don't want to fight it.
But I will learn to fight. I will learn to fight it."
Though on the surface they feel like simple words, they mean a lot to me. On the surface it means that I'm tired of fighting sorrow. But it's also a reflection of my Enneagram type. I'm a 9 - "the peacemaker." I genuinely dislike conflict. Actually, I hate it and will do just about anything to avoid it. I'm sure this theme will come up again in later songs (especially as I write a song for each of the 9 Enneagram types!) but living with sorrow is a conflict. Pulling yourself out of sorrow is a conflict. So these words felt appropriate as they are often what I chant to myself in any situation of conflict. Side note here.. you'll hear a ton of background vocals singing those lines throughout the song - there are precisely 9 background vocals to represent not only my Enneagram type, but also the voices in my head - the internal argument - telling me to RUN from conflict at all costs, but finally realizing that it is essential that I learn to show up, and sometimes lean into conflict. Lastly, those words, "I don't want to fight" are a preface to the next song in the series, “Anger.”
The absolutely gorgeous strings you hear throughout were played by an incredible quartet, lead by my longtime collaborator, Sharon Gerber. As I was writing the arrangement, I knew this had to be performed by a quartet, live in a room playing together. The tempo needed to sway like water. So I called Sharon and asked if she and her quartet would be up for giving it a shot, and my goodness, I couldn't be happier with their recordings. SO beautiful. Huge thanks to Sharon, Anya, Tracy and Joanna for their incredible work!!
There are a few little easter eggs throughout, but a sorrowful one in particular is a recording of my little girl. She's nearly 2 years old and is starting to understand emotion in films and tv. It's so fascinating and sweet to watch her connect with stories in this way. If something sad in a story or film happens, she now feels it. While watching Pixar's "Inside Out," she picked up on some of the very emotional storyline and began to cry a little bit. Maybe I'm a terrible Dad for doing this, but I recorded it and it's hidden in this song. I recorded her laughter and it's hidden in my song "Joy" - so hopefully that makes up for it?
This is getting lengthy, so I'll leave it here. Thank you for listening and for being curious as to how this song came to be! Means a lot to get to share. Thank you!
Much Love, Ryan
PS... here's a video that I found and was inspired by in my research of the emotions. In particular, I love what he said about "sorrow tenderizes the heart" - I think that's incredibly true. I hope this song, and any of my many sorrowful songs can help in that process.
it feels like falling.
it feels like rain.
like losing my balance
again and again.
it once was so easy;
breathe in. breathe out.
but at the foot of this mountain,
i only see clouds.
i feel out of focus,
or at least indisposed
as this strange weather pattern
inside me takes hold.
each brave step forward,
i take three steps behind
it's mind over matter -
matter over mind.
then all at once.
a single loose thread
and it all comes undone.
where there is light,
a shadow appears.
the cause and effect
when life interferes.
the same rule applies
to goodness and grief;
for in our great sorrow,
we learn what joy means.
i don’t want to fight,
i don’t want to fight it.
but i will learn to fight,
i will learn fight
’til this pendulum finds equilibrium.
then all at once.
the dark clouds depart,
and the damage is done.
so pardon the dust
while this all settles in.
with a broken heart,