November 11, 2020

It's hard for me to put this all into words‚ but I'll try.

Today marks 1 year since my mom left this world. Even though she was in declining health for quite some time, her passing was sudden and unexpected -- striking just 3 weeks after she was given at least 8-10 years by her oncologist. This is just how things go in life sometimes; a sudden shift occurs and you're left with so many questions that you'll never get the answers to.

  

I'll be completely honest my mom's final years of life were not great. In fact, that could be said of her last decade or longer. We grew further and further apart with each passing year. This wasn't unique to her relationship with me it was how all of her relationships panned out. Friends, family, relationships dating back forty, fifty, even sixty years, completely deteriorated. It's perhaps the most frustrating thing to witness as you get older, people who were at one point so close dividing over things that in the grand scheme of life seem so damn trivial. We spend our entire lives making the slow crawl towards death, and for what to take the last few laps without a friend in sight?!  Sadly, I know that most of it was her fault. With her mental health left unchecked, over time she grew into someone who the mom I knew 20 years ago would never have wanted to become. It breaks my heart that people came to know my mom this way, especially the ones who had only just met her, completely unaware of all that she used to be, and more importantly, what she used to stand for. It killed me watching her spend those last few years completely alone, swaddled in bitterness.

The most heartbreaking part of it all wasn't even about our relationship or all the friction between us. It was always about her dreams -- all the ones that she believed so fiercely she would achieve which all got left by the wayside as time forced its relentless progression. For those who don't know, my mom was an incredibly gifted pianist, and without a doubt one of my biggest musical influences -- even more so than some of my favorite well-known artists and bands. She owned a very successful music school and used to host massive recitals where she and all her students (including me) would perform. While the recitals were great, they only showed a glimpse of what she could really do, and some of my fondest memories of my childhood were the hours I spent sitting under her piano, listening as she worked on her original music. Beautiful, epic, sprawling pieces that emanated from her with such confidence and raw power, effortlessly leading me to a wonderful place in my mind. It was pure magic in my life, and absolutely the very first spark that pushed me to pursue music on my own (for those who don't know, I started on piano years before I ever had my eyes set on learning guitar, all because of her). From as far back as I can remember, she talked on and on about this album she was going to finish and release, and all the grand plans she had surrounding it. My first memory of this probably dates back to the late 80s and our last conversation about it took place as recently as last year; 30 years of this ongoing conversation. And it wasn't just an album -- she was working on at least 2 books, software programs for music education, multiple inventions she'd developed, along with many other projects. She would go on and on, telling anyone whose ear she could grab about this musical collaboration she and I were going to put out.  That always perplexed me, because as often as she talked about it -- even right in front of me -- she never once spoke directly to me about actually doing it. As things were with my mom, to stay close, you just had to accept parts of reality as she saw it. And to strangers on the street, I gladly took on the role of the son who was writing this grand piece of music with my mom‚ soon to see the light of day.

As I grew older, I recognized the growing possibility that these dreams were never going to come to fruition. I made peace with the fact that none of them would happen; with the exception of one -- her beautiful original music that I held so close to my heart never seeing the light of day. It was criminal to me that those songs would only live on in my slowly fading memories, that everyone else in the world would be robbed of experiencing her music for themselves. So, around 2008, I began to push her to finally put her songs down in a real studio. I made it my mission. As her health issues started to crop up, I pushed even harder -- to the point of it becoming tense. Arguments would form when I called out all of the excuses she made for not committing to getting an album, or at least a few songs, completed. These arguments mainly centered around how it HAD to be recorded using HER piano, which logistically wasn't going to happen (if you've ever tried to move a 400-plus-pound piano then dealt with getting it retuned in a new environment, you know exactly how absurd the idea is). I tried everything, from recording her piano in her house (disastrous results), to taking her to test out EVERY kind of modern keyboard on the market (all of which she turned her nose up at because they didn't feel real).

I knew there had to be a way, and it was going to be up to me to figure it out. At that point though, we were just continually hitting a wall, so I decided to let the idea rest for a bit, always keeping it in the back of my mind. In the meantime, I decided to get serious about developing my own abilities.  So with that focus in mind, 2009 to 2011 became a golden age in my life with relation to writing and production. I finally hit a level at which my ability, coupled with some serious gear I had acquired, enabled me to achieve really good sounds out of my home studio -- certainly good enough to put out quality releases. I realized that through the power of MIDI, if I could just capture one core performance, I could endlessly swap out piano sounds until my heart (or my mom's) was content after the fact; not to mention the effortless editing capabilities I had access to. I just had to find the right MIDI interface, one that felt EXACTLY like a real piano.  And after an absurd amount of research, I settled on the coveted 1984 Yamaha KX-88.  After months of searching, I finally tracked one of these beauties down, picking up my holy grail at a random rest area in upstate New Jersey.  I got it back to my studio, where a new stand, new bench, and 2 new expression pedals were waiting, and worked to seamlessly integrate it into my studio. To say that the new setup sounded incredible is an understatement -- I was beyond happy with it.  Now I just had to see if it would pass the mom test.  And to my surprise, it did. I was almost in shock when the words this will do left her mouth the first time she tested it out.

 

With an approved recording setup now at the ready, I renewed my push to get her to commit to actual recording dates. She wanted to take time to go through old notes, to practice, and to get all her ducks in a row, which I understood completely. After some back and forth, multiple delays, and more than a touch of pleading, on August 27th, 2013, I finally made the drive to Pennsylvania to pick her up and bring her back to my home for an extended stay. We set out on our mission, and the following day, we officially broke ground on her debut album. In hindsight, I believe we both went into it with the best of intentions, but the sessions ended up being tense and utterly disheartening. She would try take after take to nail these pieces she once knew so well, that she used to be able to flawlessly execute with her eyes closed, but she ended up barely making it through them. The changes came late, she was mixing up parts of the songs, completely forgetting entire sections. It seemed a blend of confusion, uncertainty, age-induced physical limitation, pressure, and nerves had just eroded her confidence and ability. Simply put, time had taken its toll. I tried to be gentle and keep the sessions as upbeat and productive as possible, but she knew. After each take, she would start pointing out the flaws, pointing out exactly where each part was off, nitpicking every little detail.  I totally get it; after all, this is the person I got my perfectionist gene from. A couple of frustrating days later, she made the rash decision to cut the sessions short and go home. She wanted to practice some more and return two weeks later to try again. So I took her home and once again freed up my schedule to take another shot at it.  

Then the email came.  

To give you some historical context, an aspect of our relationship that unfortunately became the norm was this: when we spent time together, I felt from my end that I tried everything possible to make her feel happy, included, and special. I believed that things had gone great, she'd tell me how happy she was and how much she loved me, and she'd return home. A few days later, I'd get an email that basically detailed all the ways that she wasn't happy, all the things I had done wrong each visit, and all the ways in which she had been let down.  No matter how many times we repeated this cycle, I kept thinking with each visit that I really nailed it, that THIS was the time that I actually made her happy. It was never the case, and I somehow continued to feel a sense of surprise every time one of these emails came in. This one was yet another shocker. The sessions going poorly were of course completely my fault. Everything from tomatoes I fed her being too spicy to me getting an oil change one morning before we recorded greatly upsetting her.  Because of this, she also wanted to cancel all future recording dates we had planned. My reaction was my typical response every time this happened: knee-jerk rage. I felt like I'd done more than anyone else possibly could; procuring all the gear, doing all the recording and mixing for free, taking time off from work, driving her to and from the studio, housing her during the sessions, the list goes on. She felt like she was right and I felt like I was right, and ultimately the situation, like so many others, turned into another massive rift between us; and the sessions were left as is, never to be revisited.

So, life just carried on.  My mom's health continued its gradual decline, and then just like that, she was gone.

In the days following her death, I continually faced these sudden eruptions of tears, seemingly out of nowhere. This is what grief does -- it's par for the course. When my dad passed, I took the approach of just pushing it aside. I forced the tears back, forced the thoughts away as they came, and chose to just push forward without a second thought, saving all of those feelings to perhaps unpack at another time, on another day. I don't think I was better off for it. In hindsight, I never gave my dad the time of mind he so rightfully deserved. I made a mistake by stripping it from him, and perhaps even more so by stripping it from myself. I'm someone who prides myself on learning from mistakes, though.  So when it came to my mom, I decided to face the memories head on, to embrace the nostalgia and go further. When the smoke of tears would start to form, I relentlessly threw gas on the fire.  I'd grab old photos to look at, put on home movies to watch.  Every single tear that flowed, I pushed it harder. This led me to open up those studio sessions from back in 2013. I sat and listened on repeat, and cried and cried and cried, just a sobbing mess of a person.  It was fucking brutal.  I couldn't get past my focus on time and how time doesn't wait, it doesn't compromise.  I was so upset with myself, that I couldn't just suck it up at the time and apologize to her for what she felt I'd done wrong, even if I disagreed, and deal with it better in an effort to get her album finished. I'd accepted her reality as truth so many times to make things work, why didn't I just do it again?! I felt like I'd failed so hard after coming so far. This is what life does. The greatest truth I know is that so many times, you won't realize it will be too late until it is, in fact, too late. For my mom and all the beautiful music she'd written and her hopes and dreams of her album, and this dream collaboration, it was over. We'd never get back in the studio, never write a song together, never have her beautiful work see the light of day. Simply put, it was too late.

And then, suddenly, it wasn't.

In the midst of this searing grief, I asked myself to identify something good about my mom dying. I was struck with an immediate answer; there was something else that died on that day too, something that was a blessing to be rid of: the excuses. My shift in perspective was immediate, and instead of seeing these pieces of music she'd recorded as the final outcome, I suddenly saw them as a starting point, a foundation that I could build upon. I could, in fact, set out to complete my mom's life work because now, all the roadblocks were gone and the path was completely clear; I just had to choose to walk it. And so I did. I picked my favorite song of hers and got started, poring over every single note and change, working tirelessly to restore her performance exactly as I remember it sounding all those years ago from underneath her piano. I gained real inspiration from doing this, and out of nowhere, I began hearing these new melody lines in my head as I went along. So, I picked up my guitar and started playing along to it.  It began with some clean guitar lines that were quickly laid down, followed by a lot of EBow work for the second half of the song (for which I was a complete, emotional mess while tracking it). I really struggled at times, but managed to get all the initial ideas recorded, with a plan to refine them at a later time by updating them all with a far better performance. But I kept hearing more, beyond just guitar ideas, so piece by piece, I began adding in violin, cello, and viola parts until I reached the point where I felt I had finally done it justice; it was everything a beautiful collaboration between my mom and I could ever be and more. Once the writing was complete, I hired the same Russian string composer who played strings for the new Vestascension album to perform all of the string parts I had written for the song.  The last piece was to refine all the EBow parts that I could barely play at the time I wrote them. I redid them all, with extreme precision and attention to detail‚ then sat back and listened.  Something just wasn't right though.  It was completely void of all the emotion the previous parts had. I came to accept that all those parts weren't meant to be perfect, they were meant to convey how I felt at the time immediately following my mom's death. So I deleted all of the new takes and completely reverted back to the original performance, which is what you hear now, flaws and all.  

As for what to do with the track, it was never really a question. My mom was the BIGGEST Vestascension fan, from the very moment I played my first note on an instrument, 20 years before the band's formation, all the way up until the day she died.  For all the things in our past I could point out that went wrong, this was the biggest thing that went right. She supported my music and all of my other dreams to the absolute highest degree. She believed in my ability more than anyone else ever has, or ever will. Those are just the facts. I know she would feel beyond excited to be a part of our new album, and now she is. And I'm very, very fucking proud of that.

And that's the story. As best as I've tried to sum this up in words, I feel like I can better sum it up with music; so to you I present Valerie Gosnell's final original recording and our first and only collaboration ever. The first new Vestascension release in 6 years, and a truly fitting return for us to make. There's a lot more on the way, which I cannot wait to share with you all. I appreciate you taking the time to listen to my words and to my music. Please tell your friends and family you love them, and please make time for yourself, time to achieve all the dreams you are striving for.

Remember that life is fleeting, and that in the end, Everything Ends.